Saturday, April 25, 2015

Civilization Without Fossil Fuels

Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal. Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. Those, by the way, are distinct roles: even if we could somehow do without fossil fuels now (which we can’t, quite), it’s a different question whether we could have got to where we are without ever having had them.

So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.
Out of the ashes (Aeon). Fascinating article about culture and technology. It’s a point I like to make: there is nothing that we do with fossil fuels today that we cannot theoretically do without them. What is really at stake is not the ability to use technology but the scale of our civilization – the size of our populations, consumption levels, trade networks, political systems, etc. A lot of us argue that these have gotten too big already anyway, and shrinking them down voluntarily or not would be a good thing for most people (except for elites at the top of the pyramid). But there's no technology to my knowledge that absolutely requires fossil fuels and has no substitute.

However, it is doubtful we ever would have achieved our current level of technological sophistication had we not unlocked the energy contained in fossil fuels. It’s a sort of feedback loop: more energy = more surplus = more people = more people a society can support as scientists = more discovery = more intensification = more energy = more surplus.

That is, we got to where we are because we were no longer confined to the harnessing of photosynthetic energy via topsoil. This allowed society to balloon to gigantic proportions that it would not have done otherwise. Then there’s the raiding of the surpluses of the New World and elsewhere by Europeans, which proved the raw materials for the Industrial Revolution (timber, cotton, ores).

The article points out that fossil fuels are used for two principal purposes. 1.) to generate electricity, and 2.) to generate heat for industrial applications such as smelting, heavy manufacturing, etc. These correspond roughly to the first and second industrial revolutions.
When people talk about replacing fossil fuels via solar panels, they are usually referring to using them in the first instance. This is replaceable via sold-state technologies such as solar panels, and fuel cells.or using some other motive power such as windmills and hydroelectric/wave power (essentially both fluid mediums). 
They forget about the second, Heavy manufacturing of solar panels, steel, concrete, glass, silicon, or pretty much anything else, required large amounts of heat.
You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy. 
If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness. Then what?
New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques – the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components. These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process.
Which leads to the following conclusion which for me was the most thought-provoking part of the article:
In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the 1800s, well after the early development of steam engines. Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?
Which makes me wonder – what if the principles of electricity generation and harnessing had come first? Theoretically, they were always there to discover, with or without fossil fuels.The Baghdad Battery is an enticing clue that there might have been at least some rudimentary understanding of electricity in ancient times.

In other words, could the second industrial revolution have happened before, or in place of the first?
In Mumfordian terms, could we have leaped directly to the Neotechnic era from the Eotechnic area without the interventing Paleotechnic era? Could we have bypassed Megatechnics in favor of something simpler?

For example, many people know that the internal combustion engine preceded the widespread use of petroleum. The first gasoline engines ran on vegetable oil. Today, fryer grease and cooking oil can be recycled into biodiesel. Henry Ford was a great proponent of expanding soybean production because he wanted to use it as the feedstock to design the bodies of his cars.
The early diesel engines had complex injection systems and were designed to run on many different fuels, from kerosene to coal dust. It was only a matter of time before someone recognized that, because of their high energy content, vegetable oils would make excellent fuel. The first public demonstration of vegetable oil based diesel fuel was at the 1900 World’s Fair, when the French government commissioned the Otto company to build a diesel engine to run on peanut oil. The French government was interested in vegetable oils as a domestic fuel for their African colonies. Rudolph Diesel later did extensive work on vegetable oil fuels and became a leading proponent of such a concept, believing that farmers could benefit from providing their own fuel. However, it would take almost a century before such an idea became a widespread reality. Shortly after Dr. Diesel’s death in 1913 petroleum became widely available in a variety of forms, including the class of fuel we know today as “diesel fuel”. With petroleum being available and cheap, the diesel engine design was changed to match the properties of petroleum diesel fuel. The result was an engine which was fuel efficient and very powerful. For the next 80 years diesel engines would become the industry standard where power, economy and reliability are required.
Diesel engines can operate on a variety of different fuels, depending on configuration, though the eponymous diesel fuel derived from crude oil is most common. The engines can work with the full spectrum of crude oil distillates, from natural gas, alcohols, petrol, wood gas to the fuel oils from diesel oil to residual fuels. Many automotive diesel engines would run on 100% biodiesel without any modifications. This would be such a potential advantage since biodiesel can be made so much more cheaply than it takes to have traditional diesel fuel from your fuel station's pump...Pure plant oils are increasingly being used as a fuel for cars, trucks and remote combined heat and power generation especially in Germany where hundreds of decentralised small- and medium-sized oil presses cold press oilseed, mainly rapeseed, for fuel.

I’m going from memory here, so please correct me if I got anything wrong, but all of this is detailed in David Blume’s encyclopedic ethanol tome, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas.” Blume’s book devises a method by which the by-products of farming can produce significant amounts of ethanol without taking land out of production and without the massive inputs of fossil fuels utilized to make ethanol today. That is, it is theoretically possible to have a net-positive EROEI production of alcohol fuel for engines without taking land out of production (although much less EROEI than petroleum provides, or course). If corn were first fermented, its starch could be used for alcohol and the remainder fed to cattle — far more efficient for food, fuel and land use.

Could this fuel have powered an alternative industrial revolution without fossil fuels? Complex gearing and high manufacturing tolerances were already an outcome of clock making. Could medieval tinkerers and gearmakers have put together rudimentary internal combustion engines powered by alcohol and vegetable oil? Could cars and trucks have been zooming along the old Roman roads between cities in the Middle Ages? Of course, the tricky thing here is rubber –as Lewis Mumford points out, a critical and often missed component of modern industry. No rubber, no hoses and no tires. However, there is some evidence that bicycles we invented during the medieval/early modern period. See:

Bikes can be made out of wood:

Easy-to-ride pedal-less wooden bike revives an early form of bicycling (Treehugger)

Ajiro Bamboo Velobike: A "Grown Vehicle" That's Farmed, Not Factory-Made (Treehugger)

Could pedal-powered farms, factories, washing machines and motors have made an appearance back in the Middle Ages? How would that have changed history?
When mechanical clockwork finally took off, it spread fast. In the first decades of the 14th century, it became so ubiquitous that, in 1324, the treasurer of Lincoln Cathedral offered a substantial donation to build a new clock, to address the embarrassing problem that ‘the cathedral was destitute of what other cathedrals, churches, and convents almost everywhere in the world are generally known to possess’. It’s tempting, then, to see the rise of the mechanical clock as a kind of overnight success. 
But technological ages rarely have neat boundaries. Throughout the Latin Middle Ages we find references to many apparent anachronisms, many confounding examples of mechanical art. Musical fountains. Robotic servants. Mechanical beasts and artificial songbirds. Most were designed and built beyond the boundaries of Latin Christendom, in the cosmopolitan courts of Baghdad, Damascus, Constantinople and Karakorum. Such automata came to medieval Europe as gifts from foreign rulers, or were reported in texts by travellers to these faraway places.
Robots came to Europe before the dawn of the mechanical age. To a medieval world, they were indistinguishable from magic (Aeon)
On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport.

What if this had happened before the industrial revolution? Electromagnetic induction at is base, rotating a magnet around a wire. In theory, You could have theoretically hooked up some of those 5,624 waterwheels mentioned in the Domesday Book to electric generators. The Dutch could have hooked them up to their 1,000-plus windmills. You could had and had lightbulbs lighting up Canterbury Cathedral in 1350 and streetlights lining the streets of Bruges and Antwerp in 1500.
The waterwheel never played a major role in the Muslim world, not for lack of knowledgeability—Muslim hydraulic engineering was far ahead of European—but for want of fast    flowing streams. Large dams and intricate irrigation systems aided agriculture in Moorish Spain, but the waterwheel was used only for grinding grain and raising water. In Christian Europe, in contrast, the vertical wheel, including the powerful overshot type, was finding important new applications. Once more the monasteries led the way. The great Benedictine abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland pioneered the use of waterpower for pounding beer mash as early as 900. The new Cistercian reform movement launched in 1098 at CĂ®teaux, in Burgundy carried on the Benedictine tradition of promoting technology by founding waterpowered grain mills, cloth-fulling mills, cable-twisting machinery, iron forges and furnaces (where the wheels powered the bellows), winepresses, breweries, and glass-works. The edge-runner mill, long known to China, was adopted for more efficient pressing of olives, oak galls and bark for tannin, and other substances requiring crushing.
One of the earliest widespread industrial applications of the waterwheel was in fulling cloth; the trampling feet of the fullers were replaced by heavy wooden hammers lifted and dropped by the turning waterwheel. One effect was to draw the fullers into the countryside, where they further profited by freedom from the sometimes restrictive regulations of the towns. Another effect was the spread of the knowledge of gearing. Hemp production required a similar pummeling action to break up the woody tissues of the dried stalks and free the fibers for manufacture of ropes and cords. The existence of a waterpowered hemp mill is documented in the DauphinĂ©, in southeastern France, as early as 900. 
By the late eleventh century, waterpower was pounding, lifting, grinding, and pressing in locations from Spain to central Europe. In several applications of waterpower, notably in lifting and dropping hammers, the camshaft made its earliest Western appearance, diffused from China (as Joseph Needham believes) or independently invented, as seems not unlikely. The cam, a small projection on the horizontal shaft of a vertical waterwheel, caught and lifted the falling hammer, which dropped of its own weight. Usually a pair or more of cams on the same shaft operated alternately.
Waterpower spurred construction of dams, at first on a small scale to create millponds and millraces but increasingly on a larger scale. The Arabs, who in their era of conquest had learned about dam building from India and the Near East, brought their knowledge to Spain, where a few Roman dams still operated...By the twelfth century, dam building had crossed the Pyrenees in a spectacular form. At Toulouse, forty-five mills were driven by streams controlled by three dams in the Garonne. The principal one, mentioned in a document of 1177, was probably the largest dam then existing. Thirteen hundred feet long, it was built diagonally across the river by ramming thousands of giant oak piles into the riverbed to form palisades that were then filled with earth and stone. 
Millraces similarly expanded into hydropower canals in the twelfth century. The monastery of Clairvaux dug a 3.5-kilometer (2-mile) millrace canal from the river Aube to the abbey, while the Cistercians of Obazine chipped one 1.5 kilometers through solid rock. 
Medieval engineers were the first to exploit the waterpower supplied by ocean tides. Tidal mills are recorded in Ireland as early as the seventh century, in the Venetian lagoon before 1050, near Dover in Domesday Book, and a little later in Brittany and on the Bay of Biscay. The practical value of tidal mills was limited by their short operating periods (six to ten hours a day), the eccentric working hours imposed on the millers, and the vulnerability of the mills to storm damage.
In the last twenty years of the twelfth century, an entirely new prime mover appeared simultaneously on both sides of the English Channel and the North Sea. Nothing like the windmill in its vertical European form had ever been seen. Though some scholars believe it to have derived from the horizontal windmill of Persia, perhaps diffused through Muslim Spain, the weight of evidence favors an independent origin, possibly in East Anglia, where it replaced unsatisfactory tidal mills and supplemented     the scanty waterwheels. Reversing the waterwheel's arrangement, the windmill placed the horizontal axle at the top of the structure, to be turned by sails, gearing it to the millstones below. The immediate problem of keeping the sails faced into the wind (or out of it in a gale) was solved by balancing the mill on a stout upright post, on which it could be turned, none too easily, by several sturdy peasants gripping a large boom. 
Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 113-117

The same thing could be said for wireless technology. What if we had discovered wireless before harnessing fossil fuels? Would lords have radio telescopes with vacuum tubes set up in the towers of their castles sending HAM-radio transmissions to fellow lords and distant armies?  Could packet radio have sent dispatches to diplomats in distant Cathay from the royal courts Europe? Would radio towers and radar be high on the masts of sailing ships today?

Indeed, one does not even require silicon for mechanical computing, a simple power source will do. Could mechanical computers have been invented before the steam engine? In addition to the Antikythera Mechanism, rudimentary mechanical computers were built by Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and most famously, Charles Babbage in 1837 when electricity was still a novelty (although his Analytical Engine was designed but never actually built) .

Could the Ancient Romans Have Built a Digital Computer? (Gizmodo)

You could also harness solar power directly without fossil fuels: “An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator.”

In fact, this was invented by Augustin Mouchot in the 1800’s.

Back to the article. "...when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff. But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels." It spends a good time talking about combustion for industrial uses, and specifically the substance that was most commonly utilized for that purpose before coal – charcoal. It uses Brazil as an example of large-scale charcoal production, Brazil having much more available wood than fossil fuels, so they’ve scaled-up to industrial production:
Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals. In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities....The Brazilian enterprise has scaled up this traditional craft to an industrial operation. Dried timber is stacked into squat, cylindrical kilns, built of brick or masonry and arranged in long lines so that they can be easily filled and unloaded in sequence. The largest sites can sport hundreds of such kilns. Once filled, their entrances are sealed and a fire is lit from the top. The skill in charcoal production is to allow just enough air into the interior of the kiln. There must be enough combustion heat to drive out moisture and volatiles and to pyrolyse the wood, but not so much that you are left with nothing but a pile of ashes. The kiln attendant monitors the state of the burn by carefully watching the smoke seeping out of the top, opening air holes or sealing with clay as necessary to regulate the process....Around two-thirds of Brazilian charcoal comes from sustainable plantations, and so this modern-day practice has been dubbed ‘green steel’. Sadly, the final third is supplied by the non-sustainable felling of primary forest.
Theoretically, this is carbon neutral- because the carbon released is equal to that sequestered by trees. This is very similar to biochar.

It can also be used to produce building materials like shou-sugi-ban.

As Low Tech Magazine has documented, you could power factories with wind power and water power as well as fossil fuels.

Another option is wood gasification:
Another, related option might be wood gasification. The use of wood to provide heat is as old as mankind, and yet simply burning timber only uses about a third of its energy. The rest is lost when gases and vapours released by the burning process blow away in the wind. Under the right conditions, even smoke is combustible. We don’t want to waste it. Better than simple burning, then, is to drive the thermal breakdown of the wood and collect the gases. You can see the basic principle at work for yourself just by lighting a match. The luminous flame isn’t actually touching the matchwood: it dances above, with a clear gap in between. The flame actually feeds on the hot gases given off as the wood breaks down in the heat, and the gases combust only once they mix with oxygen from the air. To release these gases in a controlled way, bake some timber in a closed container. Oxygen is restricted so that the wood doesn’t simply catch fire. Its complex molecules decompose through a process known as pyrolysis, and then the hot carbonised lumps of charcoal at the bottom of the container react with the breakdown products to produce flammable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.The resultant ‘producer gas’ is a versatile fuel: it can be stored or piped for use in heating or street lights, and is also suitable for use in complex machinery such as the internal combustion engine.
Biogas can power cars as well as motrocycles. Planes are hard without fossil fuels given the power/weight ratio, but hydrogen from electrolysis can produce gas for dirigibles.

And what if medieval Europe had solved two problems simultaneously - sanitation and energy. Human waste can be harvested for energy in a variety of ways. Many cultures harvested it for the purposes of fertilizer, but imagine a medieval rural economy where the waste of animals was placed in gas digesters to make enough methane to power a self-sufficient manor.

And, even more fascinating, what if the scientific revolution had occurred first?

Theoretically, there was nothing stopping it from occurring before the industrial revolution once a few breakthroughs happened (glass, alloys, etc.). It was sort of like trying to start a lighter - there was a spark in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in Ancient China, in Ancient India, in the Islamic world, in the Medieval period, and the Renaissance, but for some reason it only caught fire and kept going and spreading in the late 1600's in Western Europe, and continues to burn in the present without going out as before. It was more of a philosophical change in world view, and not dependent upon fossil fuels. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the three most transformative revolutions for our species as the cognitive, agricultural and scientific, not even mentioning the Industrial Revolution.

What if it had happened earlier? Could we have had antibiotics and variolation to deal with the Black Death? Could we gave had a world where artisans were making calculators along with clocks in their workshops? Where power looms were hooked up to electric generators powered by waterwheels? Could the Broad Street pump maps have been made of a well in a medieval village? Could medieval alchemists have morphed into true chemists and made bioplastic from hemp, and rubber from dandelion roots? Could lords have had sages working on immoratality potions by looking at telomeres under microscopes? Could Renaissance physicians have been splicing DNA in Bologna in 1500? Or is everything so interconnected that could history have only unfold the way that it did?

It's a fascinating thought.

What if we had been able to partake of the benefits of science without being forced into factories and filling the air with coal ash? What if the scientific revolution had been yoked to Renaissance humanism instead of Capitalist productivism? And if we did have the scientific revolution first, would have gone down the industrialization route now that we know how destructive it is to people the planet?
The innovations of the central Middle Ages in agriculture, power sources, handicraft production, building construction, and transportation were accompanied by dramatic developments in the realm of pure science. "The tenth century, though on the surface a time of invasion, cruelty, barbarism, and chaos," writes Richard C. Dales, "is nevertheless the turning point in European intellectual history in general and the history of science in particular."
One of the Middle Ages' most important creations, the medical school, was founded at Salerno in the eleventh century, when by no coincidence the earliest cultural contacts with Islam occurred.  General higher education had its beginnings in the cathedral schools founded in the tenth through twelfth centuries in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Orleans, Canterbury, and other cities. Emphasis varied. Partly because of the Church's need to determine the dates of its movable feasts, astronomy was a favored subject...    The cathedral schools' teaching was not tor the clergy alone; by the twelfth century, some fathers enrolled sons to    prepare them for careers in the law and other secular callings, including the growing governmental bureaucracies. The abacus, coming into wide practical use during the eleventh century, was introduced into the Norman-English exchequer in the twelfth.
In the mid-twelfth century, the "precocious humanism" nurtured by Gerbert, his pupil Richer, and other scholars met and merged with another current, the growing importance of the professions of law and medicine, to create the first universities, at Paris and Bologna. From its beginnings, the University of Paris as well as its early offshoot, Oxford, articulated "productive ideas concerning nature as a fit subject of study." Scholars such as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) formulated "a new approach to the systematic study of science" (Tina Stiefel) even before the works of Aristotle became available in Latin. 
But it was the Muslim-assisted translation of Aristotle followed by those of Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other Greek authorities and their integration into the university curriculum that created what historians have called "the scientific renaissance of the twelfth century." ... Two chief sources of the translations were Spain and Sicily, regions where Arab, European, and Jewish scholars freely mingled. In Spain the main center was Toledo, where Archbishop Raaymond established a college specifically for making Arab knowledge available to Europe.
The twelfth century also witnessed the tardy introduction to Europe of the second of the great "false sciences," alchemy, whose sister, astrology, had remained known and practiced in unbroken continuation since Roman times. Once regarded as a pair of fruitless medieval exercises in superstition and charlatanism, the two have gained stature with the maturing of the history of science...The first Arabic treatise on alchemy to be translated into Latin was rendered by Robert of Chester in 1144, quickly followed by several more as the new science caught on. Alchemy had two aspects, theoretical and practical. The first involved and mystical theorizing led nowhere, but the practice of alchemists in their laboratories became the direct ancestor of modem chemistry and chemical technology. 
Practicing alchemists pursued two aims: the conversion of base metals into gold, usually by means of the elusive "philosophers' stone," and the discovery of the "elixir of life" (also known as the "most active principle" or the "fountain of youth"), which would confer immortality. The first kind of research, based on the hypothesis that gold is the sole pure metal and that all the others are impure versions of it, led to accumulation of knowledge about physical and chemical reactions, while the second kind gradually turned into iatrochemistry, the search for healing drugs. 
Medieval alchemists, Arabic and European, introduced no wholly new equipment into their laboratories, but they created a multiplicity of furnaces and stills. Furnaces of varying sizes were needed partly to accommodate the diversity of fuels—charcoal, peat, dried dung—and partly to provide the varied temperatures required for calcination (reduction of solids to powder) of different substances. Bellows were much employed, causing alchemists in France to be nicknamed souffleurs (blowers). A parallel collection of stills served the alchemists' other principal technique, distillation (boiling and condensation to separate compound substances). The typical still was a tall vessel shaped like a church spire, mounted on a short tower; the fire in the lower part heated liquid whose steam condensed in the upper part and was guided by a long spout to another vessel. Early stills lacked an efficient cooling device, and volatile liquids were usually lost. The still in which condensation was effected outside the still head may have been invented by a physician of Salerno named (for the city) Salernus (d. 1167). One product of the process, alcohol, strengthened by distilling, found a variety of uses, as a solvent, a preservative, and the basis of brandy, gin, and whiskey, at first taken medicinally, later recreationally. 
Both astrology and alchemy remained sources of interest to intellectuals long after the Middle Ages, but the importance of the magical element in medieval science has been exaggerated. "The striking thing about the [twelfth] century," in the words of Richard Dales, "is the attitudes of its scientists... daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities ... determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena," in short, portending "a new age in the history of scientific thought.
Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 158-164

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Technology and Social Change

If the printed book was the most "admirable" innovation of the fifteenth century, the firearm, now reaching maturity after a slow start, was the most dramatic. Erratic black powder was tamed to consistency by the invention in the 1420s of "corning," or granulation, by which the powder, dampened by vinegar, brandy, or "the urine of a wine-drinking man," was passed through a sieve, forming coarse granules, not only safer to handle but more reliable in action. Experimentation with mixtures improved explosive power, and consequently range and accuracy. Gradually the weight of the projectile diminished in proportion to the weight of the gun, and the weight of powder rose replaced by the slow match, a cord soaked in niter and alcohol. ...
Similarly, gunpowder artillery crossed a threshold. Fabrication was made easier by a new technique, casting a mold to form a hollow cylinder around a mandrel (core); using the same mold guaranteed identical calibers. In the closing stage of the Hundred Years War, the royal French artillery under the command of the Bureau brothers, a pair of talented smiths, used iron cannonballs to batter down one English-held castle and town wall after another and even performed effectively in the field, as at Castillon, the war's last battle, in 1453.     
Gunpowder weapons had three conspicuous effects. First, artillery reinforced the trend toward the national professional army, since only a wealthy central government could afford it. Sovereigns often took a personal interest in their martial toys; John II of Portugal and Emperor Maximilian of Germany were two who expressed not only enthusiasm for but genuine expertise in the "art of gunnery."

Second, small arms made the armored knight obsolete, not so much because his armor did not stop musket balls as because the new musket infantry was cheaper to arm and equip and more flexible to employ, and the emerging pistol-armed cavalry of the sixteenth century much more formidable. Breastplates and helmets continued in fashion through the seventeenth century, but chain mail and full armor disappeared except for parades and tournaments. Individual prowess, hallmark of the age of chivalry, was curtailed as the new-model army extended the principle of standardization from arms and ammunition to uniforms and drill.

Third, the curtain-walled castle was superseded by the low-profile, thick rampart fortress, capable of absorbing the shock of heavy cannonballs and furnishing a good platform for defensive artillery but ill adapted to service as a private residence. The new style fortifications mostly supplanted old-fashioned city walls and were manned by garrisons belonging to the central government. The aging castles of the feudal nobility sank to the status of not very comfortable country houses, storage depots for gunpowder and cannonballs, or prisons for distinguished captives.

Joseph Needham points to China's influence in the large social changes at both ends of the European Middle Ages: "Thus one can conclude that just as Chinese gunpowder helped to shatter this form of society at the end of the period, so Chinese stirrups had originally helped to set it up." Neither invention had any perceptible impact on Chinese society, owing, in Needham's interpretation, to its relative stability compared with Western society.

However that may be, the origins of feudalism in Europe involved much more than stirrup, horseshoe, and saddle, and, by the same token, feudalism was already in decline when gunpowder gave it a final push toward the grave by benefiting national governments at the expense of the old castle-building, armor-wearing, horseback-riding feudal aristocracy.

A subtler effect of the new weaponry and fortifications was their impact on the incipient engineering profession. Expertise was suddenly in great demand. In response, technical treatises began to appear. The first important It one came from southern Germany, where metal mining contributed to the growth of an arms industry. The Bellifortis (Strong war) of Konrad Kyeser of Eichstadt (1366-after 1405) remained a bible for military leaders for more than a century. Kyeser has been called "the first great engineer who has left us a well-established technological oeuvre" (Bertrand Gille).

A physician by profession, Kyeser published his work at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the gunpowder age was still new. Among his sketches are a battery of cannon mounted on a turntable to be fired in succession, an artillery-carrying chariot, and a long-barreled, small-bore culverin resting on a stand. But of an array of proposed war chariots armed with pikes, lances, scythes, and hooks, only two carry rudimentary cannon, and the incendiary projectiles Kyeser sketched were ammunition not for guns but for crossbows.

Knights-errant had ridden into the sunset. In their place were professional soldiers, who "followed their mercenary calling / And took their wages and are dead."
Frances & Joseph Gies; Catherdral, Forge and Waterwheel, pp. 247-252
At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. "The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household," Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. "Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself" Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. ..

How much does this transformation owe to glass? Two things are undeniable: the mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling). No doubt many forces converged to make this shift possible: the self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Durer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors. It's not that the mirror made the Renaissance, exactly, but that it got caught up in a positive feedback loop with other social forces, and its unusual capacity to reflect light strengthened those forces. ..

[The historian Alan] McFarlane has an artful way of describing this kind of causal relationship. The mirror doesn't "force" the Renaissance to happen; it "allows" it to happen. ..Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being. Yet the mirror was not exclusively dictating the terms of the European revolution in the sense of self. A different culture, inventing the fine glass mirror at a different point in its historical development, might not have experienced the same intellectual revolution, because the rest of its social order differed from that of fifteenth-century Italian hill-towns. The Renaissance also benefited from a patronage system that enabled its artists and scientists to spend their days playing with mirrors instead of, say, foraging tor nuts and berries. A Renaissance without the Medici—not the individual family, of course, but the economic class they represent—is as hard to imagine as the Renaissance without the mirror.

It should probably be said that the virtues of the society of the self are entirely debatable. Orienting laws around individuals led directly to an entire tradition of human rights and the prominence of individual liberty in legal codes. That has to count as progress. But reasonable people disagree about whether we have now tipped the scales too far in the direction of individualism, away from those collective organizations: the union, the community, the state. Resolving those disagreements requires a different set of arguments—and values—than the ones we need to explain where those disagreements came from. The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively. 
Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now, pp. 34-37

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cost of Fear

At the Hipcrime Vocab I don't often write about personal stuff, but I hope you'll allow me a brief indulgence. I suppose whether you find this a welcome or break or not will depends on you, but personal stuff seems to popular on blogs for some reason.

Anyway, If you've been following this blog for a while, you may have gotten the impression over the past year that I am becoming increasingly dissatisfied with where I am, both geographically and in life in general. One of the things I realized during my trip(ping) in California was that my failures have a great deal to do with where I am. Every day my heart and my gut tell me that I just don't belong here. The cold and gray skies and endless winter envelop me in a gloom that is palpable. I know that everyplace has its downsides, but increasingly I feel that there is nothing here for me anymore. I feel it every day. Listening to Chris Ryan's podcast among others has also altered my perspective.

Yet I'm afraid. I've only ever lived here, and I have no real friends or connections anywhere else.

On the C-realm last week, KMO read a comment from the Friends of the C-Realm on Facebook, and I was struck by this in particular: "I'm reminded of an interview with Scott Adams, the cartoonist who does Dilbert. He was asked why the two smartest people in the strip, the paperboy and the garbageman, aren't engineers. He said something to the effect that really smart people don't allow themselves to be used by others like Dilbert is by the pointy-haired boss, Catbert, etc.  Instead they live their own lives, according to their own rules."

Notice how those professions are considered "low status." But I can see that being a high-status "professional" isn't all its cracked up to be, from the endless stress, to the boring meetings to the the nonstop personality politics. Without a litter to put through college like me cow-workers (sic), I can't help but wonder why I'm putting myself through this.

Intrigued, I decided to look for the interview. I didn't find it, but I did find another interview with him. I picked up his book from the library.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that Adams had gotten on plane and moved out to California from New England with no job, due to an incident where he nearly froze to death in his car. I can relate, especially since it's been 10-30 degrees colder than the average year round for the last four years (and we are already the second coldest metropolitan area in the country after Minneapolis).

Adams also realized that his small New England town didn't have much to offer in the way of opportunities. On the plane to California, a businessman sitting next to him told him that the thing to do when you get a job is immediately to look for a better one, that is, your job is not what you do; your real job is to look for other jobs.

Adams' philosophy is basically that success is a matter of luck, but you can make the odds much better by following system where your odds of succeeding are higher than they otherwise would be, much like a hunter going to a bird blind in a marsh to hunt ducks rather than sit in his backyard.

Adams famously held a series of corporate cubicle jobs that later formed the basis of his work, but his real goal was to be a CEO or entrepreneur. He pursued a never-ending series of harebrained business ideas and get-rich-quick schemes to free himself from cubicle serfdom. We all know what happened of course - one particular harebrained scheme to be a cartoonist took off. Adams self-effacingly points out that this is despite neither his writing or humor skills being particularly terrific, and he points out all the coincidences that made Dilbert work when there were such long odds against it. Believe it or not, Dilbert did not start as a cartoon about office life. Because he was one of the first cartoonists to make his email public (email being new back then), people unanimously told him that the office strips were their favorite, and the format changed to what we know today. And the timing was perfect - Dilbert came along right as neoliberalism was turning workplaces into downsized dystopias, and it quickly became the symbol of the absurdity of corporate life that we know today.

Even after the comic took off, Adams continued to invest in one scheme after another, often failing (including a TV show, a series of restaurants in California, and the "Dilburrito."). This is in keeping with his philosophy that the key to success is not being afraid to fail often. Other ventures, such as writing and speaking were more successful, but also due to serendipity. There's lots more, of course, but I'll save that for another time.

Last week, a woman at work decided to pursue her lifelong dream to move to New York City, "while I'm still young," (she's probably like 20-21). (Seriously, what is it with young women and NYC, I just don't get it). Anyway, she already had a job lined up. When I asked her how she did it, she said connections and  networking. Not much help for me there, I'm afraid.

In a weird note from above, the firm I left to come to my current one, where I was treated very poorly and left under not the best terms because of it, is relocating from the far northwest side to literally a block away, just down the street. Every day Mordor is moving closer to completion, and I have to walk by it every day on my way to work. You can imagine how that makes me feel. Those people are going to be in my neighborhood very soon, and I do not want to see them.

Like Adams, I've grown increasingly disenchanted with my cubicle-bound existence. It seems that architecture is just another desk job full of drudgery, overwork and stress for all but a lucky few. I increasingly feel like my architecture career is over. I just don't enjoy it anymore. The reasons could fill a post in and of itself, and someday I may do that. But with only a four-year degree, it seems like I'm pretty much unhireable. I just don't feel like spending two more years of my life on expensive and useless education jumping through more arbitrary hoops when I already know what the "reward" will be. As the saying goes, "if you liked school, you're going to love work." I'm also reminded of the old adage about law school - "a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie."

That means the thing I've done for the past twenty years I can no longer do. I'm scared of having to start over at my age. It seems that the economy "naturally" wants people unemployed rather than employed, and places all the burden on you to rectify that situation.

Clearly I'm not going to succeed in the office environment. It takes a "special" type of person that I'm just never going to be. It's also the most homogeneous place you can imagine. Bland, boring, upper-class professionals with the suburban house and the minivan and the 2.5 kids discussing spectator sports and golf all day long (seriously, the guys who sit near me spend their weekends watching professional golf on TV). I feel so alienated, and trading in one cubicle for another doesn't seem like a good plan. There are just so few architecture jobs here to begin with, and they're much worse than even the status quo.

Given Adams' advice, it seems like being around people more like me will give me a better change at friendship, romance, and carer advancement in whatever career I end up doing.

As a sidenote, the past few weeks I unexpectedly encountered a couple of people who to my great surprise, are actually from here. I've been watching the brilliant Wolf Hall on PBS. Mark Rylance, the lead, is considered to be one of the best classical actors today. He also grew up in Milwaukee (his parents were teachers who moved here from England to teach). And I listened to this interview with Ginger Kern before discovering at the end that she is also from Milwaukee. Ginger's dream was to live abroad, and now she coaches other people on it too.

Anyhow, to cap this off, I've been thinking about signing up again at my local Crossfit gym. With the weather warming up and my health issues seemingly behind me, it seemed like a good time. I used to go there a few years back. The thing is, when our 6-month winter hits, I am literally CRUSHED. I'm a physical and emotional wreck. It takes everything I have just to get out bed and make it through the day for at least six months out of the year. Everything hurts, I have cold and flu symptoms nonstop, lethargy, no energy, fevers, headaches etc. continuously for months on end. Working out is totally  out of the question. However, during our brief 3-4 month summer, I'm extremely active and outside or in the gym as much as possible.

Anyway, it look like the box is closing down, and here's why:


The nice, sweet older woman architect who I've sat next to has been battling cancer for years. She still showed up every day whenever was physically able. She loved to travel. We regularly talked about foreign places, the Middle Ages (she used to be in the SCA) and all sorts of other topics. She was our longest-serving employee, there from the very inception of the office - over 20 years. She had not been in for several months. Last week her cubicle was totally cleared out in a day. She would not be returning to work. Another architect was moved in immediately. Life is short indeed.

Anyway, I've rambled long enough. It's been an odd few months. I still don't know what to do. But it appears I keep getting hit over the head with messages. I just wish I had some sort of guidance.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Reinventing Reinventing Collaspe?

This article about Russia from the BBC is interesting. It details how Russians are coping with the disintegration of their economy. Ironically, it is a very similar scenario to the SU collapse – crashing oil prices mean less money for oil combined with Western sanctions (this time for Ukraine instead of Communism)

I find it particularly interesting because the approach being taken in Russia seems eerily close to that advocated by many Peak Oilers  for the United States – relocalization, growing your own food, reduced reliance on imports, and making do with less.

For example, this fellow started his own urban farm to deal with rising food costs:
On a small dairy farm some 30 miles from Moscow, 15 cows munch contentedly on hay in their gleaming new barn. Maxim Chebanov has just moved premises to make room for expansion. A former manager in a brewery, he switched to farming a couple of years ago to provide high-quality milk and cheese for his young family, selling the rest at farmers' markets. Then the crisis started and demand escalated. He has increased his herd five-fold in just 18 months due to Kremlin "counter sanctions" which blocked the import of European dairy products and other fresh food. Chebanov is a perfect example of what President Putin calls "import substitution". He even offers his buyers an "anti-sanctions" discount on his website.
In Russia, just like here, it is the rural areas that are hardest hit, and just like here, there is a lack of jobs since industry shut down or moved overseas:
In Moscow, many shoppers said they were coping: either their income was big enough, or they were getting help from relatives. But in the provinces there is much more angst. One woman in Oryol, a small town south of Moscow, said: "Many people went from here to Moscow in search of work when the old Soviet factories went bankrupt. "Now those jobs in Moscow are folding and they are coming home. But there are no spare jobs here and prices keep going up. How are they supposed to live?" She added that she knew many people who had stopped buying meat- too expensive for those with a family to feed.
Eerily similar to here, eh? Have they not heard of the eds and meds economy? Prisons? Meth labs? Selling cans of soda?

Even though the downturn has been several years running, the economic sanctions put in place after the Ukraine invasion have given Putin an excuse to hide behind:
But the downturn does not necessarily translate into pressure on the Russian government from its own consumers. Many people seem to blame the West for all Russia's economic woes.

"It's sanctions that are behind it all," said a shopper outside one Moscow supermarket. "After all, you are the enemy."

And many Russian political analysts conclude that Western sanctions have, in fact, been counter-productive. "Sanctions may have hurt the Russian economy," says Evgeny Minchenko, an independent political consultant who names the Kremlin among his clients. "But politically they unite people against the West. Recent polls show the highest level of anti-Western feeling in recent history. It won't be easy to reverse."
By the way, have economic sanctions EVER worked in the entire history of the modern world? I mean ever? If anyone knows even a single instance, please enlighten me. They seem to be just a way of making politicians look tough without actually doing anything.

But Russia is actively trying to develop local economies by trying to become more self-sufficient, which they term 'import substitution' - using local suppliers and manufacturers rather than from abroad, something long advocated by the peak-oil community. This includes tax breaks for small and medium-sized businesses (unlike America, where lobbying ensures advantages accrue to the biggest players and smaller-scale producers are crushed):
So instead, the Kremlin is focusing on import substitution and other measures to try to make the internal market work better - by cracking down on corruption, and giving tax breaks to small and medium-sized enterprises. Whether it will work is another matter. Reports on a recent Cabinet meeting suggest President Putin was agitated and frustrated at the lack of young Russians willing to risk opening new businesses. In theory, Dmitry Finikov is doing exactly what President Putin wants. He has switched from importing to producing his own lower-quality, Russian-made guns and ammunition.
But all is not rosy on the small-business front. There’s a lot of uncertainty:
[Finikov] explains why small businessmen like him remain pessimistic. "I used to plan for five years. Now I can only plan for two or three weeks. The Russian economy has been so globalised over the last 20 years, that it cannot survive like this. "Sooner or later the oil price will go down again, then the rouble will drop again. For the moment we are eating into our reserves. But when they are used up, then the economy will drop immediately like it was in 1992. You remember: hyperinflation, people losing their jobs and not getting paid for six months or a year, and everyone going out to the suburbs to plant potatoes to feed themselves from the ground."
I don’t remember, but I have read Dmitry Orlov’s book, so, yeah, I know the deal. It seems that book may end up being very relevant again very soon.

Speaking of Putin's Russia, the New York Times published an entertaining piece by the novelist Gary Shteyngart called "Out of my Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth," a tongue-in-cheek look at Russian television. The impression one gets is that it is a funhouse mirror image of the American media (especially FOX News) - a controlled and manipulated media kicking up a cloud of misinformation to rural, low-information citizens to keep them riled up against imaginary and perceived enemies, foreign and domestic, while flattering them as true, hearty, salt-of the earth-type folks (unlike urban dwellers and intellectuals). Like FOX, it engages in chauvinistic, war-mongering rhetoric against "weakness," and "moral degeneracy." Either that, or mindless drivel and trash TV of the Jerry Springer variety pandering to the lowest common denominator. Also, just like here, most educated, aware people get their news from the few non-censored Web sites:
The imposition of Western sanctions against Russian officials after Crimea’s annexation dealt but a glancing blow to the Russian economy. Putin’s next move, his support of pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s industrialized Donbass region, led to a war that the United Nations estimates has displaced a million people and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, and further sanctions from the West. (As of this writing, a cease-fire has been brokered, but it is fragile and may not last.) But it is the collapse of the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity, that has weakened the regime. As the price of a barrel of Brent crude and the value of the ruble go down, the tenor of propaganda on Russian television goes up.

Putin’s popularity has mostly survived intact despite the ruble’s collapse and the gradual pauperization of his subjects. The media helps with a twofold strategy. First, the West and its sanctions are blamed for the economic situation. Second, the nascent Ukrainian democracy is portrayed as a movement of torch-wielding Nazi fascists under direct control of their Western masters. Few Russian families escaped unscathed from Hitler’s onslaught, and Nazi imagery, which remains stingingly potent, is invoked frequently and opportunistically, as a way of keeping historical wounds fresh.

Ninety percent of Russians, according to the Levada Center, an independent research firm, get their news primarily from television. Middle-aged and older people who were formed by the Soviet system and those who live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are particularly devoted TV watchers. Two of the main channels — Channel 1 and Rossiya 1 — are state-owned. The third, NTV, is nominally independent but is controlled by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the giant energy company that is all but a government ministry. Executives from all three companies regularly meet with Kremlin officials.

Each channel has a slightly different personality. Channel 1 was the Soviet Union’s original channel, which beamed happy farm reports and hockey victories at my parents and grandparents. It features lots of film classics and a raucous health show whose title can be roughly translated as “Being Alive Is Swell!” Rossiya 1 is perhaps best known for a show called “News of the Week,” featuring a Kremlin propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, who once implicitly threatened to bomb the United States into a pile of “radioactive ash.” (Sadly, for me, Kiselev is taking this week off from ranting.) NTV is more happy-go-lucky, blasting noirish crime thrillers and comedy shows, like a “Saturday Night Live” rip-off shamelessly titled “Saturday. Night. Show.” But during regular breaks for the news, the three networks are indistinguishable in their love of homeland and Putin and their disdain for what they see as the floundering, morally corrupt and increasingly lady-bearded West.

Back in my sunlit chamber of horrors, Rossiya 1’s news is on a rampage. A 35-car pile up in New Hampshire. No serious injuries, it seems, but clearly the West is falling apart. Things are even worse across the ocean. “An unpleasant New Year’s present for Prince Andrew,” a reporter says with a honed mixture of seriousness, sarcasm and glee. “Britain is shocked by a sex scandal between the prince and a minor who claims to have been held in ‘sexual slavery.’ ” Viewers in Yekaterinburg wolfing down their morning kasha are given a rundown of the crimes committed by the British royal family, from Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to Princess Diana’s death “in mysterious circumstances.”

Russians, on the other hand, are leading exemplary nonfascist lives. At the site of the Air Asia disaster, in the Java Sea, “Indonesian authorities are relying heavily on Russian divers and their equipment” to find and recover the doomed plane. In the northernmost reaches of Russia, we meet Aleksey Tryapitsyn, a “salt of the Earth” postman in a tiny village who somehow doesn’t smoke or drink and has been featured in a recent documentary, “The White Nights of the Postman Aleksey Tryapitsyn.” His wife is pretty salt-of-the-earth too. “I’m such an ordinary woman,” she says, “I know how to do everything: shoot a gun, catch ducks.”

The lessons for all Russians, especially spoiled Camembert-addicted Muscovites, are clear: In the difficult days to come, learn to shoot a gun, learn to catch ducks.

On my last visit to Moscow several years ago, a drunken cabdriver from a distant province drove me through the city, nearly weeping because, he said, he was unable to feed his family. “I want to emigrate to the States,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”

“You should try Canada,” I suggested to him. “Their immigration policies are very generous.”

He mock-spit on the floor, as he nearly careened into the sidewalk. “Canada? Never! I could only live in a superpower!”

It doesn’t matter that the true path of Russia leads from its oil fields directly to 432 Park Avenue. When you watch the Putin Show, you live in a superpower. You are a rebel in Ukraine bravely leveling the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk airport with Russian-supplied weaponry. You are a Russian-speaking grandmother standing by her destroyed home in Luhansk shouting at the fascist Nazis, much as her mother probably did when the Germans invaded more than 70 years ago. You are a priest sprinkling blessings on a photogenic convoy of Russian humanitarian aid headed for the front line. To suffer and to survive: This must be the meaning of being Russian. It was in the past and will be forever. This is the fantasy being served up each night on Channel 1, on Rossiya 1, on NTV.
P.S. I wanted to pass along this comment someone posted to Morris Berman’s blog (“Wafers” is the nickname for Berman’s readership, from Why America Failed)
"It was a very interesting weekend from a Waferian standpoint. First, the lights went out in Yankee stadium Friday night for 18 minutes. Second, my wife and I went shopping on Saturday and the store had all its computers down, so the store clerks were writing up sales on paper. We stood in line for 30 minutes. Third, we went for a drive on Sunday but gave up on the country roads after the first 100 potholes. Finally, I went to work on Monday morning and the water was shut off in my office complex. A couple of hundred workers were sent home. What do these events have in common? They all point to the gradual but steady decline of America. At least my wife and I weren't tased or shot to death over the weekend, so there is that hold onto."
Both sides lost the Cold War, one just did it somewhat faster than the other (to paraphrase the late, great Charles Bowden). Breakdown continues apace. Here’s an article on the Yankee stadium outage, something more common in a third-world country (which we basically are now). Personally, I think it’s a good metaphor for our libertarian future –  individuals rationally using their initiatives with privately-owned cell phones to replace the horrors of “collectivist” stadium lights. Let freedom ring!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rome and Taxes

Fourth-century sources make occasional complaints about tax rates. There was also one major tax riot. In Antioch in 387, a crowd gathered to protest about the imposition of a supertax. The mood got ugly, and imperial statues were toppled. Imperial images, like everything else to do with emperors, were sacred, and assaults on them an act of treason. The local community was terrified that army units might be turned loose on the city in punishment, but the reigning emperor, Theodosius I, took a conciliatory line to resolve the crisis. And this is a fair enough indicator of the general climate.
Tax collection goes more smoothly and rates can be increased more easily, if taxpayers understand and broadly accept the reasons for which they are being taxed. Fourth century emperors perfectly understood the principle of consent, and never lost an opportunity to stress that taxation paid above all for the army - which was true - and that the army was necessary to defend Roman society from outside threats. Most of the ceremonial occasions of the imperial year involved a keynote speech lasting about an hour whose purpose was to celebrate the regime's recent successes. Hardly any of our surviving late imperial examples fail to make some reference to the army and its function of protector of the Roman world. 
Different emperors sold their frontier policies in different ways, but there was no disagreement on this basic purpose of taxation. The population was daily reminded of the point on its coinage: one of the most common designs featured an enemy grovelling at the emperor's feet. On the down side, military failings might be criticized for wasting the taxpayers' contributions. 
In one famous incident, Ursulus, chief financial minister of the emperor Constantius II, complained sarcastically and publicly about the performance of the army on a visit to the ruins of Amida, shortly after the Persians sacked it in 359: 'Look at the courage with which the cities are defended by our soldiers, for whose huge salary bills the wealth of the Empire is already barely sutticient.' The generals didn't forget this. When Constantius died, part ot the price paid by his successor for their support was the condemnation to death of Ursulus in the political trials that marked the change of regime. For the most part, however, the system worked tolerably well; the Antioch tax riot is an isolated example, which was caused, notice, not by the usual taxes but by an additional imposition. 
While, of course, many landowners sought to minimize their tax bills - the laws and letter collections are full of uncovered scams and requests for dispensations to this effect - fourth-century emperors did manage to sell to their population the idea that taxation was essential to civilized life, and generally collected the funds without ripping their society apart.
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire; pp. 120-121

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tax Day: The Smaller Government Hoax

This column by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times and a similar one in the Washington Post tie several things I've written about recently into  a nice bow, and just in time for tax day. They report on a study by Jacob Funk Kirkegaard (awesome name) of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

You see, in America, we have a system where we try to accomplish significant social goals (making sure people have access to healthcare, helping people get an education, expand middle-class homeownership, giving assistance to low-income parents, etc.) not by funding and administering them through the government as is done in most other wealthy democracies, but through a complex and elaborate system of tax breaks and writeoffs. So we have a tax breaks for just about everything under the sun, even though our social safety net is theoretically small - for example, millions of citizens go without healthcare, housing costs are out of control, and college students are now virtual debt serfs, unlike residents of countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands..
The U.S. offers huge amounts of what Kirkegaard calls “tax breaks for social purposes,” including the Earned Income Tax Credit, tax-exempt pension contributions, and new tax breaks for Americans to buy health insurance. In contrast, many European governments give services or cash benefits directly to their citizens, but then take some of that money back by taxing those cash benefits, or the person’s spending more generally.
Why do we do this? Is it better? More efficient? Less costly? Does it get superior results than the other approach? Actually, quite the opposite about which more below.

 No, we do this simply out of an ideological distaste for government. The idea is that keeping "your own money" is better than the government "theft" through taxes. This allows advocates of "small government" to pretend that the government oversees a laissez-faire, hands-off economy where the unregulated free market reigns supreme and people sink or swim based on their own merit. This a complete and total fabrication, of course, but it works. As I've written before, it means that people believe that the government has no role in their lives whatsoever, and thus allows the 24-7 government bashing that is part of the air we breathe.

Put another way, if you get a check from the government to help you afford your home, that's perceived very differently than a tax-writeoff. So it's no secret which politicians of both parties prefer.

But here's the thing: when you take into account how much of spending goes to these tax cuts, you find that we spend as much as European social democracies, while getting vastly inferior results:
 ...including both taxes on government benefits, which tend to be higher in other countries, and the cost of tax subsidies like the deduction for company-provided health insurance, American public spending on social insurance rises to almost 21 percent of G.D.P....That is above the O.E.C.D. average...That is above the O.E.C.D. average, ahead of Norway and no longer that far behind Denmark...In fact, counting private expenditures along with public ones, the United States spends more on social insurance than every O.E.C.D. country but France.
For example, right-wingers believe the government should stay out of health care, just like now. But government is intimately involved, just under the surface. The way we fund health care is via tax deductions, unlike other countries, and that is mainly a historical accident:
Employer-provided health insurance is often portrayed as a result of serendipity. In 1942, the National War Labor Board allowed employers to get around wage and price controls by luring scarce workers with fringe benefits. In 1943, the Internal Revenue Service cemented its popularity by allowing employers to contribute to the health plans tax-free. 
But though the health insurance tax break has since grown into the nation’s costliest tax expenditure, it is only one of many. Tax deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions were born with the income tax code in 1913. The government later added breaks for retirement savings. More recently, the earned-income tax credit for the working poor was created in 1975 and broadly expanded by President Bill Clinton with his first budget. In response to the rising cost of higher education, Washington provided a deduction for college tuition. 
While the progression might seem like a chain of historical accidents, it adds up to a strategy.
And what strategy is that? Preventing the government from getting bigger for ideological reasons:
In the early years of the Reagan Revolution, Senator Robert Packwood ...offered a robust — if unusual — defense of the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance: It prevented the government from getting bigger....This reasoning drives American policy making to this day. Whether he realized it or not, Mr. Packwood was effectively explaining why the United States has, alone among advanced nations, built a government on the idea of keeping the government at bay....In her book “Degrees of Inequality” ... Suzanne Mettler ...quotes Dick Morris, President Clinton’s campaign adviser, defending the political superiority of tax benefits...“Politically, people want us to downsize government,” he argued, “so we are developing ways of cutting taxes but achieving social good at the same time.” 
But the strategy carries a cost. Such spending through the tax code not only offered the false promise of smaller government. Its most insidious effect was to hide what the government does and, notably, to shield from political debate which people it benefits most. That is clearly not those of middle and low income, who don’t earn enough to qualify for many tax deductions and often don’t even claim them....Built in the shadows, protected from democratic accountability, the government developed into a Rube Goldberg contraption that has only a weak claim to a defensible social purpose. It might not be the smallest government in the advanced world, but it can lay claim to being among the least efficient and the most unfair.
There’s a clear political rationale behind the American system of giving people tax breaks on their health care spending, rather than having the government give them health care: The public pays fewer taxes, and the government doesn’t appear to be spending money.
Professor Mettler argues it has helped cement the image of a government that most Americans wrongly consider largely irrelevant to their lives. “I see it as a case of smoke and mirrors,” she argued.
Thus we have the "Keep government away from my Medicare!" Tea Party crowd.

And the biggest kicker is - unlike in other countries, these benefits flow disproportionately to the already wealthy rather than the rest of us! This makes sense - obviously a tax cut benefits those with the most money to tax, and the more wealth, the bigger the cut:
For instance, President Obama’s American Opportunity Tax Credit to subsidize college tuition has particularly benefited families making from $100,000 to $180,000, where the subsidy is cut off. Many economists have exposed how the mortgage tax deduction, which rises in value for those in higher tax brackets, does little to further its ostensible purpose: expanding middle-class homeownership. Over all, the Congressional Budget Office shows how the richest fifth of Americans get more than half of the benefits from the costliest tax breaks. 
For most voters, however, it’s just too hard to tell how much the government spends on these priorities and when the playing field is tilted toward those at the top...Consider spending on health care, which by some accounts wastes as much as 5 percent of the nation’s G.D.P., or about $800 billion. The government spends more on health, per person, than every O.E.C.D. nation except Luxembourg and Norway. Yet too much of that enriches doctors and other health care providers while American rates of infant mortality and premature death are off the charts compared with other wealthy nations.
The American system also does less to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, since the private sector mostly depends on individuals and households to spend money, and people can’t spend money they don’t have...The result is that the U.S. spends a lot on social services, and still has relatively high levels of inequality....
So really, we spend as much of our GDP on social purposes as even Nordic Countries, we just funnel is predominately to the wealthy and through private sector competition which is enormously wasteful and inefficient.
But the Peterson study suggests this system merely hides the true level of government spending. Tax breaks for lunches eaten on business trips are rarely given the same amount of scrutiny as the use of food stamps at the grocery store, but the ultimate cost to the government is the same...So the U.S. actually spends a lot on social benefits – and...we aren’t getting that much of a return on our investment.... 
So the "small government" idea is just an illusion provided by the submerged state, which delivers awful outcomes, and showers benefits on those who need it the least. And because of it's complexity, its hidden from the low-information voters of the Heartland, who are allowed to indulge their limited government fantasy even as they are paying for it nonetheless.  I like this summary from someone on Reddit: "...the political strategy of shrinking government through tax breaks on the front end helps to cloak aggressive wealth transfers, which lead to more problems and greater social/government spending on the back end." Well said.
Here are just a few of the outrageous benefits we give to the rich via the complex tax code:
1. The mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes.
Thanks to this tax break, the 5 million households in America making more than $200,000 a year get a lot more housing aid than the 20 million households living on less than $20,000. Deductions for mortgage interest incentivize people already capable of buying big homes to buy even bigger ones. This tax break applies as well to second homes (you only get one second home though!). Note: In the eyes of the Congressional Budget Office — the official word on this in Washington — the mortgage interest deduction is equivalent to the government offering you money, not you keeping your own money.
2. The yacht tax deduction.
If you’ve got a boat and you’re paying interest on it, that interest is tax-deductible – provided your boat is really, really big. If it has sleeping quarters, a kitchen and a toilet – e.g., it is a yacht – then it can be considered a second home and any interest you pay on it is deductible. But if you just have a garden-variety fishing boat or canoe, sorry – no deduction for you. Beyond that, if you have a yacht you can loan it out to a charter business for part of the year, and keep it for personal use the rest of the time. This allows you to deduct the purchase price, insurance, maintenance and slip fees too.
3. Rental property.
If you're a landlord, which you probably aren't if you're very low-income, you can deduct many of the expenses you incur renting a home, including repairs, advertising, HOA fees and — again — mortgage interest. If you happen to rent out either your first or second home for 14 days or less — because, for example, Augusta National Golf Club is hosting the Masters nearby — you get to just pocket all that income without paying taxes on it at all.
4. Fancy business meals.
Talking business over an expensive dinner? That's tax deductible, too, a fact that puts taxpayer spending on food stamps into relief. This is a good deal for, say, a CEO presiding over actual filet mignon at a five-star restaurant.
And more: Taxes on investment dividends and capital gains currently max out at about 24 percent ...So investment income is taxed at a much lower rate than regular income. ...You can deduct your gambling losses up to the value of any winnings you earned. More gambling winnings mean more gambling deductions, incentivizing you to keep gambling more to at least break even...Social Security taxes only apply to income up to $118,500 – anything after that is Social Security tax-free. So the more money you make, the less your effective Social Security tax rate is, making this tax about as regressive as they come....The federal government incentivizes retirement by allowing you to reduce your taxable income by saving money in 401(k) plans or IRAs. But employer-sponsored retirement plans only benefit those people with employers that offer them...
The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them. (Wonkblog)

We claim we want a small government and an efficient private sector, but we have a smoke and mirrors illusion that provides neither. In other words, much like our health care system, we have the worst of all possible worlds - a big government that is inefficient and acts as a sort of Robin Hood in reverse, even as our citizens are becoming ever poorer!

In fact, they want the tax system to be necessarily complicated, all the better to foment hostility toward taxes. This article by Slate points out that tax collection could be done far simply and more efficiently, with less misery and complexity for most people. Why isn't it? Well, one, because the enormous tax preparation industry would be far less needed, and they block any attempts to simplify the tax code (think of the jobs!). But an even more pernicious reason is that in order to foster hatred of the government, the Republicans intentionally try to make paying taxes as difficult and onerous for the average person as possible! If this sounds crazy it's because it is. If this sounds like a government deep in the grip of failure and dysfunction, it's because you're right:
As a technical matter, it would be relatively simple for the Internal Revenue Service to turn income-tax payments into a quick and basically automatic process for the vast majority of Americans. It would cost the government a bit of cash upfront but would save citizens tons of time, hassle, and money spent on tax preparation. And there’s the problem: One man’s wasteful expenditure on tax preparation is another man’s income. The entire industry of mass-market tax preparers—Intuit, H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt, etc.—doesn’t want the government to help you out. Even worse, they’ve been joined in their crusade by conservative anti-tax activists who’ve decided, without any real evidence, that the best way to shrink the state is to make paying taxes as annoying as possible. 
How would the IRS do your taxes for you? It would work in much the way that most jurisdictions collect property taxes. The tax authority would tell you how much it thinks you owe in taxes, and you’d write a check. The main difference would be that thanks to tax withholding, many people overpay their income taxes and would receive a check from the government rather than write one. If you looked at your tax bill and thought you were being overcharged, there’d be a dispute process through which you could plead your case. For the majority of Americans who have regular jobs and who take the standard deduction rather than itemizing, that would be it most years. And, it’s important to note, anyone who wanted to could always do their own taxes rather than have the IRS do them.  
Many people react to this proposal by saying they wouldn’t trust the tax man to do their taxes for them. But in fact, you already do. The way it works now is that absent you filing a protest, you end up paying what your W-2 says you should—which is what the IRS thinks you pay. 
So why don’t we use this automatic tax filing everywhere? In part, lobbying. ProPublica’s Liz Day wrote in March about how much Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, spends on blocking this kind of initiative. But lobbying alone rarely explains anything. .... Conservative activists like Grover Norquist have gone all-in to keep the federal tax process annoying. You can see the logic: If you think taxes are bad, then paying taxes should be annoying to maintain the viability of anti-tax politics. But think harder and this looks nuts. Nobody likes filing their taxes, but you can think of lots of arbitrary ways to make it harder. We could ban tax-prep software. We could demand that the money be paid by shipping boxes full of nickels. The forms could be written in Chinese. But why do that?
The IRS Should File Your Taxes for You (Slate) Tax filing could take five minutes, but a perverse alliance of tax-prep lobbyists and conservative activists is keeping it hard. For example, in Spain "they send you a summary of what taxes they figure you owe. If it looks right, you check a box and you're done."

We've examined this Rube-Goldberg contraption before - it's called the kludgeocracy. It's the deliberate use of solutions that preserve this illusion of small government while trying to avoid the horrible social outcomes that small government philosophy generates in practice.
Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly worried that America is, in Friedrich Hayek's ominous terms, on the road to serfdom. But this concern ascribes vastly greater purpose and design to our approach to public policy than is truly warranted. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever. 
The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government. 
A "kludge" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose...a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem."..."Clumsy but temporarily effective" also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system...or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.
Kludgeocracy in America (National Affairs)

Another pernicious outcome of trying to make dealing with the government as difficult as possible on purpose for ideological reasons is David Graeber's Utopia of Rules, a “fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.”
Living in a Western capitalist state means spending more of our lives filling out paperwork, re-submitting internet forms, and waiting on hold listening to Bono wailing than our grandparents ever had to. Even if—particularly if—you rely on welfare and spend your life dealing with accountability professionals, who demand you fill out forms, every day, all of the time, to ensure the money keeps coming.

Whenever you say that we should have free higher education or job training for everyone, that we should have health care for everyone, that we can create jobs for the unemployed, that we can rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, that we can have affordable day care, or that we can fund decent retirements for people, you run up against the same two ideological arguments: "we can't afford it!" or "big government!!!" But the above demonstrates that both of those excuses are bullshit.

The money is there. We're already paying for it, we're just not getting the benefits. As I've pointed out before, we already spend enough money trying to make college "affordable" to give everyone a free education (without billion dollar campuses and seven-figure athletic coaches), and we spend more government money on health care than nations with universal single-payer systems that leave no one in the lurch when they get sick. We've spent enough on a plane that doesn't fly to give every homeless person a house, and the plane isn't even making us safer. We've got plenty of money, it' just being funneled to the rich in a million different hidden ways.
“The main thing here is not about not spending enough,” Mr. Kirkegaard said. “It is about the distribution of this spending.”...As Americans file their tax returns and Congress debates the federal budget, Republicans are once again appealing to the public by proposing to sharply cut the scale of domestic spending, which would mostly fall on the poor. But their plans fail to recognize that Americans actually prefer a strong safety net...Washington might be better occupied culling the many goodies hidden in the tax code that serve little or no social purpose other than coddling well-connected constituencies. Those billions could then be used to provide regular American families the social insurance they really need.
Nice way to end the column. But from the standpoint of the one percenters, such outcomes are a feature, not a bug.

Finally for tax day, Vox has an article pointing out the fallacy of the narrative that the rich pay nearly all of the taxes in this country, and the rest of us are just a nation of useless ditzy housewives being supported by their largesse. It turns out that the focus by the right wing is always and forver on INCOME taxes, and all the other forms of taxation, from investments to social security to sales taxes are intentionally ignored to maintain the narrative:
Typically when politicians fight about taxes, they fight about the income tax. That is to say, they fight about the tax that rich people hate — not the taxes poor people hate.

This leads to a really perverse dynamic, wherein the taxes the privileged pay are worthy of attention and the ones the poor pay are ignored. It paints a picture where the government is being supported on the backs of the wealthy, and the poor and middle class are free-riding. It leads to plans for various kinds of tax cuts and tax reforms that matter massively for the rich and very little for the poor.

The issue here is the ceaseless focus on the federal income tax. A report from the Joint Committee on Taxation found that most Americans (65.4 percent of filers) pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes. It's only once you start looking at folks making over $200,000 a year that most people are paying more in income taxes.

The numbers here are surprising if you think about tax systems as something people only pay into, rather than get anything out of. But because so much of US social policy is structured as tax credits, a lot of people get more money back from income taxes than they put in. The JCT finds that people making under $40,000 get $81.1 billion more back from the income tax system than they put in — largely because of refundable credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

But that same group pays $121.5 billion in payroll taxes. They still, on net, contribute billions to the federal government every year. Of course, this doesn't even count the sizable contribution of the poor and middle class in state and local taxes, which are actually higher for the poor than they are for the rich.
The greatest trick the rich ever pulled was making us believe they pay all the taxes (Vox). Still, I think the greatest trick the rich ever pulled was convincing us that they are necessary "job creators" and that we would all be helpless without them.


Top incomes soared as tax rates fell (Al Jazeera)

Corporations used to pay almost one-third of federal taxes. Now it's one-tenth. (Vox)

Corporation Surprised To See Its Tax Money Circle Back Around To It So Soon (The Onion)

How rising income inequality affects state tax revenue (Equitablog)

The Republican Party's top priority is to raise taxes on the poor. Literally. (The Week)

Republicans push for a permanent aristocracy (Washington Post) Must read.

It’s Not Your Money (Ian Welsh)

BONUS BONUS: Ancient Receipt Proves Egyptian Taxes Were Worse Than Yours (Live Science). You knew I had to put some historical context in there, didn't you :)