Eduardo Porter, Old Forecast of Famine May Yet Come True



Recent experience suggests that the productivity of farmland won’t decline gradually as the world grows warmer. World food prices stopped their long secular decline around 2007 and have been on a roller-coaster ride since. More volatile weather patterns promise to bring sharp disruptions to agricultural production that can cause spikes in food prices.

“There is a rigorous correlation between food price spikes and urban unrest,” said Andrew Holland, who studies climate change at the American Security Project, a research group in Washington. “There was a food price spike in 2008, and you can see unrest spread throughout Africa. And there’s a relatively clear line that leads from the food price spike in 2010 tounrest in the Middle East and the Arab Spring.”

Instability spreads easily. When rice prices jumped in 2007, big producers like India and Vietnam banned exports to protect their domestic markets, while importers like Bangladesh, Nigeria and Iran went out on the market to hoard as much grain as they could. The combination wreaked havoc in commodity markets.

Since then big food importers, like China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, have tried to insulate themselves from future food shortages by buying or leasing agricultural land in places like Sudan, Madagascar and Uzbekistan. The strategy is still to be tested in a situation in which Africa or Central Asia were to suffer itself shortages of grain.

“I have run some war game scenarios,” Mr. Holland said. “The tendency becomes very quickly for a country to look after its own interests.”

The Decline of The Postmodern Worldview, At Long Last

David Brooks is a strange combination of insight and ideology. He is a conservative at the core, and as a result his occasional epiphanies regarding the social nature of human life, society, and culture wind up in strange territory, like a fox with its head caught in a cookie jar.

This newest episode has Brooks summarizing a recent Pew Research Center survey (which he didn’t link to), which shows that Americans believe — for the first time ever — that the US is having a declining influence on what’s going on worldwide, although they are not advocating isolationism, but instead a deeper integration in the world. 


This contemporary, postnormal worldview seems like a dilemma requiring resolution to him. He contrasts it with the false certainties of the postmodern — where his feet are still firmly planted — and then scratches his head in wonder:

David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine

These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a byproduct of a deeper and broader cultural shift.

The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units — big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.

The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.

Commanding American leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.

Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded — in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.

The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism — the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism — the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

That’s the Brooks insight. Yes, we believe that the people in the big offices don’t get it. We are past Reaganism, and Realpolitik: we don’t trust the players that want to play those games. The ideal of a unified International community ruled by law — a la United Nations, or, in the small, in a united Europe — has fallen short, and those organizations are themselves the dreams of the last half of the 20th Century. We look at today’s world order — architected by those ideals — with a resigned sense of profound worldweariness. The defining emotion of our time is weltschmerz, not the nostalgia of the postmodern.

We aren’t waiting for a Jack Kennedy or an Eisenhower to stare down Putin. We know they are all involved in a game of thrones, and we are just pawns, and the world is the spoils.

Brooks, the fox, then gets trapped in the past, and seeks to delegitimize a postnormal rejection of statism and neoliberal globalism:

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Again, postmodern values always lead to postmodern conclusions. Here Brooks calls those that reject the present day system ‘naïve’ and ‘utopian’. Personally, I consider the postnormal worldview to be protopian: I hope to be able to make the world slightly better. And the primary path of that is dismantling the worst aspects of the postmodern, which has been thrown into our hands like a ticking bomb.

Globalist political conflict and neoliberal financial markets have been brandished as the primary means of ensuring a world order for the past century and more, with decidedly mixed outcomes. Just look at the state of the world today: global warming, conflict and revolution everywhere, sectarian terrorism, genocidal policies, end-of-days religious bigotry, worldwide ineqaulity, and with power concentrated in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many. Is it any surprise that, at long last, we have come to a new appreciation of all systems where we, the people, are led by a powerful elite?

Brooks concludes, 

We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.

On the contrary, history is the tale told by the victorious leaders of past conflicts. It is the future that we hope will be leaderless, where we can harness the technologies of the postnormal to bypass leaders and enact direct democracy based on truly human, local, and global principles of equality. 

Brooks, of course, sees only a void at the heart of the swarm, and the destruction of the institutions he believes are needed; where I see a multitude connecting to make a new world order, one that does without leaders trying to get us to march off to war or over a cliff, but instead displaces top-down organization with bottom-up association.

Brooks ends almost spuming in despair, while I find in this growing American rejection of the principles of the postmodern a reason for hope, a new pole star to steer by.

This is one reason that I am promoting leanership as the alternative to leader-focused organizations. The book I am writing — Leanership: A New Way of Work — explores these principles within the business context, but the logical outgrowth is the reworking of our institutions — including governments — to adopt the premises of postnormal economy and culture.

Toward a Drone Sexuality – Part 1: Knowledge and consent » Cyborgology


 Sarah Wanenchak

"We—the dronesexual, the recently defined, though we only call ourselves this name to ourselves and only ever with the deepest irony—we’re never sure whether the humming is pleasure or whether it’s a form of transmission, but we also don’t really care…There are no dronesexual support groups. We don’t have conferences. There is no established discourse around who we are and what we do. No one writes about us but us, not yet."

Dronesexual — that’s a new usage. 

Drones are the defining dark appliances of the postnormal. Not the tablets we hardly think about as we type, or the smart barnacles sticking to us and the walls of our homes. It’s the glitched video streams and the over-saturating images of rockets slamming into mud-sided buildings in the over-green darkness in the screens, the near-silent, near-insect whine of their roaming search. Will they find us? We know they can see us. We know we are known.

It’s not a sexual attraction for me, but I don’t kink for bondage, but I see how it could be a reaction to surveillance, some frisson of pleasure from being aggressively watched.

She goes on:

One of the things that we often see in dystopian fiction – at least, in dystopian fiction that deals with a god-like, usually fascist state – is the idea of sex-as-resistence. Sex is presented as something unregulated and unregulateable, at least when sex is the result of the personal desires of the protagonists. It’s not uncommon in older dystopian fiction to see sex made into a kind of state-mandated “mating” solely for the purpose of social control and reproduction, but that almost always exists to contrast with the kind of revolutionary sex engaged in by the heroes (or rather, the hero and the woman who just can’t keep her hands off him, because of course it’s always a man wearing the hero-pants).

But something you see less often is a story that deals directly with power – at least state power – and the eroticism of being known.

I’ve written about this before, the erotic aspects of the Gaze, the ways in which the predatory nature of being seen drifts into the territory of possessive sexuality. There’s an intimacy in being known, and – again, to reference Foucault on a basic level – we often assume that anyone who fucks us gets to know something about us, at least when the fucking is coupled with emotional intimacy and connection. Someone really knowing us is sort of supposed to make us want to have sex with them. When someone has sex with us, they know us. This is naturally a massive oversimplification, but these are powerful ideas that underpin not only how we tend to conceive of sexuality but what kinds of sexuality we tend to identify as desirable and appropriate.

So: Drones.

Drones have become a symbol of contemporary surveillance, a thing that’s always there and always watching and always potentially capable of doing harm. Sometimes this harm is through direct violence, and sometimes it’s merely the delivery of data to people who can use it against you. But either way, there are two aspects to the erotic power of drones, and they’re interrelated: Being known, and being controlled.

Robin James wrote a fantastic response to my post linked above, wherein she discusses the idea of droning as a process of the regulation and control of people (emphasis hers):

So, where the gaze regulates people by fixing them as objects (as, for example, Frantz Fanon argues the exclamation “Look, a Negro!” does), droning regulates people by creating the conditions that lead them to exhibit the wrong (or right) sort of profile, the sort of profile that puts you on watch lists, that disqualifies you for “discounted” credit, health insurance plans, etc…The gaze and the drone are absolutely not opposed or mutually exclusive; more often than not, they’re deeply and complexly implicated in one another. That’s why super-panoptic surveillance is above or on top of regular old visual panopticism; it’s an additional layer, not a replacement.

What I think that characterization requires me to talk about here is the kind of power exchange that we find in BDSM and other forms of kink, which get their sexual power from the eroticism of surrender and dominance, laying yourself bare to someone else and putting your body under their control, for them to give pain or pleasure or merely orders that have to be obeyed. There are many, many kinds of kink, of course, and this is another oversimplification, but I think for a lot of people, this serves as much of the underpinning. Surrendering to someone else sexually is itself incredibly erotic, and even if one isn’t truly known or truly controlled, the pretense of it is powerful.

The act of surrendering to the drone might be an aphrodisiac, because we know they know us, and because to be known, deeply, is foreplay.

(h/t warrenellis)

Blurred people in architectural drawings: Welcome to the Postnormal


Joep Jacobs

In a world of real and imagined pressures to move fast, architects are rendering people as ballistic objects, hurling through designed spaces:

Sue Shellenbarger, How Busy Colleagues Spread Secondhand Stress - WSJ.com

Architects have begun blurring human figures in drawings of new-office projects, to appeal to clients who aspire to active, high-energy workplaces, says Jorge Barrero, a technical designer in Chicago for Gensler, an architecture, planning and design firm. The image is one clients “can connect with on an emotional level,” Mr. Barrero says.

Tom Krizmanic, a principal with Studios Architecture in New York, says about a quarter of the 218 designs he helped judge in a recent office-design competition, co-sponsored by Business Interiors by Staples, showed humans as blurred figures in motion. The trend began about three years ago, he says.

This may be the enterprise elite’s equivalent of the new aesthetics. Instead of glitch art and drones, though, it’s executives sprinting through foyers or hallways, striding purposefully across streets, just on the verge of reaching escape velocity.

Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers - Paul Krugman - NYTimes.com


Krugman parses Larry Summers recent IMF talk, and finds at the core the hard paradoxes of the postnormal: Secular Stagnation, where the liquidity trap inverts the order of the economic universe.

If you take a secular stagnation view seriously, it has some radical implications – and Larry goes there.

Currently, even policymakers who are willing to concede that the liquidity trap makes nonsense of conventional notions of policy prudence are busy preparing for the time when normality returns. This means that they are preoccupied with the idea that they must act now to head off future crises. Yet this crisis isn’t over – and as Larry says, “Most of what would be done under the aegis of preventing a future crisis would be counterproductive.”

He goes on to say that the officially respectable policy agenda involves “doing less with monetary policy than was done before and doing less with fiscal policy than was done before,” even though the economy remains deeply depressed. And he says, a bit fuzzily but bravely all the same, that even improved financial regulation is not necessarily a good thing – that it may discourage irresponsible lending and borrowing at a time when more spending of any kind is good for the economy.

Amazing stuff – and if we really are looking at secular stagnation, he’s right.

Of course, the underlying problem in all of this is simply that real interest rates are too high. But, you say, they’re negative – zero nominal rates minus at least some expected inflation. To which the answer is, so? If the market wants a strongly negative real interest rate, we’ll have persistent problems until we find a way to deliver such a rate.

One way to get there would be to reconstruct our whole monetary system – say, eliminate paper money and pay negative interest rates on deposits. Another way would be to take advantage of the next boom – whether it’s a bubble or driven by expansionary fiscal policy – to push inflation substantially higher, and keep it there. Or maybe, possibly, we could go theKrugman 1998/Abe 2013 route of pushing up inflation through the sheer power of self-fulfilling expectations.

Any such suggestions are, of course, met with outrage. How dare anyone suggest that virtuous individuals, people who are prudent and save for the future, face expropriation? How can you suggest steadily eroding their savings either through inflation or through negative interest rates? It’s tyranny!

But in a liquidity trap saving may be a personal virtue, but it’s a social vice. And in an economy facing secular stagnation, this isn’t just a temporary state of affairs, it’s the norm. Assuring people that they can get a positive rate of return on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver – it’s like farm price supports, except for rentiers.

Oh, and one last point. If we’re going to have persistently negative real interest rates along with at least somewhat positive overall economic growth, the panic over public debt looks even more foolish than people like me have been saying: servicing the debt in the sense of stabilizing the ratio of debt to GDP has no cost, in fact negative cost.

I could go on, but by now I hope you’ve gotten the point. What Larry did at the IMF wasn’t just give an interesting speech. He laid down what amounts to a very radical manifesto. And I very much fear that he may be right.

Not Only Broken, But Dangerous

A comment I made that actually got applause during an open and free-wheeling session at IBM’s Cloud Forum, today.

Because of the increasing pace of business today, the only sensible strategy is to become more risk tolerant, but companies are not in general adopting that mindset. Things are moving faster but business leaders are not moving to reduce the friction in their business to keep pace. 

The average company lifetime was 75 years 50 years ago, and today it is fifteen. I bet that in five it will be down to ten, and that’s because management still thinks it’s smarter to operate with a foot on the brake instead of on the accelerator. It seems that should be true, it’s intuitive, but it isn’t anymore. 

We’ve moved into a new economy where the fundamental rules have changed, and the operating premises the past are not only broken, but dangerous.

Antifluffy on Obliquity

Heitor Alvelos is a conceptual artist in Portugal who concocted Antifluffy as a project for Future Places, a digital media festival in Porto, Portugal. 


Interview with Antifluffy by Sara Moreira

Global Voices (GV): Who are you, Antifluffy?

Antifluffy (AF): I am a mascot of a media lab in Porto. I am an icon, because I have an image and a catchy name. And I am an idea about how the world can be better a place.

GV: Do you mean the real world or the digital world?

AF: As Antifluffy I don’t really make a distinction, it’s all connected. Essentially what I try to convey is the thought that there is nothing really fundamentally different from new media if we don’t consider its repercussions on the existential level. There is a kind of underlying determinism about media – and even what people call post-media – that is this road to go towards the future without actually considering what it is doing to us and what kind of choices we really have.

'Obliquity - the capacity that every human being has, intrinsically, to think outside-the-box, to innovate, to not just go with the flow, to not just let themselves be seduced by the mirror of everyday gadgets'

GV: Do you choose to be on social media?

AF: Yes, of course, I should say that I have many Facebook accounts and many Twitter accounts in the sense that being an idea, I am essentially something that is in everyone’s brains. Antifluffy is a way of describing a quality that every human being has that is called obliquity. It’s the capacity that every human being has, intrinsically, to think outside-the-box, to innovate, to not just go with the flow, to not just let themselves be seduced by the mirror of everyday gadgets right away.

Ultimately Antifluffy is the belief that people can get a better deal out of what media is offering them. One thing that strikes me is to realize that we all have incredibly powerful tools at our disposal right now and yet it seems that rather than working in our favor they are acting against us, making us more anxious, more deterministic, more alienated.

Where is the healing aspect of new media? I haven’t quite figured it out yet and I think we have a duty to find it and nurture it. Of course I am making a huge generalization, there are people doing something fundamentally right, but they are the exception rather than the rule…

GV: Who is the “We” of the “We are the fluff” performance that has just happened

AF: When I say “we” I mean ‘We human beings’, ‘We creatures that happen to be alive in this moment’. I am an invitation for people to develop the obliquity they have within themselves. To reconsider the parameters of their connection with contemporary culture…

Antifluffy was partially inspired by a TV commercial for a mobile phone company that in my opinion represents a syndrome. The ad shows an abridged story of the 20th century, including among other things, historical footage of soldiers on the battlefield. The fact that a mobile company uses images of human beings that very likely didn’t make it back home, and then says that the solution is to change your contract for a better deal, 4 cents a minute, is somehow going to do what? In terms of historical heritage, in terms of what our ancestors deserve?

Fluff is the kind of crap that says history can and should be revisited as a mechanism… for what? For fluff! It’s just stuff!

GV: Earlier today I saw a crowd on the street led by an orchestra. What initially looked like a spontaneous musical performance was actually a sponsored (and filmed) event with the logo of a mobile company everywhere…

AF: I am not against the fact that there are companies providing access to culture. I think that is absolutely fine, but what it seems to me right now is that it has all become a bit of a minefield. It used to be – or at least it seemed to be – easier to read the cultural and the social landscape, and at the moment it has all become very ambivalent. With those kind of experiences. You know, one little detail can suddenly shift the whole experience into a different territory, from the cultural to the commercial in this case. Not to say that bridges cannot be built, of course they can, but at what price?

GV: Would it be easier to get more people out to the streets in Porto every time there is an anti-austerity demonstration if the call for protest was sponsored by a brand?

AF: The 15th of September, 2012, was a key moment to the understanding of what is going on socially in Portugal. On that day we had what a lot people say it was the biggest demonstration since the revolution of 1974. Avenida dos Aliados [Porto’s main avenue, where the City Council is] was filled with hundreds of thousands of people protesting because the government was going to propose a nasty kind of tax. And the strange thing is that a mobile phone company was organizing an outdoor rave party that night.

Usually in my presentations I show two slides: one with the crowd filling out the Avenida dos Aliados at 3pm, and the next slide is the same crowd at Praça Filipa de Lencastre at 1am having beer and listening to some DJ. So what you are describing is actually what we already have. I am sure there was a connection between these two events that was planned.

But my concern is exactly this… what’s the word, it’s not polarization, but schizophrenia. Is this kind of schizophrenia in which you are either on party mode or on protest mode, and I don’t think this is healthy. It’s actually very damaging to our integrity as individuals.

It worries me that I don’t see that many people proposing new social geometries. The only time when people all come together is to say NO. But what I never see is that same huge group of people proclaiming an alternative together as a whole.

GV: Do you think that digital media can help bring people together to accomplish alternatives?

AF: I think the first condition for us to get out of this nasty situation is to rearrange the ways in which we connect… I mean how can we be healthy as individuals and as citizens if we keep being bombarded by all of these messages and images of a catastrophe and at the same time we get all this stuff which is all saying ‘Hey it’s all great and fine and fun’ you know? There has got to be a middle way, there must be a way to harmonize these two schizophrenic moments. We are hostages of this polarization and being bombarded with the idea that it is all going down hill and then up the next minute. After the TV presenter reads all the tragic news – let’s have a commercial break, and it’s all about fluff, and love and iPads, and it’s not healthy to listen to these messages.

GV: Are you fighting against these kind of alienating messages?

AF: Despite the ‘anti’ in my name, I like to think of Antifluffy more as an invitation first of all, to optimism. You know there are things that will never be taken from us, and one of them is affection. Let’s be generous with one another, let’s value one another, let’s not be afraid to say it. It’s about optimism, it’s about connecting, and it’s also about not insulting people’s intelligence. Antifluffy is a way of saying that some things take time to unravel, to be understood, they are complex. Let’s take it easy, it’s alright, you don’t have to understand everything right away, as opposed to the vertigo that is happening on social media and in old media.

I looked up obliquity and Mirriam-Webster defines it this way:

1: deviation from moral rectitude or sound thinking
2 a : deviation from parallelism or perpendicularity; also : the amount of such deviation
b : the angle between the planes of the earth’s equator and orbit having a value of about 23°27′ <obliquity of the ecliptic>
3 a : indirectness or deliberate obscurity of speech or conduct
b : an obscure or confusing statement

May be defined differently in Portuguese, after all. But I like Antifluffy’s reapplication, as deviation from groupthink, or the possibilities of breaking out from our cultural blinders. Antifluffy might have borrowed this from economist John Kay’s book, Obliquity, which I stumbled upon just now, through a Google search on the term, and which I am going to read as soon as possible.

A host of economic analyses over the last three years by researchers from different corners of the world — including Roberto Perotti at Milan’s Bocconi University, Alan Taylor and Òscar Jordá at the University of California, Davis and researchers at the I.M.F. — have concluded almost invariably that budget cutting in a depressed economy is counterproductive.

By cutting teachers or raising taxes, reducing government transfers or trimming public purchases of goods and services, austerity shrinks the economy in the short term, often more than it shrinks the burden of public debt.

When interest rates are at or near zero — as they are today in much of the developed world — there is little central bankers like Ben S. Bernanke and Mario Draghi can do to compensate for the declining business.

As Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and architect of President Obama’s initial economic program, pointed out in congressional testimony last May, the sequestration’s $64 billion in cuts this year might reduce federal debt by 0.39 percent of G.D.P. But if the G.D.P. shrinks by 0.6 percent, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, it will make the debt burden heavier, not lighter. Here’s how Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of economics at Oxford University put it: arguing that the tiny amount of economic growth Britain has recently achieved after a years-long downturn proved austerity to be the right policy is tantamount to saying that global warming skeptics had “won the climate change argument because of recent heavy snow.”

Eduardo Porter, Perils in Philosophy for Austerity in the U.S.

The Slowdown Of Corporate Deals Is Another Consequence Of The Postnormal

A lot of folks were predicting a big surge in corporate mergers and acquisitions, but the rate has actually fallen by 3.4% since last year. Why?

Andrew Ross Sorkin, Frenzy of Deals, Once Expected, Seems to Fizzle - NYTimes.com

[…] deal-making may not be coming back anytime soon.

“It’s pretty grim, even with Verizon-Vodafone padding the numbers,” said Scott A. Barshay, the head of the corporate department at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, referring to Verizon’s recent $130 billion deal to buy out Vodafone’s share of the joint venture in Verizon Wireless. If you exclude that deal from the count measured by total dollars, we’ve returned to 2009.

“There has not been confidence in the strength of the recovery since the financial crisis, which makes C.E.O.’s and boards reticent to pursue major transactions,” he said.

Some blame the debt ceiling fights in Washington, the government shutdown or the introduction of Obamacare for creating uncertainty in the economy and thus the slowdown in deal-making.

“It reflects the broad-based loss of confidence in the business community and their inability to make significant capital investment, be it M.&A. or capital spending, in large measure because of the uncertainty of tax and regulatory policy from Washington, D.C.,” said Doug Kass, founder of Seabreeze Partners Management. “Until Washington, D.C., grows more proactive, less inert in policy, this is likely to continue.”

But that may only be part of it.

What if the slowdown in merger activity isn’t cyclical, but secular? What if corporations have learned the lessons of so many companies before them that the odds of a successful merger are no better than 50-50 and probably less? Is it possible that the biggest deals have already been done?

What if these two views — uncertainty about tax policies and the uncertainty about whether 1 + 1 is really going to be more than 2 — are just two aspects of a more general increase in uncertainty and ambiguity? In an economy that has grown to be so complex and where markets are so volatile predictions of risks and rewards are growing to be increasingly difficult.

In the background, we have the paradox where slowing growth rates — caused by governments and corporations cutting back on expenditures — cannot be countered by lowering interest rates because central bank interest rates are at zero already. This leads to even slower or negative growth, which increases uncertainty, lowers investments and dealmaking, lowers tax collection, and which leads to growth slowing even more.

We lack the political will in Washington and other capitals to spend more money to get things rolling, and corporations are unwilling to invest because they don’t know if it will lead to a productive return. So all those corporate profits are mounting, and not being used for new investments. Instead, investors are calling for stock buybacks, to transfer the cash from corporations to investors. But neither know what to do with the money, and neither do our political leaders.

The postnormal economy is likely to be here for a long while.

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