May 3rd, 2009


Don't Breathe the Air

Despite some attempts to clean up the air, most of America still has air that is not really safe to breathe.

Air Pollution Endangers Lives of Six in Ten Americans

Washington, DC - Six out of every 10 Americans - 186.1 million people - live in areas where air pollution endangers lives, according to the 10th annual American Lung Association State of the Air report released today.

    Some of the biggest sources of air pollution - dirty power plants, dirty diesel engines and ocean-going vessels - also worsen global warming, the Lung Association says in State of the Air 2009.


Circulation Problems

I've been thinking more about the economy and why it's broken, not just from a social perspective but from a mechanical and mathematical perspective.

First, an economy is a circulation system. It can use a variety of things as its "circulation fluid," such as hours or salt or money. Every circulation system has an optimum fluid volume and flow rate; it also has a minimum and maximum for each of those things which define the boundaries of its functionality. Close to those, it functions less well; beyond them, it breaks down.

If the volume and/or flow rate should fall too low, the system slows to a halt. It doesn't have enough to keep going at all. This can happen if the circulation fluid leaks out of the system entirely, or if a partial rupture makes it leak inward and pool somewhere that just sloshes around without circulating right.

If the volume and/or flow rate should rise too high, the system can overheat or explode. It has so much that it ceases to function properly. This can happen if the whole system experiences extreme heat or pressure, or it can happen if just one area does.

In a money economy, the government has to figure out how much money to print. If there is not enough money in circulation, then it isn't very effective for maintaining the flow rate of exchanges in the economy. If there is too much money in circulation, then it causes inflation to rise out of control, which is a high-pressure problem. Presumably there is a formula (or a set of formulas) that economists and rulers can use to figure out a suitable amount: so-and-so many people plus whatever other variables require thus-and-such amount of money in the economy.

With all of that in mind, it seems prudent to consider how much of the money is in a given place at a given time. It has to flow in order for the economy to function, so if some areas have too much or not enough, that's going to cause problems as described above. For example, people: there should be an optimum amount of money per individual, bounded by a minimum and a maximum.

The minimum should be the amount needed to meet basic needs: food, water, clothing, shelter (including utilities), and health care. So far, America has a poverty level and a minimum wage, but neither of those accurately reflects how much a person really needs. Some more accurate and thorough count is needed. When there is no mininum amount of money per person, then it is possible for people to go without having their basic needs met. This is a problem because a society that doesn't meet the basic needs of its members is likely to collapse and be replaced by something else, and because the flow rate of an economy will slow and then stop if people do not have enough money to exchange for what they need.

The maximum should have something to do with the fact that, if some people accrue too much money, that will drop other people below the minimum; and that if too many people fall below the minimum and rise above the maximum, the flow rate will stutter and then collapse. When there is no maximum, as is the case now, then some people gather so much money that the imbalance destabilizes the economy. This happens for three reasons: 1) While some of a rich person's money may circulate as investments, much of it can get tied up in solid assets such as mansions or jewelry, thus causing a substantial amount of pool outside of circulation. 2) While some of a rich person's money may return to the economy as wages for their employees, a vast amount is still under one person's control at any given time, which means that money is not available for someone else's use at that time, which eventually means that there is not enough money left in active circulation for everyone to have the minimum needed for personal survival and economic function. 3) A rich person has so much disposable income that it's possible to outcompete other buyers, which causes severe problems if rich people decide to buy up large amounts of basic necessities. This has recently happened in several regards, as when real estate speculation contributed to the housing bubble that left many ordinary families unable to afford a place to live; and when speculation buying of corn due to interest in biofuels pushed the price of this staple food beyond what poor people could pay. Big spikes in inflation of necessities can cause the economy to falter or fail.

One way to observe that a minimum and maximum would be useful for maintaining economic flow is to examine the actual distribution of money:

In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2004, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.3% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.3%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.2%. Table 1 and Figure 1 present further details drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2007).

Consider that a small number of people hold a large majority of the money, while the majority of people have to share a much smaller amount of money. So some people are over the functional maximum, while others are below the functional minimum. There is only so much money in an economy, and if it pools rather than flowing, then that amounts to an internal system leak. When there is too much circulation fluid in one place and not enough in others, the flow rate falters, and the system crashes. Beyond a certain point, the wider the gap, the less functional the system.

Looking at America right now, we can observe the following signs of social and economic system dysfunction:

* Many people cannot afford enough food to eat, particularly for a healthy diet. This number is increasing rapidly; it includes not only long-term sufferers but many new ones who have never had this problem before. America makes no universal guarantee that people will have access to food, let alone enough food or healthy food. There are some programs to provide discounted or free food, which is better than nothing, but they are a patchwork rather than a system. This means that numerous people do not enjoy an adequate diet, which impairs their ability to function both in society and in the economy; plus it tends to cause or exacerbate health problems, an additional expense. There is enough food to go around, but America chooses to distribute it unequally.

* Many people cannot afford a place to live. This number is increasing rapidly as foreclosures sweep across the nation, and the people with money are actively using their power to thwart actions that would help keep middle- and lower-income people in their homes. America makes no universal guarantee that people will have a place to live, or to sleep, or even to stand. If you are not paying money for the privilege, you don't have a right to be there; even public businesses tend to drive away people who don't look like they have money to spend. There are some shelters and public housing options, but they were vastly overwhelmed by the number of people in need, even before the recent large surge. Being homeless is a severe threat to survival not just because of direct risks like exposure, but because it cuts people off from many other service options. It also exacerbates most physical and mental health problems. Just providing secure housing would tremendously reduce human misery and socioeconomic expenses, but it is not done. There is enough shelter to go around, but America chooses to distribute it unequally.

* Many people cannot afford health care. This number is increasing rapidly as unemployment severs whole families from employer-provided health insurance. However, it has been a severe problem for some time, because health care is priced at institutional rates but widely sold to individuals. Because large-group buyers such as the government, insurance companies, and large businesses have driven inflation to stellar heights, individuals who cannot make their way into a group, or who are ejected from a group, or who are victims of a group that purports to cover this expense for them but then refuses to do so, are simply priced out of the market. Since few people are willing to lie down and die, many wind up in emergency rooms without the money to pay for their care; the expense then goes to the hospital, a cause of many hospital closures, which lowers everyone's access to health care; or is passed upward to the government and thus to society as a whole. However, many sub-fatal illnesses and injuries do go without treatment. This raises the overall quotient of human misery, which contributes to mishaps and violence; and contributes to the spread of diseases which could be contained if we bothered to do so. America has the capacity to provide adequate health care for its citizens, but chooses not to do that.

In general, it is not considered permissible to kill people directly, but killing them or shortening their lives indirectly is business as usual. That's what happens when basic survival needs are not guaranteed, but rather are considered privileges to be purchased with money, and access to money or paid labor is also not guaranteed. The Constitution does specify "life" as an inalienable right, but sadly neglected to protect things necessary for life as part of that.

In order to keep an economy going, there must be enough money and it must be distributed such that people can exchange it for what they need. If we want to have a functioning economy, we're going to have to fix the things that cause it to break down. Otherwise, all this "stimulus" stuff is like pouring fluid into a car's radiator without fixing the leak that's causing it to need extra water. Ten or twenty minutes later, you have to pull over and do it again -- and if you run out of water, that car is going nowhere. That means we need to find some way of ensuring that everyone has at least enough money to live on.

In order to have a healthy society, it must be able to meet the basic needs of its members. Otherwise, people resort to increasingly troublesome means to get their needs met; and when people can't meet their needs, the resulting human wreckage causes problems that affect society as a whole, not just the hapless victims. When a social system is not meeting people's needs, it becomes vulnerable to competition from other systems that promise better results; some people become increasingly prone to try anything else, while others become even more desperately attached to the familiar system, which causes a rise in tension that can lead to widespread violence. So if we want a healthy society, we need to find ways of mending the connections that hold us together AS a society; this "every man for himself" nonsense has got to stop, or that is all we'll be left with -- a collection of individuals squabbling over scraps.

When deciding whether you support or oppose a given piece of legislation, or a custom, or a business or charity or whatever -- consider what effect it will have on the system. What we have right now is not working. Will what you're considering make matters better or worse? Will it help stabilize the flow rate in the economy? Will it help build and strengthen connections between people?

Taxing the Poor to Feed the Rich

Today's post by Redneck Liberal describes some ways in which politicians, particularly the Republicans but also some Democrats, are adjusting laws to funnel money to rich families and large corporations, at the direct expense of the middle and lower classes. There are some good examples regarding what's considered "fair" (things that benefit the wealthy) or "controversial" (things that benefit everyone else, or even everyone).

Congressional Democrats Taking Bids on Their Votes, Estate Tax, Farm Subsidies, Health Care, Bankruptcy Law, Ben Nelson and Richard Lugar.

In the 2008 elections it was pretty obvious that the country wanted change. We knew that we could expect plenty of opposition from the Republicans. We're getting plenty of that.

What's surprising is the amount of opposition that we are getting from those who are supposedly on our side.