The Haunted Firepit

The Haunted Fire Pit

Every ghost knows fenceposts are miserable, thin things.  I hid in one anyway.  Marty and Sol laughed at me, but I wasn’t about to leave this place.  Something would come along that I could move into.

“Harry!  Come on in,” Marty yelled, and I floated into their little party one night.  They scoffed when I said there was a new sign on the vacant lot, they said that lot wouldn’t be built on for a long time after what happened in that house.  I played cards, but the scene was tired, and there wasn’t any point in staying.  I hated that damn wood post, but it was better than these losers and their rigged gin rummy.

Over the next couple months, I watched the slab get scraped, a new slab poured, and at night I toured the beginnings of a new house.  It would be big.  The new slab was twice the size of the old slab; they had ripped up the old oak in the back to make room for it.  That oak had been around longer than I had.  It was sorta sad, he had good stories and a great spirit, and wasn’t nothing in the world wrong with him.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I should’ve taken a lesson from him.

A couple times I went to visit Mary and Hodges in the cemetery.  “Plenty of room,” Mary said.  The stone was delicious and cool, there was room to expand inside the stone, and I felt more like myself in that solid granite block. 

“A ghost could get used to this place,” I declared. 

“Stay as long as you like”, replied Hodges.  Three weeks I stayed, in a vacant gravestone.  Mary and Hodges didn’t act like they minded, but their nasty drawn-out marital fights got to be too much.  I scurried back one night to see how progress was coming on the new house.  Ghosts need a home, and this one looked promising.

Two stories framed up already, with a very high roofline.  I could get into this, I thought, haunting this thing would be like driving a big ol’ Cadillac around.  Inside, I was dismayed to see nothin’ but a bunch of little matchsticks.  I looked in vain for some kind of heavy timber.  My best shot would be the stairs – but even the stringers for the stairs weren’t much better than the fencepost.

I could live in the stringers tonight, and they would be better than the fencepost; drier, anyway.  Ha!  I remembered Marty and the window incident.  He haunted a home, and the people built an addition, so he selected a big wooded lintel, bragged about it even, only to be trapped in the thing when they hauled it out!  Some building inspector rejected the hunk of wood, and they crowbarred it right out.  He would have been a landfill soul, if the wrecked and wasted wood hadn’t sat in the dumpster for weeks.  Marty never lived that one down, but finally did get a brick chimney out of the deal.

For we ghosts, we need mass, we need something solid to live in, or we aren’t much interested in the place.  These new houses, there isn’t any mass left – all 2x4s,  sticks, thin pressboard, and the outside, hell, they’re just plastic and foam, for chrissake.  Nothing!  A spirit that is strong enough to be a ghost needs a certain amount of density, you know.  When alive, we needed space, but when we’re dead, we need mass – yeah, just the opposite.

These new homes, we stay away from them, you know.  If they happen to make ‘em out of concrete block, it doesn’t matter, ‘cause those blocks are hollow inside, you know?  And blocks poured with concrete are full of metal rebar.  Rebar conducts electricity, and you might as well stand next to a vacuum cleaner and get yourself sucked into the soil, because they wire up all those rebar to a grounding wire and stick the wire right into the ground.  For a live person, it’s like standing next to a hot stove.  The metal burns you, and your spirit is sucked down the rebar and out the grounding rod into the soil.  Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.  Remember old Louis?  Looey, he got sucked into dirt, just like that, after he went to live in a concrete wall.  He didn’t know it was fulla rebar until too damn late.  He joined the worms, and sorta disintegrated, you know?  We never found him.  Sol found the burned spot on the rebar where he touched it, the rebar was burned white.  Poor Looey.

You can only live in a damn fencepost for so long; I started getting out every night, and sometimes I wouldn’t even wait until night.  The framing crew, they were done and gone.  Some stones got put up on the front, and I tried them, you know?   But those were thin and horrible, it was like getting in and out of an envelope.  I roamed around the house and howled at it good.  Something echoed at me and sure enough, there was something solid upstairs.  I floated up through the thin ceiling and found the master bathroom was being sheathed in travertine.  My howls were echoing off the travertine tiles, stacked in the corner, ready to be laid.

Give it up, said Sol that night.  We were over at Marty’s again playing gin rummy.  Marty had gotten up to go out and have a smoke.  It’s a damn shame about your place, Harry, but these McMansions have nothing to haunt, he said.  Face it, you ain’t got a ghost of a chance.   Come on over: Marty and me, we’ll make room here.  This 1920’s job will be around for a while, and you got a place to stay.  We’ll give you a part of the chimney, or you can have the back wall where there ain’t no windows and no rebar.

I was stubborn.  Most ghosts are.  We tend to stick with the same piece of land.  Oh yeah, we travel like fiends, but we always come back.  There’s no place like home, and that’s true for us spirits.

The next night I came over and reported that the builders had started a barbecue pit.  Now, those can be chancy, especially if they use it a lot, but these McMansions, you know, they hardly ever use their outdoor kitchens.  Most likely they can’t afford to crank up all that stuff, and the family is usually huddled over Domino’s and a movie, mortgaged to the eyeballs, all that space and all those appliances sitting there just taking up space.  I eyed that barbecue pit.

In a couple weeks, a crew came and started slapping beige liquid acrylic over the bright pink foam walls.  They started at the top and worked their way around.   That night, I toured it.

As huge as it was, the house was like a balloon puffed up with air.   A tiny eave, less than a foot, let the moon shine on the whole tall wall.  At the windows, the plane of the glass matched the outside skin – there was no thickness to the walls whatsoever.  The vinyl window frames were thin, and rubbery-looking.  They will seldom, if ever, get opened, I thought.  Air conditioning will guarantee that.  The stone around the base of the house was a jagged, jumbled-up mess of bits, and looked pasted-on and fake.  There were odd corners and crannies where a ghost could hide, if he had to, but not for long.

The front doors looked like big impressive oaken things, macho carved wood like the old Spanish castles.  Could I live inside these doors, I thought?   But when I touched them, my fingers sizzled – metal.  The door was a hollow metal box pressed into a mold to look like a real wood door.

Inside, I could smell the formaldehyde glue.   Absurdly high ceilings had wires dangling from holes, ready for light fixtures.  Clumsy arches trimmed out openings.  About 9’ up from the floor, I touched a piece of trim to see if it was wood.  Styrofoam.  This thing was about as solid as a Fisher-Price dollhouse.

About the most solid things in the house were the toilets.  No self-respecting ghost would live in a toilet.  Anyway, with the water flowing through it, toilets were worse news than metal.

Maybe Sol was right.  Maybe I need to move.  His old house had great bones – solid brick walls, a big stone mantle over the fireplace; a crawl space with brick footings, even an old brick base for an oil furnace.  I thought about my old house, built in the fifties; not much had changed between the time Sol’s house was built and my old house.  Too bad they sold my house after the murder; a house that had a murder was a great place for a ghost, because misery truly loves company.  Lover’s squabble.  He had brought that guy home, picked him up in a bar downtown, and his lover hung around a little too long for his taste.  He lived alone, and when his partner showed up, well…it was the gunshot woke me up.  The owner was in the bathtub, blood splattered everywhere.  For me, it was juicy, great; I would have a buddy in the house, like Sol and Marty.  We would’ve been great together, but the spirit of the murder victim just disappeared when the house was torn down.  Probably come back someday, I thought, and when he does, well, squatter’s rights, buddy.

But that house was only 4 bedrooms and a 2-car garage, and that just doesn’t cut it these days.  Lifestyles are different, I thought, this house is built with five suites, complete with bedroom, closet, bathroom, and en suite study for each one.  In the back, I saw that the barbecue pit was coming along nicely.  It had a brick base and a stone top.  Now, these are great, I thought.  No rebar – not required.  I slipped in between the bricks.  A little awkward at first, but I could get used to it.  But I gotta wait until they move in, so I don’t get a nasty surprise like Marty.  I chuckled at the thought of Marty climbing out of that dumpster, spitting drywall dust.

I began to hang out more and more with Sol and Marty.  They gave me the back wall of their house, and they crowded into the footings and the chimney.  It was all real cozy at first, but Marty snored and Sol, well, he’s an old ghost and wouldn’t shut up with his stories.  Enough with your stories, I finally said.  Sol thought he had a new audience, and one night we finally howled it out.  The boy sleeping in the bedroom even woke up and called for his daddy, waking up everyone.  Sol gave him a scream and even an apparition, and we all escaped into the corners of the house, nursing our bruised egos.  That night, I moved into the barbecue pit.

The pit felt good, it was a mass of my own, and I hibernated there for a good solid month.  The family moved into the house, and just as I predicted, they never came out to use the thing – never even fired it up to see if the damn thing worked.

My new digs were nothing to brag about – hell, compared to European ghosts, with their huge massive stone castles and dungeons, this was nothing- but it was mine, all mine.  It was a hollow brick box, about the size of a coffin.  That cracked me up.  The stainless steel Weber sat in the middle, and there was a little space below it for the gas tank.  Even though the center of it was hollow, it was the closest thing to a mass on the property, and it sure beat the crappy old fencepost.

Marty, Sol, Mary, and even Hodges came over one night, and we had a little party. We even did an apparition in the back yard for the benefit of the family living in the house, but they never noticed it, huddled over a game on their new wide screen TV.

Hodges was pissed.  How do we compete with those things, he said?  TV was bad enough, and then they all got computers.  Now, they got these video games and cell phones and ipods and they don’t know what’s physical and what’s not!  A ghost doesn’t even stack up!  We might as well haunt their damn dogs!

We all started laughing at Hodges, and just for the hell of it, we went on a rampage around the neighborhood, waking up the dogs and howling at them.  Pretty soon half the dogs were barking their stupid heads off.   We got a few people riled up.  Marty and Sol drifted back home.  Mary said it had been a lovely evening, and she and Hodges floated off.

Harry’s coffin, they called my firepit, and we joked about it.  The back yard stayed vacant, so I had the whole area pretty much all to myself.  I missed the oak, we had some good times together.  The coffin baked, and during the day, I slept on the shady side facing the house, careful not to touch the Weber.

The hiss of the gas in the hose woke me up, and I knew immediately that they were firing up the grill in the barbecue pit.  I waited as long as I could, and moved away from the heat.   Pretty soon I gave it up and floated off.  He was throwing on steaks, while his boss and their family were sitting on Rubbermaid lawn chairs, slapping mosquitoes.  That won’t last long, I thought.  They’ll eat inside – they can’t take the outdoors.

I watched from the door jamb.  It was pressure treated wood and stank to high heaven, but it was the only freakin’ solid thing in the whole back yard!  The steaks took forever; he kept pokin’ them with a fork, letting the juice run out, making them tougher than this pressure treated wood I was in.  The kids ran listlessly around the hot, treeless back yard, and the wives sipped wine in a tiny shady spot, while the dads talked shop with cans of beer. 

The meatsmoke rose high and drifted off in the hot, windless evening.  Suddenly, there was a WHOOMP, and the barbecue pit exploded, sending shards of brick, metal, and meat everywhere.  The women screamed.  The guy was thrown back against the house a couple feet behind him, and left a human-shaped dent in the foam.  His hand holding the spatula whacked against my door jamb, and for a second I felt his spirit in a panic. 

He fell face first onto the new wood deck, and he struggled to his feet, bloody and splintered, shouting.  He threw the spatula at the smoking rubble that was once my fire pit and cursed.  His boss was on his cell phone, and soon the fire rescue vehicles showed up.  They bundled him up, and hauled him off, still cursing.  The families, shaken, went inside, leaving me to inspect the damage.

I could’ve told them the gas hose had a leak, but how?  It had filled the hollow space inside the brick box they built, and after it filled up, only a tiny spark was needed to set the gas off.  It took a couple of insurance guys to find the gas hose leak, and they pieced the evidence together.  They sat with the family in the living room, and I hovered around the chandelier, careful not to touch the metal, listening.

Yep, the hose had leaked into the hollow space inside the barbecue pit, and filled it with gas, said the insurance adjuster.  Those things aren’t even inspected by the city.  They should be, but they aren’t.  Here’s a check.

As the adjusters left, the dad sat on the couch with his kids.  One of them asked, are we going to build another one?  I want a pool, said the girl, not another stupid barbecue pit.  Anyway, she said, I think it exploded because it was haunted.

I never laughed so hard in my life.

Memo to the Occupied Zones

Many of the 99% (and at least one of the 1%) have asked me whether I am part of the occupation, based on observations and insights made over my career as an artist and writer.  These writings appear below.

I am personally deeply conflicted about the current state of American conversation.  Where were these occupiers when it all happened?  The conversation truly broke down some time ago, and Americans have been slow to awaken to its current dire state.  It seems like the American art of protest, exported so successfully overseas, has been lost and is being re-created.

The tone of “Occupy” texts has so far been civil, and it should stay that way no matter how uncivil the other side may become in the coming political campaign.   Friendly advice to this effect has already been posted in Thomas’s column.

The 99% must find a voice that seeks to reform the large energy and financial organizations that have co-opted governments worldwide.  Its tools have been industry, the media, and the gigantic consumer culture built upon western scientific society.

The 99% must find a voice that articulates a stance in favor of future generations’ choices.  While our media wail and fret over economic news, it is all driven by the old notions of throughput.  We slowed putting matter and energy through our leviathan machines of production – this is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Occupy should conduct its relationship with mainstream media through the filter of what is good for the 99%, and not let the large organizations’ bias influence how things are being reported.  For example, there is already a call for “free college education.”  College education is already of questionable relevancy in our current times; a better call might be for “meaningful college education.”  Now that’s a radical concept.

Most of the notes below were first published as Rex Thomas’ column on The Examiner (www.examiner.com).  If they are useful in framing the arguments of today, then they have served their purpose.

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Yesterday, Daniel Shore made a point that bears repeating:  With the health care issue, it is apparent that the Democrats are no more able to battle on behalf of the citizens than Republicans are.  With the loss of face over the so-called “public plan” is it true that the people are not as powerful as these interests?   What does that say about our country?

Converge this realization with the lack of unbiased information available to the people, and we have reached a state of confusion.  No longer are people able to form their own opinions based on weighing the facts; it is all about subjective opinion and feeling that matters.  Seeking the truth seems to be an irrelevant exercise in the current situation.

Is the truth too elusive, because the issues are so complex?  Or have we made the issues so complex to obscure any possible reading of the truth?  Either way, our elected officials are unable to function effectively as representatatives of the people anymore.  Instead, they have turned to reinforcing the status quo of the beforetimes.  An industry or a concern that had achieved success prior to the recession is now spending that profit mightily to prevent change from taking place.  Any change would erode its position when the economy restarts.

What with the news descending into blogs and opinions, we hear the weekly episode of “The Recovery,” which is a story being produced and delivered just as “America’s Next Top Model” or any other story for entertainment.  Both are supported by facts, yet both seem to be just as ephemeral a goal for us common folks.  When do we get The Recovery?  When do we get to prance on stage?  Both are just about as relevant to our lives.

First published August 8, 2009

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Redefining the American Dream

Your own home, your own car, a prosperous career based on a college education – these were the elements of the American Dream.  Today, the Great Recession has blogging and talking heads busy rewriting this dream, figuring out what elements stay in and what elements get replaced.  It’s an industry – the American Dream.

Certainly the college education part is here to stay.  Practically everyone has a college education now; there are so many variations on a Bachelor’s degree it’s hard to know what one means anymore.  Knowledge, once a sophisticated, complex system passed on only to those who could sufficiently demonstrate their ability to handle it, is pretty much passed out to everyone now.  If any part of this is transformed, it might be the gaining of a second degree as a way for people to reinvent themselves and get ready for The Recovery.

A prosperous career, now, that one’s right out the window.  Even before we found ourselves with 15.7 million unemployed, more recent graduates were job-surfing rather than career-building.  Resumes as long as a user’s manual are nothing to be ashamed of anymore; and those who are struggling to get back into the employment world concede they aren’t holding out for their “career”, but simply trying to put food on the table.  Rising wages followed company loyalty out that same window and have splatted right on the sidewalk.  No one has yet called an ambulance, those parts of the American Dream were apparently very disposable.

Owning your stuff seemed to be quite important for a long time, until car leases came about, putting people into far more luxurious rides than they could otherwise afford.  It seems that ownership, which the Europeans did away with some time ago, is no longer the must-have in America, either.  If Wall Street hadn’t invented the real estate bubble, home ownership might have even decreased rather than increased in the last ten years, because many entering the workforce didn’t get the itch to put down roots so quickly.  For this generation, trying new jobs and new cities is more alluring than fixing leaky gutters and mowing lawns.  As it is, things might work out to their benefit, for all the baby boomers intoxicated with the smell of their own investments rushed in and bought 2, 3, or 5 homes, and are now probably doomed to be perpetual landlords.  If Generations X, Y, and Z can resist the siren call of the banks to become chained to mortgages, they can enjoy a certain freedom from the burden of home ownership, and the percentage of Americans who own their own home might just return back to a normal kind of balance.

So if these capitalistic components of the American Dream are in danger of extinction, what replaces them?  The American middle class, fighting for its life, is certainly transforming, shedding the unnecessary and reevaluating its own identity and goals.

We are in the middle of the war, and have some big battles yet to fight.  One of the common causes that seems to be uniting many people is the notion of getting off the grid, and this doesn’t necessarily apply to electricity.

The electric grid which services our power needs is like a spider’s web, in which we are helplessly caught with no alternative at all.  The antiquated regulations that govern energy supply go all the way back to the last gilded age, and deserve to be smashed.  Energy independence and power generation should be every American’s right, and getting off the grid – or perhaps using the grid to produce as well as consume – is becoming the New American Dream for some.

But there are far more grids to get off, and one other grid to consider is the food grid – or web, as ecologists prefer to call it.  Homegrowing and localizing food sources is a grass-roots movement that nearly every neighborhood is experimenting with, and this has great implications nationwide.  Supplementing that grocery store chain with something harvested ’round the corner, in season, without genetically modified, hormone-induced help, might just be another component of the New American Dream.  Suburban agriculture can be done cheaply and efficiently for those who want to get off the web.

And then, there is the — shh, children, be very quiet, this is very, very secret, don’t tell the adults — the financial grid.  Getting off that grid is the scariest and biggest step of all.  Barter, scrip, and other concepts that bypass the Wall Street bonus babies entirely…ooh, that one could really redefine the American Dream, for it makes us free.  Paying off your consumer debt, not owning a house, bartering for goods and services, growing your own food?  This might mean that we Americans would turn away from being voracious, materialistic, object-oriented consumers into producers, who own our own destiny and are truly independent.

In the meantime, a quiet revolution has been taking place in our pockets, as we become infovores.  The i-phone, a luxury even a year ago, seems now even in this Great Recession to be the ubiqitous utility.  We have finally placed nearly all the world’s knowledge, and nearly all the world’s conversations, at our fingertips anytime anywhere.  Americans have become voracious info-raptors, requring massive gigabytes of datameat, while other cultures go without.

An off-the grid ethic, your own iphone, and a steadyish string of jobs may just be the New American Dream.  When the spokesmen for The Recovery are finished talking, keep listening carefully to the other sounds in the wilderness, and you may just hear the New American Dream being born.

First published November 8, 2009

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Mass Extinction of Knowledge

Florida unemployment, well over 10%, has sparked an emigration outward from the state for those seeking jobs.  While little analysis of the content of this joblessness has been done, it is clear that companies are shedding their senior, experienced workers and are re-hiring fresh, young workers to replace them, in an effort to keep up with demand while maintaining low salaries.  While this activity makes some sense, the consequence is a mass extinction of knowledge.

For some industries, mass extinction on a periodic basis is probably good.  Science-based work thrives on the new and the innovative; certainly the media cannot stand any knowledge more than 15 minutes old.  Constant renewal is essential.

Yet there are some components of our society that do not benefit from this mass extinction.  Do you really want your doctor, who has your entire health record in his brain, replaced by a cheap young intern?  Do you want your senior ambulance driver, with an intimate knowledge of the city streets, replaced by a cheaper contract driver from Cleveland?

In some jobs, experience clearly outweighs book-learning.  These jobs are typically professionals, who have built upon experience and mistakes, and if they stay in their profession long enough, their seniority allows them a perspective on assignments that cuts through the clutter.  An hour of these individuals’ time is usually worth days of a young intern’s time, and their hourly billing rate showed it.

Yet these individuals are being cut from the work force, left to drift or take painting classes.  In the design profession, it is remarkable how much senior knowledge – dare we call it wisdom – is blowing around on the streets of Orlando.

That which is left, anyway.  Many senior design professionals have already left for other places, called to jobs in Texas or China, perhaps never again to come back to Florida.  And our history continues to repeat itself, as the state starts from scratch once again.

For clients of design professional firms, the present is a real dilemma.  Seasoned professionals are gone; replaced with new faces with no institutional knowledge of their requirements.  The client may be loyal to the firm, but the firm has changed and forces the design process into torturous inefficiency.  Meanwhile, the design professional out on the street can be highly efficient with the client, but carries a risk of having no back bench to assist with the assignment.  This Hobson’s choice makes the client’s experience particularly difficult in these current times.

Mass extinction may be necessary to usher in a new knowledge to be built upon the foundations of tomorrow’s recovery.  We may have to suffer the loss of incredible sums of experience and wisdom in order to make way for the society of the future.  We can bemoan this phenomenon, or embrace it; the fact of the matter is, this wave has already crashed on the beach.  The question is what the landscape of the future looks like with this.

What we discard was of extremely high value in the beforetimes, and without it, the future will change.  In the art world, we already see the rise of the street art, Juxtapoz-inspired culture replacing the culture of traditional fine art; in architecture, we see the untried and untested once again replacing the architecture of experience.

Mass extinction’s usefulness is that it gives rise to a new species.  Perhaps in the professions suffering from this, there is a tiny tree shrew somewhere, a new animal carving a small niche in its own ecosystem, that is favored by this mass extinction, and that will succeed in establishing a new order.

First published October 8, 2009

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In eastern folklore, there is a being called a preti; he has a tiny mouth and an enormous belly.  For buddhists, the preti symbolizes craving.  There has been a lot of craving lately, and it made me think of the preti.

In the car yesterday, we were talking about this in elliptical ways.  One of us blamed the mortgage brokers and real estate brokers, who dangled mortgage packages in front of unsuspecting buyers.  Another blamed the schools, who were supposed to teach the difference between right and wrong, and another blamed the former president, who dreamed of creating an “ownership society.”   Certainly the scale of the crisis is such that there is plenty of blame to go around.  My wife got closest, for she protested my blaming of the schools, and reminded me that our internal moral compasses are set before we get accepted to Wharton or Harvard or wherever these Wall Street types boast as their pedigree.  She’s right.

Myself, I blame the preti.  He came into being millenia ago, but today he seems to be the patron saint of our western scientific society, ruling through the television, and we worship him greatly.  As we drive past the open garage doors of middle-class neighborhoods, we see the tiny mouth of the garage door open, and the enormous belly of the garage stuffed full of things:  kayaks, boxes of clothing, stacks of old games, bikes, tools, and passing fancies, while the SUVs sit outside on the driveway, unable to enter.

Perhaps the conditions of the Great Depression contributed to this need for insatiable consumption, for our grandparents went through ten years of want, and then five more years of war-induced want, before the mighty machines turned their production largesse upon them.  They deserved some catching-up, but by now, haven’t we satiated this beast yet?

Ruling through television…his main content is the commercial break, and the shows in between are his commercials where those products are worn, used, or displayed for us to see.  The preti makes sure we all have plenty of craving, so we work harder and aspire to purchase more and more.  He keeps our mouths small, so we cannot ever fill our bellies, and he keeps our bellies empty, for all these things are not lasting.  They break, go out of fashion, rot or spring leaks.  We suffer in a terrible state from so much craving.

The preti drove the resort industry to new levels with the invention of the paid vacation week; for the first time, a vacation became a packaged, valuable experience that just had to come complete with a furnished condo on the beach.  They were purchased so that the conversation at the coffeepot went “where were you last week?”  “I was at my place in Aruba.”  The jaw-dropping effect was worth the hassle at airport security, stressed children, and all the rest.  The ability to sell this conversation at an enormous price meant that our craving extended beyond material things into experiences, and the more expensive, the better.

Whether the preti will reign supreme over the New Economy, or fade from the scene, depends on how hard people are hit.  Certainly if the market rockets back to 10,000 this week and banks start lending again, he will take his old place as Master of Western Society.  Boy, that would be great for architects and contractors, wouldn’t it?  However, that’s not likely, and if we have time to adjust, the bringdown will allow us to shake off a little bit of craving.  Not everybody needs a brand new car every 2 years, or a mortgage, or a Colorado ski vacation every year.  Our parents generation appeared to be perfectly happy without most of these things, and it is our illusion that we are unhappy without them that caused us to get into this mess.  The sooner we stop the craving, the sooner we can be productive again.  This time, we can create for ourselves and our future, and not for some ancient Chinese beast.  We have all the right resources to try.

First published November 15, 2009

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Psychological manipulation has long been the dark side of our consumerist culture, and we wink and nod at this when we see it, confident in our ability to have free choice regardless of the forces working to force a choice upon us.  While this manipulation may be regarded as great sport when it comes to buying shoes, the stakes become different when the same manipulation is applied to social causes and civic duty.  Manipulation in this realm must be taken more seriously; when we choose our politicians and our politics we are buying a little bit more than just breakfast cereal.

In the beforetimes, this was the job of the press.  Careful research and fact-based reporting was important to a lot of people so they could judge for themselves what they saw and read and heard.  For a long time, the newspaper was considered a foil to the seduction of television, because anyone who took the trouble to research and publish an article usually had an investment in their reputation.  Today, however, without meaningful news reporting, psychological manipulation runs wild and is a fair weapon in any political, social, or civic debate when voter opinion needs to be swayed.  Lacking a tool for critical analysis, the voter is at a loss to verify what is presented to him or her.

Newspapers seemed less and less interested in their reputation beginning about nine or ten years ago.  Perhaps the cost and the effort was just too high.  They have been dutifully repeating whatever was given to them without giving this information a critical assessment.  The public, of course, quickly smelled a rat.  Newspaper subscriptions fell, newspaper sales fell, and while old newspapermen wrung their hands and scratched their heads, no one seemed to understand why they were churning out junk rather than true information.

Now, newspapers complain that a true news story requires substantial investment in legal and editorial advice and is simply too costly to print and besides no one reads it anymore!  This is tautological torment; they are simply justifying their own embarrassing retreat from relevancy.  And thus, the rise of social media and reporting vehicles like The Examiner, where anybody can be a journalist these days.

Meanwhile, at a recent hotel conference, several hoteliers observed that their press releases and slick marketing campaigns mean nothing anymore compared to the information traded on social media outlets.  “My restaurant,” complained one New York hotelier, “can get the best reviews in the New York Times, but patrons only trust what they read about the restaurant from other patrons on Facebook.  An anonymous post on Facebook is more trusted than an experienced restaurant critic.”

Ha!  Perhaps we are witnessing a revolution in consumerist culture at last – and one hopes this revolution comes to the social and civic realm soon, before it too is destroyed.  You see, that experienced restaurant critic is too often co-opted by the forces of capitalism to be trusted anymore.  We have come to instinctively distrust what the newspaper says to us – even about a restaurant.

But we DO trust what anonymous facebookers and bloggers say – because they are less likely to have psychological manipulation as an ingredient.  We are so sick of spin we can’t stand it anymore.

In “The Art of The Steal,” a book about the Christie’s and Sotheby’s antitrust trials, the chairman of Sotheby’s, Al Taubman, was profiled.  It seems when he started his career as a retail mall manager he instinctively knew how to get merchants to increase sales, giving them advice on how to do their window displays, how to position their merchandise in the store, and so on.  “Put the sale stuff in the back,” he advised. Merchants put sale items in the front, hoping that the bargains would draw in the customer.  Of course they did, but by putting them in the back, Taubman was saying, the customer had to pass through the high-priced stuff to get to it, and was more likely to buy something then.  The customer, of course, was unaware of what was going on.

This simple little bit of psychological manipulation is an example of what we are suffering an overload of.  As consumers, do we really need that high-priced stuff?  Are we strong enough to wade through it to get to the sale stuff, or will we succumb and walk out with the higher-priced in-season fashion statement?

And the same goes for the information being placed in front of us by the government, Wall Street, and anyone else with an agenda for our loyalties and a hand on our pocketbook.  Are we strong enough to wade through the spin to get to the true story, or will we succumb and accept what they want us to hear?

Those who are connecting one-on-one through the internet, through face-to-face encounters, and through other means are doing a lot of fact-checking these days, and when the official story doesn’t add up, we have the power to catch this out more.

Let’s hope we use this power sooner rather than later to right the ship.

First published October 24, 2009

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It’s Monday, and the latest episode of The Recovery is playing today on the internet, radio, and television nationwide.  Last week’s episode, entitled The Recession Is Over, played well for about 11 minutes until everyone without jobs remembered that they still don’t have jobs, and towards the end of the week, gas prices inched noticably upward.  Today’s episode will probably give us a similarly empty moral boost.

The middle class still fails to understand the forces now working against it, and seems to be in a dream-state regarding its own dire predicament.  There is truly a battle of the heavyweights being played out at the uppermost levels, with little regard to the collateral damage being suffered by most of us at the hands of the largest financial and energy coalitions.

At the end of most empires, the closed inner circle of power usually wages more and more intense war to retain power and control.  Capitalism’s empire is no exception, as the shock waves of its dying throes echo throughout the western world.  Anyone who disbelieves this is happening need only tune into the debate over health insurance; the insurance companies have gone to foolish lengths to retain their own power and control, and have resorted to pitting the lowest of the middle classes against the only class below them: the uninsured poor.  Gone is the notion of a great society; gone is the gesture toward the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; instead we are now a selfish, suspicious people who have become convinced that there just isn’t enough to go around anymore.

This insidious psychology is the breaking down, the splitting, and the reduction of society.  No longer predominant are the forces of building up, of lumping, and of combining for the broadest good.  One can argue about when we got set on this path, or why, but the answer, while perhaps interesting historical information, is irrelevant to the question at hand.

For the question at hand is what to do about it now.  One can give in to the temptation to be selfish, to stand on a streetcorner with a sign protesting insurance reform.  One can be persuaded that home loan foreclosures can be blamed on a single link in the food chain (the lyin’ realtors?  Those evil mortgage brokers?  How ’bout those banks??) rather than look in the mirror and accept one’s part in the debacle.

Or, one can still do some hard work and participate in a national conversation about strengthening one’s ties with one another.  One can do some crowd-surfing, and break up little vitriolic blogs that so inflame irrationality and turn ordinary citizens against each other.  One can get involved on a whole new level, thanks to the internet, and push back a little bit:  be unpopular, and be for the common good.

For America is in danger of becoming another Germany in the 1930’s, when the so-called Good Germans looked the other way, went about their business quietly, and didn’t speak out against what they thought was wrong.  Today, despite the turn of the political tide, the level of mainstream viciousness seems to be just as bad if not worse.  Opponents are arguing as if they have nothing to lose, and the apathetic press blithely reports this as news.  No one seems to be upset at the misinformation, lies, and nastiness that characterizes the opposition to pretty much anything proposed by a Democrat.  This is not a defense of Democrats, who propose ludicrous ideas at about the same rate as Republicans.  Rather, this is a defense of reasoned, rational debate instead of fearmongering.

But then capitalism is desparate, and the generals of this war truly do have little to lose.  We will know its last days when we see capitalism’s youth and old men sent into battle for its cause, because all the other soldiers will have been captured or killed.

First published October 24, 2009

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Inflation

$29 for a loaf of bread?  The fringe is predicting inflation on that scale, coming to a Publix near you soon, wiping out what little bit the middle class seems to have left in its pocketbook and dividing the country even further into haves and havenots.

If that seems farfetched, don’t forget $4 a gallon gas in the summer of 2008.  Looking back on it, it seems eerie that the oil companies managed to gouge a profit from the middle class just before all this started.  It was as if…they saw this one coming.  Oh, they complained about $120 a barrel for oil, but that one rings hollow after they insist that the price per barrel has nothing to do with the price at the pump.  Eating their cake and having it too, those oil companies.

Now, with the dollar weak against other currencies, a commercial foreclosure crisis looming, and trillions of dollars promised to big business, the danger of inflation seems higher than ever.  While the middle class is patching the leaks in their savings accounts – paying off consumer debt, reducing spending – the next problem may be evaporation, as money is just worth less than it was a long time ago.  If inflation does hit the country, and the financial grid overheats, then the middle class will burn like a slice of bread stuck in a toaster.

Getting off the financial grid might be heresy and unthinkable right now, but when inflation hits, a quick creativity will take hold and rule.  You will see scrip, bartering, and many other workarounds.  ecommerce can facilitate alternative mediums of exchange, and leaves no paper trail, making it harder for the taxman.  Money is an artificial concept, and cannot touch food, shelter, and the basics down there at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if you plan properly.

Even if inflation hits just a little bit, those who are living off their savings or on an extremely low income – a large portion of the country – will have even less operating capital.  No better way to breed class warfare than that.  Meanwhile, there seems to be no one outraged enough to go up to a Wall Street bonus baby while he’s eating lunch at a restaurant and confront him with it.  Perhaps spill a little ketchup on his million-dollar smile.

First published November 9, 2009

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Laborers in emergency careers – health care, for example, or teaching – have it good. We are dumb, we get sick, and professionals are necessary to cure both.  All the rest of us, meanwhile, have been reclassified into non-emergency careers and are therefore just set to idle, perhaps until the money runs out.  Anyone familiar with this statement also knows that the idea of transferrable skills, where the skills of one job will serve another job well, is dead for the time being, as those emergency workers build walls high enough to keep out those infectious skills coming in from outside.

Many of those working a year or so ago in the nonemergency job sector could see this one coming, and were hoping that the hurricane would blow out a little bit of the deadwood that crept into their professions and their firms.  Posers, you see, people who got where they were by connections or by clever politicking rather than merit, have taken their toll everywhere, and a lot of people were quietly watching to see whether this economic drought might just mean that those with substance would prevail.

But sadly, 2009 seems to be the year in which the opposite has happened, and many good people out in the cold night are watching the wrong element admitted into corporate warmth.  The bitter snarling and fighting one hears outside the door are the sounds of various species with nothing left to do but to tear each other apart in the night.  Feral consultants, who were treated earlier, are becoming more and more aggressive and desparate as they compete for the few scraps of garbage left behind by the princes and fatcats.

American businesses are weakening within, rather than strengthening.  Just when it is high time to adapt the business to suit a changing climate, businesses are becoming more rigid than ever.  A recent interview with an executive recruiter (headhunter) confirmed this.  “Hiring Managers are looking for Superman today, because they think they can get their pick in this job market,” he said anonymously.  “They think because it’s a buyer’s market, they can be extra choosy”.  More insidiously, however, hiring managers are defining their Nietszchean hero as a person who would in some way make them look good in front of the boss.  This often means exercising personal connections that favor the boss or his business, thus keeping the little circle tight shut.

In the meantime, the old notion of “transferrable skills” is officially dead and gone in the corporate world.  Remember when a particular set of skills from one job were applicable to another job in a different field?  Remember when innovators in Silicon Valley came from other professions and transferred skills and work ethics into their new industries?  Nothing like that is likely to occur in the near future, thanks to the tunnel vision of American business.  The “superman” theory prohibits one from taking a risk on transferrable skills.

Transferrable skills remain a reality, and feral consultants are busy transferring their skills not to the benefit of Corporate america but rather to its own future.

This path will soon lead to a new era in competition that will be fearsome and mean, and we will see how the posers and the politicians fare when the corporate walls come tumbling down and they sit blinking at their laptops in their Aeron chairs, unprotected from the starving wolves of the night who have transferred a few skills of their own.

First published December 3, 2009

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Forces working on society tend to either break it down or build it up.  Many subscribe to the entropy theory, wherein breakdown tends to be the natural process, and much scientific research supports breakdown in the natural world.  There is no reason to believe society obeys any different laws and therefore the breakdown of society is a natural phenomenon.  In the present times, the curve of breakdown appears to be on a slightly steeper slope than the recent past.

December 4, 2009 (unpublished)

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Trust in the waste stream

A tenet of sustainability is that waste = food.  A concept that was originally promulgated by William McDonough, it was simply an observation of natural processes, and that in nature, nothing is wasted.  One organism’s waste was another organism’s food.  For those practicing sustainability, embracing this concept is difficult at first, but when practiced long enough, it becomes natural, as long as one is very flexible about how to reach the end goal.  Therefore, it requires faith:  trust in the waste stream.

For do-it-yourselfers, there is a great deal of advice out there on television and the internet.  The DIY network, for example, runs do-it-yourself workshops 24 hours a day.  Often, the notion of sustainability comes up, but there is an edge of sustainability that is rarely, if ever, crossed on TV.  That edge is when the great rich waste stream of western scientific society is dipped into, and drunk from.  There is a little taste here and there, but it appears taboo to dive in and swim.

Consumer products have become standardized, with enormous effort paid to create an uninterrupted, reliable flow of goods and services.  One needs caulk, and knows where to get it.  But if Home Depot were to run out of caulk temporarily at the exact same time one needs it – why, this coincidence is so rare by now as to be remarkable.  Big retailers dread this event, because they know how much of a turnoff it is to the consumer.  We have all been trained to be loyal customers and in turn we expect that we can access our goods and services at will.  The internet or the TV tells us we need something, and we go out and expect to get it right away.

When working with the waste stream, however, we are liberated from this enslavement to the producer-consumer cycle.  Instead, the end goal must be defined with a certain degree of flexibility, in order to accomodate natural processes.

Time flexibility is required when you trust in the waste stream.  When you are harvesting building supplies, for example, from waste sites, you may find 4 out of the 5 things you need, but if you have a deadline, that fifth board or fifth pipe may be elusive for a while.  If you are willing to wait, however, the waste stream will provide.

End goal flexibility is also required when you trust in the waste stream.  If you are in the middle of building a structural component, for example, and you are looking for a wood column, do not filter out the other types of materials available to you.  If you run across a steel column, for example, integrating that piece into the architecture can elevate the final result, and adapting your end goal to include this item might even enrich the design.  If you are willing to be flexible about the look, the waste stream will provide.

And finally, the western scientific obsession with perpetual newness, the banishment of a patina of age, is a sickness that must be cured within yourself before you can believe in the waste stream.  If you are assembling a railing out of harvested, pre-owned lumber, the pieces simply aren’t going to match.  Make that OK before you proceed, or you will spend so much time milling and filling the pieces that you might as well have bought them new.  Let go of the need to control every last little thing and let the nature of the individual pieces shine forth.  Each lumber piece has had an interesting life and came from a tree somewhere, and letting that individuality come forth might just enrich the assembly in ways that you didn’t originally predict.  The spirit of the material itself then can have some influence in the final result.

This takes practice, patience, and a sense of faith.  If you trust in the waste stream, however, the results are guaranteed.

First published December 9, 2009

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Live by the Specialty, Die by the Specialty

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Ephemeral City has now been branded a Sybaris. Private interests continue to book conferences in Central Florida due to its good value, but the closed circle of federal government has prudishly proscribed the family leisure capital of the world in favor of destinations like Chicago.  Central Florida’s chagrined congressional delegation, caught in reaction mode, will fight to remove this ban,  but the damage has been done. A cold new era has firmly settled into the Sunshine State’s former playground.

Since welcoming Walt Disney with open arms in 1964, Orlando proudly built its reputation as a family leisure destination.  With over 118,000 hotel rooms, Orlando competes with Las Vegas to build more tourism, and succeeded in capturing the world family market.  Indeed, Europeans, Middle Easterners, Asians, and Latin Americans make Orlando their playground, and if physical evidence is needed, the exquisitely messy honky-tonk of North International Drive is testimony to this world commerce.  Orlando’s mania for tourism, supported by local, regional and state policies, yielded growth beyond the wildest dreams of this once-sleepy agricultural town at a railroad crossing among orange groves and cattle ranches.

But in the current economy, leisure is considered a waste of time and money.  “I think Orlando got put on the list of not to go because of the perception that it is a resort and vacation area,” read a July email from a Department of Agriculture employee to an Orlando conference planner.  Business in Central Florida has slowed to a trickle, anxiety is increasing and doors are closing.  It seems that Orlando’s sybaritic bubble has popped, and while civic leaders are huffing and puffing to blow it back up again, Central Florida’s leisure industry is a shadow of its former boisterous self.

Corporate trainers, state and local government conferences, not-for-profits, trade associations, and incentive groups still find Central Florida a decent place to hold meetings.  Airfare is cheap, the vast quantity of hotel rooms makes for competitive rates, and the new norm of bringing the family along makes Orlando a natural fit for many groups seeking a destination, especially in the winter.  They may book rooms in more affordable Osceola County rather than pricey Orange County, but are still a few minutes’ drive from Disney’s front door, the beach, and dozens and dozens of food and shopping outlets.  Some hotel owners are even contemplating new meeting rooms to keep up with shifting demand.

The new mood in Washington, however, does not favor Orlando as a destination.  While Central Florida may be a good value, this is irrelevant to the equation, for it is the overriding perception of Orlando that seems to worry our national government’s travel planners.  And this perception tells us quite a bit about the real thinking that is happening at the federal level.

If the new policy were to plan trips only to destinations under the median cost, it would send a message that government does not want to waste money. It might also send federal conferences to destinations in overlooked parts of America that could open beltway eyes to the bleak turmoil enveloping so much of the country, despite the continual river of recovery news.

Meanwhile, sellers already know that Washington is really the only game in town, as businesses turn towards grant programs, rebates, and other incentives to backfill the lost private sector revenue in goods and services.  But if one looks closely at the actual investment pattern, Washington seems to favor the financial market, green energy, and possibly its own future health care program – none of which Orlando has to offer the world.  This extremely narrow set of interests belies a harsh ideology, as harsh as the ideology it replaced, and as bad for the average citizens of America.

Orlando cursed itself by growing around a single specialty, rather than a diverse set of interests.  Favoring theme parks over agriculture was certainly an opportunistic decision, but reinforcing tourism and ignoring all other investment- heck, the Sunshine State could have been #1 in solar energy research by now, making it Obama’s darling – just further weakened the state’s ability to compete.  And Central Florida, without any other true industry, now grovels at the government’s feet to restore itself into good graces and allow a National Park Service meeting to take place at the Ramada Inn again.  It is likely that Orlando will be shut out of this closed circle for some time to come.

Central Florida’s best hope lies in a recovery of the private sector economy, a regained sense of profitability by corporations, and a renewed faith in the future by individuals.  Lacking these now, Central Florida hibernates, its giant engines of escapism in low gear, mothballed, or abandoned.  One almost hopes The Recovery will be delayed long enough to suffer some sense into the politicians and business leaders who can diversify the economy of the region.  Yet one also hopes a real recovery will come soon, get business working again, and get the region back on its feet.

First published March 2009

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Orlando’s Third Culture

The culture of the city along up Interstate 4 barely noticed as millions of dollars worth of construction revenue, sales volume, and salaries lay somewhere southwest of John Young Parkway, while the city itself sat, having missed out on the theme parks and timeshare’s story.  Such is the story of the old economy:  Two Orlandos.

Now, however, with massive layoffs in the theme park and timeshare worlds, the two Orlandos become one again.  Many of the workers at the parks, properties, and administrative headquarters lived around Downtown.  Many of Downtown’s businesses – architects, attorneys, real estate consulting firms – all serviced the tourism industry.  When the timeshare and theme park industries were doing well, the pleasure was contained within themselves; now that they are suffering pain, like Detroit or Flint, Michigan, the broader city must feel their pain as well.

It is tempting to leave these industries alone, and let them devise ways to reinvent themselves.  Theme parks, with lower attendance, are likely retooling themselves to get into the 21st century, and for many of them, it is about time.  New rides, new technology, and digital entertainment will inform the theme parks of tomorrow. 

If Orlando sits by while these companies reinvent themselves, Orlando’s current surplus of theme park and timeshare workers (Based on news reports, estimated at roughly 12,000) collect unemployment.  This will be painful.

However, Orlando may choose to integrate these workers into other parts of its marketplace.  For too long, the city’s economy has been shockingly monocultural, building an empire in the clouds dedicated to tourism.  This unfortunately has been encouraged by state policy which continually misses opportunites to grow other industries.  Space, science research, medical research, solar energy technology research, agriculture – all of these seem to languish behind tourism in Florida’s priorities.  Like a fly caught in a spider’s web, Orlando just goes with the flow.

Now is the time to put some muscle into the highly touted new industries that Orlando claims for its own diversification.  Lake Nona, a community built around medical research, is stumbling in its efforts to find investors for its next phase of growth, and now that the UCF research lab is under construction, it is imperative that this effort succeed.  The city of Orlando, which rushed to annex this land to gain tax revenues, should aid Lake Nona in sustaining its growth and finding investors to continue this research-based new community.

As far as its own homegrown Digital Media Village downtown, the city of Orlando needs to make this more than just a brochure.  Whether or not EA sponsors this new venue, Orlando needs to reach out to sources of employment to start building a base for this.  A good place to start is in their own backyard, as theme parks retool for the 21st century and integrate more and more digital experiences into their physical environment.

In the meantime, Orlando’s recent failures to gain bond investors for its new venues, as well as to gain enough state support for a commuter rail program, should cause the city leaders to pause and seriously consider some deep changes to their own model.  It should also cause citizens to ask some big questions about whether the city is spending its tax revenue wisely, given the economy.

While the country’s leadership speaks about recovery, it is only the acts of individuals that make it so.  Individuals that experiment with new ideas and new models will make the difference, and it is these who should be examined and encouraged whenever they are encountered.  And it is the acts of individuals who can help unite the two-culture Orlando and create a third culture that binds the city and the region together.

First published April 2009

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Bad Economy could be good for Orlando

A recent short interview with local artists Andrew Spear and Jean Lavoisier led to speculation about Orlando’s creative essence, and whether the bad economy could actually be good for Orlando.  Spear, whose work is currently showing in the City Arts Factory downtown Orlando, was reflecting on the past history of artists in Central Florida.

“Orlando has been a transition town,” he stated.  We both agreed that the city has not been good at nurturing talent, and for a number of reasons, people get frustrated and leave to develop their careers elsewhere.  An early, and significant, example, was Jack Kerouac, who wrote while living in College Park but did not stay; preferring instead to return to New York after publishing “The Dharma Bums”.

Like Kerouac, many of the artists and writers who pass through continue on, preferring instead a different venue.  Some cite the need for more intellectual stimulation; some cite the city’s lack of visibility on the cultural map; and some simply feel restless and bored, and would feel the same way regardless of where they lived.  All this, agreed Spears, makes for a city that is continually “starting from zero” when it comes to the art scene.

What makes these times different, we speculated, was the economy.  “People simply don’t have the money to move away right now, so they are staying put,” said Lavoisier.  Artists are developing their talents right here, rather than getting up and leaving, and making Orlando their home for the time being.  Like seeds, they are taking root right here, rather than blowing away.

But then, continued Lavoisier, “what artists need is a feedback loop.  And typically Orlando hasn’t provided this.  Talents want to get noticed, rub up against the critics and most of all have some sales, and this town hasn’t given much of that.”  His point is well-taken; like a knife, a talent needs to be applied to a hard object to get sharper.

Yet art patronage is up; in these times, the buyers seem to be out there.  This was confirmed with two recent openings, Avalon and Creative Spirit,which together in the last six days have sold eleven new pieces of art.  Buyers are purchasing content, and as one artist recently told me, “seem to be staying home more and therefore wanting to surround themselves with art.”  So those who still have it are turning to art, rather than the stock market or real estate with their acquisitory needs.

Art patronage will help nurture talent, and perhaps the staying power of artists is increasing in part because of this phenomenon.  Also, the rise of internet publications such as Inprogress Magazine and Neu America Magazine, both startups, celebrate different aspects of art and architecture through criticism, which gives many people an entree to the conversation about art.  This is important, for the art world has become increasingly insular and self-referential, and talking about the work in an intelligent way can lead to a deeper understanding of the forces behind it.

In any case, the bad economy could ironically turn out to be a good thing for Orlando.  Stick around for a while and one might be surprised at what this city can do.

First published July 17, 2009

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State depopulation was discovered in August, a sudden and embarrassing trend for those at the leadership level in Florida. On a national report, UCF Economist Sean Snaith stated “Some people believe Florida is over as a state,” although he disagreed with this as a chicken-little, short-term panic over a phenomenon that will be short-lived.

Whether it is short-lived or a new trend, economists agree that Florida’s contraction will change the state in visible and material ways.  The NPR report cited school closings in St. Lucie County, and elsewhere, the state’s inventory of 300,000 unsold single-family homes suggests a new wasteland in what was once the Sunshine State.

Florida may be an early indicator of the post-capitalistic era which started some 20 years ago.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was considered a hallmark in the war between capitalism and communism, but in fact capitalism seems to have outlived communism by only a generation or so.  The middle class is getting squeezed everywhere you turn. With rentals replacing home ownership, service jobs replacing careers, and community colleges – or trades – replacing college educations, many are in the process of adjusting their expectations.  As philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently stated, there is a parallax society between those affected by this recession and those who have not.  This sets up conditions for a new, post-capitalistic era.

In measurable terms, capitalism has lost ground.  The federal government in the last two years handed astounding amounts of money to large private companies, sparking a debate over the death of free-market capitalism among economists and critics.  Today, the government is following this up with a proposal to intervene in private health care, our travel network, our energy production, and the very development of our cities themselves.  All this is a reaction to the excesses of capitalism.  The central control of government is replacing private and decentralized state control of much of our lives.

Much of this resembles the dying days of the Roman Empire, to which America has been inevitably compared over and over and over.  Rome’s increasing need to control its provinces for self-preservation led to more and more micromanagement, often at the brutal hands of Roman soldiers.  Eventually the Roman system collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in its conquered colonies, giving rise to the Dark Ages, and then the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages were relatively stable centuries, with very little advancement in science and technology, and with the population of Europe rising at a very slow rate.  Most folks were tenants, often grouped around the castles of feudal lords, providing service, support, food and supplies to those inside the castle, while the castle itself functioned as a largely closed society, with its own dramas, intrigues, schools, and struggles.  The lord improved the village’s infrastructure, of course for his own benefit, by building roads and bridges and the occasional cathedral.  Only when the lord abused his power with the people was he under threat of a revolution, and the system lasted from roughly 476 AD until 1789 in France, and 1917 in Russia.  Of course, it lasted less time in other countries, but the system was relatively stable and the organic symbiosis between serf and lord worked fine, as long as the serf’s aspirations remained outside the castle.

It is perhaps too soon to predict “the new normal,” but many trends seem to be pointing towards a new version of feudalism.  In traditional feudalism, the rich lived in the city and the poor lived in the country; while in today’s society, the reverse seems to be the case, with the rich living in suburban mcmansions and the poor living in villages around the city.

The geography of cities themselves are completely different, thanks to the car, and multipolar density clusters, gated communities, and electronic communication have replaced the old center-and-edge model of the medieval village.  Urban feudalism will be characterized by a preservation of the lifestyle at the very top of the pyramid, a precedent set by the government’s bailout of the largest of America’s economic engines, with less and less attention paid to the plight of those at the bottom.

And, in feudalism, there was no middle ground, and the so-called “middle class” was nearly nonexistent, except in the larger cities.  Today, the middle class appears to be taking hits over and over in the war between the giants of finance and politics, and while no one seems to be heeding this problem, the collateral damage suffered by the middle class is draining it of its vitality.  Already, the population loss in Florida is characterized mostly by college-educated middle class workers, professionals and merchants, leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

Florida as a feudal state will be more dangerous and less open.  It will have fewer means to ascend the ladder of opportunity and more of a sense of walled enclaves.  Its tourist industry will require more and more effort and money to sustain, and its economic diversity will suffer.   Growth, Florida’s only other means of employment, will be taken away, and this will put Florida into a declining mode for a generation or more.  For those who stick it out, post-apocalyptic Florida will be the face of Urban Feudalism, and likely bring this trend elsewhere in the formerly capitalistic world of the twenty-first century.

First published October 6, 2009

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Interview with Narsicco McSelf

I recently ran into Narsicco McSelf at Stardust Video and Coffee, over there off of Corrine.  When I came in, Narsicco’s cell phone was buried in a scraggly brown beard, and he looked like he hadn’t slept for a couple of days; smelled like it, too.  He hasn’t been around these parts since the late nineties.  We worked together in a timeshare developer’s office, and his lifestyle has obviously changed.  No red SAAB was in the parking lot; no gold chain was on his neck, and flipflops had replaced the British Tan Johnson & Murphys.  When Narsicco saw me, he put the cell phone on the table, still flipped open, and left it there like that.

Narsicco McSelf had quit the company and started his own business after the dotcom bubble burst, buying and flipping production homes.  As I eased into a few beers with him, he confessed to me that he’s lost another fortune, and is back on the street. The cell phone appeared dead, so no one was listening.  And Narsicco told me his story.

“We’re finally are getting our karma back to us in spades,” he said to the dead cell phone, not looking up.  “All this time, it’s been me, me, me.  Wolfe got it all wrong – the seventies wasn’t the ‘me’ generation.  Those guys can’t hold a candle to us.  We’ve just about ruined every part of our culture, and now we’ve turned to ruining the urban consciousness.  But finally we’ve reached a point where things are rebalancing.”

McSelf didn’t look at all like he was rebalancing, and I had to wipe the beer from the countertop while he shakily sipped it.

“What do you mean, ruined the urban consciousness?  You mean the city?” I asked when he finally put the beer down. At Stardust, beer sometimes comes in these big old topheavy wine-type glasses, and they can be pretty precarious when your hand shakes.

“Look around,” he scorned me, as if I haven’t been doing mostly that for the last few months.  “We fooled ourselves after the dot com bubble burst.  All of us bubbled houses, and now the anti-establishment hippies are the new landed gentry.  Everyone’s got two, three, some of us five or six properties, so we own all this land.  We Woodstock generation have turned America into the next feudal society.”

I was shocked.  “No way,” I said.  “Just sell ’em.”

McSelf glared at me.  “Where have you been?” he asked.  “We can’t give ’em away.  Oh, they are ours now.  Chained to ’em.  We gotta pay the mortgages, hire the lawn guys, get the water heaters fixed, pay the insurance, condo fees, pay, pay, pay.  We are now the establishment.  We’re like feudal lords.”

McSelf was by now working up to full self-revilement.  “And all the other people out there, those who did not get on this feeding frenzy, they’re the serfs.  We created this mess, and we have no way out.  Look at me,” he almost shouted.  “I was flipping them with everybody else.  It was all about me, how much real estate I could own, how clever I could be at the deal, and I was thinking wow, what a genius I am, not realizing I was living in my own Truman show. 

“And all the rest of us were just the same way.  All we cared about was how clever we were at making money.  Oh, and while we were buying and selling those little stucco boxes out there in someone else’s suburbs, our own gargantuan homes were getting so stuffed full of kayaks and dirt bikes and other yuppie toys we couldn’t even fit our own SUVs into the garages.  So we all had to rent storage units so we could buy more toys.  We’re just a bunch of big kids playing around.”

His voice lowered and he glared at me under bushy gray eyebrows.  “I, me, my, mine,” he said softly, as if to recall an old rock song.  “Let someone else do the heavy lifting.  Well, now there ain’t no one else.  We finally ease into our golden years with the hugest responsibility of society on our shoulders, for we created these conditions.  We chased our own money dreams for ourselves.  Developers, planners, the pols, and the banks.  Everyone was in on it.” 

I shook my head. “Everyone is looking for a single place to blame.  What if the blame is spread evenly all around, like the bad debt?  If everyone was a little too greedy, doesn’t it add up to one big greed?  Isn’t that what really happened?  You can’t blame yourself, or your generation.”

I’m not saying it is all our generation’s fault,” he burped.  Plenty of others did it too; hey, this is worldwide.  But our generation seems to do everything in a huge way.  It’s just how we are.”

“What happened?” I asked.  “Do you still have your investment property?”

McSelf got nervous, and his eyes flitted around the room.  “Naw, this investment game – it’s a shell game, really.  The banks own them and are taking them back.  I can’t find renters, I can’t pay to keep ’em up.  They’re actually looking for me.”

While Narsicco stumbled to the restroom, his thesis stuck with me.  The fact is, so much noise and fuss was made way back then about rejecting the status quo, creating a new society, respecting the land, and demanding the truth…and now we are suffering from too much of quite the opposite.  Commune dreams quickly gave way to the cult of the individual; indeed I, me, my, mine.  Things are rebalancing with we, us, and ours.  The baby boom generation, which has been so used to having their way, now has to humble itself and lie in the bed it has made.  The process will be rough; we can expect stress and conflict.  And we will have to clean up the mess.  I felt sorry for McSelf and turned around, looking across the tables, to check on him.

McSelf left the restroom, and went straight out into the night, leaving his cell phone and beer tab and without saying goodbye. It was one of those tracphones, and he probably just ran out of minutes.

First published August 2009

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After destroying communism, perestroika dwelt underground for nearly a generation.  Within a few short months of the coming of perestroika, both the Soviet Union and Communist China were replaced by a sort of twilight power circle at the top, dispensing wealth and political favors but never democratic freedom to their citizens. 

Then, perestroika awoke, jumped species, and more powerful than ever, attacked capitalism.  Now, these two opposing ideologies have been replaced by a global ideological wasteland.  Formerly freemarket countries will likely see a similar closed circle, within which power reinforces and rewards.  Outside the circle, societies will function as a vestige of their former proud selves.

Perestroika destroyed the Soviet Union, and gave birth to Russia.  Look at this country today, nearly twenty years later:  ruled by a dictator, corrupt and oligarchical, with most of its social and governmental institutions broken down and wasted away.  Hope for the future, the only thing driving the communist ideal forward, turned to hopelessness, a sense of fatalism, and a live-for-today society.  Easily manipulated, the naturally xenophobic Russian citizens’ fears have been used to keep them in check while the closed power circle makes its own destiny.

And what if that happens in America?  We have no one to blame but ourselves.  While Americans preened narcissistically, escaped into their virtual worlds, McMansions and consumerist lifestyles, perestroika quietly took over.  By September 2008 the plague had done its hard work, infected the credit market, and destroyed freemarket capitalism.  We now live in the aftermath of this devastating contagion.  Although the two major world ideologies were destroyed, the crumbling foundations of each continue to collapse and sink into the mud, further reducing dreams and hopes for the future to ashes.

In both Russia and China, there now exists government-controlled capitalism.  Democracy was part of the equation neither before nor after the epidemic, despite the longings of the people and the promises of the government.

In America, with democracy part of the equation in the beforetimes, there is a possiblity that some form of it will survive.  But democracy will likely change somewhat in the post-freemarket era.

With massive infusions of government money, government-controlled capitalism has now taken hold in America as well.  The precedent set by bailing out financial houses and auto manufacturers assures that the free market no longer exists in the same form as it did previous to September 2008.  The perestroika of America began that month, and it is up to the early pioneers – those freed from bondage to paychecks, insurance benefits, and other trappings of employment – to write the new plan for the future.

What favors America’s democratic chances is in part due to the internet.  For the internet is a two-way street that allows communication to occur both ways.  The reason this is important is simple:  news is one-way.  The internet is two-way.  Remember this fact and use it well.

Hearing a spokesperson for The Recovery on the news may strike some as hopeful, some as important, but some as counterintiutive. Before the internet, our power to check with each other was limited to conversations, perhaps telephone calls or letters, which were certainly a difficult and time-consuming way to verify whether what we heard was true or false.

But today, we can use the internet to quickly assess the veracity of such a spokesperson, and more and more people are reducing their faith in such news, because it simply doesn’t add up.  And it is this new power that we have, to write and talk to each other on a larger scale than ever before, that will save our democratic freedoms as long as we use this power for this purpose.

The internet helped put our current President into the White House.  The internet is enabling a revolution in Iran.  We cannot afford to sit back and rest on our laurels; we need to continue to use the internet to keep our media, our selves, and our leadership honest.  If something on the news doesn’t make sense, then it isn’t really news.  If the internet can negate this kind of propaganda, then true understanding and sharing can take place.  And that is the foundation upon which a new America can be built.

Otherwise, Perestroika will indeed leave us in the hands of a twilight power circle at the top.  And we all know who comes after Mikhail…Vladimir.

First published September 2009

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Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 21st century.  You are hereby declared free and on your own.

The local government has suffered such decline in revenue that they cannot afford to keep local programs going, such as funding basic services and police.  For those of us depending on local government, expect reduction in our safety, an increase in poor driving conditions, and closings of parks and recreation.

The state government has also suffered a decline in revenue, and has responded by continuing to award state-funded projects to out-of-state companies, by sending solar cell manufacturers to Arizona, and by sending elected officals to a “Job Summit” on Friday here in Central Florida.  While the job summit presented an opportunity for the governor and state representatives to listen, only time will tell whether action will result from this.  Meanwhile, nothing happens.

And your federal government, which used to be the citizen’s last stop for justice, has proven incapable of even providing this.  A close colleague just received an offer from his mortgage holder that used a federal program to reduce his mortgage…by 16 cents.  He investigated this egregious insult, and discovered dozens of blog entries, letters to editors, and other reports of abuse of this HAMP funding going back for months.  The money sent to the banks is being kept by the banks because, well…they are banks.

The fact that these abuses continue without accountability signals that we are truly on our own.  Do not look to the local government to protect you; do not look to the state government for answers, and do not look to the federal government to help you.  Elected officials may protest to the contrary, but the loss of trust between citizens and their government has reached a profound level.

In the 1800s, an urban legend in Russia circulated that similar abuses were simply unknown by the czar.  “If only the czar knew about how we suffer,” went the legend, “he would surely fix this.”  Such a romantic dream circulated around November 2008 in America, and still continues despite evidence to the contrary today; in fact, the Russian czar may have been less remote than certain politicans are today who insulate themselves inside a cocoon of advisors.

Our government may still act to fix this problem, and we certainly hope that they do.  In the meantime, you are on your own.  Enjoy your freedom, ladies and gentlemen; perhaps you can use your newfound freedom more wisely than your leaders have done.

For there still is the functioning United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights.  If the middle class wakes up and smells the coffee soon enough, we can organize ourselves – remember, we all have these texting machines that put us in touch with each other – and say “enough is enough.”  We can fight back and win.

First published January 17, 2010

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Where to find news of the revolution

While the television shows that pretend to be news blare out reports of the Recovery, there is a different sort of news going on which is not reported.  Gil Scott Heron was right:  “the revolution will not be televised.”

Why will it not be televised?  It is not because there are no televisions or no news.  In fact, we hear more and more news than ever.  Multiple all-news channels by CNN, CNBC, Fox, and others fill the airwaves with news.  There are many news channels devoted to money, weather, sports, and other broad niches.  There is much about our lives today that is being televised, but between Tiger Woods, the Olympics, the Democrats and the Republicans, there isn’t much news about the real people and their real lives.  The revolution is not being televised.

Scott-Heron missed the fact that the revolution will not appear in print, either.  The Wall Street Journal, now proudly owned by Rupert Murdoch, is about as useful to real people as an eight-track tape player.  Little in the WSJ bears out as real, or useful information; the stock market’s obsession with profits is completely unhinged from our daily lives, and the grand ballet of large corporations worshipped by Murdoch and his scribblers merely makes for distant thunder on the horizons of homeowners struggling for their lives.  The revolution is not being written about, either.

No, the media are simply too busy – with themselves.  This is our chance, ladies and gentlemen, to take over and make some decisions for ourselves for a change, without being marketed and manipulated to death by the politicans and their corporate controllers.  Our revolution, like that of Iran, isn’t being televised, but if we are clever enough, it might be twittered.

Thousands of people are still losing their jobs.  Millions of people have not had jobs for nearly a year.  We hear these statistics all the time from the media, but nothing further is said.  What people do about these circumstances is treated as a mild sort of joke by the media; the recent New York Times article with an architect in an “Architecture Advice – 5 Cents” made the poor guy look like a buffoon, and it only hints at the deeper absurdity so many without jobs feel about the present situation.  This absurdity can only last so long before one awakens, Kafkaesque, a giant cockroach or other kind of beast, in a sort of force-transformation of self in an effort to cope.

Those without jobs are burning through our savings, totally at the mercy of inflation.  Housing, which is referred to in the media only cynically and obliquely as an “overhang problem,” is a very real and terrible dilemma for those without jobs and dwindling cash who cannot afford their mortgages anymore.  The revolution is coming soon.

While Fox News frets about the GOP and Obama, no one seems to be paying attention to ordinary citizens with their backs against the wall.  Anecdotally, nearly everyone is feeling more and more desparate at the present moment, but their plight is not being televised.

Of course, it may be televised here and there, but the point is that nothing is being done about it.  No jobs are coming; the cash that Barney Frank gave to the banks was used up a long time ago, and while a human interest story pops up here and there, it has no effect:  the banks have their hands out for more.

What desparate people will do in desparate situations is unpredictable.  The news has become a complete and utter joke; no real news seems to be dealt out to us, or otherwise we would have some facts on which to base our decisions.  Instead, the news media have abandoned facts, and assured us that we are on our own.

Which is why, when a colleague recently put his house up for sale, he was astounded at the outpouring of stories by neighbors, friends, jobless acquaintances, and others that they were nearly all desparate and contemplating similar radical moves as well.  What was even more astounding was the vehemence people freely provided about the economic forces working against them.  Most people aren’t fooled by this generation’s Father Coughlins or Voelkischer Beobachters at all; they know exactly who is to blame, and why.

But real people in desparate situations don’t have the luxury of time to daydream about blame or revenge:  they are busy working crazy hours at crazy jobs trying to put food on the table, keep their houses, keep their lives.  James Stieglitz, the economist, recently stated on The Diane Rehm Show that the loss of a job for six months or more constitutes a Life Tragedy; on this scale we are witnessing millions upon millions of Americans suffering from life tragedies.  Those working through their Life Tragedies aren’t too interested in watching the news these days, because it isn’t about them.

But sooner or later will come a time when those suffering from this tragedy will have had enough.  Can Twitter inspire a class-action lawsuit against a bank?  Can Facebook take down a Wall Street tycoon?  Can You Tube record and spread a harassment call from a mortgage company?  All these questions are telling you where to find the revolution, and it isn’t the television or the newspaper.  It’s in our hands, ladies and gentlemen, if we are bold enough to use it.

First published January 25, 2010

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Prosperity vs Freedom:  Feeling a little Chinese

Beware the hand that may reach out to us in the future, after we have lost jobs and lost cash and suffered economic calamity, for an offer of prosperity may have some invisible strings attached to it:  we may be offered our old lifestyle back, but at the expense of our freedom, and this, my dear readers, is a very bad trade.

For those of us old enough to remember Tienanmen Square, the startling image of normally docile  Chinese citizens standing up to their monolithic, remote government was profound.  The completely alienated government seemed forced to capitulate on political freedom.  And freedom they were granted…or so it seemed.

For Americans, that confrontation was so remote in terms of a people vs. government experience, it sharply characterized China as such an exotic, unknowable land, and yet with our hearts we identified with the students and professors who stood up to tyranny and demanded the right to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, an official sympathetic to democracy.  For this, tanks rolled and 3,000 died.

In the years afterward, China seemed to melt a little bit, and open up more and more to the West.  The signs were good:  Western companies were allowed into the country and set up Chinese brands to manufacture goods, spread Western technology around a little bit, and gradually it seemed like the Chinese people got what they wanted.  The communist government, however, remained in charge, creating an odd mix of communism and capitalism.

But in the last few years, China’s new millenium youth have been more than a little disquieted, because their oppression remains the same.  Their animosity towards their older generation is quite high at the present moment, for the same trade was offered by the Chinese government:  You can’t have political freedom, but we’ll give you a little economic freedom instead.  The people took it, greedily drank from the golden cup of capitalism, and we all thought this would lead to a more free and open society.

Living standards increased, sure.  Chinese traded their famous bicycles for motorcycles and cars, bought condos and started living the Western lifestyle.  One might say that the Chinese citizen now has a certain amount of economic freedom.

In the meantime, the government hasn’t changed one whit.  Totalitarian authority exists from the top down, jailing or executing thousands of Chinese every year for alleged fraud or corruption, yet corrupt Chinese communist party members go unpunished.  And now Google, facing internet censorship, has given up on China and is pulling out, removing the only hope the Chinese citizen had.  China remains a corrupt, authoritarian regime, an awfully big one, with no check on its power.

So the Tianenmen square protest was perhaps in vain:  the people, desparate for both political and economic freedom, compromised and settled for economic freedom.  Today, they pay the political price.

If you think America is not comparable, beware the increasing power of the President’s office.  Beware the alienation between the government and the people.  Beware the control that the capitalists have over the politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats.

They took away our work last year and made us live off our savings.  Now that is almost gone, and inflation may take away the rest.  At that point in time, beware the hand offering a shiny coin, for the other hand may reach behind you and tighten that rope a little bit more as you grab desparately for the money.  At that point, we will only have a second to decide:  Will our children look at us as sellouts, as the children of Tienanmen Square are saying today?  Or will we resist the temptation to return to our old consumer lifestyles, instead demanding our rights as voters to be heard?  Choose carefully and wisely, because there may not be a second chance.

First published January 25, 2010

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In this silent spring of 2010, consultants and their clients lunch quietly at modestly priced restaurants.  This is a symptom of the liquid modernity currently gripping the down and out development industry in Central Florida today.

These lunches follow a similar pattern:  At the hostess stand, bravado and optimism, the kabuki dance around leads and, towards the end, caving in and demolishing all that was discussed over salad and the main course.  One party shows his hand by offering to “get into” something totally alien to his habitat, especially if “it” is mentioned as a source of income by another.

And thus one’s hand is tipped; one’s position is betrayed, and the desparate drought of one’s own habitat is bared, in contrast to the brave words spoken at the beginning.  For one to admit interest in “getting into” a new field means that one’s own field is inadequate, and by now, all the exquisite specialties that have revolved around resort development (our own cosa nostra) have dried up, gone and blown away. 

Freezing, dry winds have scoured through the halls of many a company, taking with it men and women with decades of professional experience, and taking with it whole offices too.  The glittery, ice-cold wastelands of former corporate empires have been skeletonized as we navigate through this interregnum, finding our own way, occasionally glimpsing other tiny figures struggling in the distance against the same odds as we do, and if one is inspected close-up at one of these lunches, one usually drives off, fervently thanking one’s blessings that it could be worse.

Sustainability?  Green is thick in the air at these lunches.  Everyone orders the cheapest thing on the menu, for conserving one’s own green is the real goal – get out of there with as little spent as possible.  The server knows this, and her eyes narrow slightly as the soup and salad is ordered once again.

At these lunches, the mouthing of words such as “master plan” can make the other salivate before the food even comes, and “development approval” or “permits” can induce a dreamlike state as one’s memories of the beforetimes are stirred.  But it isn’t your own Master Plan, it is someone elses; someone else is having all the fun, and it isn’t fair at all. 

Green indeed is always the grass growing under the other party’s feet.  For those with jobs, the freedom and independence of the freelance consultant seems a wild, romantic dream when compared to excruciating corporate reality.  Envy the sole proprietor, and a resentment might seep out over the iceberg lettuce as the corporate infantryman confesses the horrors of working as a slave to the man:  long hours, short staff, impossible workload, and politically charged decisions right down to the paperclips in the supply room.  Gawd, it’s the worst it has ever been in the firm.

Greener still, however, is the grass growing under the company man’s feet, at least to the lonely entrepeneur who might, with proper deference, remind the good soldier that he is bearing gross indignities for a salary and for benefits as well, both of which the entrepeneur lacks and desparately needs.

As ranch dressing is spooned over the salads, layoff and closure gossip replace deal gossip, a weary and depressing sort of ritual.  Endings replace beginnings in a grim parade that seems to be going on forever and ever, a parade without music or cheering but rather silent trudging of feet out, carrying boxes of notebooks and rolls of drawings.

Still, the microeconomy drip, drip, drips along like the infamous Chinese water torture – not enough thawing to provide any flow (as in cash) but just enough to keep one suckled to the teat for just a little while longer, hoping to outlast the drought and see the warm sun once again in the future.

For most of the larger, bedrock projects are finishing up now, that’s right; the companies that had something continue as the credit flashfroze in 2008 are seeing that something wind down and close out.  Those two words, whispered softly, mean the end and death.  No one wants to initiate project closeout procedures, for there is nothing coming afterward, and project closeout means that the appointment with one’s own termination is now coming into a more defined shape.   The next layoff will likely be you, after you’ve archived the last drawings, written the last letters, and collected the last payment.

Death and dying mark the minds of many at these lunches, death and dying of a lifestyle, of a language, and of a culture.  If resort development created a community of practice in the 1980s, it reached its pinnacle in the 1990s and then fractalized into specialties and subspecialties after the dot-com bust and subsequent runup in real estate pricing.  By the end, the community had gentrified into dozens of unsustainable niches and the frozen glaciers have covered nearly all of these up.

And now, what once was a masculine American ritual of arguing over who would pay the bill has evolved into a polite understanding between the parties.  Split checks are OK, but if one party works for a corporation, it is the charitable thing to buy the lunch of the poor entrepeneur.  I mean, come on for Christ’s sake, give the little guy a break.  No one else does.

Grimness often finds its way out by this time, replacing the hearty optimism that began at the hostess’ stand.  “I don’t see it getting better anytime soon” echoes in lunch after lunch, eyes avoiding contact, with an agreement to keep in touch.  And some do, to keep a hope for the future intact.

For sustainability means just that: a hope for the future.  Even if it is just for a lunch the following month, at least it is something.  And something is better than nothing.

First published April 21, 2010

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This is the second or third time a rather spooky event has occurred in a conversation.  This afternoon, Klaus and Greg and I were talking about life and stuff, and the subject of politics and money came up.

For some reason I felt compelled to comment that trust has been broken at the very highest levels, and we all seem to be truly on our own at the moment.  We have to rebuild trust one person at a time and we don’t have leaders as role models for this anymore.

The conversation went on to other things but just as we were leaving, Greg brought it back to this.  “You were talking about trust, and I have a story to tell that fits right in with this.”  He went on to describe his mother with lung cancer who owns a medical office building, and how the attorney she chose to help her sell the building apparently went behind her back – this is a family friend that goes back for years – and tried to rent the building up to raise its market value while simultaneously negotiating with a buyer to offer less than the asking price.  Both ways he would make out well, but Greg apparently fired him this week because he broke trust with them.

When Lehman bilked KfW Frankfurt out of 536mm euroes, it was called “world’s dumbest bank”.  This is the scale on which trust was broken in the banking world.

When Bush declared war on Iraq based on false claims of nuclear weapons, and later found nothing, this is the scale on which trust was broken in the political world.

If these kinds of actions are happening, then no accountability seems to exist. Trust must be rebuilt relationship by relationship which will take a long time.

This isn’t liquid modernity at all, instead it is simple deception.  And the scale on which the deception occurred probably is what has caused such a slow reaction.

Are there enough people around who really truly do believe we are in the end times, and that it is OK to use whatever means you want to achieve your ends?  That truth and trust do not really matter anymore?  Or has the end-times become a convenient excuse in place of greed?

What is the solution to too much greed?  The karmatic rebalancing that is going on now seems to be still not finished – if the economy recovers now, it will almost be too easy.  There can’t be enough suffering to have produced a new order.  It has been too brief and frankly given world history too mild. 

Or if we do have recovery is it perhaps temporary, and a new correction will be coming?  The doomsayers today predict another meltdown.  Certainly there will be – there always is – it’s the timing that is important.

The history of the 1890s through 1901 would be interesting to read – seismic economic shakes came in a series not all at once.  The age of greed back then was just as bad, what was it that caused greed to go away?  It really took 30 years or more for the greed of the 1890s to really go away.

But in a way that stuff seems interesting and perhaps useful to review but not necessary relevant to the question at hand.  The question is really, what comes next?  And history, while useful generally, can’t always apply.

The factors today are different than they were in 1900.  Lanier is correct in his observation that digital precision magnifies the good and the bad.  One way to fix this is to increase the resolution – make things more fine-grained; approach an analog interface.

His way to fix it is to withdraw until it is fixed.  And the call for some kind of technology after the fact is interesting.  what kind is he calling for?

First published April 24, 2010

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If there were some kind of global systems forecast, similar to the weather forecast, it seems like the predictors would predict an increase in instability.  If you feel like you are in a small boat watching the waves get higher and higher these days, you are not alone.  It could all be pointing to a coming bifurcation.

In Dune, there was a metaphor for clairvoyance that went something like this:  we are all floating in a liquid plane, and waves cause us to bob up and down.  While you are in constant contact with those floating near you, those floating farther away are only occasionally glimpsed.  If you can calm your own situation sufficiently to be able to see far away, you can see quite a distance when you are on a big crest.  That was Herbert’s metaphor for clairvoyance and future sight that was provided by spice.

These days, it feels like the wind is whipping this sea into whitecaps, and everyone is desparately fighting the storm – trimming sails here, frantically hauling in rope there, and no one is able to jump from boat to boat.  It’s just too unstable.  Just when you think you have both feet stabilized, and your boat’s gunwale matches the other boat’s gunwale, a wave whips the two boats apart and an easy short hop becomes a gulf.

Your boat, meanwhile, is taking on water and everyone is bailing fast.  You want to get out of this thing, whether it’s a yacht or a coracle – out of gas, leaking water, unseaworthy, but still you are stuck to it, doomed.

Other boats meanwhile look fine…magnificent even, and  you long for that nice big carrier steaming off in the distance.  But when you talk to the folks on the flattop, you learn the word.  While perhaps more well oiled than your own, its a hellhole of its own dark making.  Brawls and treachery over insufficient capital make life on them brutal and nasty, and those sailors instead stare with great envy at your own.  For you have less responsibility, and are free to control your own destiny, even though you still owe the bank for most of your boards.  So you curse your own damn luck and hang on.

Such is the life of the working and nonworking these days.  Those working complain they are slaves and detest every minute, envying those put out of work by the Millenial Depression, seeing them idle and enjoying a vacation.  But those out of work feel the opposite:  an unintended vacation is no more than house arrest, and the rich fullness of life cannot be lived when internal doubts about tomorrow gnaw the insides.

Indicators seem untrustworthy.  What was once unstable is now a safe haven; Colombia, for all its badness and ruthlessness in the recent past, is now calm and stable with a public political process, and is open for business.  In the meantime, Jamaica seems torn to shreds by drugs, and tensions that have simmered just barely under the surface for decades are now boiling over in Korea.  What was once stable, like Thailand, is now economically damaged for some time to come.  The waves rocking other boats seem to be throwing off everyone as we frantically turn this way and that for cover.

Such is the liquid modernism with which Zygmunt Bauman so aptly describes our current situation.  The rug is pulled out from under us at every turn, and trust is eroding quickly.  If it continues, the pathway seems less and less likely to resolve itself peacably, and more and more likely to reach a bifurcation.

Global financial markets seem to be queasily eyeing Europe, and the only financial safe haven appears to be Brazil.  It would be ironic that a magnetic reversal would flip the northern and southern hemisphere, with the Avenida Paulista taking over from Wall Street and calling the shots.  For Wall Street, having dissipated its moral capital in an orgy of self-gratification, might just find punishment far greater than anything Obama could dish out:  leadership taken away.

Meanwhile, American politics seem to have reached a dead end.  Here in Florida, politicians have broken trust so profoundly that their own management of the state’s growth appears about to be taken away by Amendment 4, and handed back to the people.  With no 21st century solution, Amendment 4 instead ops for a 5th century BC solution, reviving direct democracy to have voters approve every new development.  For those in the design and construction industry, it’s pretty much game over in Florida, and this is an indicator that a more localized bifurcation is close at hand.

In summary, the global social weather forecast seems to be that systemic instability is increasing.  We may be able to control the chaos a little bit longer and reduce this instability, but if we don’t, keep an eye on the whereabouts of the nearest island.

First published May 27, 2010

The New John Galt

Just as Orwell’s 1984 has come true, with continuous background war fuelling the economy, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has eerie, upside-down relevance today.  Upside-down, because instead of unionized, quasi-socialist companies like Taggart Transcontinental dominating, the pendulum has swung the other way, and old-style robber-baron capitalist companies like AIG and Goldman Sachs have triumphed, rewarded by the government with bailout money after their huge money grab out of the pockets of the middle class.  The New John Galt, who tried to live a balanced lifestyle, is today unemployed, and does not partake in the economic exchange fuelling today’s post-millenial society.

Galt, who in Rand’s novel was a secret individualist running his own corporate empire,  participated in the mainstream economy as a lowly maintenance worker, denying the collective his greatest strengths.  Today, the legions of unemployed include many professionals who built great expertise in the beforetimes, but sit idle, drinking coffee and applying for jobs.  These latter-day John Galts have been put out of work by the welfare capitalist economy operating today, an economy where bilking the ignorant masses out of their hard-earned money is OK, even encouraged.

Atlas Shrugged picked the burly world of steel and industry as its battleground, but the Hegelian dialectic of history saw this world exploit its workers a little too much, causing unions to arise, but the protection of the unions was a little too strong, causing the capitalists to offshore much of the heavy industry.  Today we find America devoid of this kind of business, and the 80-year-old world of Rand seems strangely alien.  The new millenium robber barons of today, instead of Mellon or Carnegie, seem to be Benmoshe and Blankfein.

If those names are unfamiliar, consider the topsy-turvy world we live in today when the news media insist, at the behest of the shrillest of the few, that the sky is in danger of falling.  Carnegie Steel bore his name, and when everyone had enough of his cruelty and greed, the world knew the name of their enemy.  Today, the names of those at the top of AIG, Goldman Sachs, and others are deliberately obscured.  Perhaps no one’s children now work in a mine, but the profound and sudden loss of human capital continues this tradition.

Politicians in Carnegie’s era were busy dismantling the engines of capitalist greed, which after all was what Atlas Shrugged was all about.  Today instead we find ourselves just emerging from ten years of political leadership that was busy dismantling the engines of market competition, and the market failure of late 2008 reads as a textbook case of why this activity was bad.  Now, we live in the ashes of this selfish behavior, wondering what can possibly happen next.

And so John Galt sits at the local independent coffeehouse, his numerous job applications and resumes sitting in corporate inboxes.  You can see him around town, the bohemians making room for an older generation.  These are men accustomed to suits now dressed in their shorts, ready to pick up the kids and check on their email when they get home.  While the reversal of domestic roles is strengthening the family, the corporate machines grow weaker, and this great karmatic rebalancing might just be a good thing.  For when John Galt finally is called back to action, the time he has had to think can be put to some really good use.

For the John Galts of the country, and for all those in the same predicament, it is a nondialectical change that we are to bring about if we are to move this society towards a sustainable pathway.  Balance between the individual and society can be brought about by consensus-building and the rule of right action, and if a smattering of the talk around cheap coffee can bring this about, then the New Millenial Great Depression will have contributed a positive and meaningful step on the bifurcation towards sustainable development.

First published June 1, 2010

In yesterday’s New York Times, esteemed business journalist Stephanie Clifford reported that Wal-Mart is gaining ground in urban markets.  She goes on to report that Wal-Mart is considering small, 8,000 SF stores in areas like downtown Chicago, and will expand these to other areas like Manhattan, Boston, etc. if Chicago is successful.

Ms. Clifford blithely quotes Wal-Mart’s Hank Mullany, and goes on to comment that Wal-Mart has saturated the suburban market and “has almost exhausted growth possibilities.”  Her article, which appears to be some light editing over a Wal-Mart press release, does not even once question why Wal-Mart needs to grow some more.  Instead, she dutifully repeats what was in Wal-Mart’s press release and adds some commentary about wal-Mart’s critics, which included labor unions.

It is as if Wal-Mart’s growth possiblities are some kind of inalienable economic right that cannot be questioned by an esteemed business reporter.  How have we come to this point where the growth of Wal-Mart must proceed at all costs?

For those interested in economic analysis, Jane Collins published a paper nearly six years ago that plainly revealed what business Wal-Mart is really in:  the production of poverty.  Everywhere Wal-Mart has gone, poverty has followed.   Wages have dropped, in some places significantly.  Not just wages of employees – although Wal-Mart employees make below average wages for the work that they do, dragging the income level down in a community.  Her paper showed clearly the effects of Wal-Mart in a community was to decrease overall wealth.  Wal-Mart, in effect, is a manufacturer of poverty.

And that isn’t just in America.  China is a partner in this, too.  Every time you buy a $2 shoe in Wal-Mart, it is made by a Chinese worker making 11 cents an hour, working for Wal-Mart.  So it isn’t just a US manufacturer of poverty, it is a global manufacturer of poverty.

All this was fine in the old days of capitalism, where someone like Wal-Mart’s founder Sam Walton was allowed to exploit workers to create wealth for himself.  You were able to choose not to shop in a Wal-mart if you didn’t want to.  It appears that this choice is now likely to be endangered even in urban centers, the last vestige of the neighborhood hardware store, neighborhood grocer, and independent retailer.

Why is Wal-Mart doing this?  It is because this kind of activity is necessary for wealth transfer to occur.  Wal-Mart is an instrument of the state, which is busy inducing global poverty in exchange for a continuance of political authority.  China is a full and committed partner to this action.  And this is necessary so that it can quell any uprising or dissent that may arise. 

This authority is granted to the state from Wall Street, an oligarchy that is effectuating wealth transfer in the US and abroad so that we may move into the postcapitalistic world of urban feudalism.

Even if the New York Times doesn’t see fit to question whether Wal-Mart’s growth is a good thing, you can still question it.   You can push back on the gigantic wealth-transfer mechanism and still keep your freedom if you wish.

First published June 25, 2010

It’s finally all falling into place:  We are awaiting an American Mohandas Gandhi to arise, and lead us away from the wicked course along which we seem to be blithely floating.  For otherwise, surely America will become only a vestige of what it once was, a country of free people.  As we enter a new season of even more vicious dialectic, it is increasingly clear that the only way to free ourselves from this spiral downward is to engage in nonviolent change action to reset our course towards democracy and freedom and tolerance, for which we have become known worldwide.

For those lacking jobs,  witness the billions of dollars spent this summer and fall – not on restarting the economy, but rather on election campaigns {http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130993630] that benefitted only   Restarting the economy once again proved to be less important than control of political power, further distancing our elected officials from the people.  We now face a remarkable schism between the problems that Americans face, and the problems that our leadership are solving.  http://www.npr.org/2010/12/02/131767993/congress-acts-to-lower-volume-on-tv-ads

How do we reset our course?  Firstly be honest, tolerant, and clean, just as Gandhi first counseled the Indian minority against whom racist discrimination was practiced in South Africa, where Gandhi first organized change.  This counsel is also worthy of all who want to see our country restored on a new pathway. 

A fourth criteria might be applicable today:  be involved.  Our fatigue causes us escape into the digital life, letting only the passionate do the work.  And work they have done:  for we see now the fruits of their labor.  Yet, where is the outrage?  Millions of jobs have been stolen nationwide, yet outrage has been manufactured at a few poor immigrants, rather than the rich tycoons who gambled and lost.  Don’t buy it, America:  Mexicans didn’t take your jobs, your homes, or your future away.

Several forces have gripped democracy with an iron fist, and are bending it to suit their needs.  These forces are the great financial barons and the energy barons that control a substantial part of the world economy.  These forces stride with impunity into the homes of rich and poor alike, and insist upon fealty like feudal lords.  No  politicians of any stripe have the power to break their grip.  History shows us that when organizations get too large, great damage is done as they compete harder and harder for smaller and smaller gains.

It is up to the people to show these organizations that the election they bought was worth nothing.  You can express yourself still, by using the same principles of nonviolent change action.  When dialectical change fails, nondialectical change can step in and take over. This means non-cooperation with those feudal lords:

Stop shopping.  Act like it’s a recession.  (It is).  If you must buy things, buy something made by someone you know.  If no one  you know makes what you need, make it yourself or stop craving it.  Every time  you buy something, you make cash flow for Wall Street and reinforce the system.  It doesn’t matter where it was made, the purchase fattens a long string of middlemen.

Stop using oil and coal.  Act like it’s poison.  (It is).  Bicycle, walk, or take mass transit, or better yet, don’t go at all.  Every time you drive, you make cash flow for oil companies.  Every time you turn on a light or run the dishwasher, you make cash flow for coal companies.

Fix things.  Reject the throwaway culture we have let ourselves become, and start becoming a repair and maintenance culture.  Germany is famous for being obsessive about repair and maintenance, and right now Germany has one of the most stable, rich, productive economies on the face of the earth.

Barter, trade, buy with scrip or pay cash.  Show Wall Street that they do not control all of the financial transactions in the entire universe.  Create a tight, trustworthy network of people who do the same.

Get your news and entertainment from real people, not digital people.  The Romans had to create “bread and circuses” – entertainment and festivals – to distract the increasingly restless masses, and it worked for a while.  It’s been working great lately, but it is increasingly costly.  Just how much a month do you pay for that cable TV, internet access, and iphone?  Are you really getting your money’s worth?  Try unsubscribing them a while.  When the clatter and babble is silenced, the sounds of nature, of real people talking, can be heard.

These are just a few examples of nonviolent change actions that everyone can take to regain control of our future.  We have tried multiple times to use our political system to effect change, but the organizations that think they have control over this political system have prevailed.  These organizations, however, cannot make nondialectical change – only you can.  And, as Kenneth Boulding once said, nondialectical change is truly the only change worth having.

And Gandhi, a poor lawyer from Porbandar, eventually became the leader of India.

First published December 2, 2010

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