New York State’s ballot initiatives before the apocalypse
We reckon time differently nowadays. The 2013 election was going to have an enduring identity as the year New Yorkers in New York City got to choose Michael Bloomberg’s successor, the year Gotham got its first Democrat since the hapless David Dinkins. In Buffalo, the political monoculture will once again give Byron Brown a comfortable cruise to victory in a city that has seven times more Democrats than Republicans, so while his victory will be lopsided, it will also be awfully like Tony Masiello’s, and like Jim Griffin’s—asymmetric, thunderous, but not news. Nobody is noticing local politics anywhere, because this era has but one time-stamp: It is but the caesura or the respite between the last Senator Ted Cruz/Congressman Chris Collins government shutdown and the next,
The message from the Cruz-Collins calamity chorus in Washington is a bold, nihilistic assertion: that governing is so meaningless that it can be ended without consequence. This is the thinking of the deeply cynical men who have drifted to the top of our political system at a time when a great many more voices than usual are explaining, in very convincing detail, how deeply screwed we now are. Listening to the likes of Cruz and Collins, it’s not hard to slip into despair, because their very existence (and chances are good that they will be re-elected) convinces many that something is deeply, catastrophically wrong.
Catastrophism is now a very widespread frame. New videos by esteemed geologists, paleontologists, and others who compare today’s 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to the time of the great Permian extinction—in which 95 percent of the species of living things on earth all died—say that we’re headed there pretty damned quick, because that 400 parts per million is what triggered the last catastrophe. On the financial side, the veteran trouble-maker David Stockman and the veteran energy actuary Gail Tverberg come to the same conclusions through different routes, with Stockman slamming as fantasy the “debt doesn’t matter” crowd and Tverberg slamming as fantasy the “fracking will yield a permanent energy bonanza” cheerleaders. A tiny crusade among self-described biophysical economists—not to be confused with environemtal economists, mind you—is growing bit by bit as more and more of their arguments about the physical limitations of economic growth get translated from science-speak into English. Strangely, or perhaps not, the combination of geology, accounting, economic analysis, and some of the calmer historical analogizing to the actual sequence of breakdowns in the Fall of Rome might sound plausible to the folks who are happy to call themselves “preppers”—not preppies in saddle-shoes and horn-rims, but the folks who are buying up rural land, and large-magazine guns, and off-the-grid micro-power, water-filtration, food-storage, and other survival gear. The collapse, so many new voices say, is on its way.
But first, there’s election day.
Living in the here and now
New Yorkers all get to vote on a handful of ballot initiatives that all reflect the workaday notion that, though Washington is held hostage by the New Confederates and may shut down again at any time, we’ve got some governing to do back here at home.
Ah, governing. Governing is the absolute antithesis of magical thinking, and governing doesn’t have much to do with the apocalypse, either. Rapid-onset global environmental changes ahead? Yes, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out whether slot machines, blackjack, and other types of gambling should be legalized for non-Iroquois casino operators. A new nullification movement abroad in all those Red States that suck so much federal income tax revenue out of hard-working Manhattan investment bankers, real-estate tycoons, and Park Avenue heiresses? Tsk-tsk, we say, but shall we or shall we not allow a land-swap up in the Adirondack Park, so that a mining operation and some other local businesses can keep doing what they do while keeping the total inventory of public land even-Steven?
The Mongols are about to cross the Danube. It’s Wednesday, October 23, 1929, and Black Thursday, Stock Market Crash-day, is tomorrow. Mount Saint Helens is rumbling, and George Bush’s pal Brownie is “doin’ a heckuva job” with Katrina—and we’re being asked whether to amend the state constitution so that municipalities can sell sewer-system bonds for another 10 years, as they’ve been doing for the past 30, without having to count that new debt in their constitutionally limited overall tally.
Well then, here is the answer to the question of what it is that is to be done. People who are sound enough of mind, and neither homicidal nor suicidal, should vote on these questions. It’s not the day for that very fair and sensible question, as to why we voters, rather than our elected representatives, should be the ones to decide these things. We do pay them to make these decisions on our behalf, no? But it is the day to decide.
We should of course vote no on any new casinos, because casinos prey on the poor and weigh on them enough already. We should of course prevent the spoilation of any more Adirondack land. We should of course allow more cities, towns, villages, and especially counties to grab as much money as they possibly can at today’s tiny rates of interest, because it is in everybody’s interest to get the shit out of our water as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
Meanwhile, back to the big picture, and some choice-making. If we’re all headed for a repeat of the Permian extinction because we’re already at 400 parts per million of C02, then go ahead, stay home next Tuesday, let the damned casinos get legalized, we’ll all be fossil fuel soon enough as our terrestrial system, which the earth scientist William Lovelock likened to the Greek goddess Gaia, finds its new, Venus-like equilibrium.
On the theory that we still have some time to make some choices and to do some adjusting, consider some of the suggestions of thinkers like University of Washington proessor George Mobus and environmental economist Herman Daly, who heads a movement for steady-state or no-growth economy.
Mobus posts wise and eminently sane essays on his blog “Question Everything,” Without drama, and in manageable English, he calmly punctures the mainstream media’s cheerleading on the fracking-based oil “boom” coming out of the new finds in North Dakota and Texas by noting that the new wells get depleted really fast, much faster than the old-style wells portrayed in various films starring John Wayne, Paul Newman, Omar Sharif, and Buddy “Beverly Hillbillies” Ebsen. These wells have “a rapid early production followed by an equally rapid exponential decline and the total oil pumped is much less than a conventional well would bring. This means the returns per well drilled is slim to none,”
Herman Daly, a former World Bank economist, is another calm voice suggesting that there’s probably going to be an abrupt end to the profit-focused economic system because of the uncomfortable connections between expensive energy, radically unjust income distribution, dwindling resource supplies, and the advanced nations’ growing inability to borrow enough to keep the wheels turning.
Insightful professors do everyone a favor when they question simply everything. Perhaps they do us less of a favor when they recommend, with equal calm, that governments immediately do sensible things like tax carbon, redistribute income, shorten work-weeks, and prevent unchecked population growth. Telling our beleaguered structures of governance to take on big, fundamental change with big, sweeping policy changes is not quite the way to build anyone’s confidence in our collective ability to get things done.
But perhaps we can surprise ourselves—if only by preventing more raids on the pockets of the poor, dim, and desperate, preventing more wreckage of land we might have to live off, and allowing, while there’s still time, a bit more borrowing if by doing so we can stop drinking so much of what we flush. Little steps, sure. Big trip? To quote a former Red State governor, “You betcha.”
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or atwww.sunypress.edu.