Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Post Mortem - hastily composed

I'll bet you thought I'd put it off, didn't you? So did I. 

But I've run my course, and scary though it is, I've decided to jump out of this life boat into the water. Others don't swim so well, or don't have so much blubber to keep them warm and afloat. I hope it's the right thing to do. It's official. I'm moving on.

This morning, I must say that I'm finding Tom Friedman quite inspiring, to my surprise. I told a colleague that the thing I don't like about him is that he's so corporate in his thinking. He accepts all the givens of capitalism, that it somehow releases creativity rather than constrains it, and today I hit upon the thing which most annoys me.

You know, dear reader, my thoughts on corporations. Webs of disaccountability at the center of which there is no heart. But I'm extreme, and willing to accept some compromise along the way to an all natural Utopia (I hope you've also noticed my take on Utopian final solutions). I'm not looking for heaven here on earth (that's a reachy metaphor, as Robert Browning did know). Just something short of workers against the wall.

I may even be willing to accept that some corporations can turn that corner, around to where workers share in wealth. And I do get very excited reading Friedman's recitation about how a "smart grid" could work - especially the part about how concentrated electrical generating capacity can be so much more efficient than distributed, but that distributed storage in the form of car batteries plugged smartly into the grid could make more sense than to centralize that reserve capacity.

I have a simple analogy in mind:  When I moved into the first house I owned (well, my name was on the title), as I was rehabbing it I discovered to my shock that the electric panel was dangerously miswired. As I learned, there are two distinct styles for breaker boxes; one whose phases alternate sides down the middle, I guess to make pairings of breakers side by side. And the other whose phases pair the breakers opposite one another. The clue is the heavy metal bus down the middle.  One is wavy, the other flat.

But the main point is that a neutral wire can be shared across phases, since its load will never exceed the differential between opposite phases, and oftentimes will be nil. In my house, some dizzy electrician (and I still have nightmares that it might have been me who fixed it backwards, but I did study and study and test) wired things all backwards, and effectively doubled the load on neutral wires. Since the neutral wires aren't even measured for overloads by circuit breakers, this was a fire hazard for certain.

If you follow that example, there is a built in thrill to smartening the electrical grid: First, an awful lot of the energy loss in the provision of electrical power is in transmission. Well, by definition, all of it. Heat given off is energy lost. But a distributed grid need not carry full power very much of the time - it need only carry the differential between near ends.  So if there is well thought out distribution of power sources, then the grid carries mostly a signal for balancing off the distribution. Cool! (literally).

Next, by charging transportation machinery at night, we can level supply across the hours between day and quiet night. Nighttime charging would use excess capacity required for daytime loads, and so no capital outlays would be required to build out infrastructure for this extra load. Cooler still.

You will have noticed a built in contradiction here.  If generation is centralized and storage distributed, then the differential still exists. So there is incentive to move people inward, to cluster in cities. But that was already obvious. And so the cars can be replaced by mass transit and everybody's happier still.

I think the principle can hold true, especially since there are some forms of generation which can very efficiently be decentralized, including windmills, solar panels and some more. Right now, gasoline or other liquid fuel powered engines for transportation or electrical generation are far far too inefficient, argues Friedman. Way too much heat gets given off for every motive watt. There is far less loss of energy along the process from fuel to electricity. 

Especially when efficiencies get enforced by government in what I would insist be called the commons. This grid.

So yesterday getting my hair cut, the barber right on cue starts railing about everything Obama, but in a kind of code, since he has some sense that I might be a Libral (said as epithet). I'm very very gentle in my responses, especially since he's holding the sharp things. Still I feel a snaggy cut now and then, and sense some butchering when I even gently disagree. About capital gains, say, where I urge that there be some level predictability in place of political see-sawing. Or regarding mortgage meltdown, where sometimes people do act responsibly and the rug gets pulled out from under. 

But in the end his position was resolved to a chant: "It all comes down to the individual" said over and over and over again. I have little enough hair that any butchering doesn't really show. I think what he meant - well, clearly what he meant was that individuals must work and save and make good choices and that they shouldn't be calling out for general "help" when their leaky boat starts sinking.

Fair enough as far as it goes (except for the letting people drown part). But how about the guy who bought the car which was most economical then and now can't afford to drive it? Or the near retiree who lost it all to fraud? Well, I'm not sure I have time right now to rehearse all the good examples, but for sure I agree with Friedman that there are some things government has to do if we are to release inventive creativity (I think that's a redundancy right there).

The thing I want to turn back from, however, is Friedman's claim that fear of sudden death, at the corporate level, is what spurs this creativity. As do all good capitalists, he likes to use the example of the lion and the gazelle. Both have the same imperative for every day: to outrun the other or die.  The question then is how best to resolve some corporate fear to worker enthusiasm. How often does the ecological equation get reversed to where corporate enthusiasm devolves to worker panic?

I protest. Insert exuberant joy in running as that thing which conscious humans do, perhaps in bodily rehearsal of adrenalin charged life and death matches, and you might be moving closer to some truth. Fear of death is what's gotten us here, in only the sense that we willingly ignored it. To cross the oceans or populate the West or still to fly in space. Please.

This death match must be at the heart of evolution; it's what weeds out the less than fit. But in relation to some crowd that cares; some population among which mating is possible.

If corporations ever do manage to capture enthusiasms more than fear of death, which by report is what good IT firms still do (another of Friedman's examples) then perhaps there's chance for heart? I'm not sure. I think it depends very much what they propose to make for us, and if the want gets manufactured too.

We move our dirt and misery offshore , and this is what must stop. We pop out goods which are not that - good - and make of things like health care - which are good - the same sort of market object which can create perverse incentives when priced to ignore ecologies. It's balance of need and want which is so out of whack right now. And definition of the commons.

So, my individual choice is to follow my enthusiasm, no longer in that dronish work which once I found so exciting. I'll hand that off, responsibly I hope, and then turn to more heady pursuits. 

I think there is no better time than when in the midst of disaster. That's the only time when the choices become clear. When the fear equation overcomes the grinding necessity to be prudent and responsible. I protest, with as much throat as I can muster anymore, every admonition that what I and you must do right now is sacrifice our souls to keep our jobs. As I thank Bush for giving us Obama, so thank you recession for getting me off my ass. The frontier is not in the direction we once thought.

Meanwhile, let's work to prevent any and all corporations from becoming ever again too large to die. Let's be sure their megalomaniacal enthusiasms never again do  translate into workers' misery. 

I do wonder if that's what's happening to the Church. This fear of death, so ironic now that Christ is here among us, not as a literal Man, but in awakened spirit which of necessity the Church as corporation must resist. It means its death. I for one, mourn not.

I'm scared to death. Ah ain't life grand now. Ain't it?

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