Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Anxiety and finding the things that matter

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Over two years from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people in four successive waves, representing one in three of the world’s population at the time.

The death toll was estimated at somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

At the time, there was no cure or vaccine. Indeed people didn’t really understand how contagion from airborne particles happened. Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene, all exacerbated by the recent war, promoted a bacterial superinfection that killed most of the victims. It also impacted young adults as well as the young and old. Everyone will have known someone who’d been sick and many would have known someone who passed. The high infection and death rates made those two years an extraordinarily scary time for people who had only just suffered through WW1. People must have thought that the world was coming to an end.

No doubt levels of psychological damage, depression and anxiety in the population must have spiked. But back then wellbeing issues were not big for the medical profession. People were tough, they thought, used to a hard life and living from one day to the next.

Nobody could have imagined that one hundred years later society would be larger, more wealthy and more populous with extraordinary and impossible technologies. Mass transport across the globe, information streamed into tiny hand-held devices with all of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.

Or that there would be another pandemic severe enough to change behaviors and the collective outlook on the world.

As at 11 October 2020, COVID-19 has reached 37 million confirmed cases with 1.07 million deaths. So far an order of magnitude fewer infections and deaths than the Spanish flu and a much smaller proportion of the global population is infected, although this will no doubt rise as future waves of infections emerge. The impact though is just as severe, the sadness of deaths, the pain and suffering of those with symptoms and the chaos of the global disruptions to jobs, lifestyles and economies. It is not going to be the same again. The death rates may be not so high as they were for the Spanish flu, but still many are dying and the number of infections continues to rise across the world.

Politicians have taken all sorts of different approaches to coping with the problem. Most options target the virus and yet the psychological ailments are as acute as they were a hundred years ago; affecting people in ways that we might not fully understand.

Most people seem to be putting on a brave face. Nothing to see here, life is still normal, the new normal.

Only we are all struggling with the change. Struggling to know what it’s all going to look like ourselves, our children and their grandchildren.

Workplaces are dispersed and we’re learning to communicate from separate rooms in the absence of body language. We underestimate that lack of contact in the room at our peril. It will influence the way decisions are made.

Those who relied on the inane meeting to suck up work time. The endless discussions that go nowhere and have little use beyond filling up the day are no more. Somehow there was a way of getting away with that type of unproductive interaction with everyone in the same room. Online they are not the same. Online meetings do not pass the time before beer o’clock in quite the same way.

Online people are disengaged, often not even looking at the screen with the grid of faces on it. But are busy in other activities with their brain not into the content at all — the whole process becomes excruciating for everyone.

Alloporus believes that our lack of focus on the things that matter, and our inability to make core decisions about things, is the most troubling consequence.

How does lack of focus translate?

It exposes people that really don’t have anything to say about topics. Because they either don’t understand the topic they are not across their brief nor do they have a foundation of knowledge that they need to make a contribution.

If added to this is underlying angst and concern over the consequences of the virus. Then we’re beginning to see some very difficult behaviors, subconsciously protecting themselves from their uncertainty. I’m not sure what the solution to this is beyond technology that it’s there.

And for people to begin to accept that. All of us need to maintain our skill sets. And maintain our knowledge base even if we are distributed. It’s an opportunity to actually get a lot better at what we do and hopefully in some workplaces this is happening.

Focusing or spending less time in the meeting and more time understanding their portfolio so that they can make better decisions when they do come together with their colleagues.

Let’s hope that we can use this shift in the way that we do business to engage in the learning process and build up our knowledge again. I suggest one of the places to start in this process is knowledge about the general response of this virus and the consequences for the planet. Not so much the health consequences and how we’re going to beat it or how we’re going to engage in a war with it, but how we’re going to tackle the enormous challenges that face. The problems that were there before the virus impacted that are now more acute because of the pandemic.

The topics that come to mind we talk about on this blog all the while.

Food security — from production gains to meet demand to understanding how we’re going to adapt to climate change.

Land use — how to recognize and acknowledge and then decide what to do about our choice of what to do with land.

Ecosystem services — how they are distributed and delivered across the landscape.

Water — where our fresh water’s going to come from.

Food production methods — what mix of technologies to put alongside traditional methods of food production for the next 100 years. ]

Diet — what we are eating and if this needs to change for a diet that is not achievable but also healthy for ourselves and for the population as a whole.

Education — Are we teaching youngsters enough about the right sort of things.

Healthy scepticism — we need skeptics who do not believe everything seen and heard without finding the facts and the evidence. And therefore ignore the opinion and the gossip.

We also need to acknowledge our angst and anxiety about the state of affairs. The worst possible outcome really is that we bury our heads in the sand and decide not to hear, not to see, and not to speak about any of these matters.

The wise monkeys are not quite as wise as we thought they were.

Failure to communicate about these matters in adult conversation will bring on our worst fears faster. The things we are most concerned and scared of will come to pass.

Now is the time for us to embrace our intelligence and educate each other, learn from each other, and build opportunities and solutions that are going to keep us going into future generations.


Reposting is fine by me.

The bright side of the moon

The bright side of the moon

Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The bright side of the moon

It is early in the morning, crisp spring air cools the cheeks and sends earlobes numb. On the canvas of a beautiful blue sky is painted the moon, still risen and large enough to see it’s sculptured surface with the naked eye.

Against its pale blue background, the dark craters on the surface blend with their grey colour and invite thoughts of what it would be like to visit, a nice place to go, colourful, pleasant, calm.

And then comes the reality of what it is actually like out there. A massive rock orbiting in the blackness of space where no human could survive for more than a minute without the aid of technology.

An orange satellite sitting in a black galaxy.

Alloporus

There’s something about the human condition that means we always see an image rather than reality. I guarantee that most people who look at that moon in its picturesque blue backdrop see an invite to go there. They feel like they’ve been given a ticket on the first rocket ship to carry tourists to such an extraordinary place.

Not in our grandchildren’s lifetime, will we be able to do anything serious in space. We will generate a lot of space junk flying around in orbit above us. And various companies and countries will try to snaffle some resources or make money on the back of the curious. But the reality is the physics and the simple scale of the universe make even visiting our solar system a task beyond our current technologies and the laws of physics as we understand them.

Unless someone can crack moving faster than the speed of light, then we are destined to stay here on our own in this tiny corner of the universe, in our own blip in time.

This should be sobering. Then it should be a delight to recognize our uniqueness.

Sure, there are other life forms out there. Enjoying or not their own blip of existence. But the physics of it all means that we won’t see them and they won’t see us.

And yet the reality is that we are no more suited to be in outer space than we are to dominate planet earth. I know it says in the bible that we should have dominion but that is just some self-assurance. The truth may be closer to our survival chances on the moon.

On earth, we change everything to our own devices for our own purposes and needs. And have done for centuries. We’ve been so good at it that the planet is barely recognizable. The moon has seen the changes on the blue planet and wonders what’s going on down there?

At the moment it seems that what is going on is aggrandisement through a focus on self.

And, as written many times on this blog, there are very sensible and logical evolutionary reasons why that is a default position. Our biology is to make more and we are extremely good at it.

What we fail to realize is how hard it would be to change that biology. So that our blip in time in this tiny corner of the universe would be anything more than a path to our own mutual destruction. We would have to go against our nature in order to persist. Resources must be shared beyond our kin. We would have to restore and rehabilitate land that we had previously pilfered for its benefits.

Most of all, we would need tolerance. Recognize that other people part of the story too. Not because they are likeable or even because they are like us but because they’re here, that’s all.

And without other people onboard, the system breaks down into all the old patterns. It’s an ‘in this together’ kind of game. We either all come and collectively understand the consequences of failure to acknowledge each other and work together or we go extinct.

And I know what you will say. Many people have said this many times before. But we are still here, still creating technologies to keep our supply chains and systems moving — ever bigger, ever better.

We probably have a few decades, maybe even a century or two left to keep doing that to keep on that track. Malthus, Ehrlich and others who prophesied doom from overpopulation are not yet prophets. But they will be. There will be a crash. It will be ugly and whether or not we come out the other side in any sort of shape at all is determined by what we do now.

If we do nothing the crash will be deep and very painful. And what comes out of the other end will be a handful of unfortunate folks scrambling for what’s left. If we behave ourselves and begin to cooperate and talk and identify the things that really matter then there is a chance that the crash can be managed. A softer landing if you like. And what’s left behind could be in better shape.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks. Given the development of a new project around food, ecology and diet — sustainably FED — and fictional writing of climbing to the meet and the conversations of Paul Sorol. Reflecting on what our chances of getting through really are.

Locally the chances are good.

In a crisis, people do help each other. We’ve talked about that on this blog many times before.

But once the crisis is over and the local situation calms that helping hand does tend to fade away.

Keeping that crisis momentum going is also not what you want to do. Nobody wants to live with heightened alertness the whole time unless that happens to be your psychology.

Moving towards something that is worth keeping is the key. That involves our awareness and is the challenging part. It’s not that we don’t have empathy. Not that we don’t have the ability to go operate clearly we do. But just not enough for long enough to see us through to a soft landing.

I do not have an answer. It would be good to find one but I simply don’t have one at this point. As to how we would do that.

And my apologies for another pessimistic post. But hopefully, you can see the kernels of optimism.

There’s still a chance even at this late hour for humanity to not just turn things around but to make the future much brighter than it seems that present.

Right now we’re heading for some dark times. Unpleasant politics, leadership that is either inept or not leadership at all, but authoritarianism by any other name.

A pandemic continues to cause havoc with everything around the world, changing what we thought was our normal lives.

But it’s this time of apparent darkness that it is possible to see the moon at its brightest against that blue background and to think of it as a place worth visiting.


Please share to help us all reach for the stars and find the moon.

Dark days are over

Dark days are over

Photo by Kevin Bluer on Unsplash


These are dark days.

A pandemic is killing people in every country, destroying livelihoods and economies.

The US president is lying as he aims to bring democracy crashing down in his country.

Great Britain, once a powerful nation, is a fetid heap of unpleasantness on the floor and in such a mess that it chooses to appoint a failed, misogynist, ex-prime minister from Australia to get them out of their trade hole. Good luck with that.

And everywhere people are concerned and worried.

Mental health is the worst it’s ever been with almost everyone showing signs of strain.

It’s extremely hard to be optimistic in such times.

Indeed, all population ecologists from Thomas Malthus onwards will tell you this is exactly what to expect. As populations reach and exceed the levels of resources available to them it gets ugly. And whilst this is fine for plant and animal species in the depths of the Amazon rainforest or the arctic tundra, humans are immune for, after all, we are not animals – modern politics notwithstanding.

The technical phrase is density-dependent population regulation, the fancy term for keeping numbers in check.

Density and competetion

As resources become limiting so population growth rates start to slow and eventually go in reverse as a result of lower fertility, infant mortality and mortality from competition among adults in the population, with the most vulnerable going first. It is no coincidence that the consequences of the COVID-19 virus fit these attributes and is an acute problem for aged-care facilities.

There is no doubt we’re beginning to see these patterns in the human population of the world. We’ve beaten off density-dependence for so long thanks to our technology and our ability to absorb resources from nature. But now it’s beginning to bite as we reach the limits of our capacities and offer a resource to nature, our bodies, for it to exploit.

Given these realities, it is very difficult to remain positive. Hard to see the upside in any of these things.

But upside there is, for no matter what happens, it will not happen forever. Even if the worst catastrophes strike, there is a time after them.

Even after the mass extinctions over evolutionary time that we portray as catastrophes, diversity came back stronger. There were always more species on the planet following extinction events than there were before them. Prior to our current attack on the planet, there were more species than at any other time in the history of life on earth. There’s nothing to suggest that once humans have passed, that won’t happen again. The remnants of diversity will spread out recolonise and diversify into the available landscape when humans finally leave the stage.

The problem is not the long-term future of the world. She is quite fine, thank you very much, and will potter along merrily without concern until the sun finally swallows her up.

The problem is ourselves. What do we do to prevent a catastrophe… for humanity? How do we go about making sure that solutions are possible and more than a punt on the horses.

I think our hope lies in our psychological response.

We always revert to our lizard brains when we feel threatened or fearful or insecure. But we have a higher brain which can override that lizard fight, flight or freeze response. And we must tap into that capability more than ever before.

Right now we have to be investing in our mental health, training and encouraging people to be aware of their lizard brains. And give them the tools so as not to give into them.

Of course, anyone can say “zen out” in a blog post.

Achieving it in the population at large is another thing altogether. There are so many reasons why people wouldn’t respond and we cannot expect all people to do so.

Given enough compassionate folk who have recognised the need for awareness and for those people to lead the way then we can move forward with positive solutions.

Over at sustainably FED we have found a way to encourage those solutions through the use of evidence, especially the science behind food, ecology and diet. We believe there are solutions to any number of sustainability challenges if FED comes together in an integrated way.

Here are a few

  • Recycling nutrients
  • Making biochar
  • Changing global diet and food production based on the nutrient density of food rather than profit
  • Calling out the scoundrels mining natural capital
  • Looking long in production systems

Humanity has a great chance of surviving the dark times and coming out the other end the better for it. Any new normal can easily better than the old normal.

But we do need great ideas.

The tools exist for the technical and scientific evaluation of sustainability ideas to find those that will work in a new normal. All we have to find are the youngsters with the great ideas.

In the meantime, we can all try to recognize our lizard brain response and not be consumed by it.

We also recommend a meditation or two, some relaxation in nature, maybe some gentle classical music.

Recognition of what the planet offers rather than the porkies our social media feeds us.

Green up the lawn

Green up the lawn

Last spring we decided to landscape our front garden. We had a contractor level off the slopes and spread a new layer of topsoil before endless rolls of turf went down on the newly flattened area. And then, of course, we endured a dreadful summer of heat, wildfires, and drought requiring water restrictions that eventually meant we couldn’t water the lawn at all. So after a solid start, we lost the turf and now we have a front yard made up of weeds.

Needless to say, you should question why we wanted a lawn in the first place. Sir Walter is not native or even likely to persist for more than five minutes unaided in our bushy corner of suburbia, but peer-pressure is a powerful force, as is the resale value of the property.

Clearly we have to do something. Living where we do one simply can’t have weeds in the front garden for goodness sake. It has to be a pristine patch of green of a single species mown regularly to add to the sound of the suburbs.

A request was made to the treasury for funds to fix the problem.

A couple of hundred dollars worth of fertilizer, machinery-hire to aerate the soil, and some seed with a top dressing and perhaps the turf can come back from the dead.

It doesn’t work. The money is spent and still the weeds come through.

More money was spent on weed killer and yet more seed and top dressing. Still it doesn’t work.

Back to the treasury for more funds to do the job a third time. This time it will work.

Only the lawn still isn’t in any sort of shape and it feels like the more money you spend on it the worse it gets.

No matter, we’ll try again.

A plastic lawn is out of the question as is a return to clumps of coarse natives with a hint of bare patch.

Going green

The lawn debacle is a wonderful analogy for the work of green movements around the world. They’ve chastised the people and the governments for failure to save iconic species and to halt overall biodiversity loss, and yet each time they claim and whinge about it, going back to the treasury for more funds to do more of the same, because the problem continues to get worse.

How is that sensible policy on such a critical issue?

Surely we can resource the protection of nature. After all, it provides critical processes that determine human existence, yet we cannot find funds to protect the environment from our worst excesses. And how is it that people who have a political agenda to support that exact outcome have failed so miserably to achieve anything?

All around the world green parties have near-zero political capital, typically just a handful of seats here and there. In one or two jurisdictions they may, if they’re lucky, hold the balance of power on crossbenches, but the fundamental policy frame has not caught on with the public. Green parties have not been able to gather themselves to hit the mainstream and actually get themselves elected into positions of power.

This is a really big problem.

Damage to the structure of nature’s natural processes is reaching a critical level. Even Sir David Attenborough has decided to come off the fence and tell it like it is, the loss he has seen with his own eyes. He knows that bending nature to our will to the point where key processes fail is suicide. Don’t forget it is the primary production of plants and the secondary production of animals that feeds us all. Until everyone understands that, messing with the fundamentals is a dumb play for us and especially our grandchildren. Until we can get that into mainstream thinking, all of us are teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff with jagged rocks at the bottom.

Only the green doom and gloom story can’t be the message because whilst doom and gloom may sell newspapers, it doesn’t buy votes.

Newspapers create ‘if it bleeds it leads’ so that politicians can stand up and say “we’ll protect you from all that gore, just see our policy on fencing off the edge of cliffs”. It is what gets them elected. Join in the media with their blood soaked headlines and there is no way the public will elect you. The voters think you are blaming them, which, of course, the greens are and they may be right, but they can’t say it to our faces.

What we have is zero progressive policy on the environment.

But what about the green alternatives and green growth and new green deal. Some mainstream politicians, especially in the US, continue to double down on their base in the cities with these ideas.

Perhaps they are hoping that the COVID story will help. It should focus people’s attention on the need for change. Maybe a new way for how society will evolve over the next 50 years in order for things to settle. To give people some hope again. Give them an alternative to the nonsense that we are witnessing with horror in the US and in Europe, particularly in the UK, right now.

That the mainstream are trying to pick this up is an indictment of the environmental movements.

I don’t normally do this, but I lay the blame firmly on all the various political parties around the world with a green coloured logo. For decades they have not done what they needed to do, which was to make themselves politically credible through policies that people could actually hang a hat on.

Instead, they offer all or nothing decisions we’ve talked about before such as the one that brought down the first carbon trading legislation in Australia with greens demanding more and blocking the passage of the bill.

Can you be too green?

Green has moved on – it’s no longer about the environment

What we see is the ‘same old same old’, still trying to protect koalas, still trying to say that everything’s falling in and the sky will heat everything up to the point of disaster and we must do something right now.

Only there is no suggestion of what exactly to do without causing mass panic. What is it that the general public, not your supporters, but the general public must do to actually change their ways and deliver and get behind.

It is easy to criticise. Much harder to actually come up with answers and solutions. The next phase is to begin to tell people about what to do.

Over at sustainably FED there are a lot of examples of what you can do. A lot of practical tweaks, some learnings and a few political and practical ideas.

I encourage you to join in over at sustainably FED and put your own ideas forward as to how this could change, suggest some solutions would actually work.

And if you have an idea about how to fix a front lawn that simply doesn’t seem to want to catch, when wanting it in the first place is a brown as it gets, I’d really appreciate it.


Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from

Bald faced lies

Bald faced lies

Donald Trump showed that the media is helpless against a bald-faced lie proudly stated, and the Liberal party under Scott Morrison has applied the lesson so well you would almost suggest that lying was an innate ability of those within the party.

Greg Jericho

This from the Guardian columnist is an opinion, it is what he is paid to generate. Only many would agree that it is true. Politicians everywhere are tapping into an innate ability to tell porkies. The POTUS just made it past 20,000 for his first term.

‘Proud lying’ is a profound oxymoron that cannot be a good thing especially because the people are as helpless against it as the media.

There is something going on in this post-truth world where we are more likely to give in to our emotions than to question what triggered them.

The definition of post-truth is as relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.

What on earth went wrong.

When did the school kid, who was told facts and learnt from the books that were written in good faith on what was known at the time and wrote down the facts in exams, not need to know those facts anymore? When did it become acceptable to not only lie but to believe a lie?

This is a subtle point.

It is one thing to lie. That takes a certain moral code or lack of one and to lie well, with conviction and believability, that takes a certain lack of empathy because those lies are going to hurt people. But we know these people exist, we call them psychopaths.

It takes something else to believe the lies. What makes people ignore the truth, deny the facts and accept the bald-faced lies? One reason could be that their insecurity is so deep that they are unable to cope with uncomfortable truths. Another could be the need to feel great and when the liar is geeing everything up and giving you a great feeling, why not run with that.

Then there is cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change — where internal conflict produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

I will believe the lie because it makes me feel better.

This believing in the lie is as big a problem as the lies, if not the problem.

A liar only gets what they need if there is a believer at the end of it. So the populist leaders who are lying through their teeth all the time are still doing it because there are people who respond to those lies.

The solution to this problem is not to berate the media for following the public and giving them what they seem to want. Remember the media is in it for the profit. Clicks and eyeballs make a profit, so the media simply does what it takes to get them.

Also worth remembering is why clicks and eyeballs make a profit. It leads people to goods and services that other people want them to buy. That is still the commercial model where marketing makes sales.

People like to berate that too but that is the commercial model and has been since forever.

No, the solution to all the lies is to get off the couch and go click somewhere else.

Become a sceptic.

Don’t believe them.

Don’t give them your eyeballs and your clicks.


Please pass this on to your social networks. The world could do with a few more healthy sceptics.

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Here is something that you don’t hear every day

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Here is something that you don’t hear every day.

The Washington Post fact check column has been following the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made while in office.

Recall that he has been in the Oval Office since 20th January 2017 which to the 7th July 2020 is 1,264 days or roughly 30,336 hours.

Now in those three and a half years, how many porkies would you say was reasonable. One a week, one a day?

This is the POTUS we are talking about.

The incumbent in one of the highest-profile leadership positions in the world where integrity and a certain amount of honesty would be desirable. This is the white house where some credibility, some respect for the office, some leadership are part of the job description. Most Americans might expect at least that from their president, some level of decorum.

Leave aside for the moment that the incumbent in the oval office also has the code to the red button that can unleash mayhem on the planet that would last for centuries.

So how many little white ones did the Washington Post journalists count?

20,000

Twenty thousand. That is a 2 followed by four zeros, a little shy of 16 a day, one every 90 minutes.

Now we have all been ‘economical with the truth’, told the odd white one, even a few of the grey variety perhaps. Justified often because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Indeed the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying was startling because it showed how often we tell a fib or two. It is part of human nature.

But 16 a day, each and every day for the whole time you are in office.

What does it take to tell that many lies? That many false or misleading claims?

Here is what Psyche Central says about liars, about being deliberately untruthful

Compulsive liars have very little control over their lying. They may be saying the same lies as the pathological liar, but their intent is different. Usually compulsive liars lie out of habit. They have no goal in lying, but they cannot stop. Compulsive lying may be relatively harmless, but is still alarming to those who witness this behavior. They lie with such consistency that they are usually discovered by others in their social circle.

Alright so Donald Trump might have a habit of lying, a pattern so ingrained he cannot stop doing it. Why would he if it got him into office? He was outed as a liar but it has not affected him at all. Indeed the Washington Post journalists report that the frequency of lying has increased in recent months up to 80 per day currently three months out from an election.

What about the pathological liar? Psyche central again…

The difference between pathological and compulsive liars is thin, but distinct. The intention of pathological liars differs from compulsive liars when their sense of empathy is questioned. Pathological liars demonstrate little care for others and tend to be manipulative in other aspects of their life. They lie with such conviction that at times, pathological liars can actually believe the lies they tell. Pathological lying is frequently found in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.

More sinister certainly. Manipulative and with little care for others. They believe the lies they tell. And if the lie is believed by the teller then it ceases to be a lie; a convoluted logic that is only smoothed out if the recipients are diligent and sceptical.

As we get closer to the election Trump is cranking it up. Not only is the frequency going up but so is the intensity.

Whilst he used to say it was the best economy in US history, lately that little porky has grown into s stall sow who has achieved ‘the best economy in the history of the world’.

If this is the way to get re-elected then heaven help us all.

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Photo by John Adams on Unsplash

Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.

David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita

Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.

At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.

So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.

This was a fascinating response.

Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.

Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.

People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.

Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.

Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.

The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.

Sound familiar?

They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.

Familiar too?

The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.

Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.

I was one of the one-in-ten for a brief while back in the UK in the early 1980’s — a number on a list, as UB40 famously crooned.

My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.

When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.

When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5

These are the numbers of serious discontent.

If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.

This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.

Alright, enough doom and gloom.

Here is a slightly brighter note.

A new normal

This would be very nice.

How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.

Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.

The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.

Unless they have got it all wrong.

There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.

The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.

In Covid times this sounds like a plan.

And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.

Bravery or courage

Bravery or courage

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.

Only I think they lack courage.

Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.

Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote

A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous

The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.

This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.

Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.

This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.

This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.

Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.

More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.

What does this look like for a society?

The brave souls

The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.

Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.

And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.

No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.

The courageous souls

Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.

What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.

The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.

A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.

A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.

More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.

There really is something noble in that.

Brave but not courageous

Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.

We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.

They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.

We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.

We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.

And, and, and….

So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.

Rorting the system

Rorting the system

Ever wondered if the POTUS and his family were rorting the system?

Do you think he might be? Yep, I think we all have our suspicions. I’m not talking about the ability to leverage notoriety to go on lecture tours or sell autobiographies. We allow that sort of thing as a small ‘thank you for your service’ along with the secrete service costs of keeping him and his family safe

A small aside here is that former Australian prime minister John Howard is often seen strolling around the CBD of Sydney en route to his office in the MLC building. No police, no bodyguard, just his unmistakable self. I have seen him half a dozen times.

Anyway back to the current POTUS.

Maybe he is just getting ready to use his notoriety to go a step or two further than a book tour to plunder the relationships his position affords for a slice of oil pipelines, hotels, golf resorts, towers and whatever else might make a bob or two, in parts of the world where such things are still twee.

Yes, I think so too.

Not a good look at best and worse, an abuse of his position. That is before we get into the back end deals that might be going down as we speak.

Obviously he doesn’t care a jot about our puny thoughts. Our indignation at his abuse of power. Here is some evidence of just how little he cares.

The number of family trips taken during his tenure is through the roof compared to his predecessor, like an order of magnitude larger.

Admittedly he has a huge extended family in the white house, all jumping around in unelected positions, but really, an order of magnitude more trips with the secret service in attendance.

It even makes the tweets look silly.

US$12 trillion of opportunities

US$12 trillion of opportunities

A large number attracts attention.

Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension

16,000,000,000,000,000

Put a dollar sign in front of it and you get the United States national debt.

As of December 31, 2018, debt held by the public was $16.1 trillion and intragovernmental holdings were $5.87 trillion, for a total of $21.97 trillion.

Don’t you just love credit?

The ‘buy now pay later’ attitude that generates a number so large that there is no end to it other than for the invention of another economic system so it can be written off under a giant bankruptcy proceeding, is classic ostrich behaviour.

Here is the history of that debt as a proportion of GDP noting of course that during this timeline GDP has grown to over 40x its 1960 value.

100% of GDP in 2019 was 40 times bigger in dollars than 100% of GDP in 1960.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/itFbk1Aqe4sSvJi36

And another slightly different presentation of the same data that shows this absolute dollar increase more clearly, the debt adjusted for inflation divided by the number of housholds

Source: https://www.darrinqualman.com/us-national-debt-per-family-1816-2016/

Just for comparison the national entry-level average house price in the US for the last quarter of 2019 was $200,000 meaning a huge chunk of US households were up to their eyeballs in their own debt as well as copping an equivalent amount borrowed by Uncle Sam.

The pattern of when debt increased and fell is interesting too.

After both world wars debt was paid down, rapidly in the case of WWII on the back of a newly minted industrial base. Reagan and Bush spent a few dollars that Clinton tried to pay down only for Bush Jr and his successors to take on a couple more expensive wars.

Obama spent big and, not to be outdone, so has Trump.

Alright, so without getting all political about it, the curve is going up… exponentially.

Here is a neat explanation from Investopedia of how the US government pays for spending more money than it earns from taxes

To operate in this manner of spending more than it earns, the U.S. Treasury Department has to issue Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These Treasury products finance the deficit by borrowing from the investors—both domestic and foreign. These Treasury securities also sell to corporations, financial institutions, and other governments around the world.

By issuing these types of securities, the federal government can acquire the cash that it needs to provide governmental services. The national debt is simply the net accumulation of the federal government’s annual budget deficits. It is the total amount of money that the U.S. federal government owes to its creditors.

So in simple terms, the government borrowed the money.

It is said that really this is printing money and that would be the case if in the future the government foreclosed. It reneged on its obligation to pay bond interests and the house of cards fell over. But for now, it is claimed to be a debt system and not a printing system where there is some notion of future returns and recovery of the principle.

The investors do not seem to mind.

They buy and trade government bonds making a clip in the process so they have no qualms about how big the debt is or the risk of default. They will be on their yachts when it all goes belly up.

And so the debt number that just gets bigger each day is owed to creditors.

Governments who are in control of the central bank could just print the money instead of borrowing it, but history tells everyone that this risks a crazy level of inflation that can cripple economies. Ask the Zimbabweans about that one.


Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation has two main causes

  1. an increase in the money supply
  2. demand-pull inflation

When a government has a spending bill and decides to print money it increases the money on the economy. When there is more money around people have it to spend and goods and services can raise prices without losing custom generating regular inflation. A little of this is seen as a good thing because most people feel like they are growing financially.

Demand-pull inflation is when demand for goods and services outstrips supply so scarcity pushes prices higher. This can happen as a result of increased consumer spending due to a growing economy, a sudden rise in exports, or more government spending.

If inflation gets going through an increase in the money supply but the government continues to print money it generates more of cause one and prices can rise very rapidly. When consumers start to realise that continued inflation is likely they buy more now to avoid paying a higher price later. This increase in demand further aggravates the inflation through cause two.

A nasty spiral results.


Is national debt a bad thing?

Well, I am a ‘money in the bank’ kind of guy.

I struggle to have credit card debt without freaking out so much that I burry the bills in the cupboard.

Economists are not such wimps; it’s other people’s money after all. Only they don’t seem to agree on the issue of debt.

They do agree that governments that run fiscal deficits have to make up the difference by borrowing money. This they know eats up a fair chunk of capital investment in private markets. They also agree that debt securities issued by governments to service their debts affect interest rates, although this can, until recently be manipulated to some extent through monetary policy tools.

After this, it gets a bit ‘cake and eat it’

The Keynesians believe that it can be beneficial to run a current account deficit

in order to boost aggregate demand in the economy.

However, the neo-Keynesians tend to support government deficit spending only after the monetary policy has proven ineffective and nominal interest rates have hit zero.

On the other hand macroeconomists from the Chicago and Austrian school argue that

government deficits and debt hurt private investment, manipulate interest rates and the capital structure, suppress exports, and unfairly harm future generations either through higher taxes or inflation.

Some economists on the fringes are still ok with central banks printing fiat money, despite the historical evidence for inflation.

The fear of inflation appears to keep policymakers from monetizing debt entirely. Instead, overspending governments either have to continue to borrow, sell assets, raise taxes, renegotiate terms, or default to resolve debt issues.

As the federal debt number in the US reaches the outer reaches of our solar system there has to be a limit to what can be fiddled to soak it up with selling down and borrowing. The most likely end result is to default.

Oh, terribly sorry, but we can’t make those repayments.

So is all this debt good or bad?

Inject money into an economy and it will prosper so long as that money of made from something. Print it and it sends values into a spin.

Currently, the world is compromised in the middle, through the third option. Spend but pay for it with debt. Under the current rules, sooner or later that debt is either paid back or not.


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