When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things
1 Corinthians 13:11
The Bible tells us that grownups put away childish things.
You have to wonder about that. When they’re young and before they’re beaten into submission by all the cultural norms and frightened to death by their egos, kids are still innocent. They have a remarkable ability to call out elephants and to say what they think, unfiltered. They come up with great common sense. Sure they don’t have the experience and they don’t have all the details, but they’re still in tune with their instincts for what is right and wrong and what makes sense to them in their particular frame of reference.
In other words, they are honest.
Even if their little personalities might be a little bit sus, they are still able to tell it as it is. So when we put away childish things, what does that actually do to us?
Half the time it makes us into closed, guarded individuals who are fearful of actually saying what we think. In truth because it might go against everyone else’s truth or might be a career-limiting move.
Recently, I was. In a position where I was forced to call out a few childlike behaviors, but not in the sense of those innocent youths, more in the sense of the petulant adolescence who were now grunting into their coca-cola because they’d prefer to have a triple scotch. There was a requirement to call out the fact that we should be having adult conversations about certain policy and scientific matters. And not simply throw our toys out of the cot because we heard something that we didn’t like.
I thought about that a little. What is adult conversation? What is it, that putting away of childish things concept? I’m assuming that it is, take what you now know about the real world about humans operate as adults, gather more information about topics, and begin to act sensibly not with petulance or with innocence, but knowing what the world is like. Removing some of the naivety and having objective conversations about things.
Cultures have the dinner party or the pub or the conversation around the fire, where these matters can be discussed among elders where youngsters listen in or where people are able to extend their knowledge and test out ideas with others.
In the workplace healthy conversation needs to be part of the process. Everyone has a common agenda set by the organization they’re working for and it shouldn’t be a problem to put aside every small nuance and put down your ego for a little bit and have those intelligent adult conversations about the current and the future.
It’s disconcerting when this is not possible. And if this is how society is going, where we can no longer have adult conversations even though the good book told us that that’s what we should do, then we’re in a bit of strife.
Those adult conversations are critical in order to explore options and to decide what is an opinion and what is fact and to work through the logical flow of things. Understand parts of the process that you might not have thought about but someone else has.
If we can’t be adults about it. And we can’t be children because we left all of that behind. And we are left with the petulant adolescent who is grunting away because he’s not the centre of attention…
Then we’re in a great deal of strife.
If you enjoyed this post or even if it made you cringe, post about it. I don’t mind.
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.
For a long time I lived and worked in the tertiary education system.
Universities are peculiar places that gather certain types of personality to them. It sounds weird but academics are full on and wear their subject like a favourite pair of jeans; all the time. Whilst the student body represents the cultural diaspora, academics are a rather narrow minded and small slice of that diversity partly due to that single mindedness of living in the depths of their research. It results in many peculiarities including the left of politics having its last bastion in some of those ivory towers.
My own days of bad hair and dodgy wardrobe as a postgraduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and eventually an academic, were a delight. I loved it. What I did not fully recognise at the time was why I liked it so much. One of the big reasons was that I was surrounded by people who understood, more or less, the topic areas of interest to me.
There I was in a department of biologists and environmental scientists, with people who had basically the same core understanding of how nature works. They didn’t know much about the politics and the social structures of the world, about people in general, but they knew a lot about biology, ecology and the biophysics of the environment.
I often remember that if you didn’t know your basic biology that could cause an embarrassing moment or two amongst your colleagues. As I was trained in my undergraduate years as an environmental scientist not a biologist, a few basics of genetics, photosynthesis and respiration, for example, had passed me by and people noticed.
The point I’m making is that awareness of basic theory and foundational understanding of nature was very high amongst your colleagues. When you had a conversation you could deliver most of what you were thinking and expect it to be understood by the person you were speaking to.
In recent times, I’ve realized that that is by no means a given in the real world.
When you speak to sensible folk in everyday world, awareness of some or all of the foundational understanding that I could take for granted as a trained ecologist chatting in the coffee room of a university department, is missing. Understandably, the technical detail and the deeper theoretical concepts are not there if you have not been through the program. And not everybody has. But the basic common sense of it all was present and correct.
Over the years I have learned to be a little less naive and to deliver potted versions of the concepts. Certainly not to dump all of the knowledge on an unsuspecting member of the public. However, even dialing down expectations of what people will understand to a fraction of what you know yourself may not be enough.
This statement lacks political correctness but stay with me.
At the moment many of the people I work with are educated in the environmental sciences and have decades of experience in rural landscapes. They advise landholders, their colleagues and ministers in matters of natural capital and agricultural production systems. I had made assumptions about what they would know — that soils underpin everything in production, that vegetation delivers livestock and that crops are aliens in most landscapes and need care and attention.
I also assumed an understanding of the policy frame and the politics of landscapes and the use of natural capital.
It seems reasonable to make such assumptions. These were professional people well educated, well-trained and you’d expect them to have some knowledge.
The reality is that my expectation reduction was nowhere near enough.
I had guessed that a reduction of the available knowledge by 80% of what I knew about a topic should be exceeded. That is what expectations should be, low enough to easily be exceeded; a version of the ‘under promise over deliver’ mantra of any good service company. This did not mean dumbing it down nor to assume ignorance just reducing the complexity to fundamentals so that the basics came across.
I had always expected that people would be okay with that and that they would recognize what I was trying to say. I expected responses with intelligence and from their perspective.
It turns out that delivering just 20% of what you know as an experienced academic is nowhere near enough reduction. You’ve got to cut much harder than that if you want your expectations to be met.
Now unmet expectations create a lot of stress for the person delivering information. I realize now that my big mistake was to overestimate the ability of people to understand nature and how humans use it.
I’m not talking about intelligence here, nor the ability to solve puzzles, to do math or the ability to find the tail end of a binomial distribution.
What I mean is a lack of basic understanding of phenomena that are happening in the world and their consequences for the rural landscape. Little things like knowing that we have eight billion people growing at eight thousand an hour. That almost all soil is under human management and at least 40% are in some sort of disarray as a result of that management.
Then there are some basic numbers that suggest future challenges for organizations involved with rural landscapes, even their own backyards. Some fundamentals that they really should know — average age of farmers in Australia is 58 with 50% of them working more than 49 hours per week, the debt to equity ratio of most farm businesses is very high where farmers have leveraged their properties in order to maintain their production systems and therefore giving themselves a very high debt load constraining any future innovation. Overall agriculture in Australia is under capitalised and there is a vast need for improvements to infrastructure particularly transport networks, but also in intensification of certain parts of the landscape and a desperate need to rest other parts.
Everyone should really understand that the challenge is how to get that investment. Where to get it from, what the financial instruments might be, who owns the risk, and who benefits from the risk?
These are the sorts of questions that should be simmering under the everydayness of any environmental role that is involved in any way with natural capital. And be talked about in tearooms and prior to meetings on Zoom. They should be the issues and questions that interest people. Unfortunately, they don’t.
At least not in recent experience. The generation that are currently in managerial and senior positions in environmental organizations, particularly in the bureaucracy, simply don’t have that frame of reference. Perhaps it’s a baby boomer story perhaps it’s a Gen X problem. Few seem to have the ability or the voice to put their organization into the broader context of what must happen in the world to stop humanity from major catastrophe.
People are parochial. I understand that. What’s going on in our backyard, what’s going on in the neighbor’s yard, and what’s going on overseas is increasingly distant to us. Such is normal human behavior ever since we started in tribes. But in the modern age when supply chains are universal — my wife ordered a parcel from the US which has gone via Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and still hasn’t arrived in Australia — these are global systems needing global solutions as well as local solutions.
The questions I have are these…
Do I lower my expectation from 20% to 10% or 5% and make things even more simple than I do at the moment?
Do I stop writing 20 page reports which have the detail in them and a one-page summary, which is the 20% that people might read and reduce that 20% to a headline?
Do I keep plugging away with the 20%, sometimes going to 60%+, and hope for the best?
It goes against the grain to capitulate and it’s not the smart play because detail is important in these matters. There is a lot of information and understanding needed to make good decisions around how we use the landscape, how carbon is managed, how nutrients are managed, how we appropriate net primary production.
So I suspect that I must kick on with the conflict still in my head. Just keep trying.
And we need more people to try. More people to be educated around these matters and be able to communicate that information to others who might not have had the opportunity to learn about it.
More importantly, I encourage you to not shy away from the information and the understanding even if you don’t work in the environment or deal with where our food comes from, you still consume food, you have a diet and what you choose to put into your body is important for not only your own health, but also how we manage resource product resources natural capital use and food production into the future.
I struggle with the stress of trying to be able to make this connection to people over topics that they do not readily understand. And one day I’ll retire and stop doing it.
But for the moment I still keep the fire burning and encourage people to understand more about the world around them, it is after all in their interests and the interests of their great grandchildren.
Help me keep it all going by sharing with anyone you think might be interested
There is no doubt that it is a troublesome time in history.
Close to 8 billion people are feeling it. There is the everyday chase to stay ahead, troubling politics, and a pandemic that requires some draconian measures just to keep it in check. Most of what we thought we knew about the word has changed.
It is an easy argument that we live in an especially perilous time for ourselves and what we are doing to the planet.
“Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this century is special: it’s the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands.”
Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
There are plenty of ways we could do this from pollution to nuclear armageddon and we are already well on the way with our conversion of the landscape for agriculture and emissions to the atmosphere. Then we might engineer killer pathogens or malevolent AI.
But it is fine, the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is a global ban on developing bio-weapons like a super-coronavirus, has a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s restaurant. And collectively the world spends more on ice cream than we do on preventing technologies that could end everything about our way of life.
Pretty hingey if you ask me.
But none of these is the reason for the pivot point.
That’s much more about population. Only this graphic suggests otherwise with the brave prediction that are trillions of humans yet to come.
Unfortunately, this infographic is horribly wrong.
It is true that should humanity get through the next century there is a chance that we will persist to the average lifespan of a mammalian species or at least make it for another 50,000 years. So the timeframe is fine.
What is incorrect is the assumption that we would get there under our current population growth rate. That is not what will happen.
Populations eventually collapse when they overexploit their resource base. The immediate projection is that the 7.7 billion growing to perhaps 11 billion over the next 30 years will need food. The UN expects that current agricultural production will need to increase by 2% per annum for those 30 years. This is equivalent to a second agricultural revolution; no small ask.
If we meet this demand, and it will get very ugly if we don’t, then all the nutrients in that food must either be perfectly recycled or mined from the asteroid belt because otherwise there is simply not enough plant-available nutrients on the planet to support all those people as they trickle through.
There may be compelling arguments for thinking we live in an unusually hingey moment compared with other periods. But those thinking of the unborn generations would argue that if there are trillions yet to come, the potentially long, long future of civilisation that could lie ahead, the actual hinge of history is most likely yet to come.
The hinge is now because we have to get through the demographic transition or more strictly we have to generate one. If the species is to survive then we have to eat for the remaining 700,000 years of expected mammal species existence.
We will do very well to make it from here.
Feel free to share with your friends, neighbours, and your grandma who no doubt would have something to say on the matter of our future…
The Buddha addresses the monks in Sarnath, modern Uttar Pradesh, India and tells them how he had first preached the Four Noble Truths there. He exhorts them to follow Sāriputta who takes up the teaching and gives a detailed explanation of the Truths
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.
— Saccavibhanga Sutta
Buddha condemned killing or harming living beings and encouraged reflection or mindfulness (satipatthana) as right action (or conduct), therefore
“the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others“
Killing is harmful then, to both self and others.
You do not need to be a Buddist to recognise this truth.
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a black American, died in police custody. He should not have lost his life.
This gross injustice resulted in a tragedy that has galvanised a lot of people to protest, to gather in spite of the health risk to themselves and others to speak out against an institutional prejudice that goes back to the dawn of humanity.
How far back does racism go?
As a species, we are ingenious, tenacious, hard-working and smart. As individuals, we offer most of these things too in varying degrees. And we love competition, especially winning. This is the critical ingredient in our recipe for global success. We are motivated to compete and win.
This means that we need a competitor. It can be a rival in the scramble for a resource such as a job, a partner, and back in the day for food and shelter.
In our hunter-gatherer-scavenger past, there is interesting evidence from our acid guts that we were pretty efficient scavengers on the not so fresh produce, as we competed with other species, lions, hyenas and other primates all on the lookout for nutrient-dense food sources.
We also competed with each other. Other tribes, other family groups, even our brothers and sisters even when needs must.
This instinct is hard-wired into our biological more making. Our genes look forward to the next generations and our bodies and minds help them get there.
This means that racism when defined as
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized
is an extension of inevitable competition goes way back into our evolutionary past.
Of course, I am assuming here that Darwin was right. That the evolutionary record, the genetic mapping and even the archaeology backs up the theory that we are a species that is several hundred thousand years old and that our genus, Homo, is several million years old.
If you think it was all made in a week then this explanation is meaningless.
We are designed to compete and with this, there has to be a competitor. A person or a group of people that we must fight and beat to gain access to the resource. Winning becomes critical and the psychology of winning is as important as the physical strength, cunning and fighting skills needed for the actions themselves. Loathing and hate of the competitor make for helpful logic in the will to win and in teaching the young how to fight.
That this becomes prejudice and a ‘better than’ attitude is inevitable.
We might think of racism as a recent albeit historical phenomenon, a relic perhaps of the horror days of slaves and slaves trades and humans exploited and denigrated on plantations and farms in the new world.
Likely it is very old and has been in the human psyche through evolutionary time.
This argument suggests we might all be innate racists.
A troubling thought.
Along with most amateurs, my golfing buddies are not that great at golf.
We are always looking for ways to get better, to swing it like the professionals. I try to persuade them to watch the LPGA professionals, the ladies. They are outstandingly good athletes but they hit the ball closer to our distances, not the interstellar drives of their male counterparts. Interestingly when I showed them videos of the some of the best in the world, all seven world number ones since 2014 are of Asian ancestry, they were not that interested. Show them Jessica Korda, a caucasian and a very fine golfer but with the highest world ranking of 13 and they were very interested indeed.
Innate bias I guess.
Not all bad
The human enigma is that we are not all bad or biggoted.
Along with our competitive urges we have instincts to cooperate, be kind, look after each other, put in place safety nets for those less fortunate.
We give to charity, volunteer for all sorts of noble causes and even go out on the streets to protest that black lives matter.
We fight our own innate prejudices. They are not a given. They can be changed, moulded and even banished altogether.
It was not so very long ago that the definition above could read
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their gender
Indeed we still have work to do on gender equality as we do with racism and many other expressions of our fear of losing out directed at minorities.
So we have come a long way and we continue to get better at challenging our fears and prejudice.
All lives matter
It is not politically correct to say this right now. The right have appropriated it to their own ends, shift the blame, lay down some excuses for their excesses.
Only it is as the Buddha says
“the rightness or wrongness of action centres around whether the action itself would bring about harm to self and/or others“
A person’s colour, gender, creed or orientation should make no difference to how they are treated; no matter where they or their ancestors come from.
Do no harm.
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At Alloporus we are not that fond of koalas. Well, more strictly we don’t like people’s responses to them from the ‘ah they are so cute’ to the ‘OMG they are about to go extinct’.
In our view, they are neither cute nor about to shuffle off into oblivion.
The main problem for the sceptic with a fascination for pragmatology is that these responses are normative. They are emotional which in the objectivity hierarchy is a step down from opinion and a long way short of evidence.
We should expect people to get their heart involved in things, it makes the world go around, so I am told.
More difficult to handle is the lack of objectivity. The reality is that the koala is not going to go extinct any time soon and certainly not in the next five minutes.
Here is what the fossil evidence tells us
Fossil evidence identifies as many as 15–20 species, following the divergence of koalas (Phascolarctidae) from terrestrial wombats (Vombatidae) 30–40 million years ago. The modern koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, which first appeared in the fossil record ~350,000 years ago, is the only extant species of the Phascolarctidae.
Johnson, R. N., O’Meally, D., Chen, Z., Etherington, G. J., Ho, S. Y., Nash, W. J., … & Peel, E. (2018). Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1102-1111
Alright, so we also know that this species is a specialised feeder, prone to certain diseases and has been squeezed by genetic bottlenecks, especially with small founder population in the southern parts of Australia.
However, as Johnson et al (2018) also point out
Current estimates put the number of koalas in Australia at only 329,000 (range 144,000–605,000), and a continuing decline is predicted.
Again ‘only’ is a classic normative word, it is an opinion. And as Alloporus has noted way too many times before, an error range of plus or minus 300,000 is simply too coarse to make any claims of disaster valid. The first task must be to tighten the estimates to something closer to the real numbers and the real rates of change.
All this is a rehash of what we have droned on about before. But then I heard a chat on the radio today.
Some journalists were commenting on the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for the $60 billion Australian tourism industry.
What they said was that Australians are unlikely to take up the slack created by the loss of the Chinese market by tourism from the locals. They thought that Australians are just not excited by the wildlife they grew up with, unlike the overseas tourists who are fascinated, often enough to travel thousands of kilometres to see them.
Now, this is interesting.
It suggests that the real reason for all the koala bruhaha from both state and Federal governments is nothing to do with its extinction at all.
It is all to do with attracting foreign tourists back to a market designed for them and not for the locals.
That $60 billion represents a lot of jobs including in regional areas. It is the same logic that brings offers of largess to Hong Kong citizens who want to come to Australia and bring their businesses and investment with them.
It is money that matters. Evidence of extinction, not so much.
Please share this post on your social feeds. You never know, someone might benefit from it.
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.
Only this number, 16 thousand billion, is so large as to be beyond comprehension
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.
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
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.
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 has two main causes
an increase in the money supply
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.
I had a problem with this political slogan from the beginning.
The assumption, of course, is that America was at one time great. In the minds of its citizens perhaps, but, in reality, when America dominated the world it was a bully with extraordinary economic power thanks mainly to the industrial makeover after WW II.
The problem, even if you concede that industrial and economic might is indeed a great thing, is that in order to make America great again, the orange man has turned to an isolation approach based on an ‘us and them’ kindergarten psychology where the ‘them’ are bad and ‘we’ are good. It is innately racist.
Chasing the slogan has worked, at least for his support base. He spent government money, no matter that there was none to spend and a $26 trillion debt on the books, and for a time pumped a certain amount of confidence in the economy. Things were indeed moving towards his definition of great.
Only now a threat has arrived that he can’t control, a pandemic, where being economically great simply doesn’t work to protect anyone against its consequences — just ask Boris how he felt in the ICU.
It might be smart to reconsider the concept of being great under such circumstances. The global world of lockdown has given us any number of creative definitions from the humorous to the smart.
The US is in an election year and obviously Trump is moving to make sure he is reelected. I say obviously because we didn’t think he would make it to the office or survive five minutes, so we perhaps shouldn’t assume he would automatically want another four years of being the biggest cheese… only joking. Of course, he wants it.
Re-election in a pandemic would be a challenge for anyone. The US economy has tanked, unemployment is through the roof, and many people have no idea when or if there will be a return to normal.
In the meantime, under the encouragement of the president, people are taking their guns and demanding that state governors lift the lockdown measures. At over a million cases and counting that seems reckless at best.
Professor Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labour and Professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley has recently come up with what he believes is Donald Trump’s four-step plan for reelection
Step 1 is to remove income support so people have no choice but to return to work
Step 2 hide the facts
Step 3 pretend it’s about freedom
Step 4 shield business’ against lawsuits for spreading the infection
This, of course, is a Democrat talking about a Republican president but the points he makes in those four steps are troubling.
Removing income support at a time when people are worried about their employment status is cruel in the extreme.
We know that the Trump administration hides the facts as a matter of course and when facts appear that they don’t like, they play them as fake news.
The problem with COVID is that the facts deal with death.
When Trump first put his hand up to become president, pretty much everyone laughed. I for one failed to realise how far the denial of facts and the lambasting of the media as fake could take you all the way to the White House. No surprise then that this tactic of hiding the facts will apply in the case of the virus.
Pretending it’s about freedom so that gun-toting individuals can rock up at government offices to demand their rights and for that behaviour to be seen as ok is crazy. As Robert Reich points out, making this about freedom is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks that health.
And the fourth step to get business back on track and the economy in the direction that will get me reelected, is to protect them from lawsuits that might occur if they remain open and their staff contract the virus
I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine how any of this is great.
There have been millions of words written about the craziness of this situation that the US finds itself in with leadership that really has no concern for the people or just a small proportion of those people who are there to support the ego of an individual.
I suspect that we’re actually witnessing the ongoing decline of a once-powerful nation. The British Empire has gone and the American one looks like it will follow suit. This will take time because you can’t just turn off the influence of 350 million people and the world’s largest economy but the passions and the motivations that got them into that position of greatness have been corrupted beyond recognition.
America will not be great again at least not on this path.
Now there is another disruption. The next chapter in a terrible saga of racism that has blighted the so-called greatness for the countries entire history. There is hope this time around, there always is when the righteousness in people is roused by tragedy.
As I write this post there is no toilet paper in the supermarket and not much in the way of pasta, rice or tinned veggies. The frozen foods section is cleaned out and eggs are down to the last couple of dozen. The long-life milk is restricted to two per customer but on the upside, remarkably, the fresh food is as abundant in variety and quality as ever. The deli counter looks like it always has and there is every cut of meat you could wish for waiting for a culinary touch.
I am wiping down the trolly handle with anti-bacteria surface cleaner and I have no idea if it is dumb or not. I scratch my nose. Idiot, can’t even get the basics right.
I leave the store with a trolley load of provisions nearly identical to the loads carried home before this virus changed everything. I say thank you to the ether with gratitude for my good fortune. Then I say it again.
I try desperately not to give in to the mischievous imp on my shoulder telling me it will not last, make the most of it.
Is he right, that little fear-mongering bugger? Can supply chains keep going with everyone locked down?
I have no idea. Not the foggiest.
This is the new world we have entered. The place of lockdown and isolation, witty memes and singing on balconies. A place where nobody knows if they can protect themselves from the virus and where some seem not to care at all if they do, for themselves or others.
Nobody knows if it will last weeks or months or if the fallout will take years for the world to recover. The economists are delighted for they are in fashion again even though they have absolutely no idea why the neo-liberals resumed the rampant printing of money for the biggest social programs in history.
And in Belarus, they are still singing on the terraces at soccer games.
Unable to fathom any of this I took to thinking what it might look like after the virus.
We could have got so used to working from home that we actually quite like it and persuade companies that this should be the norm and flex days are the ones we go into an office rented just for the purpose.
Only the mothers with young children decide that this home schooling thing is too much and can’t wait to send their kids back to the organised daycare of the education system so they can enjoy the working from home.
We actually got used to fortnightly grocery trips and online orders so much that the shopping malls were converted into community centres for recreation and social persuits. The old folks in the day and the yongsters at night.
So as not to get too worried about the money situation we voted in governments that introduced a liveable universal income with incentives for working two to three days a week on jobs that get us out of the house, away from our partners and keep the place clean and tidy.
They also agreed that they would underwrite the supply chains so that we didn’t have to accumulate personal wealth for a rainy day.
We enjoyed the cleaner air and the lower emissions so much that we agreed staying at home was actually preferable to burning fossil fuels and we would only take trips in electric vehicles from now on. There was a global competition with grand prizes for the invention of fast train and air travel without all the mess.
The mental fallout from the virus was so great that psychology became the most sought after training in colleges and universities and along with the guaranteed income was universal access to mental health care.
The governments realised that QE was actually not going to send inflation up in a rocket and that the concept of money, lending and borrowing against yourself did not actually bring the house of cards down. What they came to realise was that the resource base was what mattered all along. So they invested heavily in understanding how much we needed to look after land, water and the natural world for all its services. They even figured out that soil was the most important resource of all.
Along with this back to nature came a surge in technological advances that made everything and everyone more efficient. Robots with AI blockers built in made all the mudane work routine freeing everyone to work only as they wanted and on service tasks, the necessarily touchy feely work that make us all human for thanks to some very smart researchers a universal viral vaccine was invented that kept us safe from COVID-26.
All up the world became a much better place. There were rouges and the mentally disturbed and the accidents and the unwanted deaths from neglect or stupidity but, all in all, the world was cleaner, smarter and a lot safer place to live.
This is what step changes can do.
They can make us all smile.
Please share or add your ideas for the nice changes we could make happen.