Beneath a Steel Sky

About a year and a half ago, I went to San Francisco for a conference, and while I was there I met up with an old high school friend who lived in the East Bay. We went walking around the city, talking, and in a totally unexpected twist in the narrative the topic of discussion veered toward political matters. One of the things we talked about was the difference in political attitudes between the former USSR and the present-day USA, and on that topic, I suggested that one of the biggest difference was the relative intangibility of crisis in America.

That needs explained, as they say here in the 412. What I mean by that is not that large sectors, or even the majority of the population, have been able to escape the consequences of the Great Recession and the corresponding catastrophe of governance that Republicans have managed to create at every level. What I mean is that despite all these things, the country still looks like it’s running. A great deal of that is obviously administrative inertia, but as we all learned in high school physics, momentum is mass times velocity. The bureaucratic machinery may not have a great deal of the latter, but it has enough of the former that it can grind on for quite some time (apparently Belgium did not cease to exist despite failing to have an official elected government for more than a year): you get up in the morning and you still go to your job (if you’re lucky enough to have one) via mostly-functioning highways; by and large, the electricity is still on in the vast majority of places (if you can afford to pay for it); the world physically looks more or less all right, since the rot underneath hasn’t quite surfaced as physical manifestation. In the USSR, on the other hand, that manifestation was ubiquitous; you can joke about bread lines all you want, but the truth is that bread lines absolutely existed. You couldn’t really go outside and not be confronted with your governments failures.

In short, it’s easy to be oblivious in America, as long as you’re still reasonably well off. It’s even easier and better if you’re unreasonably well off. And since it’s the unreasonably well off who control the tempo and content of our political conversation, a great number of people continue to walk around with a vague sense of unease that something has gone terribly wrong, but with no adequate framework for explaining just what it is that has gone wrong and no overt physical manifestation of the wrongness[1]. Because the machine grinds on.

Except when it doesn’t. Which brings us to the debt ceiling debate.

I feel like I should somehow be angrier about this than I really am, but owing to my own relatively privileged position within the great chain of being, I find myself every bit as much under the sway of the cognitive biases outlined above. The infrastructure may be crumbling all around me, but it’s doing it pretty slowly, so every day physically appears a lot like the previous day. The same (sometimes boarded-up) buildings are still there; the buses (fare increases and all) are still running; the streets (Moon-worthy craters notwithstanding) have not yet deteriorated to the point of being undriveable (though many are unbikeable). Everything looks like it’s more or less the same.

But it’s obviously not, because on December 31st, the federal government has officially run into the debt ceiling. Which means that the money required to keep the machine grinding is going to run out, and it’s going to run out very soon, because the Republican House refuses to do what the House has done year in and year out for about a century and raise it. Put simply, obligations already committed to by the government will go unpaid; the country might, quite literally, default.

This should be an unthinkable set of circumstances for the largest and wealthiest economy in the world, and yet here we are. Since Republicans have decided that economic terrorism was the way forward, they’ve quite sensibly taken a hostage that they’re willing to shoot; it just so happens that the hostage is the American economy. What “negotiation” is possible when a minority (and make no mistake about it, Republicans are nationally less popular than Democrats) literally threatens to destroy the economy if it doesn’t get its way? The term “nuclear option” is frequently overused, but that would seem appropriate here. The Republicans have strapped an economic nuclear weapon to themselves and are threatening to take down everyone, including their own constituents.

The whole thing seems absolutely surreal; it’s as though, while intellectually convinced that we’re on a plane headed towards a mountain, most of us (and most of our so-called elites) are sitting calmly in our seats knitting[2]. Maybe it’s the overwhelming sense of despair at being able to actually achieve anything, or the vapidity of the ongoing conversation. Sensible people keep saying things like “JESUS CHRIST PULL UP ON THE STICK SO WE CAN CLEAR THIS FUCKING MOUNTAIN BEFORE YOU KILL US ALL,” but one of the ornery co-pilots has wedged the control stick so far up his asshole that the only way to get to it would be to cut the bastard open stern-to-stern. Too bad all we’ve got on this flight are plastic knives.

At times like these it feels tempting to ascribe the whole thing to some sort of collective insanity. But that’s not fair to actually insane people, nor is it accurate as an assessment of what’s actually going on. You could do some game-theoretical reasoning about the lack of incentives that Republican have to cooperate due to gerrymandering and primary threats, and you would be right, but it takes a special kind of sociopath to look reality in the face and decide that we’re better off plunging into the mountain because it would avoid having to compromise one’s highly-principled stand that no airplane should fly above 10,000 feet. Which is all to say that all of this is deliberate and planned and explainable by simply reading what the principal participants have to say about it.

In the next few weeks, I suppose we’re going to find out whether we clear the mountain after all, or whether the price of America’s continued existence is going to be throwing a good third of the passengers off the plane mid-flight because otherwise we’re all going to die. Recent trends do not justify optimistic projections.


[1] Obviously, for many people the wrongness does manifest itself: in lost jobs, in rising health care premiums, in decreased funding for education, and in many other ways. The point isn’t that people aren’t suffering, it’s that the conversation is controlled by an upper stratum of the elite, who are decidedly not suffering at all; this prevents any kind of serious structural analysis from emerging to help people make sense of what’s going on.

[2] I don’t know why knitting except that it’s the kind of thing I imagine one might do if one wanted to calm themselves. Substitute your favorite calming activity here.

Movie Recommendation: Chasing Ice

Last night I went to see Chasing Ice at the local art-house theater, and I recommend the film to everyone without reservation.

Chasing Ice is a documentary film that focuses on the work that photographer James Balog did in setting up the Extreme Ice Survey. The EIS’s purpose is to chronicle the no-longer-gradual disappearance of the Arctic glaciers, and the result is perhaps the most visually stunning depiction of the consequences of global warming that I have ever seen. Despite some added schmaltz about Balog’s personal life, Chasing Ice is a fairly straightforward story about what is happening to Arctic ice year in and year out; if you have a friend or relative that likes to blather on about how “the science isn’t in yet,” I suggest taking them to see this film. Actually, you should go see it even if you’re up on the science, because it features some absolutely phenomenal photography by Balog. I won’t spoil it for you, but the final ten minutes contain some literally jaw-dropping footage (I kid you not, I watched with my mouth literally hanging open) that is damn worth seeing in theaters and justifies the price of admission by itself. I don’t hesitate to say completely sincerely that Chasing Ice, for all its somewhat dry tone, is as much a work of art as anything you could see in the theater; if it goes any appreciable distance towards convincing people of the immediacy of the climate change problem, it’ll be far more influential.

A Completely True Though By No Means Exhaustive List of Items Discovered While Cleaning Out the Trunk of My Car

2 basketballs
2 sets of dress socks, apparently never worn
1 permit for parking on the Harvard campus, date fall of 2007
1 car 12V-to-USB adapter
1 hardcover copy of The Indigestible Triton, by L. Ron Hubbard
1 paperback copy of Young Torless, by Robert Musil, cover missing
1 book of Erwin Panofsky’s essays, cover drenched in what appears to be laundry detergent
1 empty bottle of laundry detergent, Tide
1 automotive emergency kit, with gloves
1 tire iron
an indeterminate number of bungee cords, various sizes
an indeterminate amount of objects ostensible related to windsurfing, including mast base, sail ribs, and harness elements
1 empty cardboard box, apparently used to ship a keyboard
1 half-used roll of quarters
1 $1 bill
1 tube of toothpaste, still in original packaging, also drenched in laundry detergent
2 sets of ratchet ropes
1 piece of plastic apparently once removed from underside of car, function unknown
1 can of Raid Ant & Roach spray
2 Raid ant traps
2 null modem cables
1 BNC cable
1 binder full of astrophysics papers
1 binder containing the printed version of Dodelson’s Modern Cosmology
1 copy of A Documentary History of Art

Further reports as excavations progress.