Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 1, 2008 9:08AM

All-Consuming Questions

Rate: 23 Flag

Our economy is based on consumption. And it's killing both our economy and the planet. We're using up too much in raw resources and fuel, then throwing away too much. If you don't agree with me, I'll happily debate you another time, but I'm not trying to argue about whether these things are happening on this occasion. I'm just asking some questions here of people who are willing to assume those premises are unambiguously true.

The economy is hurting. So I keep hearing we need jobs. Manufacturing jobs. We need to keep America working, making things so we'll have money to buy things. Make more, buy more. Buy more, need more. Need more, make more. Except...

I have sometimes said, indulging only a small amount of hyperbole, that there's only one real occupation in the world: growing corn. Everything else is just amusement— the process of waiting to eat. Ok, so there's more kinds of food than just corn. And there are more essentials than just food. North of a certain latitude, clothing is not just a nice idea, it's a necessity. Housing doesn't hurt. And people sometimes get sick, so health care and medicine matters.

But beyond needs, must we have a policy of consumption? What if we paid people not to consume? Maybe I finally understand carbon tax credits.  But if I really do, the question becomes, why only carbon? Why not plastic? Paper? Other consumable resources? 

What if we made our economy be based on things like eBay and said we'll make no more things from scatch any more. Perhaps there are enough things. Perhaps we need to relearn how to repair things when they break instead of throwing them out? Skilled watchmakers no longer have jobs because now when your watch breaks, you just buy a new one. What if we taxed the creation of new clothing or new housing in order to incentivize the reuse of things that already exist.

Must we continue to make things without considering whether we can do without them? If such freedom threatened our very survival, would we happily give up our survival for that freedom?

I have no agenda here. This question is just bugging me. I'm trying to understand how jobs function in the flow of society. Are they just entertainment? If what we do is not essential, why does it matter whether we do things? (Yes, yes, there's that pesky redistribution of wealth thing. But please ignore that for now, too. We can come back to the wealth issue in another forum.) Why not just give us some food and clothes and whatnot and be done with it? Why insist we make some useless trinket that no one needs? Is it just a way to trick people out of money? If so, isn't there a more efficient way to get their money that doesn't involve the making of useless trinkets?

We make television shows like Star Trek that say that in the future, we won't need money and we'll all just do what we like, and there will be lots of choice because the Universe is a place of plenty. Are we on track toward that? Is that what we want? It sounds like universal welfare but with the recipients having so strong a work ethic that they work anyway. I ask not because I mean to say there's anything wrong with it on Star Trek, but rather because I mean to ask whether what needs to happen, between where we are in history now and where Star Trek is in our alleged future is, for there to be the invention of more things, like flip-phones and tricorders. Or is some sort of shift in human nature the thing?

Are we going in the right direction? Are there productive paths we're not considering? We seem to be on autopilot, waiting for life to resume what it has been. Maybe a little greener, but otherwise the same. Is that enough? Is the reason we continue on our present path because we need to go in that direction? Or because we fear revolt or confusion among citizens if we don't?

When it comes to Climate Change, to recycle an old question, are those of us who aren't involved directly in the solution part of the problem?

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"Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without."

It's still good advice and maybe even better in light of our heightened awareness of the planet's distress. Beam me up to a future that features less consumerism and more solutions.
I've occasionally had thoughts along similar lines, Kent. For example, you sometimes hear about a new business leader being brought in to improve the growth of a big company. Why is it always growth? Could a company be profitable and just gradually shrink by attrition, without people thinking it's a failure? Obviously, I'm not a financial genius.
Kent, I think this is a very thought provoking piece and it helps to raise a certain awareness of the possibilities in a world where GREED does not exist. If we had "replicaters", or "holo-decks" there would quite possibly be a tax, with the stewards of those enterprises holding all the chips.

I am appalled by all the products I see, continually, in retail stores everywhere. I agree, if the useless products were gone, we would see shelves begin to resemble the merchant shelves of the 1800's. I am shocked by the ravages of plundered resources for "do-dads."

I have a colleague who goes to retail stores to relax. He just meditates on the plethora of products. He sees it as an experience equally as edifying as a trip to the Met. This is sad in a way, where we find ourselves programed to find edification in viewing the endless variety of products that we don not need.

My dad used to tell me he was content to keep his business the same size, successful, safe and solvent. He felt growth was not needed, and that the quality of his work would suffer if he grew his business.

Anyway,......thanks Kent. this is a very fine post.
kent - the complexity and cogency of your writing continue to amaze me. excellent piece. you've given me a lot to think about.

Growth as a goal is effective and narcotic in its simplicity. It is easy to see why governments and corporations embrace it as a model. It is only when the ramifications of growth and consumption are considered that it becomes complex and breaks down as a model. True interdependence and shifting resources, including scaling back and reuse, is difficult, messy work.

I am guardedly hopeful that we (the global we) are up to the task.
Really great question, Kent. The mantra of "growth" has puzzled me for a long time; businesses want it, communities want it, nations want it; families want it. But where can it end, and are we now seeing its logical conclusion? I don't know, but I will watch this post for the next few days and see what others add to it. I for one come back to the same wall in my thoughts whenever I ponder the question and I've yet to see any way around or over or under it.
Kent asked: Why not just give us some food and clothes and whatnot and be done with it?

Generally, economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. In other words, if the thing were free, people want more of it than would be provided. (As opposed to, say, fresh air, which does not -- yet! -- cost anything.) How do you make the choices about who gets what, when not everybody can have all that they want?

In particular, growing corn can be a lot of hard work. If everything were free, do you think there would be the same amount of corn available as there is today? (Which is not enough corn for demand, if corn were free.) Why do you think the corn farmers would work as hard?

The Star Trek universe is one where material items (and/or energy) can basically be had "for free". This probably isn't feasible until AI succeeds and human society passes the singularity.
If you haven't visited or, God Forbid, even heard of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, do yourself a favor and make the pilgramage by clicking
As Rev. Billy asks, "What would Jesus buy?"
I think it's really hard to realize what a mental box we're in until we can step outside of it. SciFi can be a terrific way to imagine alternatives--and so is physically getting out of America. Living in Vietnam has been an absolute eye-opener for me. You might want to check out my recent post entitled, "Living in the Material World."
"Growth is the edict of a cancer cell."

Below, just a small sampling of actual items available for purchase, gleaned from the mountain of catalogs that continue to fill my mailbox, despite my best efforts to stem the tide:

-- scarf and mitten set for your favorite bottle of wine
--bagel "guillotine"
--electric playing card shuffler
--waterproof cell phone, safe for use in the shower
--custom branding iron, for personalizing your next steak dinner
--"zen" countertop water feature
--musical rotating Christmas tree
--barking doggie treat jar

Of course, I've been as guilty of excess consumption as the next hunter/gatherer, but have been on a personal spending freeze since the financial meltdown and am finding it quite liberating.

Thanks for a thoughtful post on a provocative subject. Rated.
Thank you! I've asked over and over why most people 's lives seem to revolve around shopping for material things.
Excellent and insightful post, Kent. Thanks.

I have often thought that the Northeast is very similar to the Pacific Northwest and this is no exception. I was appalled when I went to Florida and Louisiana at the amount of litter and bottles which in Oregon and many states is returnable.

I like how this topic is being evaluated at different scales. It is no less than a discussion of what we replace Capitalism with.

Rock on. rated
Hi Kent:
You and I are thinking on the same page, again. I just finished reading James Galbraith's, "The Predator State", a book about how the unregulated free-market economy has allowed self-monitored corporations to become predators. The corporate CEO's are enabled by all branches of government to create massive wealth for the few at the expense of the many. The conclusion is that deregulation is BAD, and the free market cannot run itself without checks and balances. (As if we didn't already know that...)
I have a teacher who is away from me just now, who left me with a final thought:

1) Our future will be a world in which we can have anything that we want at the expense of no one, and

2) No one will have to do anything that they do not want to do.

He has NEVER been wrong, the whole nine years I have known him, but often leaves me with puzzles to solve. If you would be so kind as to share how things get done in Star Trek with no money, we might be on the right path as his solution certainly does not involve having an economy.

Corporation need not spend on research and development for new energy efficient technology because the technology exists and is well know to the powers that be. We continue to have an oil-based free market economy as to avoid a worldwide collapse of the markets, we have to wean ourselves off oil, and carefully transition into other sources of clean energy.

If the economy is not based on oil consumption NOR supported and fed by consumerism, what remains?

How much would we have to earn/contribute to our houshold and neighborhoods if we didn't need an oil-based economy because most energy was available for free? What would the world be like without a free market economy for goods and resources? How can we get to a place where nothing is scarce -- which goods are scarce to a level that is insurmountable? Would owning "things" become a thing of the past?

I have been unable to solve the riddle because I get stuck on who does the "grunt" work if no one has to do anything they don't want to do? Maybe if a full day of tedious work would not be required to live for our free time with family and friends or our food, we would not mind doing whatever it is that remains for us to do?

OK, back to you!
Very good questions, Kent. About a year ago, the L.A. Times (I think -- now I can't find the link) had a story about a group of typical yuppies who decided not to buy anything new for a year. They made some exceptions -- personal care products, for instance, and I think some school supplies for their children as needed -- but otherwise they bought no new clothes, no new gadgets, no new anythings. They did all of their shopping in used stores, got music and videos from the library, repaired their cell phones and computers and cars when they broke (and in some cases learned how to do these things themselves), and at the end of the year... they were just as happy as they'd been, if not happier because they'd paid down a significant amount of debt. It made me feel hopeful that, with things like Ebay and Etsy and Craigslist, we're moving back to a society where buying used is a first consideration, not a last resort.

Anyway, good questions. Gives me more to ponder today.
Rob, it would seem to me that you can, at least potentially, profit at any given moment right up until you go out of business. Growth seems independent of that, presumably being the change in profit or capital asset value, though I'm not an economist nor an accountant and don't know how these terms are formally defined. Certainly in terms of dollars a company could shrink out of existence. I think what makes it complicated is that some companies, corporations for example, are also legal persons with not only assets and profits, but also an agenda, rights, and responsibilities of their own, theoretically capable of varying independently of the agenda, rights, and responsibilities of their stockholders, so coaxing such a legal person to commit what I guess you'd call “legal suicide” is the tricky part. I'm not a lawyer either, but I'm guessing it's potentially a breach of some fiduciary duty in some cases to allow it to happen if there are not specific advertised goals of the corporation from the outset saying that this is the well-understood corporate goal. I personally think the whole legal person thing is a seriously suspect model, at least as presently specified, and have at least one specific blog planned about that for a future day.
Gary, even in the good ol' days, there was snake oil, though I still like the pristine imagery of the general store as portrayed in so many old westerns. As for roaming aisles, I've taken to reading the "Made in" labels. You can read into it quite a story of markets, capabilities, wages, and, ultimately, corporate and national priorities.

lpsrocks, the term "narcotic" is a great one because it carries two effects, both relevant: the euphoria that causes one not to want to care about changing in times of plenty and the desperation for a fix that causes one to single-mindedly ignore rationality in times of famine. That single word explains the oil business well. Breaking the addiction cycle is tough.

Um, Um, thanks for the pointer to Virginia's blog post. That kind of comparative view is very interesting. (Virginia, I see you've joined the discussion yourself. Cool. Thanks for writing that. I've made it clickable here so people can get to it easily.)
Tim, the growth issue is indeed related—and vexing. I intend to do a whole separate article treating that specific issue at some point.

Don, in this case, lack of consumption is the scarce "resource". Heh. The question is how to incentivize that. Or, put another way, how to measure value properly so the market can work. Consider that the answer to "how can I buy corn?" should not be "make a useless widget and get money, then you can" since I'd argue we as a society are richer if you don't make the useless widget.

Also, Don, I didn't say give out infinite corn to people in that hypothetical. I assumed portioning, since indeed if you didn't control rates it could get out of balance. Apportionment equity of course would be no small matter, and I'm not seriously proposing the idea anyway. I am just using it to focus the hypothetical down to something conversationally manageable by holding various hard problems as constants in ways the real world doesn't permit.

Wayne, I don't even know what to make of Reverend Billy and the Shopocalypse but I appreciate your pointing it out. :)
kent - good man, thank you for making sense of my comment. It is the addiction cycle that makes it feel as though if we stop going in one direction, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards.

oh, wait, that just happened, didn't it?
Laurel, interesting quote. I might say "unfettered growth", but I basically agree. Nice list of trinkets. That's the kind of thing driving me crazy lately, yes. Like Stephen Colbert, I love SkyMall, but...

Cathy, materialism is certainly an issue. But even if we could only transform our materialistic desires to include re-use instead of new creation, we'd be ahead of the game.

O'steph, agreed about recycling. Plenty of future blog fodder there. As for replacing capitalism, that's complicated, and while it's an option, I have no specific agenda to do that, but...

O'steph and lalucas, capitalism is an engine that operates by optimizing value to people. But ifyou don't assign dollar values to things you care about, it ignores them. Hands-off capitalism that doesn't get involved in making sure things like the ecology or employee well-being are part of the equation will lead to those elements being ignored but it's theoretically possible to have a Capitalism that took those into account. (Lisa, that's not a complete answer to you but a start.)

Saturn, if you find a pointer to that article, please post it here!
"Wayne, I don't even know what to make of Reverend Billy and the Shopocalypse but I appreciate your pointing it out. :)"

Kent, it's guerrilla theater. It grabs attention by making people take a look at things in ways they never would have arrived at on their own. Rev. Billy is actually an actor, but he plays this part because he truly believes in it. The folks at Walmart and Disney HATE him, and that's enough if a recommendation for me.

Plus his Gospel choir rocks.
Kent wrote: we as a society are richer if you don't make the useless widget.

But it's a highly non-trivial question, to attempt to determine which widgets are the useless ones, and which are the useful ones. Do you imagine we would all agree? It would be put to a vote? Some bureaucrat would make the command decision?

It's generally thought of as one of the virtues of capitalism, that commodity prices are the information signal which allows society to properly place value on different things.

(Yes, yes, there are all sorts of free market failures: externalities, monopolies, tragedy of the commons, etc. But in the typical case of a competitive commodity market, prices are essentially set via distributed decision making of all the buyers and sellers.)

In summary: I think you're too quick to jump to a strong conclusion that some particular widget is "obviously" useless.
good post Kent.

Saturn Smith wrote: we're moving back to a society where buying used is a first consideration, not a last resort.

It is very strange to realize that buying used was, exactly, the first and almost always consideration my family had, growing up. Amazing to realize how far the culture (not to mention me, myself and I) has come from that.
Don, I've made a note to follow up later on the issue of which widgets are the right ones not to make. I hadn't meant to open the can of worms of how you pick the one, which I admit is complex. But do you disagree that there is any one ought not make? That question may melt down into strange discussions of probabilities and pluralism, so let me ask it another way to cross-check your answer: Do you mean to imply that we must go on making all things we make now because there is no fair decision procedure to make fewer? Do you mean to imply that people must make this choice themselves (i.e., must change their naturally selfish nature and become suddenly so societally concerned that they just all do the right thing)?

Put yourself on the line here. The reason I'm so easy to criticize in this is that I've put myself out on the line with a wacky idea to allow concrete discussion of a hypothetical. I admit it has problems and I'm actually happy to have you pick at it. But if you don't like mine, don't just say that. Say what you would like. Give me a chance to pick at you. :) Come on, it's liberating...
Wayne, the clarification helps a lot.

Sandra, it's partly that the market creates situations where we have not much alternative. I think we don't always exercise our option simply not to buy at all. But even so, the market isn't as perfect about picking up every variation—it tends to offer just a few variations, and that can create enormous drift from what the public wants if the right variations are, by chance or intent, not offered.
Kent noted: The reason I'm so easy to criticize in this is that I've put myself out on the line

Of course! That's what I like about sitting in the shadows, carping and whining from safety. :-)

Seriously, though, I agree with this meta-comment completely. One of my very favorite inspirational quotes is Roosevelt's Man In The Arena. "It is not the critic who counts."

Say what you would like.

Surely my comments have made it clear my affection for capitalism. While admitting some ("relatively rare"?) exceptions, my overall belief is that free market prices correctly express value.

In other words, nothing has any intrinsic worth. Roughly speaking, things are worth what somebody is willing to pay for them.

So in that sense, no widget that has a market of willing buyers, deserves to be called "useless". There are actual humans that disagree with any such judgement. And not just as abstract opinion; they're willing to spend hard-earned cash to acquire the widget.

Barring exceptional circumstances, I'm highly reluctant to overrule their preferences, and tell such people that they "ought not" buy such a "useless" widget.
But, and I've not thought this through carefully, but I'm wondering if perhaps you have, isn't the paradigm you're talking about sufficiently unstructured that it doesn't seek (nor have a way to place value on, at least as an input parameter) structured solutions? It has a certain perceptron-like quality to it. And while its connectivity has the rich structure of large numbers of those (which is supposed to overcome their weakness in terms of capability), the thing that is alleged to work in the market is optimizing “value,” but I'm not sure the richer structures that the system's composed learning algorithms might seek are going to necessarily optimize that value; they might in fact try to work around the input parameters as so much bad data in search of emergent goals of their own. In this regard, using this as an engine to solve a particular pre-determined problem like poverty or climate change seems suspect since the engine might “regard” the input parameters more as constraints to be overcome than goals to be sought (if you'll permit me the anthropomorphism of using the verb “regard” to paper over control behavior that is merely mysterious, for probably mundane reasons composed sufficiently as to be descriptively intractable). In sum, what gives you the confidence that such a system will produce not just better food, but a coordinated system in which any described goal of social equity (you describe one, and we'll use it, so I don't get tagged on having picked one you don't like) is achieved in the process. The system doesn't seem good at achieving simultaneously satisfied goals, which is why I alluded to perceptrons.
Re. the decision as to which widgets are "useful", here's a place where the capitalist solution is best. Consumers will make the decision one by one, as they choose to buy/not buy a particular widget. I can do without that heated towel bar, but perhaps you can't. If enough buyers agree with me, the heated towel bar is toast.

Free market forces at work for you.
Wayne, fleshing out what I had just said to Don, suppose there are crops A1 and A2 and B1 and B2. A crops only grow on a certain kind of land and B crops only grow on another kind of land, and all farmers have both A and B kinds of land. Now suppose that for some ecological reason, all crops numbered 1 create a side-effect that is good when used together, and crops numbered 2 likewise. So having a farmer buy A1/B1 or A2/B2 together is really good. The problem with the free market is that it tends to leave this kind of issue to consumers. So if A1/B2 yields more valuable (to the end consumer) results, or A2/B1 yields more valuable results, farmers will grow that, because the market doesn't have the coordinated ability to optimize BOTH the end-user value and the public good value. Now the state can step in and tax certain pairs, or subsidize, but that requires government intervention on a per-product basis, which is what Don and you are arguing against. You can wish that someone would bundle A1/B1 together and sell it as dolphin-safe (ok, I'm mixing metaphors, but you get my point—it has been tried to market a value that consumers want, think of green toilet paper as another example) but I think there's an economic limit to what people will pay to make something green if it's not what they like. And the person with the farm wants to get paid not save the world. This is a very contrived example but I offer it to help those who don't understand the jargony notions of "simultaneously satisfied constraints". Typically, the market will make individual products succeed, but will resist coordinated successes (in part because of anti-trust law and in part because of the pressure for free and unfettered markets).

Moreover, this problem is not just with crops (which might be tractable). It's with all products. Do we really need motorized napkin-holders or nuclear toothbrushes? Exaggerate? Me? Ok, how about disposable digital cameras or individually plastic-wrapped single-mouthfuls of food or talking greeting cards? The “comparatively green” alternatives (multi-use digital cameras, plastic-wrapped multi-mouthfuls of food or old-fashioned paper greeting cards) may find a few supporters in the market but what if the future of the world depends on not selling them at all (or selling them in very specific patterns)?

You personally (or anyone) might even construct an argument whereby the future of the world could depend on selling bizarre things I hadn't thought of, but here's my point: Are you publishing that theory? Is it being studied by experts? Is it subject to falsification? Is it statistically likely? If you're not offering a specific theory that can be scrutinized, you are merely substituting religious faith for science. Because the people doing the science are saying the plastic is piling up and our planet is dying. They're putting their professional reputations on the line and opening their data for scrutiny and, if necessary, ridicule hoping they can have an impact. The people pushing back the other way are speaking about how over the long run (much longer than the planet may have left), the mysterious forces of an abstract market may statistically yield good results. And that may be true. If we survive that long.

At some point, this problem is severe enough we have to make some educated guesses and cannot rely on just hoping that if we do all possible things, one will work. I think we are well beyond the all possible things point, and at the point of needing specific educated guesses.
Kent wrote: using this as an engine to solve a particular pre-determined problem like poverty or climate change seems suspect

I don't think that capitalism is an engine to solve social problems. (Except possibly indirectly; it happens get some traction against poverty, but that isn't the direct "goal" of capitalism, merely a side effect.)

I had been attempting to comment merely on the very narrow issue of you writing "Why insist we make some useless trinket that no one needs?" in your initial post. That's not a description that I would tend to accept of any widget or job. Somebody is making the thing, and somebody else is buying it. For you to assert that the widget is "useless" and the purchaser "doesn't need it" is not justified, in my opinion.

But leaving aside that narrow question, if you're asking about "poverty or climate change", I'm not trying to claim that capitalism does anything good for those problems. There are plenty of examples where a pure free market results in a solution that is bad for society. Oceans get overfished. Too many sheep overgraze the land in the tragedy of the commons. Etc.

I think there are solutions for these kinds of things within the overall framework of capitalism. (Property rights for commons, pollution taxes for externalities, cap&trade or carbon taxes for global warming, etc.). But all these require government regulation. I agree with you that the free market doesn't automatically optimize societal good.

(But I still disagree that "useless trinket that no one needs" identifies a real-world class of widgets.)
Don writes: In other words, nothing has any intrinsic worth. Roughly speaking, things are worth what somebody is willing to pay for them.

As far as widgets, I agree with you, Don.

Energy and services have been considered the same as widgets within our current intensely deregulated/uncontrolled free market. Deregulation of oil, pharmaceuticals (must be considered high value widgets with specific intrinsic value), agri-business, insurance and the financial sector have thrown our economy into turmoil. Not every portion of the economy can be lumped into the capitalist free market concepts as products for which there are viable substitutions.

I believe that there are scarce commodities and services, which have no substitute thereby need be considered as having intrinsic value. Such high value, unique goods and services are not widgets by definition. They need be considered consumable commodities that are mandatory to maintaining a standard of living to support a free market for true widgets. These commodities MUST BE REGULATED to levels that make their comsumption possible without being a detriment to other necessary spending.

Deregulation has allowed the prices of these above-listed goods and services to rise to a level that threatens consumption and consumerism. By definition, disposable income and discretionary spending are necessary to maintain the functioning of a free market economy. We are experiencing an economic imbalance at the hands of the predators within these deregulated industries who have price gouged every last dime from the pockets of consumers, and then have the audacity to ask these same consumers to bail them out.

At this point, I could only support a regulated free market for good and services for which there are no substitutes -- by definition energy, insurance, health care, medication, and homeownership are not simple widgets. These sectors of goods and services have instrinsic worth as necessities, and should never have been allowed to be treated as uncontrolled commodities by all three enabling government branches...

OK, I feel better now.
Don, I was using the word "need" literally. Like for survival. My goal isn't to say that this is all mankind could do, but I'm kind of doing the intellectual exercise of kind of zero-based budgeting of what society needs to survive and then working back to a place where we know what we can do from there. Not because we would do that in practice, but because it's useful to know the answer to the question "how much surplus are we talking about distributing?" It's not entirely a fair question because there are ways in which non-needs can feed back into needs, so you have to not lean too heavilyi on the answer, but it's a useful cross-check. I think if you start from the question of what you need just to sustain us you have at least a start at questions like "can we even do that?" or "can we grow?" or "what are other ways we could achieve what we wanted from today's society?" If instead you do this as incremental change from today, that's tough.
You have articulated the number one problem, I think, in our society - mass consumerism. We are referred to as "consumers" not as "citizens" anymore. Manufacturers create products with the intent that they will need to be replaced, "planned obsolescence." In the book "Cradle to Cradle" by Will McDonough, much of this is discussed. It is said to be an idealistic book, but it is a necessary book, full of sane and innovative ideas to set society on the kind of path you are talking about. Another book, "Garbageland," by Elizabeth Royte, is less scholarly but is very entertaining as it tracks where all of our refuse goes. She comes to the conclusion that manufacturing with the intent of more more and even more consumerism, and the act of consumerism itself, is the main problem. Most of the stuff that winds up in landfills and as toxic waste comes from the manufacturers, not the consumers, yet the big focus is for consumers to recycle. A great thing but a drop in the bucket compared to what manufacturers need to do with their waste.
Being brand new, I'm clueless about the mechanics of this site, but your article is so good that I had to join in.

I have faced this dilemma at the grocery checkout daily when I pass a magazine for sale called "Simple" or "Live Simply" or some such. It always strikes me that I've made a stand against consumption when I don't buy the silly magazine!!!

I'm counting on a bit of chaos to eventually put an end to our behavior, or we will die! Some have tried to calculate the carrying capacity of the world, but it doesn't shape behavior at all and assumes resources somehow become replenished quickly enough to meet human needs. Doubtful.

So . . . I'm banking on collapse, even though we have revamped our buying down to true "needs," and redesigned the creation of goods to minimum effect on our world, and reused all that has been created before, and recyled all the left-over resources for re-use. This world is finite PERIOD. It will ultimately enforce that fact upon us.

At that point, perhaps some new form of life will emerge with the knowledge that sustainability of life is the first question to be asked in all matters.

I've said so much more than I know and show it. Great article! JoC
You are correct that growing corn is a positive addition to wealth. Wealth in the context of this comment is an increase, a positive in availability, not accumulated and stashed away or wasted. Let us assume wealth will be used for health, scientific advance, education. All good things in and of themselves but not directly productive.

Wealth is created by building something, manufacturing something, innovation of a more efficient means, mining, growing.
You plow in 100 dollars and finish with 102 dollars. Wealth.

Things that do not produce wealth are services. If everyone took out each other's garbage, plowed the winter snow, did the taxes, all service trades. There is only the 100 dollars being passed from one to the next, to the next. With a chunk removed each year for taxes. A slowly consuming spiral.

The same of imbalance of trade and NOT producing enough local wealth to sustain the steady depletion. Again a steady contraction of available moneys and an annual chunk removed for taxes.

We need to manufacture durable goods, be they wind turbines, solar panels, non oil consuming autos, or the Hummer SUVs that eat everything that I so deplore.

We do not produce to waste. Certainly there is a blow by of valuable resources that we can see should not be wasted. But the way we need to produce wealth must keep us above the break even of 100 dollars in and 99.99 dollars out. Which is precisely what we have been doing.

Home Depot, Lowes, Circuit City, Gander Mountain,,,, some of these stores sell ONLY goods produced off shore. I am not exaggerating. Go read the 'Made in' labels just like I did.

If we do not create wealth by manufacture, we will be unable to plant the corn. We will starve.

Yes, there is much waste to deplore, but there is no government entity that can mandate, never has been , never will be. We must be educated, choose wisely, and the 'free market' will balance itself.

The solution is the TRADE of goods, not dollars for goods.

If a country wants to sell us everything and buy nothing, we find someone else to trade with. China wants to sell steel to Ford, China better buy Fords.

Buy from who buys from you.
The issue isn't pure consumption - after all, we have to consume to survive. So we consume to put a roof over our heads, get an education, eat, entertain ourselves, edify ourselves, and clothe ourselves. No problems when we consume on the lower rungs of Maslow's heirarchy.

It's when we reach the top rung that consumption runs amok: when people view self-actualization through the lens of consumption, it becomes an exercise in one-upmanship. Most people, once the most base needs are taken care of, don't just consume for their own pleasure, but for the pleasure of the perception of superiority they get from their purchases. It's no longer enough to go to the ballgame, but to have box seats. Not enough to stay home and watch it - watch it on a 42" plasma scree in high defintion. Not enough to go out to eat but to eat at a restaurant that costs $400 per person. Not enough to eat at a $400 per person restaurant, but to find one that only lets certain people in the door. Not enough to drive a car that gets you from here to there, but to drive a new car. Not enough to buy a new car, but the biggest most luxurious new car. Not enough to buy the most luxurious, but the most expensive, exclusive car.

Our problem isn't consumption, but the desire for status that drives consumption. When status shifts away from stuff and back to 'elitist' principles like intelligence, thought, and creativity, we might stop interpreting the need for jobs as manufacturing jobs, and instead create jobs that are about ideas and learning - the stuff of invention, education, science and literature.
and welcome JoC (and Don and Virginia and BG and any other new 'faces' I'm missing). Jump right in, the water's fine.
One thing missing from this discussion, which is worthy of a separate post that I will request from Kent or perhaps even pontificate on my own one of these days, is the effect of advertising and marketing on the "useless widgets."

As Michael Pollan reminds us in In Defense of Food, millions are spent on advertising processed foods versus virtually none on real, raw foods, like fruits and vegetables.

In the context of this discussion, I would say that advertising/marketing perverts the consumer demand/marketplace model. We can argue about the philosophical merits of free choice vs. subliminal advertising, but really, does anyone think that we need Lucky Charms and Trix (not to mention wine-bottle hats) in order to survive?
A few things...

To start, I'd question the focus on manufacturing jobs, given the fact only 12% of GDP comes from actual manufacturing:

There's nothing inherently wrong with services, and a service-based economy can create wealth fine if people do buy your services. What Dean Unick writes above is certainly not true. If people perform services and charge for them that does not just equal the same dollar bill floating around. Your wealth is a function of the goods *and* the services you have access to / claims on.
Also, something that frequently gets lost in arguments against offshoring manufacturing is just how much value remains in the U.S. even for products that aren't manufactured here:

With an Apple iPod as an example, "The researchers estimated that $163 of the iPod’s $299 retail value in the United States was captured by American companies and workers, breaking it down to $75 for distribution and retail costs, $80 to Apple, and $8 to various domestic component makers. Japan contributed about $26 to the value added (mostly via the Toshiba disk drive), while Korea contributed less than $1."

And the core of the value of that product, as it is for many others, is in the conception, design, marketing, etc. which are (for now, at least) capabilities that the U.S. is competitive at.

Whether the actual manufacturing processes hurts the environment is a different issue - and carbon credits is an attempt to assign market costs to a public good (environmental impact) that manufacturers have been enjoying for free. It has flaws, but it's a good start, and mechanisms like that have the effect of incentivizing companies to switch to production processes with lower environmental impact.
At the risk of sounding like one note Johnny I will jump into the fray. Since we first accumulated corn (wheat, barley, oats) class society and markets have thrived. And as we all know capitalism emerged triumphant as a system some ascribe with god like power to assess all need and meet the demand with supply by the invisible hand of the market. However as you point out in your post we have arrived at a point where consumption and production have become irrational. Which widget to produce is not determined by the needs of humanity, the eco-system, or the other species we have not yet wiped out but by what the market deems profitable. Indeed in one your comments you reference the fiduciary responsibility of the corporations to produce what ever makes a profit for the shareholders.

As we live in a global system of production looking only at the overconsumption here at home does not really allow us the answer the questions you pose. Consider that billions around the world live in squalor as dirt farmers and can not consume heated towel bars and cable TV etc. A rational system would assess need and direct production to assure needs are met. But alas capitalism is not a rational system and as such we whose consciousness is molded by it are not rational beings.

Rational beings would look at the whole picture and say, "holy shit" all my consumption is killing the planet and billions live on next to nothing and have lives of misery while I kick back in my modern lifestyle with more wealth than the kings of old could imagine. Rational beings would say, "this has got to stop". We have to take assessment of real need and reorganize production to meet that need as opposed to the fiduciary responsibility to provide quarterly profit to the shareholders.

We might look at all the widgets being produced and figure out that those that are essential like: education, housing, irrigation, soil conservation, forest and watershed protection, ocean renewal, doctors, clean energy sources, renewable agricultural techniques and tools to help dirt farmers move advance beyond subsistance farming. Of course the list can go on but we can all get the concept.
Rational assessment of need can be done by sociologists, scientists, and bean counters as opposed to the irrational forces of the market.

Of course that would require the radical notion that "I am my brothers keeper" apply and for most of us whose consciousness has been molded by the irrationality of capitalism (remember the "GREED IS GOOD" and "HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS" bumper stickers?) this will require a major shift. We can only hope that the winds are shifting and we can learn to dispense with our quarterly profits.
Great post. I have a related concern: if we are going to make stuff, why do we make crap stuff?

For example, walk into a store and look at a selection of shoes. Some are of great quality and will last years, and can be readily resoled or otherwise repaired. Others are throwaway items that will be lucky to last six months. The prices, of course, are vastly different, but I suspect (and would like to know for sure one way or the other) that the environmental input costs are not too different - there's just as much energy, plastic, cotton, rubber, etc invested in the crap shoe as there is in the good shoe.

The same goes for just about any other category of product you can think of. The cheap saw has about as much steel and plastic in it as the expensive one, but is going to be broken and buried in months rather than decades.

I have long felt that there is a problem with manufacturing standards going so far towards the throwaway end of things, just as a matter of principle that is hard to justify in economic terms - the "if you're going to do it, do it right" ethic. But as the environmental movement has taken hold, I've started to see the same issue from this perspective as well.... so now I've got two principles driving my contempt for lousy product quality.

When will we start saying - look, steel and plastic and rubber and oil and energy are just too costly to the environment for you guys to waste them in a product that will last 1/20 as long as it should. You can't make that crap any more.

I would like to do this first, then we can move on to your idea of not making anything at all :)
I think this is a good and relevant video, but before you click be warned it's 45 minutes long. I promise it is more relevant than the first couple of minutes may suggest.
The OS cover describes your blog thusly, "How do you create manufacturing jobs without creating more stuff we don't need?"

I'll attempt to give a partial answer to that. Manufacturing solar panels, bridge supports, macadam and concrete, wind turbines, and other products necessary for growing and improving the infrastructure can surely be seen as the very opposite of "creating more stuff we don't need".

Manufacturing bricks, windows, flooring, and all the other materials used in constructing schools, homes, and offices, ditto.

The trick ( and it's hardly a trick if any bright fifth-grader could figure it out), is to concentrate on making things for use, not for sale. What is called for is an end to consumerism. Again, I refer you to Rev. Billy. He understands it.
Wayne, the OS cover is summarized by someone other than me. I don't consider it a correct summary of my article, but I didn't complain to anyone since I appreciate that they took the time to feature my post. They also rewrite headlines, which often doesn't work either. What's especially weird about that is their tagline "You make the headlines." I can't figure that one out at all! But the summary is there and it's fine you replied to it.

In fact, the summary on the cover notwithstanding, I was not proposing we need manufacturing jobs and asking what we can make, I was saying I keep hearing others propose that we need manufacturing jobs (something I regard as more just a matter of people being used to doing a certain thing and wanting to keep doing them) and I was questioning whether that's really so. I think there is a possible role for manufacturing in what we do; certainly if things need to be manufactured, I'm fine with us doing it. I'm not anti-manufacturing. I'm just saying I think there is an awful lot of stuff already manufactured and that at some point we should stop making more and start reusing better. Yes, people could say, we need to make better stuff that lasts longer, but I have reservations about that. I'm not saying definitely no. I'm saying, let's go slowly and justify it.
Jason, I'm sympathetic to your idea of doing one last run of things to last before we stop making things, but yet, do you realize how many more refrigerators, TV's, cars, ipods, computers, etc. that puts into landfill? Or is that not what you mean?
Hi Kent,

No, I was more thinking that, in the real world we don't rule, we are not actually going to stop making stuff, but at least making stuff that is not crap helps a bit.
Kent wrote: I was using the word "need" literally. Like for survival.

You really think so? It doesn't seem like it to me, but let's go with that.

What do humans "need" to eat? Answer: some calories, and a few vitamins and minerals. The cheapest sources are probably blue-green ocean algae (and/or seaweed), perhaps along with some insects. Maybe we can throw in some tofu. That's all humans "need" to eat.

So now let's look at your previous concern: Must we continue to make things without considering whether we can do without them? [...] Why insist we make some useless trinket that no one needs?

Well, the answer seems pretty obvious to me. We "make" things like steak, instead of just tofu or seaweed, simply because ... it tastes yummy.

The answer is: life is much more pleasant and enjoyable with a few luxuries, instead of simply the minimum necessary to sustain life.

I'm not sure what your long term perfect society is like, but mine is not to have the maximum number of people, all at barely subsistence levels, each just barely not dying. My dream is to raise the average (or even minimum) level of luxury and consumption, so that those people who are alive are as happy and fulfilled as possible. I want to maximize (sustainable) per-capita consumption, not minimize it.
Come on, Don. I wrote: Not because we would do that in practice, but because it's useful to know the answer to the question "how much surplus are we talking about distributing?"

To which you wrote: I'm not sure what your long term perfect society is like, but mine is not to have the maximum number of people, all at barely subsistence levels, ...

I also said in my initial post: Ok, so there's more kinds of food than just corn.

This was intended to put all foods into an equivalence class. I don't care about the difference between corn and steak right now. There are differences (and the greenhouse gas issue for steak may be serious) but it's too big an issue to discuss all at once if you take every detail into account. So ignore the seaweed vs steak issue. Just focus on the generalities here or we'll never do anything in this thread. We don't have enough time or detail to be pedantic.

I'm asking the simple question of whether it's possible that we can do without things. Your answer, well meaning as it is, tells me no. Maybe that's not what you mean to say, and if so you should amend it. But in my book, answering "I'm not going to acknowledge that I can do without anything" is the same as saying "Shut down capitalism." Because we must do without something. Our present rate of consumption is unsustainable. Moreover, nations with emerging affluence are trying to match us in [unsustainable] consumption, and they have way bigger populations than we have. That will really be unsustainable and will accelerate an already precariously tight timeline, almost surely catastrophically.

It may be that even seaweed and a lit candle is all we're likely to come out of it with, if even that. But I'm not presupposing the end result. Nor am I establishing it as a goal. I'm just trying to work the constraints and ask "what do the circumstances dictate?" The circumstances are what they are, they are not my goal, they are just the truth.

How do you propose we reach a sustainable path? Ignore what I said. Say what you want to do. I've got really no interest in hearing about what someone's goals or aspirations are if they're not obviously sustainable. I'd like a starship and an extended lifespan (oh, and inertial dampers, I hate G-forces) so I can roam the galaxy exploring. But that's not going to help me plan my life because it bears no relation to reality. The only way to get back to long term wishes like that are to weather the present storm. So don't tell me about what you want to do after the storm. Tell me how we're going to weather it. It's too late in the game even to be insisting that every theory be perfect, so taking potshots at someone who is offering a theory is no good. The price of admission, I claim, to criticizing someone else's theory, if you're smart enough to do that, is to offer concrete modifications or a complete alternative theory. Feel the urgency. Speak from your heart. Be prepared to make a mistake. But brainstorm, don't criticize. All you can do by criticizing is grind this discussion uselessly to a halt saying things I have probably already heard as criticisms. But by suggesting something, you can share an insight, a hope, a way of doing something I may not have heard. A half-finished idea someone else might be able to complete.
Ken Pitman,
An absolutely smashing, wonderful post and discussion, and yes, I read it all with relish. Idea hashing by great minds, not unanimity, but good solid wrestling with.

Thank you,

Dean, some of your comments speak to nationalism. I do think the US has some concerns here and I don't disagree with a number of your points. Speaking very generally, though, I'll just say that I think the Climate Change issues is sufficiently important that if it turned out that somehow China was supplying what we needed in an efficient and ecological way, I wouldn't let a sense of nationalism stand in the way of saving the planet. I do think there is a lot of advantage to local production just because it takes out the fuel costs, though if the raw materials have to be transported instead, that can cancel the savings. But right now I think concentrating on what's durable and what's really needed and creating a societal mode of thoughtfulness about waste is important. Anyway, thanks for keeping up with this discussion! It's getting harder and harder as it lengthens...
Kent wrote: "I'm not going to acknowledge that I can do without anything" is the same as saying "Shut down capitalism." Because we must do without something. Our present rate of consumption is unsustainable.

Oh, now I get where you're coming from. To be fair, I did mention sustainability in my previous comment: "I want to maximize (sustainable) per-capita consumption, not minimize it." I'm not sure whether we disagree or not; we seem to be coming from opposite directions, but perhaps we'll be meeting in the middle.

You asked: How do you propose we reach a sustainable path?

So I think that capitalism is an enormously powerful, mostly beneficial, optimization process. As much as possible, you ought to (design a society to) take advantage of that. Rather than abandon it altogether, just make small tweaks, subtle shifts to nearby directions.

There's no one simple answer. But basically, each of the (small number of!) well-known capitalist failures generally has a similarly well-known solution. Look at the specific kind of failure in some specific industry, and apply the solution.

Let's take an easier case. Say that we were talking about pollution from a factory. It's easy to look at a free-market outcome, and say "that factory is ruining our air, it shouldn't pollute". This is an externality. Your gut reaction may be "ban the factory" or at least "ban the pollution". But that results in no widgets being made, which is also a loss to society. Or, perhaps, only permit zero-emissions, which results in extremely expensive widgets.

The "right" solution -- from a free market perspective -- is to attempt to add up the costs imposed on society by the pollution, and then charge the factory for those costs. This allows the societal costs to become part of the capitalist optimization process. You'll wind up getting some number of widgets made, at some cost, which is arguably the optimal result.

So. I'm totally with you on the sustainable thing. We need to look at, which of our economic activities are not sustainable? What is the failure?

We have overfishing of the oceans. This is well understood, as is the solution. It isn't hard in theory; just in practice. It's a simple tragedy of the commons, and the solution is to either privatize the oceans, or else impose quotas on the annual catch. Both of these work fine in localized sustainable fisheries (like Alaskan salmon).

What about your concerns about plastic, say the plastic bags at grocery stores? Well, that one I'm not yet convinced is a "sustainable" problem. Yes, the big garbage dump in the Pacific is gross, but the reality is that it's a tiny fraction of the Pacific's surface area, and there are no humans anywhere near it. And nobody is dumping huge quantities of plastic there on purpose. Throwing away plastic into our landfills is a different story, but again humanity is not near any particular limit there. The reality is that the earth is a big place, and especially 3D volume is much, much larger than anything humans deal with. Physical garbage like that can even be put to productive use, by creating additional landfill areas on the coasts. So I don't think that plastic, per se, is a problem to be solved (at least as far as "what to do" with all the garbage).

Global warming is a more challenging one. We don't have accurate enough climate models to know exactly what is causing what, and how much change of what kind yields what kind of different outcomes. So it's hard to come to an exactly solution here (unlike, say, overfishing, where the biology of ecosystems can generally be managed pretty accurately). But in any case, surely humanity needs to emit less carbon into the atmosphere, and some kind of quota ("cap & trade") or carbon tax is the right approach.

There are some other sustainable issues about India and China rising to 1st-world living standards. This hits food (e.g. milk and beef), and energy (e.g. oil). It doesn't seem reasonable that the earth could support those populations consuming at the rate of US citizens. But these problems don't require any special planning; the free market deals with them naturally. As demand rises, and supply begins to reach some limits, price with then rise. Which will cause demand to fall. We saw this with oil last year, which rose from $90/barrel to $140. It took six months to a year, but US consumption in particular began to fall. And prices have now plummeted again. So this "solution" requires no particular political will; you get it "for free" from the free market.

What it does mean, though, is that our own personal expectations of the future may need to be adjusted. Milk is ~$5/gallon in the US; what if it were $15 or $20 (caused by rising standards of living in India and China)? US per-capita milk consumption might drop.

So anyway: yes, I'm with you on all the sustainable stuff. But I don't think it's productive to say, "we should do (completely!) without this particular item, because nobody needs it." I don't want some bureaucrat telling me what I do or don't need. Let the market, and floating prices, work out the balance between supply and demand.
P.S. to Kent: if you get that starship and extended lifespan, sign me up too. That sounds cool!
Ah, that's an answer I can work with, Don, not because I agree with it all (though I think we've got a fair bit of overlap) but I can understand it in operational terms. Here are a few of the things I don't agree on:

You wrote: "It doesn't seem reasonable that the earth could support [India's and China's] populations consuming at the rate of US citizens. But these problems don't require any special planning; the free market deals with them naturally. As demand rises, and supply begins to reach some limits [...] What it does mean, though, is that our own personal expectations of the future may need to be adjusted. Milk is ~$5/gallon in the US; what if it were $15 or $20 (caused by rising standards of living in India and China)? US per-capita milk consumption might drop."

But this happens at a time when the economy is in the toilet and $15 or $20 may seem an impossibly large amount of money to people who are unemployed. So going back to my prior post about "redistributing burden" and applying the same analogy, if you look at this as a mathematical step function, you're basically saying some people won't be able to afford staples that are needed for living. So when you conclude: "Let the market, and floating prices, work out the balance between supply and demand." you're almost literally saying "let them eat cake". I do think this requires planning for because of the very likely nature of very critical resources being priced to a level that the US won't be able to afford them. Either export controls or citizen subsidies or something will be required to avoid having everyone but the ultra-rich get rickets.

I also had some potential issues over the question of whether the market will sort things out in the timeframe needed for Climate Change. The market can do funny things, left to its own, and one thing it likes to do is to use some of its money to purchase lobbyists to help ensure that it is left to its own and not impeded by government.
Kent, re: Climate Change. I didn't mean to suggest that the free market will solve climate change by itself. What I was trying to address was: if the world has the political will to attempt a solution, and you're asking for the technical means to accomplish it, what are some tweaks to capitalism that might do so?

It struck me that this was the same hypothetical you were operating under. When you wrote in your original post, "What if we made our economy be based on things like eBay and said we'll make no more things from scratch any more." I took that to mean, "what if I were king and could implement any societal structure?"

I would say that neither you nor I has offered any practical route to actually making these kinds of changes, in the real world.
Kent, re: "let them eat cake". I'm not sure what long-term scenario you have in mind, but eventually any organism can outbreed any real-world set of resources. Suggestions like "export controls or citizen subsidies", in the long run, don't really deal with the theoretical horrors of population growth. In nature, it takes a brutal, horrible population crash from starvation, to deal with predators that overpopulate.

There are "solutions" like China's "one child only" mandated policy. But most Americans don't care for that.

Short of that, I'm not sure what you're suggesting. Subsidies don't do any good if the world simply can't make enough of the stuff for everyone to have (enough of) it.
Yes Ken, it is getting long. Nationalism is not what I am looking at and our two bents might be quite compatible. (My small company is Solar Design. The house I live in consumes between 1/3 and 1/2 the expected elec. and gas. with no out ward change in life style.)

My belief is that we have sent TOO much of our manufacturing needs over seas. I am a believer in free market and free trade, but a trade imbalance will bankrupt one partner and do no one any good. I want to buy from China, I also want China to utilize good stewardship of the planet. It is just that the last decade I have seen many signs that we are shipping cash, not products of equal value. And we have mortgaged ourselves in steel making and even T-notes to off shore interests that may or may not be ours.

I live in the Detroit area. Here, the results are in your face today. There is nothing theoretical about the cause and effect here any longer. We have arrived. Between 250,000 and 400,000 jobs have been lost here and the figure is expected to nearly rise a magnitude before the full ripple works its way through.

For nearly ten years, the big three have bought more from out sourcing, and then laid off workers and 'trimmed costs to make a profit. For years it has always been cut jobs and costs to make a profit. Not once have I heard that the strategy is to build a better mouse trap and sell, sell, sell. Not once.

So they lay off 50,000 workers, who with their wages employ another 100,000 workers and then none of those 150,000 can buy a car and so the auto company downsizes yet again.

My fear and even certainty is we have shipped the same jobs that buy cars, and Popsicle sticks, overseas, and now we can no longer buy cars and Popsicle sticks at all.

It is balance, parity, that can make us ALL wealthy, here and in China. The imbalance is going to make both fall.

The run up in oil prices could be because of a global shortage, thos efirst shortages are due about now and will increase the price. But maybe the run up was actually a devaluation in the dollar. In other words, oil still costs the same, it just takes more dollars to bring it here. And the available moneys for loans, the National debt and a lack of cash in general can, cause exactly what we have seen.

I think back to small things, individuals, small villages, the effects that are exhibited in those small setting WILL appear in the larger. maybe disguised, just so you and I sit here scratching our collective heads, but the effects will appear.

Ken, we have an opportunity, right here, right now, with the inclusion of a number of people who commented above. It was rattling in my brain all day today. If we decide to, we, the five or ten of us can bat this back and forth and just maybe, only slight I know, but maybe we can figure this out. Maybe we can invite some other minds to this e-table.

Mensa members used to bug me. Lots of GREAT talk and ideas, but move them to do something? They'd sit there like a deer in the headlights. You and I and a few of those above though, we may tilt at windmills, but we may succeed in garnering attention and doing something.

Tell me what you think.

Dean Unick
Don, you wrote "I would say that neither you nor I has offered any practical route to actually making these kinds of changes, in the real world."

Yeah, that's fair. My particular skill isn't in the particular technologies needed. I could imagine somehow being involved in computational support but I already do that indirectly by having a day job in the software tools industry.

My concern here is to highlight some urgency in people, and if you see me nudging you it's because phrases like "Let the market, and floating prices, work out the balance between supply and demand." are not traditional rallying cries for action in people. :) Rather, as I hope you'll see as obvious in retrospect, they sound like you're saying "the situation is well in hand. go back to watching television." That may not be your intent, of course. I'm just worried that's your effect. Although, actually, on this forum, your writing calm words like that rather than an urgent call for action may alarm sufficient people who already believe the opposite of you that perhaps it ironically will stir that particular crowd to action. Maybe that's that unpredictable effect of the market you're after. :)
Dean, perhaps you should cut&paste some of your own comments here into a blog post of your own that will have more visibility. I'm not saying take them out of here—they seem on topic and useful, but I worry they don't have high visibility at this point.

As to having a round-table of people to discuss things, I'm certainly up for more debate/discussion on such issues, looking for a path. I'm no one's elected representative, though, but I'm willing to offer this one person's opinion where it seems like it will do some good.
Dean wrote: "I am a believer in free market and free trade"

Are you sure? :-) It doesn't really sound like it...

a trade imbalance will bankrupt one partner and do no one any good.

Trade and free borders don't cause a "trade imbalance". The blame lies elsewhere.

It is just that the last decade I have seen many signs that we are shipping cash, not products of equal value. And we have mortgaged ourselves in steel making and even T-notes to off shore interests that may or may not be ours.

In ordinary circumstances, you can't get real goods from China, and just ship them cash. Cash doesn't do them any good. They can't buy anything with US dollars, or use them for anything which is of value to them.

This is all about the huge federal debt, and the annual deficits. The US is taking real stuff from China this year, and in return promising to pay them with real stuff in some future year.

The debt is definitely a problem in the US. But that's basically orthogonal to free trade (which is a good idea for both countries). (Put another way: even if you eliminated all international trade with China, but still let them buy T-bills and still had a huge federal debt, the US wouldn't be any better off.)
Kent wrote: not traditional rallying cries for action in people. :) [...] "the situation is well in hand. go back to watching television."

Amusing, and on target. I accept that criticism. :-)
Right on my friend. I've been asking these same questions forever. I watch a hell of alot of Star Trek and other sci fi and I always come up with the same questions at the end. How long until we can evolve beyond what we are currently? Sadly, the born-buy-consume-die lifecycle we've got now pretty much prevents it.

I stick to the idea I found in the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy (book 2, The Trick Top Hat) - the fictitious president Hubbard abolishes poverty through the RICH (Rising Income through Cybernetic Homeostasis) economy. Phase 1: pay $50,000 per year to any worker who could design a machine that would replace him or her and $30,000 per year to any subsequent worker replaced by said machines. Phase 2: make every citizen a shareholder in L5 space cities (where these people lived) and pay out National Dividends.

Basically, if you can invent yourself out of a job - you get a decent income with the ability to invent yourself a new job, then invent yourself out of another one. Sadly, even though we're all shareholders now with the bailout, letting us see any of that money would be socialism.
Aaron, that might work until the Singularity. After a while, I'd expect the robots to revolt. :)