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This was originally published on 11/01/2009 on my former blog, Worth the Fee to Read It. As the jockeying leading up to a budget in March unfolds, I think these words are as relevant today (now that we’ve racked up a one year deficit of over $56 billion Federally, $24 billion in Ontario and a few billion in Toronto … and, on the global scale, all of this is chump change compared to the overspending in other countries.)

Conventional wisdom has it that governments must spend, spend and spend some more to dig the country — and the globe — out of the current downturn. (That having been done, the spending “cannot stop”.)

Conventional wisdom is dead wrong. All of this deficit spending will barely — if at all — make a difference in the near-term, and it will pile up problems not for the long-term, but for the medium-term: years in the middle of the next decade, at best.

A Little Bit Pregnant

First, let me say that I am not a deficit fanatic. I would like my government(s) to run balanced budgets: budgets that they expect to come in close to break even. Perhaps they have a good year and tax receipts are higher than expected? Then we have a surplus. Perhaps it was a tough year and receipts were lower? Then we have a slight deficit: exactly the same as the commissioned sales person or self-employed contractor who draws the same amount month after month for living expenses and could either end up with money left over as savings at year’s end, or has to dip into his savings to balance the books.

So a little red ink, from time to time, doesn’t worry me. In fact, it worries me far less than do massive surpluses because every line item, every department, every program has had contingency funds up the yin-yang. These are a recipe for bad decisions at the end of the fiscal year, otherwise known as utter waste, within the departments — and sloppy handouts, ill-thought-out programs and the like in the hands of politicians.

On the other hand, structural deficits — situations where the budget is planned to be in deficit annually (and where, as in the mess inherited from Trudeau and Turner by Mulroney, the deficit deepens annually as the interest pile up takes over everything) — are an incredibly stupid idea, on the same plane and of about the same moral quality as liar loans being written to create fees knowing they can’t be repaid.

Now, to be even-handed about this, none of our politicians are calling for a return to permanent structural deficit. No, all of them claim that we just have a crisis to solve now: we run up serious amounts of red ink for just a few years, and then we can return to fiscal prudence. So they say. (Already the promises have begun to spend money we don’t have — not to mention the whinges about attempts to cut, anywhere.)

But when was the last time a government program was terminated, its workers fired, its office leases broken, with not one penny more to be spent on that again, ever? I can’t recall one. I can recall occasional shrinkages — rare moments, those — but in general, once a department or Ministry has a mandate, it never gives it up, and it never stops funding it.

For every dollar of “stimulus”, some civil servant handles it. Someone else supervises them. Someone else manages them. Someone else develops policy for the effective use of the money — and they have supervisors, managers, directors, too. Someone else audits them, supports them technically, prepares their briefs to Treasury Board, procures their supplies. All of these have management chains, too. Every one of these increments becomes permanent, because pay grades are based on the number of people — and number of dollars under administration — associated with a job. So every new initiative does two things: it adds to the pile of spending that is “Ottawa”, “Victoria”, etc., never to be removed — and it siphons 20¢ of every dollar spent off the top to pay for itself (on average).

Now do you see why I believe any planned deficit is an almost automatic route to structural deficits? At the risk of offending people, the planned “stimulus” deficit is like getting pregnant. The plan is to abort the pregnancy. Instead everyone delays — there are so many reasons not to act — and the child comes to term.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are — or you’re not. When it comes to the dangers of structural deficits, “not” — don’t spend, by intention, beyond your means — is the best public policy course.

Deficits Avoid Decisions

Governments that say they’re making the hard decision to forgo all the hard work of sweating down the last structural deficit and to take action “as it’s needed now” miss the point. Choosing to run a deficit is avoiding the decisions that do need to be taken.

How many old programs — all those civil servants and their management trees, chasing ever smaller returns in their program areas — could be outright eliminated to find the funds required for your “stimulus”, if, indeed, it is needed. (That’s a separate question that has as much to do with vote buying as anything else. Another day, perhaps.) Yes, that’s the harder decision, for almost every one of those programs has some advocate in the country who will scream bloody murder if it’s touched in any way.

Nevertheless, MPs and MLAs are elected for the express purpose of making decisions. If you don’t want the job, resign. (Regardless of party, voting your party line likewise is avoiding a decision. Each MP has a personal moral responsibility to decide issues on their merits. The House and Senate need far more Chuck Cadmans and far fewer trained seals.)

It would have been nice if we’d had a cap in place on spending ages ago: something along the lines of “Federal spending is, by law, not to exceed $5,000 per capita”. Budget growth then becomes a function of population growth. Otherwise, to start something new, you have to wind up something old. Perhaps the people who point at Olympic Gold Medals and demand more spending on amateur sport would be upset if the whole Department of Amateur Sport & Fitness (or whatever bureaucratic monicker it is using today) was summarily axed, along with all its spending, because GM and Chrysler need the money. But a cap would have trained our politicians to cut, and to do so regularly. At the moment they don’t have the habit trained. So they reach for deficits. It’s easier.

Why This Deficit Matters More than Previous Ones

There are many opinions out there today about what the future holds, and I’m not going to chew through all of them now. Suffice it to say there are three things on the immediate horizon that make running deficits a bad idea now — as I think you see, I think Trudeau-era deficits were an equal problem, but we had the time to fix that problem, and at the moment it doesn’t look good for the “ability to fix” this one out in the 2010s or 2020s.

You might remember Canada was the only G7 country running surpluses, and the only one retiring its national debt. This — and the price to get there was higher than it needed to be because of so many previous bad decisions (and so many bad ones made in reversing our disastrous structural deficit course) — was a benefit that would have made the 2010s and 2020s truly “easy street” for Canadians relative to other parts of the world. (Having given this up — and we wiped out all the gains of the past fifteen years in one year’s orgy of “stimulus” — we’re going to dig the hole deeper just trying to scrabble our way back up to balance, then live with that hole eating a hole in our pockets for years to come just to undo the damage of 2009.)

The three worries I have for the future are:

Demographics
The demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer generation is coming to “retirement”, and even with them continuing to work that work is likely to be part-time, both for personal reasons and as employers seek to reduce labour costs and revitalise their workforces. This reduces income tax receipts and employment tax receipts at the same time as pension demands increase. In other words, this was why we were working so hard to reduce the debt, knowing we were about to have a hole knocked permanently in government revenues. (Everyone who will work and pay taxes in Canada in the next twenty years is already alive, and we are singularly inept at maximising the return on our investment in immigration, aka “doctors and engineers driving cabs for a minimal income”.)

Liveable Infrastructure
This refers to the complex effects of energy costs on transportation, delivery, work and schooling, effectiveness of the housing stock, etc. Our current city-sprawl and choice to have goods — such as food — shipped thousands of kilometres so that we can enjoy the same diet year round is a infrastructure for living that probably is unsustainable into the future. That, in turn, implies spending a great deal of money to retrofit our human environment to deal with issues of affordability and cost, for it would be even more expensive to abandon what we have and build anew. What will be needed isn’t altogether clear yet, nor is how much of this must be done privately, what must be public:private in partnership, and where government intervention might be helpful. That it will need doing, though, is at the same level of clarity as a long-range winter forecast for cold and snow just about everywhere in Canada.

Unsustainable Program Transitions
This last refers to the entitlement programs already in effect in Canada — some federal, some provincial — that are slowly but surely eating us out of house and home. The public medical system in Canada, for instance, is in decay in most provinces, while simultaneously chewing through one dollar in two of the provincial budget (or more). Eventually the combination of decay, delisting of procedures and reductions in service capability that have been the norm ever since the provinces restricted medical school enrolment coupled with Paul Martin’s balancing of the Federal budget by slashing transfers to the provinces in the 1990s will bring the system teetering to the point of collapse. Throwing more money at these systems is probably not the answer; figuring out how to restructure the entire system is — but the longer we wait to tackle these hard questions, the fewer options we’ll have and the more likely we’ll toss money we don’t have at the time at the problem. After all, the auto makers wouldn’t have “needed” a handout now if they’d tackled their problems a decade ago.

All three of these argue that at some point in the next few years the Government’s freedom of manoeuvre will be deeply curtailed. Balanced budgets en route to that point would ensure we continued to hold the line on interest expenditures (which, as with our own personal budgets — a $10.00 pizza bought on a credit card at 24% interest and paid off by minimum payments turns into an over $220.00 pizza by the time it is discharged — is a pure waste of money). Practice at real decision making rather than sloughing the problem off into deficit spending would prepare the way for much harder decisions to come.

Oh, and I haven’t yet noted that the next years are likely not to be growth years. Indeed, except for the twentieth century, the norm in economic life is a balance of inflationary (growth) and deflationary (consolidation) years. After a sixty year continuous inflation, we should reasonably expect at least a decade-long deflationary consolidation. Instead, central bankers and politicians around the world think just slopping cash around in as many forms as possible will allow us to escape back to the abnormal conditions from 1945 to 2008. Bad thinking, at least from this student of economic history’s point of view.

So there you have it. These are the arguments for not going into deficit. Such a move robs our future, impoverishes our children, and probably is like standing, in the grand tradition of Canute, in the way of the tide. But there are few moral thinkers in Parliament today. Instead, I expect the calculation of votes, the bribing of we citizens with our own money, the unrighteous indignation of most days in the Commons and the subordination of the strategic to the tactical to continue.

Remember all of this as you whinge. You are robbing your children and your grandchildren of their future. How you will face them depends a lot on whether you’re willing to make hard decisions now — and insist your MP and MLA do the same.

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In a number of comments attached to the various posts thus far on this blog, issues of designing for a sustainable, or green, future have been raised. Today I shall try and dissect what this might mean if we were to start and apply this, not in “new towns” or “new neighbourhoods”, but in the fabric that already exists on the ground.

Principle #1: Deal in Health

A sustainable community begins life by being one that is built around the prospects for health for its residents. This begins, as far as I’m concerned, by removing the emphasis on the automobile. Walking is the foundation of good health.

10,000 steps/day is a maintenance level required, generally, to avoid many of the degenerative diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, High “bad” Cholesterol, etc. Such is quite within reach when we remember that movement around the office or school, walking to and from lunch, etc. is part of this base.

Steps add up, however, when one walks to/from transit, or around one’s neighbourhood. A standard Manhattan city block, for instance, represents roughly 180 steps (with a step based on “from one foot, to the other foot, back to the first foot (L-R-L or R-L-R)” at around 1.5 m/5 ft each) in the long direction, and 52 steps in the shorter direction (blocks traditionally are rectangles). For a person living four “long” blocks from effective transit service — less than 10 minutes between pickups in either direction, and with an average speed of 25 km/h or better between stops including time spent at the stops — and two “long” blocks to a place of work/schooling at the other end of a daily journey, this basic commute introduces over 2,150 steps/day. Add another 2,000-3,000/day in movement around the office and/or to/from lunch. In other words, neighbourhood amenities need only create rational behaviour leading to another 5,000-6,000 steps to be designed for healthy living.

What, in this term, is “rational”? Consider the length of time it takes to get in a car, move it from its parking space, move it to the destination, find and secure parking at that end: a distance of 400 m, somewhere between three and four blocks, represents 12±2 minutes on foot. Oddly enough, this also represents a typical time of 12±2 minutes behind the wheel, in a neighbourhood with a high street for shopping. Beyond this time frame, the car begins to be “competitive” with the foot traveller, at least on paper.

(I picked these as this represents a pair of journeys I know well, from living in Vancouver: one block off Dunbar St. on W. 27th Ave., to a parking lot stretching back one “short” block at Dunbar St. and W. 30th Ave., also known as “from (then) home to Stong’s Market”. At my stride, this was typically only 10 minutes, including “red light” delays to cross Dunbar St., so 12±2 minutes is certainly favourable to people less mobile than a mid-fifties me. At the same time, traffic levels on the side streets made the delays in coming out of an on-street parking space roughly equivalent to having left a laneway garage.)

That 400 m each way represents another 560±30 steps, depending on my efficiency in the store.

We lived in a neighbourhood in The Hague (The Netherlands) where every 4 blocks or so there was a short shopping strip: a small grocery plus one or two specialty stores (e.g. bakery, deli, barber, dry cleaner, etc.). These neighbourhoods were built on the principles outlined here. 90% of all errands could be handled with a trip to no more than two of these strips. As this pattern was repeated regularly, a round trip of 800-1,000 m was sufficient to meet — on foot — almost all needs. Manhattan is laid out similarly. By regular personal experience, I can also say that in The Hague, Manhattan and in Vancouver, making two or three such trips a day (to handle all packages by hand while not overloading myself as a walker) fit comfortably within the same “time window” used for these errands while living in suburbs (Trumbull, CT and Coquitlam, BC), where using a car to handle the distances involved thanks to the zoning policies barring the mixing of retail and residences was required.

(Living now in Toronto, I live in a similar pattern: 700 m to the subway on foot, 350 m from the subway to the office, with a “90% of needs” shopping district accessible in an 1,000 m trip from a different subway station to home. In other words, in terms of paces and timing (even the shopping return after work fits into 15 mins.) I effectively live in a walking-scale community.)

Neighbourhoods can be constructed around these principles, using the existing street grid and fabric, simply by allowing mixed-use zoning. The construction of 3-4 storey blocks of flats with street-level retail along transit corridors provided needed density to promote frequent service; the retail, in turn, turns at least three long blocks on each side of the transit/retail street into “walking zone” residences. Ensuring the side streets are kept narrow helps hold down auto speeds, making the neighbourhood favourable to walking. On-street (not store lots!: storefronts should be built out to the sidewalks) parking insulates walkers from the cars on the street. (Merchants detest this at first, until they discover that their neighbours are their customers, and still coming: this is the Manhattan experience, where most stores also pickup if appropriate, and generally deliver to make walking and shopping a pleasant experience.)

What about bicycles, you might say? Keep them on the road. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge.

Service vehicles and delivery vans should be relegated to the service lanes, or to the early morning hours if store front loading zones are to be in use.

Finally, the use of through street blocks — one way streets are not advised, as making a street one way encourages speeding! — periodically converts a neighbourhood full of cross streets into a neighbourhood full of “T”-junctions. These promote slower speeds.

Such simple techniques take us a long way to a more sustainable neighbourhood and to healthier people, at low cost. As you’ve seen, we haven’t yet reached (in this thought experiment) a 10,000 pace/day society. One would hope such a rich set of neighbourhoods would provide further reasons to walk: trips to small theatres, restaurants and the like, trips to the library or community centre, trips to walk the dog in the park. (This, too, is the experience of Manhattan, parts of Toronto and Vancouver, The Hague and other European centres.) It is generally not necessary to actually bar cars: simply making it more sensible to not use the car is enough. The important three points, though are:

  • Stop engineering streets for speedy auto traffic, and instead engineer them for walkers, bicycles and transit, with the residual space “left” for cars and trucks. Walkable streets are treed (for shade), have room for outdoor tables (for the pleasure of being there), interesting shops (a function of the density of stores), reasons to go to the neighbourhood (the special amenities that require “larger catchment areas” to make them viable) and have enough people living in them to make transit facilities financially viable on an operating basis.
  • Mixed-use zoning is essential: the more opportunities to walk (or cycle a short distance) to work, to shop, etc. the better. This implies the need to insert such facilities, as current single-use zoning systems create long “dead zones” where cars are essential (consider any typical suburb of your choice).
  • While focal points (e.g. “T”-junctions) are pleasing places to be and slow traffic, they are not currently “engineered in”. These must be created out of the existing fabric. Keep traffic two-way, but limit the number of lanes (e.g. today’s “six lane” road [four for traffic, two of parking] becomes a pair of parking lanes, a pair of bicycle/transit lanes and a pair of lanes for cars and trucks).

Rather than dream of carbon taxes, tax credits, incentives and regulations, or of massive urban re-engineering schemes, this is a model we know works, know how to move to, and can do inexpensively. What, pray tell, is holding us back?

There are a fair number of people I know who think social networks of various types are going to help us out with the challenges we face in the future. While I see their point — and am myself a participant in a number of these networks — I’m not quite as definitive.

Indeed, there are moments when I think these have been a bad move, not progress in any way, but a true regress.

My reason for saying this is that I look at the ethics surrounding social network members. Increasingly, people seem to accept “friendship” on a social network (a connection, if you will) not because this is someone they want to connect to as a person, but simply because the connection may be useful some day.

If this isn’t treating the other person as an object, I’m having trouble figuring out what is.

I’ve had people insist, for instance, on LinkedIn and Naymz, first that I connect with them and second that I write a “recommendation” of them. But the person, in this case, is not a former colleague, subordinate, superior or client. They’re someone who was at a company I was at, but years later, and half-way around the planet to boot. To say I don’t know them! is an understatement. Yet to refuse them is to get a follow-up message demanding that I “do them this favour”, typically from someone else who can act as a bridge to spread a little guilt about my not doing it. LinkedIn also comes with groups, messages requesting answers to questions and the like. If you’re (as I have been) paid for problem solving, these represent not only a time sink, but (and far more important) the expectation that I’ll “work for nothing” because the interrogator “has a need”.

Then there’s the people who’ve, on Twitter, decided to follow me for no better reason than to sell to me, or to retweet what I post along with their own message (that I don’t endorse). I spend more time these days blocking people like this than I do reading what those people I do know and care about (personally or professionally) put up online.

Facebook, of course, allows people who barely know you exist to plague you with requests to join causes (theirs, not mine), play games (their kind, not mine), etc. I tend to be a little more tolerant of this here, since I’m aware that this was Facebook’s original purpose — and that I, too, play group games on Facebook and thus have indicated, to my fellow players, some level of interest.

Facebook’s own incessant advertising sponsoring messages I don’t want to see (and can’t make go away, as I can “suggestions” from friends or even from Facebook itself — the “you haven’t talked to Jane Doe lately, send her a message” type) based on Facebook’s analysis of “what might interest me” indicates a different kind of plague, but then the service is free and must be paid for somehow. I may not understand why I get advertising for Montréal facilities (I haven’t been in Montréal in over a decade) and services, but then, there’s no click-through there, either. It can be lived with.

There has never been a communications mechanism that isn’t used in ways that betray respect for the individual person, or who treat the person as an object for manipulation rather than as another human being with their own subjective states. “Watson, come here, I need you” turned into dinner hour telemarketing calls bypassing the “do not call” registry because they come from organizations I already do business with claiming an implicit “prior approval to receive the call”. (That they do this after barraging me with the multiple question routine required by the Protection of Electronic Documents and Personal Information laws is utterly and completely ridiculous — about as ridiculous as all other attempts to stem the flow of communication have been.)

What is truly annoying, however, is that if I expend all the on-going effort to police these various channels and sites, weeding out the unwanted communiqués and requests to join, and the like, is that too many people who ought to pass muster as the types of connections, or “friends”, these services are created for, such as people you once worked with, people who were once clients, etc., are themselves “posing” in public rather than being themselves. (Or, perhaps, this really is who they became, in which case breaking the connection beckons!)

If social networks are ever to do what their proponents claim they can do to change our world, we’re going to have to seriously re-form (in the sense of reshaping the moral fibre of) their users.

The high quality of comments appearing on this blog — and I include all the ones I personally didn’t agree with when I say this — is indicative of what a social network promises, but doesn’t deliver. I know my interlocutors here don’t share all my moral convictions or ethical stances. They do remember that behind the words lies a person (as I try to, too, when reading their words). It makes for learning and growth potential to do so.

A few people doing that is far more powerful, in the long run, than any number of hundreds of thousands who join an electronic “fan page” or “group”, just as a well-thought out recommendation with a specific situation spoken of is far more helpful than having hundreds of the things collected that sum up to “arm twisted: ‘great’ guy!”.

Earlier in this post, I used the phrase “if social networks are ever to do …”, but, of course, software does nothing without the humans who put it to work. So, if social networks are ever to live up to their proponents’ vision of what they could accomplish in changing the world, it is up to each of us to use them with careful attention to appropriate ethical behaviour.

Finding the energy to change the hypocrisy infecting the political domain is something that seems to elude most citizens. I say this in the face of this weekend’s outdoor rallies organized coast-to-coast of “Canadians against the Prorogation of Parliament”. I wish today to speak neither for or against the termination of the Second Session of the Fortieth Parliament of Canada, which was to continue today. There are arguments one can raise in favour of a Third Session, and arguments for having continued the previous Session. There are arguments one can raise in favour of skipping the planned two weeks of sitting before rising for the balance of February for the 2010 Olympics, leading to a resumption in March, and arguments in favour of having those eight House sessions (and two committee Fridays) — and definitely arguments in favour of our MPs and Senators ignoring the Olympics as irrelevant to the business of any Parliamentary session. Despite the din of media (formal and informal) on all sides, however, the reality — whether anyone likes it or not — is that Prime Ministers control the schedule of Parliament, and tradition — whether anyone likes it or not — is that a new Session is initiated (through prorogation, whether for a writ of election or not) whenever a major policy shift is expected.

No, rather today I should like to turn my philosophic attention to the sheer and utter ineffectiveness of all this sound and fury, whether in person, on the screen, on the airwaves or in print. Indeed, let me suggest that all of it has the effect of extending the hypocrisy and institutional rot in Canadian Governance, whether from those who stand with the Government or those who Oppose it.

This is (I imagine) a difficult point to follow. Am I suggesting that those who support a point of view — or oppose another one — have no right to express themselves? Hardly! We are human beings: we break out of our internal dialogue into inter-subjectivity through communication. Whether that be calm and reasoned, or placard-waving and shouting, we must communicate to move beyond the power of one inherent in ourselves.

What I am saying, however, is that the process that has unfolded since the prorogation announcement, and through this past weekend leading to today’s planned photo-ops on Parliament Hill, has indeed been only to preserve the status quo. In other words, the wrong problem was tackled.

By focusing on a minor procedural matter instead of deeper structural concerns, all of the parties involved — Parliamentary parties, political party staffers, media (reporters and “personalities”, “analysts” and “contributors” alike) and the army of letter-writing, blog commenting, lamp-post postering and rally marchers) — have added to the dysfunction of our institutions at a time when we very much need them to function well.

No policy revelations have come from the Opposition. Indeed, the rhetoric is very much “any situation is not our problem” and “we don’t have to answer for it”. Alas, dear Opposition, you do. A functional set of Parliamentary institutions would see Governments-in-Waiting, expressed via clear alternative priorities, and proposed strategies for dealing with same. It is quite true that an Opposition Party need not speak to the Government’s sense of priorities: it may well propose that issues be treated with more, or less, import than does the Government of the day. But it must, to be authentic in its role and genuine in its pronouncements, offer its own positive views along with its critique (which, to avoid inauthenticity and/or a lack of genuineness, must be grounded in reality and not simply be soaring rhetoric, such as ranting for the sake of the sound-bite).

At the same time, the Government owes the Opposition and the citizenry similar respect, being clear at once with its programme and schedule. Political authenticity turns not on the management consultant’s “PowerPoint reveal” of one bullet after another only when “ready to move on”, but with saying clearly what is wanted and why. The very act of the “reveal when pushed” simply makes everything appear disingenuous — and leaves the taste that, if the pushing hadn’t happened, nothing would have been said.

As for the professional media, the behaviour of constantly blowing the trumpets — through polls with biased questions designed to lead to headlines which, in turn, allow biased questions to continue to fan a story (and the ignoring of all context and history in doing so) — shows simply how corrupt the entire process has become. The task of the journalist is to dig out and expose truth, not to be as inauthentic as any article and doctored photograph in those “newspapers” sold at checkout stands in grocery stores. A day’s ratings is purchased through the further erosion of what little is left of integrity in our political institutions, aided and abetted by a winner-takes-it-all framework found in the political parties’ operations. It is behaviour like this that make cynics of us all, and when the result is (amongst others) the creation of photos suggesting assassinations or Hitlerian references, bird droppings on shoulders and the like, all of which are designed to wipe out the humanity of the person in the image, it is clear that our sense of moral behaviour in public has been cashed in on to the point where the till is empty and the account overdrawn.

Do you wonder why nearly half your fellow citizens roll their eyes and ignore election day? Do you wonder why newspaper circulation is falling, radio and television news and current affairs ratings disappearing down the drain? I don’t: it is a very common-sense response to endless manipulation and hypocrisy.

So, the response is to lay down the challenge. Earn my support. Within the last ten years alone I have supported every party except the Liberals federally — yes, I have voted Green, NDP and Conservative — and frankly, at the moment, my support for the Prime Minister that gets expressed occasionally is limited to decrying the excesses in attribution that come his way at the hands of others who simply “hate” his presence, his existence, or his party.

Support is able to be earned by stopping the cycle of playing for the cameras and denying your own responsibilities. Support is open to be gained by engaging not with friendly audiences or party faithful alone, but by actually reaching out and asking those who are not in your camp what they think; what they would do, and why. Support is open to be gained with common-sense policy that takes tomorrow as well as today into account.

Reaching out “via the media” won’t reach people like me: we tuned it out ages ago. We’re not interested in the horse race aspect, or the process-centric games that they believe is “the only thing that matters”.

The temptation facing all the parties at the moment is to keep driving the unpredictable voters out, reducing the electorate only to their most fervent supporters. Keep that up, and the country will go with it. When dealing with long-term trends and philosophic principles, there is little worry that Party B or Leader Y takes power from Party A or Leader X, for these manoeuvres only shift questions of intensity and timing.

Our national future truly is in the hands of the clowns and jokers. Let’s hope they reform themselves, for as always it is we who will pay the price if they don’t.

In 1997 I had the pleasure of visiting a well-preserved ruin of a Roman villa in Yanworth, Cirencester, Glocs. in the UK. It took quite a bit to find in those days — it seemed that every crossroads had a sign pointing back the way just travelled pointing to it, yet no villa in sight — yet it was well-worth the trouble, especially when the covering over the mosaic floor was turned back and its beauty was revealed.

A delight though this villa is — if you’re ever in the Cotswolds, spend the time to find it — my point today is more about how societies decline.

I got off on this line of thinking as I’ve lately been reading commentaries and critiques of Oswald Spengler and his magnum opus Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). Many professional historians and philosophers reacted then, and react still, negatively to this work: the historians “for the lack of detailed scholarship” or “liberties taken in interpretation” surrounding one point or another; the philosophers in response to the deeply metaphysical approach taken (which really fits no other recognized “school of thought”). For all that, this book was deeply appreciated (in that best of all possible means of appreciation, by being purchased and discussed, despite the economic difficulties of early Weimar Germany with its hyperinflation) and, as Northrop Frye noted in his essay “Spiritus Mundi”, this has set the intellectual tone in philosophy of history ever since its publication, even amongst those dissuaded from ever cracking its covers.

(If you are unfamiliar with the work, the essence of Spengler’s argument was that cultures are akin to living organic bodies, in that they are born, grow, thrive, reach their adult potential, then decline into senescence and die out. Each culture, pace Spengler, is a self-contained unit, with its own core idea, key arts, scientific approach and the like. Our own Western World was, in his view, entering its dotage, having had its culture ossify into a civilization, and our future, from his time of writing, would be one of wars, economic decline, tidying up of loose ends in science, and ever-more subjective art. Caesarism was imminent. Moreover, this was a matter of destiny — our lifespan as a culture was more-or-less determined, and we could, as with the Imperial Romans, the New Dynasties in Egypt, etc., do no more overall than make the best of it, no matter what individual triumphs we may have as human beings.)

One of the challenges this poses, to an examination in depth of our own society in 2010, and in projecting its probable futures, is that civilizations can continue for a very long time long after their life, per se has fled. If nothing disturbs such an ossified body of humanity, it continues, repeating its experience until events (typically from outside itself) knock it down another peg. Once that happens, stability at this new, less-differentiated and “lower” level, then can be re-established. (Spengler’s end state is a collapse back into raw humanity, the “eternal peasant”, which he illustrates by looking at Egypt occupied by the Romans and then by Islamic states, Western Europe in the Dark Ages, China today, etc.)

What makes so many people react negatively to Spengler’s position, yet be unable to refute it and knock it off the field of intellectual combat, is precisely that “up to the end” the life of the society appears to continue more-or-less in “health”. The villa I opened this piece with was probably constructed sometime in the late 200s or early 300s CE — which is a period where, culturally, Classical Culture was well and truly mouldering past its best-before date and a pseudomorphosis in reverse of the rising Levant was imposing its culture on the lands of the Graeco-Roman Civilization as far north and west as the Roman province of Britannia — yet it shows no sign of that, being another classical villa with its tributes to the civic gods of Roman society. It was gracious country living, in the form retired soldiers and administrators throughout the Empire had followed for (at that point) nearly three centuries, and would, in various parts of the Empire, for as long again.

Britannia was not brought low by barbarian invasions — no Goths, Visigoths, Vandals or Huns burnt its cities. Rather, as economic decline continued to unwind and the Romans became unable to maintain their holdings, the decision was taken to simply abandon some of the more far-flung provinces. Britannia was one such: in 410 CE the decision was taken to withdraw the Legions to defend older parts of the Empire. Many of the villa-holders left at the same time, worried about Celtic incursions from beyond the borders in never-Roman Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Others were themselves impoverished, with the long-dying and long-drying up of Roman economic life. (Much as with Britain’s nobility today, many had been reduced to living in just a portion of their homes, in much-reduced conditions, but without the saving grace of operating tours through the now-unaffordable main body of a manor or castle.)

For those that remained, little of Roman Britain other than ruins remains. Within two more generations Britannia was nothing more than a fellahin land of undifferentiated peasants, as a backwater cut-off from “civilization”. Two more generations saw the Angles, Saxons and Jutes begin their invasions. The road toward the English had begun. Rome was no more.

It would, I think, be fair to say that here, in the Cotswolds, this villa — located close to the edge of Britannia (the Roman province: look at the dyke structure and evidence that Wales extended as far as central Wiltshire and across Gloucester until the High Mediaeval saw the consolidation of English resources capable of first forcing that boundary with the Celts westward, and then ultimately absorbing Wales as a Principality of England) — would have, at the time of its construction, been a land grant for a retiree that was still near the end, but not past, of supply lines connecting it to the Empire at large. As the 300s wore on, the villa’s inhabitants would have been more and more isolated, depending more on local items (or doing without) and less on goods brought from the Continent via Londinium or other other trade routes. Continued peaceful conditions would have seen the quality of life slowly slip, and stories of how “life was better when I was a child” would have had truth, but the changes would have been hard to see.

Then, abandonment. It matters little whether the villa was abandoned before Rome left the province, with that withdrawal across the Channel, or afterward, when maintaining life “in the middle of nowhere” became too difficult. Whenever it happened, this region became too difficult to continue Roman life in. Further habitation would not be civilized for many more centuries.

Here, I believe, we do find ourselves. Our technological “brilliance” suggests to me that our collapse is likely to be rapid, when it comes — there are too many interconnected systems, too many parts that must operate well, to deal easily with events today. (In isolation, yes, still — not with a cascade of failures, and increasingly it takes less to initiate such a cascade, and harder to come back from it.) We may be gifted with a century or two, or we may find our interdependencies crushing much of “the world we know” within a decade or two. Within this, further “advances” are not precluded — but the trend will be toward losing what we have, not gaining on it, or, to put it another way, we are at the point where coming generations do not live as well as we have (even though some few may well do better for a while yet).

What makes the future opaque to most is the reality that little of the decline is readily seen. Currency debasement and an increasing draw upon capital and operating incomes to fund government programs — a Roman problem in its day, aka panem et circenses, no less so that today, with the “untouchable welfare state” and the endless demands for ever-more intervention common to all Western lands — do not immediately trigger collapse, but they do hollow out the society and weaken it, consuming the ability to rebuild when an event does occur. Up until that moment, however, an impoverished society still appears rich. So, too, with services: they may degrade somewhat, and become prone to breakdown, but by and large they continue until the moment comes when they cannot — at which point they also are generally incapable of being restarted. To take but one example: Roman communications, along well-mainted post roads, were taken as given (and did work) until the end of the Empire. Within two decades these roads lay broken, being mined for materials. It took a millennium for something as simple as letter carrying became routine again — outside of the realm preserved by St-Benedict and his peers, who deliberately created a “society within a society” in the monasteries before the final collapse, in order to preserve the Church in a world where Roman services and Roman order had failed.

I have no expectation of persuading anyone who believes that technology holds the answers to our problems, who believes that our current apparent strength is unchallenged, who believes that only through further intervention can society “progress” or who thinks “God will provide” (to take but four common objections to the dark Spenglerian world-view). Nor is that my point, either. If Spengler is correct, our down-going will occur regardless: our free will may accelerate or decelerate parts of it, but the unwinding is destined.

It is to that question of destiny, to the isolation of cultures, and to the question of preserving Western thought and accomplishment for the future, that I believe we should turn. Let us neither hide nor roll over and die: let us do what Western society has done all along: deal with the esoteric and universal and face the world not as we would imagine it to be, but as it is.

In the past few years I have noted a trend which has passed into “majority country” (that is, most people I deal with regularly show the behaviour): poor understanding from reading while multitasking.

Let me begin by making something clear: I am not a neuroscientist, am not running experiments under controlled conditions, and am not pitching anything here. This is simply an often-repeated observation, where the contrary observation is falling off. Also, although I get to “go back over the material” much more readily with things written, I observe exactly the same pattern occurring in telephone usage, even in meetings.

Observation: An increasing number of people are “getting things backward”.

This observation shows up again and again with simple things, such as misinterpretation of what is written (or said). Examples are:

  • I’m asked, in email, when, “later this week”, I can meet for coffee. I answer “anytime but 1-3pm on Thursday”. Over 80% of the time, I’ll receive a meeting invite for coffee for 1.00pm Thursday. There’s less misunderstanding if I answer “Thursday at 3.00” — but more than 90% of the time the reply to that is “can’t do it, pick again” — yet attempts to short-circuit four to six exchanges trying to find a common time by offering broad windows seldom work, either.
  • I receive a request to call someone. They are in a different time zone, so, when I call (and get voicemail) I leave two numbers: my work number “good to 2.30 your time” and my home number “good after 4.00 your time”. More than 75% of the time I’ll come in the next morning to find a message left in the evening at work, or come home the next day to find my home was phoned during the day. By the way, whether I do the time conversions or not, there is no difference in the pattern.
  • I write something — from a tweet on Twitter to a long post here to an email — and the reply immediately indicates that something not said was seized upon and treated as the central point of the whole thing. (You can see that in the comment chain for yesterday’s post.) There are certain subjects I’d expect that for — writing in support of a politician or policy will do that for you when a partisan is the interlocutor — but this occurs over the smallest things, and routinely.)

I could go on, but that establishes the types of things I’m talking about.

Most of us are forced into “multitasking”, even if we consciously set out to avoid it. Our computers are generally set to alert us if an email is received, for instance. That little “bing” (no matter how innocuous the sound) or flashing box in the corner of the screen saying “new message” for a moment or two is a distraction: it breaks our concentration.

Short-term memory — what we have just taken in or just thought — is fragile. (People who have trouble remembering the names of people they meet, for example, often have no trouble remembering the name of one new person, or even two or three encounters in the course of the day. Constantly meeting new people during the day, on the other hand, wipes out most of the names. Memory seems to require a period of consolidation — which we typically find in sleep, from short naps upward, or in meditative time — to retain the short-term inputs. This becomes more important the older we get: a young person’s eidetic or photographic memory converts into an equally bad memory as everyone else’s as the years pile up. As the average age in the population has risen, it does not surprise me that in general the evidence of short-term memory deficiency is getting more obvious.)

As I write this post, for instance, the sound is turned off. So is the “Growl” message system. As is the phone — call forwarded to voicemail — and all other applications. No music, closed door. Absolutely no Blackberry or iPhone pushing things my way! Writers can find periods to do this. Most people do not have work that allows for that degree of isolation.

The typical person, at work in an office, has their email application open, a phone and a cellphone with pushed messages, and, depending on the nature of their work, a Twitter feed picking up new tweets and other social network messages (e.g. Tweetdeck, which will hook up to LinkedIn and Facebook as well). In turn, alerts and information boxes are popping into sight and fading out, and soft chimes and beeps announce new events. Not only does all this interfere (this is an observed phenomenon) with sustained effort, it interferes (again, observed in others) with simple information, like reading an email or listening to a voicemail whose purpose is to communicate a contact point, a time option, etc.

The Effect of “Sort Of” Understanding

In an office setting, the net effect of all this is to slow work down. Meetings take longer because the participants are constantly interrupted while in it — and they interrupt themselves (again, an observed data point) from “lack of stimulus” if they are required to “check all technology at the door”. We have apparently given ourselves a good case of Pavlovian conditioning and require a new pellet periodically to tell us to “run the maze” one more time!

What the apparent outcome of all this means is that the average person is losing — or has lost — their ability to focus their attention for long periods of time, take in complex matters, and do sustained intellectual work. Given a book that requires serious attention to be more than just “words passing before the eye” — say a work of philosophy or a nineteenth-century novel — most people today cannot sustain themselves through long passages, remember the point made a few pages earlier and include it in the author’s point being made now, or, later, separate the essential from the accidental to communicate the content to another person.

There was a book I picked up in the UK in the late 1990s entitled 108 Tips for Time Travellers. It was a collection of technology columns written for a newspaper. Each chapter was thus two pages long: a typical 700-word column length. Even then, a decade ago, before social networking and the BlackBerry-style expectation that an email sent should be responded to immediately had fully set in, I knew many people who read that book — over fifty to one hundred days! They could cope with no more than one chapter at a time. Reading a second (especially if the topic changed) meant they could remember nothing from the first one!

These people were all senior executives, in charge of budgets ranging from $100 million to $10 billion, with hundreds of employees and complex sets of portfolios of activity on the go. How well were these being managed, if recall was that impaired?

What I observe taking the place of actual comprehension is “what I thought he said”, instead. I have sat through innumerable meetings where the discussion was deadlocked because the various camps represented were all dealing with “false memories” of what they thought they’d read or heard. I have watched people, when presented with the source document, deny it said what it said — they couldn’t focus enough to hold their impression and the new reading side-by-side long enough to evaluate the differences.

Are Younger People “Different”?

There’s a constant theme in the work-a-day world now that the younger generation that has grown up chatting on MSN, listening to iTunes, playing a first-person-shooter game, and writing a paper (with Google providing multiple “reference” sites) all at once can cope with the distractions of multitasking in ways those of us who grew up in a world of books can’t. I certainly see the switching speed, and the ease with which the entire visual field is treated as a unit, “seeing” everything all at once.

Seeing the understanding is much harder. I am not convinced that the apparent comprehension level is anything more than (a) a tendency to gather in information through video rather than reading, (b) far lesser expectations in schools and (c) the advantage of youth in retaining short-term memory “just long enough” (if they couldn’t, cramming wouldn’t work, yet it obviously does).

And, in almost all cases, the ability to actually read a book that thirty years ago was considered “age appropriate” is very hard to come by. Does this help explain why texts are less common in universities and ring-bound sets of short papers, handouts, etc. are the prevalent form of class-required reading?

I do know this: if I put the world down, I can handle much more complex material — and generate it. This is why I’ve been busy purging “feeds”, no longer subscribing to RSS because it “might” be interesting. I killed my push life — I no longer even have a cell phone. Aging requires me to “jot down” or “check again” to handle short-term memory, but the ability to chew through and understand complex material — almost lost, comparatively speaking, two years ago! — is back.

You may want to experiment for yourselves. I sincerely doubt those who praise, and those who decry, our current connected, multitasking world will shift their views, no matter how many experiments are run. But you might find what level and depth of interruption impairs you — and what level opens you up.

There was a saying I learned early in my working life. The role of the salesperson, I found, was not to argue for the positive virtues of their product of service quite as much as it was to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about “making a decision for the other guy”. Later, I learned the corollary: shovel loads of guilt and emotion about “making no decision at all”.

That which I learned watching the sales operations of mainframe computer vendors, midrange computer vendors, software package vendors and the like permeate our media-soaked culture today, creating great distortions in the body politic.

I was asked by a friend in mid-2000 what life was like on the west coast, when I moved to the Vancouver area from Toronto. “Is life as laid back there as we’ve always thought?”, was the question. To which I answered:

Oh, yes, people are laid back, compared to what we’re used to. At the same time the airwaves scream constantly. Here’s a culture where taking the day off because the golf course, sailboat, hiking trail or beach beckons, and where spending half the day having coffees is apparently quite all right, and yet public discourse is conducted via the media at 120 decibels. Everything is a screaming match.

I don’t think I’d take back a word of that despite the many hard-working and sensible folk I met in a decade out on the coast — although I must say the screaming match syndrome has gone national in the intervening years.

I want to tread carefully here. I don’t want this post to be about “where I stand”, unless what we’re discussing is about the whole “calming of the waters and calmly examining the situation” motif that comes from being rational, not rationalizing. I want to drive the guilt and emotion out of the equation; I want the fear put to rest.

This morning, on Twitter, I posed a question:

Who amongst the opposition parties is demonstrating future competence as a minister if their party forms government (as opposed to who’s on air a lot)?

It’s part of the whole FUD(GE) of our media-drenched culture that issues actually tend to disappear from view. They are reduced to sound-bites out of which fear can be spread, and which are expressed with a high emotional index. This is appropriate if we are dealing with the world as entertainment; where we, the audience, are expected to roar for our side, and boo the other(s). The analysis or “in depth” reporting then devolves to the Roman Emperors of old, turning thumbs up or down based on the noise of the crowd — a noise which, often, they are responsible for unleashing. The question the culture puts forward, instead, is:

Who amongst the opposition is giving good FUD(GE) and thus worthy of being on air, regardless of whether they’ll be good or bad if given office?

It’s not, of course, that this is new. At any point in time in the life of every democratic society, it’s probably fair to note that deep simplification of complex issues was a part of the game; attracting citizens to be citizens and not merely consumers required the marketing techniques implied in FUD(GE); the mediators (the original sense of media) have not only reported and analysed dispassionately, but taken sides and tried to have their chosen outcome occur; and the most media-friendly “public face” has fronted the people behind them and thus been given power not on merit or ideas but on appeal.

Still, it is rationalizing to substitute party labels for having a political philosophy; it is rationalizing to love, or hate, a leader or spokesperson because of their media skills, telegenic face, or frequency of appearance; and it is rationalizing to ascribe fear (e.g. “hidden agenda”), uncertainty (e.g. “just visiting”), doubt (e.g. speculating about the reasons for an action in the absence of factual knowledge), guilt (e.g. “only a fool would vote NDP/Conservative/etc.”) and emotional manipulation, both via questions and responses, both by interlocutors and interviewers alike.

Given that as human beings we should be attempting to be reasoned in our responses instead of giving in to rationalization (a perennial temptation), we have a duty to ourselves not to simply react, but to think events through and draw conclusions. Quickly, the few who try this discover not only that they gain insight into the type of community they may wish to create, or affiliate to, and why. They also quickly discover that they become a “bad partisan”, being issue-oriented and judging the character of individuals presented to them rather than simply “toe the party line”. Often they may — as apparently a growing number of citizens have! — decide that the whole political realm is so corrupt, so filled with FUD(GE), so hypocritical in its institutions, that abstention is the only reasonable course.

That last, unfortunately, comes with a separate moral consideration: by leaving the field (a conclusion of reason) an important source of negative consequences to one’s life, and to the life of loved ones, is allowed to further devolve. There are arguments, of course, for allowing corrupt institutions to carry out their own “life journey” unto death. There are also strong arguments for standing up to reform them, limit the damage, restore what may have been lost, demand improvement in the public ethics of politicians, civil servants and media alike. (Here is yet another challenge of finding the middle way, for both of these allow rampant radicalism to take root: ask any of the many dead citizens of National Socialist, Stalinist and Maoist regimes [to cite but three] whether, in retrospect, earlier involvement in reform might just have kept such regimes at bay. Ask, as well, about whether élite accommodation isn’t just another form of this — less obviously violent, perhaps, but no less destructive for all that.)

To discuss our current situation involves — as well I know from previous posts and their comments — the risk of deep resignation or deep anger (and please recall that “depression is anger, turned inward”). To fall back to simplicity — to rationalize one’s desire to just set coming to know our situation, its issues and lacunae well enough to judge what to do in the face of it — is tempting.

It is also a path leading to increasing rates of public depression, suicidal tendencies, radical behaviour, frustration, and the like. It may well — as has happened elsewhere (and, yes, “it can happen here”) — lead to starvation, enslavement, death, if not for ourselves specifically than for our loved ones, our neighbours, our friends. Worries about that, in turn, lead to more radical “solutions” to “protect” the groups who are seen as affected by such possibilities; demands that we change our behaviour “or else” without options or reasoned application; increased criminalization of activity previously left unmonitored and unregulated and its corollary, increased presumption of guilt through surveillance, “security procedures”, laws banning questioning of authority or banning discussion of issues created by groups in society.

I shall close this by noting one thing. Recent days have seen a mass fanning-of-flames to “protest” the prorogation of Parliament until March. The claim made is that this move was “undemocratic”. Yet the real democrat would be far more concerned about the failure of rational citizenship, and its increasing isolation in our society. That is, perhaps, less easy to express in a FUD(GE) fashion; less able to entertain with. But it is the core of our societal crisis — in our neighbourhoods, municipalities, regions, provinces, nationally and internationally.

We sit on the edge of a knife blade: gambling on whether we’ll fall to one side or the other is hardly a rational course of action.