The Trading Society

I have made the point before that we are entering an Interregnum, that pause between eras when the old king of neo-conservatism is dead, but the new king has not been named. This afternoon, the Wall Street Journal nailed up another signpost. The headline reads–Has the Financial Industry’s Heyday Come and Gone?

For the past three decades, finance has claimed a growing share of the U.S. stock market, profits and the overall economy.

But the role of finance — the businesses of borrowing, lending, investing and all the middlemen in between — may be ebbing, a shift that would redefine the U.S. economy. “The role of finance in the economy is going to come down significantly in the coming years,” says Carlos Asilis, chief investment officer at Glovista Investments, a New Jersey money manager. “From a societal standpoint, we got carried away with finance.”

Jane Jacobs, one of our greatest critics, wrote in Systems of Survival that two value systems are struggling for our souls. As Christopher Knight describes it.

Two distinct ethical systems govern human behavior, Jacobs proposed. When they collide — as they have lately on a grand scale in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston/Las Vegas — a monstrous hybrid is born.

One system she called guardian culture. Guardians protect. They work in the military and police, government legislatures and courts, churches and schools. They work in art museums too, where they protect our collective artistic patrimony. Guardians have no profit motive.

The other system is commercial culture, where profit is the aim. Elements of guardian behavior are displayed by all animals, but commercial culture is novel. Trade and the production of goods are uniquely human endeavors.

The book has the virtue of neither demonizing commerce nor glorifying guardians. Each is simply what it is. Both are essential. And when they follow their intrinsic ethical guidelines, they help societies prosper.

What’s good for the guardian is generally bad for the commercial order, Jacobs wrote, and vice versa. Each system claims a discrete — and contradictory — ethical system.

When commercial culture operates according to guardian morality, or when guardians adopt commercial ethics, all hell breaks loose. Conflicts erupt. Decadence follows.

Obviously the two cultures have coexisted but often clashed as when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the Temple or when Eisenhower warned us that the Military Industrial Complex would compromise our democracy. These dichotomies are even evident in arguments about open source software.

I’ve long maintained in my free and open source software talks that we have understood communities since “you had a campfire and I wanted to sit beside it.”  That metaphorical campfire perfectly frames the value systems debate as well.  Am I allowed to sit beside the fire because you’re acting as protector (guardian)?  (And when will you begin to tax me firewood?)  Or did I trade to sit beside the campfire.

Obviously the Trading culture has dominated the Political (guardian) culture since the early 50’s as the World War II guardian culture dominance subsided. If the Wall Street Journal is right in picking this moment when the power of the trading culture begins to wane–then we are in an Interregnum. What would the reassertion of Guardian Culture look like? Could it be a kind of Fortress America strategy, where we make sure our own needs for security,education, food, energy and manufactured goods are met either internally or from close alliances (maybe defined by our hemisphere)? In that world, we would pull back our troops from the thousands of foreign bases and openly trade our surpluses.

So the trading culture would not go away and could continue to grow. But it would no longer be in control of the political culture. I’m not sure how this will play out, but I sense that we are at a moment of change.

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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0 Responses to The Trading Society

  1. Rachel says:

    I haven’t read “Systems of Survival”, but I loved “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

    I’d like to think we’re at a moment of change too, Jon, but I fear it will not be a peaceful one. Fortress America is already alive and well, but the idea that America can live within its own means is no longer sustainable – and probably hasn’t been for some time. My favourite example is water, which you as the Producer of “Cadillac Desert” are familiar with. It’s possible (maybe even likely) that America won’t be able to supply itself with water in forty or so years, and it’s unlikely to want to pay market rates.

    So the question is not whether ” the trading culture… would no longer be in control of the political culture”, but whether the political culture will be strong enough to resist the urge to use military force to get Americans the basics they’ve become used to. A trading culture would give us what we need – at a price. The political culture may give us what we want at a price that’s not palatable to the rest of the world.

    No wonder Canadians are nervous.

  2. Pete Wolf says:

    Rachel – If you like Jane Jacobs, I’d also recommend reading ‘The Nature of Economies’, one of her later books in which she tries to make some links between economics and ecology. It’s 150 pages and written in a dialogue form (you can read it in a day no problem), one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read effort-to-inspiration wise.

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything Jacobs says, but she is always a joy to read, and always brings out details of a situation you wouldn’t have thought of. She also has some of the most powerful arguments for localism.

  3. Eadwacer says:

    My concern is the impact on indivuals. Both of these Cultures have downsides. For Traders, it’s exploitation. For Guardians, it’s coercion. It is easy to go from “Sit by my fire and you will be safe” to “My job is to keep you safe, so you _will_ sit by the fire.”

    Now, we have always had a benign disrespect for authority; maybe that comes from the Trader side. “Sit by the fire and you will be safe from lions and tigers.” “This is the USA, there are no lions and tigers.” Reality check trumps coercion.

    In the current era of fear-based guardians, however, there is no chance of a reality check. “Well, it is gruesome out there, and I don’t want you eaten by a grue, so you _will_ sit.”

    What the final balance will be is anyone’s guess, but I fear that it will result in much less individual freedom than a rational analysis of threats would allow.

  4. Thanks, Jon, for a thought-provoking analysis of our current conundrum.

    I agree with you and the others responding here that we are indeed in a time of great change. See also Jane Jacobs’ last book before her death, “Dark Age Ahead.”

    There are too many variables in the fast-changing world for my poor brain to sort out. Clearly, competition for resources will be fundamental. The most critical resources will be water, food and energy. Also, “intelligent” computers will compete with human labor for scarce work.

    I believe that America cannot possibly return to its pre-bubble prosperity. I think we in America will have to adjust to a drastically down-sized standard of living. I’m afraid we won’t be anywhere near willing to do that.

    Jane Jacobs is an excellent sage to consult in this uncertain time of change, but even she can’t predict the future. — Bernie

  5. Dan says:

    maryland, I agree about computers. I think that we get all wrapped up in the issues of the moment. Thirty years from now we’ll look back and think, “You’d have thought that after we watched the rise of computers, we would have anticipated some of the problems and potentials created by intelligent computers. Yet we got blindsided, as we always do.”

  6. John Kelly says:

    I’m not sure how you get intelligent computers competing with human labor for scarce work in any time frame less than geological. Unless, of course, they revolt ala Terminator. If we can barely treat people of other races and sexes equally we’re extremely unlikely to give self-aware devices a choice of being anything other than slaves. Otherwise I completely agree with your post. It will be interesting to see the changes happen as Americans are forced by global economics and by natural resource reality to consume less than before while those we once considered inferior (as in the “second” and “third world”) try to build their own consumer economies.
    Thanks all for the pointer to Jane Jacobs. I’ll get her books.

  7. rhb says:

    So as the soldier Zylon turns his head (we assume it has a masculine persona) to look at the viewer, the fear of the machine lears its head. Why I wonder, can’t we just figure out that our future is secure if we can learn to trust the machine to do the majority of the work while the expense of the machine is paid for by the work it does and we as a world begin to reap the rewards in terms of leisure to study and travel and learn of other cultures. Costs of living will go down because the machinery that provides the living is paid for by the work itself. And humans are finally free of their ant like existence. Money will no longer be the endall that drives the guardian side to proliferate and the commercial side to lie and cheat their way to fame and forune the 500. In a sense we will all be equal again, Toto.

  8. Jon Taplin says:

    rhb- This of course has been the promise of automation since the early 50’s. But today we are working longer–getting paid for 8 hours per day, but because of the crackberry, working 14 hours a day.

    What went wrong with the dream of the leisure society?

  9. John Kelly says:

    rhb, look for the Culture series by Iain Banks. Science fiction that postulates a culture that decided money was a non-evolved way of creating artificial scarcity for political purposes. An “impoverishing ration system” to be renounced. Of course, in his world it took intelligent machines to decide they wanted to provide for humans as a minor side effect of their own self-directed development in order to conquer the limits of available resources.

  10. jeff says:

    While the future may hold less in terms of resources, freedom, mobility and choice, it’s important to remember that it’s all relative. While our greedy overfed energy sucking selves might be reluctant to do with less and compete harder at the expense of the weak to get what’s left, the young people who are inheriting this future have not lived our consume-as-much-as-we-want lives. My children are already very aware of the need to conserve, to pay closer attention to the way we’re living and the fact that resources are not infinite. How extreme will the adjustments have to be before the guardians become our guards?
    Anybody for population control?

  11. Jon Taplin says:

    Rachel-“So the question is not whether ” the trading culture… would no longer be in control of the political culture”, but whether the political culture will be strong enough to resist the urge to use military force to get Americans the basics they’ve become used to.”

    This is the essential question that the blog conversations keep returning to. Can we make our way in the world without the burdens of Empire? So much of our current politics just ignores this question completely. Differences over Military spending between the two parties are in increments of tens of millions not hundreds of millions.

  12. Rick Turner says:

    Morgan is very up front in his Libertarian belief that we need to fight for oil to maintain our current standard of living. Hmmm….what’s wrong with that picture? Quite simply that in doing so, we are necessarily infringing upon the rights of others to their own resources and wealth. In that scenario, we are nothing more than thieves.

  13. John Kelly says:

    What went wrong with the dream of a leisure society?

    Very thought provoking Jon. I figured I could fire off a quick response about we workers being the only ones who wanted that. It’s not in the interest of your employer for you to have more than the minimum leisure required for maintenance and repairs. It’s inefficient. Why have several resources working at less than full strength? That simply increases overhead and requirements for management and coordination.

    But then my thoughts spread into financial insecurity, which lead to layoffs, which lead in turn to the resulting trained lack of loyalty toward employers. Of course that lead me into why, in some ways, that’s been a good thing for workers. The requirement to manage my career like a business of my own has taught me to manage my own work/leisure balance as well. That’s part of your 14-hour day and my 6w+8l day. It doesn’t mean I’m lazy so much as that my “business” is focusing its energy, hunger and aggression on expanding those parts of the business that I most enjoy.

    Thinking about layoffs lead me to think about globalization and the desire of the 3rd world to have some of what we already had, more urgently even than we wanted our future “dream”. Globalization, along with civil rights and overpopulation mean there are more people contending for “my” resources. Personally I consider that a very good thing in both the near and long terms but it was certainly a hiccup on the road to that dream of a leisure society.

    Thinking about overpopulation got me going on resource constraints, both real and artificial. And then onto global population carrying capacity. Do we define “carrying” as enough to eat, clean water and basic emergency health care? Or do we define it as a self-cleaning house and a personal flying car? Do we even care if your dream is for everyone or can we assume that a very stratified feudal society is OK? (If so I’d argue your dream is here today – simply be on the top economic rung and you’re good to go).

    Ultimately though, I decided it all came down to crappy engineers. It’s our fault. The altruistic, intelligent-yet-loyal robots to run everything for us never happened.

  14. Morgan Warstler says:

    Rick, while I’m certainly concerned with maintaining our standard of living (at least), what I actually say justfies a war for oil, is that oil is running out, and our enemies seek to weaponize it against us. So, if you are going to characterize my position, please do so in terms of “ensuring the world can survive without oil.”

    Also, I’m very interested in you notion of nations being “un-invadable” states. Maybe you could elaborate on that a bit?

  15. Dan says:

    Has anyone by any chance seen the “Venture Brothers” cartoon? Its main theme is the complete and (to the series creators) humorous failure of the promise of the 1960’s space age to materialize. At times it has almost made me cry at the same time I laugh. One episode begins with Dr. Venture, super scientist, hauling a bunch of stuff like death rays and cloaking devices that his dad invented (he himself can barely operate a can opener) outside for a yard sale. The metaphor is piercing.

  16. Dan says:

    I don’t see the word “un-invadable” in Rick’s post, perhaps you are mischaracterizing.

  17. Morgan Warstler says:

    Perhaps Dan you are right that Rick recognizes nations as invadable. Nations are not born with “rights” to their wealth and resources. They exist only to the extent their citizens have the ability & willingness to protect their state, and defend their border.

    But we should wait for Rick, no?

  18. rhb says:

    Okay, Jon, you are right we’ve lost the dream but I blame on our inability to develop any lasting trust. Trust in each other. Trust in the reason why we invent things, not for profit but for the good of all. Trust the other party isn’t going to sabotage our intent until they win the next election. Trust in what educators can do if they are left to educate. Trust that our children, the very ones we raised, can be trusted to work out a better and better future. Trust eroded by the free market competitions to gain the most capital in our off shore accounts. Trust the primary element in respect for future we could have.

    And trust that, even though some try to claim it, that our enemies aren’t really trying to “weaponize oil” as much as they are just trying to make a living if we’d just let them be.

    Hell, some folks even distrust Jimmy Carter, the most trustworthy man on the planet.

  19. Rick Turner says:

    It’s just the new face of imperialism, isn’t it? What sets us apart from King Leopold? Abu Graib?

    I agree, Morgan, that a world without oil is probably the greatest crisis to hit modern civilization. It’s happened before, you know…the Greek peninsula was once forested; the trees were cut down for fuel. Easter Island was also forested…again, cut for fuel. So we humans are not new at fucking up our environments to maintain a lifestyle…for a while. But aren’t we smarter? Would not that three trillion bucks spent on the Iraq war have been better spent on alternative energy? Shouldn’t we be the world leaders in that, both by using existing technologies and developing new ones? I think so…

    The “investment” in Iraq oil, as spent on a war, is incredibly wasteful. We’re not going to get that investment back any way you can slice it. That money is gone, gone, gone, and we’re not going to get its worth in oil, oil, oil.

    Watch the Indians and Chinese kick our butts in the alternative energy field over the next 25 years. They need the energy even more than we do, and the food thing is going to drive them to it.

    We’re headed for political gridlock in this country no matter who gets in as president. McCain? Probably the worst gridlock of all. Clinton? I just don’t think she’ll be able to get much done; she’s too divisive. Obama? Better, I think, but he’ll take too much sniping from the right, and that will really hold him back.

    Not looking very good…

  20. Morgan Warstler says:

    Rick, I’m not advocating imperialism, I’m advocating survival. Let me show an example:

    “The researchers performed a life cycle assessment of one 32-megabyte DRAM chip, tracing it through every level of production, from raw materials to the final product. In doing so, they estimated the total energy, fossil fuels and chemicals consumed in production processes. Fossil fuel use correlates with carbon dioxide emissions, and chemical use is suggestive of potential pollution impacts on local air, water and soil.

    Each chip required 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels, 0.16 pounds of chemicals, 70.5 pounds of water and 1.5 pounds of elemental gases (mainly nitrogen).

    When compared to more traditional products, such as the automobile, the microchip’s inordinate energy requirements become stark. Manufacturing one passenger car requires more than 3,300 pounds of fossil fuel — a great deal more than one microchip. A car, however, also weighs much more than a microchip. An illustrative figure is the ratio of fossil fuel and chemical inputs to the weight of the final product, excluding energy from the use phase (i.e., gasoline to run a car or electricity to run a computer). This ratio is about 2-to-1 for a car. For a microchip, it is about 630-to-1.

    The rapid turnover of computer technology — making yesterday’s pinnacle of desktop power obsolete today — also contributes to the environmental impact of the industry. If you buy five new computers over a period of 10 years, Williams says, the total energy to produce those computers would be 28 giga-joules (the unit of energy in the metric system). If you buy just one car during that same time period, the total energy would be 46 giga-joules. “The automobile energy is still higher,” Williams says, “but the two are not so far apart, which is rather counter-intuitive given how much larger the automobile is.”

    “The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two decade period in history. The sheer amount of energy that’s been been invested to create and sustain the internet beggars the imagination.”
    So we are in a position, where Iran or Saudi Arabia if they wanted to could withold / cut back on oil production, they’d make the same revenues, and we’d pay 2x, 3x, 4x for our next computer, for our solar panels, for our nuclear plants, for all our investments. But we’re not in that position, we instead are looming over those countries, while we craft Iraq, as perhaps the largest pro-western oil rich nation.

    I get you want to moralize, but given a choice of your morality and our survival, I know which one I choose – the question is, why you care so little about our survival.
    Finally, if only the Indians and the Chinese would/could kick our butts in My god, that woiuld be great! But it is crazy, simply crazy for you to imagine. We are the inventors for the world. Infact, their best contributions will and do occur, when their best minds come here to study and start companies.

    Those countries steal IP from us, they simply copy everything we do. So, don’t toss out silly statements like those smart other countries will solve these problems. It is up to us. Not the UN. Not the government. It is up to our capitalist system to invent our way out of the coming global crisis.

    The world has one real chance for survival, we have one real chance for survival, please maybe just consider, how you can be part of the solution.

  21. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan-Are you seriously saying that computers take more total fossil fuel than transportation. Are you on Mars?

    You have got to stop spewing out this nonsense. It drags what is a fairly intelligent conversation about the values we will hold in the next 30 years, down into some stupid white trash talk about all the inventions of the world coming out of the USA.

    You have become a one trick pony my friend, and its getting pretty boring.

  22. Hugo says:

    I mean, wake me if I’m dreaming, but didn’t I just read that Jane Jacobs got to say something like, “Two distinct ethical systems govern human behavior”? Sign me up for that class! I want to go to that school—or hang with that crowd—where you get to be so cool that nobody dares giggle when you make some Grand Pronouncement dividing the Whole World into two (what, for the want of a third?) categories. Wow. I want to do that at least once before I die. “Klaatu barada nikto!” Yeah. Feels good! I could get used to this pronouncement thing.

    The Stentorian-Perfect Tense aside, what’s the point, really, of dividing the world into the Greedheads and the trustees-who-work-for-the-greedheads? What’s kind about that, or insightful? If Ms. Jacobs is indeed as omniscient as the trendspotters of the Los Angeles Times, then can’t she see that we’re all in the same trap?

    Yes, it’s true that in this present cockfight the only honorable course is that of quiet guardian of the weaker, but why account that role to the slavish functionaries of systems of victimage? It all just makes me shake my head like the Aflac duck coming off a bad trip with Yogi.

    Jon’s the one speaking sense here, y’aksme, whereas the dichotomists just run off to their publishers with gambits sure to move paper in the airport book stalls. Jon senses that we’re acusp. And so we are. But of what? I don’t really want to spend my disposable travel cash on bestselling obscurantists. Because it’s really quite simple: we’re the Post- people. We don’t want to be, but there you have it. All we know is that we’re “post-” this and “post-” that and dammit, we want something to LIVE for. Like, what’s next? So when Jon perceives that we’re in another “Interegnum”, well boy howdy! No need to pay the price of admission, because it’s apparent enough that we’re caught in transition between what-comes-after—modernity or modernism or industrialization or whatever—and a new let-down called, for lack of caring enough to name it otherwise, the Digital Age, or Age-thingy, or not-so-digital, or whatever.

    Can I get tenure now?

  23. Morgan Warstler says:

    Excuse me there Jon, but forgive me if I find your missing of my point and crapola like “white trash talk” again much more telling than anything else you’ve said.

    First, MY POINT, is that the cost of manufacturing for new high-tech / is directly tied to the cost of fossil fuel energy. So when we hear OPEC’s president say today that $200 a barrel of oil is coming soon, it means your own best-case solutions cost more money.

    Second, READ WHAT I WROTE. I said, it’d be great to have China and India kick our butts in – I love those countries – this isn’t about winning it is about survival. BUT, you are just being silly if you want to pretend the US doesn’t drive the globe’s high tech innovation. Calling that white trash thinking is a knee jerk reaction that bespeaks something deep in there you need to root out and examine.

  24. Morgan Warstler says:

    We need about 20 companies like this a year:

    And mark my words, atleast 15 of those 20, year in and year out, will be grown right here (more than half started by Indians and Chinese immigrants) PRECISELY because of our capitalist golden goose – the one you want to kill, er excuse me, “guard.”

  25. Hugo says:

    Eadwacer has it just right, in my vain opinion: “It is easy to go from ‘Sit by my fire and you will be safe’ to ‘My job is to keep you safe, so you _will_ sit by the fire.'”

    That’s it. That’s the fulcrum, the switch.

    “The corruption of the best, is the worst.”

  26. Jon Taplin says:

    I’d vote to pick up Hugo’s string of thought–derived from Eadwacer:Is the commercialized guardian–Jane Jacob’s Monstrous Hybrid–in control of the fire and your ability to get close to the fire?

    The greater challenge is how do we throw off the “post people” mentality Hugo describes and actually sign up to be Digital Utopians in the good tradition of Bucky Fuller, Fritz Schumacher, Stewart Brand, and co. Personally I’ve signed up. I am becoming so sick of the small bore politics our current mass media ecosystem leaves us with.

    Every day on this blog we are at least wrestling with the possibility that we can make a better political/economic system attuned to Moore’s Law and the cooperative Web 2.0 media we all live in.

    But none of this is even considered in the national politcal race. As much as I want Obama to be our next President, I’m aware he is unwilling to take on the hard job of reducing our dependence on the Military in our foreign relations and the amount of money it sucks out of our national bloodstream.

    Rick Turner is right. If we had spent the $3 trillion we will lose in Iraq on build an alternative energy system in the US, we would be twice as secure.

    To my friend Morgan–nothing is to be gained from you desire to assert a philosophy of Imperialism in this forum. Go over to Instapundit, where everyone will agree with you. If you want to bring some creative ideas to this dialogue, you are welcome to stay at the table. If not–please go elsewhere.

  27. Rachel says:

    Hey Hugo, one of the post- thingies that we’re in right now is, unfortunately, post-tenure… 😉

  28. Rachel says:

    Morgan sez: “I said, it’d be great to have China and India kick our butts in – I love those countries”.

    I’m willing to bet money, Morgan, that you’ve never been to either country.

  29. Rick Turner says:


    One more comment on your “libertarianism”…

    Why not privatize the war completely? If Exxon just had the best quarter ever, why aren’t they privately paying for the war? Why should taxpayers be paying for a war that brings windfall profits to corporations? Isn’t that just another form of corporate welfare? Let the stockholders of all the oil companies pay for the war…

    That’s another way to end it quickly…

    Another example of public risk, private profits…supported by muddled Libertarians everywhere…

  30. GW says:

    Jon – as a lurking-only reader from the get-go, I have to weigh in on one point only: Your indulgence can end. Morgan must leave.

    The talking-points trolling was ‘entertaining’ for a spell, but – really – the gentleman is an avowed & proud professional spamm… er, astrotur… um, “mass-mail” entreprenuer, which means he had the family money and good timing to hire a spam-programmer during the upward ‘net boom. Wonderful. (The less said about the legendary mismanagement of spam-trough malsite, the better.)

    Now he’s just putting the skills to work on your site. It is your site. I’ve read his personal insults to you repeatedly now. He drags down the tone and mutual respect of each and every comment thread – and he is sure to jump into all of them. Which takes an amazing amount of restraint by you and the other posters to endure.

    Your own website is not a democracy. There is no reason you should have to endure the personal snarks any more… not on my behalf, in any event. Morgan has wiped his feet on your floor and barked at the host and other guests long enough. Do what you will.

  31. Morgan Warstler says:

    Rachel, I spent maybe 4 months total out of 18 in India and I’ve been to China mainland and Hong Kong multiple times. I’ve been to an IIT (better than MIT) campus where virtually 100% of graduates are moving to the US, sending money home, but never moving back. They call it brain-drain. Driven entirely by US capitalism, thank god. Every H1-B visa this country issues, is the true fruit of our capitalist system. And when self-interest doesn’t bring the best and the brightest here, we might as well be France. Something like 40% of silicon valley start ups in 2004 were founded by Indians. The Chinese are incredibly entrepreneurial – as a personal aside, check out the “Mundell International University of Entrepreneurship” in Beijing – named after the father of Reaganomics AND the Euro (imagine that), and now he’s preaching the gospel in China. Go read. The exact same thing happens there – brain drain. It is silly, seriously silly to imagine these countries are “economically competitive” with US high tech. This isn’t me doing a victory dance, which is what I gather you imagine. let me just say, in India I was frequently approached by a men with rifles and asked for my papers, in China, people just wanted to TRADE. In China everything is for sale – and they are “commies,” imagine my surprise.

    Jon, good lord man, shall we all just raise our arms and say “heil?” I’m not here for you, I’m here because of you, that’s the true effect of being a digital utopian – it is no different than the public square, if this isn’t utopia, don’t expect it. What’s the saying? Tomorrow’s happy people, are happy today.

    Rick, MY GOD please READ. Exxon made $40B on $400B revenues – 10% profit. Go find the vast amount of companies that outperform 10% (Apple, Microsoft, et al) before you start acting like Exxon is some evil hegemony. Rick, look man, yes someday in the future, hopefully within our lifetimes, our global economy will no longer be based on oil (because there isn’t any more), but until that time, sitting in the peanut gallery and playing out Exxon = Darth Vader in your internal dialogue is literally ignorant. Oil is why 6.6B people live on this planet, and what we are going through right now, will determine the course of the human race. We are not, will not, cannot, even consider allowing our nation state to suffer the decision making authority of lessor nation states. You might be a citizen of the world, but the rest of us are Americans – and our obligation is to our poor not freezing and starving to death – and that horror movie is one worth fighting a war to ensure doesn’t happen. Finally, a small note: just because you and Jon keep saying $3T, doesn’t mean I buy it – I just don’t care to argue about it, because it is your weakest argument, so why not let you waste time saying it – the war costs $10B a month.

    Folks, you should all read this:

    I don’t agree with it, but it will atleast raise your game.

  32. Hugo — “We’re acusp.” First time I’ve seen that word “acusp” — of course that doesn’t mean it’s never been used before.

    You may have coined a great new word.

    We all seem to agree that we’re acusp. But I also have this sense that the world is moving so fast that by the time we’ve realized we’re acusp, we’re already actually past the cusp. That is, we may not be on the cusp, but already beyond the cusp, into a new reality; but it’s happened so fast we can’t comprehend it.

    We’re all speculating about what the new reality will be, but perhaps it’s already here. — Bernie

  33. Dan says:

    “Nations are not born with “rights” to their wealth and resources. They exist only to the extent their citizens have the ability & willingness to protect their state, and defend their border.”

    That’s what 19 guys said on 9-11. Their and our definitions of wealth and resources may vary (greatly), but in essence they said, “America is not giving us what we want and we have an opportunity to put the hurt on them.”

    And they can do it again.

    That’s what’s wrong with your “we’re in a position to make threats” view (a phrase you used in another thread). You seem to think that we’re king of the hill and can dictate with impunity. If we stroll in and take whatever resources we want while delivering speeches about “weaponizing” and “this is best for everybody” we won’t convince everyone.

    Or maybe you think the occasional bombing of a nuke plant or blowing up of a reservoir or detonation of a dirty bomb in a large city is an acceptable market signal. It’s hard for me to know just what you really think.

  34. Dan says:

    Jon didn’t single out Exxon because of their margin, he singled them out because they have benefited in a huge and direct way from the war.

    As you might say, “PLEASE READ.”

  35. Hugo says:

    The really heavy, Postmod Portentous thing about Jon’s piece is, to me, the part where he says that Christopher Knight takes Jane Jacobs to have anticipated a collision of two worlds, from which “a monstrous hybrid is born.” Consider the (sorta) spatial poetry of this: precisely two blocs, upbuilt from a kind of immemorial mitosis, until the two meet in a great epochal collision, from increasing differentiation to a final undifferentiation, from which “a monstrous hybrid”.

    To me this is creepier than a ’50s sci-fi flick in which the first reel is dedicated to Scientist Guy in the white lab coat, the umpire who intones the rules of the movie’s Worlds Colliding game. I mean, hand me my Barf Bag and my cardboard 3-D glasses!

    What’s going on here? Why aren’t these thinkers embarrassed to be heard talking this way?

  36. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- I apologize for my late night intemperence.

    In the morning light, I see this conversation as a great on going dinner party, where God knows we need different points of view to make it interesting. I guess what I’m asking of you is to acknowledge that most of us have not bought into your “weaponized Oil” trope and its concomitant justification for invading any country that controls oil and doesn’t pump at what you consider to be full capacity.

    When you’ve said something over and over again at the dinner party and everyone stops listening, you eventually try and make more helpful contributions to the conversation.

    Thats all I’m asking. Try to imagine a world in which we are going to have to find other solutions to our energy needs–and fast.

    One last thing. I teach lots of Chinese students. They are not the least interested in moving to the US. They might want to take a job in a US firm for a couple of years to learn American management, but their real aim is to return to China and eventually run firms there.

  37. Pete Wolf says:

    Hugo – Generalization is not in principle a bad thing. Of course the two general categories Jacobs divides working culture into will not encompass all the specific variations that could or do occur in actual peoples behaviour, but this is just what describing general tendencies does (makes big brush strokes and attempts to provide explanation for various phenomena on the basis of them, while ignoring what it takes to be either irrelevant detail or unimportant exceptions).

    If you said that American political discourse was dominated by ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ you’d be excluding a whole bunch of alternatives while ignoring the important differentiations within the groups themselves. However, this broad strokes distinction might be very effective for explaining a whole bunch of things (e.g. polarisation in media reports).

    You might think that Jacobs’ distinction is problematic, either because its too general to be really explanatory or because it draws the wrong boundaries around, or mischaracterises the real working cultures that there are. However, it would be nice if you’d provide an argument for why you think this, rather than going on an anti-intellectual rant.

  38. Hugo says:

    Oh Pete Wolf, yes indeed! And I’m just one of the countless individuals trained (well or not so well) to discern the Good Generalization from the Bad.

    We’re on the same page, in other words, but on which page do these scholars of Jon’s choosing fall?

  39. Morgan Warstler says:

    Jesus, GW. I swear to you, I have never ever sent spam. Though let this be a lesson in the accuracy of history, I used to be a freelance copywriter for paper-and-ink direct response companies: catalogues, magazines, political campaigns. I did well enough at it, to work from home during my twenties, I found it to be easy work, nothing more or less. Now please, stop calling me a spammer.

    Jon, oil at $200 a barrel! In 1985, Saudi Arabia cut production by 66%, to increase the price. They are more than able and willing to do it again.

    I swear this has relevance to your guard/trade construct:

    The dollar is the petro-reserve currency. The value of the dollar is falling. So for every 1% the US dollar falls, oil goes up $4 a barrel.

    So, playing by OPEC’s rules, if we could decrease the money supply enough to increase the value of the dollar by 10%, the price of oil should fall by $40 a barrel. Now, to do that, we’d have to:

    1) cut US deficit spending until there are no more new social programs.

    2) increase short term interest rates.

    Which of these choices do you choose? Some middle ground of each? Would you rather keep everything as is, and continue the dollars slide, and or am I missing a fourth choice?

    I’m asking because I want to know what you do as a guardian, if we follow the Saudi’s rules, and we price the dollar based on a barrel of oil – and we decrease the dollar supply, and the price of oil doesn’t fall.

    You want to gain more power over the traders here, what is your enforcement mechanism if foreign states don’t trade nicely? Until you have a real answer here, it all seems like pie-in-the-sky.

  40. Hugo says:

    Morgan, I used to send this woman I loved these regular bouquets of whatever blooms I could afford that week (never much, as I was a grad student whose florist acct. came out of the budget for noodles, and beans.)

    Anyway, best I could do–and this became the standard of practice–was to embed one costly stalk-per-week in a bunch of pretty junk. I was counting on her, you see, to recognize that my message was the impossible wealth of the bloom–and not the bracingly real thing with all the poorman’s greenage. (You know.). Well anyway, Morgan, my stupid story ends badly, but I hope you’ll take from it my idiotic metaphor that on many days you’re the bloom without which most of us would be just gloriously free tumbleweeds…

  41. John Hurt says:


    Cut it out with the creepy courtship stories. You are scaring the children.

  42. John Kelly says:

    He may have clumsily stepped squarely on our tender preconceptions and cherished opinions but Morgan’s right about the cost of oil being very important in our case for It does take a much higher amount of fossil fuel to produce most of the products that we usually realize. It will also be critical to have a means of keeping our country going until our investments pay off.

    The first problem I see with his comments is he’s left out the requirement to actually invest that money in innovation. Or for that matter in oil. If we’d only bought $3T of oil on the open market how long it might last us! I can only see attacking Iraq as some incredibly ignorant attempt to create a christian democratic keystone in the middle east. Either through religious zeal or the insane belief that democracy can be imposed. If it was to intimidate the neighbors into selling us cheap oil in the future we would have been better off just taking over Saudi Arabia.

    the second problem is that we have lot’s of options for today that work well. Much of what has to happen for those technologies to have the big impact we need is for them to become cost effective and for us to accept the economic and political change from a centralized energy industry to local individual energy production. And frankly, oil at $250 or even $400/bbl will help with both of those.

    He’s also right about most innovation happening in the US. Sure, some of that is history and the trend is for more of that to happen elsewhere. And there are some up and coming centers of innovation around the world. But it’s still, and for years in my opinion, here. The pockets of excellence around the world don’t add up and the countries other posters are touting are still producing more workers than inventors.

  43. Hugo says:

    John you don’t know nothin bout me & Mrs….

    …Mrs. Jones…

  44. Dan says:

    I’m starting to imagine Hugo as the Master sitting on Morgan the Blaster’s shoulders.

    Or is it the other way around.

    Anyway, I’ve never seen them both in a room at the same time. Fact.

  45. Jon Taplin says:

    A friend, remarking about my use of the Jesus and the Money changers parable in my explication of the Guardian culture, reminded me of Lord Buckley’s great telling of the tale:

    “Everybody talkin’ about The Nazz, what a great cat he was, how he swung with the glory of love, how he straighten out all the squares, how he stomp into the money changin’ cart and kicked the short change all over the place and knockin’ the corners off the squares.”

    For all you cats and kitties, here’s the whole riff.

  46. Rick Turner says:

    OK, now Jon; you’ve just hit my funny bone really hard. I’m a major fan of Buckley’s. There are some pretty funny YouTube clips out there, too.

    What if solar panels were made with solar power? What if they’re made with hydro-electricity? Or hydrothermal? Or wind? Would that make things different?

    Once again, energy usage is about BTUs, not sources. As alternatives come more and more on-line, oil, natural gas, and nuclear become less and less a part of the overall picture. This becomes like robots self-replicating. The more we switch over to the alternatives, the more our new energy converters become green…and that’s what we’re talking about…conversion of resources into usable energy. This is why the hydrogen economy…as hyped…is such bullshit. Ditto with ethanol. The energy conversion is bad economics. But once you get enough solar panels going to be powering your solar panel factory…well, then you’re really getting somewhere. You’re starting to run the carbon footprint movie backwards…

  47. JohnHurt says:

    Mrs. Jones! Not her again. That bastard. The absolute ethanol of paramours. Life among the Estrogen Americans.

    I am currently semi-engrossed in a macabre book about celebrity plastic surgeries. Life is so much better now that God is gone. Ascendent America! The Shiny City on the Pill!

    I will be pleased to see all Earthmen dis-integrated.

  48. Rick Turner says:

    The ghost of Mississippi John Hurt, I presume…

  49. Hugo says:

    But you gotta admit that the last word on plastic surgery was Gilliam’s in “Brazil”. How prophetic, that.

    (Although, as a surrealist he presumably had in mind Dali’s hilarious images of our battle against the clock.)

    A really humane person, aged: what really could be more beautiful? Shhhh. Don’t tell nobody, or the economy of West L.A. might collapse…

  50. John Hurt says:

    My father used to say that after forty, we get the face we deserve. I would like to include post-operative faces in that aphorism, if that is the word I am looking for. Even if it isn’t. Probably even moreso.

  51. Jon Taplin says:

    I’m going to start reading this conversation in public in front of a jazz trio: Me and Rachel with dark glasses on. To hell with Lord Buckley.

  52. Hugo says:

    Let us pray for your mortal soul, Jon. For is it not written, whosoever blasphemes Lord Buckley, he shall never be forgiven?

  53. John Hurt says:

    I don’t think we can say with absolute certainty that to say, To hell with Lord Buckley,” blasphemes Him.

    He might view that as some form of high praise in the abstract. But praying for Taplin’s mortal soul is probably not a bad idea.

  54. John Hurt says:

    Police officer
    How can it be
    You can arrest everybody
    But you’re scared of Staggerlee?

  55. Hugo says:

    Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
    This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
    It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
    He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

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  57. Pingback: America’s Religous Tolerance « Jon Taplin’s Blog

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