I just finished reading Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. I’ve gathered a few of my thoughts on this thought-provoking classic.

My capsule review: The book puts forward a fascinating theory of history and our position in the universe in a concise and engaging package.

As I read the book, my mind kept seeking lines between Fuller and eco-socialism or eco-anarchism. While Fuller calls capitalism and socialism “mutually extinct,” there are some ideas in his work that wouldn’t be out of place in Marx, Proudhon, or certainly Bookchin.

For example: Fuller’s Great Pirates theory of history is a first cousin of “the history of man is the history of class struggle.” The Great Pirate theory traces the separation of the ruling class from the ruled class in early civilization based on who labors and who can command labor. Fuller follows this thread through all the mutations of history— chieftains to kings to industrialists— until we reach the current epoch. In recent history, the Great Pirates&mdash the ruling class— have delegated their affairs to states and the scientific-professional class. This is an analysis of our current situation that would not be out of place in Piketty.

Fuller correctly concludes that war is a way for the upper class to drive demand and production while controlling the lower classes through xenophobia and violence. He argues that nations and borders are inefficient relics that draw arbitrary unreal lines between people for the purpose of encouraging war and economic activity. As an engineer, he sees that nations and borders create a tremendous amount of redundancy. This redundancy is useful if you are a Great Pirate who needs production to continue ceaselessly for the sake of your continued wealth and power.

Fuller states that if we are to survive long-term, competition between states needs to cease. And since states are not states unless they compete, if we are to survive, states must go.

I’m starting to understand why Fuller had a lengthy FBI file..

People know of this book as an argument for green energy and regenerative systems. Fuller frames Earth as a spaceship with no lifeboats upon which we’re hurtling through space. If our species is to live, we need to ensure the continued operation of the life support system that makes our oxygen, water, food, and energy. I know that when the book was written, no one had yet articulated things in this way. It shows the effectiveness of Fuller’s ideas and his communication style that these ideas are absolutely everywhere in modern ecology and eco-futurism.

As with all futurism, Fuller’s predictive track record is mixed. He predicted that wealth would be essentially limitless and universal at this point. Naturally, as a result, we’d be spending 90% of our day in leisure. This is where lacking a true materialist analysis bites him. Fuller thought we’d either be dead or living without borders by now. He underestimated the ability and desire of the ruling class to adapt to preserve their status. States evolved instead of going extinct.

Fuller couldn’t understand why a person with functionally limitless wealth wouldn’t start sharing at some point. There comes a point in wealth accumulation when all your barriers are lifted: you have all the creature comforts that you could want, you can travel as much as you would like, and you can work as little as you please. It isn’t rational to hoard wealth beyond this point. Fuller, a thoroughly rational person, concludes that the thing to do at that point is to stop seeking further wealth, enjoy what you have, and let the rest flow to everyone else who isn’t there yet. He failed to consider that for some people, enough is never enough. Those people seek out wealth, and sometimes they get it. Once they have it, they use their wealth to get more wealth. Since their hunger is infinite, they keep using their wealth to capture more wealth until they have as much as possible, and everyone else is driven to the line of subsistence. The system is inexorable. Even if any individual were to choose differently and give away all their hoarded wealth, another yawning pit of greed would open to fill the gap.

I’m surprised that Fuller missed this, considering he had the Great Pirate theory and whole-systems-thinking right there in the same volume. The Great Pirates keep their fleets because the fleets are power and Great Pirates want power. He spent large stretches of Operating Manual discussing how the whole physical world— galaxy upon galaxy&mash; doesn’t constitute a complete system without the metaphysical world of human thought and behavior. The universe acts on us and we act on the universe and then this flow continues round and round forever. If the system of “human ingenuity plus near-limitless solar energy” is generally pointed toward a future of universal wealth and leisure, shouldn’t we consider that the human element would nudge the ultimate result one way or the other? We should.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth gives us a lot to consider in a scant 150 pages. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in considering our position in time and space, in realms physical and metaphysical.

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Will corona recession really kill more people than corona virus? Not unless we're stupid and cruel

The question: will corona recession kill more people than corona virus? The answer: not if we take some easy preventative economic medicine.

First, let’s do away with the abstractions of economics for a second. People don’t die when their bank balance hits zero. It’s not some sort of video game life counter. It’s not an economic downturn or unemployment per se that kills people. It’s starvation, exposure, sickness, and suicide that actually kill people. These “four horsemen” just happen to correlate with economic downturns.

The good news: all of these are thoroughly preventable causes of death, even in an economic downturn. Here’s the recommended course of treatment.

The Plan

Avoid Starvation.

To prevent starvation, you make sure two things happen: that we make enough food, and that we make sure we distribute it to people who need it. Even in the corona recession, this is not particularly difficult.

  • Food production. Firstly, we’ve been running food surpluses for decades now. In fact, so much so that the government has been holding up food prices by buying up massive “strategic reserves” of food. Reserved for what? Reserved for a situation like this. So we probably don’t even need to grow any more corn or wheat this year to avoid starvation. However, we don’t even need to stop food production! Only about 7.3 million people in the country are farmers, hunters, fisherpeople, food processors, or grocery workers out of 331 million people in the country. We can avoid any hitch in the food supply by having about 2% of workers keep working and it won’t make a dent in social distancing.

  • Food distribution. This one is easy. Cut everyone in the country a check for $2,000 a month. People can use that to buy food and pay rent. How do I know we can do that? The cost for this universal basic income (UBI) program would be about $660 billion dollars a month, and we are gearing up to spend $30 trillion this month on Wall Street bailouts.

Avoid exposure.

We can prevent people from being houseless during this crisis. There are six empty homes for each houseless person. We can prevent a spike in new houselessness by freezing mortgage and rent payments.

We should pass a law that says this: for the next year, mortgage balances are frozen— no payments are due, no interest will accrue, and no principle will be paid down. Then, in a year, we all pick up where we left off. The only cost of this is the interest that the banks would have been earning otherwise. We could pay off all mortgage interest for about $155 billion dollars a month (way cheaper than those Wall Street bailouts!) or just say “you are welcome for saving you from a foreclosure crisis!” And since landlords won’t be paying mortgages, they don’t need to collect rent, so we freeze that too.

Or again, we could just cut everyone a month check to cover their payments.

Avoid sickness.

The most important thing we can do to reduce sickness is keep workers at home if their works is not needed to keep us alive through the crisis! If social distancing is lifted, models predict that 2 million people will die. The options are simple: (1) keep people at home, and there are 90% fewer deaths OR (2) send everyone to work, and two million die.

While we’re all here: Medicare for All is cheaper than private insurance. If we’re looking for savings, we could save $200 billion per month while making sure that everyone has care! And that’s a $200 billion based for a normal month, not per corona month (the savings from M4A increase the more care is demanded)

Avoid suicide.

Why do you think suicide rates increase in economic downturns? It’s because people are hungry, sick, homeless and/or anxious about becoming hungry, sick, or homeless. Solve the others and solve the anxiety about them and you solve the spike in suicide rates. Throw in Medicare for All with access to mental healthcare and lower the rate even further.

Feasibility

But can we afford it? The UBI would cost $660 billion a month. A mortgage interest freeze costs $155 billion a month, assuming we don’t just make banks carry it. Medicare for All saves at least $200 billion a month, probably more in corona times. So our corona recession preventative treatment costs about $600 billion a month. For comparison, the Federal Reserve is about to embark on $30 trillion in bank bailouts in one month.

On the other side, there’s the cost of not preventing the wildfire spread of corona virus. 2.2 million dead according to the latest models. In a normal moral calculus, that should be enough. But let’s say you are an economist, and you want to know about the dollar impact, because economists are sociopaths. Normal flu costs about $2.6 million for each person it kills due to lost productivity and medical cost. So if you just linearly scale that to 2.2 million people, it’s around $5.7 trillion dollars of impact, which is about 30% of GDP. But flu kills far fewer people than corona does, and epidemics have network effects. A better data point is probably the 1918 flu epidemic. Economic data from 1918 is dodgy, but the areas in the United States which were hit by that year’s flu reported 40 - 70% drops in aggregate demand. That’s $8.4 to $14.8 trillion in economic cost. AND TWO POINT TWO MILLION DEATHS. There. Can I go throw up now?

Conclusion

Strong social distancing plus strong social safety net saves billions per month and 2 million lives. There’s been a lot of talk of “balance” lately. I propose this: halt non-essential work, and provide a safety net to keep everyone fed, housed, and well. That’s the balance we need.

Sources

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Why the Corona Recession Is Different Than the Great Recession

The Great Recession began as a plague of capital. The Collateralized Debt Obligations and Mortgage Backed Securities got sick first. The real economy got sick later once people couldn’t afford to stay in their homes but couldn’t afford to sell them either.

Throughout the Great Recession, the working class in general, and service workers in particular, kept everything running— as they always do. Economists call the Service sector “acyclic” which means it is comparatively resistant to the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. People didn’t stop buying haircuts or eating at restaurants during the Great Recession. You still need haircuts, food, and medical care, even if there is havoc in the fictive economy of the stock markets. The Service sector is our life preserver.

The corona recession is a consequence of an actual material plague. People are getting sick first, then the economy is getting sick because people can’t show up for work. The Service sector kept us afloat last time, but we need to shut it down for material epidemiological reasons. We are about to be adrift without our life preserver.

Working people make everything: meals, haircuts, medicine and medical care, culture, housing— everything. For all the emphasis we put on the ups and downs of financial assets, stocks alone have never made anything. We say that capital investment makes the economy move, but it only does so because it commands labor. Without labor, stocks and bonds are inert. A stock has never made you a meal or cared for you when you were sick, and neither has a CEO (putting aside publicity appearances here or there).

This makes the corona recession materially different from the last one. If we don’t protect working people through this crisis, we will incur a tremendous human cost. And if the economy is your concern, know that it will never recover unless the working class comes out of this crisis in a strong position. If working people get sick and starve, there will be less food and less medical care as a result. Then more people will get sick and starve. An economic contagion to match the viral contagion.

So what should we do? The tactics we used last time won’t work this time. It’s debatable whether they worked last time. The government used targeted stimulus to keep the financial, automotive, and real estate industries operating. We can’t keep the services sector open. So we need to apply our stimulus directly to working people.

In the short term, we need to get direct cash payments into the hands of every working person in the country. We need that money to stay fed and healthy, which society needs in order to recover when the crisis passes. And long term, we need to make sure working class people share in the prosperity that we create. The risk of this crisis would be far lessened if the working class wasn’t in such poor shape to begin with. The working class needs an ownership stake in the economy, savings, and a robust safety net to make it through times like these.

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