Retrotopia - Far Side of Progress

SUBHEAD: Progress as the enemy of prosperity, I thought, shaking my head. What a bizarre idea.

By John Michael Greer on 1 June 2016 for Archdruid Report -

Image above: The breakup over Texas of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. From (

I got lunch at the little cafĂ© across the street from the Capitol, and then went to talk to Melanie Berger and a dozen other people from Meeker’s staff. We had a lot of ground to cover and I’d lost two and a half days to the flu, so we buckled down to work and kept at it until we were all good and tired. It was eight o’clock, I think, before we finally broke for dinner and headed for a steak place, and after that I went back to my hotel and slept hard for ten hours straight.

The next morning we were back at it again. Ellen Montrose wanted a draft trade agreement, a draft memorandum on border security, and at least a rough draft of a treaty allowing inland-waterway transport from our territory down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and points south, and she wanted them before her inauguration, so she could hit the ground running once her term began.

I figured she also meant to announce them in her inauguration speech and throw the Dem-Reps onto the defensive immediately, so they’d be too busy trying to block her agenda to come up with an agenda of their own.

The Lakelanders knew about the proposals—they’d been briefed while my trip was still in the planning stage—and they were willing to meet her halfway, but they had a shopping list of their own.

The trade agreement in particular required a lot of finagling, so the Restos wouldn’t shoot it down when it came up for ratification by the legislature, and I had to weigh everything against what Montrose’s people and the legislature in Philadelphia would be willing to tolerate.

Fortunately the Lakelanders were just as clear on the political realities as I was; everybody approached the negotiations with “how do we make this work?” as the first priority, and we got a lot done.

By lunchtime we’d gotten the framework of the trade agreement settled—there would be plenty of fiddling once the formal negotiations got started, but the basic arrangements looked good—and the memorandum on border security was a piece of cake, the way it usually is when neither side is looking for an excuse to start a fight. The inland-waterway treaty was another matter.

We wanted access to the Mississippi, with an eye toward markets in the Missouri Republic, the Gulf, and points further south; they wanted to be able to ship goods to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal, to keep Quebec from getting expansive ideas about transit fees on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In principle, those were both workable, but the details were tenanted with more than the usual quota of devils.

So we got lunch in the dining room downstairs in the Capitol, sat over in a corner, and kept on hashing out details between bites of sandwich and spoonfuls of bean soup. Once lunch was over, we trooped back up to the conference room downstairs from Meeker’s office and kept going.

The one big question we still had to tackle by that point was how to handle the difference in technology—our tugs and barges rely on high-tech gear that the Lakeland waterways aren’t set up for, and theirs don’t have the equipment our regulations require—and we talked through I don’t know how many different ways to handle that, before finally agreeing that each side’s tugs would stay on their own side of the border,  their barges would rent portable computer rigs when they were on our side, and our barges would hire extra crew to do the same work on theirs.

Once that was out of the way, the rest of it came together quickly enough, but by then the sun was down and we were all pretty tired. It was a Friday night, so the only people left in the Capitol besides us by then were janitors and security guards, and most of the others had someplace or other to go and somebody to meet. In the end, it was just me and Melanie Berger who walked two blocks north to the Indian place we’d been earlier that week.

We got settled in a little booth, ordered drinks and dinner, sat there for a few minutes without saying much. She looked as tired as I felt. Drinks and a basket of onion naan put in an appearance, though, and took the edge off two very long days.

“Well, that was a marathon,” Berger said, sipping at something that was supposed to be a martini—I’d never heard of one that just had gin, vermouth, and an olive in it, but I figured it was a local habit. “Still, no regrets.” With a sudden smile: “I bet Fred Vanich that we could get the three agreements roughed out before you left for Philadelphia, and this time I get to collect.”

I laughed. “Glad to oblige.”

We busied ourselves with the naan for a bit. “You’re leaving Wednesday, right?” she said then. When I nodded:  “I admit I’m wondering what you think about—” Her gesture took in the restaurant, the other patrons in their old-fahioned clothing, the streetcar rolling purposefully past on the street outside, the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising above the buildings on the other side of the street.

“You’ve been here long enough to get over the initial shock, and I’d be interested in hearing what all this looks like from an outsider’s perspective.”

Looking back on it all, it probably would have been more professional to fob her off with a few trivial comments, but I didn’t do that. Partly I was tired enough that I wasn’t thinking clearly, partly I’d been wishing for days that I could talk to someone intelligent about the insight I’d had on the way back from Defiance County, and it probably didn’t help that there was some chemistry between me and Melanie Berger, which seemed to be mutual. So I got stupid and said, “My reaction’s kind of complex.”

She motioned for me to go on, but just then the waiter came back with our entrees, noted our empty glasses, and returned promptly from the bar with another round of drinks. I waited until he’d gone sailing smoothly over to another table before continuing.

“On the one hand,” I said, “you’ve played a weak hand astonishingly well. No, it’s more than that—you’ve taken what I’d have considered crushing disadvantages and turned them into advantages. I’d be willing to bet that the World Bank and the IMF figured that after a couple of years shut out of global credit markets and foreign trade, you’d crawl on your knees over broken glass to be let back in.”

Berger nodded. “I’ve heard that they told President Moffit something like that to his face.”

“But you took every lemon they threw at you and made lemonade out of it. No foreign trade? You used that as an opportunity to build up an industrial plant aimed at local markets. No access to credit?

You made banking a public utility and launched what looks like a thriving stock market. No technology imports? You rebuilt your economy to use human labor and local resources instead—and it hasn’t escaped my attention how enthusiastic your population is about all three of those moves.”

“You can hardly blame them,” she said. “Plenty of jobs at decent pay, and banks that pay a decent rate of interest and don’t go belly up—what’s not to like?”

“I’m not arguing. And here’s the thing—so far, it’s insulated you from a lot of trouble. This satellite business is a good example.” I gestured with my fork. “The last three days have been a complete mess in the rest of the world. Stock markets are down hard, and everybody from military planners to weather forecasters are trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do without satellite data. Here? I know exactly how much time Tom Pappas is going to spend worrying about getting by without satellites—”

She burst into laughter. “Just under zero seconds.”

“If that,” I said, laughing with her. “And the Toledo stock market had three decent days. I don’t even want to think about how my other investments are doing, but here I made two dollars and fifty cents.”

That got me a surprised look. “I didn’t know you had money invested here.”

“One share of Mikkelson Industries. It was a good way to see the market in action.”

She laughed again. “I’ll have to tell Janice that the next time I see her. She’ll be tickled.”  Then:  “But there’s another side to your reaction.”

“Yes, there is.” All of a sudden I wished I didn’t have to go on, but I’d backed myself into a corner good and proper.

“The downside is that it can’t last. You’re going one way but the rest of the world is going the other, and all it’s going to take is one round too many of technological innovation out there and you’ll be left twisting in the wind.

Right now, what you’ve got looks pretty good compared to what’s on the other side of the borders, but when the global economy finally gets straightened out and the next big wave of innovation and growth hits, what then? Regime change using technologies you can’t counter, maybe, or maybe just the sort of slow collapse that happens to a country that’s tried to stay stuck in the past a little too long.”

She was smiling when I finished. “I was wondering if you’d bring that up.”

That stopped me cold.  I used a forkful of tandoori chicken as a distraction, then said, “I take it you’ve heard someone else mention it.”

“Fairly often. When someone from outside gets past the initial shock, and actually thinks about what we’ve done here—and of course quite a few of them never get around to that—that’s usually the next point they bring up.”

I considered that. “And I suppose you have an answer for it.”

“Well, yes.” She jabbed at the palak paneer. “When the global economy finally gets straightened out, when the next big wave of innovation and growth hits. Are you sure those are going to happen?”

I put down my fork and stared at her. “It’s got to happen sooner or later.”


I tried to think of something to say, and couldn’t.

“The Second Civil War ended thirty-two years ago,” she pointed out.  “The Sino-Japanese war was over twenty-seven years ago. Ever since then, economists everywhere outside our borders have been insisting that things would turn up any day now, and they haven’t.

You know as well as I do that real global GDP has been flat to negative twenty-six of the last thirty years, and the last decade’s shown zero improvement—quite the contrary. That’s not going to change, either, because every other country in the world is chasing a policy goal that’s actively making things worse.”

“And that is?”

“Progress,” she said.

Once again, I was left speechless.

“Here are some examples.”

She held up one finger.
“The consumer sector of your economy has been in the tank ever since Partition. Why? Because you’ve got really bad maldistribution of income.”

“There’s more to it than that,” I protested.

“Yes, but that’s the core of it—if consumers don’t have money to spend, they’re not going to be able to buy consumer goods, and your consumer sector is going to suffer accordingly. Why don’t they have money to spend?

Because you’ve automated most working class jobs out of existence, and if you want to tell me that technology creates more jobs than it eliminates, you’re going to have to argue with some very hard figures. You’ve got appalling rates of permanent unemployment and underemployment, and yet everybody on your side of the border seems to think that a problem that was caused by automation is going to be solved by even more automation.”

She raised a second finger. 
“That’s one example. Here’s another. As technology gets more complex and interconnected, you’re guaranteed to see more situations where a problem in one system loads costs on other systems.  Look at the satellite situation—it’s because so many economic sectors rely on satellite technology that that’s going to be such an economic headache. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty of others; our estimate is that cascading problems driven by excess technological interaction knocked a good eight per cent off global GDP last year, and it’s getting worse, because everybody outside seems to believe that the problems of complexity can only be fixed by adding more complexity.

“A third.” 
Another finger went up. “Resource costs. The more complex your technology gets, the more it costs to build it, maintain it, power it, and so on. Any time an analysis says otherwise, some of the costs are being pushed under the rug—and that rug’s getting very lumpy nowadays. Direct and indirect resource costs of technology are like a tax on all other economic activity, and since most of what you do with complex tech used to be done in less resource-intensive ways already, the economic return on tech doesn’t make up for the resource costs. Try telling that to a World Bank economist sometime, though—it’s quite entertaining to watch.

“And here’s a fourth.” 
She raised another finger. “Systemic malinvestment. Since each generation of tech costs more on a whole system basis than the one before, tech eats up more and more of your GDP each year, and everything else gets to fight over the scraps. After the Second Civil War, your country and mine were pretty much equally leveled. We put our investment into basic infrastructure; you put yours into high technology. We got rebuilt cities and towns, canals, railways, schools, libraries, and the rest of it. You got a domestic infrastructure so far in decay I’m amazed you put up with it, because the money that could have fixed your roads and bridges and housing stock went down a collection of high tech ratholes instead. Sure, you’ve got the metanet; does that make up for everything you do without?

“I could go on. There was a time when progress meant prosperity, but we passed that point in the late twentieth century, and since then, every further increment of progress has cost more than it’s worth—and yet the ideology stays stuck in place.

Until that changes, the global economy isn’t going to straighten out and the next big boom is going to turn into one more bust; it’s not going to change until someone else notices that progress has become the enemy of prosperity.”

I was shaking my head by the time she was finished. “With all due respect,” I said, “that’s crazy.”

It was a clumsy thing to say and I regretted saying it the moment the words were out. “That attitude,” she snapped back, “is why we don’t have to worry about technological innovation and the rest of it. One more round of innovation, one more economic boom and bust, and the rest of the world is going to progress itself straight into the ground.”

I opened my mouth to reply, and then shut it again. One more word, and we would have had a quarrel right there in the restaurant, but I wasn’t going to let that happen, and neither was she. So we finished dinner in silence, didn’t get another round of drinks, paid up and went to the door.

She flagged down a taxi. “I’ll have someone contact you Monday,” she said, looking away from me. “Good night.”

I wished her a good night, stood there while the clop-clop of the horse faded into the other street noises, and then started walking back to my hotel. The things she’d said chased each other around and around in my mind.

None of it made any sort of sense—except that it did, in a bizarre sort of way, and when I tried to tease out the holes in her logic I had a hard time finding any. I figured that I was just too tired, and—let’s be honest—too upset.

Progress as the enemy of prosperity, I thought, shaking my head. What a bizarre idea.

Something very bright streaked across the sky above me, and I looked up. A little uneven shape of brilliant light with a long streaming tail behind it went tumbling across the stars, faster than a jet.

As I watched, it broke in two, and then the two pieces disintegrated one after another into sprays of tiny glowing points that flared and went dark. I tried to tell myself that it was just a meteor, but I knew better.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - A Distant Scent of Blood 5/18/16

Below are the first seven of fifteen previous Retrotopia articles reproduced on Island Breath:
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - Dawn train from Pittsburgh 8/27/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - View from a Moving Window 9/2/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - A Cab Ride in Toledo 9/10/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - Public Utilities, Private Goods 9/24/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - A Change of Habit 10/1/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - Scent of Ink on Paper 10/15/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia - A Question of Subsidies 10/22/15

The other pieces can be found at the Archdruid Report website.


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