Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil?

A few months from now, this blog will complete its tenth year of more-or-less-weekly publication. In words the Grateful Dead made famous, it’s been a long strange trip:  much longer and stranger than I had any reason to expect, certainly, when I typed up that first essay and got it posted on what was still, to me, the alien landscape of the blogosphere.

Over the years since that first tentative post, the conversations here have strayed into some remarkably odd territory:  the history of apocalyptic ideas, the nature of magic, the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and a good deal more.  All through its vagaries, though, this blog’s central focus remains what it has been since shortly after its 2006 launch: the difficult but necessary task of facing up to the end of the  arrival of hard limits to growth, and the collapse of all those fantasies of perpetual progress that so many people today still use to keep themselves from thinking about the future ahead of us.

That said, my longtime readers may be wondering about the relative absence in recent posts of one of the core themes of this blog’s earlier days. Yes, that would be peak oil.

For those who’ve come to this blog recently, it maybe helpful to point out that this simple phrase refers to a complicated concatenation of ideas. First, despite claims made by rap musician BoB and the few other flat-earthers out there, I think most of us are aware that the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across. That means, among many other things, that the Earth contains a finite amount of petroleum—and this in turn means that each barrel of petroleum that gets pumped out of the ground brings us closer to the point at which there’s no more left.

Second, getting oil out of the ground isn’t just a matter of sticking an iron straw into a hydrocarbon milkshake. There aren’t big underground lakes of oil; what you’ve got instead are cracks and pores in solid rock through which oil oozes slowly. Thus production from an oil well usually starts off slowly, rises to a steady flow, and then gradually dwindles away to a trickle as the available oil runs out. Oil fields follow much the same curve: the first successful wells bring up oil, many more wells get drilled, and then you drill new wells to make up for declining production in the old ones, until eventually there are no more places to drill and you’ve got a played-out field. The point at which you can’t drill enough new wells to make up for declining production from the old ones is the point at which the output from the field peaks and begins to decline.

Third, the same thing is true of what geologists call oil provinces—these are regions, such as the Marcellus shale, where you can find a bunch of oil in a bunch of fields that all have more or less the same geology. The reason’s the same: in an oil province, just as in an oil field, production increases at first as new wells go in, then peaks and begins to decline as you run out of enough places to drill new wells to make up for the depletion of the old ones. Apply the same logic to entire countries, and to the whole Earth, and it works just as well. The phrase “peak oil” is a label for the point at which drilling new wells can’t keep up with the depletion of existing wells worldwide, and the overall production of petroleum worldwide begins to decline.

That’s all very straightforward. Back in the late 1990s, when a handful of researchers started to pay attention to the widening gap between the rate at which oil was being pumped out of existing fields and the rate at which new fields were being discovered, that straightforward logic led most of them to equally linear conclusions.  At some point in the near future, they suggested, petroleum production would peak and then tip over into irreversible decline, petroleum prices would soar through the skylights, and a cascade of difficult consequences would promptly follow.

That latter point was by no means an arbitrary assumption. Petroleum then as now accounts for the largest share of global energy consumption, amounting to roughly forty per cent of all energy, including almost all the energy used in the transportation sector. Claims that petroleum products could easily be replaced by other energy sources ignored the hard reality that most other energy sources were already being used as fast as they could be extracted. Claims that imminent technological breakthroughs would surely keep any of these things from happening ignored the equally hard reality that most of those supposed breakthroughs had been tried repeatedly in the past and hadn’t worked.

All this had been discussed at great length back in the 1970s, when the United States hit its own all-time production peak and began skidding down the far side. The issue of peak oil got swept under the rug during the Reagan era and ignored by almost everyone thereafter; by the time the alarm was finally sounded again in the late 1990s, it was painfully clear that most of the time that would have been needed to get ready for peak oil had already been wasted. The result, according to most serious peak oil researchers at that time, would be a traumatic era of economic, political, and cultural turmoil in which a global civilization used to depending on oceans of cheap abundant crude oil got squeezed by steadily decreasing supplies at steadily soaring prices. That was the peak oil standard scenario.

Those of my readers who know their way around the apocalyptic end of the blogosophere, even if they weren’t paying attention at the time, will have no problem figuring out exactly what happened from that point on. Inevitably, the base case was turned into a launching pad for any number of lurid prophecies of imminent doom. The common contemporary habit of apocalypse machismo—“I can imagine a cataclysm more hideous and all-encompassing than you can!”—kicked into gear, and the resulting predictions interbred like hyperactive bunnies until the straightforward mathematics of peak oil were all but buried under a vast tottering heap of giddy fantasy.

Now of course none of those lavishly imagined catastrophes happened. That’s hardly surprising, as identical fantasies have been retailed on every imaginable provocation for decades now—swap out the modern details for their equivalents in previous eras, for that matter, and you can replace that word “decades” with “centuries” and still be correct. What did manage to surprise a good many people is that the standard scenario didn’t happen either. That’s not to say that everything was fine and dandy; as we’ll see, quite a bit of the economic, political, and social turmoil we’ve seen since 2005 or so was in fact driven by the impact of peak oil—but that impact didn’t follow the linear model that most peak oil writers expected it to follow

To understand what happened instead, it’s necessary to keep two things in mind that were usually forgotten back when the peak oil scene was at white heat, and still generally get forgotten today. The first is that while the supply of petroleum is ultimately controlled by geology, the demand for it is very powerfully influenced by market forces. Until 2004, petroleum production worldwide had been rising steadily for decades as new wells were brought on line fast enough to more than offset the depletion of existing fields. In that year, depletion began to catch up with drilling, and the price of oil began to rise steadily, and two things happened as a result.

The first of these was a massive flow of investment money into anything that could make a profit off higher oil prices. That included a great many boondoggles and quite a bit of outright fraud, but it also meant that plenty of oil wells that couldn’t make a profit when oil was $15 a barrel suddenly looked like paying propositions when the price rose to $55 a barrel. The lag time necessary to bring oil from new fields onto the market meant that the price of oil kept rising for a while, luring more investment money into the oil industry and generating a surge in future supply.

The problem was that the same spike in oil prices that brought all that new investment into the industry also had a potent impact on the consumption side of the equation. That impact was demand destruction, which can be neatly defined as the process by which those who can’t afford something stop buying it. Demand destruction also has a lag time—when the price of oil goes up, it takes a while for people to decide that higher prices are here to stay and change their lifestyles accordingly

The result was a classic demonstration of one of the ways that the “invisible hand” of the market is a good deal less benevolent than devout economists like to pretend. Take the same economic stimulus—the rising price of oil—and factor in lag times on its effects on both production and consumption, and you get a surge in new supply landing right about the time that demand starts dropping like a rock. That’s what happened in 2009, when the price of oil plunged from around $140 a barrel to around $30 a barrel in a matter of months. That’s also what happened in 2015, when prices lurched down by comparable figures for the same reason: surging supply and plunging demand hitting the oil market at the same time, after a long period when everyone assumed that the sky was the limit.

Could the bloggers and researchers in the pre-2009 peak oil scene have predicted all this in advance? Why, yes, and as a matter of fact a few of us did.  The problem was that we were very much in the minority. True believers in an imminent peak oil apocalypse denounced the analysis just outlined with quite some heat, to be sure, but I also quickly lost count of the number of earnest, intelligent, well-informed people who tried to convince me that I had to be wrong and the standard scenario had to be right.

The conventional wisdom in the peak oil scene missed something else, though, and that’s had a huge impact on this most recent boom-and-bust cycle. The convenient label “petroleum” actually covers many different kinds of hydrocarbon goo, and these are found in many different kinds of rock, scattered unevenly across the surface of the planet. Some kinds of goo are cheap to extract and refine, but many more aren’t. Since oil companies are in the business of making money, they quite sensibly started out by going after the stuff that was cheap to extract and  refine. When that ran out, they went after the stuff that was a little more expensive, and so on.

All this seems ordinary enough—after all, every other mineral resource has gone through the same curve; the low-grade taconite that goes into today’s iron smelters has a tiny fraction of the amount of iron per ton of ore that the lowest grades of commercially mined iron ore had a century ago. There’s a little problem here, though, which is that the difference in concentration between today’s taconite and yesterday’s better ores is made up by adding energy to the equation. It takes vastly more energy to make a steel I-beam today than it did in 1916, and most of that is a function of the fact that the lower the quality of ore, the more energy you have to invest in getting out each pound of iron from it.

This is also true of petroleum—but there’s a catch, because the point of extracting the petroleum in the first place is that you can get energy out of it. It’s at this point that we start talking about net energy.

Net energy is to energy what profit is to income. To get, let’s say, one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) of energy, you have to invest a certain amount of energy in the process of extracting and refining it, and the amount you have to invest varies dramatically depending on what kind of hydrocarbon goo we’re talking about. What oilmen call “light sweet crude”—that is, petroleum that’s relatively high in light fractions, and free of sulfur and other contaminants—from the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit.

As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1, meaning that just under a gallon and a half of the oil in each barrel goes to pay off the energy cost of extraction. That’s still good, but it’s nothing like as good.

The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells, for the simple reason that every oil province in North America capable of bringing in that kind of yield was prospected many decades ago and is producing oil at ful tilt right now if it wasn’t drained to the bare rock long ago. What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve.

Neither one of them, as it happens, actually yields petroleum. From tar sands, as the name suggests, you get tar, which can be cut with solvents and shipped to special refineries where, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can break them down into the same things you can get much more cheaply from conventional crude oil. From hydrofractured shales, you get mostly very light hydrocarbons, the sort of thing that’s better suited to filling disposable lighters than it is to fueling your car. Both of these still got lumped in with conventional petroleum in the official statistics, which made it much easier for the New York Times and other highbrow propaganda outlets to pretend at the top of their lungs that peak oil doesn’t matter—there’s a rant to this effect somewhere in the Times every couple of months, which may suggest a certain basic insecurity at work, but that’s a theme for another post.

The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each BOE of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits.

Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from?

The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.

That’s the other half of the picture, as we stumble across the unfamiliar landscape on the far side of peak oil. The jagged landscape of booms and busts will doubtless continue for some time—it would not surprise me at all if the busts kept on coming at something like the six-year interval separating the 2009 and 2015 debacles—and each cycle will hammer the global economy in an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar ways, spreading collateral damage far and wide. Meanwhile the net energy of oil production will slide unsteadily downhill as older resources are exhausted and newer ones, with much steeper energy costs for extraction and refining, have to be brought on line to replace them.

The decline in net energy won’t be visible in the places you’d expect, either. As long as the hard facts of geology make it physically possible to do so, large volumes of “petroleum,” in some sense of that increasingly flexible word, will continue to be produced and consumed. With each year that passes, though, a larger fraction of that output will have to cycle right back into the extraction and refining process, leaving less and less available for all other uses. Thus declining net energy promises to play out over time in the form of creeping dysfunction throughout the economic sphere, in the form of neglected and abandoned infrastructure, failing institutions, a rising tide of permanent joblessness and homelessness, all papered over with an increasingly brittle layer of propaganda spewed out with equal enthusiam from the partisans of every officially acceptable point of view. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you need to get out more.)

That’s not going to reverse itself, either, because the resources that would be needed to flood the world with cheap abundant energy again don’t exist any more. We, ahem, burned them all. Again, the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across; it never held that much in the way of concentrated energy resources in the first place, and our species squandered everything in our reach in three centuries or so of wretched excess.  The cycles of contraction and dysfunction just outlined are part of the process by which that excess is going away, leaving us with, at most, roughly the same sort of access to energy and its products that our ancestors had before the Industrial Revolution.

We could have made that transition in a controlled and intelligent way, and we didn’t—but that doesn’t excuse us from having to make it anyway. It’s just that we’re being dragged kicking and screaming into the future by forces we chose to ignore but can’t evade. Peak oil is one of those forces; anthropogenic climate change, which has been discussed here extensively already, is another—and it’s another that has been bedeviled by the sort of overly linear thinking on the one hand, and apocalyptic fantasy-spinning on the other, that crippled the peak oil community’s capacity to anticipate the future.

In an upcoming post, I plan on talking about some of the broader lessons to be drawn from that failure—and in the process, I intend to deliver a good hard stomp to one of the habits of thought that did the most to land us in this mess.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Retrotopia: Lines of Separation

This is the fourteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator returns from his trip to a tier one county full of doubts about the Lakeland Republic’s prospects, and has those at once challenged and sharpened by a conversation at the local Atheist Assembly...

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I’d had lunch with Ruth Mellencamp at a pleasant little diner a block from the station before I caught the train, so I had nothing to do until I got to Defiance but watch farmland roll by and think about what I’d seen since I’d crossed the border less than a week before. My reactions were an odd mix of reluctant admiration and unwilling regret. The people of the Lakeland Republic had taken a situation that would have crushed most countries—an international embargo backed up with repeated attempts at regime change—and turned it into their advantage, using isolation from the capital flows and market pressures of the global economy to give them space to return to older ways of doing things that actually produced better results than the modern equivalents.

The problem with that, I told myself, was that it couldn’t last. That was the thing that had bothered me, the night after I’d toured the New Shaker settlement, though it had taken another day to come into focus. The whole Lakeland Republic was like the New Shakers, the sort of fragile artificial construct that only worked because it isolated itself from the rest of the world. Now that the embargo was over and the borders with the other North American republics were open, the isolation was gone, and I didn’t see any reason to think the Republic’s back-to-the-past ideology would be strong enough by itself in the face of the overwhelming pressures the global economy could bring to bear.

That wasn’t even the biggest challenge they faced, though. The real challenge was progress—the sheer onward momentum of science and technology in the rest of the world. Sure, I admitted, the Lakeland Republic had done some very clever things with old technology—the Frankens blowing drones out of the sky with a basement-workshop maser kept coming to mind—but sooner or later the habit of trying to push technology into reverse gear was going to collide catastrophically with the latest round of scientific or technical breakthroughs, with or without military involvement, and leave the Lakelanders with the hard choice between collapse and a return to the modern world.

A week earlier, I probably would have considered that a good thing. As the train rolled into Defiance, I wasn’t so sure. The thing was, the Lakeland Republic really had managed some impressive things with  their great leap backward, and in a certain sense, it was a shame that progress was going to steamroller them in due time. Most of the time, people say “progress” and they mean that things get better, but it was sinking in that this wasn’t always true.

I picked up a copy of that day’s Toledo Blade from a newsboy in the Defiance station, and used that as an excuse to think about something else once I boarded the train back to Toledo. The previous day’s drone shoot was right there on page one, with a nice black and white picture of Maude Duesenberg getting her sixth best-of-shoot trophy, and a big feature back in the sports section with tables listing how all the competitors had done.  I didn’t pay attention to anything else on the front page at first, though, because another satellite had been hit.

The Progresso IV and the the Russian telecom satellite were bad enough, but this one was a good deal worse, because it was parked in a graveyard orbit—one of the orbital zones where everybody’s been sticking their defunct satellites since it sank in that leaving them in working orbits wasn’t a good plan. There’s a lot of hardware in most of the graveyard-orbit zones, and though they’re well away from the working orbits that doesn’t really matter once you get a Kessler syndrome started and scrap metal starts spalling in all directions at twenty thousand miles an hour. That was basically what was happening; a defunct weather satellite had taken a stray chunk of the Progresso IV right in the belly, and it had just enough fuel for its maneuvering thrusters left in the tanks to blow up. A couple of amateur astronomers spotted the flash, and the astronomy people at the University of Toledo announced that they’d given up trying to calculate where all the shrapnel was going; at this point, a professor said, it was just a matter of time before the whole midrange was shut down as completely as low earth orbit.

That was big news, not least because the assault drones I’d watched people potshotting out of the air depend on satellite links.  Oh, there are other ways to go about controlling them, but they’re clumsy compared to satellite, and you’ve also got the risk that somebody will take out your drones by blocking your signals—that’s happened more than once in the last couple of decades, and I’ll let you imagine what the results were for the side that suddenly lost its drones. Of course that wasn’t the only thing that was in trouble: telecommunications, weather forecasting, military reconnaissance, you name it, with the low orbits gone and the geosynchronous going, the midrange orbits were the only thing left, and now that door was slamming shut one collision at a time.

It occurred to me that the Lakeland Republic was one of the few countries in the world that wasn’t going to be inconvenienced by the worsening of the satellite crisis. Still, I told myself, that’s a special case, and paged further back. The rest of the first section was ordinary news: the Chinese were trying to broker a ceasefire between the warring factions in California; the prime minister of Qu├ębec had left on a state visit to Europe; the melting season in Antarctica had gotten off to a very bad start, with a big new iceflow from Marie Byrd Land dumping bergs way too fast. I shook my head, read on.

Further in was the arts and entertainment section. I flipped through that, and in there among the plays and music gigs and schedules for the local radio programs was something that caught my eye and then made me mutter something impolite under my breath. The Lakeland National Opera was about to premier its new production of Parsifal the following week, and every performance was sold out. Sure, I mostly listen to classic jazz, but I have a soft spot for opera from way back—my grandmother was a fan and used to play CDs of her favorite operas all the time, and it would have been worth an evening to check it out. No such luck, though: from the article, I gathered that even the scalpers had run out of tickets. I turned the page.

I finished the paper maybe fifteen minutes before the train pulled into the Toledo station. A horsedrawn taxi took me back to my hotel; I spent a while reviewing my notes, got dinner, and made an early night of it, since I had plans the next morning.

At nine-thirty sharp—I’d checked the streetcar schedule with the concierge—I left the hotel and caught the same streetcar line I’d taken to the Mikkelson plant. This time I wasn’t going anything like so far: a dozen blocks, just far enough to get out of the retail district. I hit the bell just before the streetcar got to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.

Half a dozen other people got off the streetcar with me, and as soon as we figured out that we were all going the same place, the usual friendly noises followed. We filed in through a pleasant lobby that had the usual pictures of famous Atheists on the walls, and then into the main hall, where someone up front was doing a better than usual job with a Bach fugue on the piano, while members and guests of the Assembly milled around, greeted friends, and settled into their seats. Michael Finch, who’d told me about the Assembly, was there already—he excused himself from a conversation, came over and greeted me effusively—and when I finally got someplace where I could see the pianist, it turned out to be Sam Capoferro, the kid I’d seen playing at the hotel restaurant my first day in town. He gave me a grin, kept on playing Bach.

We all got seated eventually. What followed was the same sort of Sunday service you’d get in any other Atheist Assembly in North America: the Litany, the lighting of the symbolic Lamp of Reason, and a couple of songs from the choir, backed by Capoferro’s lively piano playing. There was a reading from one of Mark Twain’s pieces on religion, followed by an entertaining talk on Twain himself—his birthday was coming up soon, I thought I remembered. Then we all stood and sang “Imagine,” and headed for coffee and cookies in the social hall downstairs.

“Anything like what you get at the Philadelphia Assembly?” Finch asked me as we sat at one of the big tables in the social hall.

“The music’s a bit livelier,” I said, “and the talk was frankly more interesting than we usually get in Philly. Other than that, pretty familiar.”

“That’s good to hear,” said a brown-skinned guy about my age, who was just then settling into a chair on the other side of the table. “Even with the borders open, we don’t have anything like the sort of contacts with Assemblies elsewhere that I’d like.”

“Mr. Carr,” Finch said, “this is Rajiv Mohandas—he’s on the administrative council here. Rajiv, this is Peter Carr, who I told you about.”

We shook hands, and Mohandas gave me a broad smile. “Michael tells me that you were out at the annual drone shoot Friday. That must have been quite an experience.”

“In several senses of the word,” I said, and he laughed.

We got to talking, about Assembly doings there in Toledo and back home in Philadelphia, and a couple of other people joined in. None of it was anything out of the ordinary until somebody, I forget who, mentioned in passing the Assembly’s annual property tax bill.”

“Hold it,” I said. “You have to pay property taxes?” They nodded, and I went on:  “Do you have trouble getting Assemblies recognized as churches, or something?”

“No, not at all,”  Mohandas said. “Are churches still tax-exempt in the Atlantic Republic? Here, they’re not.”

That startled me. “Seriously?”

Mohandas nodded, and an old woman with white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, a little further down the table, said, “Mr. Carr, are you familiar with the controversy over the separation of church and state back in the old Union?”

“More or less,” I said. “It’s still a live issue back home.”

She nodded. “The way we see it, it simply didn’t work out, because the churches weren’t willing to stay on their side of the line. They were perfectly willing to take the tax exemption and all, and then turned around and tried to tell the government what to do.”

“True enough,” Mohandas said. “Didn’t matter whether they were on the left or the right, politically speaking.  Every religious organization in the old United States seemed to think that the separation of church and state meant it had the right to use the political system to push its own agendas—”

“—but skies above help you if you asked any of them to help cover the costs of the system they were so eager to use,” said the old woman.

“So the Lakeland Republic doesn’t have the separation of church and state?” I asked.

“Depends on what you mean by that,” the old woman said. “The constitution grants absolute freedom of belief to every citizen, forbids the enactment of any law that privileges any form of religious belief or unbelief over any other, and bars the national government from spending tax money for religious purposes. There’s plenty of legislation and case law backing that up, too. But we treat creedal associations—”

I must have given her quite the blank look over that phrase, because she laughed. “I know, it sounds silly. We must have spent six months in committee arguing back and forth over what phrase we could use that would include churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, assemblies, and every other kind of religious and quasireligious body you care to think of. That was the best we could do.”

“Mr. Carr,” Finch said, “I should probably introduce you. This is Senator Mary Chenkin.”

The old woman snorted. “‘Mary’ is quite good enough,” she said.

I’d gotten most of the way around to recognizing her before Finch spoke. I’d read about Mary Chenkin in briefing papers I’d been given before this trip. She’d been a major player in Lakeland Republic politics since Partition, a delegate to their constitutional convention, a presence in both houses of the legislature, and then the third President of the Republic.  As for “Senator,” I recalled that all their ex-presidents became at-large members of the upper house and kept the position until they died. “Very pleased to meet you,” I said. “You were saying about creedal associations.”

“Just that for legal purposes, they’re like any other association. They pay taxes, they’re subject to all the usual health and safety regulations, their spokespeople are legally accountable if they incite others to commit crimes—”

“Is that an issue?” I asked.

“Not for a good many years,” Chenkin said. “There were a few cases early on—you probably know that some religious groups before the Second Civil War used to preach violence against people they didn’t like, and then hide behind freedom-of-religion arguments to duck responsibility when their followers took them at their word and did something appalling. They couldn’t have gotten away with it if they hadn’t been behind a pulpit—advocating the commission of a crime isn’t protected free speech by anyone’s definition—and they can’t get away with it here at all. Once that sank in, things got a good deal more civil.”

That made sense. “How’s the Assembly doing financially, though, with taxes to pay?”

“Oh, not badly at all,” said Mohandas. “We rent out the hall and the smaller meeting rooms quite a bit, of course, and this room—” He gestured around us.  “—is a school lunchroom six days a week.” In response to my questioning look:  “Yes, we have a school—a lot of,” he grinned, “creedal associations do. Our curriculum’s very strong on science and math, as you can imagine, strong enough that we get students from five and six counties away.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “I visited a school out in Defiance County yesterday; it was—well, interesting is probably the right word.”

“Well, then, you’ve got to come tour ours,” Chenkin said. “I promise you, there’s no spectator sport in the world that matches watching a class full of fourth-graders tearing into an essay that’s been deliberately packed full of logical fallacies.”

That got a general laugh, which I joined. “I bet,” I said. “Okay, you’ve sold me. I’ll have to see what my schedule has lined up over the next few days, but I’ll certainly put a tour here on the list.”

“Delighted to hear it,” Mohandas said.

I wrote a note to myself in my pocket notebook. All the while, though, I was thinking about the future of the Lakeland Republic. Unless the science and math they taught was as antique as everything else in the Republic, how would the kids who graduated from the Assembly school—and equivalent schools in other cities, I guessed—handle being deprived of the kinds of technology bright, science-minded kids everywhere else took for granted?

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While we’re on the subject of narrative fiction, Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard’s archetypal barbarian hero, has made more than one previous appearance on this blog. With that in mind I’d like to point interested readers in the direction of one of Conan’s more wryly amusing modern manifestations. By Crom! by cartoonist Rachel Kahn features the guy from Cimmeria offering helpful advice for modern urban life. Those who find that thought appealing might consider visiting the publisher’s website here to read the online version or buy PDF copies of the two By Crom! books; those who want printed copies can find the Kickstarter for that project here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment

Of all the predictions I made for the new year in my post two weeks ago, the one that seems to have stirred up the most distress and derision is my suggestion that the most likely person to be standing up there with his hand on a Bible next January, taking the oath of office as the next president of the United States, is Donald Trump. That prediction wasn’t made to annoy people, entertaining as that can be from time to time; nor is it merely a reaction to Trump’s meteoric rise in the polls and the abject failure of any of his forgettable Republican rivals even to slow him down.

The rise of Donald Trump, rather, marks the arrival of a turning point I’ve discussed more than once in these essays already. Like the other turning points whose impending appearance on the stage of the future has been outlined here, it’s not the end of the world; it’s thus a source of amusement to me to recall all those Republicans who insisted they were going to flee the country if Obama won reelection, and are still here, when I hear Democrats saying they’ll do the same thing if Trump wins. Still, there’s a difference of some importance between the two, because in terms of the historical trajectory of the United States, Trump is a far more significant figure than Barack Obama will ever be.

Despite the empty rhetoric about hope and change that surrounded his 2008 campaign, after all, Obama continued the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush so unswervingly that we may as well call those policies—the conventional wisdom or, rather, the conventional folly of early 21st-century American politics—the Dubyobama consensus. Trump’s candidacy, and in some ways that of his Democratic rival Bernard Sanders as well, marks the point at which the blowback from those policies has become a massive political fact. That this blowback isn’t taking the form desired by many people on the leftward end of things is hardly surprising; it was never going to do so, because the things about the Dubyobama consensus that made blowback inevitable are not the things to which the left objects.

To understand what follows, it’s going to be necessary to ask my readers—especially, though not only, those who consider themselves liberals, or see themselves inhabiting some other position left of center in the convoluted landscape of today’s American politics—to set aside two common habits. The first is the reflexive resort to sneering mockery that so often makes up for the absence of meaningful political thought in the US—again, especially but by no means only on the left. The dreary insults that have been flung so repetitively at Donald Trump over the course of his campaign are fine examples of the species: “deranged Cheeto,” “tomato-headed moron,” “delusional cheese creature,” and so on.

The centerpiece of most of these insults, when they’re not simply petulant schoolboy taunts aimed at Trump’s physical appearance, is the claim that he’s stupid. This is hardly surprising, as a lot of people on the leftward end of American culture love to use the kind of demeaning language that attributes idiocy to those who disagree with them. Thus it probably needs to be pointed out here that Trump is anything but stupid. He’s extraordinarily clever, and one measure of his cleverness is the way that he’s been able to lure so many of his opponents into behaving in ways that strengthen his appeal to the voters that matter most to his campaign. In case you’re wondering if you belong to that latter category, dear reader, if you like to send out tweets comparing Trump’s hair to Cheese Whiz, no, you’re not.

So that’s the first thing that has to be set aside to make sense of the Trump phenomenon. The second is going to be rather more challenging for many of my readers: the notion that the only divisions in American society that matter are those that have some basis in biology. Skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability—these are the lines of division in society that Americans like to talk about, whatever their attitudes to the people who fall on one side or another of those lines. (Please note, by the way, the four words above: “some basis in biology.” I’m not saying that these categories are purely biological in nature; every one of them is defined in practice by a galaxy of cultural constructs and presuppositions, and the link to biology is an ostensive category marker rather than a definition. I insert this caveat because I’ve noticed that a great many people go out of their way to misunderstand the point I’m trying to make here.)

Are the lines of division just named important? Of course they are. Discriminatory treatment on the basis of those factors is a pervasive presence in American life today. The facts remain that there are other lines of division in American society that lack that anchor in biology, that some of these are at least as pervasive in American life as those listed above—and that some of the most important of these are taboo topics, subjects that most people in the US today will not talk about.

Here’s a relevant example. It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

It’s probably necessary to point out explicitly here that these classes aren’t identical to the divisions that Americans like to talk about. That is, there are plenty of people with light-colored skin in the welfare class, and plenty of people with darker skin in the wage class.  Things tend to become a good deal more lily-white in the two wealthier classes, though even there you do find people of color. In the same way, women, gay people, disabled people, and so on are found in all four classes, and how they’re treated depends a great deal on which of these classes they’re in. If you’re a disabled person, for example, your chances of getting meaningful accommodations to help you deal with your disability are by and large considerably higher if you bring home a salary than they are if you work for a wage.

As noted above, there are people who don’t fall into those divisions. I’m one of them; as a writer, I get most of my income from royalties on book sales, which means that a dollar or so from every book of mine that sells via most channels, and rather less than that if it’s sold by Amazon—those big discounts come straight out of your favorite authors’ pockets—gets mailed to me twice a year. There are so few people who make their living this way that the royalty classlet isn’t a significant factor in American society. The same is true of most of the other ways of making a living in the US today. Even the once-mighty profit class, the people who get their income from the profit they make on their own business activities, is small enough these days that it lacks a significant collective presence.

There’s a vast amount that could be said about the four major classes just outlined, but I want to focus on the political dimension, because that’s where they take on overwhelming relevance as the 2016 presidential campaign lurches on its way. Just as the four classes can be identified by way of a very simple question, the political dynamite that’s driving the blowback mentioned earlier can be seen by way of another simple question: over the last half century or so, how have the four classes fared?

The answer, of course, is that three of the four have remained roughly where they were. The investment class has actually had a bit of a rough time, as many of the investment vehicles that used to provide it with stable incomes—certificates of deposit, government bonds, and so on—have seen interest rates drop through the floor.  Still, alternative investments and frantic government manipulations of stock market prices have allowed most people in the investment class to keep up their accustomed lifestyles.

The salary class, similarly, has maintained its familiar privileges and perks through a half century of convulsive change. Outside of a few coastal urban areas currently in the grip of speculative bubbles, people whose income comes mostly from salaries can generally afford to own their homes, buy new cars every few years, leave town for annual vacations, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, the welfare class has continued to scrape by pretty much as before, dealing with the same bleak realities of grinding poverty, intrusive government bureacracy, and a galaxy of direct and indirect barriers to full participation in the national life, as their equivalents did back in 1966.

And the wage class? Over the last half century, the wage class has been destroyed.

In 1966 an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage could count on having a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other ordinary necessities of life, with some left over for the occasional luxury. In 2016, an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage is as likely as not to end up living on the street, and a vast number of people who would happily work full time even under those conditions can find only part-time or temporary work when they can find any jobs at all. The catastrophic impoverishment and immiseration of the American wage class is one of the most massive political facts of our time—and it’s also one of the most unmentionable. Next to nobody is willing to talk about it, or even admit that it happened.

The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of two major shifts in American economic life. The first was the dismantling of the American industrial economy and its replacement by  Third World sweatshops; the second was mass immigration from Third World countries. Both of these measures are ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by slashing the number of wage-paying jobs, on the one hand, while boosting the number of people competing for them on the other. Both, in turn, were actively encouraged by government policies and, despite plenty of empty rhetoric on one or the other side of the Congressional aisle, both of them had, for all practical purposes, bipartisan support from the political establishment. 

It’s probably going to be necessary to talk a bit about that last point. Both parties, despite occasional bursts of crocodile tears for American workers and their families, have backed the offshoring of jobs to the hilt. Immigration is a slightly more complex matter; the Democrats claim to be in favor of it, the Republicans now and then claim to oppose it, but what this means in practice is that legal immigration is difficult but illegal immigration is easy. The result was the creation of an immense work force of noncitizens who have no economic or political rights they have any hope of enforcing, which could then be used—and has been used, over and over again—to drive down wages, degrade working conditions, and advance the interests of employers over those of wage-earning employees.

The next point that needs to be discussed here—and it’s the one at which a very large number of my readers are going to balk—is who benefited from the destruction of the American wage class. It’s long been fashionable in what passes for American conservatism to insist that everyone benefits from the changes just outlined, or to claim that if anybody doesn’t, it’s their own fault. It’s been equally popular in what passes for American liberalism to insist that the only people who benefit from those changes are the villainous uber-capitalists who belong to the 1%. Both these are evasions, because the destruction of the wage class has disproportionately benefited one of the four classes I sketched out above: the salary class.

Here’s how that works. Since the 1970s, the salary class lifestyle sketched out above—suburban homeownership, a new car every couple of years, vacations in Mazatlan, and so on—has been an anachronism: in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. It was wholly a product of the global economic dominance the United States wielded in the wake of the Second World War, when every other major industrial nation on the planet had its factories pounded to rubble by the bomber fleets of the warring powers, and the oil wells of Pennsylvania, Texas, and California pumped more oil than the rest of the planet put together.  That dominance went away in a hurry, though, when US conventional petroleum production peaked in 1970, and the factories of Europe and Asia began to outcompete America’s industrial heartland.

The only way for the salary class to maintain its lifestyle in the teeth of those transformations was to force down the cost of goods and services relative to the average buying power of the salary class.  Because the salary class exercised (and still exercises) a degree of economic and political influence disproportionate to its size, this became the order of the day in the 1970s, and it remains the locked-in political consensus in American public life to this day. The destruction of the wage class was only one consequence of that project—the spectacular decline in quality of the whole range of manufactured goods for sale in America, and the wholesale gutting of the national infrastructure, are other results—but it’s the consequence that matters in terms of today’s politics.

It’s worth noting, along these same lines, that every remedy that’s been offered to the wage class by the salary class has benefited the salary class at the expense of the wage class. Consider the loud claims of the last couple of decades that people left unemployed by the disappearance of wage-paying jobs could get back on board the bandwagon of prosperity by going to college and getting job training. That didn’t work out well for the people who signed up for the student loans and took the classes—getting job training, after all, isn’t particularly helpful if the jobs for which you’re being trained don’t exist, and so a great many former wage earners finished their college careers with no better job prospects than they had before, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt burdening them into the bargain. For the banks and colleges that pushed the loans and taught the classes, though, these programs were a cash cow of impressive scale, and the people who work for banks and colleges are mostly salary class.

Attempts by people in the wage class to mount any kind of effective challenge to the changes that have gutted their economic prospects and consigned them to a third-rate future have done very little so far. To some extent, that’s a function of the GOP’s sustained effort to lure wage class voters into backing Republican candidates on religious and moral grounds. It’s the mirror image of the ruse that’s been used by the Democratic party on a galaxy of interests on the leftward end of things—granted, the Democrats aren’t doing a thing about the issues that matter most to you, but neither are the Republicans, so you vote for the party that offends you least. Right? Sure, if you want to guarantee that the interests that matter most to you never get addressed at all.

There’s a further barrier, though, and that’s the response of the salary class across the board—left, right, middle, you name it—to any attempt by the wage class to bring up the issues that matter to it. On the rare occasions when this happens in the public sphere, the spokespeople of the wage class get shouted down with a double helping of the sneering mockery I discussed toward the beginning of this post. The same thing happens on a different scale on those occasions when the same thing happens in private. If you doubt this—and you probably do, if you belong to the salary class—try this experiment: get a bunch of your salary class friends together in some casual context and get them talking about ordinary American working guys. What you’ll hear will range from crude caricatures and one-dimensional stereotypes right on up to bona fide hate speech. People in the wage class are aware of this; they’ve heard it all; they’ve been called stupid, ignorant, etc., ad nauseam for failing to agree with whatever bit of self-serving dogma some representative of the salary class tried to push on them.

And that, dear reader, is where Donald Trump comes in.

The man is brilliant. I mean that without the smallest trace of mockery. He’s figured out that the most effective way to get the wage class to rally to his banner is to get himself attacked, with the usual sort of shrill mockery, by the salary class. The man’s worth several billion dollars—do you really think he can’t afford to get the kind of hairstyle that the salary class finds acceptable? Of course he can; he’s deliberately chosen otherwise, because he knows that every time some privileged buffoon in the media or on the internet trots out another round of insults directed at his failure to conform to salary class ideas of fashion, another hundred thousand wage class voters recall the endless sneering putdowns they’ve experienced from the salary class and think, “Trump’s one of us.”

The identical logic governs his deliberate flouting of the current rules of acceptable political discourse. Have you noticed that every time Trump says something that sends the pundits into a swivet, and the media starts trying to convince itself and its listeners that this time he’s gone too far and his campaign will surely collapse in humiliation, his poll numbers go up?  What he’s saying is exactly the sort of thing that you’ll hear people say in working class taverns and bowling alleys when subjects such as illegal immigration and Muslim jihadi terrorism come up for discussion. The shrieks of the media simply confirm, in the minds of the wage class voters to whom his appeal is aimed, that he’s one of them, an ordinary Joe with sensible ideas who’s being dissed by the suits.

Notice also how many of Trump’s unacceptable-to-the-pundits comments have focused with laser precision on the issue of immigration. That’s a well-chosen opening wedge, as cutting off illegal immigration is something that the GOP has claimed to support for a while now. As Trump broadens his lead, in turn, he’s started to talk about the other side of the equation—the offshoring of jobs—as his recent jab at Apple’s overseas sweatshops shows. The mainstream media’s response to that jab does a fine job of proving the case argued above: “If smartphones were made in the US, we’d have to pay more for them!” And of course that’s true: the salary class will have to pay more for its toys if the wage class is going to have decent jobs that pay enough to support a family. That this is unthinkable for so many people in the salary class—that they’re perfectly happy allowing their electronics to be made for starvation wages in an assortment of overseas hellholes, so long as this keeps the price down—may help explain the boiling cauldron of resentment into which Trump is so efficiently tapping.

It’s by no means certain that Trump will ride that resentment straight to the White House, though at this moment it does seem like the most likely outcome. Still, I trust none of my readers are naive enough to think that a Trump defeat will mean the end of the phenomenon that’s lifted him to front runner status in the teeth of everything the political establishment can throw at him. I see the Trump candidacy as a major watershed in American political life, the point at which the wage class—the largest class of American voters, please note—has begun to wake up to its potential power and begin pushing back against the ascendancy of the salary class.

Whether he wins or loses, that pushback is going to be a defining force in American politics for decades to come. Nor is a Trump candidacy anything approaching the worst form that could take. If Trump gets defeated, especially if it’s done by obviously dishonest means, the next leader to take up the cause of the wage class could very well be fond of armbands or, for that matter, of roadside bombs. Once the politics of resentment come into the open, anything can happen—and this is particularly true, it probably needs to be said, when the resentment in question is richly justified by the behavior of many of those against whom it’s directed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Retrotopia: Learning Lessons

This is the thirteennth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finishes up his trip to a tier one county, and starts to notice ways in which the Lakeland Republic has gone neither forwards nor backwards, but off on an angle all its own...

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It must have been midnight, or close to it, when Pappas and I got back to the New Shaker gathering. The shooting went on until four in the afternoon; during a lull in the gunfire, a little after noon, we got into line outside a big olive-green tent in the middle of things, filed in, and left with glasses of beer and sausages and sauerkraut on big fresh-baked rolls. After the last drone was blown out of the air, people milled around while the judges conferred, and then it was time for trophies to be handed out—Maude Duesenberg, who I’d seen shooting earlier, squeaked out another win by a couple of points over a scruffy-looking kid from the mountain country off east. They shook hands, and he grinned; you could tell he was already thinking about getting ready for next year’s shoot. 

From there it turned into a big party, with plenty of food—somebody spent most of the day roasting a couple of pigs, just for starters—and no shortage of alcohol, either. Pappas and I ended up sipping moonshine around a fire with the guys from the 34th Infantry, who were already talking about what kind of stunt they were going to pull the following year. The ‘shine was pure enough that I’m honestly surprised that the whole lot of us weren’t lifted into the treetops by a sudden explosion, just from the vapors. As it was, I was tipsier than I usually let myself get by the time Pappas and I headed back to the jeep, and he was worse off than I was. Did you know a wheelchair can stagger? Trust me, I’ve seen it.

The next morning came too early, announced by the same overenthusiastic rooster as before. I got myself washed and dressed, and stumbled downstairs, to find Pappas looking as though he’d slept the clock around and was ready for anything. “I’m going to have to get the early train back,” he told me, “but Melanie says you want to see first tier up close, so she found someone to show you around Hicksville—a city councilwoman, I think.”

“If she can show me the nearest barber shop first,” I said, “I’d be happy.”

Pappas pulled out a pocket watch, glanced at it. “There’s one on Main Street,” he told me. “If we go now you’ll have time to take care of that before she shows up.”

That sounded like a good idea to me, so we said our goodbyes to the New Shakers and piled into the jeep for the ride back into town. This time there weren’t more than three or four wagons on the road that had been so crowded two days back; I gathered that most of the attendees were either sleeping off the consequences of the previous night or enjoying a leisurely morning. Fields and pastures eventually gave way to the outlying houses of the town, and then to the main street, which was paved—I hadn’t expected that—and lined on both sides with the sort of shops and city buildings you’d expected to see in an Old West history vid.

“City Hall’s there,” Pappas said as the jeep pulled up in front of the promised barber shop. He pointed to a three-story building of what looked like local stone half a block up the street. “Right next to the library. Ask for Ruth Mellencamp. All set? Hey, it was a pleasure.” We shook hands, I hauled my suitcase out of the jeep, and away it went.

I shook my head and went into the barbershop, and found a half dozen guys ahead of me in line. I’d expected that; what I didn’t expect is that four of them were singing. They had books open in their laps—copies of the same songbook, I gathered after a fast glance—and were belting out some song I didn’t know, and doing it in pretty fair harmony. I sat down in the nearest available chair, tucked my suitcase back under the seat, and all of a sudden had to fight down an impulse to laugh. You can run into a phrase hundreds of times and never think about what it actually means; I must have read at least that many references to “barbershop quartets” without realizing that that’s what guys did in barbershops while waiting for a shave, back in the days when there weren’t loudspeakers in the ceiling blaring pop music everywhere and veepads sitting in everyone’s lap to make up for any lack of distraction. In the Lakeland Republic, obviously, those days were back.

I’m pretty sure that if I’d picked up a copy of the songbook from the table in front and joined in, nobody would have blinked, and in fact that’s what happened with two of the next three guys to come into the barber shop. The odd thing was that the songs weren’t the sort of thing I dimly associated with barbershop quartets. I didn’t know most of them, but then I’ve got pretty specific musical tastes—jazz on the one hand, and opera on the other. Still, they were pretty good. One that stuck in my memory had a rock beat, and something in the chorus about a star man waiting in the sky. I made a note in my notebook to look it up once I got back home and could chase down the lyrics on the metanet.

It was a half hour or so later when I left the barbershop, feeling a lot less scruffy, and with another song’s chorus—“Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”—ringing in my head. It wasn’t a bad bit of advice for the day I was about to have, for that matter.

There were sidewalks, too, and I walked up the one that led to City Hall, went in, and asked for Ruth Mellencamp. She turned out to be short, plump, gray-haired, and businesslike, the kind of woman that looks like somebody’s slightly batty granny until she starts talking and you realize there’s a mind like a steel trap behind the cozy facade. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand. “Yes, Ms. Berger called down from Toledo two days ago. It’s not often we get visitors from outside here in Hicksville, and I admit I’m curious to see what you’ll think of our little town.”

“So far,” I said, “I know that it has decent train service and you can get an excellent shave here.”

She chuckled. “Well, that’s certainly a good start! Why don’t you stash your suitcase here and we can have a look at the town.”

“I was a little surprised to see paved streets and sidewalks here,” I said as we left the building. “I thought you didn’t have those in a first tier county.”

“They weren’t paid for with tax money,” she said. “About ten years ago, some of the business people in town got together, organized a corporation, got a charter from the legislature for it, and used that to raise money to pave six streets downtown. A lot of people contributed, and not just people who live in town. So the streets got built, a fund was set aside to repair them, and the corporation wound up its affairs and closed down.”

“I imagine you know,” I said, “just how odd that sounds to someone from outside.”

“Of course.” She gestured down the street, and we turned. “The thing is, that’s what corporations were originally:  schemes for public betterment that were chartered by one of the old state governments for a fixed term, and allowed to raise money by stock sales for that reason alone. It wasn’t until clever lawyers twisted the laws out of shape that corporations got turned into imaginary persons with more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us.”

I remembered what Vinny Patzek told me about corporations at the Toledo stock market. “So you went back to the older way of doing things.”

“Exactly. We do that a lot here.”

“I’ve gotten that impression,” I said dryly, and she chuckled again.

Hicksville was a farm town’s farm town, and you could tell. The biggest store in town was a feed-and-seed with big silos out back, next to a rail siding where freight cars could pull up to take on loads of grain, and the next biggest business was a whiskey distillery—“you won’t find a better bourbon in the Republic,” Mellencamp told me—which also had its own rail siding, and a loading dock stacked with cases of bottles ready to ship. Thinking about the tier system when I was in Toledo, I’d conjured up a picture of log cabins, dirt roads, and the kind of squalor you get in the poorer rural districts of the Atlantic Republic these days, but that’s not what I saw all around me in Hicksville. What I saw instead was a bustling, tolerably prosperous community that somehow got by without the technologies everyone outside took for granted.

We stopped in front of another big building of local stone, with HICKSVILLE SCHOOL carved over the door. “I don’t know whether you’re interested at all in our education system,” Mellencamp said.

“Actually, I am,” I told her. “Ours has problems; maybe I can pick up some useful ideas.” It was half a joke and half the understatement of the year—the public schools all over the Atlantic Republic are a disaster area, and the private schools charge more and more each year for an education that isn’t all that much better.

She beamed. “Maybe you can. We’re very proud of our school here.”

We went inside. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there were no armed guards in flak jackets standing in the halls—I’d seen none of those elsewhere in the Republic—but it still rattled me. The place was clean and pleasant, without the prison look schools have back home. We went to the office, a little cubbyhole in front with a desk for the secretary and a bunch of filing cabinets, and Ellencamp introduced me; the secretary had me sign in, said something pleasant, and away we went.

“People come here all the time,” Mellencamp explained. “People moving to the area who want to check out our schools, parents and grandparents who have free time and want to volunteer, that sort of thing. It’s very much part of the community.”

There were eight classrooms, one for each of the eight grades taught there. We slipped into the back of the second grade classroom, nodded a greeting to the teacher, and sat in wooden chairs up against the back wall. The room was about as plain as could be, a simple square space with a blackboard and a teacher’s chair and desk up in front, a round clock over the door, four big windows letting in light on the left, a teacher’s desk and chair up front, and rows of seats for the students, each with its little half-desk curving forward from one arm. The teacher was maybe thirty, brown-skinned, with her hair in a flurry of braids tied back loosely behind her neck. A blonde girl of sixteen or so was standing next to the desk, reading a simple story aloud, and the students were following along in their textbooks.

I leaned over to Mellencamp. “Who’s she?” I whispered, meaning the girl who was reading.

“An apprentice,” she whispered back, and motioned to a boy around the same age, brown-haired and red-cheeked, who was going from student to student, and now and then squatting down and murmuring something or pointing to some bit in the book. “So’s that one.”

I gave her a startled look, but decided not to risk interrupting.

The story wound to an end, and then the teacher started asking questions about it to one student after another—not the kind of simple you’d expect to see in a test back home, either. It sank in after a moment that she was actually asking the kids for their thoughts about this or that part of the story. I put my hand on my chin. It struck me as a very odd way to run a lesson—wasn’t the point of schooling to make sure that everyone in the class came up with the right answer when it was called for? Not in the Lakeland Republic, I gathered.

The reading lesson ended at ten-thirty sharp—it took me a while to remember how to read a clock with hands, but I managed it—and once it was over, the students and both apprentices got up and trooped out the door in a ragged but tolerably well behaved line. Ruth Mellencamp got to her feet once the last of them were gone, gestured for me to follow, and went to the front of the room. “Angie,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, who’s visiting from outside. Mr. Carr, Angela McClintock.”

We shook hands, said the usual polite things. “How long do you have before the next class?” I asked.

The teacher gave me a blank look, then smiled the you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen too often for my liking already. “They’ll be back in fifteen minutes, after morning recess.” It was my turn to wear a blank look, and her eyebrows went up. “Good heavens, you can’t expect second graders to sit still for an entire school day. Don’t the early grades have recesses where you’re from?”

“We probably should,” I allowed.

“You certainly should. If I kept them in much longer they’d be so restless wouldn’t absorb a thing I taught them. This way, fifteen minutes from now they’ll be ready to sit back down and pay attention to the next set of lessons.”

I nodded. “I was curious about the two young people who were helping you—apprentices?.” She nodded, beaming, and I went on: “They look a little young to have gotten a teaching degree already—will they go to college and get that after their apprenticeship?”

That got me the blank look again, and this time it wasn’t followed by the too-familiar smile. Ruth Mellencamp came to the rescue. “They used to send teachers to college before the war,” she said. “I gather they still do that outside.”

“And I gather you don’t do that here,” I said.

“Good heavens, no,” said the teacher. “Why would we? You don’t need a college degree to teach second graders how to read—just patience and a little bit of practice.”

“But I’m sure you teach them more than reading,” I objected.

“Yes, but the same thing’s true of all the three C’s,” she said.

“That’s what we call the curriculum,” Mellencamp added, seeing the blank look start to appear on my face. “Literacy, numeracy, naturacy—we call those the three C’s.”

I took that in. “So you teach them to read, and then—mathematics?”

“Literacy’s more than just reading,” McClintock said. “It’s the whole set of language skills—reading, grammar, spelling, logical reasoning, composition and speaking, so they can learn whatever interests them, think intelligently about it, and share what they find with other people. Numeracy’s the whole set of number skills—mathematics, sure, but also the trick of putting things in numerical terms and using math in the real world, so probability, statistics, everything you need to keep from being fooled or flummoxed by numbers.”

“Okay,” I said. “And—naturacy? I don’t even know the word.”

“The same principle,” said the teacher. “The whole set of natural science skills: learning how to observe, how to compare your observations to what’s already known or thought to be known, how to come up with hypotheses and figure out ways to test them—and also natural history, what living things you found here, how they interact with us, with their habitats, with other living things.”

“I suppose you don’t teach that in the schools back home,” said Mellencamp.

“There are college classes,” I said.

“Most of these kids will grow up to be farmers,” McClintock told me. “Most of those that don’t will be dealing with farmers and the farm economy here every day of their lives. How on Earth will they know how to do that if they don’t understand soil and weather and how plants grow?”

“Back before the war,” Mellencamp reminded her, “corporate farmers tried to do without that .”

“Yes, and look what happened.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure we’ve learned everything we should have from the mistakes that were made back then, but that’s one I think we got.”

I thought about that on the train that afternoon all the way back to Toledo.

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In other fiction-related news, I’m delighted to announce that the first volume of my Lovecraftian epic fantasy The Weird of Hali is now available for preorder. The publisher, Miskatonic Books, is sensibly enough releasing the high-end hardback editions first. Those of my readers who are interested in a signed limited edition hardback of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth can preorder it herethose who want to go way over the top and order one of 26 copies of the fine edition, handsewn, traycased, and bound in the skins of beasts better left unnamed, can order it here. Beyond the wholesome attractions of writhing tentacles and eldritch horrors from three weeks before the dawn of time, this novel and its sequels deal with a good many of the core themes of The Archdruid Report, and should be of interest to many readers of this blog.