Demand, meet Supply

A recent episode of Freakanomics Radio examines the bizarre human compulsion of wearing shoes. Most of us, most of the time, do not find wearing shoes bizarre, but consider that for about three-fourths of human history our ancestors thrived despite lacking footwear. And to say “despite” may be misleading, since it turns out that wearing shoes diminishes the functionality of the feet and related muscles on which previously we, as hunters who ran our prey to death,  depended for survival. Consider that feet are physiologically more similar to hands than we assume; they could be nearly as dexterous and sensitive as hands were they not relegated to the function of merely filling up our shoes. And consider that by wearing shoes for so much of our time in motion, we cause ourselves joint problems by overusing our hips and knees, we shorten our Achilles tendons and calf muscles, and we prevent our feet from developing protective callouses.

One may protest with various reasons why going shoeless is unacceptable now outside of the house and a few other limited settings such as a beach or pool side: we are no longer adapted to going barefoot in nature; we were never intended to trod human-made surfaces such as pavement; it is unsanitary and dangerous not to wear shoes; and our feet are ugly and smelly! But think twice about this logic. Is it bizarre to go barefoot, or is it bizarre that we made a world where it is hazardous and unseemly to expose our feet? What should seem more unacceptable, going barefoot or producing glass objects to contain liquids and then throwing those objects into the street where they shatter into sharp edges left for children and animals to cut themselves on and contract disease? Are feet actually smelly and ugly by nature or because we trap them and the heat they emit inside socks and shoes most of the time?

There are circumstances in which wearing shoes seems useful and even necessary in natural terms, e.g., when outside in frigid temperatures or when walking over rocky terrain. But plenty of animals limit their range and activities because of the physical limitations of their body parts; we don’t have to live in frigid climates or trod rocks in order to thrive as humans. Moreover, were we to spend our lives barefoot, our tolerance for being barefoot in the cold or over rocky terrain would be substantially improved, so we may not be as limited as it seems.

The overall point is not that we should stop wearing shoes but that the dynamic of supply and demand is not so straightforward as it is presented in the ideology of market economics. We tend to think that, first, there is demand, then, the market responds with supply to meet the demand. But shoes exemplify the chicken and egg problem with the nature of supply and demand. We demand shoes not because we need them but because we grew up being socialized to wear shoes and, as a result, our feet are smelly, ugly, and weak. And even to the extent that we have a physiological need for footwear, that need is not natural, but created by other conditions artificially produced by the market economy. We demand shoes because we shatter glass bottles on the street. We demand shoes because we have depleted or otherwise saturated opportunities for exploiting natural resources in warm climates. Humans do not need shoes; capitalism does.


Exploiting disaster

I tend to resist commenting on current events that everyone else is commenting on unless I can add an under-appreciated perspective. And writing social critique based on a still-unfolding natural disaster risks coming across as exploitative. Yet the longer I resist writing about Harvey the more wrong it feels, perhaps because much of what I have been writing in recent months is so clearly exemplified by this event. Perhaps because having recently lived in Houston and having good friends there right now makes it’s more compelling. And perhaps because, as will become clearer below, there are others far guiltier of exploiting this disaster.

Without even broaching the topic of climate change, it is clear that this is largely a man-made natural disaster (oxymoron intended). While I lived in Houston in 2014 and 2015, there were two rainstorms — not hurricanes or even tropical storms — that swelled the bayous into vast rivers, flooded streets and highways, closed downtown, and took people’s lives. And, based on what I heard from long-time residents, those storms were minor compared to Tropical Storm Allison’s devastation in 2001 (not to mention examples elsewhere such as Katrina and Sandy). In other words, it was predictable that a bigger storm would come and wreak greater havoc; many in Houston and in Texas state government have been aware of this risk for a generation or longer. Yet little has been invested to help protect people: no floodgates, no seawall, no major widening of flood channels or revegetation, not even slowing down the pace of development in flood zones. On the contrary, Houston has continued to tear up its naturally-occurring flood-control infrastructure — vegetation — and replace it with flood-enhancing infrastructure: buildings and roads.

Harvey is no exception to the tendency endemic to our socioeconomic system that the most vulnerable people bear the brunt of natural disasters. But, one may argue, considering that Houston concentrates so much of America’s wealth in the form of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and related capital, aren’t the wealthy sustaining billions of dollars in property damage and lost profits? Sure. So wouldn’t the wealthy and political officials have done whatever reasonably could have been done to prevent and mitigate the damage caused by such an event? Nope. After decades of padding profits thanks to lax safety regulations and shirked externality costs, the holders of concentrated wealth will recoup their losses in the forms of insurance claims, tax write-offs, and other forms of corporate welfare, and they’ll go right on extracting, polluting, and profiting at the expense of the vulnerable.

The question squarely confronting us is not whether we will transform our economy in order to stop climate change — it’s too late for that — but whether we will implement policies to protect vulnerable people from the ever more ravaging vicissitudes of nature. We can expect this to be the central conflict driving human history going forward; perhaps it has already been so throughout human history, and is now intensifying. And we are not off to a good start, as indicated by a few quick examples readily at hand. As freddyrun has pointed out, Texas recently passed a bill reducing the liability of property insurance companies that fail to pay out claims in a timely manner. On the federal level, the president’s budget proposes cutting FEMA funds and two weeks ago — in a news conference overshadowed by his defense of white supremacists — he announced the revocation of Obama’s climate resiliency infrastructure projects that had included rules imposing flood-control requirements on some new development projects.

As Naomi Klein has reported more robustly than I, the holders of concentrated wealth have read the storm clouds brewing on the horizon and are preparing to reap the profits.

It’s not you, it’s the system

“You think I’m a bad person, don’t you,” the director of a detention facility said to my colleague and me. He had intercepted us after we completed one of our many visits to monitor the rights and safety of inmates. He had made similar plaintive, hurt-sounding comments in every interaction since I had made public statements about the dangerous conditions of confinement in the facility. “No,” I responded. “It’s not personal. It’s our job.”

It is not only this facility director who takes personal offense to what we say and do in discharging our duty to protect vulnerable individuals. I see again and again how personally public officials and administrators react to our advocacy. The commissioner of a state agency used to greet me by name in a local coffeeshop but has ignored me ever since my colleagues and I tried to pass legislation limiting his department’s use of a particularly problematic facility. Other examples abound in the forms of angry phone calls and defensive emails and derogatory words spoken behind our backs.

This phenomenon continues to surprise me. As an attorney, I am accustomed to adversarial dynamics, but most attorneys can maintain respect and cordiality despite representing opposing sides on an issue. We understand that we are playing out institutional roles, e.g., defense attorney and prosecutor, pro bono counsel and corporate counsel, civil liberties lawyer and assistant attorney general. We may believe passionately in the roles we find ourselves in, but they are roles nonetheless, serving much broader interests than our personal agendas. It is not a matter of good guys versus bad guys, but of societal dynamics following institutional processes to sort out conflicts.

This is not to say that the system in which we play out these institutional roles is fair. On the contrary, it overwhelmingly favors the wealthy. But this unfairness reflects the system itself, not the individuals acting within it. I believe most people in positions of responsibility mean well. When inmates are subjected to inhumane conditions and dangerous practices, the staff responsible are probably just operating the facility the way they know how, given how resources have been allocated for staffing and training.

The problem, then, are how those resources are allocated. In other words, it is safer and less expensive in the short-term to employ a gang of washed-out police officers and veterans in denial of their PTSD as unskilled security guards than it is to employ and train a team of credentialed treatment staff who would be able to take appropriate care of people with histories of trauma, poverty, discrimination, and mental illness.

Primary responsibility lies not with the particular people implementing injustice on the ground. Perhaps it does not even lie with the people enacting policies from administrative offices, legislative chambers, and voting booths. The problem, at root, is not any choice made by any particular person. Rather, it is the system which none of us has chosen that nonetheless governs everything we do.

This system creates a hierarchy in which those at the bottom suffer disproportionate levels of violence and deprivation in their homes, schools, communities, and employment, creating and exacerbating the conditions for trauma, poverty, discrimination, and mental illness. Rather than investing resources in reforming these conditions or even just treating the symptoms, the system’s endemic short-term, narrowly self-interested security and profit motives require instead that we warehouse victims inside institutions. Rather than alleviating the problems, we alleviate our responsibility for solving them, not because that is our personal choice, but because that is how we have been socialized in order to survive within the system.


The nature of nature

If harmony with nature ought to displace its exploitation, we should consider the obvious criticisms of the very concept. After all, humans are but part of nature and therefore human exploitation of nature is itself natural, so how can humans ever not be in harmony with nature? Conversely, humans ineluctably transform the natural world into an artificial one, so the ideal of nature is a delusion and the fantasy of preservation amounts to objectifying and fetishizing some arbitrary aspects of “nature” that we happen to find pleasing. Plus, even if it were possible, going back to a state of nature is the last thing we should want because, in Hobbes’s famous words, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Beginning with the last criticism and working our way backwards, albeit briefly for now: the goal is not regressing to a “state of nature” but progressing to a highly sophisticated social system premised on using technology to support and sustain the health and freedom of all people. As such, the concept of harmony with nature does not depend on the delusion of pristine nature unaffected by human activity, but rather requires that we always be mindful of the way that we affect nature so that we can take responsibility for exactly how we do so. Why, if any human activity is natural, should it matter how we affect the rest of nature? Because the way we interact with nature determines everything about the way we interact with each other.

Think twice

We tend to think of a job as a way of earning money, and therefore of employment as a system for distributing wealth to most people. But in fact work is primarily a system for keeping wealth in the hands of the few, out of reach of the many. It is a structure for both preserving and growing the wealth of the few, strictly limiting access by workers to a paltry trickle of subsistence income in exchange for the blood, sweat, and tears through which the holders of wealth profit spectacularly.