Archive for June 5th, 2008

10 Times the Price and 10 Times Crappier

Sharon June 5th, 2008

Chalmers Johnson is one of my favorite thinkers, so I link to his article for the sheer pleasure of introducing him to anyone else who doesn’t know his work.  But I also mention it because it got me thinking.  Now we all know the statistics – you know, the ones for things like fact that the American military budget is 10 times the budget of the next biggest military power, China, or that we spend much more than all the other countries put together.  But somehow seeing the number laid out in Johnson’s analysis led me to a new thought – the 10 Times More = 10 Times Less Rule.

What is this rule?  Simply this – if we in America use 10 times as much as another country, or spend 10 times as much on something, not only will we use more and pay more, but we’ll get less.  What we get will, inevitably be at least twice as crappy as the much cheaper model, and often as much as 10 times worse.

Is this really a rule?  Well, let’s start with the military budget.  Look, I’m a lefty and no big fan of our invasions, but my feeling is if we’re going to spend 10 times more in our military budget than our nearest threat we should be a lot better than everyone else – that is, we should be able to crush anyone we want like flies.  Again, I’m not saying I’m for this fly crushing thing, just that spending that much should pay off.  Instead, we keep discovering the same freakin’ thing – that people who want you out of their country are way more passionate than 20 year olds who just want some bucks for college, and that a 2 million dollar tank can get its ass kicked by a 300 dollar IED.   So the tanks end up lying on their sides along a road, and we end up paying trillions for an expensive exit strategy, which is a polite way of saying “we got our ass kicked and wasted lives.”

Or what about our food?  The average bite of American food takes 10 calories of oil to produce a single calorie of American food.  The average Indonesian’s dinner comes in at about 1  a calorie of oil (this all assumes that the average Indonesian can get food, but let’s assume they can).  And let me clearly reassure you that the average Indonesian’s cheap-ass bowl of laksa – noodles, broth, coconut milk, maybe a piece of fish –  taste 100 times better than a Big Mac or a bag of Doritos.   That is, we put in all this oil and what comes out – food that tastes like crap, is really awful for us, and can’t even remotely approach the quality of the street food you’d find in almost any third world country on earth.

We only spend twice as much on medical care as most Europeans, but we report that we’re four times as unhappy with our healthcare system, so I bet if we worked on getting our spending up, we could be 10 times as unhappy with our medical care.  One of the largest studies of end of life care in American history discovered that 65% of Americans die “in debt, in pain and alone.”  Now I don’ t know about you, but that sounds pretty much like everyone’s worst nightmare.  The same study found that many other nations do a vastly better job of simply making sure you don’t hurt and you have someone there.  But here, the suffering costs extra.  

The good news about the 10 times more = 10 times less rule is this – if true, we could actually get our usage of many resources back down to a level that might let us go on from here.  Our goal when Rioting for Austerity was to get down by 90% in all 7 categories.  At the end of the project’s first year, we’re down by at least 75% in all 7 categories, and to 90% in food, garbage and consumer goods.  We should hit our goals in heating oil and water in this coming year, as some of our infrastructure changes begin.  Including the allotment for working at home, we came in just short of our share of electricity, and gas is one we’re still struggling with.  But we’re using 78% less gas than the average Americans (except Eli, who is using 69% less, because of his school busing) .

Were we less happy?  No, not at all.  In fact despite the fact that I was nuts and agreed to write two books in 15 months, I’d say we were happier.  Not 10 times happier, but maybe half again as much.  Maybe even double – we saved a ton of money, we had a ton of fun, we found a new community, we had more time.   What’s not to like? 

The thing is, right now, using less energy and having less money is making a whole lot of people less happy.  The reason, of course, is that we aren’t thinking it through – this isn’t a managed decline, and with the media telling us that the crisis was over yesterday all the time, most people are sitting tight, waiting for the good times to roll again.  The great news is that using as much as 10 times less in many areas won’t hurt – but only if we think it through.  That is, you can’t magically get to a diet of great low energy, low cost sustainable food simpy by taking the oil out of the supply chain.  You have to work it. But it can be done, and helping millions who have no choice do it is going to be a big – and fascinating – project.