Saturday, October 31, 2015

War on Drugs Revisited

A story in the New York Times this morning, “White Families Seek a Gentler War on Heroin,” reminded us again of a lot older war, the First Opium War (1839-1842). The background to that war was this: Great Britain was growing opium in Bengal to sell to China—opium being one product for which the Chinese were willing to pay silver; they were, in other economic ways, essentially self-sufficient. The British venture produced an exodus of silver from China and a rise in Chinese opium addicts. The emperor decided to eradicate the traffic—adopting much the same general method we’ve adopted in conducting our own war on drugs. Britain resisted this imperial strategy. Hence by military power, Hong Kong became British and Great Britain also extorted rights to trade freely at five other ports, among them Shanghai.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime maintains statistics, if somewhat dated, on opium and heroin consumption world-wide. A graphic produced by UNODC, which I found here, is shown below:

If we take data for 2008 on opiate user in the United States, we get an estimate of 1.335 million users in that year or, expressed as a percent of the total U.S. population, 0.44 percent. Compared to that percentage (less than half of 1 percent), the problem appears minute—unless the addict is your child.

Virtually all heroin used ultimately traces back to Afghanistan—the country where 92 percent of all opium poppies were grown in 2008. Afghanistan’s share has dropped since then to around 83-84 percent. Curiously, as the following chart, taken from Wikipedia (link) shows, the only time when poppy production was seriously challenged in the last two decades was in 2001—when the Taliban were briefly in charge…

We’re looking here are the disconcerting effects on the mind of scale—tiny numbers and vast expenditures on wars (of all kinds)—at tiny places that produce global problems, and at the persistence of problems ultimately rooted in vast cultural movements which produce, wealth, crowding, stress…and substances that help some people cope—the wrong way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Great Inca Road

The National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian) has opened an exhibit, The Greak Inka Road: Engineering an Empire; it will be open until June 2018 (per WSJ, 10-20-2015).

My own interest in great highways is linked with my interest in civilizations; civilizations build road networks as a by-product of administering large areas; and these highways are usually the longest-lasting residues of such cultures; all of us Europeans have trod or driven on what once were Roman roads. A post of mine on South American empires is here. The Incas originated as a culture around 900 A.D. Their empire extended from 1438 to 1533—and would have lasted a great deal longer had it not been for those conquistadors. Most of the Great Inca Road was built during the period of the Inca Empire although parts of it predate Inca dominion.

The map I show is from Wikipedia (link). The system, a roughly parallel formation, has a coastal main highway (in brown) and a mountain route (in blue). The light-brown roads connecting these and branching from them were part of the system—with those crossing the mountains the most spectacular. The broken lines are today’s state borders.

Pondering this vast structure—and looking at many great pictures easily accessible by entering “Inca Road System” into Google Images—I wonder what some counterpart of mine, studying civilizations and their roads, will think of the remains of The Great American Road System two thousand years from now. Will he imagine that they were built by slaves? Such is the reflex belief we bring to the subject—although we know that most Roman roads were built by soldiers and, as best as we can determine, Inca road-building itself was based on something akin to military levies. Such levies are well known to us from medieval times—never mind the still vividly remembered draft….

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Odd Dilemma

The definition of dilemma, literally “two propositions,” takes its negative meaning from the fact that both propositions (or situations) must be unfavorable to deserve the name dilemma—yet we must choose one. Fine. But my use of the word is a little different here. Of the two propositions I have in mind, I view the first rather with approval; not the second; yet the second is the cause of the first.

The first is that since the end of the Great Recession (let’s assume that it lasted for two years, all of 2008 and 2009) has had a dreary aftermath that, so far, has lasted nearly six years. By dreary I mean that the economy, while it has grown, has grown from 2010 to 2015 at an annual rate of 1.4 percent whereas it grew from 2002 to 2007 at a rate of 2.9 percent. The measured item here is Gross Domestic Product expressed in constant dollars. The low GDP growth rate since the recession actually pleases me: 1.4 percent is much closer to the population growth rate, which is under 1 percent annually—yet it is higher than the population growth rate; we are growing, a little, but are avoiding what Alan Greenspan once labeled “irrational exuberance.”

The second proposition is that the reason for our supposedly sluggish growth is not only domestic but also international conflict. Conflict has caused the erosion of public confidence and manifests in countless ways—and this despite low gasoline prices and gradually increasing employment—if only in the lower-paid segments of the economy. The adaptive growth pattern is pleasing; its cause, vast demoralization, is not. Therefore the dilemma.

In a way this situation illustrates the nature of real change—which is almost never by design but always by default. Just as drought produces those ugly cracks in dried out ground so social conflict produces adaptive attempts to form new, smaller, and more viable social entities. Unfortunately, to make the smaller, one has to tear the greater apart. Hence we have these nearly annual cliff hangers about public debt and government closings, cracks within and between parties, insane shootings at public events that are beginning to be almost casual—and, to be sure, hesitance by people to spend money on anything but the necessary stuff. Meanwhile, looking beyond our borders, much, much the same everywhere. If this goes on, yet more changes will appear in society. Some of them I will actually appreciate and value (as I do low-growth-GDP), even if their causes are rather sordid.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Red and the Green

The subject today is neither an English-Irish conflict (Iris Murdoch’s novel of the same title) nor yet the clash between carnivorous and vegetarian diets (Le Vert et Le Rouge, a novel by Armand Chauvel). Rather it is about an annual event in this household, analogous to the autumnal equinox but always coming later—namely the day when The Plants Come In. This event is caused by early frosts; we’ve got good documentation of when that has happened since 2011. In that year the plants came in on November 11—the latest date in the entire series. Thus 2012: October 28; 2013: November 7; 2014: October 18; and now, 2015: October 16.

These dates always mark the first day of the move—and the effort usually takes several days to accomplish. Some plants are easily grouped together. We cover them with sheets held in place with clothes pins; they can easily survive a few hours of frost and then stay outside for several days yet until the cold sets in seriously or we grow tired of draping them each evening.

Above a couple of photos of the Red and the Green which, this year, got left out to fend for themselves: carnations and all but one, the biggest, of our jade plants. They’re enjoying the quite real warmth of the sun this morning.

The autumnal event, of course, is matched by a vernal counterpart—which also comes later, indeed usually two months, and counting, later: the day when The Plants Go Out. That day has been pretty much centered around May 5. That process also takes two days—because we’ve got a lot of plants to move. The heaviest go out first. We know: you get the hardest job done before you tidy things up with the little stuff…