The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Good News, Bad Reporting


As the economy weakens, you can count on the MainStream Media to defend MassOverconsumption and Business As Usual in a desperate bid to keep the advertising dollars flowing.


At the start of each new year it is traditional to assess the prospects for the year ahead and consider what near term trends portend for the shape of the future. For several reasons, we are late in getting to this task for 2008. (See End Note One.)


One way to get a handle on where the year is headed is to do a quick shuffle through the ripped newspapers and download printouts that have stacked up over the 10 weeks ending in mid-February. Such an exercise yields the condensed essence of “news” as reported by MainStream Media. For an overview of how and why MainStream Media “news” varies from reality see THE ESTATES MATRIX.


From mid-December to mid-February there have been three distinct generations of MainStream Media news:

  • Mid-December to early January – The chickens come home with good news and bad news 

  • Mid-January – Political lollipops sprout on Big Rock Candy Mountain 

  • Late January to mid February – Storm clouds are gathering but it is it the “R” word or the “D” word that should be of concern?

Chickens Coming Home to Roost


A review the first “resource” pile from MainStream Media reports from the middle of December through the middle of January yields several trends beyond the self-serving media over-exposure of topics which seem to be coordinated with advertising, especially full-page color “issue” advertising. (See “WaPo Ads,” 27 Feb 2008 at the Bacons Rebellion blog.) 


Here are some of the most important topics:

  • Residential and commercial land and building values are losing speculative bloat. This is not the short- term “pop” of a punctured balloon but rather the continuing “whoosh” of a giant blimp – 60 years in the making. The speculative blimp is imploding due to millions of small holes. Upon closer inspection, oversized, badly located housing and scattered commercial properties are down dramatically, while the values of well located dwellings and commercial properties are retaining their value.

  • The cheap money that fueled over-priced takeovers and buyouts as well as risky (aka, “subprime”) mortgages is drying up.

  • Oil and gasoline prices are up, reflecting the reality that should have guided Agency and Enterprise actions for the past 35 years. That reality is?  Reserves of easy-to-access petroleum are running out and there are NO cheap, environmentally- friendly replacements. There are two causes for optimism: massive conservation and functional human settlement patterns.

  • Some are now taking seriously the impact of the huge federal debt, the declining dollar and the imBalance of trade and the impact of Global Climate Change.

For those concerned with the shape of the future, the first reaction to these trends must be: “This is great news!”


Why “great” news? The result of years of overheated “economic growth” driven by cheap oil, cheap credit, speculation and Mass OverConsumption has been to generate three interlocked Crises:


The Mobility and Access Crisis. Congestion, delay and transport system constipation are growing daily in every New Urban Region due to the unsustainable imBalance between the capacity of transport systems and the travel demand generated by dysfunctional human settlement patterns. The rising cost of fuel, decaying infrastructure and Business-As-Usual obliviousness have exacerbated the negative slope of the unsustainable trajectory of Mobility and Access over the past three-plus decades.  (Thirty-three of the 115 The Shape of the Future columns published to date deal primarily with this crisis.)


The Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis. The tragic lack of “workforce” housing in the world’s most prosperous nation-state is due to the fact that it has been more profitable to build the wrong size house in the wrong location than to build housing for those who need it most and build it in functional locations. Without Access, all new housing is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The crisis has been exacerbated by land speculation, government subsidies and bailouts, delusional mortgage lending practices of deregulated financial Enterprises and misguided federally chartered mortgage bundlers. “Trickle-down” works for irrigation, it does not work for shelter. (Eight of the 115 The Shape of the Future columns published to date primarily focus on this crisis.)


The Helter Skelter Crisis. This Crisis is the culmination of the unsustainable trajectories of many parameters of First World society with the US of A leading the way. These trends include unsustainable energy consumption, widening wealth gap, inadequate health care, growing personal and public debt, deteriorating infrastructure, ballooning foreign trade deficit, etc. This crisis is the direct (and indirect) result of dysfunctional settlement human patterns, dysfunctional governance structure and the fundamental shift of the relationship between humans as consumers and investors and humans as citizens. The later fundamental shift is what Robert Reich calls “supercapitalism.” (Most of the 115 The Shape of the Future columns to date address this crisis. See End Note Two.)

A primary reason for these three mutually-reinforcing Crises is that each of the periodic recessions since 1973 has been put in the rear-view mirror by citizens driving new cars to new houses.

The headlines from mid-December to early-January suggested that the drivers of these three crises, and of human settlement pattern dysfunction in general, may be ripe for Fundamental Change.


A Pause to Achieve Balance


The Mobility and Access Crisis, The Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis and The Helter Skelter Crisis drive contemporary First World civilization into unsustainable economic, social and physical trajectories.  We discuss the issue of a sustainable trajectory for civilization in our column “The Whale on the Beach,” 28 Aug 2006, and the Backgrounder “A New Metric for Citizen Well Being,” 10 Dec 2006.


For a clear articulation of the reasons for the trajectory of the economy since the mid-70's,see Robert Reich’s book "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life." (Again see End Note Two.)


As a result, citizens need time to take stock of where they are and where they will be without Fundamental Change in human settlement pattern and Fundamental Change in governance structure.

A slowdown would provide time for citizens to understand the need to create Balance.

At S/P we stress the need for citizens to create a Balance of J / H / S / R / A at Village-scale, Community-scale and Regional-scale. Citizens must achieve the appropriate level of Balance at Regional, Community, Village, Neighborhood, Cluster and Dooryard levels. Balance is different at each scale but Balance at every scale is essential for a sustainable trajectory for civilization. (First- time readers please see GLOSSARY for the definitions of the boldface words in this paragraph and the boldface words in the next paragraph.)


With time to consider the consequences of the current trajectory and the alternatives, Households, Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions will have the opportunity to move jobs and homes closer together to eliminate “the commute.” Enterprises, Agencies and Institutions will move Services, Recreation, and Amenity closer to the new nexus to put, as advertises, “life within walking distance.”


With a slowdown, citizens will not have to buy a new house in a new “subdivision” to have a great place to live. They can use sweat equity, not speculation, to improve the value of their property and the quality of their lives. They can fix up an existing dwelling and at the same time contribute to the Dooryard, Cluster and Neighborhood which are the most important barometers of real property value and real quality of life if a democracy with a market economy is to be preserved. They can buy a new dwelling in a recycled subdivision or in a reconfigured Dooryard, Cluster or Neighborhood. This is the message of PROPERTY DYNAMICS.


There is already far more land devoted to (and speculatively held for) urban land uses than citizens can sustainably support at minimum levels of intensity. For the reasons spelled out by Christopher Leinberger in “The Next Slum?” – and many other reasons explored in The Shape of the Future columns – there are clear indications that citizens are ready to take more intelligent actions with respect to settlement pattern decisions. (See “Sub-Prime Lending and the Slums of Tomorrow” and End Note Three.)

Beyond human settlement patterns, there is a desperate need for a Balance between resources and consumption.

A “slowdown” will reduce Mass OverConsumption and increase self-reliance, a key ingredient of safety and happiness. A slowdown will enhance conservation and reduce the demand for renewable and nonrenewable energy and other resources.

The time and resource savings from more functional human settlement patterns will facilitate fundamental economic, social and physical changes. One example would be the re-transition to one job per Household, especially in Households where children are being raised.

One important goal of a more rational pace of consumption will be Balanced Regional economies. Searching the Globe for the cheapest prices and for the investments that return the highest short-term yield makes a few very rich. However, society (aka, the life of citizens) is becoming much more poor. This is true for the vast majority of the citizens in the US of A as well as in other First World nation-states. This reality is documented by every economic, social and physical measure other than gross consumption and gadget accumulation. Robert Reich documents this in Supercapitalism. 

Some citizens in some nation-states are doing better than citizens in the US of A – but not much better when compared to how well off a few are at the top of the economic food chain in every nation-state.

The current trajectory is not just “bad” from a moral perspective, it is bad from economic, social and physical perspectives.

It will be impossible to maintain democracies with market economies under these conditions for the reasons spelled out in THE ESTATES MATRIX.


Of course it would have been far better to make intelligent changes in the economic, social and physical trajectory of the US of A back in 1973. In October of that year, the OPEC Oil Embargo made it clear that it would be prudent, no, it would be imperative, to make Fundamental Changes.


Some of us did take actions in 1973 but most did not. Many of those who did make Fundamental Changes in our lives at that time soon got tired of being worker bees while most of the population, cheered on by Agencies and Enterprises, played the grasshopper role.


Oh well, a lot of us had a great time over the last 35 years, right? A lot of us have really nice cars and really big houses – a lot nicer and a lot bigger than we would have had if citizens had followed more intelligent personal and collective strategies. But how much nicer? We will explore this issue further in a future shape of the future column.


Of course, there are a lot more of “us” now. It is important to remember that a far larger percentage of “us” were “well off” in 1973 than is the case in 2008. That is why the current trajectory is not compatible with sustaining democracies with market economies.


Not All of the Year's News Was Grounds for Cheering


Looking again at that stack of mid-December thru early January rips and prints, not all the news was pleasant:

  • Residential foreclosures are up 75 percent

  • Personal as well as Enterprise bankruptcies are up and would be up much more if the federal law had not been change to protect creditors

  • Many merchants on Main Street did not have a happy Holiday 

  • The debris from the crash of the housing / real estate blimp has trashed not just the expectations of millions of Households but has shaken Regional, nation-state and Global financial markets 

  • The continuing fall of the dollar on the international market is now negatively impacting citizens and Enterprises. (In 1973, merchants in Paris and London accepted payment in dollars, merchants in New York now accept payment in Euros)

  • Long-term unemployment for highly skilled workers is on the rise

None of these headlines are “good” news for Business As Usual or for the majority of citizens in the US of A. While “everyone” is not directly impacted, the vast majority suffer indirect consequences of the spreading economic and financial blight.


Hey, What Happened?


The total package of economic, social and physical “news” spanning the end of 2007 to early 2008 is radically different than what one saw in MainStream Media just a few months before. (See End Note Four.)


A short time ago, Agency, Enterprise and Institutional economists were saying and MainStream Media was reporting that: 

  1. Continued “economic expansion” was on a solid footing because “the fundamentals” were sound

  1. The housing “bubble” would have little impact on the broader economy

Even talking heads with Cassandra and contrarian reputations suggested that the bottom would not fall out of the economy until after the Fall 2008 federal elections.


Recent trends put the spotlight on nearly a decade of very bad “political” (aka, policy) decisions. Current reality makes “leaders” look like fools and have given rise to demands for, and now promises of, “CHANGE.” No one has any real idea what “change” might mean other than it would result in radically different decisions than those made over the last decade. Not many are willing to admit yet that the problem is really rooted in the decisions made over the last three and a half decades, not just the last one.


By the end of February, when this column was prepared, the surprising stories have become everyday occurrences. On the road to a rational course of action, a good opening question to ask is:

How effective is the Regional, nation-state and global economic early warning system?

There were plenty of indicators that foretold a shift long before it was “news.” Scattered dwellings started to deflate in the Fall of 2006, not the Fall of 2007. During the 2007-2008 Holiday season when MainStream Media was full of speculation about consumer spending, it was very clear to customers that retail outlets – brick and mortar and virtual – as well as parcel delivery services, had excess capacity.


As to a “slowdown” in the wider economy, we have asked merchants, craftspersons, health care and personal service providers: “When did you see a change on the horizon in your business?”


The answer was almost always: “September.” Sometimes it was earlier. The 2007 trade deficit did not set a record for the sixth year in a row because consumers were already buying less.


Even in a consumer-driven (aka, Mass OverConsumption- dependent) economy, citizens seem to have a sixth sense about the economy – not unlike some animals that provide an early warning of an earthquake, tsunami or volcanic eruption before it hits.


It is fair to ask: Does the MainStream Media provide good information, much less an early warning system, or is it just a spigot to feed slop so that consumers will stay at the trough of Mass OverConsumption as long as possible?  We explore why citizens do not get the information they need to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth and in the market place in THE ESTATES MATRIX:

Citizens are fed the economic “news” that Enterprises and Agency leaders want them to hear, not the truth.

If it were upholding its Fourth Estate responsibility, the first thing MainStream Media would be telling citizens is that Mass OverConsumption is not sustainable. We profile the inadequate measures of economic health such as “productivity,” and “Gross National Product” in The Shape of the Future. S/P calls for a new basis for measuring citizen safety and happiness in the Backgrounder “A New Metric for Citizen Well Being,


Moving to Pile Two -- Addiction Stimulants


What does one find in the mid-January time frame? The unsustainable trends in...

  • Energy consumption

  • Trade imbalance

  • Growth of the federal deficit

  • Reality of the holiday sales

  • Loss of value of the dollar vis a vis the Euro, the Yen other currencies

  • Loss of capital value of Enterprises and property

  • Deflating Enterprise profit projections

...become dominant in the “news.”


These trends, piled on top of the residential and commercial real estate deflation and financial sector woes, became too ominous to ignore.

In a flash the headlines shifted from trends and factoids to discussion of “rescue” and economic stimulus to prevent a “recession.”

Economic stimulus by Agencies can be a good thing, but only if intelligent actions stimulate the right things. Increasing consumer consumption and propping up Autonomobiles and McMansions only makes the fundamental problems worse. The current pseudo economic stimulus is what Robert Samuelson calls “Lollipop Economics.” (See End Note Five.)

The stimulus package Congress and the White House quickly agreed to is “Lollipop Economics” because an artificial stimulus is only window dressing when the “fundamentals” are Swiss cheese.

By the way, where is the MainStream Media on the topic of stimulus? Just where you would expect from them to be if you read THE ESTATES MATRIX. The lead editorial for Saturday 19, January 2008, in WaPo suggests that “everyone” agrees the economy needs a government boost. If citizens understood reality, they would not all agree. It is clear that even now “everyone” does not agree; even some of WaPo’s own columnists do not agree. (See End Note Six).


And Then Pile Three


What does the stack from late January thru mid-February tell us? A sampling of headlines over a five-day period say it all:


“Economy Lost 17,000 Jobs as Slump Widened: Drop First Since ‘03: Gain Was Forecast,” Neil Irwin, WaPo, 2 February 2008.


“U.S. Concern Over Economy Is Highest in Years: Public Skeptical of Stimulus Package,” Michael Abramowitz and Jon Cohen, WaPo, 4 February 2008.


“Fed’s Rate Cuts Bring No Relief for Consumers’ Credit Card Bills,” Nancy Trejos, WaPo, 4 February 2008.


By the way, Steven Pearlstein does a great job of describing why the Federal Reserve Bank cut interest rates when it was cheap credit that got the financial sector into a crisis in the first place. It was not to help consumers, it was to bail out big financial institutions. 

(See End Note Seven.)


Back to the headlines:


“Housing Crisis Casts a Cloud Over Sun Belt: In Once-Booming Areas, Help Could Be Too Little, Too Late,” Michael A. Fletcher, WaPo, 5 February 2008.


“Downturn Shows Up on Main Street: Dow Drops 370 After Key Index Shows Damage to Service Sector,” Neil Irwin and Tomoeh Murakami Tse, WaPo, 6 February 2008.


It is not just the US of A that is hurting:


“Asian Exporters Feel U.S. Pain: Alternative Markets Sought to Compensate,” Abiana Eunjung Cha, WaPo, 6 February 2008.


And it is not just shelter (the Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis) that is taking a hit but also Autonomobiles (the Mobility and Access Crisis):


“Repo Lots Filled as Millions in Default” Chris Woodyard USA Today, 14 February 2008.


“From Foreclosure Signs to Auto Repo Lots: Easy Credit Gives Way to High Consumer Debt and Defaults; Unpaid Auto Loans, Credit Card Bills Stack Up,” David Cho and Nancy Trejos, WaPo, 18 February 2008.


And then there are those who point out that the real economic news for the vast majority of the citizens in the US of A has not been good for decades:


“The Boom Was a Bust for Ordinary People: For Many, the Economy Went Stale Long Ago," Barbara Ehrenreich,  WaPo, 3 February 2008.


In "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life," Robert Reich provides all the big picture numbers one needs to understand how right Ehrenreich really is. (Again see End Note Two and the MainStream Media spin in APPENDIX ONE.)


In The Shape of the Future the plight of those in the bottom half of the economic food chain is documented up to 2000. The current status of the top five percent and the bottom 95 percent is summarized in PROPERTY DYNAMICS (PART TWO of ACTION PROGRAM, forthcoming).


Big D


With all the talk of economic downturn and speculation that the economy is already in recession, it is important to look at both the big “R” and the big “D.”


Recession – negative economic growth – is one thing and not really a bad thing for the vast majority. That is especially true, given the need to achieve Balance noted above.


Let us be very clear: A growing number of citizens understand the need for humans to achieve a dramatically smaller ecological footprint. At the same time, there is not two percent of the population that thinks a Recession is a “good” idea. (See End Note Eight.)


At this point, those who would admit to being in favor of a Recession are primarily bottom feeders. They hold that opinion because they think they have a scheme to make a lot of money from others' pain. Even Exonomists and the likes of Herman Daly (“Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development”) are unlikely to advocate a recession at this time.


While the economy has not done well for the bottom two thirds of the economic food chain by most measures over the past decade, many citizens think they have somehow benefited by the orgy of Mass OverConsumption and that with a little tinkering they can get back on the gravy train that was raising all boats before the mid-'70s.

While a recession might not be that bad, a depression, on the other hand, is a bad thing.

An economy in depression is rife with abject poverty, citizens die of starvation, child mortality rates spike, life spans are dramatically shortened, resources are misappropriated, wasted and lost.


The last thing anyone wants is citizens going around scared and depressed about the prospect of a depression. But what if, after careful consideration, contemporary First World society needs a nice long recession?


Will Agency action seeking to achieve unsustainable economic objectives result in catastrophe?


How do nation-states get to a controlled recession without sliding into a depression?


Will “leaders” pursue “economic growth” and instead of achieving a long period for readjustment (the “R” word) push the economy and society into Depression?


Supercapitalism and Agency-controlled investment from non-democratic (and anti-democratic) governance structures could be the economic equivalent of physical terrorism in this context.


Without an economic strategy with which the majority agree there is no chance of maintaining democracy with a market economy.


Is a Good Strategy for 1929 Intelligent in 2008?


The widely held view among economists who have studied the issue is that in the late '20s and early 30s there was a lot of speculative exuberance left over from the Roaring '20s. The failure of Agencies in the US of A and elsewhere to be sufficiently concerned about the potential of a recession, and their failure to take action to prevent a recession, led to the Great Depression. Some of these same economists also suggest that the “lost decade” of Japanese economic stagnation in the 90s was due to failure to aggressively address what might have been just a mild recession.


Who is the leading scholar in this area of economic history? Ben S. Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. Pearlstein and others have made these points. (Again see End Note Seven.)


Let us assume that a major problem in 1929 was a failure to take the prospect of recession seriously and that this inaction did contribute to the Great Depression. The question now is: Will taking the recession “seriously” under dramatically different circumstances thus push the global economy into a depression?


To answer this question citizens – and not just Agency, Enterprise and Institutional economists and lobbyists, for reasons spelled out in THE ESTATES MATRIX, must take a long look at population, consumption, resources, expectations, abilities and the current status of the Estates of society. Even a summary of such a consideration is beyond the scope of this column, but here are a few observations:


Population: The world population in 1930 was about two billion; in 1970 it was about 3.6 billion; and in 2008 about 6.6 billion. In other words, the world population has nearly doubled since most should have known that Fundamental Change was essential.


In the US of A, where one might expect the most intelligent response to future realities, the population was about 122 million in 1930; in 1970 it was about 200 million and in 2008 is about 304 million.  In other words, the U.S. population has increased by about 100 million residents since the 1973 Oil Embargo. Instead of following the trend in other First World industrialized nation-states toward population stability – the trajectory the US of A was on until the early 1990s – the US of A has established programs and incentives (or has failed to take actions) that collectively have increased the population and vastly increased projections for future population growth.


Agency and Enterprise actions and inactions include permitting the immigration of those with high skills who will work for less (e.g. doctors and denizens of high-tech) and those with low skills who will work for much less, especially in the service sector, that citizens will not do without higher economic and social incentives. About 11 million have entered the nation-state illegally to take advantage of employment opportunities.


Consumption: Measures of consumption that impact human settlement patterns include Vehicle Miles Traveled – up about 150 percent or 4.5 times the rate of population growth. While energy consumption per-capita has been relatively constant since 1973, the growth of population has increased energy consumption by about 40 percent.  Vast amounts of energy is wasted in transmission and distribution to dysfunctional human settlement patterns.


Most important efficiencies in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors' use of energy have been offset by increases consumption by the transport sector.


The Gross Domestic Product has grown from $4.4 trillion in 1973 to $14 trillion in 2007 -- almost 10 times the population growth. The monetary costs in personal debt and nation-state debt to achieve this “prosperity” is considerable. The current national debt is $9.3 trillion.  The current balance of payments deficit is around $700 billion. Some at the top of the food chain are much better off due to this “growth” but most citizens are not. (See APPENDIX ONE: DISORIENTING “NEWS” ON CITIZEN WELL BEING.)


Reich cites a chilling statistic: Three families: the Waltons (Wal*Mart), the Gates (Microsoft) and the Buffets (Berkshire Hathaway) have net worth roughly equal to the total of the 120 million citizens at the bottom of the economic food chain in the US of A. If these at the bottom of the economic food chain lived in one nation-state it would be the 11th largest in the world – bigger than Mexico. This is the worth of just three families.


Resources: Levels of consumption have depleted domestic supplies and shifted to those in the US of A to import dependence for many goods and services including the vast majority of the fuel for Mobility and Access.


One does not even need to read the annual State of the World by the Worldwatch Institute (Lester Brown, et. al) to understand the deteriorating status of fresh water, forests, marine life and the dwindling stocks of many metals and other materials. Cheap oil is, of course, gone.  As pointed out in “Whale on the Beach,” 28 August 2006, citizens of the US of A have burned through natural capital at an alarming rate and have little of lasting value to show for it. There is even less left for future generations to meet their needs. (See End Note Nine.)


Expectations: Never in the history of human economic activity has an economy been so dependent upon consumer consumption. Over 70 percent of the current economy consists of consumer consumption. This is a far different world than in 1929 when a relatively few could turn on and off large sectors of the economy. This new reality puts the US of A and the First World in completely uncharted water: The next economic downturn may not be a mild recession that “everyone” expects to end soon.


Thanks to the flow of misinformation from both Agencies and Enterprises, citizens expect that the future involves continued “growth” and that they are correct in expecting to be better off in the years ahead, especially if they buy and consume more and more accessories of the “good life” and vote for “me.” (Again see End Note Two.)


The stock and commodities markets have morphed to become gambling venues with far more and far different participants than when “the market” crashed in 1929. At this point every item of bad news is met with a promise of a bailout and the promise of a bailout spurs more speculative buying. (See End Note Ten.)


Abilities: The last time the US of A weathered a depression, most citizens still lived in small urban places and on farms. The vast majority of the population, if given a knife, a match and a live chicken, would not go hungry.  Now most (85 percent) live and work in New Urban Regions and are dependent on a global supply chain for almost everything.


When something bad happens, like a South Florida blackout, they call 911 and hope someone will help them. Citizens have few tools to help themselves and are subject to forces and decisions about which they have no understanding and no control. (See “Down Memory Lane with Katrina,” 5 September 2005, and “Second Stroll with Katrina,” 4 September 2007.)


Most citizens depend on the Autonomobile for Mobility and Access (See THE PROBLEM WITH CARS) and thus on imported oil.


Status of the Estates: The overarching building blocks of civilization have been morphing over the last seven hundred years and at this point few recognize the categories of the four Estates or the relationships between them. (See THE ESTATES MATRIX.) 


The question we have asked over and over and over in a hundred different ways for the past 20 years, from the Fall of 1988 to Spring of 2008:

Will the Households, Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions have the resources left after decades of profligate waste and the agglomeration of dysfunctional human settlement patterns to create Balance or will the Washington- Baltimore New Urban Region become “Bangladesh on the Potomac?”

We do not have the answers but in APPENDIX TWO: A WINDOW ON COMPLEXITY there is a sketch that suggests just how hard it will be to turn around the gravy train.


How Long


How long will it take to turn around the gravy train if citizens are fortunate enough to have a nice long recession to restructure the economy and with it social and physical life?


A recent story by Emily Wax filed from Lakshman Jhula, India, may hold the answer. Her article is “Overcoming Caste: For Those Working to Build an Integrated India, ‘Hope Starts and Ends With the Schools’.”


Our guess is that it will take about as long in the US of A to get rid of the idea that a sustainable future depends on “growth” as it will to wipe out the caste system in India. Perhaps 40 years. And, as we point out in The Shape of the Future, it will depend on citizen education. (See End Note Eleven.)


-- March 5, 2008



End Notes


(1). We had to get THE ESTATES MATRIX wrapped up.  There were Holiday festivities, some interRegional travel – and the time to recover from the inevitable bout with Severe Acute Air Travel Syndrome (SAATS).  Then there was the “death” of Rail to Dulles and the need to get THE PROBLEM WITH CARS into publication ... the list goes on.  For prior year end summaries see: “Smoke and Shadows,” 13 January 2003, “Summing Up,” 15 December 2003, “A Summing Up,” 13 December 2004, "The Devil’s Dance,” 3 January 2006, and “Can’t Take This – Not Another Day!”, 8 January 2007. 


(2). Reich, Robert. "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life," Knopf, NY 2007.  Unfortunately, this book fails to articulate the locational and spacial impacts of the changes in Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions spelled out in THE ESTATES MATRIX, this masking the need for Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.  Reich also implies that there are viable solutions without Fundamental Change in governance structure. The book does articulate very well, however, the conflict that humans face in their roles as consumers and investors vis-a-vis their roles as citizens.


The future of democracies with market economies depends upon resolving the conflict between humans as consumers and investors and humans as citizens, as Reich points out. In an forthcoming column we will explore why Reich’s book will never be “popular.”


If anyone thinks Reich is off base with his analysis of humans as customers and investors vs their roll as citizens (consumption vs safety and happiness) or why the current trajectory of society is toward dysfunction and the end of democracies with market economies, they need to read THE ESTATES MATRIX with more care.


Vyse, Stuart. "Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to Their Money," Oxford University Press ads another dimension to the picture. 


(3). Leinberger, Christopher B., “The Next Slum?” The Atlantic Online March 2008.


(4). We are talking about MainStream Media. EMR and others have been saying these sorts of headlines would be the inevitable consequence of continued Mass OverConsumption and dysfunctional human settlement patterns for years, in fact for 35 years – 1973 to 2008.


(5). “Lollipop Economics: The Limits of What Politicians Can Do” Robert J. Samuelson, WaPo, 16 January 2007.  Alan Berue at Brookings suggests that stimulus should focus on innovation, intellect and infrastructure. Few, as yet, see the key issue is settlement patterns.


(6). The lead editorial for Saturday 19 January 2008 in WaPo is titled “Calculating the Stimulus”: Everyone agrees the economy needs a government boost – but the devil lies in the details.” (Emphasis added) A careful reading of the editorial finds that the “details” are how to get the stimulus money to those who will spend it right away so that the consumer-driven economy (and advertising) will charge ahead for a while longer.


 The real issues are far more complex.  Harold Meyerson makes a number of important points in “A Different Recession: The Old Remedies Won’t Work This Time,” WaPo, 16 January 2007.  Steven E. Landsburg (“Why the Stimulus Shouldn’t Stimulate You”) and Andrew A. Samwick (“A Better Way to Deal With Downturns”) also make good points in WaPo’s Outlook for 27 January.  What does WaPo do to muddy the waters?  It runs a full page ad by the National Association of Home Builders with the punch line, “The Economy Starts and Stops with Housing.” Jim Bacon pointed out that on 7 February the owners of WaPo made the former vice president of advertising the new “Media Chief and Publisher” of the paper in “Who Will Report the News? WaPo Gets New Publisher.” [Add Link]


(7). Pearlstein, Steven, “Only When the Bubble Bursts” 23 January 2008.


(8). Two percent is pretty small group given the fact that ten percent think the world is flat and fourteen percent cannot find the US of A on a world map.


(9). Richard Register of Ecocity Builders puts it this way in “Enduring Civilization:” “God help us when the unemployment lines get as long as they were during the Great Depression because this time we won’t have the vast oil deposits, broad forests, full aquifers and seas rich with life to bail us out.”


(10). “Word of Bailout Plan Reverses Stocks In Last Half-Hour of Trading” (Dow Jones down 130 “rallies” to go up 97 on 22 February) Markets Report, 23 February 2008 WaPo.


(11). Forty years is the time it takes for those now in the fourth grade to become the leading generation.  See Wax, Emily, Washington Post Foreign Service, “Overcoming Caste: For Those Working to Build an Integrated India, ‘Hope Starts and Ends With the Schools,’” 20 January 2008, WaPo. Also See The Shape of the Future Chapters 31 and 32.


In his work with elementary school students, Patrick Kane has found that in the third, fourth and fifth grade students have an inherent ability to understand the basics of evolving functional human settlement patterns.  In just a few years they have been convinced by peers, advertising, their parents and MainStream Media, that Business As Usual is the only path to secure the things they think they need and want.



Appendix One

Disorienting "News" On Citizen Well Being


THE ESTATES MATRIX documents why citizens are not getting the information they need to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth and in the marketplace.  In the context of the “Good News: What MainStream Media Is, and Is Not, Telling Us,” we examine one story from the business sections of WaPo for 28 February 2008.




The story by Michael A. Fletcher takes up five columns above the fold with the headline in letters .55 inches high “An Upside for the Middle Class.” The story with picture and graphics covers about half the first page of the business section. The story shares the front page with four other stories:

  • “Fannie Mae Reports $3.56 Billion Loss”

  • “Bernanke Signals Rate Cuts On Concern About the Economy”

  • “E.U. Slaps Third Fine on Microsoft”

  • “Frustration of the Format Wars” (HD DVD vs Blu-Ray)

It is very clear that “the middle class is doing just fine” in spite of all this bad news is the “message” the editors want “business” readers to take away from exposure to WaPo on 28 February 2008.




The five-column color picture shows the shoes and legs of people who are presumed to be happy shoppers by the fact they are carrying shopping bags.  The caption reads:  “Though their debts have multiplied [true, see below], shoppers today buy more items than they use to [true, see below], often for lower prices [true, see below], and have more leisure time to do it [may not be true, see below].”


A bar graph with data from 1989 and 2004 accompanies the story on page one and is intended to bolster the rosy perspective of those in the middle of the economic food chain by documenting a rise in net worth of $24,300 in constant dollars over the period for the median Household. Upon closer inspection:


1989 was a bottom-of-the-trough year for housing – we tried to sell a house in 1989 and were offered less than we had paid for it in early 1988.  2004 was not the top of the recent housing bubble but was on the way.  In other words, choosing 1989 and 2004 is an attempt to cherry pick data to paint a rosy picture. Also 2004 was three-plus years ago. That was then, this is now.


The $24,300 gain in median family net worth in the graph comes primarily from growth in pension funds and home value.


Hello!  Since 2004, stock markets, which include pension funds, have lost trillions of dollars and may well lose more. Houses are being foreclosed at record rates, values are down and are predicted to go down farther.  Without those two “upsides” the median family value would be a loss of $52,200 from 1989 to 2004.


Much of the increase in “financial and non-financial assets” which is the other big “gain” in the graph during the 1989-2004 period also may have disappeared. The loss of value of new cars in the first year and the deflation of electronic equipment that is replaced with “newer and better” is astounding in a “throw-away-the-old-and-buy-a-new, better-one” in Mass OverConsumptive society. This churn, of course, accounts for much of the increase in “debt” and “credit card balance” that is on the negative side of the ledger in the WaPo graphic.


A companion graph illustrates the percentage change in productivity (+ 28.6%) and wages (+ 4.4%) from 1989 to 2004. Add Cost of Living and this would be a much better measure of how citizens fared during that period – and in fact since the mid '70s. The whole concept of measuring well being by “productivity” is questioned in The Shape of the Future.  Also see “Whale on the Beach,” 28 August 2006. 


The Story Line


The story opens with reference to the fact that presidential candidates in both the Elephant Clan and the Donkey Clan are citing the problems faced by those who are not at the top of the economic food chain. The author provides a list of the commonly noted negatives:

“... flattening wages, rising income inequity, increasing consumer debt, soaring health-care costs, spiraling energy prices and, now, declining home values.”

These trends are not challenged but then the story diverts on a man-bites-dog tangent intended to let “the informed reader” know that things are really not that bad. There are several experts quoted in the story.  Stephen Rose is “labor economist” who is “writing a book.” He admits the economic picture for those in the middle is a “mixed picture.” It turns out that Rose helps develop Donkey Clan strategies and has done research that cautions prospective candidates that stirring up “class warfare” was not a way to win pre 2006 elections. We do not know what his new book might say but two recent papers published for Rose by the Progressive Policy Institute (April 2006) and the Democratic Leadership Council (July 2006) document that at that time attacking “class difference” was not helpful for the Donkey Clan candidates studied.

It does not take much insight to realize that these studies were carried out before the November 2006 elections and the November 2007 elections in Virginia.

The bottom line is that Rose is cited because he is a Donkey Clan supporter.  He was chosen to “balance” quotes from Elephant Clan supporters in pure He Said / She Said fashion. Rose was quoted in spite of the fact that apparently he does not have much to say about the economic, social or physical well being of those in the middle of the economic food chain in 2008. His expertise is in creating “winning” (50.1 percent) strategies.


Let us look again at the picture caption, which along with the headline set the tone for the story:  “Though their debts have multiplied, shoppers today buy more items today than they used to, often for lower prices, and have more leisure time, to do it.” Considering one of these items at a time:


Debts have multiplied”: No one disagrees with this. Is more debt a good thing for the growing number who now cannot pay their bills?


Buy more items than they used to” Again, absolutely true. The recent past consumption levels of goods and service by US of A citizens far exceed any other nation-state. Further these levels of consumption far exceed any other society that has ever existed. However, is Mass OverConsumption a good thing for those in the middle of the economic food chain given the rising cost of resources, the trade deficit, the declining value of the dollar, etc?


Often for lower prices”: This is also true and to understand why, see “Learning From Big Boxes” which is Part III (forthcoming) of THE PROBLEM WITH CARS and EMR’s review of Supercapitalism: The transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life (forthcoming). It turns out lower prices per se are also not necessarily a good thing.


Have more leisure time”: This will come as a great surprise to the Running As Hard As They Cans.  This assertion, it turns out is the lynchpin of the story.  Except for “more leisure,” all the “good points” turn out to be bad for the vast majority in 2008.


A study on the topic of increased leisure is jumped on by another “labor economist,” this one at the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation is a cheer leader for Business As Usual and one of the key “happy, rich donors are good for the Institution” Organizations profiled in THE ESTATES MATRIX.


The study in question is a 2006 working paper by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst titled “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades” published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.


In this paper what is the main overlooked issue is? You guessed it:

The impact on daily activities of dysfunctional human settlement patterns.

The measures of “market work” and “home production work” both include “travel time” – a reflection of dysfunctional human settlement patterns. However, the authors rely on survey participants to estimate travel time. We have found that from the neighbor next door to scientifically screened panels, citizens invariably underestimate travel time. No one is willing to admit that they spend as much time as they really do getting to work, getting from the soccer game to the dance lesson and back...


There are other holes in this type of survey. How many will admit that they wasted four hours last night in front of a television set because they were too exhausted to do anything else? Add to these specifics the decision about allocating child care time by the researchers in this study and there is room for a lot more fudging than the six to eight hours a week of “additional leisure time” they found from 1965 to 2003.


Whatever an arcane formula applied to four sets of survey data (with different questions being asked of different people each decade) might conclude, how many (other than retirees) agree that they have much more time to undertake actions of their own choosing than they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago?


We will leave it to readers to come to their own conclusions after they download and read the 61 pages of text and tables. However, there are a lot of red flags that should temper any conclusions about the growth of “real” leisure.”


The bottom line is that any suggestion that citizens have more leisure time apparently rests on very weak evidence and runs counter to what citizens believe is the case. Whether citizens could theoretically avoid the advertisements and the gadgets or not, they do not do it. The question seems to boil down to a need to explore the nature of “happiness” as noted below not an abstract “increase in leisure” calculation.


Editors' Cut


On page four of the same business section on 28 February there is a report that Post Co. Profits are down by 11 percent.  If consumers believe the economy is going downhill, they may well cut (and they are cutting)  consumption, which will hurt advertising and thus WaPo revenue. No business side staffer has to walk into the newsroom to tell the editors, much less the reporters, that they need to do whatever they can to maintain “consumer confidence” to avoid further layoffs. One way to do that is to show that there are “two sides” to the issue of how badly off those in the middle of the economic food chain really are.

What better way to put this issue on the front page of the business section than He Said / She Said (aka, balanced) Journalism?

Oh yes, there is the issue of Vocabulary too: The use of the term “Middle Class” is confusing because what most think of as the “Middle Class” disappeared since 1950, especially since 1973. This issue is explored in THE ESTATES MATRIX and will examine it further in THE ESTATES MATRIX v 2.0, forthcoming.


With these perspectives in mind, we suggest you read (reread) the WaPo story. Is the coverage of this important topic a blatant attempt to confuse the issues or is it an inept attempt to provide information? You decide. But does it matter? As documented in THE ESTATES MATRIX, “journalists” have no choice but to spout support for continued Mass OverConsumption.


As noted above, the real question is how to define and deliver “happiness.” Or not. See "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy,"  by Eric G. Wilson.


A brief, ongoing review of the literature suggests there are a lot of questions to be answered. Business-As-Usual advocates are sure everyone is really happy with Mass OverConsumption. That is what WaPo is selling and hopes consumer buy it. With constrained resources Mass OverConsumption is not the answer. Stay tuned.



Appendix Two

A Window on Complexity - While It Will Be Hard to Achieve a Sustainable Trajectory for the Economy Given the Embedded Bias Toward Growth and Expansion


Texas is the focus of the oil and gas industry in the US of A and the Houston Chronicle keeps tabs on oil and gas news. On a recent trip, we observed clear evidence of reasons the current trajectory of civilization is unsustainable and why it will be hard to achieve a sustainable trajectory.


In December of last year, Congress passed and the President signed “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.” For the first time in years, federal legislation mandates an increase in fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks. The legislation also mandates increased levels of ethanol production.


Except for the blatant foolishness put forth by:

  • The title of the legislation

  • The fact that ethanol may not be a good way to use the US of A’s agricultural capacity

  • The fact that biomass may cause more harm than good

... this legislation might be seen by some as a good thing.


What is very clear is that the legislation is good thing from one perspective: The business models of oil and gas companies are geared toward growth in consumption, aka, Mass OverConsumption. The passage of the federal legislation suggests there might be “downturn” in consumption.


What does the oil and gas industry think about a reduction in consumption? The headlines on the front page and the jump page of a 7 January 2008 article by Brett Clanton in the Houston Chronicle says it all:

  “New laws leave oil refiners uncertain: Some rethink (refinery) expansion as legislation aims to reduce gas use / Refiners: Unclear demand may push more projects off table.”

There are 140 gasoline refineries in the US of A according to Clanton, and there has not been a new refinery built in the past 30 years. There will have to be new investment to upgrade existing refineries to keep them producing and to meet growing demand even for the legislation to have the desired effect. However, as the story documents, if legislation has the potential to reduce the rate of growth, the companies will not risk billions to expand capacity. On the one hand you cannot blame refiners for being concerned, on the other hand, it is clear that continuing the present trajectory is a non-starter.


Environmental and “consumer advocate” Institutions are quick to criticize the refiners for intentionally limiting capacity to insure high prices and high profits.


Let us step back and consider another perspective. One does not have to go to Cuba or Haiti to see that old, fuel-inefficient (and grossly polluting) cars can be kept on the road for decades. Just go to Heartland, US of A.  Used vehicles find a retirement home in Urban Support Regions with high unemployment and low income levels.


Let us assume there is an economic downturn and few of the new fuel- efficient vehicles find their way onto the roadways. Citizens will then be trapped in dysfunctional, fuel inefficient settlement patterns that demand the use of Autonomobiles. Old cars would be the only alternative for Mobility and Access. And here is the catch: Because the refiners bet on lower consumption, there would not be enough gasoline even for reduced total travel. Under this scenario there would be the worst of all possible worlds: Reduced supplies of fuel with high prices and gas guzzling old cars.


This is the tip of the iceberg: The entire economy is based on more and more citizens consuming more and more goods and services. That is not a sustainable trajectory, but it is the model Enterprises are forced to adopt as suggested by THE ESTATES MATRIX for the reasons spelled out by Robert Reich’s in "Supercapitalism."


Now tell us again why more intelligent action was not taken in October 1973 by the “leaders” of Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions?














Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.