Thursday, April 06, 2017

New York 2140

"New York 2140" is the latest novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, 624 pages, 8 parts of 7-9 chapters each. It is in the subgenre of science fiction now identified as climate fiction. I strongly recommend that you purchase this book and read it right now. It contains what I believe is a potentially plausible scheme for turning our oligarchy / plutocracy back into a democracy. Plus it's an enjoyable, well-written novel, with good plotting, an interesting variety of characters, and a satisfactory conclusion without any deus-ex-machina. When you have finished reading it yourself, you can come back here and share my spoiler-filled thoughts on the book. If you are not going to read it yourself, then by all means just forge ahead.

*********************** SPOILER ALERT ***********************
For being 123 years in the future, there is not a lot of really futuristic stuff. No singularity, the AIs aren't very smart, no life extension, no mention of space exploration. The time in the future I think was selected to allow time for 2 major ocean rise events to have occurred: 10' in 2060 (the 1st Pulse), and 40' in the early 2100s (the 2nd pulse). Both were caused by Antarctic ice sheets escaping into the ocean. They do have new materials that allow skyscrapers 2-3x as tall we we have now, and cities floating on the oceans and in the sky. Airplanes are mostly replaced by dirigibles.

One other thing that is not very futuristic is their political and economic system. It is basically what we have now - anarcho-capitalism that has lead to an oligarchy / plutocracy. The passage of time and the inevitable occurrence of terror events has led to more security (theater) and surveillance. The main purpose of the novel seems to be to propose his very elegant path back to democracy:

  1. Identify a bubble in the world's capital markets (that shouldn't be too hard). In the presence of a bubble, financial institutions will be even more overly leveraged than usual.
  2. Amongst the 99%, organize and declare a rent (in the economic sense of the word) strike, a Jubilee. Everybody quits paying on all rents or loans of any type, and purchasing anything beyond necessities. The drop in liquidity could create another financial meltdown like 2008.
  3. When the banks come to the federal governments demanding a bailout, nationalize them instead. This was done with GM in 2008, while the banks were given a pass.
  4. Finance now works for the people! Normalize finance industry salaries and bonuses. Implement the Piketty tax, and a capital flight penalty. Happy ending!
    These new taxes and the nationalization of finance meant the U.S. government would soon be dealing with a healthy budget surplus. Universal health care, free public education through college, a living wage, guaranteed full employment, a year of mandatory national service, all these were not only made law but funded. ... And as all this political enthusiasm and success caused a sharp rise in consumer confidence indexes, now a major influence on all market behavior, ironically enough, bull markets appeared all over the planet. This was intensely reassuring to a certain crowd, and given everything else that was happening, it was a group definitely in need of reassurance. That making people secure and prosperous would be a good thing for the economy was a really pleasant surprise to them. Who knew?
Such a great idea! Fight money with money!

I note that Robinson's improved society includes "a living wage" and "guaranteed full employment" but not a universal basic income. I wonder why he is not a fan?

The economics in this book are very good. It's funny, I read something like this and think "He definitely read Piketty." And probably Naomi Klein as well. Here's some examples.

the continuous panicked quantitative easing since the Second Pulse had put more money out there than there was good paper to buy, which in effect meant that investors were, not to put too fine a point on it, too rich. That meant new opportunities to invest needed to be invented, and so they were. Demand gets supplied.


Every ideal and value seemed to melt under a drenching of money, the universal solvent. Money money money. The fake fungibility of money, the pretense that you could buy meaning, buy life.


But after every crisis of the last century, Charlotte thought, or maybe forever, capital had tightened the noose around the neck of labor. Simple as that: crisis capitalism, shoving the boot on the neck harder at every opportunity. Tightening the noose. It had been proved, it was a studied phenomenon. To anyone looking at history, it was impossible to deny. It was the pattern. The fight against the tightening noose had never managed to find the leverage to escape it.

One consequence of ocean rise that I had never heard before: according to Robinson, dating back to Roman law, property in an intertidal zone cannot be owned - it is a commons. Makes sense, I know navigable streams are this way. So the new seashore areas, where much development has been going on, are in a legal limbo re ownership. But ...
"Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins. So of course she wants to kill. I’m totally with her. Put ’em against a wall. Fucking liquidation of the rentier.”

“Euthanasia of the rentier,” Charlotte corrects. “Keynes.”

Much of the good political and economic info in the book is delivered in 1 or 2 chapters per part in which a/that/the citizen/smartass/city breaks the 4th wall and addresses us directly. Here's some samples:
So the people of the 2060s staggered on through the great depression that followed the First Pulse, and of course there was a crowd in that generation, a certain particular one percent of the population, that just by chance rode things out rather well, and considered that it was really an act of creative destruction, as was everything bad that didn’t touch them, and all people needed to do to deal with it was to buckle down in their traces and accept the idea of austerity, meaning more poverty for the poor, and accept a police state with lots of free speech and freaky lifestyles velvetgloving the iron fist, and hey presto! On we go with the show! Humans are so tough!


The bailout of the 2008 crash, which served as the model for the two that followed it, was calculated by historians at somewhere between 5 and 15 trillion dollars. One careful guess said it was 7.7 trillion dollars, another 13 trillion; both added that this was more than the cost (adjusted for inflation) of the Louisiana Purchase, the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1980s savings and loan bailout, the Iraq wars, and the entire NASA space program, combined. Conclusion: wars and land and social programs must not be very expensive. And compared to rescuing finance from itself, they’re not.


capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears at our flesh when it is free to do so. No, the glass walls of justice will have to be placed together closer than the width of an octopus’s beak—now there’s a fortune cookie for you! And even then the octopus may think of some new ways to bite the world. A hinged beak, some super suckers, who knows what these people will try.


Dark pools. Dark pools of money, of financial activities. Unregulated and unreported. Estimated to be three times larger than the officially reported economy. Exchanges not advertised or explained to outsiders. Exchanges opaque even to those making them. ... Liquidity vaporized. Liquidity gone through the phase change that makes it a gas. Liquidity become gaseous, become telepathy. Liquidity gone metaphysical.

All the parts start with some quotations, several by Whitman. The discussion of dark money concludes by invoking Whitman, in this inspirational passage:
They have all come back like the tide, like poetry—in fact, please take over, O ghost of glorious Walt:

Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quantitudinal stupidity, you oversimple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass.

I liked where a romance develops between a 36 YO male character and a 50 YO female character. After all the DOM(Dirty Old Man)ism of Heinlein and his ilk involving old men and young women, it is a pleasant change.

Several new words in this book:

  • Bildungsroman - a coming-of-age novel
  • jarndycing - a gerundal reference to Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Ha ha, I like this use: "jarndycing through the courts at Zenoesque speed"
  • polder - a tract of low land (as in the Netherlands) reclaimed from a body of water (as the sea)
  • till or glacial till - unsorted glacial sediment
  • aleatoric - characterized by chance or indeterminate elements, i.e., random
  • aeolia - wind (I think) - an aeolian harp is a wind harp
  • avuncular - unclelike
There were also many fun factoids throughout the book, as you would expect from an author as erudite as Robinson. I liked this assertion, from the quotations section but attributed to "Hard to believe":
Words her biographer claimed first appeared in print in the prose of Dorothy Parker: art moderne, ball of fire, with bells on, bellyacher, birdbrain, boy-meets-girl, chocolate bar, daisy chain, face lift, high society, mess around, nostalgic, one-night stand, pain in the neck, make a pass, doesn’t have a prayer, queer, scaredy-cat, shoot, the sky’s the limit, to twist someone’s arm, what the hell, and wisecrack.
It took me a couple tries to track down "Chenoweth's law", but I think it is probably in this book.

He also mentions how "these old clich├ęs had their origins in real physical reactions, common to all.": "her knees grew weak", "she saw red".

This was a very enjoyable book. It is particularly interesting to contrast it with Cory Doctorow's "Walkaway", which I finished just before it. I scored a prerelease copy of "Walkaway" from an old friend who owns a bookstore, and am waiting until it comes out April 25 to comment on it - that seems like good manners to me. Very different approaches to the same issues.

[Added November 26, 2017]
Here is a video of the song I wrote using the inspirational text quoted above. Performed by Steve & Chris (blues harp / guitar & vocals).


Chris Heinz said...

I just wrote a song "Life" from the inspirational section! Got a verse and a chorus, got a recording of the guitar & vocals on my phone.

Chris Heinz said...

So, here is the song. The vocals are pretty crappy, I was trying to sing soft as my wife was sleeping in the next room, and this is song that needs to be belted.

Next up, sung loud w my blues harp duo partner. Then, full band.

Chris Heinz said...

Finally got around to recording with my blues harp duo partner, much better. But I'd really like to do it with a full band a la Santana - congas and horns.
I embedded the video at the end of the main test, here is the link: