I first wrote about the boiling frog analogy in The Empire And The Boiling Frog, published on January 23, 2011.
Think about it. Does it make any sense to say the country was doing just fine right up to the moment (more or less) when it wasn't? For example, did the Wall Street banks become overly powerful and greedy in just the few years before the Housing Bubble collapsed? Did their undue influence on our venal politicians begin during those years? Of course not! Events like the financial crisis don't just come out of nowhere. To understand them, you must examine the historical antecedents. You must understand that the ground for what happened today was prepared many years before...
Why does the boiling frog story apply to people if not to actual frogs? The answer is simple. Human beings are built to adapt to new conditions. Generally speaking, they don't notice gradual change, they simply get used to it. People were designed by Nature to react quickly to sudden changes. They were not designed to notice that this year, and for many years before that, conditions got a little worse than they were the year before. Humans live in an eternal present. This observation is well-known to those who study such things. It is not original with me.
I brought up the unfortunate frog again A Sudden Crisis Makes All The Difference, published on April 29, 2012. DOTE had just received its one millionth page view, which took a long time to achieve, and the thesis under consideration was whether my traffic would surge if America experienced another 2008-like crisis.
Needless to say, we have not had such a crisis.
Lately, I wrote about A Disturbing Trend In America, where I made this observation—
A strong defense of the status quo has existed in all human societies in all times and all places. However, in the United States, this tendency, which I've noticed because I write this blog, has become far more pronounced over the last three years—the consolidation of power by the powerful is accelerating, so-called "thought" in the media is more and more constricted, and dissenting, critical voices have become so marginalized that many (if not most) have given up.
It is not hard to see that the American frog has been boiled again. Americans have gotten used to an even more degraded society, and will continue to adapt to new, worse conditions. It was inevitable.
I was reminded of the boiling frog when I read Nicolas Lemann's When The Earth Moved: What happened to the environmental movement? (published in the New Yorker on April 15, 2013.) In the demise of the environmental movement, we see the human frog boiled on Earth, and just as with the American frog, that seems inevitable too.
In no respect is Nicolas Lemann what we might call a "deep thinker" about Big Problems. (He writes for the New Yorker after all.) He goes through the history of Earth Day to emphasize the alleged heyday of the modern environment movement in the 1970s, and then describes at some length its subsequent decline as the movement moved away from its grass-roots origins and became politicized. Today, environmental organizations comprise yet another special interest in the Washington lobbying zoo, and an ineffective one at that. Lemann thinks the movement died when the Senate dropped the carbon cap & trade framework (USCAP) back in 2010.
Back in the Earth Day era, the federal government would deal with such emissions simply by ordering limits on them. Since then, market solutions to big social problems have triumphed. For years, “cap-and-trade,” a system of tradable permits for carbon emissions, had been the solution preferred by many of the established environmental groups, because that seemed to be the best way to bring business on board. (For the same reason, Democrats came to favor a market mechanism—private health exchanges—to achieve their long-cherished dream of universal health care.) But in previous years even cap-and-trade bills had repeatedly been defeated by Republican opponents. Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, the authors of one of the reports on the failure of the legislation, observe that, as a result, the major environmental groups felt that they had to strike enough deals with big business in advance to guarantee at least some Republican support.
In the summer of 2009, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by a handful of Republicans, passed a bill based on the USCAP framework. It was fourteen hundred pages long. Almost immediately, corporate members dropped out of the coalition; as the grand alliance unravelled, the bill languished in the Senate. After Harry Reid, then in a tight reëlection campaign against a Tea Party candidate, dropped it, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”
According to Rahm Emanuel, those environmental boys didn't have shit. They weren't wearing their big-boy pants. In Rahm's tiny little brain, the environment has equal status with the insurance lobby.
Regarding the feckless environmental movement, I noted that the New York Times discontinued their dedicated coverage of it in The Green Blog Goes Bye-Bye (March 20, 2013).
Here we have a perfect example of the boiling frog, this time writ large. When the environmental movement became just another lobbying group, the war was lost. You might consider these pertinent observations—
- Carbon cap & trade wasn't going to fix anything anyway. You can't change the status quo by sticking to the status quo (e.g. by creating another "free" market). Even then, the bill didn't get out of the Senate.
- All the business and environmental interests for and against the bill were pro-growth. That's why everybody preferred a "free" market solution. In theory, making carbon more expensive over time would create a thriving alternative "clean" energy market which would allow economic growth to continue. Thus do humans delude themselves.
- The successful environmental movement of the 1970s addressed only Small Problems, meaning it was focused on problems that were relatively easy to fix. That accounts for any success there was.
- Politics can never solve Big Problems. Politics buries Big Problems so that fixing them will not interfere with Business As Usual. And that's how it worked in this case.
And thus the water heats up while the human frog just sits there getting warmer and warmer.
Back in an American context, we see that The Man Who No Longer Represents Hope & Change presented his new budget to Congress. To show how serious he is about reining in deficits, the President opted to include the chained-CPI for calculating future Social Security benefits. The chained-CPI uses bogus calculations involving various substitutions—you could eat dog food if you can't afford protein meant for humans—to pretend that inflation does not exist, which in turn lowers future benefit increases for the elderly. The Republicans of course favor a genocide eliminating anyone who isn't rich or isn't likely to vote Republican.
And thus the poor frog gets boiled as citizens (usually called "consumers") adapt to new, almost-but-not-quite intolerable conditions in American society. Eventually all this must end of course but we do not know when.
Sigourney Weaver talking about ocean acidfication in April, 2010