Sunday, September 14, 2014

Innovation Is Slowing Down

It's not often when a billionaire libertarian sociopath does my homework for me, but such is the case with Peter Thiel, who has a standard rap about how progress has slowed down in the late twentieth century. His presentation is so good and well-researched, it makes a lot of my points for me. Broken clocks and all, I guess. Take it away, Petey! (all emphasis mine):
"Look at the Forbes list of the 92 people who are worth ten billion dollars or more in 2012. Where do they make money? 11 of them made it in technology, and all 11 were in computers. You’ve heard of all of them: It’s Bill Gates, it’s Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, on and on. There are 25 people who made it in mining natural resources. You probably haven’t heard their names. And these are basically cases of technological failure, because commodities are inelastic goods, and farmers make a fortune when there’s a famine. People will pay way more for food if there’s not enough. 25 people in the last 40 years made their fortunes because of the lack of innovation; 11 people made them because of innovation."
Yes, consistent with Neofeudalism, money is made by ownership of the the things we all need rather than making things better for everyone. Note that this is as much of an indictment of the capitalist economic order as it is of a lack of inventiveness. After all, none of these people actually put those natural resources in the ground, did they?
"Real oil prices today exceed those of the Carter catastrophe of 1979–80. Nixon’s 1974 call for full energy independence by 1980 has given way to Obama’s 2011 call for one-third oil independence by 2020. “Clean tech” has become a euphemism for “energy too expensive to afford,” and in Silicon Valley it has also become an increasingly toxic term for near-certain ways to lose money."
Is Thiel aware of Peak Oil? Does he care? Does he realize this also undermines the eternal-growth paradigm implicit in the economic doctrines he worships? One wonders. Also, note the swipe at Carter, who took Peak Oil seriously. Unfortunately, the 1980's Oil Glut had the unfortunate side of effect of (incorrectly) providing a a justification for Reagonomics, even though it has been subsequently failing for decades. Fracking has failed to have the same effect outside of a few boom (and soon to be bust) towns. And also note that the "Carter catastrophe" was really caused by the Arab Oil Embargo, which ultimately derived from political chaos in the Middle East. But after all, it's not like the Middle East is politically chaotic nowadays, right? Right?
"One of the smartest investors in the world is considered to be Warren Buffett. His single biggest investment is in the railroad industry, which I think is a bet against technological progress, both in transportation and energy. Most of what gets transported on railroads is coal, and Buffett is essentially betting that after the 21st century, we’ll look more like the 19th rather than the 20th century. We’ll go back to rail, and back to coal; we’re going to run out of oil, and clean-tech is going to fail."
So the "Sage of Omaha" is betting against technological progress, eh? He's even smarter than I thought. Perhaps he read Profit From the Peak. Maybe he's been listening to Chris Martenson or Jeremy Grantham or Robert Gordon. Maybe Thiel should try doing that sometime. Maybe then Thiel will stop thinking "innovation" is a substitute for real resources like fossil fuels, arable land, fresh water, ores and minerals.
"There was a famous bet in the between Julian Simon, an economist, and Paul Ehrlich in 1980 about whether a basket of commodity prices will go down in price over the next decade. Simon famously won this bet and this was sort of taken as evidence that we have tremendous technological progress and things are steadily getting better. But if you had to re-run the Simon-Ehrlich bet on a rolling decade basis then Paul Ehrlich has been winning the bet every year since 1994 when the price of this basket of goods has been getting more expensive on a decade-by-decade basis."
This is an excellent admission, since the Simon-Erlich wager is usually trotted out by Cornicopians to justify the "innovation/technology will save us" rap. Thiel correctly points out that in the longer run Erlich (who wrote The Population bomb) was basically right. And what's Erlich saying today? Hmmmm...
"Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems."
This would be a good time to point out that trains run slower today than they did the 1920s. Oh, and by the way, the world's largest cargo ships are travelling at lower speeds today than sailing clippers such as the Cutty Sark did more than 130 years ago (although this guy disagrees). Not only that, just one of these massive tanker ships gives off as much pollution as fifty million automobiles. In fact, sixteen cargo ships emit as much pollution as all of the world's automobiles. So it's even worse than Thiel talks about, since that pollution is not accounted for in the economic calculus, but the results from increased asthma rates to climate change are paid for by all of us.

As he points out, the space shuttle has been mothballed as has the Concorde. Economics is a bitch. The fastest humans have ever moved was the Apollo spaceflights of the 1970's. Manned missions to Mars and warp drives remain pipe dreams.
The record for the greatest distance from Earth has stood for more than four decades. In April 1970, the crew of NASA's Apollo 13 mission swung around the far side of the moon at an altitude of 158 miles (254 km), putting them 248,655 miles (400,171 km) away from Earth. It's the farthest our species has ever been from our home planet.

The crew of NASA's Apollo 10 moon mission reached a top speed of 24,791 mph (39,897 kph) relative to Earth as they rocketed back to our planet on May 26, 1969. That's the fastest any human beings have ever traveled.
The Most Extreme Human Spaceflight Records (

And even automobile miles per gallon is slowing down:
In the end, it looks like the "peak mileage" of the late 1990s is the real one. In the future, the a combination of factors which led to the peak will never return. Oil depletion is destined to make oil less and less affordable, even though market oscillations may hide this phenomenon. Wages are unlikely to grow in real terms after having been static for the past 40 years. And technological miracles are unlikely. Even the Toyota Prius, technological marvel of our times, can only bring us back to where we were 15 years ago in terms of mileage per hour worked. As long as we remain within the paradigm of "road vehicle powered by a combustion engine" we have reached the limit of what we can do.
Peak mileage and the diminishing returns of technology (Resource Crisis)
"The cruder measure of U.S. life expectancy continues to rise, but with some deceleration, from 67.1 years for men in 1970 to 71.8 years in 1990 to 75.6 years in 2010. We have one-third of the patents approved by the FDA as we have 20 years ago."
It's worse than that Pete (may I call you Pete?). We are actually running out of antibiotics, due to their abuse by private industry. It's so bad we're trolling the bottom of the ocean to find new ones. And drug companies don't like to develop antibiotics because they do not treat chronic conditions. You take antibiotics and they actually, well, cure you (although we are increasingly finding that they are having negative effects on our health), whereas drugs that treat chronic conditions like heart disease have to be taken for the rest of your life, which means more profit. And that tidbit about less patents is precious, since the economic calculus has drug companies investing in "me-too" drugs. Oh, and let's not mention how much government (which you hate, Pete) has footed the bill for biomedical innovations, yet reaped none of the profits that taxpayers paid for. No, instead taxpayers are mercilessly gouged thanks to patents for drugs - Americans pay hundreds of dollars for the pills that are keeping them alive.
[T]he respected Northwestern economist Robert Gordon reiterated the conventional view in a talk at the New School, saying that he was “extremely skeptical of government” as a source of innovation. “This is the role of individual entrepreneurs. Government had nothing to do with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg.”...Fortunately, a new book, The Entrepreneurial State, by the Sussex University economist Mariana Mazzucato, forcefully documents just how wrong these assertions are...Gordon called the National Institutes of Health a useful government “backstop” to the apparently far more important work done by pharmaceutical companies. But Mazzucato cites research to show that the NIH was responsible for some 75 percent of the major original breakthroughs known as new molecular entities between 1993 and 2004.
Innovation: The Government Was Crucial After All (NY Review of Books)

I've made this point before. The smallpox vaccine was made using eighteenth-century technology and reduced infant mortality dramatically. The discovery of the link between clean water and illness thanks to John Snow and the Broad Street Pump was another leap forward (and opposed by conservative business interests).

Today we spend six figures and deploy space-age technology to keep eighty-year-olds alive a few more months. Diminishing returns indeed. We also deploy millions of dollars and high technology to keep extremely unhealthy infants alive, ensuring that human health will only get worse in the future

Oh, and those life expectancy figures are only valid if we lump ordinary people like us in with billionaire oligarchs like you, Pete. In fact, for the poorest Americans, life expectancies are in decline. That is, our lifespans are getting shorter unless we're in the upper class making six or seven figures (which does not include most of us). So we're even less enamored with progress than you are. Let's move on.
"The reason that all the rocket scientists went to Wall Street was not only because they got paid more on Wall Street, but also because they were not allowed to build rockets and supersonic planes and so on down the line. Space has always been the iconic vision of the future. But a lot has gone wrong over the past couple of decades. Costs escalated rapidly. The Space Shuttle program was oddly Pareto inferior. It cost more, did less, and was more dangerous than a Saturn V rocket. It’s recent decommissioning felt like a close of a frontier."
Yes, the lack of space travel is a major retort to where we were supposed to be, as John Michael Greer has pointed out numerous times. Note that space travel was traditionally paid for by governments, the same governments who are cutting back social benefits and drowning in debt for bailing out investors like Mr. Thiel. Maybe that has an effect? Haven't people like Thiel and their ideological allies called for drowning the government in a bathtub?

Instead we get private "space tourism" from  billionaire oligarchs like Richard Branson (serving other billionaire oligarchs in an economic circle-jerk that the rest of us don't get to participate in). Branson's scheme is perennially years away as this post points out, and his schemes, while ostensibly "private" are of course dependent upon generous tax breaks and subsidies from our supposedly "broke" governments. Neoliberalism and space travel seem to be at odds with each other.
"The fading of the true Green Revolution — which increased grain yields by 126 percent from 1950 to 1980, but has improved them by only 47 percent in the years since, barely keeping pace with global population growth — has encouraged another, more highly publicized “green revolution” of a more political and less certain character. We may embellish the 2011 Arab Spring as the hopeful by-product of the information age, but we should not downplay the primary role of runaway food prices and of the many desperate people who became more hungry than scared."
Bravo, Mr. Thiel for pointing this out. The diminishing returns to the Green Revolution have been pointed out on this blog numerous times. Of course, you can only increase yields so far, and when you do, you face unintended consequences such as increased drawdown of aquifers, pollution dead zones and superweeds. Normal Borlaug himself warned against seeing his work as a magic "solution" that did more than buy time. Incidentally, at least part of that food price increase has been exacerbated by financial "innovation":
...[A]fter 1999 and 2000, when sections of the Glass-Steagall Act were repealed and President Bill Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act into law, investment banks and other financial actors began to bet on commodities as speculation, not as insurance. “Where we used to see something like 12% of the market made up of financial players, since deregulation, this number has now jumped to over 60%,” says Heidi Chow of the World Development Movement, a U.K.-based campaigning organization.

The statistics are impressive: the German NGO Foodwatch points out that investment in food commodities has jumped from $65 billion to $126 billion in the past five years. Perhaps a more revealing statistic is that speculative investment in these commodities in 2011 amounted to 20 times more than the total spent on agricultural aid by all countries combined.
Betting on Hunger: Is Financial Speculation to Blame for High Food Prices? (Time)

Instead, we need to "innovate" by deploying sustainable, agricultural farming techniques. Too bad the people actually doing this are barely staying afloat or only selling to wealthy patrons thanks to the "bigger is better" models of innovation promoted by people like Thiel. Farms with a million cows pumped full of whatever antibiotics are left and milked by robots are the model for the future promoted by the progress cultists, along with insect ranching and meat grown in vats. Progress!
"Think about what happens when someone in Silicon Valley builds a successful company and sells it. What do the founders do with that money? Under indefinite optimism, it unfolds like this":
  •     Founder doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to large bank.
  •     Bank doesn’t know what to do with the money. Gives it to portfolio of institutional investors in order to diversify.
  •     Institutional investors don’t know what to do with money. Give it to portfolio of stocks in order to diversify.
"Companies are told that they are evaluated on whether they generate money. So they try to generate free cash flows. If and when they do, the money goes back to investor on the top. And so on. What’s odd about this dynamic is that, at all stages, no one ever knows what to do with the money."

"10-year bonds are yielding about 2%. The expected inflation over the next decade is 2.6%. So if you invest in bonds then in real terms you’re expecting to lose 0.6% a year for a decade. This shouldn’t be surprising, because there’s no one in the system who has any idea what to do with the money."
This is in may ways the most amusing part of the speech, since finance was thought to be the one place where "innovation" was rampant in the first decade of the twentieth century. Of course, this pretty much impoverished everyone besides oligarchs like Mr. Thiel. And acknowledging that no one knows what to do with the money is interesting since we're constantly told that burdensome taxes are all that stands between us and prosperity. Corporations are constantly militating for lower (or even zero) taxes, and we are told to give the rich ever more money in the hopes that prosperity will trickle down to the rest of us (well, something is trickling down all over us...)

In fact, all that money goes into bubbles, which are constantly inflating and popping. It also goes to expenditure cascades meaning that the prices of things like cars and houses are so high that people can no longer afford them (since everyone is trying to maximize their profits by selling to a tiny sliver of insanely rich people)

Here's an idea for what to do with the money - rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and provide jobs for the unemployed. All this money is sloshing around the world and parked in tax havens even as we're told we can't afford Social Security.
"We have 100 times as many scientists as we did in 1920. If there’s less rapid progress now than in 1920 then the productivity per scientist is perhaps less than 1% of what it was in 1920."

"The Empire State Building was built in 15 months in 1932. It’s taken 12 years and counting to rebuild the World Trade Center."

"The Golden Gate Bridge was built in three-and-a-half years in the 1930s. It’s taken seven years to build an access road that costs more than the original bridge in real dollars."

"When people say that we need more engineers in the U.S., you have to start by acknowledging the fact that almost everybody who went into engineering did very badly in the last few decades with the exception of computer engineers. When I went to Stanford in the 1980s, it was a very bad idea for people to enter into mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, bioengineering, to say nothing of nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering, civil engineering, and aero/astro engineering."
Gee, maybe the low-hanging fruit has been harvested. Ya think? Notice how some of the largest symbols of innovation in America - the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge (and the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Great Plains Shelterbelt and ...) were built during the Great Depression under the so-called "socialist" president Franklin Roosevelt, the most leftist administration we've ever had in this country to date. The moon shot was initiated under Democrat John Kennedy (back when the highest tax bracket was 50 percent).

Compare that to today when all government spending is bad. Remember how Tea Party governors killed high-speed rail, the stuff that every other developed country in the world has and that China just built to be the fastest in the world? Remember how a Republican governor and presidential candidate favorite killed an infrastructure project in order to extract political revenge? Corruption plays a role here, too. And besides, we can't even afford to maintain the infrastructure we have now, much less build new.
While Democrats and Republicans traded charges yesterday over Gov. Chris Christie's decision to cancel the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) rail tunnel that would have been the nation's largest public works project, the bottom line is clear: No new rail tunnel will be built under the Hudson River for at least a decade, and the new tunnel will end up costing a lot more money when it is finally built.

A report issued by the nonpartisan U.S. General Accounting Office yesterday revived the debate over whether Christie cancelled the ARC project because he was worried that New Jersey would have cover [sic] billions of dollars in potential cost overruns or because he could avoid raising the gas tax by using billions of dollars originally earmarked for the tunnel to refinance the state's Transportation Trust Fund, as he did three months later.

"This was the most important transportation project of our time," said U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who requested the GAO study. "New Jerseyans who commute into New York City already face near daily struggles with an overburdened rail system and jammed highways, bridges, and tunnels. We are at capacity, and our only hope for relief in this decade was ARC. Construction had already started and thousands of workers were about to be hired when the governor killed the project. The future of New Jersey's commuters was sacrificed for the short-term political needs of the governor."

Christie, whose refusal of $3 billion in federal funds for the ARC Tunnel helped make him a national Republican folk hero, spurred GOP gubernatorial candidates to promise to turn down federal money for rail projects in California, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. He was still taking political credit for the decision in a speech to the George W. Bush Institute in New York City yesterday.
Tunnel to Nowhere: New Rail Tunnel At Least a Decade Away (NJSpotlight)

Oh, and by the way, about that scientist statistic, see When Scientists Give Up (NPR)
Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right — attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another. But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.

So, he's giving up on science.

And he's not alone. Federal funding for biomedical research has declined by more than 20 percent in the past decade. There are far more scientists competing for grants than there is money to support them. That crunch is forcing some people out of science altogether, either because they can't get research funding at all or, in Glomski's case, because the rat race has simply become too unpleasant.

Instead of helping society improve its defenses against deadly anthrax, he's starting a liquor distillery, Vitae Spirits. He's actually excited about that. It's a big challenge, and it allows him to pursue an idea with passion, rather than with resignation.

Meanwhile, Randen Patterson is not passionate about his post-science career as a grocery store proprietor...
And what of the lone bright spot of all of this stagnation, computers?
"Even if you look at the computer industry, there are some things that aren’t as healthy as you might think. On a number of measurements, you saw a deceleration in the last decade in the industry. If you look at labor employment: It went up 100% in the 1990s, and up 17% in the years since 2000. (If you ignore the recession, it’s gone up about 38% since 2003.) So it’s slower absolute growth, and much lower percentage growth."

"If you measured the market capitalizations of companies, Google and Amazon (the two big computer companies created in the late-nineties) are worth perhaps two or three times as all companies combined since the year 2000. If you look at it through labor or capital, there’s been some sort of strange deceleration."

"We have a large Computer Rust Belt that nobody likes to talk about. It’s companies like Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, and IBM. I think that the pattern will be to become commodities that no longer innovate. There are many companies that are on the cusp. Microsoft is probably close to the Computer Rust Belt. The company that’s shockingly and probably in the Computer Rust Belt is Apple. Is the iPhone 5, where you move the phone jack from the top of the phone to the bottom of the phone really something that should make us scream Hallelujah?"
This article is a good confirmation - Silicon Valley Has Officially Run Out Of Ideas. Apparently the most "disruptive" idea at this event was a bunch of Harvard Business School Grads with a business proposal to hire the rest of us technologically unemployed as butlers and servants for 99 bucks a month (dubbed "Alfred"). I swear I am not making this up. This is especially interesting since fancy widgets in phones has been used as the main counterpoint to declining living standards for the last forty years or so.

Notice how  the technological slowdown almost perfectly coincides with the rise of Neoliberalism and the subsequent decay of common social institutions, the gutting of the middle class, the bankrupting of governments, the financialization of the economy, and the rise of the corporate oligarchy.

Now, of course, Thiel (who has a new book coming out, of course) no doubt means to argue that all we need to do is get rid of burdens like government regulations and popular democracy (which he is openly hostile to), to unleash the god of innovation and all our problems will be solved.

But the alternative view - that there are diminishing marginal returns to technology and real resource limitations means that we need to seriously think about social arrangements and the fundamental underpinnings of our debt-based, highly unequal, eternal growth productivist economy. And that is something that powerful oligarchs like Thiel will do anything to make sure we don't think about, since if we do, people like Thiel and his ilk might find themselves bemoaning the lack of progress even as they are escorted onto the solar electric powered tumbrels.

Why Is Peter Thiel Pessimistic About Technological Innovation? (Dan Wang)

Friday, September 12, 2014

John Brunner on Fiction

I ran across this on io9 today, and since this blog is entitled The Hipcrime Vocab, it wouldn't feel right not to post it here:

Must Watch: John Brunner Breaks Down The Silliness Of Genre Categories (io9)

Progress and Morality

Last time we talked about how the economic idea of “progress” is implicitly wrapped up with morality in the modern conception of societies. I just happened to find this old link which reviews Thom Hartmann’s book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (which would have made a kick-ass title for a dystopian post-Peak Oil science fiction novel, but oh well…), and I think this excerpt from the review relevant to the topic:
“The story of the Toradjas tribe is a good example, and fairly typical. The Dutch had “conquered” the Celebes Islands (now known as Sulawesi), and there lived in the Poso district of these islands a hilltop-dwelling people known as the Toradjas. They grew a dry variety of rice, and hunted, gathered, and lived tribally. Their economy had no money or other means of exchange beyond social courtesy and obligation, and hunger was unknown to them.

They were quite happy with their lifestyle, which they had maintained even thousands of years before Holland first was occupied by dominators from Rome, and they had no particular interest in planting crops for export to Holland or in working for the Dutch lowland owners on their coffee plantations. “This situation was intolerable to the Dutch, who observed that under such circumstances development and progress were impossible; and unless something was done quickly these tribal people were bound to remain at the same level of primitive lifestyle.

“So in 1892, the Dutch governor sent in missionaries to destroy tribal culture. This effort, however, was a total failure. Even offering ‘free education’ in the mission schools for the Toradjas’ children wasn’t enough to convince them that they should give up their religion or way of life. They simply had no interest in buying goods from the Dutch-owned stores, or in planting and growing coffee or rice for the Dutch export business, or in worshipping the gods of the Dutch. Without cheap native labor, the local Dutch industries were hardly as profitable as they could be. “

After thirteen years of diligent effort by the church, the Dutch government implemented Plan B. They brought in the army, and forcibly moved the Toradjas from their ancestral lands on the hilltops and redeposited them in the lowlands. They took Toradjas men for slave labor (they called it ‘conscription’) and used them to build roads, then imposed a head tax on each of their citizens. In order to pay the tax, the Toradjas had to go to work in the coffee plantations, and by 1910 they were ‘converted,’ sending their children to the mission schools, buying western clothing and appliances, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol, and adopting Christianity.

Although their mortality rates had soared, and they’d exchanged the healthy, leisurely life that was lived by their ancestors for ten thousand years for one of frantic and grinding poverty, they were now, the Dutch government pronounced, ‘civilized’.”

I haven’t picked up a copy of the book even though it’s at my local used bookstore. It’s probably worth it, but from the reviews I have a major, major problem with the book.

The problem is his division into “older cultures” and “younger cultures” This binary way of categorizing cultures into simplistic buckets of “good” of “bad” is so culturally ignorant and naively simplistic that it ruins the entire book for me. The vast array of thousands of human cultures across time and space don’t fit neatly into these boxes. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of anthropology has to be balking at this. The fact is that there were many different ways that cultures have related to their environments and to each other, and these have existed side-by-side for millennia. The idea that we used to be in this perfect Eden and then came the fall with this monolithic “newer” culture (which one?) is straight out of Judeo-Christian thinking. Simplistic drivel like this drives me nuts:
“In the Native American Older Cultures (cooperative cultures), it’s perfectly acceptable (in fact, it’s desirable) to be tribally/genetically different, and to retain that separate identity….
Really? All Native American cultures are older cultures (older than what, exactly)? Is he aware that many large mammals were hunted to extinction by the Clovis People? Or that many native American cultures were centered around agriculture (corn, beans and squash) and built mounds to bury their leaders? What about the Anasazi of the Southwest whose civilization collapsed due to drought after building cities on the side of cliffs? What about the Mayans?
“Our Younger Culture is an absorptive one, eating everything in its path (as Malcolm X identified) and turning everything and everyone to not just its own use but, in particular, to the use of those who control it.”
Our "younger" culture? Which one is that? The Minoans? The Classical Greeks? The sixteenth century Dutch?
He compares the structure of the city-states of civilization with the structure of primitive tribes. “Tribes are characterized by five primary traits: (1) political independence; (2) egalitarian structure; (3) get their resources from renewable local sources; (4) have a unique sense of their own identity; (5) respect the identity of other tribes.”

“A member of a tribe is born into that tribe. The tribe defines his or her identity. Tribes do not evangelize (go out trying to get others to convert to their ways), and do not accept ‘converts’ or ‘new residents,’ and are convinced that their way of life, their stories of the world, and their gods are the best for them.”
All tribal cultures are characterized by those five traits. Really, all of them? Both the Celtic and Germanic peoples were once tribal cultures. Are they Older or Younger or both? There were no tribal cultures that took slaves for example? In fact, the Toradja themselves had slavery.

It’s maddeningly frustrating, because I so often see this tendency to lump all “primitive” cultures together into this simplistic “Noble Savage” idea of peace and harmonious living and make a simple binary comparison with our own unsustainable course. But given the vast majority of cultures throughout time, this naive view is just wrong and undermines the point. Yes, there is much to learn from the way other cultures dealt with their environment and each other, and yes there were cultures that lived more or less in harmony with their surroundings and had more egalitarian social structures. These are people like you and me and there is much to learn from them. But these sweeping generalizations just make the whole book impossible to take seriously on what is a very important subject.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Questioning Progress

Good article in the Atlantic Is 'Progress' Good for Humanity?
The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men—James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on—fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity—the attainment of our true potential as a species.

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too. Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: “So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?” or “you can’t stop progress!”

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

But what if we rethink the narrative of progress? What if we believe that the inventions in and after the Industrial Revolution have made some things better and some things worse? What if we adopt a more critical and skeptical attitude toward the values we’ve inherited from the past? Moreover, what if we write environmental factors back in to the story of progress? Suddenly, things begin to seem less rosy...
The article then lays out the fact that air and water is now poisonous, and the climate is changing. This is from a book on sustainability, so it doesn't even point out things like the statistic this week that someone takes there life every 40 seconds around the world. Progress! The author concludes:
When we take these trajectories into consideration, the Industrial Revolution starts to look like something less than an “undivided blessing.” It begins to look like, at best, a mixed blessing—one that resulted in technologies that have allowed many people to live longer, safer lives, but that has, simultaneously, destroyed global ecosystems, caused the extinction of many living species, facilitated rampant population growth, and wreaked havoc on climate systems, the effects of which will be an increase in droughts, floods, storms, and erratic weather patterns that threaten most global societies.

All of this is to say that the simple-minded narrative of progress needs to be rethought. This is not a new idea: In fact, critics of industrialization lived throughout the Industrial Revolution, even if their message was often drowned out by the clanking sounds of primitive engines.
This article, Is Progress Bad? is a critique of the article from the economics priesthood from a blog called Growth Economics, so you can imagine the biases here. Of course, the above article is tantamount to questioning God and the Pope in the fifteenth century, so of course the Cardinals of the economics profession must leap to the defense lest people begin to question the one true faith.

He argues that there is no assumption of moral progress in material progress, which I find rather laughable. Of course this is implied by the economics profession, even if they rarely phrase it that way. As the article points out, this assumption is implicit in economics. And he argues that future progress will fix all the problems caused by past progress:
What’s his real argument, then? Let me take a stab at summarizing it. After the Industrial Revolution, bad things happened in addition to good things. Caradonna thinks those bad things are particularly bad, and thinks we should give up some of the good things (gas-powered cars) in order to alleviate the bad things (global warming).

Okay. Great. I’m with you Prof. Caradonna. Seriously, I’m in for a carbon tax and expanded spending on alternative energy R-and-D. I want to drive around either an electric car, or one powered by hydrogen, or using gas produced by algae that actually pulls CO2 from the atmosphere. But the idea that economic growth – progress – is somehow the enemy of that goal is misguided. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: “To economic growth, the cause – and solution – to all of life’s problems”. Economic growth created the conditions that allowed us to alleviate evils like starvation and infant mortality while at the same time giving us more clothes, better housing, faster ways to get around, means of communication, Diet Coke, and gigantic-ass TV’s. It also bequeathed us technologies that heat up the atmosphere. And that sucks. But it sucks less than starving.
"The cause of and solution to all life's problems." Perhaps he does not realize that The Simpsons is a comedy, and that line is supposed to be a parody* Of course the narrative of progress is used to justify all sorts of things, from putting everything behind a fence and slapping a price tag on it (private property), unrestricted wealth growth at the top, extreme inequality, and productivism as the central feature of human existence.

To say that eternal growth and consumerism are going to actually help the environment is rather laughable. As Wikipedia put it, "Productivism or growthism is the belief that measurable economic productivity and growth are the purpose of human organization (e.g., work), and that 'more production is necessarily good'. Critiques of productivism center primarily on the limits to growth posed by a finite planet and extend into discussions of human procreation, the work ethic, and even alternative energy production." In fact, the critique is simply that growth is not going to solve those problems of alienation, environmental destruction, poverty, and social disintegration. In fact, it won't even solve hunger or lack of material resources, since it causes population to expand to the new level of resources.

* Some have argued that Adam Smith's term "invisible hand" was intended as parody.

Whither Earth's Birth Dearth?

Here's an old post, but I wanted to include it. This post from the View From Hell - Why People Used to Have Children appeared in a lot of places I wouldn't expect to see it mentioned - Marginal Revolution as well as an article on Quartz.

I had heard this explanation before - children used be an economic benefit, and now they are an economic burden. But this goes a little deeper.

Basically, there is a massive social transformation from a "traditional" society based around kinship groups and reciprocity, to an industrial one sustained by the nation-state and based around money transactions and wage labor. In a traditional society based around subsistence farming, children are a net economic benefit both as workers and to take care of aging parents. In a industrial society, they are a burden as they are not productive until they are older, and parents must pay for everything until that time. So the parents "produce" goods that the society needs (new worker bees), and must foot the bill.

In a traditional society, children are "owned" by the family - wider society butt out, thank you very much. In a post-agricultural industrial society, children are the property of the nation-state and must be turned into productive adults who fit into the industrial system. When we were initially transitioning into that industrial system, the burden for that transition was borne by the nation-state (since most families had little money) by requiring universal education and paying for it mainly by taxing land, which is how schools are still funded today. That made sense when land was productive and owned by businesses, but in a society based on home ownership, it does not work so well.

In any case, the government paid for mass education, which was yet another way capitalism is entirely a creation of governments and not the "free" market. The U.S. used the Prussian Educational system as a model to train children like Pavlov's dogs to sit still, be on time, accept discipline and obey authority, along with basic reading and writing. It banned child labor, and children became drags on their parents until adulthood, arbitrarily defined as age 18. Childrens' ability to work is entirely based on their academic training; their physical abilities are useless (we no longer have chimney sweeps). Thus, children are economically dead weight until they acquire all these high-level cognitive skills.

The children are then transformed (broken?) into the workers that the capitalists need and the soldiers that the government needs. The state has claims on workers for taxes and for military conscription. It may surprise some that the reason we don't have more children is because they are a collectivist good in our society that supposedly celebrates absolute individualism and lack of any social obligations to the wider society as the special sauce that makes capitalism work and creates prosperity. It just shows how the simplistic left/right narrative does not describe the world that we live in.

Now, we see that the economic burden of turning children into economically valuable productive adults has been shifted from business and the state, and onto the backs of the families and children themselves! Now "college is the new high school," and anyone who does not complete a graduate degree is blamed for their own poverty and unemployment. This has led to the stark class divisions of today - if mommy and daddy haven't been socking away tens of thousands of dollars since birth for your education past high school, get ready to either work in fast food or be a debt donkey the rest of your life. Education funding is either a lottery system (scholarships), military conscription, or based around the Matthew Principle - to those that have more will be given, but those who have little will find even that is taken away.

It's worth pointing out that in traditional societies, everyone used to work, and there was no concept of "employment" or "jobs". Work was something that everybody did, so the "employment rate pretty much included everybody. Today, "workers" are arbitrarily defined as 20-65, and yet we still have an unemployment crisis! Note how they keep dragging up the low end of that scale as education requirements keep ratcheting up (primarily to service the education-industrial complex, as most of this so-called education is useless busywork and jumping thorough arbitrary hoops)

Also not noted is the fact that infant mortality has declined, and that having 1-2 children in the past was as good as having none in the high mortality world after the Neolithic revolution.
But the fertility decline is not merely the product of a price effect - of people having fewer children because children are more costly. Children are not normal goods...or even inferior goods...they become not goods at all, but rather bundles of claims on their parents. ..Before the fertility decline, resources flowed from children to parents; after the transformation, resources flowed from parents to children.
In each country, before the demographic transition, children were essentially the property of their parents. Their labor could be used for the parents' good, and they were accustomed to strict and austere treatment. Parents had claims not only to their children's labor in childhood, but even to their wealth in adulthood. To put it crudely, marrying a wife meant buying a slave factory, and children were valuable slaves. 
After the transition, mediated by mass education, children were transubstantiated into persons. Their individual status increased, and parents no longer had a culturally recognized claim on their labor. Children's culturally supported entitlements increased, including not only food and clothing, but also study and play time. Their relationship with their parents became more egalitarian and friendly, their treatment less strict.  
But children do not exactly own themselves in the present situation: the government has claims on their future earnings, through taxation and other mandatory payments (and, increasingly, education loans). In essence, mass education is a communist transformation: individually-owned "goods" (children) are brought under national ownership, and returns from children flow to the country as a whole (through tax-based entitlement programs), rather than individually to their previous "owners." When farms are communally owned, production suffers and famine results; when children are communally "owned," fertility decline results.  
There is another, related shift in the direction of resource flow during this time: resources (including labor) stop flowing from wives to husbands, and instead flow from husbands to wives, as a result of Western-style female liberation. This trend is also a result of education, and amplifies the trend toward low fertility.  
So why did people used to have children? It's hard for us even to imagine, but children used to be valuable - they used to be much more like slaves or farm animals, which are both very valuable. They were also treated much more like slaves, with patriarchs (at least) maintaining distance from children...
Indeed, even in the early Industrial Revolution, children worked. We think of that as abnormal now, but in fact it is our own situation which is abnormal in a historical context. Of course children didn't do nasty, dirty and toxic stuff in an agricultural situation. The early Industrial Revolution apologist Andrew Ure referred to children as "lively elves:"
"I have visited many factories, both in Manchester and in the surrounding districts, during a period of several months, entering the spinning rooms, unexpectedly, and often alone, at different times of the day, and I never saw a single instance of corporal chastisement inflicted on a child, nor indeed did I ever see children in ill-humour. They seemed to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in the light play of their muscles,-enjoying the mobility natural to their age. The scene of industry, so far from exciting sad emotions in my mind, was always exhilarating. It was delightful to observe the nimbleness with which they pieced the broken ends, as the mule-carriage began to recede from the fixed roller-beam, and to see them at leisure, after a few seconds' exercise of their tiny fingers, to amuse themselves in any attitude they chose, till the stretch and winding-on were once more completed. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport, in which habit gave them a pleasing dexterity. Conscious of their skill, they were delighted to show it off to any stranger..."
Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufacturers, 1835

In a follow up, Children, Education and Status, the author writes:
[C]hildren were valuable in other ways, and mass education interfered with all of them, not just their economic contribution. To return to the central analogy, slaves are valuable for many reasons besides their ability to produce more than they consume: they may help with childcare, provide companionship, and serve as status goods (from the point of view of peers). The type of companionship slaves provide is relevant: they are low-status beings, and with their servile behavior they provide the owner with constant reminders that he is powerful and high-status. A slave of this type's mere presence represents a type of consumption on the part of the owner, similar to the consumption of entertainment. 
The practice of apprenticeship and child servitude suggests that many children even in complex societies contributed positive economic value at a young age. 
But there is another way in which children used to contribute: they gave a parent his status as a free adult, and marriage and children were the only path to free adulthood... 
In summary, children used to be:  
  • hard working and helpful, especially at the work of raising a large family;
  • self-sufficient at an early age;
  • submissive to adults;
  • the only path to adult status  
Education, specifically Western education promoting democratic values, interferes with children's work and their parents' expectations for their work. It makes them more dependent on their parents, and makes them less likely to be servile and submissive to parents. And education itself provides an alternate means of achieving adult status other than having children. In the presence of these conditions, the demand for children is apparently low. 
Now you might ask the question, which is better, and the article is silent on this point. I can see things either way. No doubt the treatment of children as little slaves led to a lot of mistreatment and abuse in some circumstances. Today, the state feels a right to intervene in situations of abuse and neglect, which surely prevents some of the more horrible situations that would have resulted in the past. On the other had, the invention of this period of "childhood" where kids are owned by the state, institutionalized, and economically non-productive has had negative consequences too. Now children are marketed to relentlessly to hector their parents to spend, and all adults are held up to as hopelessly out-of-date fuddy-duddies and objects of ridicule. No doubt this leads to infatilism of our culture and the celebration of childhood as somehow "special." Of course, slowing population growth is a good thing, but I wonder if this is the best way to accomplish that.

Of course, some people have lots of children no matter what the incentives. In this article from a ways back, Philip Longman makes the point that the people who buck the above economic calculus tend to be those reject the modern world such as religious cults and fundamentalists. And he echoes a common fear that we are disincentivizing the most educated people from having children at all with the ridiculous burdens we put on them - years of expensive education, chaotic work and school schedules, and no support for child care (in the U.S. anyway).
Some biologists now speculate that modern humans have created an environment in which the "fittest," or most successful, individuals are those who have few, if any, children. As more and more people find themselves living under urban conditions in which children no longer provide economic benefit to their parents, but rather are costly impediments to material success, people who are well adapted to this new environment will tend not to reproduce themselves. And many others who are not so successful will imitate them. 
So where will the children of the future come from? The answer may be from people who are at odds with the modern environment -- either those who don't understand the new rules of the game, which make large families an economic and social liability, or those who, out of religious or chauvinistic conviction, reject the game altogether. 
Today there is a strong correlation between religious conviction and high fertility. In the United States, for example, fully 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as compared to only 27 percent of those who seldom attend church. In Utah, where 69 percent of all residents are registered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, fertility rates are the highest in the nation. Utah annually produces 90 children for every 1,000 women of childbearing age. By comparison, Vermont -- the only state to send a socialist to Congress and the first to embrace gay civil unions -- produces only 49. 
Does this mean that the future belongs to those who believe they are (or who are in fact) commanded by a higher power to procreate? Based on current trends, the answer appears to be yes. Once, demographers believed that some law of human nature would prevent fertility rates from remaining below replacement level within any healthy population for more than brief periods. After all, don't we all carry the genes of our Neolithic ancestors, who one way or another managed to produce enough babies to sustain the race? Today, however, it has become clear that no law of nature ensures that human beings, living in free, developed societies, will create enough children to reproduce themselves. Japanese fertility rates have been below replacement levels since the mid-1950s, and the last time Europeans produced enough children to reproduce themselves was the mid-1970s. Yet modern institutions have yet to adapt to this new reality. 
Current demographic trends work against modernity in another way as well. Not only is the spread of urbanization and industrialization itself a major cause of falling fertility, it is also a major cause of so-called diseases of affluence, such as overeating, lack of exercise, and substance abuse, which leave a higher and higher percentage of the population stricken by chronic medical conditions. Those who reject modernity would thus seem to have an evolutionary advantage, whether they are clean-living Mormons or Muslims, or members of emerging sects and national movements that emphasize high birthrates and anti-materialism.
The problem is that even as modern societies demand more and more investment in human capital, this demand threatens its own supply. The clear tendency of economic development is toward a more knowledge-based, networked economy in which decision-making and responsibility are increasingly necessary at lower levels. In such economies, however, children often remain economically dependent on their parents well into their own childbearing years because it takes that long to acquire the panoply of technical skills, credentials, social understanding, and personal maturity that more and more jobs now require. For the same reason, many couples discover that by the time they feel they can afford children, they can no longer produce them, or must settle for just one or two. 
Meanwhile, even as aging societies become more and more dependent on the human capital parents provide, parents themselves get to keep less and less of the wealth they create by investing in their children. Employers make use of the skills parents endow their children with but offer parents no compensation. Governments also depend on parents to provide the next generation of taxpayers, but, with rare exception, give parents no greater benefits in old age than non-parents.
The Global Baby Bust (Foreign Affairs)

Indeed, the burdens of having children just keep rising, especially thanks to our winner-take-all social systems:
When the sociologist Marianne Cooper interviewed affluent Silicon Valley couples for her new book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” she was struck by the anxiety they expressed about their retirement prospects, and especially about how to provide their children with the skills, résumés and entrepreneurial personality traits they believe are now needed to succeed in a “winner-take-all” job market.
College-educated parents have increased the time they spend with their children at twice the rate of other Americans since the 1990s, much of it devoted to chauffeuring kids to games, camps and other activities. But these frenetic schedules are stressful and may interfere with the time couples have to spend alone, which is important to marital quality. This could be dangerous down the road, because divorce rates among couples over 50 have more than doubled since 1990, and because the protective factor of high education is not as great in late-life divorces. According to Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, sociologists at Bowling Green State University, the divorce rates of college graduates over 50 are almost as high as those of high school graduates.
The New Instability (NYT)
The rising cost of children is a significant factor in the broad decline of fertility rates across the industrialized world, and one reason why government policies aimed at encouraging women to have more babies have been largely unsuccessful. Since 1960, Canada’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman can expect to have over her lifetime—has dropped from 3.81 per woman to 1.63. “If economic factors were decisive, no one in modern societies would have any children,” wrote American demographer Kingsley Davis in the forward of The Cost of Children in the Urban United States, the seminal 1976 study that first pegged the cost of raising a child to 18 at three times the average middle-class income. That has only gone up as child-related expenses have risen faster than both wages and inflation. According to the World Values Survey, conducted by social scientists, Canadians typically say they want one more child than they actually end up having, with money as the top reason for the difference.
Million-dollar babies: The cost of raising a child (Today's Parent)

See also The High Cost of Childbirth…Only in America (AllGov)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Civilization is for Wimps

Modern civilization seems to be a product of smaller muscles and lower testosterone. In other words, civilization is  product of less masculinity. No wonder men are in crisis.

Humans Sacrificed Brawn for Brains, Study Suggests (Live Science)
"The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament," said lead author Robert Cieri, a biology graduate student at the University of Utah who began this work as a senior at Duke University. 
Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to Duke anthropologist Steven Churchill, who supervised Cieri's work on a senior honors thesis that grew to become this 24-page journal article three years later. What they can't tell from the bones is whether these humans had less testosterone in circulation, or fewer receptors for the hormone. 
In a classic study of Siberian foxes, animals that were less wary and less aggressive toward humans took on a different, more juvenile appearance and behavior after several generations of selective breeding. 
"If we're seeing a process that leads to these changes in other animals, it might help explain who we are and how we got to be this way," said Hare, who also studies differences between our closest ape relatives -- aggressive chimpanzees and mellow, free-loving bonobos. 
Those two apes develop differently, Hare said, and they respond to social stress differently. Chimpanzee males experience a strong rise in testosterone during puberty, but bonobos do not. When stressed, the bonobos don't produce more testosterone, as chimps do, but they do produce more cortisol, the stress hormone. 
Their social interactions are profoundly different and, relevant to this finding, their faces are different, too. "It's very hard to find a brow-ridge in a bonobo," Hare said. 
The trend that emerged was toward a reduction in the brow ridge and a shortening of the upper face, traits which generally reflect a reduction in the action of testosterone. 
There are a lot of theories about why, after 150,000 years of existence, humans suddenly leapt forward in technology. Around 50,000 years ago, there is widespread evidence of producing bone and antler tools, heat-treated and flaked flint, projectile weapons, grindstones, fishing and birding equipment and a command of fire. Was this driven by a brain mutation, cooked foods, the advent of language or just population density? 
The Duke study argues that living together and cooperating put a premium on agreeableness and lowered aggression and that, in turn, led to changed faces and more cultural exchange. 
"If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they'd have to be tolerant of each other," Cieri said. "The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another."
Natural Selection For Less Aggression Enabled Complex Societies (FuturePundit)

Society bloomed with gentler personalities, more feminine faces: Technology boom 50,000 years ago correlated with less testosterone (Science Daily)

This is consistent with humans as a domesticated species. In my opinion, this is the central reason why Pinker's thesis about declining violence took place.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Who Was Ned Ludd?

Excellent article on Vice Motherboard about the Luddites: You've Got Luddites All Wrong. The article points out that the term "Luddite" is almost universally used today as a smear term to mean "technophobe" - someone who is afraid of, inept at, or fundamentally opposed to the use of any new technology. It also notes that use of the term has spiked along with new technology.

But the actual Luddites weren't that at all. They were a guerrilla labor movement opposed to the destructive effects of technology on the British working classes and society in general. The machines of the time produced inferior goods with less workers, and the effects on the workers' livelihoods were simply brushed aside.

And the Luddites weren't wrong - wages and workings conditions fell until at least the 1850's. The Luddite revolt was four decades prior to that 1811-1817. So an entire generation of workers was thrown under the bus.

The revolt was the only way to address these concerns in England where wealthy property owners controlled the political apparatus. As I always point out, it was never a question of whether the new technology would be deployed of not - that was simply a response to increasing surplus from colonial endeavors (and later fossil fuels). The question was how that would be integrated into society and who benefited from it. We're still living with the results.
To the extent that we're made to conceive of the actual Luddites—19th century textile workers who smashed machines in protest of the disruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution—we have remembered them as a lot of dim malcontents who bashed technology in factories because they were afraid of the encroaching modern world. Luddism is always portrayed as a knee-jerk reaction to technology; a brash, unthinking recoil.
But far from this conception of doddering conservatives who blindly smashed gadgets they didn't understand, the Luddites were actually well-organized guerrilla activists who fought a pointed and trenchant battle to protect their livelihoods.

"Luddism," the sociologist Donald MacKenzie writes, "was neither mindless, nor completely irrational, nor completely unsuccessful." [...] And, there's ample evidence that, contrary to common perception, their tactics were, for a while at least, calculated, well-planned, and rather effective.

"[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring," Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology, citing the work of influential historian Lewis Coser. But "their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a 'nuisance value'. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers."

The Luddites weren't technophobes, then. They were labor strategists...The Luddites' acts of sabotage were enormously successful in drawing attention to the plight of the skilled tradesman, who faced obsolescence before the mechanizing powers of the Industrial Revolution, and they enjoyed widespread support from their communities. A specific law making machine wrecking punishable by death had to be passed in Parliament, and, according to [Historian Eric] Hobsbawm, a force of 12,000 troops were dispatched to put the movement down by force, wherever necessary.
The article concludes by pointing out that we are in a very similar situation today with new forms of technology displacing jobs and livelihoods, the benefits flowing exclusively to the wealthy, and the negative consequences to workers being dismissed and ignored wholesale by a political apparatus owned and controlled by the wealthy.

Thus, Luddites are relevant once again. If you are a Luddite you are not opposed to new technology per se. You are not a technophobe. Rather, you are opposed to the destructive effects of technology on society and overall human well being. You want technology to be deployed in a life-affirming way, not one that grinds us down even more.You want the end result of technology to be human flourishing, rather than turning humans into unwilling mechanical slaves of a technological agenda designed around profit.

That's why I talk about things like shorter work weeks, universal basic income, distributed ownership, regulations and the like. I do it because I'm a Luddite and proud of it.
 Luddites should remind us that we need good policies to smooth the road ahead, so we don't strand our skilled workforce when robots and algorithms usurp their employment. Nearly half the world's jobs are poised to fall to automation, remember, and only the rich currently stand to benefit.

Which is to say, stop calling people who caution about the deleterious effects of Google Glass 'Luddites'. Stop applying the label to anyone who hates social media. Stop thinking of Luddites as dopey old-timers who get frustrated that they can't program the DVR. Instead, perhaps, step away from the scolding modern mythology, and ask a different kind of question:

Are you a fierce labor activist, willing to risk life and limb to destroy the mechanical implements of your impending poverty, to protest the loss of your livelihood? Then you might actually be a Luddite, according to history. And there may be more of you out there than you think.
See also Canut Revolts (Wikipedia), a similar movement in France 1831-1848, and the Petroleum Revolution (Wikipedia) in Spain in 1873. Ever heard of them? Probably not, because much of the history of capitalism has vanished down the memory hole in favor of the triumphalist propaganda of the economics profession. In each case, the government came in to put down workers on behalf of the owners. Had that not happened, we would still be enjoying the fruits of increased productivity, just under a very different political regime and distribution of wealth/ownership. So much for the "free" market.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Where the 40-Hour Week Came From

A tie-in with the previous post:
“Seven days,” wrote Witold Rybczynski in the August 1991 issue of The Atlantic, “is not natural because no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.” The year marks one revolution of the Earth around the sun.  Months, supposedly, mark the time between full moons.  The seven-day week, however, is completely man-made.

If it’s man-made, can’t man unmake it? For all the talk of how freeing it’d be to shave a day or two off the five-day workweek, little attention has been paid to where the weekly calendar came from. Understanding the sometimes arbitrary origins of the modern workweek might inform the movement to shorten it.

The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week.  (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born.

The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries:

    In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.

Some 19th-century Britons used the week's seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of “Saint Monday,” in which workers would skip work to recover from Sunday's gallivanting, emerged. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them a half-day on Saturday in exchange for guaranteed attendance at work on Monday.
Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From (The Atlantic) Anyone who had been in rush-hour traffic knows the idiocy of maintaining this system. Yet another example of how our dysfunctional social systems lead to waste and inefficiency of precious irreplaceable resources. See also How the Industrial Revolution Ended Naps (Vice)
The Industrial Revolution was a pivotal moment in the history of labor, marking the turning point when humanity began to shift from a farming and handicrafts based economy, to one of mass manufacturing and production. And while the changes in our society were obviously monumental (to put it mildly), heralding the way for stuff like conveyor belts and factory life, it’s also worth reflecting on how those sudden changes profoundly affected the way humans sleep.

Prior to the 18th century much of humanity used to have two distinct resting periods where farmers and workers caught up on some sleep, versus today's solid eight hours of sleep a night in the United States. The two sleeps of the past are called 'segmented sleeping' in today’s terms, and were often referred to in Europe as "first sleep" and "second sleep"[...]

Before the 18th century, night was a pretty scary time for most people, even the rich, who could only afford to buy light-producing objects such as candles. But as light technology became more prevalent, and evening activities more common—up until the 17th century, most people out at night were either drunk or looking for prostitutes, according to the paper—we began to change our sleeping patterns to suit our new access to later hours.

It didn't happen overnight, either. Just as the Industrial Revolution actually took several centuries to completely unfold, it was really only until the 1920s when references to first and second sleep dried up. And nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that eight hours of sleep is what’s healthy, with segmented sleep rarely mentioned in the US except in reference to the Spanish siesta.

The thing is, our bodies aren't built for sleeping in eight hour blocks. For example, Dr. Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist, experimented by removing artificial light from the equation of test subjects—that meant no smart phones, laptops, or even light bulbs for 14 hours a day. At first there wasn’t any change, but after several weeks of experimentation the Wehr's subjects ended up reverting to the first and second sleep pattern that’s been around at least since Homer.
Seven day weeks? Eight solid hours of sleep? Why are we living in these profoundly unnatural ways? Is there any really practical reason for it? Talk about social inertia!

Why are we still working 40 hours a week?

There is a growing body of evidence that shorter work weeks actually lead to more productive employees.

Right now, the US seems to value long work weeks for the sake of long work weeks. We put in more time at the office than other Western nations, but with less to show for it than one would hope. According to Melissa Dahl, writing in New York Magazine, "The US is one of the most productive nations on the planet, second only to Luxembourg, but Americans work almost 20% more hours than individuals in Luxembourg. We're working longer days, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're achieving more."

An earlier report found that there was little correlation between hours worked, productivity, and wages. Writing in MarketWatch, Quentin Fortrell calculates that Germany works almost 45% fewer annual hours than Greece, but is 70% more productive, while annual German salaries are higher. Reducing work hours has also reduced unemployment, he says, noting that "countries with the largest reduction in work hours had the largest increase in employment rates since the Great Recession".
The shorter work week is an idea that both corporate fat cats and tree-hugging environmentalists can love. Billionaires Carlos Slim and Larry Page have spoken publicly in support of shorter weeks, while CNBC cites a recent survey showing "that more than 69% of millionaires surveyed (those with investible assets of $1 million or more) said they believed the four-day work week is a 'valid idea'."

At the same time, closing down office car parks for an extra day a week has tremendous environmental impacts, according to Lynn Stuart Parramore writing in AlterNet, due to fewer commuting journeys. She also points out that less time in the office means less time sitting, which has been linked to health risks, and more time to tend to health problems that may go ignored in a typical 40-hour work week. "For many Americans, going to see a doctor involves sneaking off in the middle of the workday, because there's no time outside of work to do it. Ironically, they probably need the doctor more because they spend so much time in the office."

And of course, it's just better for overall morale, which is a boost to both employees and employers, who will have to deal with less turnover and a better motivated workforce.
Should the US adopt a shorter working week? (BBC)

5 Reasons It’s Time for the 4-Day Work Week (Alternet)

At Work, Every Friday Should Be a Summer Friday (NYMag)

Here's an idea, how about we go back to the 40-hour work week? The "40-Hour" Workweek Is Actually Longer -- Full-time U.S. workers, on average, report working 47 hours weekly (Gallup)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Limits to Growth Was Right

Three good ones from The Guardian.

The first one speaks for itself and tells us something people paying attention already knew - that the "standard run" predictions of the Limits to Growth study are playing out, and according to that model things start going pear-shaped sometime between 2015 and 2020. According to that model, population growth peaks in 2030.

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse

The original Limits to Growth can be found here:

This one does a good job of summing up the Neoliberal push to have a minimalist state, and how that actually results in corporations and banks becoming dependent upon the state to subsidize their activities while at the same time demonizing "scroungers" who turn to the state for aid:
Socialism lives in Britain, but only for the rich: the rules of capitalism are for the rest of us. The ideology of the modern establishment, of course, abhors the state. The state is framed as an obstacle to innovation, a destroyer of initiative, a block that needs to be chipped away to allow free enterprise to flourish. "I think that smaller-scale governments, more freedom for business to exist and to operate – that is the right kind of direction for me," says Simon Walker, the head of the Institute of Directors. For him, the state should be stripped to a "residual government functioning of maintaining law and order, enforcing contracts". Mainstream politicians don't generally talk in such stark terms, but when the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg demands "a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of big government", the echo is evident.

And yet, when the financial system went into meltdown in 2008, it was not expected to stand on its own two feet, or to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Instead, it was saved by the state, becoming Britain's most lavished benefit claimant. More than £1tn of public money was poured into the banks following the financial collapse. The emergency package came with few government-imposed conditions and with little calling to account. "The urge to punish all bankers has gone far enough," declared a piece in the Financial Times just six months after the crisis began. But if there was ever such an "urge" on the part of government, it was never acted on. In 2012, 2,714 British bankers were paid more than €1m – 12 times as many as any other EU country. When the EU unveiled proposals in 2012 to limit bonuses to either one or two years' salary with the say-so of shareholders, there was fury in the City. Luckily, their friends in high office were there to rescue their bonuses: at the British taxpayers' expense, the Treasury took to the European Court to challenge the proposals. The entire British government demonstrated, not for the first time, that it was one giant lobbying operation for the City of London. Between 2011 and 2013, bank lending fell in more than 80% of Britain's 120 postcode areas, helping to stifle economic recovery. Banks may have been enjoyed state aid on an unprecedented scale, but their bad behaviour just got worse – and yet they suffered no retribution.

Contrast this with the fate of the unemployed, including those thrown out of work as a result of the actions of bailed-out bankers. In the austerity programme that followed the financial crisis, state support for those at the bottom of society has been eroded. The support that remains is given withstringent conditions attached. "Benefit sanctions" are temporary suspensions of benefits, often for the most spurious or arbitrary reasons. According to the government's figures, 860,000 benefit claimants were sanctioned between June 2012 and June 2013, a jump of 360,000 from a year earlier. According to the Trussell Trust, the biggest single provider of food banks, more than half of recipients were dependent on handouts owing to cuts or sanctions to their benefits.

Much of Britain's public sector has now become a funding stream for profiteering companies. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), around half of the £187bn spent by the public sector on goods and services now goes on private contractors...
It's Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us in Britain

And finally, George Monbiot takes on Neoliberalism:
Today the dominant narrative is that of market fundamentalism, widely known in Europe as neoliberalism. The story it tells is that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. The less the state regulates and taxes us, the better off we will be. Public services should be privatised, public spending should be cut, and business should be freed from social control. In countries such as the UK and the US, this story has shaped our norms and values for around 35 years: since Thatcher and Reagan came to power. It is rapidly colonising the rest of the world.

[author of What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society Paul] Verhaeghe points out that neoliberalism draws on the ancient Greek idea that our ethics are innate (and governed by a state of nature it calls the market) and on the Christian idea that humankind is inherently selfish and acquisitive. Rather than seeking to suppress these characteristics, neoliberalism celebrates them: it claims that unrestricted competition, driven by self-interest, leads to innovation and economic growth, enhancing the welfare of all.

At the heart of this story is the notion of merit. Untrammelled competition rewards people who have talent, work hard, and innovate. It breaks down hierarchies and creates a world of opportunity and mobility.

The reality is rather different. Even at the beginning of the process, when markets are first deregulated, we do not start with equal opportunities. Some people are a long way down the track before the starting gun is fired. This is how the Russian oligarchs managed to acquire such wealth when the Soviet Union broke up. They weren’t, on the whole, the most talented, hardworking or innovative people, but those with the fewest scruples, the most thugs, and the best contacts – often in the KGB.

Even when outcomes are based on talent and hard work, they don’t stay that way for long. Once the first generation of liberated entrepreneurs has made its money, the initial meritocracy is replaced by a new elite, which insulates its children from competition by inheritance and the best education money can buy. Where market fundamentalism has been most fiercely applied – in countries like the US and UK – social mobility has greatly declined.
Sick of this market-driven world? You should be

Some good comments on that last one:

I live an almost possession-free, stripped back kind of life. But I experience my life as 'pure' and simple, in the sense that I feel attached to life, itself, in its purest condition, to being alive, to people, the air around me, thought, movement, the living world - rather than things.

I always bear in mind two cliched sayings: 'you can't take it with you' and 'life isn't a rehearsal". It seems to me that experiencing life through objects is sort of delaying the moment when you just - are.

The only way to describe this is, I suppose (to me, anyhow) - a vivid warm sky, green fields, lots of trees, open fields, simple paths - and oneself in that simple state of a tiny dot in the middle of the great landscape that is nature.

I am romanticising, perhaps. Sure. In fact I rarely get into the country. But that simplicity exists in my mind as 'who I am'.

Money, TVs, objects - stuff - I feel as though I left all that behind when I was young and ignorant, in my youth. It's completely irrelevant, to me, to have things. What's the point? I'm only going to die and it will all stay behind, representing me, when I have actually gone. Well - those things would not represent me, not at all.


Of interest, one of the main sources of the ideas of open borders for trade, etc – i.e. the neolib model – have their roots in Mongol society & empire of the 13th – 15th centuries. Prior to this, the Western model was feudalism, where estates were expected to be totally self-sufficient and with no external trade, other than to purchase ostentation to the glory of the Lord of the manor or the greater glory of Mother Church. So strange to say, as much as Thatcher & Reagan, we can also point the finger at Ghengis Khan, as anyone!


[B]efore the almighty dollar became king, people used to help each other without thought, partly because they had to, but also because there was a greater sense of "we are all in the same boat". communities worked together because they saw themselves as a group and not just individuals. 30 years ago one would know the names of every family living in the same block, and most off all the first names (an indicator of community spirit). these days, you'd be lucky if you know your neighbours names in most capital cities. history is full of examples of how this self-centered thinking, promoted by Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, designed specifically to sell market products to individuals, has altered the idea of community into that of individualism, a trend that feeds into the rampant neoliberalism sweeping the world today. but I digress...

Okay, I can buy an iPad and a telly, if I want. Great.

But I can't boil water with iPads. The privatised and mostly unregulated energy markets - those are really open to new competitors, aren't they? Competition just keeps pushing down my bills, doesn't it?

I can't live in an iPad either. The deregulation of landlords means I'm paying less rent than ever before, right? And the neoliberals seems quite happy to intervene in markets in order to bail out banks or 'Help to Buy' overpriced houses, so I'm sure they know what they're doing when they treble house prices in fifteen years and leave me with no alternative but to rent until retirement.

Look how well the 'market' in higher education works, with almost all universities charging 9k a year! Look how much return our young people are getting from their mortgage-sized 'investment' in skills! Graduate jobs today - with unregulated businesses offering zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships - are of course far better than the manufacturing or manual work available in years gone by.

In the last 35 years of market-based ideology living standards for the majority have fallen. I'd trade in my iPad for a final-salary pension or a house costing 3x salary in a heartbeat. My iPad mostly sits in the corner of the room in a shared house I pay a fortune to rent, unused.

    The only distinction between the two is that capitalism, even with all it's faults, has given even those in the bottom more prosperity than any other model.

And more mental illness.

I'm not going to argue with you about the level of "prosperity" but like George I just think there is too high a price to pay. You can't simply be "leaving aside all the faults of capitalism". They have to be taken into account. You're just trotting out the successful propaganda of the neo-liberals - " never mind anything else, show me the money"

Personally I don't strive too hard to make money and acquire possessions - I have lots of time off and do things like cooking and growing veg that clearly are not "efficient" in terms of time and money. But I think I'm happier that way and I find it really odd that people dismiss a slower less impact full way of life out of hand.

Personally I'll take sanity over the rat race any day, but I'd be happier if more people did the same, not just for their own sakes but because (IMHO) a society that reflects values such as sharing, conservation, taking time to do things properly, making time to talk to people, helping others etc etc makes for happier citizens.

It might be cheap oil that gave prosperity to the masses. We'll find out how good capitalism really is when it starts running out.

Unfortunately we are all victims of propoganda. The fact is that neoliberalism is rife with contradictions. Its proponents eulogize the free market whilst ensuring that the state enforces the powers of monopolies. The state has expanded considerably since the onslaught of neoliberal ideas. The problem is that this expansion has not been for the general benefit of society. Monbiot gives some examples of the nature of that expansion above.

    Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers.

The assessment and monitoring of individuals is most often directed by or enforced by the state. The contradiction is that neoliberalism would not exist without the support of large strong states. But these are strong states that force their populations to acquiesce to the powers of the market and uphold the short term gains of a select group of individuals at the expense of wider society and the long term future of humanity.

This is only one example of the contradictions inherent to neoliberalism and it is why it makes it so difficult to fight. It is hard to come up with a simple rallying cry - although Death to the Market would do me.