Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Space Bats Redux

The Archdruid Report is holding a second short story contest, so I thought I’d give it another shot. Below is my entry. I hope readers will enjoy, or at least tolerate, this foray into short fiction. Tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled programming.



After the Deluge

When Sebastian Cole was a boy he once saw a picture of the earth from space. It was old and crumbling, a copy of a copy of copy from back through the mists of time that had been preserved somehow. The first time he saw it he thought it was a picture made by God himself, because only God could see the earth that way. God must have bequeathed this image to the human race, he thought, along with His revelation, so that we could see the earth from God's vantage point, one orb suspended in the lonely blackness of infinite space. Upon seeing it, we would realize that the earth was finite, with clear bounds and limits and how dependent we all were upon His grace and kindness for our preservation.

For some reason that image came to his mind as he stood on the quay watching the emaciated workers unload cargo from the hold of the Bounty. A traditional Chinese saying went, 'Shanghai is heaven for the rich, hell for the poor,’ but Cole had seen enough of the world to know that such a saying applied everywhere. The coolies were a portion of the 80 million people who had been displaced by the ongoing submergence of the Yangtze river delta. The city was inundated with climate refugees from all over the coasts of South China. In the age of expansion, the global population kept moving to the coastal cities which is exactly the opposite of where they should have been going given the realities of the climate. Cole boarded the ferry to take him to his quarters in the city.

Shanghai's skyline was still dominated by the soaring towers of the Pudong district which emerged from the seas district soaring to the heavens. Cole often wondered, as did many others no doubt, how mankind was able to construct such things. The dams and flood barriers built generations ago were still not enough to stop the rising seas or relentless storm surges from the more frequent and forceful typhoons. Cole thought of the irony of the city's name, which in Chinese meant 'above the water.' It had once been home to twenty five million people. Now with less than half that number, the entrepot city it was still among the largest cities in the world, in part due to the new age of sail.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Economic Reform?

These articles are getting some circulation. Are these a sign that people are starting to see the need for economic reform? We'll see.
The vast majority of us were able to get degrees in economics without ever reading a single paper on environmental economics or encountering natural capital as an argument in the production functions we studied. We did hear about Pigouvian taxes of course – and so figured the problem had been solved…

Environmental economists have long modified growth models to account for the role of the environment, thus revisiting the conditions that ensure growth, whether sustainable or sustained....As a result, environmental economists tend not to talk about economic growth per se, but about sustainable economic growth. When macroeconomists refer to sustainable growth, however, they usually mean sustained growth. When growth economists study the role of externalities in the growth process they almost exclusively refer to technological and knowledge externalities, and generally ignore environmental ones, even though the latter are likely to become largely more relevant in the coming decades. Even social capital, a relative newcomer in economics, appears better integrated into the growth literature.

Why such disregard for an issue that epitomises market failures from externalities, common property issues, and whose importance in both growth processes and human well-being is well documented? Sheer ignorance, likely – or a vague notion that innovation will come to the rescue. But why would markets generate the technology to solve a problem that combines both knowledge and environmental externalities?
Here is a plea then for an urgent change in the economics curriculum, at both introductory and advanced levels. Growth chapters in today’s macroeconomics textbooks make no reference to the environment – whether as an input into the production function or as a limiting factor affecting the productivity of human or physical capital.

What is needed is not simply that more environmental economics be offered, but rather that the macroeconomics courses teach that natural capital is a key input into production processes, and that the environment – through massive mismanagement and a chronic failure to apply the basic principles of economics – has now become a serious macroeconomic problem, one that requires a profound and dramatic change in our model of growth. The development model of the industrial revolution (‘grow now and clean up later’) partly worked for a world of 1.5 million people; it simply won’t do for a global population approaching 9 billion.
Greening Economics: It is time (VoxEU)
So both John Cochrane and Martin Wolf are advocating 100% reserve banking. If these two agree on anything, it’s worth taking seriously! (It’s pretty amazing how advocates for narrow banking come from across the political spectrum.) We have some thoughts on banking and private money creation, but you’ll have to read our book to figure out what they are.

Instead, we wanted to provide some history behind the idea. One of the greatest economists of the 20th century (indeed, in our view, perhaps the greatest), Irving Fisher was a strong supporter of the so-called Chicago Plan which would implement 100% reserve banking. Here is a link to the one of the original documents from 1939. The Chicago Plan economists were living in the shadow of the Great Depression, and it had a very strong influence on their thinking.

Some of the document is a bit hard to get through, but we recommend starting on page 14 where the section entitled “The Fractional Reserve System” begins. The economists pulled no punches:

“A chief loose screw in our present American money and banking system is the requirement of only fractional reserves behind demand deposits. Fractional reserves give our thousands of commercial banks power to increase or decrease the volume of our circulating medium by increasing or decreasing bank loans and investments. The banks thus exercise what has always, and justly, been considered a prerogative of sovereign power. As each bank exercises this power independently without any centralized control, the resulting changes in the volume of the circulating medium are largely haphazard. This situation is a most important factor in booms and depressions.
100% Reserve Banking — The History (House of Debt)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Theory of the No Leisure Class

In Post-Industrious Society: Why Work Time will not Disappear for our Grandchildren, researchers from Oxford's Centre for Time Use Research argue that there has been a radical shift in the relationship between leisure, work and income. Where once leisure time was a mark of affluence, now it is a marker for poverty. The richer you are, the more likely you are to work long hours; while the poorer you are, the fewer hours you are likely to work every week.

The researchers theorise multiple causes for this. Poor people are more likely to be underemployed and unable to get the work-hours they want (and need) to support themselves. Rich people are likely to work in jobs that disproportionately advance and reward workers who put in overtime, so a 10% increase in hours worked generates more than 10% in expected career-gains.

They also claim that rich workers are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, but I'm skeptical of this -- I think that relative to unskilled workers doing at-will 0-hours temp work whose every move is constrained and scripted by their employers, this is probably true, but I don't think that the white-collar world is producing a lot of people who think that their work is meaningful and rewarding.
Having leisure time is now a marker for poverty, not riches (BoingBoing)
As I have written before, the case for working less is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.

But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:

Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic interests.

Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in turn requires that they work more.

Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.

Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.

Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.

Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential. Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend at work.

Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.

The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.
Why Are We Still Working So Hard? (Naked Capitalism)

Jared Diamond on Collapse


So what makes humans so seemingly special? Until pretty recently, we weren’t. All the way up to 80,000 years ago, we were just “glorified chimpanzees,” in Diamond’s words. But then, something changed. Diamond calls it the “Great Leap Forward.” “The first art appears, necklaces, pierced ostrich shells,” he says. “There’s rapid invention of tools, implying that even though our brains had been big for hundreds of thousands of years, we were not doing much interesting with these big brains—at least nothing that showed up preserved in the fossil record.”

We’re still not sure what brought on the Great Leap Forward. There wasn’t any big environmental change that drove us to adapt; all this happened in the middle of an Ice Age. Diamond’s hypothesis is that it was the development and perfection of spoken language that catapulted us forward, making possible teamwork, collaboration, planning, long-distance trade, and much more. Whether for lack of vocal capacity, brain development, or some other reason, chimps never made this leap. “A baby chimpanzee that was brought up in the home of a clinical psychologist couple, along with their baby, by age two, the chimpanzee could pronounce only four consonants and vowels, and it never got better,” says Diamond. “But if all you can say is, bi, ba, di, do, that doesn’t get you Shakespeare, and it also doesn’t let you discuss how to construct atomic bombs and bows and arrows.”

In this view, the downstream consequences of language acquisition are, basically, everything that stands out about human civilization. That ranges from the highly beneficial—the dramatic growth in life expectancy—to the mixed: technologies that have significant benefits but also huge costs (like, say, devices to exploit fossil fuels for energy). And most of all, it includes environmental despoilment and resource depletion. “At present, we, humans, are operating worldwide on a nonsustainable economy,” Diamond says. “We’re exploiting resources, water, energy sources, fisheries, forests at a rate such that most of these resources will get seriously depleted within a few decades.”

As a result, Diamond believes that our big brains are now setting us up for a major fall—a Great Leap Backward, if you will. “We are now reversing our progress much more rapidly than we created it,” writes Diamond in the new The Third Chimpanzee. “Our power threatens our own existence.”In this view, the downstream consequences of language acquisition are, basically, everything that stands out about human civilization. That ranges from the highly beneficial—the dramatic growth in life expectancy—to the mixed: technologies that have significant benefits but also huge costs (like, say, devices to exploit fossil fuels for energy). And most of all, it includes environmental despoilment and resource depletion. “At present, we, humans, are operating worldwide on a nonsustainable economy,” Diamond says. “We’re exploiting resources, water, energy sources, fisheries, forests at a rate such that most of these resources will get seriously depleted within a few decades.”

In our interview, host Indre Viskontas asked Diamond where he thought humanity would be 100 years from now. What’s striking is that he wasn’t positive that the modern world, as we know it, would be around at all. It all depends, he says, on where we are at 2050:
Either by the year 2050 we’ve succeeded in developing a sustainable economy, in which case we can then ask your question about 100 years from now, because there will be 100 years from now; or by 2050 we’ve failed to develop a sustainable economy, which means that there will no longer be first world living conditions, and there either won’t be humans 100 years from now, or those humans 100 years from now will have lifestyles similar of those of Cro-Magnons 40,000 years ago, because we’ve already stripped away the surface copper and the surface iron. If we knock ourselves out of the first world, we’re not going to be able to rebuild a first world.
Jared Diamond: We Could Be Living in a New Stone Age by 2114 (Climate Desk) That kind of reminds me of Einstein's famous quote, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The New Great Divergence


For some reason I was thinking a while back about the fact that decades ago, there was not this huge divergence of the United States from the rest of the wealthy industrialized world. America is the richest country in the world, the story went, and everybody wanted to be American.

Whether that was true or not, once upon a time people looked to Americans when they wanted to point to the world's highest standard of living. Not any more. Now America's middle classes are falling behind the rest of the world. And while  America is the best place to be rich, it's the worst place to be poor:
The findings are striking because the most commonly cited economic statistics — such as per capita gross domestic product — continue to show that the United States has maintained its lead as the world’s richest large country. But those numbers are averages, which do not capture the distribution of income. With a big share of recent income gains in this country flowing to a relatively small slice of high-earning households, most Americans are not keeping pace with their counterparts around the world.

“The idea that the median American has so much more income than the middle class in all other parts of the world is not true these days,” said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist who is not associated with LIS. “In 1960, we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

That is no longer the case, Professor Katz added.

Median per capita income was $18,700 in the United States in 2010 (which translates to about $75,000 for a family of four after taxes), up 20 percent since 1980 but virtually unchanged since 2000, after adjusting for inflation. The same measure, by comparison, rose about 20 percent in Britain between 2000 and 2010 and 14 percent in the Netherlands. Median income also rose 20 percent in Canada between 2000 and 2010, to the equivalent of $18,700.

The most recent year in the LIS analysis is 2010. But other income surveys, conducted by government agencies, suggest that since 2010 pay in Canada has risen faster than pay in the United States and is now most likely higher. Pay in several European countries has also risen faster since 2010 than it has in the United States.
The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest (NYT) Here's the BBC summary:
Last week we noted that a pair of academic researchers said the US was starting to look less like a democracy and more like an oligarchy, where a wealthy elite determines public policy. Here's another bit of cheer in that regard. According to a New York Times report, the rich in the US are getting richer, but the poor and middle classes are falling behind some of their Western peers.

"Middle-class incomes in Canada - substantially behind in 2000 - now appear to be higher than in the United States," David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy write. "The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans." The UK median income is still behind that of the US, but it's catching up fast - a 19.7% increase since 2000. This is the same increase as Canada's, whereas the US number was up by only 0.3%. (It's worth noting that Germany's middle class is also stagnating - at 1.4%.)

The Times reporters based their conclusions on a survey of household incomes in about 20 countries over the course of 35 years, taking into account inflation, differences in taxes, government benefits and cost of living in different locations. "With a big share of recent income gains in this country flowing to a relatively small slice of high-earning households, most Americans are not keeping pace with their counterparts around the world," they write. The reporters point to three reasons why all but the wealthiest American may be falling behind:

First, educational attainment in the United States has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world over the last three decades, making it harder for the American economy to maintain its share of highly skilled, well-paying jobs…

A second factor is that companies in the United States distribute a smaller share of the bounty to the middle class and poor than similar countries elsewhere…

Finally, governments in Canada and Western Europe take more aggressive steps to raise the take-home pay of low- and middle-income households by redistributing income.

The struggle for middle- and lower-class Americans is reflected in public opinion polls, the reporters write, which generally show greater dissatisfaction with their government than in other Western nations.

If the US middle class has it bad, the poor have it worse. "The American poor now clearly trail the poor in several other rich countries," Leonhardt and Quealy write. "At the 20th percentile - where someone is making less than four-fifths of the population - income in both the Nethe rlands and Canada was 15 percent higher than income in the United States in 2010.
Canada passes US in middle-class wealth (BBC) Meanwhile, the masses will continue to chant "USA, USA, USA! And that doesn't even take into account the fact that education and health care are predatory industries in the United States that cost multiple times what they cost anywhere else. We also pay more for cell phone and internet access for the some of the slowest service in the developed world. And our infrastructure and transportation hubs look like a third-world country.

For a final comic note, check out this: Soon Only Two Types of Americans Will Exist (Which will you be?). The article starts out with all the statistics about the disparities of wealth, exploding poverty, lack of jobs, and so on. What's the reason behind all this? Offshoring. Financialization? Monopoly? Nope, the welfare state! That's right, all those poor people on welfare is the root cause, according to some idiot named George Gilder, who will explain it all to you:
Gilder explains how, "The welfare culture is destroying the very fabric of American families." He notes, "The political elite's war on private industry will only result in catastrophe."
Yes, the "political elite" (who?) is sure putting on a war against "private industry" aren't they (how?). That must be why Americans, who have the stingiest welfare state and among the lowest taxes in the industrialized world are so much poorer than the middle classes of other countries.
Relative to our GDP, U.S. taxpayers are paying less than OECD nations as a group and are also paying less than the other "major seven" OECD nations individually. Tax revenues in the U.S., represented by the bright red line in the below chart, only totaled around 24 percent of GDP as of 2012, compared to 34 percent for all OECD machines as of 2011 (the latest available year for full-OECD data), represented by the thick, bright-blue line.
America's Relatively Small Tax Burden (US News & World Report)

Corporate Tax Rates Plummet as Profits Soar (The National Memo)

Your taxes are really low in one chart (Washington Post)

So reading shit like that, you understand why the poorer Americans get, they will never understand the true cause of our impoverishment.

BONUS: The average U.S. CEO is paid 331 times as much as their average employee. A new Demos report finds that the fast food industry, currently the subject of vast protests, "has the greatest CEO-to-worker pay disparity in our economy, with ratios exceeding 1,000-to-1." (Gawker)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Oligarchy!

Source
I’m sure you've seen this study by now. It was even reported on BBC and became one of their most popular links: Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy. That’s a provocative headline, even as most of us who live here no doubt roll our eyes at the “do bears shit in the woods?” obviousness of the headline. Of course, in our data-driven metrics world, even the most common-sense conclusion is invalid unless backed up by data. Fortunately, this is what these social scientists did Here’s the Wikipedia definition of oligarchy:
Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "few", and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning "to rule or to command"), is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.

Throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical (relying on public obedience and/or oppression to exist) or relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy. However, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.
Paul Krugman summarizes the conclusions:
A recent paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Gilens and Page look at a number of issues over the past 30+ years where polling data let us identify public policy preferences, which can be compared with elite and interest-group preferences. And what they find is that politicians don’t seem to care very much about what the public thinks: when elite preferences and popular preferences are different, the elite almost always wins. This is an important insight — and it gains special force these days, when the elite’s views not only favor the elite versus the rest (duh) but have also been systematically wrong, on issues from invading Iraq to giving deficits a higher priority than jobs.
Here's John Cassidy’s account in the New Yorker: Is America an Oligarchy?

I have few quibbles. One, he states that the policy preferences of the wealthy and the majority sometimes overlap. This is deceiving. Where do the "policy preferences" of the average person come from? Well, just as often as not from the media, which is owned by the same oligarchy! So a common tactic is to bend the masses to whatever the oligarchy want them to believe:
The Koch’s ascent comes as Freedom Partners, one of their fundraising networks, last week aired its first batch of television ads targeted at this year’s U.S. Senate races, including commercials knocking Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado and Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa for supporting President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

“The Koch brothers are pouring millions into this,” Chris Harris, a campaign spokesman for Senator Udall, said in an e-mail yesterday. “They’re only fighting for their own interests, not Coloradans’. Mark Udall has a long record of fighting for the middle class and stops at nothing to protect Colorado’s special way of life.”

The ads represent an escalation in TV warfare among outside groups intervening in the Iowa and Colorado contests. In both cases, Americans for Prosperity, another Koch organization, criticized Democratic candidates for backing the health-care law.
Koch Brothers Net Worth Tops $100 Billion as TV Warfare Escalates (Bloomberg)

I would prefer to look at policies which help the average American versus policies which hurt the average American. So often people support policies that actually hurt them thanks to our media. Plus, legislation that actually hurts Americans is often passed at the behest of the oligarchy. My suspicion is that this would make things even worse than what the study, which has limited parameters, describes.

Then there’s the question of what even get proposed as law in the first place. Universal health care? Not a chance. Money for the surveillance state or free trade agreements? Fast-tracked through without a problem.

So while this study leaves a lot out, at least the “o” word is now a part of mainstream discourse, along with the 1 versus the 99 percent. Of course, as long as the 99 percent are kept divided and at each others’ throats, nothing will change, which I expect to continue in perpetuity.

Daily Kos: Too Important for Clever Titles -- Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy

Ordinary Americans are powerless, but the US isn’t really an oligarchy (Quartz)


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thoughts on Michael C. Ruppert

Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.
--Friedrich Nietzsche

I used to listen to Mike Ruppert's show now and again but hadn't listened to it in a long time and had mostly forgotten about it. The reason was simple - it was a lot of doomer porn and recitation about how the world was going to hell, and constantly replaying that narrative over and over again serves no purpose but to provide a validation for a world view that you've already settled on for various reasons that probably have little to do with peak oil and will probably never change, regardless of what the actual circumstances are. I wasn't learning anything new from the show, and things are bad enough without spending an hour wallowing in existential despair. That is not helpful, so I quit listening. Even when he had other guests on, he always seemed to be seeking validation for his bleak world view, one that a few guests, notably Guy MacPherson, were happy to provide.  In many ways it's a pity because Ruppert was an excellent radio host, talented and articulate, and able to speak to our problems off the cuff often with great eloquence on film and in person. He was also a talented writer and musician, and for all his faults, a man of unquestioned integrity who refused to sell out and always tried to do what he believed was the right thing, no matter the personal cost, a trait all too rare nowadays. For those reasons he should be admired and celebrated. He touched many lives, and by that metric alone he should be considered successful and even in some  ways lucky despite his tragic end. What joyful moments he did have in his life were probably that much more brilliant by the contrast.

Ruppert constantly wallowed in bad news, even celebrated it. It was a reflection of his own difficult and tragic personal history. Clearly the man had other issues as his numerous references to twelve-step programs alluded to. He walked a lonely road. I'm no psychologist and don't claim to be one, but anyone with  good gut instincts for people could tell from the  footage of him in movies like Collapse and his final appearance in that Vice documentary, not to mention his radio show, that there was a lot more going on that just a genuine concern about the dry geological facts of energy production or concerns over unsustainable environmental practices. He was quite intelligent, but also seemed to have paranoid tendencies, both traits he probably inherited from his parents who were both U.S. intelligence operatives. Ruppert probably had to confront some things early on in his career and make some choices that fortunately most of us will never have to make. These, along with other personal demons, set him on a path that would ultimately lead to his self destruction. But his integrity led to a lot of courageous reporting and truth telling that we all benefited from. It's tragic the price he had to pay to do that in our society.

Given that he seemed to wallow in gloom and doom 24-7 the end result is not surprising. Being cognizant of and understanding of the very real challenges humanity faces, and the fact that our present way of life is not sustainable does not by itself equal spending all your time seeking out bad news, but this is exactly what Ruppert apparently did. He seemed to make this his full-time job, and for that he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, a burden too heavy for any one man, let alone someone struggling with his personal issues, to bear. For someone with his tendencies, that is that last thing he should have been doing. Leave the negativity to the optimists, I say, they are the ones who can deal with it.  If you're doing this yourself, please stop it. Your worrying is not saving one life, and it's probably killing you. None of us knows what the future holds, and anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Ruppert felt the need to belong to something greater than himself; to be part of a larger movement, and to see the world as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil with himself on the side of the angels (his last song is telling in that regard). His constant repetition of all the people who were part of the "movement" and who "walked his path" testified to his desire for martyrdom and a need to save the world.

Michael Ruppert clearly believed in collapse. It was part of his business model. It was the name of his web site. It was the title of his movie. He spoke often of its imminent arrival. And when it failed to materialize, when it looked as though his beautiful new world was not going to come at the appointed time, like cult members when the UFO did not arrive, he could no longer go on. Collapse had become his entire world and without it he was nothing. If the world would not collapse he would bring it about in his own life. Some people cannot be content, and if they find contentment they will find a way to end it. Some people will find a way to be unhappy no matter what life offers them. They are secretly addicted to chaos and live for the shadow, even if they dare not admit it to themselves. They act in such a way to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy while telling themsleves it's just way the world works.

The problem is, this becomes such a part of your identity that it defines who you are. And then the dry geological facts of where we get our energy from no longer matter; you are committed to this world view and will defend it with all your might. Imagine the following scenario - suppose someone presented to you iron-clad scientific evidence that we found a way to supply the necessary energy to power our technological civilization for another ten thousand years, and even expand it, and do so without more damage to the climate. How would you react? Be honest. I suspect your first instinct would be to do everything in your power to disprove it. Stop and think for a minute on how crazy that is. Why would you do that? Why wouldn't you welcome that as good news? A collapse would bring misery and harm to possibly billions of people. Why would you want that? Are you some kind of monster?

Now I'm being deliberately provocative here, but I'm trying to make a point. Of course the above scenario is not realistic. We all know there are finite reserves of fossil fuels, that lower grade fuels are more expensive and harder to reach, and that these sources are environmentally destructive. But I believe this because the science tells me this. If it told me something else, I would have to believe that, even if I didn't want to. The hard part, and the thing almost nobody is capable of, is believing things we don't want to be true. But we must, lest we deceive ourselves, and I believe that confronting reality, however unpleasant, is always worthwhile.

I think for most of you  the reason you wouldn't see this as good news doesn't have anything to do with wanting to see people suffer and starve and die. No, you aren't monsters. I think the reason is, you know something is seriously wrong with our society as currently constructed and you want something to change it. And you hope that something is peak oil and our energy situation. That is why you would try to disprove it. You've invested so much of your identity in it that if it were proven to be not true, you would not be able to handle it. In this respect peak oil could be the same as any other belief system, whether in a cult, or the modern Republican Party.

You don't want collapse at all, what you really want is change. You want some external force to remake the world in the way you think it should be. The overwhelming inertia of our decaying society seemingly headed toward the shoals has made us feel so helpless and poweless that we want some outside force stronger than us to come along make that change for us. In the past, people often looked to God for this purpose. Peak oil serves that purpose for some people today. A lot of people think it will bring about the world they really want, or that it will fix society's problems. It won't. In fact it might even make them worse.

No, if you want change, you have to work for it. And be honest about your motivations. In the end, peak oil is just a collection of cold scientific facts. It is utterly devoid of value. Those are what we must supply and they are independent of whatever the geological science tells us. If you don't want to be a cog in a machine, don't be one. If you don't want to live in a police state, or if you don't want toxic chemicals in your food, then you need to fight for that result and not wallow in despair and doom. So if you're disgusted with certain elements of our society, be honest about that and change them. There are lots of other people who secretly feel the way you do, even people who've never heard of peak oil. This includes people who may be unknowingly fighting for the status quo even though they hate it because they don't know any better. It can be as simple as turning off your TV, planting a garden and smiling at people at the grocery store.

And this brings me to a larger point that I've made before. I think a lot of people hook on to the peak oil narrative for reasons other than the plain geological fact that oil reserves are finite and fields deplete at a known rate. They have other agendas, and they see peak oil as a validation of their world view. You could see this with Ruppert - he believed peak oil would transform the world and "awaken a new consciousness," one where the bad guys he crusaded against all his life would finally get their comeuppance, and where people like him would sit on their farm and watch the elites suffer and the cities burn and be able to say "we told you so" while reveling in the suffering of those who didn't listen. The fact that this kept not happening was too much to bear. This is how some people get their emotional validation and it's not healthy. If you have any tendencies in this direction, I think you need to be open and honest with yourself, admit it, and move on to something more healthy because that mindset leads to only one place, and it isn't good. I certainly hope no one is coming here for validation, because I am in no way interested in offering that to people. I like to question everything, including my own assumptions about the world.

I was touched when John Michael Greer offered a bit of autobiographical detail about his own difficult family situation growing up. I think a lot of us who make peak oil and collapse central to our identity have suffered some sort of personal collapse in our own lives, and thus the idea of societal collapse is not so hard to swallow. We've already been though it, and we want everyone to feel the pain we live with every day having lost the safety and security others take for granted. And yes, I definitely include myself in here. It a hard thing to admit, but it's important to admit it because that's a part of growth.

Perhaps that's the reason why we find the idea of decline and collapse so attractive that we spend our  time trying to prove it when all the rest of the world is trying desperately to deny or ignore it. We all have a tendency to see the world as we want it to be; to see the narrative of the world as a grand retelling of our own life story. But our lives are not passion plays for the world at large. The world is what it is, regardless of how we want it to be. But what we can do is recognize this tendency in ourselves, accept it for what it is, and ask ourselves whether it is really our own inner lives we are projecting onto a neutral outer world. Be honest with yourself. Are things not going well for you? Did your family fall apart? If so, I think you need to deal with that before you even start thinking about the problems we face collectively as a civilization.

As the Bible says, 'seek and ye shall find.' If you're spending all your time looking for proof that society is going downhill, and that the world is a miserable place and people are shit, than you will certainly find what you are looking for. For the world is full of shit and horror and cruelty and ugliness and unfairness and injustice. It has always been this way. This is a part of the human condition. But if this is all you look at you will give in to despair as Ruppert did. If your happiness is conditional on a world where humans behave like angels, than you are waiting for a utopia and you will be forever miserable.

At the same time, if you're looking for reasons that everything is going to be okay, that nothing is ever wrong and everything is just as it should be, and that the status quo is acceptable and will continue indefinitely, then you will find that too. In fact it's easier - there's a great tendency do this in our "brightsided" culture. This leads people to adhere to the just world fallacy, where everything is just as it should be as a defensive mechanism. This allows people to shrug off the ever increasing injustices that seem to get worse every day, and permits those in power to exploit and manipulate us ever more egregiously. It also causes people to ignore problems until they get too bad to ignore. Denial is not constructive either. The problems in our society are real, and the sooner we deal with them, the less suffering there will be for all of us down the road. The same is true for personal problems; they cannot even begin to be fixed until we acknowledge they are there. An ostrich mentality means you will be led around by the nose by the powerful and that doesn't lead anywhere good as millions of people on the debt/consume treadmill are finding out. You will need to confront your problems sooner or later, whether as an individual or as a society. Many people even now are no longer able to maintain their bubble of complacency, no matter how hard they try. All it takes is one job loss or personal crisis. Trying to make all your pain go away and never feel sad is equally as foolhardy.

Of course, despair is not confined to the "doomer" set - recently a number of bankers have committed suicide, as did Mick Jagger's girlfriend and (possibly) Peaches Geldof. There are people at the opposite end of the spectrum who seemingly have everything and yet it still wasn't enough. Clearly even people at the top of the social hierarchy are not living lives of permanent happiness and bliss. This, too should tell you something.  To blame suicide entirely on someones' knowledge of the ugliness of the world and our civilizational problems is not accurate either. Even people with no knowledge of those things are often just as unhappy and sometimes take their own lives too.

The difficult thing, the really really hard thing, is to look at the world unflinchingly, warts and all, in all it's shit and hopelessness and despair and violence and injustice, and face it squarely head on and deal with it and find a way to live in this world day by day and be happy in spite of it all. This is a  hard thing to do, and very few people manage to pull off this trick. It is at the core of all of our spiritual and philosophical traditions, and what greater aspiration could there be than to master this, the highest spiritual calling for a human being? For where there is despair, there must also be hope. Where there is ugliness there must also be beauty. Where there is cruelty there must also be kindness. How could it not be so? For nothing arises without its opposite. The numerous people who helped and cared for Michael despite all his difficulties is a living testament to the essential goodness of humanity.

So If there is any good to come from this death, I hope it is that for people who see Ruppert's tendencies in themselves - to wallow in despair, to see that dark side of everything, to be afraid and paranoid, to see life as a constant battle against the forces of evil, to have a messiah complex and to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, to see the danger in that approach to life and take this chance to change course. If any of this applies to you, I encourage you to do so. If you know people like this, please do what you can to help them. If I could give everyone an Easter message, this would be it. Rebirth is happening, but sometimes it's hard to see. Take heart. Seek that spiritual path of beauty in despair. As the Buddhists remind us, the seed germinates in the rotting fruit, and the lotus rises and flowers from the darkness and the muck.

Because even if you could save the world, saving yourself is always your first and most important task.

Is culture just a side effect of the struggle to avoid disease?

I'm a sucker for these materialist explanations of human culture and history. Her'e another one - researchers are claiming that many facets of civilization and cultural behavior are influenced by the disease burdens that various societies have to deal with:
Thornhill and his colleagues made a prediction: that regions with a balkanized landscape of localized parasites would in turn display a balkanized landscape of localized customs and conspicuous cultural differences among human populations—dialects, unique religious displays, distinctive art and music, and the like. While there is much more research to be done, early findings suggest that—particularly when it comes to the development of local languages and religions—pathogen stress does appear to spawn cultural diversity. 
A set of more cautious researchers would likely have circled the wagons after unveiling their theory and concentrated on building a body of evidence to defend their early claims. Having a novel explanation for why some cultures are collectivist while others are individualist would probably guarantee one’s place in social science lore. Thornhill and Fincher, however, didn’t stop for a breath. By the time the two published a major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, they had marshaled evidence that severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior. Moreover, these pathogen-avoidant collectivist tendencies, they wrote, coalesce over time into repressive and autocratic governmental systems. Want to understand the rise of fascism, dictatorship, and ethnocentric campaigns that dehumanize outsiders? Look to the prevalence of pathogen threats. 
Over the years, scholars like William H. McNeill and Jared Diamond have argued that germs and geography exert an under-appreciated influence on the rise and fall of societies. But for Thornhill and Fincher, human psychological adaptations to the threat of disease are nothing less than the missing link in our understanding of culture—a fundamental key to our collective values that researchers and philosophers over human history have overlooked. 
But in Thornhill and Fincher’s view, it’s not just the threat of infection that shapes culture. The absence of disease threats, they argue, creates a different set of cultural conditions that, taken together, are the necessary precursors to modernity. Collectivist values, despite their potential effectiveness at fencing out disease, come at a steep cost to the cultures that harbor them. As Thornhill explained to me, keeping strangers at arm’s length can limit trade and stymie a culture’s acquisition of useful new technologies, materials, and knowledge. 
So, as humans moved into drier and colder and less disease-ridden climates, Thornhill says, they likely discarded their costly xenophobic disease-avoidant ways and became less beholden to tradition, more willing to trade with others, and more accepting of technological innovations. Instead of censuring the individual maverick thinker in the group, societies eventually came around to rewarding those who challenged convention. With those changes came the rise of wealth and the spread of education to a larger and larger segment of the population. The more educated the population, the more people demanded participation in their governments. 
Democracies, premised upon the rights and freedoms of individuals, were the natural outcome. 
Moreover, the democratizing effect of lowering disease threats, they argue, can happen quite quickly—even within a generation. Freedom House, an organization that tracks governments, civil liberties, voter participation, and equality around the globe, considers 46 percent of all countries to be “free” today, as opposed to just 29 percent in 1972. Thornhill points out that this rise coincided with an era in which major health interventions, including vaccine programs, the chlorination of drinking water, and efforts to reduce food-borne disease, became commonplace in many parts of the world. Thornhill is not shy about the implications. If promoting democracy and other liberal values is on your agenda, he says, health care and disease abatement should be your main concern.
The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs (Pacific Standard)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dead on the inside

Last time we saw Ian Morris' theory that warfare paradoxically leads to more peaceful societies through a horrific, messy process. It’s related to the McNeill’s thesis in The Human Web which I’ve lifted from the Web as follows: ...[T]wo renowned historians, father and son, explore the webs that have drawn humans together in patterns of interaction and exchange, cooperation and competition, since earliest times. Whether small or large, loose or dense, these webs have provided the medium for the movement of ideas, goods, power, and money within and across cultures, societies, and nations. From the thin, localized webs that characterized agricultural communities twelve thousand years ago, through the denser, more interactive metropolitan webs that surrounded ancient Sumer, Athens, and Timbuktu, to the electrified global web that today envelops virtually the entire world in a maelstrom of cooperation and competition, J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill show human webs to be a key component of world history and a revealing framework of analysis.

The McNeills’s concept of describing history as ever expanding “webs” of human interaction has been very influential, especially in the age of the Internet. Morris argues that warfare has been the driving factor in creating these “webs.” Regarding the decline of violence however, certain issues must be dealt with:

- Mass incarceration has only really been possible since the eighteenth century. The Panopticon was the first expression of this idea. Past societies came up with methods to adjudicate disputes, but did not have the resources to keep large amounts of the population alive to essentially do nothing all day long but occupy a prison cell. People were needed to produce food. In the past, death was the only alternative. Now we're subject to a panopticon in every area of life.

- Second, the exponential population growth has only been going on since the nineteenth century and the use of oil.

- Third, violence tends to be concentrated geographically in modern society – in prisons, ghettos, and circumscribed war zones. In these limited areas, mortality is as high as it’s ever been. This is another result of state power. These concentrated areas have a much smaller proportion of the population, thus the concentration of violence dilutes it in the wider society. The rest of us are allowed to go about our daily business with these areas out of sight and out of mind. In conditions of state breakdown, this violence spews out into the wider society. See this: Hobbes was Right: Anarchy Sucks (Pieria)

- Fourth, we’re institutionalized nearly since birth, and told what to do. You go from a school desk to a cubicle to a pinewood box. Not much time for fighting is there, but is it worth it?

- Fifth, even though we’re living longer lives – 67 on average according to Morris, we’re spending much more of that time sick, stressed and depressed than ever before. Besides, averages are deceiving – Bill Gates and I both have an average wealth of billions of dollars.

The energy surplus available to a society seems to be also a determinant of how violent it  is. Not perfectly though - America is far more violent than Europe even with higher per capita energy usage.

But I don’t mean to be a total curmudgeon -  creating institutions where we can cooperate without violence is a major achievement of the modern world. Institutions that allow us to compete and collaborate without bloodshed have been extremely useful. David Brin often describes these as: competitive markets (sadly all too rare nowadays), peer-reviewed scientific research, legal adjudication via courts, and democracy and elections (also breaking down). I would also add the Internet, the ritualized warfare of competitive sports and computer games, and the modern university.

One thing we’re a lot more likely to die of today is suicide. How common is suicide? In the modern world, there’s one about every 40 seconds or so. Think about that a minute. Suicide accounts for half of all violent deaths worldwide!

The Freakanomics podcast did a fascinating episode about suicide that is well worth listening to in full. But I was particularly struck by the story which began the episode. It’s about Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã in the Amazon Jungle:
Stephen Dubner (host): “Dan Everett is a college professor. A linguist. Off and on for the past thirty years he’s lived with a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã.” 
Dan Everett: “I originally went to the Pirahã as a missionary to translate the Bible into their language. But over the course of many years they wound up converting me and I became a scientist instead, and I studied their culture and its effects on their language.” 
Host: “The Pirahã live in huts, sleep on the ground, hunt with bows and arrows. But what really caught Everett’s attention is that they are relentlessly happy. Really happy.” 
Dan Everett: “This happiness and this contentment is really what had a lot to do with me abandoning my religious goals and my religion altogether, because they seemed to have it a lot more together than most religious people I knew.” 
Host: “But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have. It’s a story about something that happened during Everett’s early days with the tribe. He and his wife and his three young kids had just finished dinner. Everett gathered about thirty Pirahã in his hut to preach to them.” 
Dan Everett: “I was still a very fervent Christian missionary and I wanted to tell them how God had changed my life. So I told them a story about my stepmother and how she had committed suicide because she was so depressed and so lost. For the word ‘depressed’ I used the word sad, so she was very sad, she was crying, she felt lost and she shot herself in the head and she died. And this had a large spiritual impact on me, and I later became a missionary and came to the Pirahã because of all this experience triggered by her suicide. And I told this story as tenderly as I could and tried to communicate that it had a huge impact on me, and when I was finished, everyone burst out laughing….When I asked them, ‘why are you laughing?’ they said, ‘She killed herself! That’s really funny to us! We don’t kill ourselves. You mean you people, you white people, shoot yourselves in the head? We shoot animals, we kill animals, we don’t kill ourselves.’ They just found it absolutely inexplicable and without precedent in their own experience that someone would kill themselves.” 
Host: “In the thirty years that Everett has been studying the Pirahã, there have been zero suicides. Now, it’s not that suicide doesn’t happen in the Amazon. For other tribes, it’s a problem.” 
Dan Everett: “And as I’ve told this story, some people have suggested that well, it’s because they don’t have the stresses of modern life. But that’s just not true. There’s almost 100 percent endemic malaria among the people. They’re sick a lot. Their children die at probably 75 percent; 75 percent of the children die before they reach the age of five or six. These are astounding pressures.” 
Host:: "A group of people that laughs at suicide? That doesn’t sound much like the U.S. does it?”
“But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have.” So, apparently those have become so common that they are no longer even remarkable any more. It’s like, ‘of course everyone knows that!’ But if those stories are so common as to be worth of dismissal by the host, then why aren’t we getting the message?

According to Wikipedia:
Daniel Everett states that one of the strongest Pirahã values is no coercion; you simply don't tell other people what to do. There appears to be no social hierarchy; the Pirahã have no formal leaders. Their social system can thus be labeled as primitive communism, in common with many other hunter-gatherer bands in the world, although rare in the Amazon because of a history of agriculture before Western contact.
Maybe that's why they don't have any suicides.

So, thanks to modern society, we no longer have to worry so much about being dead on the outside -  we’re just dead on the inside.

BONUS: Is Air Pollution a Risk Factor for Suicide? (Pacific Standard). And it's a sad irony that I wrote this not knowing of the recent suicide of Mike Ruppert.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

War, what is it good for?

Well, something, apparently, according to historian/archaeologist Ian Morris, author of "why the West Rules...For Now."

Morris takes up the gauntlet thrown down by Stephen Pinker about the fact that we are less likely to die by interpersonal violence than in times past. Why? Ian Morris claims that 10,000 years of war is ultimately the cause. He doesn't say war is good - far from it. But he claims that that as wars escalated, people paradoxically got safer - as societies conquered other societies, they incoporated them and set rules of order so that people would have to cooperate. This allowed larger and larger societies to form and larger and larger groups of strangers to cooperate without violence producing the large-scale societies and trading economies we see today. He adds that war today is so deadly that we are less willing to engage in it at a large scale - we'd prefer to cooperate instead:
...by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.

This observation rests on one of the major findings of archaeologists and anthropologists over the last century: that Stone Age societies were typically tiny. Chiefly because of the challenges of finding food, people lived in bands of a few dozen, villages of a few hundred, or (very occasionally) towns of a few thousand members. These communities did not need much in the way of internal organization and tended to live on terms of suspicion or even hostility with outsiders.

People generally worked out their differences peacefully, but if someone decided to use force, there were far fewer constraints on him—or, occasionally, her—than the citizens of modern states are used to. Most of the killing was on a small scale, in vendettas and incessant raiding, although once in a while violence might disrupt an entire band or village so badly that disease and starvation wiped all its members out. But because populations were also small, the steady drip of low-level violence took an appalling toll. By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans.

The twentieth century forms a sharp contrast. It saw two world wars, a string of genocides, and multiple government-induced famines, killing a staggering total of somewhere between 100 million and 200 million people. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 150,000 people—probably more people than had lived in the entire world in 50,000 B.C. But in 1945, there were about 2.5 billion people on earth, and over the course of the twentieth century roughly 10 billion lives were lived—meaning that the century’s 100–200 million war-related deaths added up to just 1 to 2 percent of our planet’s population. If you were lucky enough to be born in the industrialized twentieth century, you were on average 10 times less likely to die violently (or from violence’s consequences) than if you were born in a Stone Age society.

This may be a surprising statistic, but the explanation for it is more surprising still. What has made the world so much safer is war itself. The way this worked was that beginning about 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, then spreading across the planet, the winners of wars incorporated the losers into larger societies. The only way to make these larger societies work was for their rulers to develop stronger governments, and one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence within the society.

The men who ran these governments hardly ever pursued policies of peacemaking purely out of the goodness of their hearts. They cracked down on killing because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that rates of violent death fell by 90 percent between Stone Age times and the twentieth century...War made governments, and governments made peace.

My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found...

My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. This process too has been messy and uneven: the winners of wars regularly go on rampages of rape and plunder, selling thousands of survivors into slavery and stealing their land. The losers may be left impoverished for generations. It is a terrible, ugly business. And yet, with the passage of time—maybe decades, maybe centuries—the creation of a bigger society tends to make everyone, the descendants of victors and vanquished alike, better off. The long-term pattern is again unmistakable. By creating larger societies, stronger governments, and greater security, war has enriched the world.

When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day. Now there are more than a thousand times as many of us (7 billion, in fact), living more than twice as long (the global average is 67 years), and earning more than a dozen times as much (today the global average is $25 per day).
The Slaughter Bench of History (Ian Morris, The Atlantic)

Not mentioned in the article (but perhaps in the book) is the oft-repeated claim that warfare was a major driver of technological progress from the age of the chariot on down through history. The art of cannon-making informed the first steam engines. Military engineering was often the first type of engineering, and societies that got better at it stayed around longer. Even today many innovations come out of the MIC (which is sadly the only way we seem to be willing to fund them). Whether that's good or bad is another matter.

10 inventions that owe their success to World War One (BBC) Here's a good comment:
I recommend you all ready "Origins of Virtue" to understand war. Basically, if there were a group of humans that decided not to engage in war (no retaliation) they would quickly be wiped out by other humans who do. And if no humans took part in war, then we would be wiped out by animals or other primates a long time ago. Or there would come about a mutation by which some humans would war, and they would quickly enslave those who didn't. In this way, war or at the least the threat of war is essential to peace. Its tit for tat with instant reciprocity.
Morris' argument seems a bit deterministic to me. It reminds me of some of the arguments put forth in Nonzero - that we're increasingly turning away from competitive, zero-sum games where the winner wins at the loser's expense, and toward cooperative games where everyone gains. And no mention of the wealth and centralization of power caused by fossil fuels?

BONUS: The Declining Effectiveness of Violence (Monkey Business)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Half a century of computers

The BBC recently pointed out that the computer age turned 50 this week. That’s right – the first mainframe went into action on April 7, 1964.

So this date, to me, is significant. We can use this as the beginning of the “computer revolution” although most people did not yet interact with computers directly back then except maybe at a bank or the phone company. That year also happens to be season 4 of Mad Men.

Five things you need to know about 1964, the year of ‘Mad Men’ Season (PBS)

Watching that show, I’m struck by two things. One is how much more “middle class” America seemed back then.

The other is the fact is that no one at this ad agency is using a computer! People seemed so much freer and less encumbered by all their electronic devices than today. No one is miserable because they cannot place a phone call from a bar, take a selfie, Google information, watch cats on the internet, work on vacation with a laptop, or post their drunken reveries on Facebook. There are three channels on the television that everyone watches and people still read newspapers. Was that really so awful?

The economic breakdown that led to the rise of Neoliberalism began about 10 years later in the mid-1970’s. From those bulky mainframes sprang the computer revolution that is now so ubiquitous that most of our work today consists of sitting in front of a computer all day (unless you work in construction or drive a truck).

So – and this is a point I return to often – the entire elimination of the middle class and political breakdown and corruption of the country has taken place during this time period! Who would think that most of us would be so much more financially precarious and buried in debt forty years on? Who would have though that manufacturing would be shipped overseas and that most jobs would be minimum wage jobs? This leads to a follow-up question – if 40 years of computers have brought this result, what makes people think the next forty is going to make things better?

Now I’m obviously not blaming computers themselves for all the problems since the 1960’s, I’m just pointing out that this entire revolution unfolded against that backdrop. I merely want to make the point that technology alone does not necessarily make our lives better. It’s a direct riposte to the “technology will save us” argument, or the "we need more innovation" argument that is always deployed in the media.

Today’s advocates of this view are now pointing to 3-D printing and solar panels as the savior from the spiral of worker impoverishment, precariousness, drudgery, centralized power surveillance and indebtedness. But that technology is probably in the same stage as the mainframe was in 1964. I’m sure there were people back then who thought the computer would have the same effect. Did it? Are we so much better off than in 1964? Do the Internet and cell phones justify the joblessness, hopelessness, indebtedness, crumbling infrastructure, political dysfunction and  rise of the 1 percent? And why will future technology have such a vastly different result than past technology?

Another point to make about technology concerns this article about Stuart Parkin.

Ever heard of him? Me neither. But his technology apparently makes the fortunes of the owners of Google, Facebook, Apple, and countless others possible, due to his breakthroughs in storing massive amounts of data. We lionize the owners of these companies, the Brins and Pages and Ellisons and Zuckerbergs, even though their fortunes would be impossible without the work of people like Mr. Parkin. And yet he lives in relative obscurity, probably quite well off but certainly not a celebrity billionaire.

It's all a part of the American tendency to promote the rabid businessman who exploit existing technology and get rich rather than the people who actually invent the technologies that improve our lives. We are hypnotized via libertarian/objectivist propaganda to believe that these ideas spring ex nihilo from the greatness of such men rather than the hard work and creativity of Stuart Parkin and thousands of other unknown inventors like him, not to mention the workers slaving away in East Asian sweatshops. Rather than greatness, the people at the top are merely allowed by our system to monopolize the gains and live like kings without giving anything back to the wider society that made their fortunes possible. We've designated Steve Jobs' boyhood home a national landmark, for crying out loud!

And finally, please read this insightful piece in full: Our Comrade the Electron. Here's the description: "Radio in the 1920’s played a role analogous to the Internet in our day.  Everyone could see that a suite of new technologies was about to change the world, but this advance knowledge somehow made the future more uncertain.  Meanwhile, a group of technically-minded Utopians had convinced themselves that technology could radically transform human nature, and were determined to demonstrate it to a skeptical world.  A meditation on the surveillance state, interface design, tech culture, and the dangers of thinking you know what will happen next, told through the astonishing life of Lev Termen."
But let's imagine the theremin had lived up to its billing. I'm fascinated by this vision of a country of latent musicians, frustrated by outdated and expensive musical instruments, waiting for their creativity to be unlocked.

It's a dream we seem to have every time there's a big new technology shift. Blogging will make us a nation of writers! Digital video and YouTube will make everyone a filmmaker!

In their enthusiasm, RCA and Victor seemed to overlook that we all already have a touchless, intuitive, analog musical instrument that lives in our face, and yet few of us use it outside the shower.

And each time we have this dream, there is the inevitable disappointment when it turns out most people don't want to write 6,000 word investigative journalism, or make art cinema, or buy a really expensive theremin. In the lovely words of our age, most people prefer to consume content, not create it.
[...]
Whenever we try to predict what it's actually going to be like to live in that future, what the future is going to taste like, we invariably fail, and in the most ridiculous ways.

It's like a weird law of nature. We can see the technologies coming, but that knowledge somehow makes the future less predictable.

Perhaps we predict the Roomba a hundred years in advance, but set it in a world where women are still wearing crinoline and whalebone corsets.

Or else we correctly predict that the Encyclopedia Britannica will one day fit on the head of a pin, never imagining that the Britannica itself will have become a relic, replaced by the free, collaborative, sprawling something called Wikipedia.

Such predictions aren't wrong, they're "not even wrong", they miss the basic point. The future makes fools of us all.

 [...]
Technology concentrates power.

In the 90's, it looked like the Internet might be an exception, that it could be a decentralizing, democratizing force. No one controlled it, no one designed it, it was just kind of assembling itself in an appealing, anarchic way. The companies that first tried to centralize the Internet, like AOL and Microsoft, failed risibly. And open source looked ready to slay any dragon.

But those days are gone. We've centralized the bejesus out of the Internet now. There's one search engine (plus the one no one uses), one social network (plus the one no one uses), one Twitter. We use one ad network, one analytics suite. Anywhere you look online, one or two giant American companies utterly dominate the field.

And there's the cloud. What a brilliant name! The cloud is the future of online computing, a friendly, fluffy abstraction that we will all ascend into, swaddled in light. But really the cloud is just a large mess of servers somewhere, the property of one American company (plus the clouds no one uses).

Orwell imagined a world with a telescreen in every room, always on, always connected, always monitored. An Xbox One vision of dystopia.

But we've done him one better. Nearly everyone here carries in their pocket a tracking device that knows where you are, who you talk to, what you look at, all these intimate details of your life, and sedulously reports them to private servers where the data is stored in perpetuity.

When I was in grade school, they used to scare us with something called the permanent record. If you threw a spitball at your friend, it would go in your permanent record, and prevent you getting a good job, or marrying well, until eventually you'd die young and friendless and be buried outside the churchyard wall.

What a relief when we found out that the permanent record was a fiction. Except now we've gone and implemented the damned thing. Each of us leaves an indelible, comet-like trail across the Internet that cannot be erased and that we're not even allowed to see.

The things we really care about seem to disappear from the Internet immediately, but post a stupid YouTube comment (now linked to your real identity) and it will live forever.

And we have to track all this stuff, because the economic basis of today's web is advertising, or the promise of future advertising. The only way we can convince investors to keep the money flowing is by keeping the most detailed records possible, tied to people's real identities. Apart from a few corners of anonymity, which not by accident are the most culturally vibrant parts of the Internet, everything is tracked and has to be tracked or the edifice collapses.
What upsets me isn't that we created this centralized version of the Internet based on permanent surveillance. What upsets me, what really gets my goat, is that we did it because it was the easiest thing to do....

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drought, food prices, and revolution

Reader Robert33 asks, "Are you sure it's the drought that caused the civil war and not Syria being destabilised by the west backing terrorists to weaken Iran by taking out one of their allies?"

These articles give a partial answer to that question. While drought and food prices don't cause revolution and geopolitical conflict by themselves, they are increasingly seen as an important factor:
If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the human development index, or energy prices.

“If I were to pick a single indicator—economic, political, social—that I think will tell us more than any other, it would be the price of grain,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, who has been writing about the politics and economics of food since the 1950s.

Food, of course, is never the sole driver of instability or uprising. Corruption, a lack of democracy, ethnic tension—these better known factors may be critical—but food is often the difference between an unhappy but quiescent population and one in revolt.

Take Venezuela, where a toxic combination of gas subsidies, currency controls, and hoarding have led to chronic food shortages—a major factor motivating the anti-government protests that have wracked the country since the beginning of this year.

And perhaps Dmitry Orlov should look at grain in addition to oil:
The Arab Spring may become the textbook example of the geopolitics of food prices—the food riots and subsequent revolutions transfixed the world. But shifts in food price may be responsible for an even more profound reordering of global power. Food may explain why everything changed during the 1980s.

After a price shock in the late 1970s, food prices underwent a slump during the early and mid-1980s. A confluence of factors included slowing economic growth; the spread of the “green revolution,” which improved the efficiency of agriculture in developing countries; and the falling price of oil.

This slump played a role in many of the larger geopolitical trends of the era, according to Argentinian economist Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla. The Soviet Union, which was a net exporter of commodities, was hit hard economically, and by the end of the decade was near collapse. Growth was sluggish throughout the decade in Latin America, where most economies are based on agriculture. Dictatorships were overthrown in Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. African countries entered a period of economic stagnation and civil strife that the continent only recently started to recover from. The emerging tigers of East Asia, meanwhile, such as China and South Korea, benefited from low prices on the food they import.

In the 1990s, food prices began to rise and have continued increasing ever since, with the exception of a brief blip during the global economic crisis in the late 2000s. Overall, the food price index as measured by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization is twice what it was in 1991. There’s little to suggest they’re going to fall any time soon.
Food riots and revolution: Grain prices predict political instability (Slate)
Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell are co-founders of the D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, a think tank focused on the interactions between climate change and security issues. In recent years, they've published a number of reports looking at the environmental roots of both the Arab Spring and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Brad Plumer: You also published a collection of papers looking at environmental and climate-related factors that may have contributed to the 2011 revolts across the Arab world. What were the big climate drivers there?

Francesco Femia: We looked at a number of different dynamics. Troy Sternberg, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo looked at the impacts of climate change in Ukraine and Russia and how droughts in those parts of the world in 2010 may have contributed to a wheat shortage. That, in turn, led China to purchase a lot of wheat on the global food market [which led to spikes in the price of food worldwide].

Again, they don't claim that the price spikes caused the revolution in Egypt or Tunisia. But they do look at how those prices spikes led to parallel bread protests in Egypt in particular. The point here is that the proximate cause of the protests that led to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak's downfall may have been the response to the earlier Tunisian revolt. But the broader appeal of that movement in rural areas may have been partly due to the fact that bread prices were high. The Egyptian government tried to use subsidies to keep the price of bread down, but that didn't affect rural areas.

So food prices may have played a role in broadening the appeal of the protests, but we would say it was one factor.

Caitlin Werrell: A lot of the research we've done basically concludes by calling for more research, so that we can see how these correlations can be fleshed out better. Sternberg calls it the "globalization of hazards." A drought or wildfire that was exacerbated by climate change can have drastic impact thousands of miles away.

FF: And we should note that the top nine countries in terms of wheat imports per capita are in the Middle East and North Africa. So anything that affects prices could affect these countries. But more research needs to be done to disentangle climate as a factor.
BP: So let's talk about the future. There are all sorts of predictions that global warming will lead to drought or heat waves that hurt agriculture. And it's a bit tricky because many models still have trouble pinning down precise regional impacts. But which of these things should security analysts pay attention to?

CW: A lot of the way we approach climate change as a risk is to say it’s a "threat multiplier." The way it combines with water or food can take an existing conflict and make it worse, or take a stable situation and make it worse.

One example we find is if you look at Egypt, at the Nile Delta, the projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that they'll see at least 59 cm of sea-level rise by 2100. Not only does that create a problem with flooding in urban areas, but there's also the problem of saltwater intrusion in fresh aquifers. About 34 percent of agricultural production occurs in that area. A lot of focus in Egypt right now is how to get a more stable government, but if you want to look at how to build a stable government, you'll need to be looking at issues like sea-level rise.

FF: One area where the intelligence community has taken notice is water. There was a recent assessment by the National Intelligence Council that looked out 30 years and mentioned climate change quite often. In some places you get too much water, in others too little, you get unpredictable flows as monsoon seasons and drought seasons change. So that's something the intelligence community will have to take into account when thinking about fragile states.

There was a recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute for Syria projecting that at current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, yields of rain-fed crops may decline between 29 percent to 57 percent between now and 2050. That’s something we'll have to take into account when thinking about fragile states.
Drought helped cause Syria’s war. Will climate change bring more like it? (Washington Post)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Collapse isn't sexy

If you, dear reader, were a Peak Oil “doomer” in the late 1990’s, what might you make of these three BBC stories for April 9-10, 2014:

Putin warns Europe of gas shortages over Ukraine debt
Russian state gas giant Gazprom says Ukraine's debt for supplies of Russian gas has risen above $2bn (£1.2bn; 1.4bn euros). Gazprom said on Wednesday it could demand advance payments from Kiev for gas but President Putin said the company should hold off, pending talks with "our partners" - widely believed to mean the EU. In a letter to European leaders, President Putin warned that the "critical" situation could affect deliveries of gas to Europe, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
UN warns of Syria food shortage due to looming drought
The World Food Programme (WFP) said rainfall since September has been less than half the long-term average. At the same time, WFP food aid has been cut by a fifth due to a lack of funds from international donors. Over 100,000 people have been killed since fighting broke out in Syria more than three years ago.
UN set to warn countries over 'dash for gas'

German coal industry underpins renewable push
In the eastern German region of Lausitz, nine villages are under threat, where up to 3,000 people could lose their homes to make way for five new lignite mines that are fuelling the country's renewed thirst for coal. Two further mines are under consideration. The mines are needed to power a new generation of coal power plants.

As Prof Christian Hey, secretary general of the German Advisory Council for the Environment, says: "Germany has a coal problem."
Greece returns to debt markets with five-year bond

I think you might say that these are exactly the headlines you would have expected to see in 2014 – gas shortages contributing to geopolitical tensions between Europe and Russia, droughts due to climate change causing a civil war in the Middle East in which hundreds of thousands are killed, countries like Greece suffering from austerity and mired in debt, and Germany turning to low-grade lignite coal to keep their industrial economy humming. And here they are, right on schedule! None of this should come as much of a surprise to someone who was hip to the Peak Oil scene. And we haven’t mentioned the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, stagnant economies, fracking and drought in the U.S. Southwest, escalating debt, grain shortages, hurricanes, and much, much more. We’re in a period of change, no doubt.

This is just another reminder that “collapse” narratives were not wrong. If you know where to look and what to look for you can see the whole picture. But a lot of people were set on the idea of a sexy collapse, but collapse isn't sexy. It's just a long, grinding period of dashed hopes, lowered expectations, broken promises, spit-and-bailing wire solutions, political instability, and kicking the can continuing on for years and years.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Three more on Piketty

Three four more reviews:

Professor Piketty Fights Orthodoxy and Attacks Inequality (Marxism Leninism Today)

Why hasn’t democracy saved us from inequality? (The Monkey Cage)

The short guide to Capital in the 21st Century (Vox)

Why We’re in a New Gilded Age (Paul Krugman, NYRB)

Reading these reviews, there are a few things that bother me.

One is that Piketty's essential argument is that if the rate of return on capital is higher than overall economic growth, income inequality will increase. This is because salaries typcially increase along with the rate of economic growth, and thus will grow slower than returns to capital.

But this assumes that wages are growing at the rate of the economy. But they are not. If only wages grew along with the economy! Instead they are stagnant or shrinking. The war on wages caused by outsourcing, deindustrialization, automation, mass immigration, H1-B visas, anti-union propaganda and so forth has actually caused wealth and wages to shrink for the average American. The productivity that American workers have produced over the last thirty years has all been stolen by the wealthy owners of capital. So the poor will be lucky to see even wage increases in line with economic growth.
 Income for the top fifth of American households rose by 1.6 percent last year, driven by even larger increases for the top 5 percent of households, said David Johnson, the Census Bureau official who presented the findings. All households in the middle of the scale saw declines, while those at the very bottom stagnated.

“You’re really struck by the unevenness of the recovery,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard. “The top end took a whack in the recession, but they’ve gotten back on their feet. Everyone else is still down for the count.”

The numbers helped drive an overall decline in income for the typical American family. Median household income after inflation fell to $50,054, a level that was 8 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the recession took hold.
U.S. Income Gap Rose, Sign of Uneven Recovery (NYTimes)
The recent financial crisis left the median American family in 2010 with no more wealth than in the early 1990s, erasing almost two decades of accumulated prosperity, the Federal Reserve said on Monday.

The median family, richer than half of the nation’s families and poorer than the other half, had a net worth of $77,300 in 2010, down from $126,400 in 2007, the Fed said. The crash of housing prices explained three-quarters of the loss.

This vast loss of wealth was compounded by a loss of income, as the earnings of the median family fell by 7.7 percent over the same period.
We are not as wealthy as we thought we were (Marginal Revolution)

If Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman are correct, U.S. wealth inequality has been surging faster than economists ever thought. As I wrote last week, the duo recently unveiled new research suggesting that the richest one-thousandth of all American households now claim roughly one-fifth of the country’s collective net worth, about double their share in the 1980s.

But here’s the kicker to their findings: While the super-rich are growing their piece of the pie, just about everybody else’s portion is shrinking.
The Decline of the 99 Percent (Wealth Inequality Edition) (Slate)


The second thing is that so many reviewers are worried about a new aristocracy forming based on inherited wealth. But this seems to ignore or excuse the huge disparities in income as somehow justified. The average CEO makes over 300 times that the average worker does, up from an average of 30-40 through the years that Piketty uses as his example of capital being constrained. And this disparity just keeps relentlessly increasing:
USA TODAY's analysis of Standard & Poor's 500 companies headed by the same CEO the past two fiscal years shows 2013 median pay — including salary, bonus, incentive awards, perks and gains from vested shares and exercised stock options — jumped 13% to $10.5 million, a level buoyed by soaring stock prices that's likely to rise as more companies meet annual Securities and Exchange Commission filing deadlines...Coming in a year in which corporate earnings gains continue to come mostly from job cuts and streamlining instead of organic growth, as well as nearly a decade of stagnant wage growth for rank-and-file workers, continued gains in CEO pay underscore the disconnect between boardrooms and Main Street. Among the nation's 104.8 million full-time workers, average median annual wages were $40,872 last year, up just 1.4% over 2012. 
Millions by millions, CEO pay goes up (USA Today)

Third, wages are getting ever lower because the economy is only creating high-end and low-end jobs, and a lot more low-end jobs than high ones:
On an absolute basis, the data is miserable: The table consists of stuff like secretaries, food workers, and caretakers. The median salary for the fastest-growing raw-numbers occupations, shown in the table below, is $30,000. Compare that with the average first-year-out-of-college salary of $45,000.
I Looked Up The Fastest-Growing Jobs In America, And Boy Was It Depressing (Business Insider)

So Piketty's picture is actually way too rosy. What we're really seeing is a double-whammy - the returns to capital are increasing faster than economic growth, while wages are are stagnant or going down, and job polarization leaving only winners and losers. So not only will people dependant on their salary not be able to amass the huge fortunes of inherited wealth, but they will barely be able to find a job with a decent salary in the first place. This is making inequality much worse than even Piketty assumes.

And finally, like most discussions about inequality, it obfuscates the growing impoverishment of Americans through debt. Educational debt, medical debt, housing debt - these predatory industries are bleeding Americans dry. Most Americans' net worth is actually negative - getting to zero would be an improvement. The new "American Dream" is just getting out of debt. And the people at the top of the wealth pyramid are the beneficiaries of that debt. So not only do they get to steal the productivity of Americans by not paying decent salaries, they get to suck up what remains of those salaries through debt and interest payments. Piketty, coming from a European social democracy is probably unaware of just how bad this is.

So as bad as Piketty's conclusions are, they are just one past of a picture that is far worse than he imagines.