Sunday, January 4, 2015

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Not only is it one of the most famous opening lines in English literary history, but it also seems to be a good summary of 2014 based on what I've read in the past week.

Summaries either tended to be full of despair at the declining living standards of the U.S. and the industrialized world in general, or the insistence that we're in a golden age unprecedented in the history of our species, and not much in between. How can we account for such a divergence of opinion?

1.)Writers who were pessimistic about the state of the world tended to be the ones looking at the domestic situation, especially in the United States - the corrupt and paralyzed congress, the falling wages, the crushing debt burdens of our citizens, the militarization of police, the insularity of elites, the lawlessness with which the rich and powerful operate, the revolving door in government, the carceral state, joblessness caused by automation, the rising costs of housing, homelessness, falling education rates, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and so on. They also looked at places like Japan and Western Europe - for example in Greece things are as bad as they have ever been. They also looked to increasing geopolitical tensions as the failing Middle East and escalating tensions in Ukraine. They pointed out protests all across the globe against insular and corrupt elites. And the ones who focus on the state of the planet's environment tended to be especially pessimistic.

2.) Optimists looked at one of three things 1.) the paper wealth generated by the stock market, and the officially manufactured statistics of economic growth and the unemployment rate. These statistics are used as a barometer for the health of society in general, following the standard economic dogma. 2.) As always, they look at the economic growth of countries outside the United States as 'lifting billions out of poverty' and insist that the Americans who decry their increasing immiseration are churlish and short-sighted, and 3.) They tended to look at extremely long-term trends that focus on decades, or even centuries, which compare living standards and statistics with the distant past instead of say, the past few decades. "Even the poor have cell phones and running water," and "less people are starving," they insist.

Are things falling apart, or is now the best time to be alive? Is it a utopia or a dystopia? It seems to depend on who you are and what you look at. Some samples - here's an article by food writer Mark Bittman entitled Is It Bad Enough Yet?
THE police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse.

This in part explains why we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique. I was in four cities recently — New York, Washington, Berkeley and Oakland — and there were actions every night in each of them. Meanwhile, workers walked off the job in 190 cities on Dec. 4.

The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country’s people combined; and “income mobility” now describes how the rich get richer while the poor ... actually get poorer.

The progress of the last 40 years has been mostly cultural, culminating, the last couple of years, in the broad legalization of same-sex marriage. But by many other measures, especially economic, things have gotten worse, thanks to the establishment of neo-liberal principles — anti-unionism, deregulation, market fundamentalism and intensified, unconscionable greed — that began with Richard Nixon and picked up steam under Ronald Reagan. Too many are suffering now because too few were fighting then.

[...]

I have spent a great deal of time talking about the food movement and its potential, because to truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice; that isn’t going to happen without taxing the superrich; and so on. The same is true of other issues: You can’t fix climate change or the environment without stopping the unlimited exploitation of natural and human resources (see Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”). Same with social well-being.

Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse....“True citizenship,” says Jayaraman of Berkeley — echoing Jefferson — “is people continually protesting.” Precisely.
Meanwhile, in Politico, the good times are a-rolling:
Good news! The U.S. economy grew at a rollicking 5 percent rate in the third quarter. Oh, and it added 320,000 jobs in November, the best of its unprecedented 57 straight months of private-sector employment growth. Just in time for Christmas, the Dow just hit an all-time high and the uninsured rate is approaching an all-time low. Consumer confidence is soaring, inflation is low, gas prices are plunging, and the budget deficit is shrinking. You no longer hear much about the Ebola crisis that dominated the headlines in the fall, much less the border crisis that dominated the headlines over the summer. As Fox News host Andrea Tantaros proclaimed earlier this month: “The United States is awesome! We are awesome!”

OK, she was talking about the Senate torture report, not the state of the union, but things in the U.S. do look rather awesome. Mitt Romney promised to bring unemployment down to 6 percent in his first term; it’s already down to 5.8 percent, half the struggling eurozone’s rate. Newt Gingrich promised $2.50 gas; it’s down to $2.38. Crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and oil imports are also way down, while renewable power is way up and the American auto industry is booming again. You don’t have to give credit to President Barack Obama for “America’s resurgence,” as he has started calling it, but there’s overwhelming evidence the resurgence is real. The Chicken Littles who predicted a double-dip recession, runaway interest rates, Zimbabwe-style inflation, a Greece-style debt crisis, skyrocketing energy prices, health insurance “death spirals” and other horrors have been reliably wrong.
Everything is Awesome (Politico)

One surprisingly grim summary was found in Wired Magazine of all places!!
This year was, to put it as gently as possible, the devil’s playground. Oh sure, every year has its horrors and there are far worse annums behind us (the Crusades, anyone?), but 2014 proved to be a year in which long-festering social, environmental, and political problems were exposed in ways we have not seen in a very long time.
Thank social media, or globalization, or perhaps the recent explosion of hyper-accessible dystopian entertainment (though that is something of a chicken/egg scenario), but no single year  in recent memory has so closely resembled the exaggerated conditions employed as metaphorical warnings in dystopian sci-fi. In fact, a lot of dystopian fiction we saw this year is at the very least on par with everyday realities, if not tame by comparison.

Around the world, instances of palpable, immediate environmental catastrophe and brazen, systematic oppression proliferated at a terrifying rate, which underscores a position we and others have taken of late: With such nightmares growing more real each day, where does dystopian fiction end and reality begin?

2014 was pure, hot “garbage,” but let’s assess just which parts of it are scariest in terms of bleak satire coming to life, if only to ask if there is even a point to the fiction if the warnings it offers come too late to save us. If so, where can it go next? Here’s a look at 20 of the more dystopian things that happened in 2014—in both fiction and real life—and just how foreboding they really were.
2014 Kinda Sucked: A Look at Our Slow Descent Into Dystopia (WIRED)

As you would expect, this produced angry, fevered denunciations in the comments section by a readership that in large part is devoted to unbridled techo-optimism. this comment in particular got some attention:
The world has arguably sucked since time immemorial. This article is sensationalism at its worst. If anything, this year has been great, because it's helped to expose the horrors that occur all over the world every day to a listless apathetic society.

The United States has been a plutocracy since its inception, and we've come a long way since the days of slavery. Despite what idiots may think, the Mall of America is private property and they have the right to kick you out if they want. Poor black people in Africa have also been suffering for a very long time. The Ebola crisis merely brought to light the issue of medical care for the world's poor by killing a fraction of the number of people that the AIDS crisis has killed, albeit in a much shorter time and with greater fanfare. Doctors Without Borders can only do so much, and in a country where people are arguing over whether or not their president is a) a citizen, b) a muslim, c) a communist, or d) a secret Illuminati alien Manchurian Candidate sent by Martians to enslave mankind for the devil and his legion of demonic hippies who also answer to Cthulhu, do you honestly believe that anyone's going to advocate rallying to the shores of a foreign health crisis that also happens to fall on the most corrupt and dangerous continent on the face of the Earth?

I'll grant that this year has been quite a storm of social upheaval, but in reality that is a *good* thing. The protests in Ukraine had to happen, as Russian back-room influence there (and in other former Soviet republics) has been present for *decades*. Ukraine (and, to a lesser degree, the Sochi games) helped exposed Vladamir Putin for what he is to the world: a sham and a brutal dictator who retains power using the same methods - albeit to a far less extreme degree - as Joseph Stalin. Despite people like me, who stood up and rang warning bells about Putin years ago during the Medvedev-musical-chairs game, the Western world was divided between a camp who thought Putin was just a benign, comical, aw-he-thinks-hes-people nobody, and a camp who believed him to be a great example of a strong leader who provided an alternative to "Western imperialism". Unfortunately, the latter camp still exists, but thankfully most of the former camp has converted to my point of view.

To those who cite the disappointment of underwhelming movies as evidence that the world is going down the toilet: EFF YOU. We enjoy the benefits of a globally freer society today than anyone has at any point in human history. There are inevitably pockets of brutal exception to this, but they are minuscule in the grand scheme of things and certainly don't indicate a trip to Dystopiaville, Orwellchusetts. I'll also grant that there has been a slide toward regression in many developed countries such as the US, especially in terms of police militarization, but that's bound to occur as a society becomes MORE free and informed (which it has over the past decade, thanks to the power of the internet). It now befalls US to do something about that, and it starts with a demand to end the war on drugs as we know it, as that has been the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT justification for the expansion and consolidation of police power. Furthermore, it relies on us not to rally to unjust causes and waste time calling for heads, such as in the Ferguson case. The FACTS of the case, when examined objectively, support the officer's account of events, which, in turn, makes anyone who protested the situation WRONG and the issue of race *irrelevant*. We aren't going to get to where we need to be by trying to fight racial battles in a day and age where blacks enjoy the same level of freedom as whites, including the ability to be elected president. Overstating inequalities is only going to serve to divide the people and drive us away from the *real* issues, such as a rural sheriff department (my county's) getting a HOVERCRAFT, and police tossing a flashbang into a child's crib (P.S. the child was white).

Injustice and evil occur all over the world, and they will continue to occur until the last human to exist in the universe stops breathing. They're part of who and what we are. Deal with it. If you want a better life, start taking steps to make life better. Otherwise, shut up and quit sensationalizing.
This is an example of what I call "the angry optimists." While some good points are made, it's amazing the amount of anger certain people give if you dare point out the unfortunate state of the world.

These articles are the best example of taking the long approach. I've already featured Steven Pinker's piece in Slate - The World Is Not Falling Apart. I think professor Pangloss Pinker might have one of the safest jobs in history. Every year he will pop up and be able to cite statistics compiled over millenia to say things are better than ever before. If there is a spike in crime or war, as was the case this year, he can still claim the overall trend is down and it is just an aberration in the long view of things. The only way he can be conclusively disproven is for there to be a conflict on the scale of World War Two, and if that ever happens, I think people will have other things on their mind than listening to Dr. Pinker.

Here are some other notable examples of epic optimism:
 Prosperity is bringing benefits without trashing the planet. Since 1990, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are down, in spite of our economy being about 60 per cent larger – thanks to more efficient technology. Our roads are safer, as well as greener. Traffic deaths are down by two-thirds since 1990, and are lower now than when the Model T Ford was on the road.

Prosperity does bring new problems; obesity, the resulting diabetes and the costs of far longer (and better) end-of-life care. But these are the problems of success.

Just over a century ago, a period of similarly rapid progress was coming to an abrupt end. The Belle Époque was a generation of scientific, medical and artistic advances, which, then, felt unstoppable. John Buchan summed up this mood in his 1913 novel The Power House. “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism,” one of his characters says. “I tell you: the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.” So it was to prove.

Nothing is irreversible. And there will be a great many people for whom life is tough, and looks set to remain so for some time. We still have a lamentably long list of problems to solve. But in the round, there’s no denying it: we are living in the Golden Era. There has never been a better reason for people the world over to wish each other a happy and prosperous new year. 
Goodbye to one of the best years in history (Telegraph)
One of the most significant studies I’ve seen in this is in the current edition of The Lancet showing how the world has been since the end of the Cold War. The above graph, taken from the Lancet article, shows the waning of disease. The below chart, from a WSJ article by the Canadian academic Steven Pinker, shows the waning of war. And some more graphs below it.

God knows that there are enough people with enough problems – and people for whom 2014 has been a tough year, with more misery in store. But in the round, for the average human, this is the best year to be alive. There has never been more reason for people world over to expect, as well wish each other, a happy and prosperous new year.
Why 2015 might well be mankind’s happiest new year (Spectator)

As I opined recently on another blog:
But of course these are mainly the result of extremely cheap things that could have been done fifty years ago. Because Africa is starting from a low level of development, even inexpensive measures like mosquito netting make a huge statistical difference. And vaccinations have been around for decades before managing to get around to a slightly larger number of sick children. The ones who still don't get it are not counted.

The middle classes in China and India are increasing, but that's because of their low starting point. Eventually this will play out, and probably soon - look at Japan for example. And the optimists always point to inequality *between* countries as decreasing, probably as a deliberate distraction from what is happening domestically. This is not surprising - thanks to globalism, the average person around the world can expect to have the income and living standards of a Bangladeshi cab driver. Put that way it seems like less to cheer about.
And about that statistic that people are being lifted out of poverty, the Wall Street Journal of all places published a corrective to that idea (suitably short and buried on the site):
Economic growth and social policies have helped pull millions out of poverty in the developing world. Or have they?

The often-heard narrative is based on data from the World Bank showing a sharp reduction in the number of people living below $1.25 per day, adjusted for inflation.

However, new research suggests a deeper look into poverty statistics paints a different picture. While there has been progress in reducing the number of people living below the poverty line, this has been achieved largely by raising those considered ultrapoor to just above the poverty line, rather than by boosting the standard of living of the poor more broadly, according to a paper from Martin Ravallion, economist at Georgetown University’s Center for Economic Research.

“There has been very little absolute gain for the poorest,” Mr. Ravallion writes in a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Using an absolute approach to identifying the floor, the increase in the level of the floor seen over the last 30 years or so has been small—far less than the growth in mean consumption.”

The author cites Mahatma Gandhi and the late philosopher John Rawls as a basis for looking at poverty in absolute rather than comparative terms.

“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him,” the paper cites Mr. Gandhi as saying in 1948. “Will he gain anything by it?”

According to the data, the answer so far is not very much.

“The bulk of the developing world’s progress against poverty has been in reducing the number of people living close to the consumption floor, rather than raising the level of that floor,” Mr. Ravallion. “Growth in mean consumption has been far more effective in reducing the incidence of poverty than raising the consumption floor. In this sense, it can be said that the poorest have indeed been left behind.”
Is Global Poverty Falling? Not in Absolute Terms (Wall Street Journal)

Clearly where you are and who you are has a big result of how you think the world is going. It's never been a better time to be a rich person in America, but the American middle class is being gutted like a fish. Paul Krugman points out this chart which shows the contrast between the rising fortunes of the Chinese middle class and the falling fortunes of the American middle class:

 A number of people have been putting up candidates for chart of the year. For me, the big chart of 2014 wasn’t actually from 2014 — it was from earlier work (pdf) by Branko Milanovic, which I somehow didn’t see until a few months ago. It shows income growth since 1988 by percentiles of the world income distribution (as opposed to national distributions):

What you see is the surge by the global elite (the top 0.1, 0.01, etc. would be doing even better than his top 1), plus the dramatic rise of many but not all people in emerging markets. In between is what Branko suggests corresponds to the US lower-middle class, but what I’d say corresponds to advanced-country working classes in general, at least if you add post-2008 data with the effects of austerity. I’d call it the valley of despond, and I think it’s going to be a crucial factor in developments over the next few years. More eventually.
No wonder there's such a divergence of opinion. I've posted this chart before:


But I think the scariest resolution to this paradox may come from this article which a number of people might be aware of already - The Indiana Jones of collapsed cultures: Our Western civilization itself is a bubble (PBS - btw, is there an archaeologist/writer/explorer alive who has not been compared to Indiana Jones?)
Arthur Demarest: Paradoxically, the key strengths of civilizations are also their central weaknesses. You can see that from the fact that the golden ages of civilizations are very often right before the collapse.

The Renaissance in Italy was very much like the Classic Maya. The apogee was the collapse. The Renaissance status rivalry between cities through art and science and warfare and architecture was a beautiful disaster, and it only lasted about 150 years. The Golden Age of Greece was the same thing: status rivalry with architecture, literature, and all these wonderful things—along with warfare—at the end of which Greece was conquered by Macedonia and remained under the control of foreign powers for 2,300 years.

We see this pattern repeated continuously, and it is one that should make us nervous. I just heard Bill Gates say that we are living in the greatest time in history. Now you can understand why Bill Gates would think that, but even if he is right, that is an ominous thing to say.
So even if the optimists are right, that's hardly a cause for celebration. When you're on the top, it might be that the only place to go is down.

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