Saturday, March 26, 2016

Right-wing Policies Produce Worse Outcomes

"I won't change my mind because I don't have to because I'm an American. I won't change my mind on anything regardless of the facts that are set out before me. I'm dug in and I'll never change."

--Mac, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: The Gang Gets Racist.

I had a thought about President Obama's visit to Cuba from a different angle. His visit prompted the usual howls of outrage from Republicans/right-wingers. "Going to Cuba is unacceptable," he's "humiliating" the U.S., and so forth (right-wingers on my Facebook were apoplectic as I would expect). It's a continuation of the Republican strategy never to deal with, talk to, or otherwise acknowledge "the enemy," whoever they are--Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, the Democrats, etc.--no dialogue, no relations, and certainly no treaties (even when you get what you want).

But the thing is, if you're very opposed to Cuban socialism and believe that the way of life in the U.S. is so superior, as right-wingers do, wouldn't you want as much engagement as possible? That way, Cubans can see how much better-off Americans are (in their opinion), and prompt them to pressure their government to unleash the invisible hand of the free market which produces all of that prosperity. They will not tolerate the ineffective state-run socialism one you show them how much more prosperous Americans are, would be the line of thought here. That seems far more likely to achieve your goal if you're a right-wing free-marketeer instead of treating them like your enemy and having no contact whatsoever.

Now, it happens that I'm not as vehemently opposed to Cuban socialism as Republicans typically are. But if you were, by totally freezing out Cuba and treating it as your enemy, you actually strengthen the current regime, who can then rally the people around the cause of fighting Yankee oppression (ditto Venezuela). In contrast, by engaging the enemy, you diffuse the situation and actually help weaken the regime you are ideologically opposed to. It's essentially a sort of Aikido maneuver.

Republicans may be upset about Obama, but how effective has their strategy been, anyway? Policies of engagement, such as with the Soviet Union and China (including under Republican presidents before their current authoritarian phase), have shown more success for their point-of-view than dig-in-your-heels obstinacy.

And it seems like this is a reflection of nearly all right-wing ideas. They trade off effectiveness in order to enforce a belief system which fails over and over again. Yet alternatives are derided as "leftist" and "liberal," or, more commonly, as "weak."

Republican/right-wing positions seem to me to be more about emotional stroking of feelings than effective outcomes. It's the "hard man," "stern disciplinarian," "never give in," "never change your mind," etc. mentality that seems to drive the U.S. approach to, well, just about everything these days. But, the thing is, it just doesn't work. No matter how badly it doesn't work, we never seem to change course, as with the example above.

Doesn't it seem like no matter how badly right-wing ideas fail, they are never abandoned? And that alternatives are considered unthinkable?

It's almost as if right-wing thinking was not concerned with results or outcomes at all! Because from a purely objective, data-driven standpoint, they fail over and over again.

This is what struck me about the talk with Stephen Schwartz I posted a few days back. I think this is the essential takeaway from what he was saying. What we're doing isn't working. And we know of alternatives, but we won't try them because of our ideology!

Let's take some concrete examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.

The first, and most obvious example, is "austerity." It's repeatedly been shown to be a failure: the private and public sectors are intimately entwined. Shrinking government effectively shrinks the economy, which is even worse when you have a downturn. This makes the debt worse, not better, since you shrink your tax base. Yet we must consistently demonize  government spending and use the debt as a boogeyman to shrink government (especially formerly effective public institutions that can be sold off to the private sector at low prices). Pay down the debt, lower taxes on the rich, and the economy will magically come roaring to life, claim the Republicans.

I've lost track of how many articles I've read, even from right-wingers, bemoaning the lack of growth over the last few years (which they can conveniently pin on Obama and [nonexistent] high taxes on the rich/regulations). Yet alternatives are never considered! The idea that the all-out war on wages waged over the past several decades had destroyed effective demand just never occurs to them. Alternative ideas, from MMT, to even the mild Keynesianism promoted by Paul Krugman (And used during the Great Depression), are effectively off the table. They cannot even be considered. "We must fight the debt, and money-printing is evil!" It's the economics of Puritan morality, rather than actual data or theory.

Austerity has been an unmitigated disaster, and this proves it (Washington Post)

To take another, let's look at the drug war. Recently, yet another article has come out about health care professionals declaring it a total disaster. If your goal is to reduce drug abuse (and I don't think that it is - it's actually about justifying locking up the poor and minorities, but let's set that aside), then the drug war has simply been a massive clusterfuck at every level. Every impartial expert, from health care to law enforcement, now acknowledges this. Yet we persist!

Like a lot of these failed ideas, we have examples of alternatives. These would be considered leftist/liberal in the U.S., and so they will not be tried. But they have proven more effective in ameliorating the problem. Here's an example from Portugal, for example--they have decriminalized drugs and shifted their focus to treating users instead of jailing them.

14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here's What Portugal Looks Like (Policy Mic)

A related concept is prison. Here, prison is about punishment, not rehabilitation, and the more harsh the punishment, the better. Our system is designed to abuse criminals as much as possible in the name of "harsh punishment" which has the end result of making even harder criminals. We also cut off opportunities to rejoin society by stigmatizing criminals so that they can't get jobs, virtually assuring that they will re-offend simply because there are no alternatives, thus ending up as permanent wards of the state (underwritten by the taxpayers).

European countries, by contrast, view prisons as primarily about rehabilitation, and punishment as secondary. The horrible treatment and physical and sexual abuse doled out in American prisons does not exist (in the U.S. more men are raped than women thanks to our prisons). It's also been clinically proven that daily doses of fish oil cut violent behaviors dramatically. We know this. Why isn't this done?

Cost of prisons in the US (BoingBoing)

We should instead be doing more things like this:

Restaurant gives ex-offenders a recipe for success (CNN)

We cannot do things like that here because it would be "coddling" criminals. "They must be made to suffer," say the "stern father" Republicans, no matter how ineffective or how much money it ends up costing us. Thus we have one out of every four of the world's prisoners rotting away in our jails. And no matter how bad the outcomes of the policy, people on the right-wing end of the spectrum will never change. It's all about emotion to them; ironically something they accuse their data-driven opponents of (i.e. projection). On and on it goes.

Or how about health care? Every other industrialized country has managed to provide health care for all of their citizens at a much lower cost than ours. There are any number of ways to do this, which rely on markets to a greater or lesser extent, yet they all achieve better outcomes. But they cannot be tried here, because of our opposition to "socialism," however defined. Or because entrenched interests can throttle any attempts at reform. The result is a population with much worse health outcomes than our national wealth would expect; in some cases as bad as poor third-world countries, as Schwartz points out.

I am David Belk. I'm a doctor who has spent years trying to untangle the mysteries of health care costs in the US and wrote a website exposing much of what I've discovered AMA! (Reddit)

Having a huge population working for minimum wage and with spotty or nonexistent access to health services is not effective. A poor and sick working population does not make for a dynamic or effective economy. It's a tremendous waste of human capital. Yet proposals to expand health care access (Medicare) or raise the minimum wage are viciously opposed by Republicans and libertarians (who instead promote eliminating both). And yet they wonder why economic growth is nonexistent!

When it comes to economics, most Republican voters I have known consider themselves to be "realistic," level-headed," dollars-and-cents," type of people, as opposed to "idealist" Democrats who just want to spend money willy-nilly in their opinion. They claim to be economic "conservatives." A disproportionate number of these people occupy the executive/managerial class, and are likely to engage in groupthink (since occupying this class is all about social affiliation with other members of the executive/managerial class).

But, despite their claims to be all about fomenting economic growth and being "good for business," every study ever done shows better economic outcomes under Democratic presidents, including gains for economic growth, job creation, and even stock market returns! This ranges from the New Deal policies of FDR which rescued us from the Great Depression (opposed by right-wingers even then), to the more "Eisenhower Republican" policies promoted by contemporary Democrats (contrasted with the aggressively anti-labor, "trickle-down" economic policies of contemporary Republicans)

No Record to Run On (David Brin)

In other words, they are willing to sacrifice their own potential money to vote for Republicans. Why? So that Republicans can "discipline" workers and crush unions, and so that they can engage in the rhetorical fellatio of John Galt-like "job creators." When you look at the actual outcomes, it turns out that the bottom-lines of these "dollars and cents," supposedly rational businessmen would be better off of they voted for "Liberals" and Democrats. It has nothing to do with outcomes, Republicans just want to feel dominant.

It has nothing to do with effectiveness. It's all about emotion. It's about authortiarianism and control. If you get rid of the bullshit, and look at the data, that is clearly what the data show.

I've pointed out may times here that working people into the ground, as we do, does not produce better outcomes. It's been shown to actually reduce productivity. We stubbornly deny humane vacation policies, even though it's been clinically shown that more vacation time leads to greater productivity overall. It turns out that burned-out workers produce less, and work less effectively. Who could have known?

America's 55-hour work weeks ruin workers' lives and don't produce extra value for employers (BoingBoing)

Britons working longer hours with no gain in productivity, study finds (Guardian)

When I pointed that out, several commenters wisely replied that is has nothing to with effectiveness; it's all about control. They don't care about productivity/effectiveness at all, otherwise they wouldn't oppose more vacation/shorter working hours. Rather, the executive/managerial class are willing to sacrifice increased productivity and better outcomes to get a hard-on by engaging in the masturbatory machismo of crushing overwork and revel in their absolute control over other peoples' lives. 

Again, there's that Republican/right-wing mentality rearing its ugly head. It's pervasive, and it's one reason we're failing as a country at every level.

We know, as I pointed out last time, that mixed economies with a strong safety net produce better outcomes in terms of happiness and well-being. The data here is overwhelming and incontrovertible. "Getting to Denmark" is the title of a chapter Francis Fukuyama's book about effective governing institutions. "Horatio Alger has moved to Finland," conclude economists not in the employ of right-wing think-tanks.

The fossil-fuel economy is clearly something we need to move beyond, and would even provide new growth opportunities, yet right-wingers consistently oppose research into alternative energy, want to maintain fossil-fuel subsidies and deny the science behind climate change. They even ban the very mention or study of climate change by government fiat in some localities.

Better universities are correlated with more social mobility and more competitive economies. Yet right-wingers are busily defunding universities to hand tax cuts to the one-percent. We know that miring students in a lifetime of debt is a clear drag on the economy, as well as a moral outrage, and yet we consider state-subsidized education a "giveaway," and let out-of-control universities hike tuition at will  to pay for bloated administrations, gold-plated amenities and sports programs that dominate the campus.

We know that bigger freeways don't relieve traffic congestion, because they just cause more people to drive, cancelling out any gains. Yet right-wingers oppose any and all public transportation initiatives, from high-speed rail (present for decades in Europe/Asia) to local trolleys and buses, to bike trails.

It turns out that states that have, you know, actually provided housing for the homeless, have had much better outcomes, with less suffering and for less money, than places which criminalize homelessness and harass them as a matter of policy.

Leaving Homeless Person On The Streets: $31,065. Giving Them Housing: $10,051. (Think Progress)

Blaming, demonizing,  and scapegoating the poor has been a less effective strategy than things like, you know, promoting the creation of well-paying jobs!

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is A Popular New Policy That Cost States Millions. Here Are The Results. (Think Progress)

Abstinence-only sex education programs consistently show higher rates of teen pregnancy, and yes, abortion (in places where bearing children is not enforced by state power).

We know that making children and teenagers attend school very early in the morning is detrimental to their learning ability. Yet we make them do it anyway. Change is unthinkable. And we blame individuals for the bad outcomes, as we do with everything else.

The military interventions championed by right-wingers, such as Iraq, have made the world far more, not less dangerous. Entire countries now lie in ruins, filled with terrorists that hate us, thanks to these Republican-driven demonstrations of American "strength" and "resolve."

It just goes on and on...

Right-wing policies are making us broke! As Schwartz pointed out, so-called "Blue state" policies, when you look at the statistics, produce better outcomes, and are even more cost-effective in the long run, if the outcome you are going for is wellness, as he puts it.

We can only conclude that Republican/right-wing policies are not designed to produce wellness at all. That is not their intent.

Why then, do so many people support them?

It seems that Americans are especially mired in tribalism, hatred, pettiness, spite, and the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. "If I can't have it, neither can you!" We prefer to build ourselves up by knocking our fellow citizens down, rather than finding ways to lift us all up. It's structuring society as a zero-sum, rather than a positive-sum game. We consistently cut off our noses to spite our face.

Part of is how we view all of our national problems as cases of individual failure rather than as the cumulative effects of bad public policy. "There is no such thing as society, only individual people striving in impersonal markets," is what we are taught to believe from birth. It's all part-and parcel of our "rugged individualist" mentality. "Divide and rule" has also always been a common method of control by a greedy and rapacious corporate elite ruling over a diverse population like the United States, but it ends up tearing society and apart and leads to worse outcomes such as lack of cooperation and social distrust (attitudes which are not beneficial from an economic standpoint).

Look at almost every indicator of health and well-being in America since these conservative idea viruses have achieved cultural hegemony, and they have gone into freefall. From economic austerity, to tepid economic growth, to free-market fundamentalism, to privatization, to the drug war, to stressed-out workers, to rampant poverty and homelessness, to inequality, to slashing the safety net and gutting publicly-funded education, to "throwing the book" at criminals, to "abstinence-only"education, to privatized school "teaching to the test," to coddling the fossil fuel industry; it's all led to worse outcomes and economic decay wherever it has been tried. Maybe we should try something else. Yet they have convinced us that there are no alternatives, or that the alternatives would be worse than the status quo. And we buy it.

When it comes to policy, sometimes I feel like I am too "left-wing" But the above shows why that's false. I care about outcomes. I want more wellness. And they way to get more wellness is to pursue policies that have been shown to produce those outcomes in the laboratory known as the world. Look, we have hundreds of countries with different policies. We know the outcomes. We know what works, and what doesn't. We have scientific data to inform our decisions. And yet, more often than not, we simply refuse to listen. It's sheer insanity!

The sad thing is that no amount of data will convince hide-bound conservatives of the error of their ways. They just dig in their heels, because they make their decisions based on a misapplication of morality and an individualist worldview, coupled with negative emotions of tribalism, dominance, hierarchy, and control. And that assures that things will continue to get worse for a long time to come.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Wellness vs. Anti-Wellness

Related to the last post:

Netherlands will once again need to close prisons due to falling crime rate and lack of prisoners. (Reddit)

Meanwhile, in a very different culture:
Unless they’ve known someone who’s been incarcerated, most people don’t know that the corrections system has an entire commerce arm of its own. Everything an inmate can buy — phone calls, commissary, copays for substandard medical care, video visitation or the new email service — is purchased through a special account created by the prison or a private company.

Merely to add funds to an account, the family or friends of inmates must pay a service fee. I have an account myself with the prison phone giant Securus so that inmates I want to keep in touch with can call me. In February, I’d loaded my phone account without any fee. Then, a few weeks ago, I was charged $6.95 to add $5 of call time. So, the $11.95 that used to buy 49 minutes then purchased only 20.

It is hard to determine exactly how the fees are being applied: The commissions system is opaque, with the prison itself collecting a portion of the companies’ revenues, leading the companies to charge more service fees to an inmate’s phone account to make up the difference.

These fees are an additional money grab by the phone companies and the prison commissions system. There’s a fee to create an account, a fee to fund an account, even a fee to get a refund. The companies are also taking advantage of a loophole in the F.C.C. order that allows them to add special fees for single calls by a user who doesn’t want to set up an account with them. For the “PayNow” option from Securus, for example, the call cost is $1.80, but the transaction fee is $13.19. Before the F.C.C.’s order was implemented, ancillary fees added nearly 40 percent to phone call costs for prison customers.

Earlier this year, while researching for the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank, I discovered that, partly to offset lost revenue from the F.C.C.’s rate-capping, inmate call providers were making agreements with financial service companies like Western Union and MoneyGram to share the money-sending service fees for purchasing phone time.

The phone companies’ strategy was clear before the F.C.C.’s rate cap kicked in. Last year, Securus acquired JPay, one of the nation’s largest prison financial services providers. JPay handles financial transactions for 70 percent of prison inmates; its fees are as high as 35 to 45 percent of the money being sent. JPay could potentially charge a fee to create a JPay account to pay the service fee to load a Securus phone account.

It’s not just that this system is exploitative and cruel, taking from those who have little enough already. But this profiteering is also imposing costs on society. It’s been established that regular contact between inmates and their friends and family on the outside lowers the rate of reoffending upon release. So, if that contact is rationed because of phone company profiteering, the result is more recidivism.
The Prison-Commercial Complex (New York Times)
But the story isn't limited to one town in Texas. From West Philadelphia -- where frail, elderly African-American couples have their homes seized in dawn no-knock raids because their children or even grandchildren are suspected of involvement in drug trafficking -- to towns across America, civil forfeiture is a cash-cow and an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, a way for cash-strapped towns and counties to pay for their law-enforcement infrastructure through literal daylight robbery. And it's a vicious cycle: the more the cops steal from the poor and powerless, the more money they have to hire more cops to commit more theft.
Civil Forfeiture: America's daylight robbery, courtesy of the War on Drugs (BoingBoing)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Schwartz Report

A few episodes back, Tangentially Speaking had an interview with Stephen Schwartz. I had not heard of him, but apparently he releases something called the "Schwartz Report." Later, I found out his actual job is investigating psychic phenomena(!). Nevertheless, this part of the discussion contains a level of common-sense that America seems to be incapable of:
Stephen Schwartz (guest): I do the trends. I don't make them. We all make them; we are all involved with creating the society that we are a part of; that's what my new book is about, The Eight Laws of Change. But, you know, I don't care about politics, I don't care about partisanship. I'm not interested in ideology or theology except from an anthropological point of view. What I care about is data, and what I really care about is wellness, and what produces wellness. That's what got me started with this. I began studying how do you create social change, and particularly how you create wellness.

Chris Ryan (host): How do you define wellness?

SS: I mean just what you think I mean! Health, prosperity, a sense that you are able to fulfill your potential, a sense that your family and children are safe and will prosper...what the Founders meant when they said happiness; what Benjamin Franklin meant by a virtuous citizen. That's what I'm interested in. I think the function of society should be to produce--should be, isn't--but I think the function of society is to produce wellness.

CPR: Do you think that's ever been the function of society?

SS: Oh yes, there are societies that are very much wellness oriented...for instance, Bernie Sanders in one of the first democratic debates made a comment about Norway. So I thought, "Well that's actually quite interesting, if you looked at those two societies..." I realize they're different sizes, that's not the point. It has to do with intention, the social intention, whether you're little or big.

So, I thought, "Well that's quite interesting, what are the differences between Norway and the United States?"

Now, as I said, I don't care about--I'm not interested in your theories, I don't care about your ideologies. What I want to know is, "If you do this, what's the outcome?' So my measurement is data: social metrics. I want to know, when you cut through all the crap, what's the outcome? And does it produce wellness?

So I made a list of about twenty social outcomes--maternal mortality, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, illiteracy, educational attainment, incarceration, gun deaths--obvious things. And I compared both the United States and Norway.

And the outcome is, well, from the point of view of the United States it's quite grim. It's notably inferior. Norway is a society that's made a social contract among themselves--its a citizen idea--that we're going to create wellness.

And so if you look at these things across time and across various societies...I mean, we pay more than any other country in the world for health care, and yet according to the World Health Organization, I think the last one was 37th in total outcomes...So we pay more than anybody else; I think it's about 17.2 percent of our gross domestic product. The best health care system in the world, the French, pays about thirty percent less, about 11.2 percent of their domestic product. So were paying more than anybody else, by orders of magnitude but were getting rotten outcomes.

Just to take what I mean by rotten outcomes, a child born in rural North Carolina  has less change of getting to his first birthday than a child born in Botswana. It's a country most people have never heard of; it's in the middle of South Africa; it was a protectorate at one point. A child in Texas is four times more likely to be physically abused to a point of hospitalization than a child in Vermont. Eleven times more than a child in Rome.
Denmark Tops The List Of The Happiest Countries In The World (Fastcoexist)

Nearly half of American children living near poverty line (EurekaAlert)
You know, Justice Louis Brandeis said back in the thirties the states are laboratories--that's what the founders intended--the states are laboratories, and you can see by the choices they make the outcomes that they get and therefore you can learn from them and decide whether you want to introduce this at the national level.

Well if you look at, for instance, not just between countries, Norway and the United States; if you look at the difference between the "Red value" states and "Blue value" states--forget about the political ideology, the political polemic. Everybody tells you they want make things better, blah, blah, blah whatever, and we love the children!..If you look at the states, as an example, you can see that "Red Value" states, consistently, have poorer social wellness than "Blue Value" states, and they cost more. And the big takeaway of all this is that, wellness is cheaper, it's more efficient, it's more effective, and it's more enduring. So "Red Value" social policies are more expensive, less efficient, less productive, and they last less."

CPR: And they cause huge amounts of unnecessary suffering.

SS: They are anti-wellness.

CPR: Let me push back on the number of points you made...People are going to say, Norway is a very small country...I think [scale] is an issue in the fact that social networks are less extended and people are more likely to have some sort of direct contact with one another.

I write a lot about hunter gather societies versus modern societies, and one of the things I always come back to is that scale changes things. Scale makes the relationships institutional rather than personal. And when the relationships become institutional, they become inhuman, because you don't know...you never look in the eyes of the person whose pension you're cutting, or the kid who isn't getting lunch at school. It's not your kid, its not a kid of anyone you know or anyone you will meet in your entire life, so it makes those decisions different.

The other thing I would say is--Devil's advocate again--is that a place like Norway doesn't have anywhere near the amount of, you know, the melting pot and all the different cultures, which creates a kind of brutality in America. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what your situation is, the rules are the rules! I've lived in Europe my whole adult life, so when I come back to the United States I'm struck by the rigidity of the legal system here...

SS: It is true that smaller societies, for a variety of reasons, are more personal. That's true. But the critique that is offered--that Norway is little and the United States is big--Norway actually has a population that's equal to about three states--doesn't hold up."

Just look at the United States. Look at the difference between Jerry Brown and Sam Brownback, Tea Party Republican governor of Kansas. Jerry Brown inherits a state that by many people's calculation is bankrupt, whose educational system is a disaster, whose unemployment is in crisis...

CPR: Natural disasters left and right, chronic drought...

SS: Right. Everything you can think of. California's going down the tubes...Sam Brownback, in contrast, comes in as governor to a state that is very conservative traditionally, but stable. People are prosperous. They seem to have a quite conservative, but essentially wellness-oriented future.
Now you look seven years later at these two states. Jerry Brown has a surplus, the educational system has been radically altered for the better; California, which is at this point now a majority minority state, nonetheless has much less racial animosity, has a much higher population than Kansas, should be much more impersonal, there should be much more racial tension, on and on. California is making preparations about climate change.

Kansas has gone through, what is it, three credit downgrades? Brownback has gutted the educational system; he's running deficits. There is a lot of animosity between the Christian fundamentalists. It's an overwhelmingly white state, nonetheless there's a lot of animosity between groups. It's a much less successful state seven years after Brownback came to office, rather than California which has gone in exactly the other direction. Or we could look at Bobby Jindal. Or we could compare Wisconsin to Minnesota where you've got Mark Dayton in Minnesota and Scott Walker in Wisconsin...
Let's stop the narrative there and look at some evidence of his points:

Battered by drop in oil prices and Jindal’s fiscal policies, Louisiana falls into budget crisis (Washington Post)

Kansas shows us what could happen if Republicans win in 2016 (Washington Post)

The Republican Party Must Answer for What It Did to Kansas and Louisiana (NYMag)

Alabama Republican wants to stop people on food stamps from owning cars — but expects them to get jobs (Raw Story)

Governor Blocks $2.85 Minimum Wage Increase After Giving Staffers $73,405 Raises (Think Progress)

Illinois cuts off funding for its public universities (Marketplace)

Business leaving Georgia amid freedom religious bill controversy (WECT)

This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Increased the Minimum Wage — Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country (Huffington Post)

Mr. Schwartz point cannot be overemphasized - forget ideology, just look at the outcomes! Raw data that can be quantified and measured. Republican/right-wing philosophy leads to worse societies, period. As this article points out, if we really look at the success of capitalism, the mixed economies consistently are the best performers as opposed to "pure" capitalist ones. As I like to say, I'm not a capitalist or a communist; I'm a pragmatist. Like Schwartz, I like what works. Show me the evidence.

Given this, why don't these societies and states change?

I don't know, but one fact I'm always struck with is the correlation between unsuccessful societies and religious belief. And it holds at every level. The most peaceful, productive and happiest societies in the world are the Nordic Countries and Western Europe, where religion is sort of a cultural relic. The poorest, most miserable, and most war-torn are typically in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where superstition and fundamentalist religious belief are rife and imbued throughout the society. In America, the poorest and most backward states are in the so-called "Bible Belt" and the Southwest, where fundamentalist churches abound and politics is dominated by religious affiliation. And even within cities, you go the poorest neighborhoods, and you see churches in the boarded-up derelict storefronts filled with people preaching "salvation."

It seems religion is correlated with this "Red Value" philosophy: the "strict father, harsh punishment, rigid, patriarchal, in-group vs. out-group, rule by the rich" philosophy, rather than the wellness-oriented, utility-maximizing, cooperative philosophy.

And what's remarkable is the extent to which "Red Value" governing philosophies have become predominant across the whole United States since the late 1970's. This, in large part, explains much America's downward spiral into failed-state status. Instead of Jeffersonian Democracy, we find ourselves in a Banana Republic.

Maybe David Brin's theory that we've never stopped fighting the Civil War, and now we're in the next phase, is correct. The Confederate States exemplify the "Red Value" style of governance in Schwartz's estimation, and the Northern union states represent a "Blue Value" style of governing, a style which is now holding on by its fingernails in the U.S.
Today's neo-confederacy is smart enough not to secede.  This time, it is working from within to slash the things that it always hated. Especially science, which is the enemy of nostalgia. But also any chance of American pragmatism prevailing in the kind of experiment-by-politics that has always been our national genius.
http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2014/09/phases-of-american-civil-war.html

A Modern Confederacy (TYWKIWDBI)

What we've seen is the Red Value style of governing taking over the entire country, partly because it has millions of dollars in oligarch money behind it. It's not for nothing that detractors have taken to calling Wisconsin under Scott Walker's governance "Wississippi." That style of governance - political patronage and cronyism, governmental corruption, union-busting, ultra-low taxes on unearned wealth, gutting the safety net and defunding the University System--once a source of bipartisan pride for the state, are all consistent with this style of governing.

Which party is best for the economy? It's not even close (DailyKos)

Back to the discussion:
Stephen Schwartz: So every one of these places where we look at this, you see that although the scale argument that's advanced--yes it holds true to a certain part, but no it does not hold true across many thresholds of measurement because it has to do not so much with size as with consciousness. So I would say to you that hunter gatherers operated well as a culture because they shared a common consciousness. They were linked together in way that's much more difficult for modern societies to attain.

"You can see as you look across states. California is like a country! If you look at a  state, Louisiana, Alabama Mississippi, if they were not part of the union, they would be second-world countries, maybe third-world countries in some cases. What is clear, is that when you choose to make social wellness the first priority..."

This is not anti-profit, that's not what I'm saying. You can make all the profit you want. In fact, what's going to happen is that those people who create wellness-oriented technologies are going to make billions of dollars, just as thirty, forty years ago, a group of post-teenagers transformed the world with IT and made billions of dollars. Why? Because they increased the potential for wellness.

Chris Ryan: Is there an innate tendency in capitalism toward increasing wellness?

SS: No! The argument that is always made by conservatives is, "Oh, then you must be anti-capitalist; you must be anti-profit." No, I'm not against profit! Profit is what makes people get up in the morning. I mean, not everybody, but a lot of people. What I'm saying is, you have to make wellness your first priority and figure out how within a wellness-productive [economy], you can make profit.

You look at a guy like Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a billionaire. And he's going to get much, much richer. Why? Because he's figured this out! And his technologies are all about producing wellness. Wellness in getting us out of the carbon age, by creating solar storage devices...electric cars, reusable rockets. It just goes on and on...He has figured out that there are billions of dollars to made in wellness.

CPR: And it excites people. There are billionaires whose names, at least speaking for myself, I don't know, who probably are making far more money than Elon Musk, but I don't give a damn. Because I see Elon Musk trying to move the world in a direction that I actually want it to go in...

SS: The problem that we have as a culture, American society, is that we lost what the founders were driving at. And instead we've become a society that has only one social priority and that's profit. That's the only social priority that counts.

CPR: And we don't see that these extremes of social inequality decrease wellness for everyone...

[42:39]
Stephen Schwartz: We have created a culture --we don't have a healthcare system, we have an illness profit system--and we have a culture that encourages unwellness. I mean, it's a social priority to create unwellness, because there are huge corporate structures who benefit from unwellness. They create unwellness.

[51:30]
SS: These are the big lies we tell ourselves; these are Orwellian lies. If you look at this marijuana issue, you will see its counterpart in all kinds of areas going on. Take agriculture...we have known for a number of years, anyone who bothered to really look at the research, that neonicitinoids  are destructive of bees. Whether that's the only thing that's destructive of bees is a red herring. "Oh, it's not that, it's the whatever..." We have allowed Monsanto to sell this stuff despite the fact that of the ninety major foodstuffs that human beings eat, seventy  of them depend on bee pollination. I mean we're literally putting at risk the world's entire food system, but we sell it anyway. Why? Because profit is the only social priority. If wellness was your priority, that stuff would never have been allowed to go into the market. And once it was in, like DDT, it should have been taken off years ago.

Ryan points out that the sexual abstinence programs are also associated with far worse outcomes. He points out that trickle down economics has not worked, and that even some of its own architects have denounced it.

CPR: We know these things don't work!

SS: Yes, but they're incredibly profitable. They make an enormous amount of money for a small group of people. That's what's created wealth inequity. A society which makes profit first will inevitably produce massive social inequality. A society which produces wellness first, people will still makes lots of money, but the negative, wellness-degrading social effects that we witness under a profits-first system, they just disappear.

Again, you look at the Red states and Blue states. Exactly as you say, Red value states which bloviate endlessly about family values...everything that you say; absolutely correct. There's more teen pregnancy, there's more sexually transmitted diseases, there's more divorce, there's more abortion in red value states. The policies which arise from a worldview which says we're each isolated and separate, and everybody's out for himself, and devil take the hindmost, and those who are the most socioipathic can rise to the top, those states in the long run when you see them over a period of time are doing worse and worse and worse.

CPR: And that's obvious.

SS: Anyone who looks at data will find that to be true. This is not my political position. This isn't my polemics about it. Look at the data! That's what I tell people. Quit arguing about is it Democratic or Republican, that's another one of these big lie things. The question is, is what's being done protective of wellness, or is it degrading of wellness?

[58:00]
Stephen Schwartz: I have enormous urgency and alarm about what's happening. Because when I look at what's going on, what I see is the collapse of American society. And when you add climate change to that, you have a formula for the complete breakdown of culture...

[1:16]
Stephen Schwartz: ...But the truth is, there is no force on earth as powerful as the collective intention of a multitude. It'll chance anything. Has changed anything. And what I'm concerned with is that we are experiencing a kind of great schism now where were really splitting into two countries. and dialogue across those two countries is getting increasingly difficult and will get extremely difficult because the trends that are going on are freaking people out."

For the first time in five-hundred years being born white is not going to confer privilege. We started to talk earlier about opiates. What's interesting is opiate use among Hispanics and Blacks is going down. Opiate use among whites is going up. Why is that? And the reason is I think that Black and Hispanic kids never expected to get the benefit. They never expected to get privilege. So everything they get they earned, because there's nothing awarded just because you're around. White kids are now also experiencing that for the first time and its making them crazy.

By the same token, a certain segment of their elders have become so fearful that they're willing to tolerate ninety-two people a day dying by gunfire. Thirty-three thousand people a year dying by gunfire. Dying by gunfire is now a significant cause of death in the United States. Incomprehensible! You live in Europe, so I know that you know that it's incomprehensible. And of course, this isn't at all what the Founders had in mind; this is not what the Second Amendment is about; that is not what they were trying to do. But we are willing to tolerate it because our fear is so great that we feel  "Oh my God, I've got to go out and get a gun an protect myself!" Now the reality is that the person most likely to be injured by your gun is a friend or a family member. But we tolerate it because of this fear issue.

You look at the climate change trend. We are the only country in the developed world that has a major party that things the whole thing is a hoax and won't do anything about it. You talk to Europeans...I've made three trips to Europe so far this year, and they come up to me at dinners, or talking, or if I give a paper, a talk at a conference, you know..."Why are you so violent?" If you're looking outside its incomprehensible. I've had people say to me, "You know I've always wanted to come to the United States, but my wife just thinks it's too dangerous."

Chris Ryan: It's a tragedy because...like, my wife was raised in Africa. We've been here in the States for a few months and she...it breaks her heart. Because she said, "When I was a little girl, America was the place where you knew how to do everything right. All the best music, the moonshots; everything beautiful and wonderful and hopeful was happening in America. And now I come here and everybody is overweight and sick, and the food is horrible, and the bridges are falling down. What happened?

[1;18;30]
Stephen Schwartz: At the end of World War Two, having seen all the death, we oriented ourselves toward wellness. And we created the most successful middle class in history. With Ronald Reagan, we sold our soul to profit. And as a result of that we are unhappy, we are miserable, we are unhealthy, our children are [among] the least healthy, least advanced, least educated in the world; we have seventeen million children that have hunger issues in the United States.

I mean your wife is absolutely correct. The first time I went to...I worked for National Geographic when I came out of university. And I was sent to Jordan; this was the very early Sixties. and it was the first time I ever traveled for business. I was unbelievably naive. And I went up to this restaurant on the Corniche. It was on the second floor. I ate this really wonderful meal by myself. And I reached in, and I realized I had changed pants, and I had left my wallet in my other pants. And all I had with me was my press card. And I asked the waiter if he could bring the manager over, and he did.

You know. Here I am, I'm twenty-one years old, and I said to this guy, "I've made a terrible mistake; I'm so sorry; I don't have any money. I changed pants; I left my wallet in the other...but I have my press card for National Geographic. And I'll leave it with you and and I will come back and pay you. I'll just walk around the corner to the hotel, and I'll get my wallet and I'll come right back, is that okay?" This was before credit cards.

He said to me, "Don't worry. It's my pleasure to give you this meal. During the last war, during the Second World War, your country saved my family from being killed. It's my honor to give an American a free meal."

My most recent trip, to Sweden, I'm sitting at the table with a Norwegian engineer, I had spoke at a conference, and this guy's sophomore daughter who was at university, and we were having lunch. And she said to me, "How many people get killed in your country every day in your country by guns?" I said 92. She said, "How many do the police kill?" I said, so far this year, 958. "How many get killed in a year?"  Thirty-three thousand. She said to me, "Why are you so violent? We have guns. There's lots of guns in Norway. Why are you so violent? How can you live in a society where 92 people a day are cut down by gunfire? What happened to America?" I didn't have an answer for that. It embarrassed me, and made me very uncomfortable.

I understand what your wife is saying because you hear it all over the world. I've been three times to Europe this year..France Norway, Sweden, Mexico. Inevitably, I talk about the eight laws, people come up to me and say, "What happened to America? You were the most admired country in the world, blah, blah," just like your wife. All the good music, all the hip stuff, all the breakthroughs, all the things that we all wanted; you could get them in America. What happened? And the answer is, we made profit the first priority.
Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint. (Evonomics)

The Right Thing to Do (Ian Welsh) On a similar theme:
What makes me saddest of all things in the world is this: In the vast majority of situations, the right thing to do morally is the right thing to do in terms of broad self-interest, and yet we don’t believe that and we do the wrong thing, thinking we must, or thinking that we’re making the “hard decisions.”

This spans the spectrum of issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about foreign affairs, where the money used on Iraq and Afghanistan could have rebuilt America and made it more prosperous. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about health care, where everyone knew that the right thing to do was single payer or some other form of comprehensive healthcare, which would have reduced bankruptcies massively, saved 6 percent of GDP and massive numbers of lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the financial crisis, where criminally prosecuting those who engaged in fraud (the entire executive class of virtually every major financial firm) and nationalizing the major banks, wiping out the shareholders and making the bondholders eat their losses was the right thing to do, and didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about drug policy, where the “war on drugs” has accomplished nothing except destabilizing multiple countries and giving the US the largest prison population proportional to population in the entire world and where legalizing marijuana, soft opiates, and coca leaves would save billions of dollars, reduce violence, help stabilize Mexico, and would help tax receipts. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about food, where we subsidize the most unhealthy foods possible and engage in practices which have reduced the nutritional content of food by 40 percent in the last half century. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about environmental pollutants, which have contributed to a massive rise in chronic diseases so great it amounts to an epidemic.

And on, and on, and on...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Technology and Efficiency

"Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

● Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Dune

I thought this was fascinating:
Lee Sedol used about 20 Watts of power to operate. By contrast, AlphaGo runs on a whopping 1920 CPUs and another 280 GPUs for an estimated power consumption of approximately 1 MW (200 W per CPU and 200 W per GPU). That’s 50,000 times as much power as the amount of power that Lee Sedol’s brain uses and the two are not quite evenly matched but it is close enough to use for comparison. 
It took 30 computers to [defeat Garry Kasparov], evaluating approximately 200 million positions per second, mostly due to its use of a large number of specially crafted chips. The 30 P2SC nodes alone consumed about 900 watts of power, you still need to add some power consumption for the 480 ASICs that were especially crafted to play chess (we’re not actually talking about a general purpose computer here, more about a special purposes hardware design that happens to be extremely good at evaluating chess positions).
http://jacquesmattheij.com/another-way-of-looking-at-lee-sedol-vs-alphago

Interesting definition of efficiency - as always, to downgrade the human in favor of machines. That's why we're growing plants in railroad cars rather than under sunlight in the name of "efficiency." Not to mention the GO computer can't do something as simple as throw a ball.
Imagine a contest in which we are going to pit man against machine. But instead of measuring who is best in playing the game of ‘Go’ we are going to measure who is fastest. In the one corner: Human, all of 175 pounds of extremely well trained runner. And in the other corner, a Formula 1 racecar with a remote control running down a straight track...So now the interesting question (to me at least) is: How long before a computer will beat the human Go world champion using no more power than the human.
That's proof of the sentiment from this classic Archdruid Report report from a few years back:
It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; to make it function at all, you have to add electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing; to make it more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system, which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy; and of course to produce the laptop, the electrical grid, and the internet in the first place, counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world. 
Human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by herself is capable of meeting her essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment; a few dozen human beings, given suitable knowledge and skills, can support themselves comfortably over the long term on a tribal-village level, using the same diffuse energy sources; a few thousand human beings subject to all these limits can create a civilization. In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity. That’s why, for example, the ancient Greek inventors who created the steam turbine and crafted highly efficient gearing systems didn’t launch the industrial revolution two thousand years early; the recognition that fossil fuels existed in enough quantity to power steam engines, drive gear trains and replace human labor with mechanical force was missing, and without that, Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine and the Antikythera device’s clockwork mechanism could never be anything more than clever toys. 
The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again...
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2012/02/recovery-of-human.html

Even if you don't think we're running out of the energy to do these things, the loss of these skills is tragic. It's said that Australian aborigines, who had no words for "right and left" only ordinal directions like north, south, east, and west, could find their way across vast distances accurately with no maps or other navigational tool. Polynesian sailors were able to navigate across vast distances of ocean using nothing but their senses.

I'm sure I'm not the first to make the observation that it seems like the smarter our phones get, people seem to get dumber by a corresponding amount. People relying on GPS instead of their own senses and driving into a lake or off a cliff are so common as to not be reported anymore.

Speaking of low-tech solutions, that reminds me of another story I heard recently. There have been a number of times where a passenger pigeon has actually transferred information faster than high-speed internet:
A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom. Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.
SA pigeon 'faster than broadband' (BBC)

And in Cuba, always a hotbed of low-tech solutions to problems, a low-tech "Netflix" system has developed which doesn't require fiber-optic cables or gigajoules of energy (ignore the requisite socialist-bashing in the second-to-last para):
"El Paquete Semanal" (the Weekly Package) is a weekly trove of digital content —everything from American movies to PDFs of Spanish newspapers — that is gathered, organized, and transferred by a human web of runners and dealers to the entire country. It is a prodigious and profitable operation...Paquete subscribers pay between $1 and $3 per week to receive the collection of media. It's either delivered to their home or transferred at a pickup station, usually in the back of a cellphone repair shop, a natural cover for this type of operation.
This is Cuba's Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify – all without the internet (Vox)

Nevertheless, one of the top stories on the Reddits over the past few days has been this:

Carl’s Jr. CEO wants to try automated restaurant where customers ‘never see a person’ (KFOR)

CEO of Carl’s Jr. Says He Replace All Human Workers With Robots (CoverageMail)

Fast-food CEO says he's investing in machines because the government is making it difficult to afford employees (Business Insider)

So, the only way we can produce enough jobs in our economy is by paying abysmally low wages? Or are we still pretending that these jobs are just summer jobs for teenagers and housewives? And how does the opinion of this wealthy junk-food mogul square with the blase assurances of economists that automation always "creates more jobs that it destroys?"

I remember all those years when economists assured us that the "service economy" was the wave of the future, and we should not even try to stop deindustrialization, because everyone would be so much better off in the "new" economy. It looks like people are starting to get wise to the con.

BONUS: The woman who lives in a 1939 time warp (BBC) Keep calm and carry on!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Empires in the Malthusian World

Last time I talked about the Malthusian model, and how it leads us astray in our understanding of the past.

While perusing a book of ancient history, Paul Krugman had an epiphany:
You see, I have or had a pretty firm, cynical but I thought well-grounded model of pre-industrial civilization. All pre-industrial societies, I thought, were Malthusian, with the bulk of the population living at the edge of subsistence. The fruits of civilization went only to a small elite, 5 or 10 percent of the population at most, which essentially lived on resources extorted from the peasantry. For everyone else, it didn’t matter who ruled or how; politics, national or cultural concerns, whatever, were internal squabbles among the extractive classes. 
This model still seems to me to be pretty good for the Roman Empire. But at least as [Adrian] Goldsworthy describes it, the Roman Republic at the time of the Punic Wars was something very different. It beat Carthage not so much through military prowess as through social solidarity: not only had Rome managed to assimilate many peoples and turn them into citizens or very loyal allies, it seems to have inspired strong commitment from a large fraction of the population. This gave it a huge advantage over Carthage in terms of military manpower, and also the durability that allowed it to absorb terrible defeats and keep on fighting. 
Are there any other examples in history like this? And how did they do it? What was special about the Roman political and/or social system that produced this kind of solidarity? 
Of course, it didn’t last — the very conquests made possible by the virtus of the Republic eventually produced vast latifundia worked by slaves and undermined all the old values; Rome became a more or less standard preindustrial empire. But it wasn’t always. Why?
SPQR And All That (Paul Krugman)

In fact, this is timely, since a recent book also makes the case that the past was less "Malthusian" than we were led to believe. We saw in J. Lawrence Angel's chart that during Classical Greece, measures of health rose to levels nearly equal to today's, before declining again. A new book by Stanford Classics professor Josiah Ober argues that the ancient Greek economy was much more prosperous than previously thought.

What he and his students did was computerize much of the archaeological data into a form that could be quantified and visualized over time. Trying to understand economic growth rates in the past without that massive reams of statistics that we have at our fingertips is very difficult. Yet they managed to do so using archaeological data, including coin hoards. Turns out that burying coins was very popular during times of crisis, with bailouts not being available, giving us a window into relative wealth in different locations over time.

The results show that, like Paul Krugman, we've been vastly underestimating the ancient world:
...Ober says there was previously a developing and crystallizing consensus among classical scholars that there was little to no economic growth in ancient Greece – as was the case in most societies of that time. 
But instead of portraying a static, poor Greek economy, Ober's new findings have shown that from about 1000 to 300 B.C., classical Greece had impressive rates of economic growth that were unparalleled by its contemporaries in antiquity. 
Together with a team of other Stanford scholars and students, the professor of classics and of political science digitized huge amounts of archaeological, documentary and literary data. Using these new tools, the team created analyses and visualizations that map out aspects of Greek life, such as how money circulated and how many people lived in cities versus small farms. 
At a certain point, Ober explained, the team compiled "a critical amount of evidence and recognized that the old story couldn't be right." 
...The combined results of the proxy data point to a rising economy that "increased in terms of total number of people somewhere in excess of 10 times to 15 times over about a 500-year period." In that same period, he added, "the rate of per capita consumption would have about doubled." 
Ober explained that these rates are very low compared to modern standards. "But compared to other pre-modern economies, this is really spectacular growth."
Stanford scholar debunks long-held beliefs about economic growth in ancient Greece (Stanford News)
If the constructed data is [sic] correct, then not only did Greek population grow by an extraordinary amount during the Archaic Period roughly 800-500 BC, but Greek consumption per capita grew by 50-100% from 800-300 BC...this would imply a massive productivity gain of some 450-1000%, or 0.3-0.46% growth per annum. This seems quite implausible to me. Indeed, the population estimates imply that the Ancient Greek population would have been substantially larger than that of Greece in the 1890s AD, along with higher agricultural productivity! This is all the more puzzling as there appears to have been no major technological change to support so many more mouths to feed, let alone feed them better than before. *But assuming the data are correct, what would have to give?
Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece (Capitalism's Cradle)

Given that health measures of skeletons seem to confirm this data, it seems believable. It is fortunate that the increase in consumption also improved health measures, something not always the case. For example, consumption of goods and wages increased in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, but most people were much sicker and less healthy than their immediate ancestors (i.e. you could be afford buried in a much nicer suit and expensive coffin when you died of black lung at 25).

So if the simplistic Malthusian world is wrong, how did they do it? And what are the lessons for today?

According to the article cited above, one likely explanation was the expelling of excess sons to form colonies abroad. This is similar to Colinvaux's arguments for colonization as a way to deal with population pressure and an excess of people desiring to occupy space in the broad social niches. Because the Greeks had better sailing and weapons technology, and could farm the earth more intensively than their neighbors (olives, grapes, wheat, goats, etc.), and could take land around the Mediterranean from other peoples by force and numbers. It's no coincidence that Roman gods and architecture are based on Greek models (in fact, a commenter to the post mentioned The Fates of Nations, which is where I first heard of it, bringing us full circle):
It seems that Greek poleis (city-states) had many, often brutal tricks up their sleeve to deal with excess fertility. For example, [Robin] Lane Fox notes that most communities would simply expose surplus surviving offspring, who at best might be taken as slaves elsewhere (p.32).  
Part of the reason for this was that Greek families always divided inheritances between all surviving sons, which is problematic from the point of view of breaking the link between wealth and fertility so as to reduce Malthusian burdens: after all, endowing a son with a share of the land encourages him to start a family of his own, directly resulting in less land supporting more mouths to feed.  
One way around the problem was to get male heirs to agree to share a family property rather than subdividing it. Alternatively, less fertile or infertile families sometimes adopted another family's excess sons. If all else failed, however, the excess sons were sent away to found a colony abroad. The evidence for colonisation as an Ancient Greek Malthusian safety valve seems to stack up: Firstly, the timing seems to fit with the supposed economic expansion, with colonisations beginning in earnest in the 8th Century BC.  
Secondly, there are records of the formal conscription of settlers, as well as bans on their returning home for several years. Lane Fox notes that in one case guards were even posted on the shore to sling stones at any who tried to make a break for home (p.34). The settlers also rarely seem to have had commerce in mind as a reason for expansion, usually fighting off local populations. Last of all, the settlers were almost exclusively male; yet another sign that they were excess sons sent away to preserve the wealth of the home polis. The implication of this is that the economic growth of the period may have been more extensive than intensive: in order to deal with increasing population, colonisation simply increased the amount of land brought under cultivation, rather than bringing existing areas under more productive and intensive cultivation.
However, Sparta used very different methods to achieve a similar result:
...we also seem to see much greater pains being taken to prevent Malthusian pressures, perhaps due to the absence of colonisation. For example, its aristocracy was restricted to eating an austere black broth: after all, one alternative to reducing the number of mouths to feed is to feed them less. Similarly, its magistrates would annually "declare war" on its serfs (conquered Messenians called helots) with a view to justifying its aristocrats in going out and killing any "troublemakers" (p.75). I would imagine these "troublemakers"would be the excess helot sons, and that this may be a rather more brutal alternative to sending citizens out to form colonies. 
Most significantly, however, Spartan property laws had the effect of greatly reducing fertility even if fecundity (the biological potential to have children) remained high. 
Firstly, much land was state-owned, thus breaking the direct link between subdivision of land and the starting of families. But of the privately-held land in Messenia, property laws had an important effect: By an important loophole, property left to a daughter could pass outside the family on the girl's marriage. Inevitably, girls with property were married off to the most propertied suitors and then, the doubly propertied young couple would try not to rear too many children between whom their newly gained economic superiority would have to be divided. Consequently, land-holdings were concentrated into fewer hands. (Lane Fox, p.76)  
Elsewhere, Lane Fox also notes that this loophole resulted in brothers sometimes having a single wife between them - yet another social norm that I suspect reduced the number of children (p.71). What's most interesting about this is that we know that it worked: the Spartiates (citizens of Sparta) shrank in number from around 9,000 in c.640 BC to less than 1,000 by c.330.
Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece (Capitalism's Cradle)

So, according to this theory, Greek prosperity was achieved by either 1.) colonization, 2.) outright murder of the lower classes, 3.) "Spartan" lifestyles, and 4.) limiting fertility of the propertied classes.

Re: colonization, is it any coincidence that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England, a country that had vast colonies all over the North American continent (The Wealth of Nations, James Watt's steam engine patent, and the Declaration of Independence all ca. 1776), and hence high enough living standards to have a large population with leisure time to "tinker?" It's also worth noting that the Industrial Revolution was preceded by a British Agricultural Revolution (also late 1700's).

Krugman's question also prompted Brad DeLong to respond:
Paul asks what really are two interlinked questions: 
    1.) What preindustrial civilizations manage to live substantially above "nasty, brutish, and short" biological subsistence--which usually means having a substantial middle class? 
   2.) What preindustrial civilizations manage to then mobilize that surplus, so that their middle class-aided military aristocracy can overwhelm that of their neighbors, and then extract the fruits of plunder and empire?
Those are good questions. If everyone was living on the edge of subsistence, as economists assert, then how could the vast empires we all know from antiquity form, along with the majestic cultural artifacts which remain with us to this day from the Pyramids, to the Acropolis, to the Taj Mahal?
"Subsistence" in Malthusian theory is a term of art. It can mean populations under such intense nutritional stress that women stop ovulating and children's immune systems are so compromised that they drop like flies when bronchitis hits. But it does not have to. What it does mean is that the standard of living and social institutions are such that the average woman has two children or a hair more that survive to reproduce, and that as a result average rates of population growth are glacial. 
Now average rates of population growth were glacial. We expect a pre-artificial birth control human population that is nutritionally-unstressed to roughly double every twenty-five year generation: that appears to happen wherever and whenever farmers newly colonize an area with abundant land previously inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Yet, as best as we can judge, between 8000 BC and 1000 BC the average worldwide rate of population growth was roughly 0.05%/year--1.3%/generation. From 1000 BC to 1 it was roughly 0.1%/year--2.5%/generation. And From 1 to 1500 it was back down to 0.5%/year--again, 1.3%/generation. 
Either these populations were often near and frequently over the edge of women too skinny to ovulate and children so malnourished that their immune systems were badly compromised, or powerful sociological factors were driving a wedge between how rapidly the population could, biologically, reproduce and grow, and how rapidly it did go.
Musings on Thomas Malthus, the Hellenistic Age, the Loyal-Spirit Great Kings of Iran 550-330 BCE, and Other Topics (Brad DeLong)

Similarly, Gregory Clark writes:
The term subsistence income can lead to the incorrect notion that in a Malthusian economy people are all living on the brink of starvation, like the inmates of some particularly nasty Soviet-era gulag. In fact in almost all Malthusian economies the subsistence income considerably exceeded the income required to allow the population to feed itself from day to day. 
Differences in the location of the mortality and fertility schedules across societies also generated very different subsistence incomes. Subsistence for one society was extinction for others. Both 1400 and 1650, for example, fell within periods of population stability in England, hence periods in which by definition the income was at subsistence. But the wage of the poorest workers, unskilled agricultural laborers, was equivalent to about 9 pounds of wheat per day in 1650, compared to 18 pounds in 1400. Even the lower 1650 subsistence wage was well above the biologically determined minimum daily requirement of about 1,500 calories a day. A diet of a mere 2 pounds of wheat per day, supplying 2,400 calories per day, would keep a laborer alive and fit for work. 
Thus preindustrial societies, while they were subsistence economies, were not typically starvation economies. Indeed, with favorable conditions, they were at times wealthy, even by the standards of many modern societies.
A Farewell to Alms, p. 23

DeLong continues:
...four sociological factors can drive a wedge between the post-pillage or organized extortion (by thugs-with-spears and thugs-with-scrolls) living standards of the bulk of the population and bare biological subsistence:
These four are:
  1.     female infanticide,
  2.     prolonged female virginity,
  3.     substantial female celibacy, and
  4.     a large artisan class devoted to making goods and providing services to make life comfortable and even luxurious--but making goods and providing services that do not directly enhance reproductive fitness. 
Thus Greek and Roman-like female infanticide--even of girls born to full-citizen wives. Greek and Roman-like large-scale slavery: unlike the post-1807 slave population in the U.S. South, Greek and Roman slave populations did not reproduce in sufficient numbers to sustain their levels via natural increase. Western-European marriage patterns--as her father, I say you cannot marry my daughter and take her out of my house until you have inherited or established a farm of your own. Chinese lineage households--as your elder brother, I say you cannot bring a wife into this household until we get more resources.
And there are other, less patriarchal ways: Phoenician and Greek Mediterranean trading networks allowing for greater variety of diet and cross-regional pooling of scarce non-food resources like tin, amber, spices, wood, and so on without substantially impacting reproductive fitness. Imperial Roman artisan productivity taking advantage of economies of scale and distribution. All of these keep "subsistence" in Malthusian theory from exactly meaning "subsistence" on the ground. 
They aren't the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it is not a society of eight average pregnancies leading to five live births, three children surviving to age five, of whom two grow up to reproduce. It is a society of six average pregnancies leading to four live births, of whom two grow up to reproduce. Most of these "preventative check" mechanisms exert draconian control over female sexuality, freedom, and autonomy. But they allow a population in balance with resources and material comfort much higher than that of the "positive check".
So, we know that humans are able to limit their fertility without the "positive checks" of starvation, pestilence, famine, disease, war and murder. We have large brains. We are not bacteria in a Petri dish.
And the amount of people that civilizations in the past could support was much lower than today due to the fact that they were limited to the energy inputs from photosynthesis alone (EROEI of 2:1 or so).

In fact, birth control was enthusiastically practiced in ancient times:
In classical times, there was a plant called silphium that grew in a narrow coastal strip of Cyrenaica, modern-day Libya. Its resin was used as a contraceptive and abortifacient. The resin appears to have been very effective, preventing pregnancy with a once-a-month pea-sized dose. Silphium eventually became too popular for its own good. Never domesticated, it was overharvested as demand grew. As it became scarcer, the price rose until it was worth its weight in silver, which drove further overharvesting and eventually led to one of the first human-caused extinctions in recorded history. However, during the centuries in which it was routinely used by the Greco-Roman upper classes, it must have noticeably depressed fertility, unless they were throwing money out the window.
Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion, p. 109

It was Judeo-Christian religions which declared (and still do), that couples should maximize the absolute number of children they have at all costs to themselves and wider society (i.e. "Be fruitful and multiply," the "Culture of life," "Quiverful," etc.).
There still remains question 2--how do you mobilize that middle class for collective purpose, so that your middle class-aided military aristocracy and polity can overwhelm the military aristocracy of your neighbors? 
Think about this, and you will recognize that an aristocracy faces the same Malthusian pressures and dilemmas as does the population as a whole. The population, the demos, lives off the limited resources provided by the land. The aristocracy, the aristoi, live off the wedge between what the demos produce and what they consume. If the aristoi do not find social mechanisms to constrain their numbers, their standard of living will also tend to settle at a point so low that their numbers no longer grow at all rapidly. And the social mechanisms to keep the population growth rate of the aristoi down are the same--and the patriarchal mechanisms of female infanticide, prolonged female virginity, and substantial permanent female celibacy, plus in the case of the aristoi excess male deaths in war, in the duel, or in the hunt. The alternative is to wind up with a very large "upper class" indeed, one made up of huge numbers of princes--but princes who live little better than peasants, a la Armenia or La Mancha.
This also ties in to the concept of "elite overproduction" that plays such a central role in Secular Cycles theory. In Turchin's analysis, where the elites kept their numbers in check, societies were more stable and less prone to political disintegration and social conflict. Where they reproduced faster, this led to the emergence of  "counter elites" jockeying for power, and hence political and social breakdown, civil wars, and stagnation. In polygamous societies such as the Middle East, elite overproduction was even more acute, leading to faster cycles. European elites limited their overproduction by having one single monogamous "official" wife to produce heirs, and numerous mistresses whose children, if they had any, did not inherit and power or titles, hence enhancing elite reproductive fitness but not affecting the political structure, since bastards were not "officially" recognized.
But there is an additional constraint on the aristoi. A single faction of aristoi controlling an agrarian territory also faces an interesting Laffer curve problem--perhaps the only real-life Laffer curve problem. Tax rates too low leave them with too few resources vis-a-vis neighboring aristocracies. Tax rates too high leave them with too-low a population base. If extent of territory is too small they get absorbed. If extend of territory is too large they suffer rebellion and fraction.  
Interestingly, the so-called "Laffer Curve," before it was used as a fig leaf to justify looting by America's wealthy elites under Ronald Reagan, was first described by Ibn Khaldun, whom we have encountered before.
Moreover, the tax collectors have to be efficient enough and the soldiers competent enough that the phalanx or whatever is large enough and skilled enough on the battlefield--which means that the upper classes live not in attractive luxury but, rather, "return with your shield or on it", and there is a premium on figuring out how to attach the middle class to the aristoi to fill out the battle line--to acquire and maintain what Ibn Khaldun called assibiyah, which is difficult because the middle class's share of the benefits from rule by the current dominant group is not all that large.  
Add in balance-of-power considerations and the natural diffusion of technology and organization thus lead us to expect to see an agrarian world dominated by ruling classes that lead dangerous warrior lives, mistreat women, and govern moderately-sized principalities in semi-stable military-political equilibrium with each other. True "empires" should be rare, and evanascent. Think Timur-i-Leng, Ashoka, or even Charlemagne. 
Against this backdrop of "normal" agrarian civilization patterns, I think can see, dimly, ten substantial anomalies in pre-industrial Eurasia plus Mediterranan Africa: 
    The Arya--the people descended from or adopting the language of and the technology of those who domesticated the uniquely meek, mild, and passive Mr. Lucky, introduced the horse and chariot into the panoply of "civilization", and spread their indo-European language group from the Ganges Delta to Norway's North Cape and Spain's Cape of Gibralter [sic]. 
    China--after the Chin unification its natural state seems to be that of an unnaturally-large, unnaturally-cohesive, and unnaturally-peaceful Han Empire. 
    The Greek/Phoenician urban-based colonization of the Mediterranean basin. 
    The Haxamanishya Persian Empire of Kurush and his successors. 
    The LBO of the Haxamanid Empire by Alexander of Macedon, and then the maintenance of his conquests by his--feuding--marshals and their descendents [sic]. 
    First, the bare survival of the Roman Republic; subsequently, its transformation into the Roman Empire. 
    The Arab conquests under the banners of Islam, and the integrity of the empire under the Abbasid Caliphate. 
    The Vikings--from the Shetland Islands to Iceland and Vinland to Normandy, Sicily and Tunisia, Antioch, Mickelgrad, and Kiev and Novgorod the Great. 
    The Mongols of Chingiz Khan and his descendants. 
    The British Empire from Cromwell to Churchill (which ends as something very different from an unusually large and unusually durable agrarian empire, but starts out as an agrarian thalassocracy). 
And at this point I lose my ability to generalize. Everything seems very different from everything else...
I'm not really sure what definition of "empire" he's using here. Indo-European peoples were never in any sense, a unified "empire," and some, like the Ottomans, are conspicuously absent. There is some interesting discussion of the Greek conquest of the eastern Mediterranean:
They started in Thrace with about 50,000 trained Macedonian soldiers. They moved into Asia. They then added, over the next two generations, perhaps 300,000 Greek-speaking colonists. With that base, they controlled the bulk of what has been the Persian Empire for more than two centuries. They ruled over 40 millions of subjects speaking different languages while retaining their Hellenic identity. And they did so while spending most of their military energies fighting one another. 
How did they manage it? 
The Hellenic speakers appear to moved in with plenty of what Ibn Khaldun called assibiyah: they had their disagreements, but the one thing they agreed on was that they were Greek (or Macedonian) and the rest were barbarians. Centuries of hoplite warfare and the snake pit was Classical Greece appear to have produced an expectation of military discipline in the phalanx that others found it very hard to match--and also a substantial degree of technological superiority both in building and then in taking walled cities. It is not for nothing that people seeking to praise Demetrios of Macedon, the first Antigonid king, named him Demetrios the Besieger. Hellenic-populated fortified cities spread throughout the fertile crescent, with walls built by Hellenic engineers and masons, irritated by dams and canals designed by more Hellenic engineers, and populated by Hellenic colonists were something with little if any precedent in previous Eurasian history. Alexandria-in-Egypt. Al-Fayyum. The (surprise) ten cities of the Dekapolis. Seleukia-on-Tigris, Seleukia-in-Peria, Antiokh on the Orontes, and many, many more. Urbanization, irrigation, and colonization led to domination.
Thus we see that, following Colinvaux, the superior military technique is key.  As DeLong speculates about the key elements in creating the vast Persian Empire:
My suspicion is that Parsa was close enough to southern Mesopotamia and also close enough to Iranian pastures. They were thus able to figure out how to tax that densely-populated irrigated-farming population of southern Mesopotamia. And at the same time they were able to figure out how to use the horse-mounted herders of the Iranian pasture. Add in the growing size of then-modern larger horse. And they had an advantage in communications, in mobility, in the use of the bow, and in the use of the rider for combat. They thus brought the age of iron and horse to the fertile crescent, and did so in a way that had not been possible in the age of bronze and chariot, or even iron and chariot. But I do not know, I do not claim to know, and I have not found anybody who does know. Nor do we know why the empire held together, save that it repeatedly almost did not.
Any great empire can be thought of as primarily a political-legal construct, since all of the great empires were not bound by ethnic ties (except the ruling class), but instead ruled over a diverse collection of peoples from many different ethnic backgrounds and speaking many different languages (think of the varied peoples ruled over by the Greeks, or the Romans). That's the difference between state and nation that we see today. Occasionally they are the same (a nation-state), but sometimes they are not. This very diversity may be their downfall. Eventually, as corruption and mismanagement riddles the top tiers due to rapacious elites, the various ethnic groups decide they're better off ruling themselves, and abandon the empire for something else, as seen in the dissolution of Rome. Is it any surprise we're seeing a resurgence of independence movements in Europe (Scotland, Catalonia, etc.)?

Basically, most people do the calculus and decide they are better off under the empire than not being under the empire. Until they aren't.

Empires seem to be driven by a combination of population explosion in a core people who possess superior military techniques, effective governance,  assibiyah, and are surrounded by weaker, disorganized neighbors.

Some enlightening comments:
This was the subject of my doctoral thesis (Vandals to Visigoths: UM Press 1992). The whole idea that anyone living in an empire is a subsistence farmer is wrong, as also the idea that their government doesn't matter to them. Roman farmers existed as part of a larger system, produced food mainly to sell rather than eat, and bought most of their own food, as our farmers do today. And it did matter to them what their government was, which we can see from the general increase in the standard of living when Spain or England was colonized by Rome, and the collapse in the standard of living that accompanied the fall of Rome. 
What you're quoting is basically Moses Finley, which was conventional wisdom in the 1970s but has since been disproved. 
 Kidipede July 23, 2015
Sir Moses I. Finley FBA, was an American-born British academic and classical scholar. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973), where he argued that status and civic ideology governed the economy in antiquity rather than rational economic motivations. (Wikipedia)
My understanding is the Roman Republic really represented the height of Roman society, and the empire was mostly a long slow decline. During the republican period, Roman citizenship conferred rights on free men and even the ability to participate in a semi democratic process. During the empire, a tax exempt senatorial class was created, which concentrated all the wealth in a few hands, taxes fell increasingly on commoners. Unable to pay them, people sold themselves into slavery to escape their debts. 
In other words, the Republican era represented an era of relative, though far from perfect equality among Roman citizens, whereas empire was a dictatorship that concentrated wealth and power in few hands. The empire is talked about more because it happened later, and it's decline lasted so long, but the republic was probably a more successful society.
 Brendan Seattle, WA July 23, 2015
You have hit on a crucial question for preindustrial societies. As an archaeologist trying to answer questions like this for the city-states and empires of deep history, let me offer some ideas. First we need to look beyond Rome and Europe. Without considering historical dynamics in other world regions, models will remain superficial. Explaining differing degrees of social solidarity and prosperity, across space and time, requires looking at many variables. Productivity, demography and trade obviously influence prosperity and poverty. But these are mediated by the class system and the presence of absence of opportunities for mobility. Recent work shows that the levels of autocratic vs. collective rule often depend on the nature of taxation systems. And as urban scaling theory is extended into the distant past, we are learning that the generative power of urbanization must be taken into account in ancient societies. 
 Michael E. Smith Tempe, AZ July 23, 2015
My take on this (and similar phenomena like Alexander, the Islamic expansion, and the Mongols) is that they can occur at a certain point in history when semi-states have been created, but not yet nations with all the "patriotism" and mythology that implies. Under these circumstances, growing an empire is basically a sequence of hostile takeovers; all it requires is decapitating a few flunkies at the top and replacing them with your flunkies. It really IS the equivalent of RJR taking over Nabisco. And just like RJR taking over Nabisco, everyone but the C-suite doesn't especially care about what has happened --- like will go on as before, neither worse nor better.

Note what this suggests --- that this type of empire building is easy'ish.
Doing it earlier (before there exists a state apparatus you can take over) is much harder. Think ancient history like Ramses, Ashurbanipal, Sargon, who have to create their own states. (Or a few modern examples like the US and Russia, where the dynamics are completely different because of the power imbalances.)

Doing it later is likewise harder because the states now fight back seriously, not just the flunkies at the top, but the entire nation. Think Napoleon or Hitler.

Maynard Handley
The underlying cause of the growth rates of Classical Greece is worth mentioning:
So why was ancient Greece so prosperous compared to its contemporaries?...Ober links this unexpected prosperity to a relatively democratic, decentralized state system that allowed for innovation and cultural development.

"Basically the answer to that is politics," Ober argues. "The Greek world is distinctive in having this dispersed structure so that there are many, many independent states rather than a single empire – or rather than a few big and powerful states."

[...] 
Ober said that the "strikingly democratic" Greek system allowed for key aspects of economic prosperity, including fertile ground for innovation and incentive for people to invest in themselves... if people think a powerful individual or government is going to reach in and take all the benefits of their effort and education, it's not a recipe for high growth. "No particular reason for specialization, no particular reason for innovation – keep your head down, do what granddad did, and get on with it...."On the other hand, if you believe that the rules are fair, that the rules will protect you from bullies in your society and that the government is in a sense on your side," Ober added, then people feel it's worthwhile to invest in things like education and specialization. 
Another side of the coin is innovation. When hundreds of small states are full of people investing in themselves, the result is high levels of "competition to do things better, to develop more efficient institutions, to develop more efficient technologies and better techniques." 
Ober acknowledges that there have been cases in which highly centralized systems had periods of significant economic growth. He said other scholars "have argued that the only way to create the kind of long-term stability that allows a lot of growth" is to start with "strong forms of centralization that might eventually become more democratic – but first you've got to break some heads to get everybody on the same side." 
What Ober argues in his new research is that "the Greek world suggests that's not the case. That a world in which there is no centralized political organization, no empire running things, is perfectly capable of self-organizing into a condition of high growth." Ober said these findings about ancient Greece can help today's citizens "think about what they can do actively to sustain a social order … that they feel that they do reasonably well in or that they have reasonable hope to do well in." Or conversely, they might want to "change a political order that they think is restricting their chance to invest in themselves." 
Eventually, the Greek world fell prey to outside forces from Macedon and then Rome. "You've got growth, you've got increased consumption – what could go wrong?" Ober asked. "Well, some things can go wrong. They can suddenly go wrong. And that's the story about the fall." Ober said the story of ancient Greece is also a cautionary tale, leading readers to "recognize that the world we have is not the world that necessarily we will always have."
My suspicion is that we've been living in a bubble. Why the level of subsistence varies between society to society is ignored by Clark, even though he acknowledges it varied substantially from culture to culture and over time. Why? Certainly the rapacity of elites is one factor. Institutions would be another. But I would argue that it is primarily determined by the amount of energy capture per person. Thus, you could either maintain the amount of people, or increase the energy capture (via more intensive land use in ancient times).

Then, during the Industrial revolution, we increased our ability to harness energy by orders of magnitude essentially overnight. We could harness countless gigajoules of stored sunlight deep beneath the earth. Our EROEI suddenly went from 2:1 to 100:1 (and has since been declining).

This new energy caused a new notion of "subsistence" in the nations which could effectively harness these energy sources to become what we take for granted today. We then spent the next 150 years behaving exactly as Malthus would expect--expanding our population up to the limits of our new-found energy wealth, translating more energy into more people. It's just that the energy bonanza was so mindbogglingly huge that it took 150 years to catch up rather than one or two generations (150 years is being generous, things didn't really start to change until about 1870 or so, and started going downhill for the West circa 1970, a mere 100 years, or less than three generations if you're related to John Tyler).

And we see that this is the case. The news is not good. Energy per capita peaked in the 1970's. New countries have industrialized. Population is expected to keep climbing by demographers to 10-11 billion, even as we are fracking the earth, scraping tar sands, and drilling the bottom of the ocean and beneath the permafrost to keep the fossil fuel bonanza going. Tiny homes and tiny cars, superinsulated homes, cheap processed food, a massive labor surplus, unpayable debts, species extinction, expanding bureaucracy, and corruption are just a few of the factors indicating that the world has finally caught up to our energy limitations, and no amount of institutional fiddling or miracle technology made in a garage is going to change that. Malthusian crises in overpopulated areas, exacerbated by climate change, will cause mass migrations leading to political instability as we've already seen. A recrudescence of nationalism and violence will follow, and elites, attempting to hold onto their ill-gotten gains, will become ever more rapacious and demagogic (police states, trade deals, austerity, fascism, etc.).

We need to stop listening to the pseudoscience of economics, and start paying attention to history if we expect to have a future worth living in.