Sunday, April 29, 2012

What If A Collapse Happened And Nobody Noticed?

Every once and awhile I'll be listening to a podcast with one or the other writers specializing on the subject of Peak Oil or collapse and the subject of timetables will come up. When will the collapse finally be here, the callers ask insistently, almost pleadingly, so that they can finally justify their investments in freeze-dried foods, water purification tablets and solid gold coins. Inevitably the guest will demur, and speak more in general terms. But I'm going to be the first pundit to go out on the limb and assign a timeline for the collapse. Spread it far and wide, and let's see just how good my predictive powers are. Are you ready? Here it is:

Right now.

What do they think a collapse is supposed to look like? It seems people just cannot just cannot get past the "Zombie Apocalypse" theory of collapse. They imagine hordes of disease-ridden folks dressed in rags stumbling around and fighting over cans of petrol and stripping cans of food from shelves. That's not what collapse looks like. It never has been. In fact, there's very little evidence that a Zombie Apocalypse style collapse ever occurred in the historical record. Instead we see subtle patterns of abandonment and decay that unfold over long periods of time. Big projects stop. Population thins. Trade routes shrink and people revert to barter. Things get simpler and more local. Culture coarsens. High art stagnates. People disperse. Expectations are adjusted downward. Investments are no longer made in the future and previous investments are cannibalized just to maintain the status quo. Extend and pretend is hardly a recent invention.

No, what happens in a collapse is very much more subtle than a Zombie Apocalypse. Things tend to look pretty normal for the following reasons:

1.) People and Institutions are resistant to change.
2.) The system has a formidable array of resources to preserve the status quo.
3.) Sheer momentum.
4.) Creeping Normalcy
5.) Denial

This is how history says collapses go down, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Based on recent archaeology, it seems this is how the Roman collapse unfolded was well. Although images of pillaging barbarians looting burning cities sticks in people's imaginations when they think of the fall of the Roman Empire, this was not the experience for most people according to recent scholarship. Big events tended to come down to us in the written record, but for ordinary people, it probably seemed much less dramatic. Yes, there were some famines and plagues, as there had always been. The population declined, but there were no apocalyptic battles or mass starvation. Many of the cities appear to have been continually inhabited. There were no mass graves, ruined cities or signs of malnutrition found in excavations. Most people who survived the plagues lived right through the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity to the Medieval period with remarkable continuity, just a change of institutions and expectations. But something clearly was happening, because we know it from history. Buildings got plainer. Citizens got poorer. Trade routes shrank. Economies became local. Lawlessness increased. The old Roman Empire had been around since far before anyone could remember, and as it broke down more and more and failed to do things it had once done easily, it must have seen to some people like the world was collapsing in on them. It wasn't, but something was happening. Much depended on who you were, where you were, what your expectations were, and how much you had invested in the status quo, both mentally and in terms of status and resources.

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia's life expectancy fell dramatically. It's birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia:
The savage cuts to Greece's health service budget have led to a sharp rise in HIV/Aids and malaria in the beleaguered nation, said a leading aid organisation on Thursday.

The incidence of HIV/Aids among intravenous drug users in central Athens soared by 1,250% in the first 10 months of 2011 compared with the same period the previous year, according to the head of Médecins sans Frontières Greece, while malaria is becoming endemic in the south for the first time since the rule of the colonels, which ended in the 1970s.

Reveka Papadopoulos said that following health service cuts, including heavy job losses and a 40% reduction in funding for hospitals, Greek social services were "under very severe strain, if not in a state of breakdown. What we are seeing are very clear indicators of a system that cannot cope". The heavy, horizontal and "blind" budget cuts coincided last year with a 24% increase in demand for hospital services, she said, "largely because people could simply no longer afford private healthcare. The entire system is deteriorating".
Greece on the breadline: HIV and malaria make a comeback

Is that not a die-off? What would a collapse look like? What should a collapse look like? Zombies? Mad Max? Or would it look like the following statistics from this article:
In Greece, we now have record unemployment, which includes the majority of young workers. Homelessness is up 20 percent, with soup kitchens in Athens reporting record demand, and the usually low suicide rate having doubled.

Portugal has complied completely with the austerity demands it accepted for its bailout deal, but its debt is growing and its economy is shrinking, its unemployment rate continues to reach new heights, there is a crisis in medical care, and a 40 percent rise in emigration, with the Portuguese government acknowledging its own failure by actually encouraging its citizenry to leave.

In Spain, austerity has  resulted in falling industrial output and deepening debt, with record unemployment and a stunning rate of 50 percent youth unemployment. And the Spanish government's incomprehensible response is to impose even more crushing austerity.

Ireland has fallen back into recession as austerity has led to falling economic output. A better future is being sacrificed, as young workers look for work abroad, "generation emigration" expected to number 75,000 this year.

The success of Italy's wealthy technocrat government was concisely summarized in similar terms:

        Italy's austerity measures are stunting activity in the euro-zone's third-largest economy, recent budget and economic data show, suggesting the steps are backfiring.

Italy's industrial production is falling while its rate of unemployment is at its highest in more than a decade, and its priceless cultural heritage is literally crumbling. But the wealthy technocrats themselves are ensuring that they they don't have to share the suffering.

Even in the Eurozone's stronger economies, such as Holland, austerity is hurting the economy, people, and culture, and risks backfiring even more.

The austerity program of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has led to a stagnant economy, with ten consecutive months of rising unemployment and factory output stalled and business confidence in decline.

Even economic powerhouse Germany, while taking advantage of the new flood of migrant workers fleeing Europe's weaker economies, is facing an austerity backlash.

Outside the Eurozone, the austerity program imposed on Britain by the relentlessly mendacious Cameron government has resulted in an economy that keeps shrinking, with the OECD saying it is back in recession, with unemployment soaring, and the overall brunt being borne by the elderly and minorities and the very young. An additional hundred thousand are predicted to be out of work by autumn.
Greece appears to be just the dress rehearsal for the rest of the world. And Japan has been experiencing diminished expectations, lower wages, deflation and declining birthrates since 1989. And I don't think I need to restate conditions in the United States: municipal bankruptcies, school closings, foreclosures, blackouts, roads being turned back into gravel, etc. And conditions are continuing to deteriorate. See this:
So many corporate-owned politicians in Washington these days seem to be going out of their way to work side by side with the Grim Reaper. They declare unnecessary wars. They tax us (not themselves) right down to the bone. They steal all our safety nets in order to have more money to add to THEIR safety nets. They bust our unions, steal our pension plans, enable Wall Street to invent pyramid schemes that ruin our economy, encourage big health insurance companies to cut us loose just when we need them the most, and allow Monsanto to poison our food, mutilate our seed stock and kill off our bees.

In America, death seems to be coming earlier and earlier to those who vote.

And now GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come up with an even more sure-fire plan to help out his new BFF, the Grim Reaper. Now Romney wants to not only eliminate most U.S. housing subsidies, he wants to eliminate the entire department of Housing and Urban Renewal as well. That will certainly speed up the Grim Reaper’s efforts for sure.

According to Forbes magazine, “In a closed-door Florida fundraiser for donors tonight, Mitt Romney offered a rare glimpse into his policy plans if elected President. And, as NBC reports, he got quite trigger-happy.”

According to TruthOut, “Romney’s plan to eliminate HUD, assuming he didn’t shuffle its programs to other departments, would bring an end to critical programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and community development block grants. And eliminating housing assistance is even more problematic given the disproportionate percentage of veterans in the homeless population.”

But what does Romney’s latest brilliant idea actually mean in terms of you and me? It means once again that the rich continue to get richer and live longer while the rest of us just conveniently die off too soon — because homeless people have a lot shorter life span than folks happily housed in the Hamptons.

You know that senior housing complex in your town where seniors now get a rent break courtesy of HUD? That will be gone. And without HUD, frail and ailing seniors will soon be wandering the streets of your town, dying in alleyways and hogging up all the space in your cemeteries.

You know those low-income “housing projects” on the other side of your town where all the poor people now live? Those will be gone too. Too bad for them. And now desperate poor folks will be wandering around in your part of town, homeless too. And did I already mention that they will be desperate?

And all those homeless vets? There will be a lot more of them now — also wandering around your city or town.

Remember back in the 1970s when Reagan shut down all those mental institutions and suddenly we had all sorts of crazy people wandering around, hopefully taking their meds but probably not? And if Romney’s latest hot new scheme takes hold, even more of them will be back on your streets.

And physically handicapped people will have no place to live either. They too will be wandering around, trying to elude the Grim Reaper.

And the number of homeless children will dramatically increase. A lot more little kids will be living in cars — if they’re lucky.

And all of these homeless people, millions of them, will be pouring into the streets of your city or town, herded in your direction by both corporate-owned politicians in Washington and the Grim Reaper himself — who also will have a sharp eye out for YOU.
Romney’s new housing policy: Offering the Grim Reaper a big helping hand (FireDogLake)

And this: Austerity In America: 22 Signs That It Is Already Here And That It Is Going To Be Very Painful (Economic Collapse Blog)

This is what a collapse really looks like: The poorest and most vulnerable die first, out of sight, and everyone else just does what they can to survive. Peoples' priorities change: they concentrate on getting by from day-to-day rather than planning for the future. They stop getting married. They have less children or none at all. They live for today. They work harder for less. Taxes go up even as basic services are cut. Long term unemployment has been conclusively linked to greater mortality and susceptibility to illness, physical and mental. Would many of these people not still be alive today if were not for austerity measures and declining middle class opportunity?  Isn't that a die-off? It's been said that having children is a referendum on the future. Based on global birth rates, I think the human race is collectively registering a vote of "no confidence."

Picture the ruin porn of decaying Detroit's vacant buildings, empty fields, shuttered factories, abandoned houses, crumbling overpasses, bursting water mains, rusting cars, and encroaching wilderness. Does this not look like collapse to you? If this had happened over a span of one or two years, would we even have any trouble of recognizing it as such? If you asked people twenty or thirty years ago what a global economic collapse would look like, would they not describe something very similar to what we are now witnessing? Why don't we recognize it? Because it is happening too slowly? Because we believe things will "get back to normal?" What are we waiting for, a sign from heaven?

Who you are and where you are effects this dramatically too. Your position on the hierarchy determines how well insulated you are from collapse. Are you poor already? (not middle class, everyone is middle class) Then you probably won't notice as much difference. Are you filthy rich? (if you're reading this, I doubt it) Then you have enough power to preserve your wealth or enhance it for a while (at our expense, of course). If you are in the technocratic caste that serves global corporate interests, have the privilege of an advanced education, work in certain select industries, have a vast inheritance, or are just plain lucky; you can probably safely hold on to your lifestyle for a long time to come. Your children won't be so lucky, though. For those people who wonder why they don't feel like they are in a collapse, please consider, have you gotten a raise lately? What's your home worth? Has your rent gone up? Taxes and fees? Some people may answer positively to these questions, of course, but that number has a funny way of shrinking over time.

If you live in a big city it also might be easier to get by. Cities have more diverse industries and higher tax bases,  There is more wealth in cites, more social momentum, and more resources to buffer the negative effects of a downturn. For those with social connections closest to the levers of power and the imperial courts, they can manipulate the system to keep the swag coming from their enclaves in Manhattan, Orange Country, suburban D.C., and the Hamptons. Just as in the Roman collapse where the cities were bulwarks of wealth, culture and commerce while countryside became depopulated, rural areas will be hardest hit. Indeed, rural towns that were dependent upon one major industry like farming or steel manufacturing have already become ghost towns, and much of rural America is already a lawless region with little infrastructure; a battleground for drug gangs dotted with marijuana plantations and meth labs.

We have a hard time imagining that in the midst of a collapse everything would seem so normal. That day-to-day life would go one for most of us, seemingly unaffected, and that only after vast stretches of time had passed would we notice anything different. That many of us could hold on to our modern conveniences and familiar things. That many people wouldn't even notice what's going on at all. Short of a plague situation, there are not usually piles of bodies during a collapse. Most people don't die. Here's what really happens: People move in with relatives. They barter services. They defer health care. They stop going to school. They sell off their possessions. They go on the dole, if they can. They stop caring. You see people happy to have food and warmth rather than the latest consumer toy. You see entire households supported by one breadwinner. You see homeless shelters and soup kitchens fill up and food banks empty out. You see people hanging out on streetcorners during the day and living in tents. That's what a collapse looks like. Sound familiar? In fact, much of the world never moved from this mode of  existence in the first place. Even during the worst historical collapses people still ate good food, listened to music, used the latest technology, and drank beer and wine with friends on warm summer evenings.

So then why is the collapse occurring? Is it all about debt, as we've been led to believe? Or is it about something else?

Imagine if you were the leader of one of the world's major industrial nations, with millions of people, economies worth trillions, and huge armies at your command. Now imagine that your top generals and admirals have briefed you and told you that the fundamental substances underlying modern industrial civilization were running out. That there would be shortages. Scarcity.  Resource wars. Dwindling food supplies. Decreased industrial output. A shrinking tax base. Insurrection. What would you do? Panic? Or would you do exactly what world leaders are doing right now: using economic policies to shrink the economy to a lower level and cause a slow die-off? Claim that "there is no alternative", and that once "confidence" is restored, things will be back to normal? Consider:
Last year two military planning organizations went public with studies predicting that serious consequences from oil depletion will befall us shortly. In the U.S. the Joint Forces Command concluded, without saying how they arrived at their dates, that by 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear and that by 2015 the global shortfall in oil production could be as much as 10 million b/d. Later in the year a draft of a German army study, which went into greater detail in analyzing the consequences of peaking world oil production, was leaked to the press. The German study which was released recently is unique for the frankness with which it explores the dire consequences which may be in store for us.
And see this: Energy Security: an annotated military/security bibliography (2010 update) (Energy Bulletin)

Of course, to assuage the public's anger, governments will promise an imminent return to normalcy. What they mean is, slow collapse down to a slow enough pace that it is less noticeable. And they've been saying this for four years already. Want to bet they'll be saying it four years from now? And four years after that?

Once things did "stabilize" everything would return to a sort of normal and you would be considered a hero by the public. And things will look great, because people only judge things in contrast with the immediate past, not decades before. And in relative terms, after years of "austerity", things will be "recovering." Temporarily at least, until the next crisis hits. But by that time you hope there will be another sucker sitting in the White House, or 10 Downing Street, or the Élysée Palace while you spend your retirement skiing in Zurich or sunning yourself in Monaco. And the cycle begins again. Your family members, as "elites," will be unaffected, of course. Debts can be cancelled. It's just the excuse they need.

Really, austerity makes no sense otherwise. As Steve Keen put it in a recent interview, "they think causing an accelerated economic collapse will make it easier to pay their debts." Indeed. Even some of the world's most renowned economists have declared such policies insane. If even Nobel-prize winning economists think it's crazy, then why are governments doing it? But these economists are in the main, ignorant of Peak Oil, willingly or unwillingly. They can only think in terms of reactivating "growth" in a Keynesian sense. But based on the above, it's clear world leaders know that's not going to happen. What other reason could there be? After all, capitalism requires growth, and only after enough is destroyed can growth begin again. Is what we are witnessing now not a slow destruction? Austerity is a wildfire set by the political/banking elite classes to get rid of the underbrush and start anew.

Certainly they could implement more humane options if they so desired. But most of those would require a diminution in the power of corporations and banks. They need not fear socialist revolution as they did generations ago, because everyone knows that socialism has failed and that wealth redistribution makes everyone poorer (right?). Entire populations can now be effectively controlled by the media apparatus, and if all else fails, you can bust out the tear gas and pepper spray. From now on, all we will be permitted is what we can claw from the impersonal and shrinking market. Social Darwinism has finally been given free reign by the powers that be.

Of course they could just as easily come clean with all this and initiate policies that minimize the pain and suffering of the general population. They could implement policies that allow for graceful and gradual decline and stop spending money on malignant things like prisons, security, war, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and needless consumerism in favor of public health measures, redistributing wealth, work programs, etc. They could cancel the debts. But today's governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banking establishments that control national economies, and they will have none of it. Over our dead bodies they say, we prefer your dead bodies. The real purpose of austerity and neoliberal economic doctrine is to get the remaining wealth of industrial society into their bank accounts before the shit hits the fan so they and their descendants can pick up the pieces in a post oil-crash world. They will continue to have the best of everything. Someone's going to have personalized genetic medicine and android servants, just not you or I. I myself am skeptical, however, that things will go as planned. This is why they need Authoritarian Capitalism.

People often wonder if the Romans knew at the time that their society was collapsing. Even if some  intelligent and literate Romans did recognize it, could they have done anything about it? We who know better at least know that we are on our own to deal with this. You know the truth. You don't have to flee to a bunker, and you don't have to die off either (of course we all will someday, but that's a different story...). Don't wait for politicians to tell you the truth about austerity, because they never will. You can see that this engineered collapse is exactly what we've been fearing all this time. No reason to fear the collapse-look around, you're already living though it even as you read these words, and you're presumably still here. Take a deep breath. Relax. Have a beer. Listen to some music. No Zombies Required.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Unemployment Is Right Around The Corner

    Right now, unemployment remains at over 8% in the UK while real wages are lower than they were 7 years ago and are continuing to fall. Yes, you read that correctly. Which immediately leads one to ask: on this explanation of a recession as expounded by Karl, how much further do real wages have to fall to eliminate disequilibrium unemployment?

    …I am finding the aggregate demand narrative an increasingly unsatisfying explanation of all that is happening in the British economy. Supply-side suffering is suffering too, and I think we need to take very seriously the chance that it is happening.
More from Richard Williamson on the UK (Marginal Revolution)
The International Labor Office (ILO) has just released a sobering report on the growing crisis in world labor markets.  We began the year with 1.1billion people – one out of every three people in the global labor force – either unemployed or among the 900 million working poor who earn less than US$2 a day. On top of the existing glut of 200 million unemployed, global labor markets will see an average of 40 million new entrants each year.  That means that an additional 400 million jobs will need to be created over the next decade in order to prevent a further increase in unemployment. To employ everyone who wants to work, the world needs 600 million new jobs.
The World Needs 600 Million New Jobs (New Economic Perspectives)

Note - in case Thomas Friedman is reading this, a back-of-the envelope calculation reveals that based on the number of employees at Google, Twitter and Facebook, all we have to do is create another 21,126 of them and global unemployment is solved (assuming no further job losses or population growth, of course).*
The number of unemployed people reached 5,639,500 at the end of March, with the unemployment rate hitting 24.4%, the national statistics agency said. The figures came hours after rating agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Spanish sovereign debt. Official figures due out on Monday are expected to confirm that Spain has fallen back into recession.

Earlier this week, the Bank of Spain said the economy contracted by 0.4% in first three months of this year, after shrinking by 0.3% in the final quarter of last year. Other figures released on Friday showed that Spanish retail sales were down 3.7% in March from the same point a year ago, the 21st month in row sales have fallen.

In the first three months of the year, 365,900 people in Spain lost their jobs. The country has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union and it is expected to rise further this year. The rate has risen sharply since April 2007, when it stood at 7.9%
The new government has announced reforms to the labour market, including cutting back on severance pay and restricting inflation-linked salary increases, that it hopes will ease the problem. These measures have angered unions, which have organised widespread general strikes in protest. The government has also introduced drastic spending cuts designed to reduce its debt levels and meet deficit targets agreed with the European Union. These cuts are contributing to Spain's economic contraction.

"In Spain today, a cycle similar to Greece is starting to develop," said HSBC chief economist Stephen King. "The recession is so deep that when you take one step forward on austerity, it takes you two steps back."

The interest rate, or yield, on Spanish government bonds traded in the secondary market rose following the release of the unemployment figures and the S&P downgrade. S&P predicts the Spanish economy will shrink by 1.5% this year, having previously forecast 0.3% growth. However, the agency did make a number of positive comments about the government's attempts to bolster Spain's economy.

"We believe that the new government has been front-loading and implementing a comprehensive set of structural reforms, which should support economic growth over the longer term," S&P said.

"In particular, authorities have implemented a comprehensive reform of the Spanish labour market, which we believe could significantly reduce many of the existing structural rigidities and improve the flexibility in wage setting."
Spanish unemployment hits record 5.64 million (BBC)

Note the bolded parts - to translate, in order to placate the 'bond markets' (i.e. banks and the 1 percent), protections for workers are being stripped away. So 'austerity' is actually going exactly according to plan. Only someone hopelessly naive would believe it has anything to do with fixing the economy for ordinary people. And see this: Spain Is Still Awaiting The Payoff From Austerity (NYT)
Wasting time on the internet recently I came upon a nasty statistic. In the next 10 years, there will be 1.2bn young people looking for work and only 300m jobs to go around. Next to this stark stat was an invitation to write an essay on what you would do to solve the problem. My essay is quite short and can be summarised in one word.


The same is true for almost all professions. The young can't advance because everywhere they find my complacent generation is in situ. Thus the only way of solving the problem is to make everyone of a certain age, say over 50, walk the plank. The choice boils down to whether it's better for people to have a decade at the beginning or at the end of their careers where they are demoralised and underemployed. The answer is easy: surely it is better to be more active at the beginning.

To have people idle at a time when they are full of energy and their grey-cell count is at a maximum is a shocking waste. Shifting from old to young would bring down wages and would also solve the executive pay problem in one shot. Almost all the people earning grotesque amounts are over 50 - getting rid of them would mean CEO pay would come thumping down.
Should job-hogging over-50s all resign? (BBC)

I include this mainly for the statistic. Of course he's not serious. Hardly anyone over fifty can afford to not work, and that problem will only get worse, crowding out younger workers. I'm sure the writer is aware of this. In fact, pensions are being slashed and younger workers cannot put enough away to retire due to decreasing salaries, even if stocks were going up. The flip side is older workers who are involuntarily laid off to be replaced with cheaper younger workers. Many of these will no longer work again, whether they can afford to or not. So both young and old are affected. Welcome to labor market 'flexibility' (see above). Who wins in this scenario?

Of course if older workers were able to retire and workers overall worked less hours, unemployment would be ameliorated. We have older workers who've worked a longtime and want to retire but can't, workers who are swamped with too much to do, and workers looking for jobs who can't find them. Of course, things like this will never happen because all of this benefits the right people.

On a related note: My Faith-Based Retirement (Joe Nocera, NYT)

Remember, all throughout the decade of the Great Depression the leaders kept insisting over and over that a return to "normal" was imminent, and that prosperity was right around the corner, as soon as people had suffered enough. Of course, today they have the vast propaganda organ of the media to reinforce that message and squelch any talk of alternatives.

* My Numbers:
Facebook = 3,600
Twitter = 400
Google = 24,400
Total = 28,400


Thirty-five big U.S.-based multinational companies added jobs much faster than other U.S. employers in the past two years, but nearly three-fourths of those jobs were overseas, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Those companies, which include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., International Paper Co., Honeywell International Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., boosted their employment at home by 3.1%, or 113,000 jobs, between 2009 and 2011, the same rate of increase as the nation's other employers. But they also added more than 333,000 jobs in their far-flung—and faster-growing— foreign operations.

U.S. Firms Add Jobs, but Mostly Overseas (WSJ - the rest is behind the paywall)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Night Music

From the Faroe Islands. Enjoy.

Eivør Pálsdóttir (Wilipedia)

Remember Stein's Law

Find out about the dangers of reading too much into trends, in today's LiveScience GoFigure infographic.

If technology continues on its course, within 20 years transistors will be the size of an atom, and after another generation or so, he says, they will be the size of an electron! This trend line is based on Moore's Law, which would support the claim that about every two years the number of transistors that could be placed on an integrated circuit doubles. 

Excepting possibly the expansion of the universe, Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow-in-residence, says all trends ultimately reach their limits and either stall or reverse. He suggests a dose of critical thinking and some statistics know-how are neccessary when looking at trends.

For instance, even taking one trend in isolation may not make sense, as some trends work against each other and can end up cancelling each other out. Taking these business-as-usual assumptions, Heinberg says, may be as much a lack of cognition as a motive-driven action; politicians want certain trends, such as the national economy, to continue to expand forever; transportation planners want traffic to continue to proliferate. But in reality, neither is valid. And so on.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Working For A Living

Whether or not people like what they do, many of them hate the environment in which they must work. They are forced to spend a massive amount of their lives with people they have no choice but to associate with, suck up to their boss, deal with all the sycophancy, careerism and patronage, and generally live in in environment where they are forced into a cubicle to sit for 8 hours a day ruining their physical health and stare at a computer monitor, ruining their eyesight. And they have probably gone heavily into debt in order to secure this "privilege." The modern workplace is essentially just a continuation of high school, with an elite core at the top who decides who the "in-crowd" and "out-crowd" are based upon a feral understanding of subtle body language signals, physical attractiveness, feigned enthusiasm, elevated mood, and political skills. Is it any wonder people want out? Via LiveScience:

Why It Doesn't Pay to Be Yourself at Work
LONDON — Whether it comes from self-help gurus, popular magazines or parents, the advice sounds the same: Just be yourself.

And while it is true that being authentic is highly correlated with happiness, new research suggests it depends on the context.

"Authenticity correlates strongly with well-being and life satisfaction," said researcher Oliver Robinson Thursday (April 19) here at the British Psychology Society Annual Conference.

But it doesn't really matter at work, he said.

Robinson, of the University of Greenwich, and colleagues at the University of Houston used an online survey to question 533 part-time workers and professionals about where and with whom they were their true selves. For example, they were asked to rate the verity of statements such as "I feel it is more important to be myself than to be popular," and finish sentences like "I disclose my deepest feelings to …"

In general, people reported being most themselves with their romantic partners, followed by friends and parents. They admitted being least themselves in the workplace.
Is Your Job Killing Your Creativity?
New research shows that 80 percent of people in five of the world's largest economies feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth. And nearly two-thirds of people feel creativity is valuable to society. But only one in four of the survey's respondents believe they are living up to their own creative potential. Are we facing a global creativity gap?

Judging by evidence from the workplace, the answer is yes. In a study of 5,000 adults across the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Japan sponsored by Adobe, a software developer, three out of four  respondents said they are under growing pressure to be productive rather than creative, despite the fact that they are increasingly expected to think creatively on the job.

Across all of the countries surveyed, people said they spend only 25 percent of their time at work creating. Lack of time is seen as the biggest barrier to creativity (47 percent globally, 52 percent in United States).

More than half of those surveyed said that creativity is being stifled by their education systems, and many believe creativity is taken for granted (52 percent globally, 70 percent in the United States).
8 Ways Your Job May be Killing You
How many times have you thought, "This job is going to kill me"? The truth is, you may have been right. For better or worse, a person's job plays a critical role in his or her mental and physical health.

From increased risks of heart disease to longer life spans, the numerous drawbacks or benefits to healththat come with working have been revealed by various studies across the globe.

Here are eight ways your job, including your decision to hold onto it or leave it, affect your health.
Workers Worldwide Itching for a Career Change
It turns out that a majority of workers believe that the grass really is greener somewhere else.  That’s the finding of a new poll, which found that 55 percent of global workers were considering a career change because of the current economic situation. An additional 30 percent of respondents said they would consider a change if they could find a better career.

In the United States, 56 percent of workers were trying to change careers, while in the United Kingdom, 62 percent of workers responded that they were actively trying to switch their career. Slightly more than half of workers in Mexico were also looking for a change.

"There are many types of career changes, with some people making a career 'sidestep,' moving into a new kind of role within their current industry, while others may be making a more radical change," Charles Purdy, career expert, said. "Before considering a change, workers need to do thorough research, making sure they have realistic expectations and a concrete plan for filling their skills gaps."

Despite the overwhelming majority of workers looking for a change, 15 percent of global workers still feel that their career is not affected by economic uncertainty. Even though many workers are currently looking to make a change, Purdy thinks workers should always be focused on a career change, regardless of economic standing.
30% of US Workers Don't Get Enough Sleep
Nearly a third of workers in the U.S. aren't getting enough sleep, according to a new government report.

Overall, 30 percent of employed U.S. adults reported getting less than six hours of sleep a night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its report. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults get seven to nine hours of sleep.

People who usually work the night shift — especially those in transportation, warehousing, health care and social assistance industries — were more likely than day-shift workers to report not getting enough sleep. Forty-four percent of the night shift workers participating in the survey said they got less than six hours of sleep, compared with 29 percent of workers with day shifts.

"Insufficient sleep can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences for fatigued workers and others around them," the CDC wrote. An estimated 20 percent of vehicle crashes are linked to drowsy driving.
Sticking With a Job You Hate Can Make You Sick
Staying at a job you hate may affect more than just your happiness.  New research finds that employees who stay at jobs out of a feeling of obligation are prone to several health problems, including exhaustion, stress and burnout.

"Our study examined whether some forms of commitment to an organization could have detrimental effects, such as emotional exhaustion and, eventually, turnover," said study co-author Alexandra Panaccio, an assistant professor at Concordia University in Montreal. "It may be that, in the absence of an emotional bond with the organization, commitment based on obligation is experienced as a kind of indebtedness — a loss of autonomy that is emotionally draining over time."

The research also found that people with higher self-esteem were more greatly affected by a lack of employment options.

"When employees stay with their organization because they feel that they have no other options, they are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion," said Panaccio, who is in the department of management at Concordia's John Molson School of Business. "This feeling, in turn, may lead them to leave the organization."
Forget Modesty, Narcissists Best Suited for Job Interview Success
Modesty may be the best policy in many situations, but a job interview is not one of them. That's the finding of a new survey that looked at the way people performed on job interviews.  In that survey, narcissists, who promoted themselves in the interview, were rated more highly than those who were modest.

This is because narcissists come across as being confident, and engaging when speaking. Narcissists are also able to promote themselves in the interview setting as well.
What's Keeping Americans from Fulfilling Their Career Dreams?
Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: there are second acts in American lives. An estimated 31 million Americans ages 44 to 70 hope to have encore careers that combine personal meaning, continued income and social impact, new research shows. The only thing holding many of them back is money.

The financial challenges posed by midlife career changes are hampering the plans of millions of people who are interested in new careers that can put their experience to work for the greater good, according to a joint study by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work and social purposes.

Half of those interested in encore careers expect the transition to be difficult and, of those, 59 percent expect the main obstacle in making the transition to be financial, the study found. 

How Much Money Do You Need to Be Happy? 
It turns out, money might buy happiness after all. And, it might not cost as much as you think. According to a new poll, an annual household income of $50,000 is enough to increase the likelihood of people feeling an overall sense of happiness and satisfaction in life.
Not a pretty picture is it? The issue isn't just the jobs we do, it's the environment we must do them in and the control we have over it. I know my job is slowly killing me. I just wish I knew what to do about it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Silence Is Deafening

Remember how the media initially refused to acknowledge the thousands of people protesting in cities all over the country in the Occupy Movement? How they tried to make it go away by pretending it didn't exist? Well, it's happening again, and this time what's being ignored is north of the border:
On an unseasonably warm day in late March, a quarter of a million postsecondary students and their supporters gathered in the streets of Montreal to protest against the Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75% over five years.  As the crowd marched in seemingly endless waves from Place du Canada, dotted with the carrés rouges, or red squares, that have become the symbol of the Quebec student movement, it was plainly obvious that this demonstration was the largest in Quebec’s, and perhaps Canadian, history.

The March 22nd Manifestation nationale was not the culmination but the midpoint of a 10-week-long student uprising that has seen, at its height, over 300,000 college and university students join an unlimited and superbly coordinated general strike.  As of today, almost 180,000 students remain on picket lines in departments and faculties that have been shuttered since February, not only in university-dense Montreal but also in smaller communities throughout Quebec

The strike has been supported by near-daily protest actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to building occupations and bridge blockades, and, more recently, by a campaign of political and economic disruption directed against government ministries, crown corporations, and private industry.  Although generally peaceful, these actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of police violence: Student protesters are routinely beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range.  Meanwhile, college and university administrators have deployed a spate of court injunctions and other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to break the strike, and Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing calls for his government to negotiate with student leaders.

So, why haven’t you heard about this yet?

While the Quebec student strike is comparable in scale to student movements in Europe and Latin America, it is entirely unique in the context of Canada and the continental United States, which makes the absence of media coverage outside the province puzzling at best and disturbing at worst.
The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

What if the media isn't there to inform at all? What if it's true role is enforcing normalcy and making sure people think that everything is actually all right and it is only they who are out of sorts?

Adios a Los Estados Unidos

This is not really new; I first heard about it a few weeks ago. Net migration form Mexico to the United States is now zero:

Net Migration From Mexico Hits Zero (Yahoo News):

Mexican migration into the United States has come to a standstill and may soon reverse, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center. This marks a dramatic change in the wave of Mexican migration that brought 12 million people to America over four decades.

About 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States between 2005 and 2010, which is roughly the same number of Mexicans who left over the same period.

The number of illegal immigrants from Mexico dropped from 7 million in 2007, a peak, to 6.1 million in 2011. The report attributes the drop to the drastic decline in birthrates in Mexico, the increasingly dangerous passage across the border, and the flagging American economy. A higher percentage of deported migrants now say in surveys that they will not attempt to come back into the United States (compared to 10 years ago).

The United States' estimated 12 million Mexican immigrants represent the largest chunk of immigrants in any country in the world. Mexico has sent more immigrants to the States over the past four decades than any other nation.
The US Has Finally Done It: Mexican Immigrants Become Emigrants (Zero Hedge):
You know its bad when...the net flow of Mexicans into the US has fallen so much that there is a high probability that it is now in reverse ending around forty years of inward migration. The Pew Hispanic Center notes that the standstill - after more than 12 million current immigrants have entered the US - more than half of whom are illegal - appears to be the result of many factors including a weakened US job and construction market, tougher border enforcement, a rise in deportations, growing dangers associated with border crossing, a long-term decline in Mexico's birth rate, and changing (read perhaps more opportunistic) economic conditions in Mexico (especially if you work at WalMex). This sharp downward trend in net migration has led to the first significant decrease in at least two decades in the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. - to 6.1 million in 2011, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007. In the five years from 2005 to 2010, about 1.4m Mexicans immigrated to the US – exactly the same number of Mexican immigrants and their US-born children who quit the US and moved back or were deported to Mexico. By contrast, in the previous five years to 2000 some 3m Mexicans came to the US and fewer than 700,000 left it. It will be interesting to see the spin that the Obama and Romney camps put on this hot-button topic as the 'Dream Act' turns into a nightmare and hardline anti-illegal immigration stances become, well, less relevant as Mexicans become Mexican'ts.
Number Of Undocumented Immigrants From Mexico Who Are Entering and Leaving U.S. Hits Net Zero (ThinkProgess):
According to Mexican census data, 1 million undocumented immigrants returned to Mexico from the U.S. between 2005 and 2010 — more than three times the number who said they had returned from 2000 to 2004. The majority of these immigrants are returning to their homes for good, leading to a massive shift in Mexico, which has relied on billions in remittances as a form of social welfare.
Home again in Mexico: Illegal immigration hits net zero (Christian Science Monitor)
At this time of year in this tiny rural outpost that sits on a mountainside in Guanajuato State, most able-bodied men are gone. They're off plucking and cutting chicken in processing plants in Georgia or pruning the backyards of Seattle.

But this year, Pedro Laguna and his wife, Silvia Arellano, are clearing rocks from their yard to prepare a field for corn. They've returned home to Tamaula, Mexico, with their four young children, after 20 years in the United States working illegally. Pedro's cousin Jorge Laguna and his brothers are planting garbanzo beans in the plot behind their father's home. Their next-door neighbor Gregorio Zambrano is also home: One recent morning he badgered a visiting social worker for funds to start a honey-production enterprise.

Since the Monitor last visited here in 2007, a major demographic shift has transformed this dusty village of 230. Migrants have come home, and with them have come other important changes. In 2007, there was no running water, no high school, no paved roads. A simple water pipeline, installed in February, runs to each of the 50-some homes. On a recent day the first high school class, including eight students ages 15 to 40, was finishing up math homework. And now, the main roads are paved.

"We can turn on the water and wash our clothes," says Pedro's uncle, Rodolfo Laguna, who spent 12 years working illegally in a chicken plant in Athens, Ga., before returning home in 2010 after both he and his son lost their jobs.

This is the new face of rural Mexico. Villages emptied out in the 1980s and '90s in one of the largest waves of migration in history. Today there are clear signs that a human tide is returning to towns both small and large across Mexico.

One million Mexicans said they returned from the US between 2005 and 2010, according to a new dem-ographic study of Mexican census data. That's three times the number who said they'd returned in the previous five-year period.

And they aren't just home for a visit: One prominent sociologist in the US has counted "net zero" migration for the first time since the 1960s.

Experts say the implications for both nations are enormous – from the draining of a labor pool in the US to the need for a radical shift in policies in Mexico, which has long depended on the billions of dollars in migrant remittances as a social welfare cornerstone.

Mexico-US Migration Slips After 40 Years of Growth (BBC)
The rate of Mexican immigration to the US has stalled or maybe even gone into reverse, an analysis shows, ending a four-decade-long trend.

A Pew Hispanic Center study shows immigration began to slow five years ago and may have reversed by 2010.

Economic factors, increased border control, and lower Mexican birth rates were all cited as factors. More than 12 million migrants entered the US from Mexico since 1970, more than half legally, the report says.

"Looking back over the entire span of US history, no country has ever seen as many of its people immigrate to this country as Mexico has in the past four decades," the report's authors note.
I've said on many occasions that if you want to see the United States' future, look at Mexico (poor or nonexistant public services, small middle class with vast poverty, corrupt institutions, hard class divisions with heriditary wealth and lack of mobility, etc.). See this article in which a former minister in Mexico openly questions why any country would want to intentionally dismantle it's middle class as the US is doing when so many nations are striving so hard to create one.

If you're a Mexican, there is no benefit to coming to the U.S. anymore if the U.S. is essentially just another version of Mexico, one where you are a foreigner, seperated from your family, don't speak the language and are a second-class citizen with no rights (and the weather's crummier in many cases). Why not stay in Mexico.

This is also a sign of just how bad the U.S. economy is. As reported yesterday, the U.S. is essentailly a low-wage economy with no worker rights. Social mobility is gone, schools are terrible, college is unaffordable, the infrastructure is crumbling. Mexicans are finally relizing this isn't the El Norte of the 1960s, or even the 1980s anymore.

In fact, it seems like Mexico is moving ahead. There's also a cultural factor too - several dissidents from the U.S. went to Mexico to escape the cultural maladies that affect the U.S. (Morris Berman and the late Joe Bageant). It's interesting to note the contrast between the U.S. where state legislatures are passing resolutions denouncing urban planning as international Agenda 21 socialist conspiracies, and Mexico which has enshrined climate changed goals into law and goals to reach 35 percent renewable power:
Following a vote in its Senate on Thursday evening, Mexico is poised to become just the second country in the world to enshrine long-term climate targets into national legislation. The margin of the vote was huge - 78-0 - indicating that all political parties have found common ground on this issue. Now all that's needed is the signature of President Felipe Calderon, which is expected to materialise next week.
The bill enshrines a number of measures in law, including: 30% reduction in emission growth measured against a "business as usual" pathway by 2020, and 50% by 2050, 35% of energy to come from renewable sources by 2024, obligation for government agencies to use renewables, and establishment of a national mechanism for reporting on emissions in various sectors.
Inside Mexico's Climate Revolution (BBC)

Imagine, the United States used to lead the world. Those days are long gone.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Is It A Crisis Yet?

One of these days I'm going to do my summary of South Pacific Cargo Cults, because I see no difference between Pacific Islanders waiting for airplanes to drop out of the sky and bring cargo back by performing certain rites and the politicians trying to bring jobs back with some sort of unexplainable magic.

1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed (Associated Press)
While there's strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for bachelor's degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.

About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.

Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year. Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less.

In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000 versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or higher to fill the position - teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren't easily replaced by computers.

College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

Any job gains are going mostly to workers at the top and bottom of the wage scale, at the expense of middle-income jobs commonly held by bachelor's degree holders. By some studies, up to 95 percent of positions lost during the economic recovery occurred in middle-income occupations such as bank tellers, the type of job not expected to return in a more high-tech age.

David Neumark, an economist at the University of California-Irvine, said a bachelor's degree can have benefits that aren't fully reflected in the government's labor data. He said even for lower-skilled jobs such as waitress or cashier, employers tend to value bachelor's degree-holders more highly than high-school graduates, paying them more for the same work and offering promotions.

In addition, U.S. workers increasingly may need to consider their position in a global economy, where they must compete with educated foreign-born residents for jobs. Longer-term government projections also may fail to consider "degree inflation," a growing ubiquity of bachelor's degrees that could make them more commonplace in lower-wage jobs but inadequate for higher-wage ones.
No End In Sight. James Suroweicki, The New Yorker
Unemployment doesn’t hurt just the unemployed, though. It’s bad for all of us. Jobless workers, having no income, aren’t paying taxes, which adds to the budget deficit. More important, when a substantial portion of the workforce is sitting on its hands, the economy is going to grow more slowly than it could. After all, people doing something to create value, rather than nothing, is the fundamental driver of growth in any economy.

Most worrying, if high unemployment persists it could start to feed upon itself. Right now, unemployment is mainly the result of what economists call cyclical factors: during the recession, demand plummeted, and during the recovery consumer spending, government stimulus, and exports haven’t been sufficient to make up the difference. But if high long-term unemployment continues there’s a danger that, sooner or later, cyclical unemployment could become structural unemployment—that is, unemployment that won’t go away once the good times return. The longer people are unemployed, the harder it is for them to find a job (even after you control for skills, education, and so on). Being out of a job can erode people’s confidence and their sense of possibility; and employers, often unfairly, tend to take long-term unemployment as a signal that something is wrong. A more insidious factor is that long-term unemployment can start to erode job skills, making people less employable. One extraordinary study of Swedish workers, for instance, found that there was a strong correlation between time out of work and declining skills: workers who had been out of work for a year saw their relative ability to do something as simple as process and use printed information drop by five percentile points.

The phenomenon in which a sizable chunk of the workforce gets stuck in place, and in effect becomes permanently unemployed, is known by economists as hysteresis in the job market. This is, arguably, what happened to many European countries in the nineteen-eighties—policymakers did little when joblessness soared, and their economies got stuck, leaving them with seemingly permanent unemployment rates of eight or nine per cent. The good news is that there’s not much evidence that hysteresis has set in here yet. The bad news is that we can ride our luck only for so long. If the ranks of America’s long-term jobless don’t start shrinking soon, it’s less likely that they ever will, and we’ll be looking at a new “natural” unemployment rate for the U.S. economy. This economy would be less productive as a whole (since there would be fewer workers), meaning that everyone would be less well off.
Research shows the US is a low wage country. Mark Thoma, CBS News
Recent research from John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research shows that the US leads developed countries in the share of workers earning low wages. The research also shows that increased wage polarization over the last several decades is one of the reasons for the large share of low wage-work in the US. 

So, when are we able to admit that modern capitalism is failing?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Social Unravelling

Yves Smith:
This weekend, the National Journal published, “In Nothing We Trust,” using Muncie, Indiana to illustrate the distrust that is eating away at the American social fabric.

The institutions the story depicts as functioning well are the evangelical churches, which are downscale country clubs, and the local charter schools. The traditional churches are in decline, the public schools are falling behind, the City Council is discredited.

The article describes the result as a deserved or at least understandable loss of faith in institutions; the comments on the piece extol it as proof that government sucks.

But there is reason to think that the causality might run the other way: that trust and social bonds generally have weakened, and where that will show up most acutely is in institutions that have authority over us but over which we feel we have little sway. And this distrust, ironically, plays into the hands of the powerful, since people need to have enough faith in each other to be able to organize against vested interests to get their needs met. Napoleon was a big promoter of individualism, for he believed it made people easier to control.

For instance, the length of most contracts has gone up considerably. It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of routine business could be done on a handshake, with a letter agreement commemorating the arrangement (and then more to make sure that the two sides had heard each other correctly). The old saw is that a contract is only as good as the parties that enter into them. The common use of extremely detailed agreements reflects the fact that the parties to the agreement see the odds of litigation much higher than in the past and are spending more time papering up their agreements as protection against that event. In other words, they are going into business with people they don’t really trust to behave properly.

Another factor may be that many people see their relationships with institutions as less durable, and hence it’s easier to abandon them rather than try to fix them. In his book On Value and Values, Doug Smith described how our traditional relationships had been place-based, while now we relate to each other through markets, networks, workplaces and other organizations, and of course through friends and families. Place based relationships are durable whether you like it or not. And the fact that you will be dealing with the same people repeatedly gives everyone huge incentives to be pretty trustworthy and to work disputes out.

By contrast, our relationships to organizations are tenuous and elective. The relationship most of us want to be the most stable, that of employment, is fragile and typically short. The National Journal piece describes how people abandoned traditional churches for high service mega-churches and public schools for charter schools. The article thus takes the conventional view that the public no longer has faith in a whole long list of organizations, when in some cases, the decline of the organization is partly due to its some of its members withdrawing rather than pressuring it to shape up. And on top of that, since the Reagan era, government has been depicted in a negative light, which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy (fewer good people chose public service, budgets get cut which result in lower performance levels, justifying the negative views and paving the way for further funding reductions).
Timothy Noah:
Let me start by conceding a point that conservatives often make: Yes, a certain amount of income inequality is necessary in a capitalist system. You have to let the market reward effort and skill. But a system in which inequality of incomes constantly increases over time is worrisome.

Why is it necessary to reward so much more today than in 1979 the effort and skill (and dumb luck) that gets you into the top 1 percent of incomes (i.e., above about $350,000)? In 1979 the top 1 percent consumed about 10 percent of the nation’s collective income. In 2010 it consumed about 20 percent. (That includes capital gains.) Sure, the economy was in lousy shape in 1979. But the top 1 percent contented itself with 9-12 percent of the nation’s collective income for three decades prior to 1979, during the great post-World War II economic boom. Indeed, income share for the top 1 percent fell a little during that period. From the early 1930s through the late 1970s incomes in America didn’t become more unequal; they became more equal. So clearly the top earners can get by on much less without undermining capitalism.

I worry less about the 99 percent (which, let’s face it, includes a lot of pretty affluent people) than about the bottom 60 or 50 percent. Income earners at the median have not shared in America’s prosperity. They’ve actually seen their incomes go down (after inflation) during the past decade, and over the past three decades their increases seem pitiful compared both with people earning top incomes (and here I mean not just the top 1 percent but the top 10 and even 20 percent) and with people at the median during the postwar era. For a long time economists said: Wait until productivity rebounds. Then working families will get their share. But when productivity rebounded like crazy in the aughts, working families saw no reward.

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear—if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside.

I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together—Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.
And has Jon Huntsman been reading this blog???

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Technology, Innovation, and the Blowback Principle

A new USGS report is the latest in a growing body of documentation tying the unusual increase in earthquakes in locales across the country to the processes associated with oil and gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Fracking has also been implicated in the contamination of groundwater supplies with benzine, a known carcinogen. In other news, several studies have shown a new link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticids and colony collapse disorder - the widespread deaths of pollinating bees. Pesticides usually work by disrupting the chemical metabolism of insects that feed on the plants. New federal data indicate that 1 in 88 U.S. children had autism or other autism spectrum disorders in 2008, up from 1 in 110 kids in 2006 and 1 in 150 in 2002. In Utah the reate is as high as 1 in 32. Higher rates of autism have been associated with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA, pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury, pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, and increased age of fathers. Others merely blame increased awareness of the condition. Puberty for girls is coming earlier, as early as 10 years old in some cases. Suspected culprits include obesity, endocrine disruptors like BPA, hormones in food, and family stress. The increased use of psychiatric drugs has been posited as a cause of the dementia epidemic. And a new Swedish study linked exposure to phthalates with diabetes in seniors. Previous studies linked phthalates, which are major components of plastics, to everything from low sperm counts to birth defects. The inhabitants of the Gulf Coast of the United States and Fukushima prefecture Japan continue to suffer ill effects of the massive oil spill and nuclear meltdown, respectively.*

All of these are examples what I call The Blowback Principle. The blowback principle states that any new technology is going to have unanticipated negative consequences. The point is not to demonize all science and technology, rather it is merely to point out that no new technology when introduced into a society is free of these unintended consequences. Yet this seems to be one of the biggest cognitive blindspots of technology boosters, who see technology as the solution to every problem, full stop. In fact, technology often seems to give rise to a whole new set of problems which must then be solved by inventing even more technology, ad infinitum. Meanwhile the problems seem to never get solved, and in some cases, often metastasize or accelerate. I always want to ask those who posit a technological solution to every problem, what do we do about the subsequent problem that the solution will cause? The above examples are just a few drawn from the news in just the last few weeks. I’m sure there will be many others in the near future.

Now to be clear, my point is not that we should all just abandon all technology and go back to living in the stone age, although I’m sure that’s how my technophilist friends will interpret it. Technology often does improve our lives.  My point is that blindly trusting in some new technology or innovation to solve our fundamental problems is foolish. And not considering all the effects is also foolish. If technology is invented to solve problems but causes as many problems as it solves, can it really be said to solve anything?

In one sense, technology boosters are the ultimate optimists. For example, they look at the internet and see all the wonderful things caused by mass communication among people – the ease and immediacy of communication, the dissemination of information, the elimination of gatekeepers, the variety of expression, the social connectedness, the democratization of content, efficiency, online shopping, crowdsourcing, etc.. They don’t talk about robo-trading, cyber-attacks, child pornography rings, online stalking, identity theft, compartmentalization of media, video game addiction, fraud, viruses, spam, worms, bots, spyware, malware, and a host of other maladies that could fill volumes. Many have expressed concern that loneliness and alienation are actually being enhanced by the use of the internet. Others worry that people who do not have access will be left behind. Some have even gone so far as to suspect that staring at screens all day is causing a rewiring of our brains. Our attention spans are getting shorter and our comprehension shallower, they argue. And the internet has allowed capital and information,and subsequently work, to be moved anywhere in the world leading to major winners and losers, and we've only just begun to feel the negative fallout from that.

It’s hard to imagine a piece of technology that hasn’t been corrupted by the base desires of a species whose mind is fundamentally still on the African savannah. The biggest use of the internet isn’t intellectual discourse, it’s marketing, pornography and spam. Things like Facebook give rise to bullying; "cyber-bullying" has caused several tragic suicides, as it allows social ostracism to become even more intrusive and pronounced. Cell phones lead to ‘sexting’ and accidents caused by distracted drivers (not to mention loud, obnoxious conversations with nobody). There was an iPhone app that used new media technology like Facebook and Foursquare to allow people to track nearby single women that caused such a stir it was taken down. Already, governments allied with big corporations are seizing control of the internet and determining what we see and hear, in contraversion to the idealistic and anarchic vision of the  Web’s early founders. Unrealistic images foisted upon us in our media-saturated environment have caused entirely new psychological diseases like anorexia to emerge. Insecurity, inadequacy and status anxiety are all fomented by an advertising industry to hector the public to continually spend on new products to keep economic growth going.

Doing physical work is considered “a thing of the past” and something for people to avoid at all costs. It’s been eliminated in the name of “progress.” What are the consequences? A host of health maladies including obesity and heart disease. Was that expected? So now we're tying to invent new drugs that cure obesity and heart disease. Simply bringing back physical work, working less hours, building walkable communities, or regulating unhealthy foods are not considered viable solutions. Gee, I wonder what the “side effects” of the anti-obesity pill will be. Also, it’s increasingly thought that “clean” environments that children are raised in today contribute to allergies, since children who grow up farms are much less likely to have them. Good thing we got rid of farming along with physical work. Fortunately we've got allergy pills, with only a few side effects. Hopefully you won't get drowsy while driving. And there’s even evidence that spending time in nature heals depression and boosts mood. But we’ve got a pill for that too, only 150 dollars a bottle. One piece of innovation almost universally seen as  “good” is the search for cures for illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Yet Weston Price and others have documented that these diseases were virtually unknown in pre-agricultural societies. So even that is solving an earlier problem. Mankind's first technology, agriculture, led to sicker populations, new diseases emerging (thanks to confined animals) salinization, depleted soils, desertification, deforestation, and possibly many other ills (like despotism, war, and slavery). Even the discovery of antibiotics, considered an unmitigated success, has had the blowback effects of new drug-resistant strains emerging, factory farming, and overpopulation.


When television was introduced, people imagined all sort of benevolent, even utopian outcomes. Anyone could watch the inauguration of a president, the latest scientific breakthrough, or the dropping of bombs on civilians. It was thought that this would lead to an end to war. That it would enhance politics by making the public more informed and our political dialogue more constructive. That people would become more intelligent as educational programs taught even the lowliest laborer science, history, and mathematics. How has that worked out for us? Are we more intelligent or better informed? Is our political dialogue more enlightening? Has war stopped because we can see its effects on TV (when it's not being controlled or censored)? Turned on a TV lately? I think Dancing With The Stars is on.

Similarly utopian predictions were made for the automobile. At its base, the internal combustion engine is merely a way of moving people around using fuel instead of animals. Liberated from distance for the first time in history, it was thought, a golden age would occur as people were no longer confined to the small town they were born in or the farm they grew up on for their whole lives. Even a country farmer could now travel faster and farther than the crowned heads of old Europe in their carriages. People imagined It would end class distinctions, nationalism, military conflict, and even lead to a universal language by annihilating distance. And, indeed, the automobile has been liberating and beneficial in many ways. The internal combustion engine solved many pressing problems, like where to go with all the horse excrement. It made cities cleaner in the short run. It allowed food to be transported from anywhere. It has transformed society, as its proponents claimed. But has it been exclusively beneficial? And were the knock-on effects considered, or even imagined?

In fact, an entire book could be written about the consequences. Engines in tractors allowed less people to work on farms than ever before causing vast consolidation, since now just a handful of people could farm more land than ever before. Agriculture vanished almost overnight as a way of life for most people. Unemployment and bankruptcy soared. Consumer credit was introduced to allow people to purchase automobiles, causing banking to grow and debt to increase. Prosperous people moved away from cities and into the countryside, causing a bifurcation of society. Mechanized warfare due to the internal combustion engine caused the slaughter of millions. After the war, massive sums were spent on suburbanization to boost the economy and consumption. Policies like local funding of schools, redlining, “drive until you qualify” and the bussing of minority students transformed education and urban patterns. This in turn, caused political changes such as the removal of the commons which is still playing out. Pollution and smog became epidemic. Air pollution caused asthma cases to soar, and leaded gas caused a variety of maladies before its effects were identified. Public transportation vanished in America and people stopped walking causing obesity rates to soar. Housing bubbles formed and popped, eventually causing worldwide economic crises. Automakers consolidated and then went bankrupt, asking the public for bailouts. And enormous amounts of the nation's resources were devoted to maintaining a vast and expensive driving infrastructure that needed constant maintenance and paid for by taxes. More people are killed on the world's roadways in a typical year than in all the world's wars. And I haven’t even mentioned Peak Oil and climate change. Will more technology solve all of these problems caused by technology?

I could go on. Has air conditioning caused a political realignment of the United States as people moved to the sunbelt? Has television caused the murder rate to increase? Do video games make people more violent? Have digital effects ruined the ability to tell a good story? Does living in high rises in crowded cities increase mental illness? Is artificial light destroying our circadian rhythms? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Jet air travel and urbanization cause pandemics to quickly spread around the world. An unintended consequence of efficiency is the increased use of whatever you make more efficient. Entire books could be written, and probably have been, about these effects.

Considering all the effects above,my question to the singularitarians and other technophiles is: what makes them so sure that future technology will not give rise to these same unintended effects? To the same blowback? Kant once said "out of  the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Why do they assume that suddenly our technology will all of the sudden make things straight when it never has before?

Probably the most extreme current example of technophilia are proposals to "geoengineer" the biosphere. Proponents of “free markets” like to point out that no single entity or institution has enough knowledge or wisdom to manage the complexity of a modern economy. Yet somehow people believe we have the knowledge and wisdom to engineer the entire planet to our whim and not suffer unintended consequences. That we can “manage” causing artificial changes to the environment on a planetary scale that will allow us to continue the damage caused by earlier technology. What happens if we shoot chaff into the atmosphere to cool things down and a major volcano erupts? I find it supremely ironic that often the very same people who argue against central planning of the economy will advocate geoengineering the planet itself to meet the needs of the economy.

And furthermore these technophiles claim that soon we’re going to interface our consciousness with machines, plug our brains into the internet, become cyborgs, design our DNA, travel through time, and even make ourselves immortal! They claim that not only do we have the knowledge and wisdom to do this, but that there will be no unintended consequences. Really? To cite one specific objection, geneticist Spencer Wells points out in Pandora's Seed that many of our most brilliant artists, scientists and thinkers have suffered bouts of mental illness. What happens if we gain the ability to "engineer" mental illness away? Will we lose some essential part of our minds, of our selves? And clearly having people who never die on an already overcrowded planet opens up such a host of problems as to make your head spin. The bigger and more ambitious the technology, the bigger and more irreversible are the consequences. Are we too smart for our own good?


The ends to which a technology will be put are largely determined by the type of society into which they are introduced. Francis Bacon claimed that three innovations changed the world of his time - gunpowder, printing and the magnetic compass. Although he did not know the origins of these inventions, they all came from China. Obviously they had very different effects when introduced into Europe than they did in China. The same is true considering the effects of the steam engine in the classical and modern worlds. The nature of the society dictates how technology will be used, and who will benefit. Thus when you introduce television into a capitalistic society, you get wall-to-wall advertisements, pandering, manipulation by elites, and lowest common denominator forms of entertainment. Similarly, in a society of wealthy against poor where the ruling class sees people as cows to be milked for money, it is certain new technology will be used to negative ends. For example, using digital cash: there’s currently a push to eliminate all paper money in favor of virtual money. Who controls the virtual money? Banks and the government, that's who. What happens if you run afoul of one of these institutions? What if you visit the wrong website, buy the wrong book, or contribute to the wrong cause? They’re already tracking your online movements and assigning you a "credit score" that determines what you can buy, and even where you can live or work. What happens when the elites who own the banks and run the government can zero out your balance or credit score with a few keystrokes. When all records are electronic, can they just make you into a nonperson? What happens when we get chip implants? Will they be able to read your thoughts? Will they screen for subversive thoughts? Will you be denied health insurance, or even a job because of a genome scan? Will workers' DNA be engineered for docility and pliability? Couldn't we argue that some of these technological "innovations' will make the masses easier to control and might, just might, make things worse for a lot of people?

Technology is in some sense neutral - it can make things better or worse, depending on the society it is introduced into. Technology like machines that replace workers can lead to higher profits for the the few, and higher unemployment and destitution for the many, or it can lead to higher productivity, higher wages, and more leisure for everyone. In both instances the technology is exactly the same, it is only the social and economic arrangements that have changed. You can think of society as the software that runs the hardware of technology. The hardware can behave very differently depending on the software installed. An unhealthy society will use technology in unhealthy and oppressive ways. A healthy, well-adjusted society will use it positive, life-enhancing ways. If we are not using technology in healthy, life-enhancing ways, shouldn’t we be asking whether the problem is technology at all? Technology doesn’t create such societies, people and institutions do. If society isn’t fixed, adding new technology won’t make it better, in fact it will proably might make it a whole lot worse. The internet, supposedly the great equalizer, is already being taken over by governments and corporations who use it to spy on their citizens and control what they see and hear. Will nuclear technology light schools or build bombs? Will plants be built safely or for the lowest possible cost? How will the waste and pollution be dealt with, and who will pay for it? Is it safe? Are we sure? Who is telling us? Currently we just introduce technology into society with no oversight or control, like running an experiment every time, with all of us as participants.

Permaculture, agroforestry and organic agriculture are innovative enough, but we tend to only see innovation in terms of high-tech measures like genetic engineering or new chemical pesticides. Instead of waiting for the next Facebook or something like it to put people back to work, why not just put people back to work? Shortening working hours or government job creation are considered impossible to implement because we're told that such measures will actually somehow stifle innovation. Yet that's impossible - they are innovations, just not technological ones. They're social innovations, and they solve problems directly, instead of waiting for some future technological innovation that on one can quite specify. Instead of a way to keep tractors running at all costs, why not put people back to work as organic small farmers? It solves three problems at once - our unemployment problem, our obesity problem ,and out food/environmental problem (and might even help depression, too). Instead of trying to invent a carbon-harvesting machine, try biochar, or just plant a tree. Instead of frantically coming up with enough energy to keep everything running, why not use less of it? We already waste so much with no real boost in happiness or living standards. Yet none of these innovations are considered "progress." All these innovations all have two things in common - they're not predominantly technological, and they don't boost the profits of the already wealthy. Thus we have to ask, is innovation truly what the elites are after at all? Or are they after more control power and profits in the guise of innovation? There are numerous more innovations today than we had in 1950 (no cell phones or personal computers!) Yet unemployment is much higher, and well-being lower than it was then. We’ve already created innovations like the iPod and iPad, hybrid cars, MRIs, and genetic sequencing, but they haven’t changed the overall direction of the economy toward lower-paying service jobs and un/underemployment. In fact, many such innovations have done a better job at creating jobs for China’s economy than for ours. What makes us think this won’t be as true for future innovations? People have benefited from the use of the products, but not by more jobs, better pay, more free time, etc. We've never pinned more hopes and placed more focus on growth and innovation than we do today, and yet a pervasive sense of doom hangs over society. Why do we insist that future innovation will automatically make our lives better and cure our social ills?

Science is understanding. Technology is application. Yet it seems we ignore the conclusions of science, in favor of technology. Science tells use that we're permanently and irreparably damaging the environment by our industrial and agricultural output, that oil is running out, that the climate is changing, that mass extinctions are occurring, that many chemicals are poisonous, that the world has limits, and that we cannot grow exponentially forever. Science tells us that materialism doesn't cause happiness, that inequality harms societies, that lifelong social ties are essential, and that modern lifestyles are wrecking our health. It's even showing us that gene expression can change based upon such things as prenatal nutrition and social class! Yet the only science we are allowed to implement is that which produces more technology to increase the profits of the already wealthy. Technology has already made it easier to control populations and concentrate wealth. More technology will probably not fix these problems. The only thing that will solve them is solving them. And that’s the point - Innovation is used an an excuse to let problems fester and as a miracle cure. We've already solved most of the basic vexing human problems with our technology. We have indoor heat, hot and cold running water, sanitation, antibiotics, refrigeration, adequate food and nutrition, cooking fuel, entertainment and diversions, communication at light speed, and transportation to anywhere in the world in a day. What new innovation are we truly lacking? The problem is distribution - most people still don't have access to many of these things. Or we don't have time to enjoy them. Do we need future technical innovations to solve that? And why haven't they been solved already? After all, what is the end goal of all this technology? Is there one?


All that being said, here are my 10 rules of technology:

1. If one of the assumptions behind the adoption of a technology is human infallibility, then it's probably a bad idea.

2. Just because we can, doesn't mean that we should. Will the adoption of a technology will make society better, or worse? The Amish are not anti-technology, they are just pro-choice (no pun intended). They actively decide what to adopt and what to reject based upon the effects the technology will have. If the technology conflicts with their values, they reject it. Of course, this assumes a society has values. Predictably, every social malady we find in technological societies are much less pronounced or nonexistent among the Amish. That doesn't mean we should all become Amish, just that there may be a lesson here.

3. Every benefit has a cost. What is the cost? What is the benefit? Is the cost worth the benefit?

4. Cui bono? To who's benefit is the adoption of a new technology? Who are the losers, if any? The Luddites were upset not at technology, but at the loss of their livelihoods. If the benefits and profits of the new technology had been broadly shared, would they have smashed the machines? I doubt it.

5. Does it really meet a need? If we're putting massive resources into inventing new antidepressants, shouldn't we be wondering why we're so depressed in the first place? What does it say about the world we've created for ourselves that many of the long-awaited future innovations cited by technology boosters - virtual worlds, immersive games, cybernetic bodies, etc., are all pretty much ways of fleeing from reality.

6. Is there another simpler, low tech way to accomplish the same thing? One with fewer negative consequences? With fewer side effects? With less environmental damage?

7. With apologies to Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. What are the ends to the technology you are introducing? Health? Happiness? Convenience? Profit? It seems like we're inventing new needs just to find some technology to satisfy them, rather than the reverse.

8. Don't think of innovation as just technology. Let's look at other types of innovation - political, economic, social, and ask if that solves our problem better than some techno-fix.

9. If a person cannot articulate exactly why they are using a technology or how it makes their life better, or if it even makes them unhappy, it is merely a status symbol, an addiction or a fetish.

10, If you think the invention of [insert technology here] will bring about a utopia, then you're probably wrong.

When people from technologically advanced societies visit primitive Amazonian tribesmen and remark that they are the happiest people they've ever seen, you've got to wonder how good technology really is at making us any happier. We feel we would be absolutely miserable without out television sets, our DVD players, our iPods, our cell phones, our cars, our computer games, our books. Would we be? If they went away, we'd miss them, but that's different. That's missing something you're accustomed to, and even that would fade in time. The human psyche is resilient and can accustom itself to nearly anything; even people who lose limbs return to the same set point of contentment. How can we say a primitive existence will make us permanently unhappy? If if a even primitive existence won't, certainly giving up a small thing or two here and there won't either. Isn't it all relative to what's around you? How can we miss what we don't know exists? Who says "I'm unhappy today because I don't have something that's going to be invented a hundred years from now?"

Consider me a techno-skeptic. A skeptic isn't anti, he's just skeptical. I'm really a fan of technology as well as a user (this is on the Internet, right?). I like DVD's, indoor heat and anesthetics. I just think we're fooling ourselves if we think that more technology and innovation is the best, or even the only solution for many of our most pressing problems. And I think we do ourselves a disservice if we think of innovation purely in terms of new technology. Do you really need that solar-powered electric coffee grinder? Technology is a teriffic servant but a poor master. Keven Kelley wrote a book called What Technology Wants, contending that technology has wants and needs of its own accord. Isn't it time to stop giving technology what it wants, and start having it give us what we want?