Friday, August 31, 2012

Things Said Best By Others

First to this article in BoingBoing about student sleep problems:
About a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles about the similar effect that lack of sleep was having on worker productivity. They weren't recommending any changes in workplace policy, the tone was more about hectoring workers to go to bed earlier. So they really did not expect the pushback that they got. An ad-hoc committee of CEOs bought a full-page ad, paid for out of their own pockets, to attack the idea that people need 8 hours of sleep a night. Every single one of them was getting by on 4 hours of sleep a night or less, and they were the most productive people on the planet. They insisted, collectively, that anybody who claims to "need" to sleep 8 hours a night is just a lazy slacker, that those people will never achieve anything in life, and that it was disappointing that the official newspaper of capitalism was encouraging people to be lazy slackers.

Around the same time that I was reading that, I was reading articles about hypomanic disorder. Hypomanics aren't completely out of control, but they do have some impulse control problems and serious difficulty predicting the negative consequences of any actions that they're contemplating, leading to disastrous overconfidence. They also tend to be gregarious, and high energy to the point of being fidgety, and, statistically, they also tend to sleep only 2 to 4 hours a day.

It occurred to me that this many not be a coincidence. Modern post-industrial capitalism rewards the living heck out of people with hypomanic disorder. Ever since then I've been making references to Procrustes' prescription pad: our society knows which is the perfect mental state, and if you're not in that mental state, we chemically stretch or saw off parts of your neurochemistry until you fit into it. The direction of 21st century life is to reserve all of the rewards of work, thrift, and investment for people for people with one particular form of mental illness, hypomanic disorder. But we claim that this isn't cruel, because we're also working on drugs to induce that disorder in otherwise healthy people.
Fits in to future posts I'm planning about how leadership in our society is not based on intelligence, or skill or merit, but by personality. I've personally seen how the surest ways to get to the top are an permanently elevated mood, a lack of outside interests or hobbies (except child-rearing), lack of any self doubt or self-reflection, and a boundless appetite for work. People who fit this description have the" secret handshake," and are shunted directly into the elevator headed for the top upon arrival under the principle of "like attracts like." But are such people really good leaders? In fact, evidence says they're the worst possible.

And this comment to an article about the backlash to standing desks makes a sadly all-too-believable statement about how absolutely everything, from restaurants to transportation is politicized in modern-day America:
I can see this becoming a divisive issue in US politics. Liberals will continue to enjoy standing desks, and will go on and on about it. Then conservatives will feel the need to take the exact opposite point of view, because there's a culture war going on, and so politics has to be as black and white as possible. The conservatives will form a group called Americans Against Standing Desks (AASD), which for some reason will be financially supported by the Koch brothers. They will come up with a conspiracy theory involving the UN trying to take away our chairs. Romney will show his support for the movement by sitting rather than standing at the podium at the next debate, although the Daily Show will unearth videos of him standing at desks in the past. Obama will see the whole thing as stupid at first, but then become concerned when conservative pundits attack him for standing a lot. They will say that Obama has shown a lack of leadership on this issue. So Obama will feel forced to pick a side and will install a standing desk in the oval office. The next conservative president, whether or not its Romney, will make a huge deal of getting rid of the standing desk.
And honorable mention to this comment:
 'Ignorance,' said Lady Bracknell, 'is like a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.' Ironically, the protective shield around ignorance is - tolerance.

Somewhere along the way, we decided, fatally, that 'everyone is entitled to his beliefs' was the same as 'all beliefs are equally valid' and that 'I believe this' is the same as 'this is true'.

Worse, faith is by definition proof against reason; Tertullian said 'I believe (in the resurrection of Jesus) because it is impossible', and that he was so certain of a point of doctrine (I forget which) that if angels were to come from Heaven to contradict him, yet he would cling to it. The gospel has Jesus telling doubting Thomas, blessed are those who have *not* seen and have believed.

Denying evidence becomes a virtue. Truly, blind faith. There is nothing you can do about faith. It is, a priori, common-sense-proof.

And if you try to argue, even the mildest and most reasonable challenge, you get labelled a 'bigot'.

Although I am officially a 'liberal' or at least a moderate, I blame the left. The whole everyone's-entitled-to-his-opinion thing has gone too far. At some point one must say, you have a right to an opinion, but yours is just plain wrong.

Someone - I wish I remembered who - once said the tragedy of America is that it was founded on faith rather than on reason. Amen.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are We Headed For A Food Crisis First?

Jeremy Grantham thinks so:
In his new discussion, he warns we are in a “chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades, at least until the global population has considerably declined from its likely peak of over nine billion in 2050.” Why? “There are too many factors that will make growth in food output increasingly difficult where it used to be easy”:

•Grain productivity has fallen decade by decade since 1970 from 3.5% to 1.5%. Quite probably, the most efficient grain producers are approaching a “glass ceiling” where further increases in productivity per acre approach zero at the grain species’ limit (just as race horses do not run materially faster now than in the 1920s). Remarkably, investment in agricultural research has steadily fallen globally, as a percent of GDP.

•Water problems will increase to a point where gains from increased irrigation will be offset by the loss of underground water and the salination of the soil.

•Persistent bad farming practices perpetuate land degradation, which will continue to undermine our longterm sustainable productive capacity.

•Incremental returns from increasing fertilizer use will steadily decline on the margin for fertilizer use has increased five-fold in the last 50 years and the easy pickings are behind us.

•There will be increased weather instability, notably floods and droughts, but also steadily increasing heat. The last three years of global weather were so bad that to draw three such years randomly would have been a remote possibility. The climate is changing.

•The costs of fertilizer and fuel will rise rapidly

He points out something I have reported on many times here, “Talk privately to scientists involved in climate research and you find that they believe that almost everything is worse than they feared and accelerating dangerously.” The good news/bad news is:

On paper, though, the energy problem can be relatively easily addressed through very large investments in renewables and smart grids. Those countries that do this will, in several decades, eventually emerge with large advantages in lower marginal costs and in energy security. Most countries including the U.S. will not muster the political will to overcome inertia, wishful thinking, and the enormous political power of the energy interests to embark on these expensive programs. They risk being left behind in competiveness.

The devastating food crises to come will, however, largely affect the United States indirectly, through much higher prices and the terrible global instability they causes. He notes that:

For Fortress North America (ex-Mexico), or what we might call Canamerica, these problems are relatively remote. When corn crops fail we worry about farmers’ income, not about starvation. In the long run, the truth is that Canamerica seen as a unit is in an almost unimaginably superior position to the average of the rest of our planet. Per capita, the U.S. alone has five times the surface water and seven times the arable land of China! And Canada has even more.

But the staggering immorality of our food, energy, and climate policies will become increasingly indefensible. As but one example:

Despite corn being almost ludicrously inefficient as an ethanol input compared to sugar cane and scores of other plants, 40% of our corn crop – the most important one for global exports – is diverted away from food uses. If one single tankful of pure ethanol were put into an SUV (yes, I know it’s a mix in the U.S., but humor me) it displaces enough food calories to feed one Indian farmer for one year! To persist in such folly if malnutrition increases, as I think it will, would be, to be polite, ungenerous: it pushes the price of corn away from affordability in poorer countries and, through substitution, it raises all grain prices. (The global corn and wheat prices have jumped over 40% in just two months.)

Our ethanol policy is becoming the moral equivalent of shooting some poor Indian farmers. Death just comes more slowly and painfully.

Once again, why single out Indian farmers? Because it was reported last month in Bloomberg that the caloric intake of the average Indian farmer had dropped from a high of 2,266 a day in 1973 to 2,020 last year according to their National Sample Survey Office. And for city dwellers the average had dropped from approximately 2,100 to 1,900.
Mark Bittman on Jeremy Grantham and organic farming:
Grantham has made offbeat predictions before, and he’s been right. In 2007, referring to remarks by the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, about the subprime crisis being contained, he said, “If it’s contained, the container in this case is likely to be Pandora’s.” Since then, he’s been sounding the alarm on the finite nature of resources, an undeniable state of affairs that is largely ignored by economists. And he’s concluded that the most compelling issue isn’t energy (technology will take care of that, he believes, making renewables less expensive while oil prices rise) or even metals, but food.

Grantham’s article succinctly puts economic teeth into the argument that all advocates of truly sustainable food make almost constantly: We are going to be eating sustainable, more-or-less organic and mostly regional food within a couple of generations, and the big question is whether we get to that place willingly (it might be too late for that, but one can hope) or whether we go through a dystopic convulsion first.
Citing falling grain productivity, rising resource prices (and, of course, dwindling resources; they are finite after all), snowballing water problems, declining returns from the use of chemical fertilizers, increasing energy costs, a lack of will, investment theory that is “ill-informed, manipulated, full of inertia, and corruptible,” and a newly unfavorable climate, Grantham concludes that we are “about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades.”

Discussing food security and the global food crisis on the phone, Grantham was if anything more emphatic: “We have to go to an organic sustainable system or we’ll starve,” he told me. And he elegantly counters the arguments that large-scale organic agriculture (or whatever it will be called when it becomes dominant; the agro-ecological method, perhaps) cannot be profitable. (Remember, this is a guy who does profit for a living.)

He’s established foundations that are financing research in organic agriculture. After all, he said: “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)
Some others have sounded the alarm on a new feudalism where farmers work as neo-peasants on land owned by one-percent financial sharpies based in distant cities. Is this pointing that direction? Having these wealthy elites buying up farmland and fresh water supplies seems to be pointing in that direction.

More and more there seems to be contrast in America not between capitalists and socialists, but between capitalists who get it (like Grantham, the late Matthew Simmons, T. Boone Pickens, etc.), and the completely clueless reactionaries (e.g. Republicans, the "Tea Party" etc.). In any case, it looks like food and fresh water will be as much if not more of a limit to growth and political stability than energy.

And see: World may be forced to go vegetarian by 2050, scientists say (Yahoo!)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Corn-pone Nazis On The March

The recent sayings of Todd Akin have suddenly thrust the nation’s attention on something that has been flying under the radar for a long time – much of rural America outside of big cities and exclusive resorts is spiraling into sheer and utter madness. Akin took much of the focus off of Ted Cruz, a person who looks to be a shoo-in candidate for one of the 102 seats in the United States’ central governing body (read that last part over again until it sinks in):
If polling trends are accurate, Tea Party crush Ted Cruz, who thinks there is a conspiracy to rid America of its golf courses, is about to toss over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a GOP U.S. Senate runoff election. Dewhurst, an out of touch multi-millionaire who thinks Phoenix is the number two kidnap capital of the world behind Mexico City, has spent almost $20 million of his personal fortune for what may be a huge embarrassment. The shame won't be Dewhurst's alone, however. Governor Rick Perry, who needs rich guy supporters in the U.S. Senate for his next presidential run, (yes, that will happen), has endorsed Dewhurst.

Cruz is a conspiracy theory character. He is convinced billionaire George Soros is funding a secret agenda to shutdown golf courses because they harm the environment and is conspiring with the United Nations to eliminate national sovereignty and private property. Cruz is convinced sharia law is an enormous problem in the U.S. and that extending unemployment benefits creates more unemployment and that churches ought to be able to keep their tax exemptions even as they endorse candidates from the pulpit.

People are starting to realize that these are not isolated nut cases, this is what the party believes. And this is not a fringe party; it’s a party that has almost exclusive unitary control of multiple regions of the country, over half of the nation’s governorships, and roughly half the seats in the national governing body (House and Senate), along with much of the judiciary. They may retake the executive branch as well, and as you may recall, the last time they owned the executive branch the economy was brought to its knees and two wars of aggression were launched. What’s scarier is that more and more of the party is comprised not of people who cynically use the useful idiots of the white working classes to gain power, but of true believers:
The United Nations scoffed on Friday at claims by a judge in Lubbock County, Texas, that U.N. troops could invade the southern U.S. state to settle a possible civil war, which the judge warned could be sparked if Obama is re-elected in November.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, when asked if the United Nations had any plans to invade Texas.

He was responding to comments from Tom Head, a county judge in Lubbock who told a local Fox News station on Monday that taxes needed to be raised so the county could prepare for contingencies if Obama was re-elected for a second term.

"He (Obama) is going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N. What's going to happen when that happens? I'm thinking worst case scenario -- civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe," Head said.

"What's going happen ... if the public decides to do that? He's going to send in U.N. troops, I don't want them in Lubbock County. I'm going to stand in front of their armored personnel carriers and say 'You're not coming in here,'" he said.

And Head told Fox News that he has the backing of his local sheriff. "I've already asked him 'Are you going to back me?' and he said 'Yeah I'll back you.'"

Now I want to point out that these are not nobodies, nor are they homeless lunatics ranting on streetcorners. They are JUDGES, SHERIFFS and A CANDIATE FOR THE UNITED STATES SENATE. Add to that the wealthy political backers such as the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, who are able to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

And it’s not just social extremism. They are also pondering a return to the nineteenth-century gold standard in the middle of a depression. And they have their own celebrity supporters:
Hank Williams Jr has become the second musician in as many weeks to accuse Barack Obama of plotting to destroy the United States. Just days after Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine claimed Obama had "staged" this month's shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Williams offered his own polemic against the US president, falsely accusing him of being a Muslim.

The son of Hank Williams made his remarks during a recent performance at the Iowa State Fair. As the crowd chanted "USA! USA!", Williams Jr grabbed the microphone, Metromix Des Moines reported, declaring: "We've got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the US and we hate him!" The comments were reportedly met with "loud and enthusiastic" cheers.

Charles M. Blow ponders why any single woman would consider voting for Republicans, given their patriarchal attitudes towards women:
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson — who has made a number of appearances on Fox News, founded a Tea Party group in California and is also the founder of a group called BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny) — recently gave a speech (I hope it wasn’t a sermon), in which he said:

One of the primary reasons that it is over for America is because women are taking over, women are taking over, they’re in high so-called powerful position, they’re now running companies, they’re making decisions.
He then pointed out that he was not referring to all women:

The are some, a few out there that are logical women and can make sound decisions, but most cannot.
He prattled on nonsensically for a while, adding that “women cannot handle power, it’s not in them to handle power in the right way” and “women have been degraded, women are now degraded, they have no shame.”

I’m getting upset just transcribing this, so let me just get to the meat of it. Here’s the part of his speech I wanted you to see:

I think that one of the greatest mistakes that America made was to allow women the opportunity to vote. We should’ve never turned it over to women.

Why? Because “they’re voting in people who are evil.”

Now, on BOND’s website, both Sean Hannity and Dennis Prager, another conservative radio host, are listed as members of BOND’s advisory board. The Web site attributes the following endorsement to Hannity:

BOND has played an instrumental role in helping young men and women build lives which will help inspire the next generation. BOND continues to fight the good fight standing for the values of God, family, and country, and are deserving of our support.

What’s interesting about this statement is two things: one the complete and utter contempt for democracy. Their belief that democracy is only valid if it chooses candidates they approve of, otherwise it is utterly useless barrier to power to be tossed aside as a pesky inconvenience. Sound familiar? This seems to fit right in hand with the Republicans' desire to supposedly stamp out vote fraud by requiring IDs which disenfranchise minorities, the elderly and college students, while turning a blind eye to actual documented accounts of election tampering by their own operatives. And let’s not forget the move toward voting machines made by companies owned by conservative Republicans and the intentional understaffing and underequipping of poorer and urban-based polling stations (but not of white suburban ones).

Can we trust a party contemptuous of the very idea of democracy to uphold it? Why?

The other is the viewing of political opposition not just as people who have opposing ideas of how the country should be run, but as inherently evil. When a political party gets that Manichean world view, it is no longer a political party, but an authoritarian movement. When it starts spewing violent eliminationist rhetoric and accusing its opponents of not just bad ideas, but actually being traitors to the country, you had better start getting worried.

Yet there has been no consequence of this flight to radicalism, the Republican voters have just adjusted their beliefs to conform to their party. Part of this is the sophisticated manipulation of language and use of propaganda which the Republicans have wielded so well, learned, ironically enough, from earlier mass movements such as Fascism and Communism. So even as Republicans radicalize, their followers still diligently turn out and vote for them, putting ever more extreme and incompetent people into positions of power. They have not been consigned to the political wilderness or minority status like the British National Party (whose views are perhaps less radical); they continue to dominate the two-party system, no matter how extreme their political beliefs get. So why would they back off?

Then there is the theory that these characters truly do reflect the actual character of the voting public. Between greedy CEOs who want their taxes reduced, religious fundamentalists who want women to bear children under force of law, barely-literate racists who hate “Kenyan Muslim Socialists” and gun-toting lunatics holed up behind electric fences -  this is the true character of the American people, and these candidates are merely reflecting that unfortunate fact. At heart, Americans are fundamentally a greedy, mendacious, spiteful, hypocritical, racist, ignorant mass of crabs in a bucket, and we get the exact politicians we deserve. You can talk about money all you want, the American people are choosing to put these people into positions of power and influence, and as this article points out, many of them actually believe the same things:
We’re currently experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, a siege of wildfires, and the hottest temperatures since records were kept.  But to Republicans in Congress, it’s all a big hoax. The chairman of a subcommittee that oversees issues related to climate change,  Representative John Shimkus of Illinois is —  you guessed it  — a climate-change denier.

At a 2009 hearing, Shimkus said not to worry about a fatally dyspeptic planet: the biblical signs have yet to properly align. “The earth will end only when God declares it to be over,” he said, and then he went on to quote Genesis at some length.  It’s worth repeating: This guy is the chairman.

On the same committee is an oil-company tool and 27-year veteran of Congress, Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas.  You may remember Barton as the politician who apologized to the head of BP in 2010 after the government dared to insist that the company pay for those whose livelihoods were ruined by the gulf oil spill.

Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.”  Clean energy, he said,  “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.

“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

The Catholic Church long ago made its peace with evolution, but the same cannot be said of House Republicans.  Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House,  is an evolution denier, apparently because he can’t see the indent where his ancestors’ monkey tail used to be. “Where’s the missing link?” he said in 2011. “I just want to know what it is.” He serves on a committee that oversees education.
In his party, Kingston is in the mainstream. A Gallup poll in June found that 58 percent of Republicans believe God created humans in the present form just within the last 10,000 years —  a wealth of anthropological evidence to the contrary.

Another Georgia congressman, Paul Broun,  introduced the so-called personhood legislation in the House — backed by Akin and Representative Paul Ryan — that would have given a fertilized egg the same constitutional protections as a fully developed human being.

Broun is on the same science, space and technology committee that Akin is. Yes, science is part of their purview.
 The Crackpot Caucus, Timothy Egan, New York Times

In the twentieth century there was another political party of violent thuggish brawlers led by men with weird ideas and conspiracy theories that everyone wrote off as a joke. They also had the backing of wealthy industrialists and lived in a nation where the economy was unraveling. They also embraced war and excessive nationalism, used violence and intimidation against their opponents, despised science and the arts, burned books and conducted witchhunts.

Now can you finally understand how the Germany voluntarily embraced Nazism?

How can anyone expect such a country to survive? This increasingly looks like a nation on the verge of a civil war. Can anything turn around this political descent into paranoia, radicalism and madness?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tom and Mish and Robots

Earlier we posted an article by Michael "Mish" Shedlock running down many of the developments in the increasingly automated nature of modern work. In the follow-up, he provides some good summaries for two of the “conventional” views on automation, one shared by the minority and one by the majority. The pessimistic view he describes via an email from a friend:
When the vast bulk of production and services can be produced and delivered by computers, robotics, smart systems, and ubiquitous computing devices with only a small fraction of the human labor force we have today, we have no choice but to devise a system of income creation and distribution radically different than we have today or face unprecedented scale of labor underutilization, loss of purchasing power, collapse of the economy, and the risk of systemic societal collapse.
For the optimistic, cornucopian side, he uses another email:
10 and 20 years from now, there will be jobs we cannot even conceive of now. Just as today there are jobs and industries no-one could conceive of 20 years ago. Only 70 or 80 years ago, about 70% of the population worked in agriculture. Today not even 2% of the population works in agriculture and it produces an output that is an order of magnitude greater. This is the very definition of economic progress - to free up people from the drudgery of manual labor, so they have the time to do things that add far more value to our world.
Here’s a tip: if your entire argument rests upon “something we can’t even conceive of now”, then you’ve pretty much lost the argument. Case closed. Relying upon something we can’t even imagine isn’t much of an argument. Neither is saying since everything worked out in the past *, it will always happen in the future. And a lot of those things that “add more value” to the world lately seem to be Wall Street frauds and swindles. Is that what he meant?

Notice how this is the exact same solution put forth by Peak Oil deniers: “something” will come along, some energy source we can’t even think of today, and save us all so we can keep society going exactly the way it has been. The reason no one can name it is because no one has thought of it before. Again, not much of an argument. At least those who claim that thorium-based nuclear reactors will continue another few centuries of economic growth are basing their argument on something that actually exists.

Even this happy story of farmers all becoming office workers is not really true. Nothing has truly replaced manufacturing for over thirty years. First we all going to be “service workers”, i.e we’d all work for the nation’s new largest employers- Walmart and McDonalds. Or else we could all become “knowledge workers” writing iPhone apps or something. Yet since America was deindustrialized, we’ve had nothing but permanent downward mobility and ever-worsening economic conditions for the majority of people for over forty years. Much of the Rust Belt is in an advanced stage of decay, looking like the bombed out Bantustans of Africa and traktorgrads and magnetogorsks of the former Soviet Union. Rural America has been entirely given over to paranoid reactionary politics incubated by fundamentalist megachurches, while the only occupations are government jobs, minimum-wage scut work work and cooking up meth. I don’t  think America since deinsutrialization has been much of a success story, even when computers are factored in. Where is this new job growth going to come from, again? His conclusion:
Yet, I believe that some new technology will eventually come along that will again create enormous numbers of jobs. I strongly suspect it will be energy related. In the meantime, however, until something does come along, we are in a creative destruction phase in which technological advancement destroys more jobs than it creates. Unfortunately this current phase can last quite some time, perhaps even a decade or more. Those looking for jobs now do not have a decade, and the wait is extremely painful.
Yup, it will eventually come along; we’ll just to wait until this mysterious technology we can’t even conceive of solves our unemployment problems and ignites another two hundred years of economic growth. "Something to do with energy?" Something? Are we all going to run in hamster wheels? Or maybe we can make the unemployed into a kind of Soylent Green and burn it in our cars. I’m reminded of Kunstler’s quip that the American public has been conditioned to expect miracles.

And in the meantime? Crickets chirping. And add to this the fact that the plutocracy is bound and determined to eliminate the social safety net in the name of eliminating “dependence” on government – it’s the cornerstone of the Romney campaign (along with tax cuts for the wealthy). It looks like we’re in for a long, tough wait. Will society survive?

Obviously this analyst as a free-market fundamentalist has an inherent bias. But I would wonder why none of these financial pundits are aware of the most common caveat found at the head of every stock prospectus:

“Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.”

In a similar vein of idiocy is the ever-clueless ultimate pundit of “conventional wisdom” Thomas Friedman, once again writing the same column he writes every week, this time with a robot flavor.
And therein lie the seeds of a potential revolution. Rethink’s goal is simple: that its cheap, easy-to-use, safe robot will be to industrial robots what the personal computer was to the mainframe computer, or the iPhone was to the traditional phone. That is, it will bring robots to the small business and even home and enable people to write apps for them the way they do with PCs and iPhones — to make your robot conduct an orchestra, clean the house or, most important, do multiple tasks for small manufacturers, who could not afford big traditional robots, thus speeding innovation and enabling more manufacturing in America.

“If you see pictures of robots welding or painting” in a factory, “you will not see humans nearby because it is not safe” being around swinging robot arms, explains Rethink’s founder, Rodney Brooks, the Australian-born former director of the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the co-founder of iRobot, which invented the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot. Traditional industrial robots are fixed and not flexible, and they take a long time — and a skilled engineer — to program them to do one repeatable task.

“Just as the PC did not replace workers but empowered them to do many new things,” argues Brooks, the same will happen with the Rethink robot. “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here. ... The minute you say ‘robots’ people say: ‘It’s going to take away jobs. But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them,” the way the PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did.

Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills. I watched a Rethink robot being tested at the Nypro plastics factory in Clinton, Mass. A single worker was operating a big molding machine that occasionally spewed out too many widgets, which forced the system to overload. The robot was brought in to handle overflow, while the same single worker still operated the machine. “We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,” said Michael McGee, Nypro’s director of technology.

This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools. Alas, it isn’t. So I’m just grateful these folks here in Boston didn’t get the word.
What can I really say at this point? Does anyone on earth take Friedman seriously anymore? I guess we're still waiting for those good jobs. And as for the new educated workforce that's going to prosper using all those robots, Friedman's earth-based colleague at the Times has a reality check:
 • Half of U.S. children get no early childhood education, and we have no national strategy to increase enrollment.

• More than a quarter of U.S. children have a chronic health condition, such as obesity or asthma, threatening their capacity to learn.

• More than 22 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2010, up from about 17 percent in 2007.

• More than half of U.S. postsecondary students drop out without receiving a degree.

Now compare that with the report’s findings on China. It estimates that “by 2030, China will have 200 million college graduates — more than the entire U.S. work force,” and points out that by 2020 China plans to:

• Enroll 40 million children in preschool, a 50 percent increase from today.

• Provide 70 percent of children in China with three years of preschool.

• Graduate 95 percent of Chinese youths through nine years of compulsory education (that’s 165 million students, more than the U.S. labor force).

• Ensure that no child drops out of school for financial reasons.

• More than double enrollment in higher education.

And the report also points out that “by 2017, India will graduate 20 million people from high school — or five times as many as in the United States.”

As I have mentioned before, a book written last year by Jim Clifton, the chairman of Gallup, called “The Coming Jobs War,” pointed out that of the world’s five billion people over 15 years old, three billion said they worked or wanted to work, but there are only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs.

As if to underscore that point, the Center for American Progress pointed out that “between 2000 and 2008, China graduated 1.14 million people in the STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, subjects; the United States graduated 496,000.”

But instead of dramatically upping our investment in our children’s education so that they’ll be able to compete in a future that has more educated foreign job seekers, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. A White House report issued last Saturday noted that:

“Since the end of the recession in June 2009, the economy lost over 300,000 local education jobs. The loss of education jobs stands in stark contrast to every other recovery in recent years, under Republican and Democratic administrations.”
Starving The Future (Charles M. Blow)

Thankfully, nearly all the comments do a terrific job of shredding Friedman's (and Mish's) arguments. Be sure and click on the Reader Picks tab – it’s much more informative than reading the actual column. Just for starters:
Two questions:

(1) Will the number of higher-skill jobs created equal the number of low-skill jobs eliminated?

(2) Will the higher-skill jobs created pay more than the low-skill jobs eliminated and just where will the net increase in revenue to pay those higher salaries come from?

I guess that's three questions. Sorry.
    Bob Hanle
    Madison, WI
Oh great, just what we need. Now, instead of just needing to go to school until you're 28 to get a Masters in SuperNewJobOfTheFutureEngineering so you can finally get a decent job, you'll have to go BACK to school when you're 32 to get a degree in Uberrobotics Programming so you can get a different decent job. That job will last until you're 40, just long enough to think it's safe to have a couple kids and finally start paying off your education loans. By then, there'll be a NEW new technology which will require you to go back to school AGAIN to get re-re-educated in something else, leading to a couple more years of fearful unstable living, and of course more thousands of dollars in student loans, so that hopefully you can get one of the 15 jobs left out there, if one of the other 200 million PhDs in roboto-electrico-engineero-therapeutics don't get it first. By the time our kids are our age, they'll have to go to school for 50 years just to get their first job.

    Baltimore, MD
I hesitate to write this because I know it will be misunderstood. But I am sick of technology, sick of "innovation" for the sake of "innovation." Sick of competition to make jazzier toys, more necessary gadgets, more ways for corporations and government to control out lives. Tell me about people finding cures for disease, helping the disadvantaged, composing beautiful music, writing poetry. Don't tell me about the umpteenth amazing gadget I'm going to be expected to buy.
    New York
Unless we decide to practice eugenics (Ugh. Gataca, anyone?), the fact is that many people don't have the intellectual horsepower to do anything other than low-skilled jobs.

Most of us don't have the intellect to do the kind of work being done at CERN, in high tech incubators & start-ups, at MIT & Cal Tech, etc. I'm not stupid, but you could train me until the cows come home, and I'm never going to be a competent particle physicist. Add to that, many of us don't have the native intellect to function well in complex administrative and technical roles in a typical office setting.

Sure, nurture counts, but all the education in the world won't turn a person of below-average intelligence into a person who'll succeed at complex and intellectually demanding tasks.

It's all well and good for those with above-average intellect and a good education (the two don't always go together) to cheer the loss of low-skilled jobs. But there are people who, with all the dedication and training in the world, can do only those jobs.

We can't train our way out of the central question, which is what will become of all the people on this earth who don't have a role to play in the creative and productive activities that contribute to a solid, sustainable, knowledge-based economy? That excess population exists now and will only grow in the future, as our population soars and automation eliminates more and more "low-skilled" jobs. What are we going to do about it? 
    SF Bay Area
"The PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did." Sir, you must live an isolated life. Secretaries went from one per VP/executive to one per six five years ago and are now virtually non-existent. As Vonnegut foresaw in Player Piano in 1953, technology will make most humans obsolete in most workplaces. The engineers and executives and consultants and analysts are next at risk. In the end, as Vonnegut imagined, there will be a few very rich and many very poor and unemployed. Those of us in the second category will be relegated to comforting and entertaining one another. Might as well get good at it.
And so on...

Again, I actually wish someone would prove me wrong on this. I really do. Tell me exactly what will generate large numbers of well-paying jobs (100,000+ per month just in the US alone) all over the world that the average person can do that provide a good or service that will improve our lives (i.e. not fraud). What is it? What industry? Where is your proof and your numbers? Until then, I think wishful thinking will just keep coming as society deteriorates around us.

Lagniappe link:

* For more about this that - a few paragraphs from this article illustrate the point well:
The debt collection industry is huge in Buffalo and has been for almost twenty years.  There are approximately 5,000 bill collectors and over 100 agencies in Buffalo.  Buffalo, a working-class legacy city with a population of 260,000 and falling, is not the manufacturing mecca it was in the 1940s.  Manufacturing has slowly disappeared over the last thirty-five years and the city has struggled to find a new identity and defined purpose.  Buffalo is a remarkable place with many and varied cultural attractions, distinct architecture and great restaurants, but the high cost of doing business along with high taxes, corrupt poltics and inhospitable winters outweigh the less obvious virtues and discourage industries from situating here.

At its peak, Bethlehem steel employed almost 20,000 people in a massive facility not far from the shores of Lake Erie.  That facility is a brownfield now and Buffalo’s economy is scattered and unmoored, corralling a large working-class with dim prospects, low income and less resources to fund the aging and oversized infrastructure in the absence of large-scale manufacturing.  The call center economy proliferated in Buffalo largely because of cheap and available workers and office space, the sorts of incentives that don’t entice reputable, growing industries to the area.

Collection agencies and call centers have replaced some of the jobs vacated by manufacturers, but the compensation is far less and the jobs themselves are unstable.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Central Planning or Democratic Control?

In their ongoing series about centrally managed economies, Acemoglu and Robinson make this point about why Africa failed to develop centralized states:
In a previous post we examined how the Greek Bronze Age was associated with the rise of city states and nascent urbanization. Many of these, such as Knossos, Mycenae, Pylos and Tiryns, are on every tourist schedule today with impressive ruins and ‘cyclopean walls’ (so called because they were so large that they could only have been built by the legendary Cyclops). Archaeologists have suggested a theory linking the use of bronze to political centralization. Copper and tin are both scarce and need to be traded, their supplies can be monopolized, and so can trade. This seems to have created both the incentive and the opportunity to concentrate power and develop urban centers, for example in Knossos in Crete which was the core of Minoan Greece. While the Greek Bronze Age cities were destroyed around 1200 BCE and some, like Mycenae, never re-emerged, many, such as Athens re-emerged on the same spot so the early centralization of the Bronze Age may have left a path dependent legacy.

Not every part of the world experienced a Bronze Age, however. Though some parts of Africa, like Benin, are now famous for their bronze work, in general Sub-Saharan Africa jumped right into the Iron Age without ever passing through this intermediate stage.

In contrast to copper and tin, iron is very widely spread as the great archaeologist Gordon Childe put it “cheap iron democratized agriculture and industry and warfare too”. So the jump to Iron Age technology may have impeded the development of states in Africa by making it more difficult for elite to concentrate and monopolize power. Africa never experienced the nascent period of political centralization that Europe did during the Bronze Age, perhaps also with a path dependent legacy.
Earlier they make the case that central planning is not about efficient allocation of resources, but control over those resources:
Essentially central planning is not about the efficient allocation of economic resources, it is about control.

Central planning maximizes the extent of control that the state, and the people running the state, exercise. The desire to control others is a constant in history and is part and parcel of the construction of states. If the state can grab all the land and resources and control who and on what terms people get access to them, then this maximizes control, even if it sacrifices economic efficiency.

This sort of economic and political control — not Marxist ideology — is what central planning is all about. This is not to deny that Marxist ideology supported and legitimized central planning in several 20th-century societies. But it is to emphasize that the emergence and persistence of central planning is often a solution to the central economic and political problem of many elites: to control and extract resources from society.
Which is true enough, as far as it goes. This is exactly what opponents of central planning say. That's why the "free market" is all about "freedom," correct? But they neglect several important points, however.

There are a few errors in their statement. One, the idea behind Marxism was that workers would control the means of production, not an all-powerful state, so to say Marxism itself is all about centralized control as it was in the Soviet Union is perpetuate an inaccuracy. The Soviet state appropriated Marxism as a means of control, bastardizing it in the process. Also, it should be noted that every Marxist revolution to date has been in peasant societies, not in developed industrial societies.

More to the point, as anyone who has read Douglas Rushkoff's Life Inc. knows, the invention of the corporation was for the exact same purpose - to centralize control of production into the hands of elites! As Rushkoff also tells it, based on the work of Bernard Lietaer, centralized money was also invented to serve this purpose - centralized control by private banks and government elites. A similar point is made in Debt: The First 5000 Years; that official money such as coins develops as a means for centralized states to assert control over trade, particularly as means to wage war.

I think it's obvious that having multiple entities selling identical goods while extracting maximum profits along with wall-to-wall advertising is terribly inefficient (aren't you glad you're helping pay for the millions that "celebrity endorsers" get?). We accept those tradeoffs, however, in exchange for other benefits of having multiple vendors (innovation, competition, flexibility, etc.). And despite the inefficiencies, goods have been cheap and plentiful enough that there has not been a problem. But as Thorstein Veblen pointed out, there is an inherent conflict in production to satisfy genuine needs versus production for profit. For example, profit requires a certain level of scarcity; overproduction causes profits to fall. It also tends to bring about things like shoddy workmanship and planned obsolescence on the part of the profiteers. Much of our goods today  are of extremely poor quality, and are practically designed for the landfill.

Theoretically, producers competing in an open marketplace is a means to keep prices in line. But today almost all sectors of the economy are dominated by a handful of big producers at the macro level. Competition seems pretty scarce (many towns have no other vendors besides Walmart). Yes, stuff is cheap at Walmart, but does that have to do with private competition?

Mass production and cheap overseas labor are what makes good cheap, and what's keeping them cheap are the low wages Americans make - if the stuff got any more expensive, people wouldn't buy it and there would be no sales. But to say that these items would be more expensive under a central planning regime I don't think is accurate. As I noted earlier, Walmart is an entire economy within an economy, and centrally planned down to the tiniest detail. To say there is no central planning in our economy is a deliberate fiction. It's only a question of where it is done and who benefits.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as we noted extensively in this article, capitalism has devolved into a system nearly as centrally controlled as communism was! The only problem is, it has all of the downfalls of central planning and none of the benefits. With government and private industry essentially merging, I wonder how different our system is than a centrally-planned one in reality. Cant' we say both capitalism and central planning are all about control?

Is control by private elites any better than control by government elites? I think the fear of central planning obscures some real issues. One, the key to reform is putting essential services (like banking) under democratic control. Another is to say that workers should have control over the value they produce, or at the very least have guaranteed rights. If a company is "too big to fail," clearly it should be in public hands, not private. If not, the idea of our economic system being "free" is just so much claptrap.

Incidentally, speaking of central planning, it seems like there was some merit to Wittfogel's hypothesis after all - a new paper claims that states with large central irrigation works were less likely to develop democratic governments and more likely to be autocratic:
 We show that societies with a history of irrigation-based agriculture have been less likely to adopt democracy than societies with a history of rainfed agriculture. Rather than actual irrigation, the empirical analysis is based on how much irrigation potentially can increase yields. Irrigation potential is derived from a range of exogenous geographic factors, and reverse causality is therefore ruled out. Our results hold both at the cross-country level, and at the subnational level in premodern societies surveyed by ethnographers.
In the end, it's all about elites maximizing control over resources that the rest of us need.

Innovation Will Not Save Us

I once wrote that the reason "innovation" will not save us from the looming crises facing humanity is that we already have all the innovations we need today, even if nothing new were invented. Yet if these innovations are not solving our fundamental problems (resource depletion, social breakdown, extreme inequality, etc.), it is illogical to think that some future innovation that we cannot imagine will solve them any better than the innovations we already have. This "innovation" trope is just a "waiting for Godot" type scheme to keep people accepting of the status quo as civilization unravels around us (and we paradoxically go backward).

That's why this quote from an interview with Jorgen Randers stand out to me, because it makes essentially the exact same point:
When you get down to it, the reason why humanity will not solve the climate problem over the next 40 years is not that this is technically impossible. To the contrary, it’s technically quite simple, we all hope to build well-insulated homes and we do know how to make electric cars and we do know how to make solar panels and windmills instead of coal-fired utilities. The technologies exist, and the reason why we won’t do enough by 2052 is not that it’s wildly expensive to do so, it costs probably 1 to 2 percent of the GDP, which basically means that you and I will be as rich in July 2020 as we otherwise would have been in January 2020.

This is postponing gratification half a year to a year, that’s all that it would have taken to solve the climate problem. So when you ask the question ”why don’t we do anything?”, the technologies are there and the costs of applying them are fairly limited, the answer is that society, modern society as we know it, is extremely short term. It is finely tuned to a maximise short-term benefits, in some cases at the cost of future problems, and the two major institutions of today are of course democracy on the one side and capitalism on the other side.

Most people do accept that capitalism is short term, most people know that capitalism allocates capital to projects that have the highest return, and the discount rate used (the weight put on the future of things) is very low and the discount rate is very high, this means that capitalists don’t allocate money to projects that have most of the benefits 20 years down the line and the costs this year, they allocate to things where the benefits come in 4 years and less.

Then you could say that to be able to regulate capitalism in such a way that from the point of view of the capitalists it is most profitable to do the right thing, what is socially beneficial as opposed to what is profitable, and yes, this is true, and this is of course what we’re trying when we’re trying to introduce a price on carbon, a price on climate gas emissions, it basically means that one is trying to make it less profitable to run coal-fired power plants and more profitable to run windmills and things like this. But there you see the short-term nature of democracy emerges as the real problem, because when you try to pass legislation which makes fuel or power more expensive in the short term, most people don’t vote for those politicians.

In a democratic society it is very difficult to get the frame conditions around business decisions in such a way that businesses start to do what is socially beneficial rather than what is short-term profitable. The basic problem is that neither the capitalist machinery nor democratic society puts enough emphasis on our grandchildren’s benefits, and consequently we are basically doing things today that are for our benefit that will cost our children and particularly our grandchildren a lot. This is not necessary, it could easily have been done in a different manner, the technology exists, the costs are low, but because of the short-term nature of democracy and capitalism it won’t be done. This is my main message.
We need to reform our social, economic and governmental systems for any new "innovations" to solve anything. As Craig Dilworth points out in Too Smart For Our Own Good, it is innovation since the stone age which has landed us in this predicament in the first place.

This article, though I don't agree with all of it, makes a similar point: Global Warming Has a Fairly Simple and Cheap Technical Solution. The point is, in order to either tax carbon emissions or regulate them outright, you need to have a force that can assert control over business (i.e. that is above business) to make them toe the line. We no longer have that. The control factor in our society is business, with "democratic" governments as little more than a feel good exercise to obscure this fact. This is why it will never happen. Political and economic power are one in the same - always have been.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Judge Posner Wonders How Much Is Enough

There is a new book out by Lord Robert Skidelsky (and fils) that picks up some of the themes he's been arguing about our culture of every increasing overwork in an age of such productivity, efficiency and technology, for example, here. As you might expect, there are quite a few people who find that threatening.

This bizarre review in The New York Times by conservative judge Richard Posner is so hilarious, it seems to be a borderline comedy piece. It’s hard to believe so august a figure a Judge Posner could pen such ridiculous tripe. Maybe that’s why there is no comments section.

Despite the Republican party’s insistence that “not working” is the way of the poor and lazy, Posner actually damns the idea that there is more to life then work by charging the idea with elitism, added with a dash of cultural insult. Talk about chutzpah!
[Sidelsky's] essay is very English, because the traditional aspiration of the English upper class was not to work at all. Keynes, middle- rather than upper-class, worked hard all his life, but he was highly cultivated, a member of the Bloomsbury set, a balletomane, an admirer of the “good life” in a distinctively English sense unrelated to material comfort.
That’s right, not working makes you an upper-class snob! I thought the rich were hard-working and the poor lazy and indolent. I’m confused – can he have it both ways? He then goes on a complete digression about a trip to England back in the 1980’s (presumably before the glory of the Thatcher years), and how utterly miserable the place was:
In recent years, England has become much more like the United States, but I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia.. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.
Aside from how amazingly culturally insulting this paragraph is, what does any of this have to do with the book's central argument? As near as I can tell, he is implying that if we don’t work our forty-plus hour weeks, we’ll find ourselves shivering in the dark, cold and hungry like those miserable Europeans in their tiny houses and drafty four-hundred year old estates with no central heating or air conditioning. Quelle horreur! And what evidence is there to back this claim up? None whatsoever. Presumably the judge knows what evidence is, when he’s not displaying his own biases. It’s just a variant on the same old theme – work ever harder or shiver and starve, even in the midst of technological “innovation”, dead-end jobs, and un/underemployment. How long is this tired old canard going to be trotted out?

So after trying to take on the premise by bashing the entire British county and it's people, Posner gets down to brass tacks. His argument basically boils down to the fact that we need to work hard because we Americans enjoy all these expensive hobbies, and we need the money to pay for them. Seriously, I'm not making this up:
Americans value leisure, but it is expensive leisure, and so they have to work hard in order to pay for it. As a result they have less leisure time than if their preferred form of leisure were lying in a hammock, but on balance they obtain more pleasure.
More much pleasure, eh? He must live in a different America from the rest of us, because I don't see a lot of pleasure on the faces of people working sixty hour weeks in order to keep their jobs, or working two jobs to make ends meet. If we're so damn happy, why are we popping antidepressants to make it through the day? Why is depression and mental illness epidemic? Maybe we just have too much dopamine?

Of course Posner resorts to the oldest trope in the book, we would just get "bored" with all our new found leisure time, or we would fritter it away in "useless" activities:
And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them.
And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.
And if that didn't convince you, working less might even bring about the end of the world as we know it!
Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week. And imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.
That's right, without arms factories only churning out weapons part-time, we'd be defenseless! Invasion by the hard-working Red Chinese! With police only on the beat 20 hours, criminals would go wild (I guess we won't be adding shifts then?) And workers wouldn't acquire new skills fast enough, unlike today, where they acquire them and forget them all as they sit around unemployed or stocking shelves. Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria! Seriously, if this is the best arguments the other side can muster, it's not much work to debunk all of it. You wouldn't have half as many police officers, you would have twice as many people doing the job, which is the point! Not to mention, essential services like medical, police, fire, utilities, etc. would be phased in as new people are trained in those areas. It wouldn't, couldn't, and probably shouldn't happen overnight - it needs to be phased in. Job creation, get it? Guess not. Oh, and most jobs are service jobs or paper pushing jobs anyway. I think we'll survive.
If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to his question: What shall I do with my new leisure?
Um, the idea is that you'd have the same pay for working half as much. I mean - pre-war factory workers worked sixteen hour days, often six days a week. Were they richer? Paid more? Did they have more money for exotic foreign travel and spa trips? Come on, this is ridiculous, and anyone with any economic sense would see through it. By his logic, anything less than working every minute of every day would lead to penury. Our wages are based on a 40-hour workweek. If you base them on 20 hours, you can still pay the same wages. Presumably, then, people who can't stand relaxing in a hammock and enjoy the "expensive" leisure activities that make life worth living would still be able to afford them. Problem solved? He even undercuts his own argument in the same paragraph, quite a feat:
The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labor than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that.
Are we really living "better than that?" Better than what? And I ask you, are all our extra hours getting us any better quality of life? I mean you be the judge, but all social indicators say no. And we know from hard data that all our productivity gains have been going into the pockets of the top ten percent. A new report points out that the middle class has lost a decade of earnings, despite working harder and harder. So where's that higher quality of life? How is that "living better?" the fact is, we don't all have to work 40 hours to enjoy a standard of living greater than that of 1930. We have a lot of inventions we didn't have then; we're a lot more productive; and we've got far more workers than there are jobs.

Are people choosing to sit in their cubicles on pleasant summer afternoon because they want to afford their expensive hobbies? Maybe right-wing workaholics, but not most of us.These hypothetical people must be the same rational utility maximizers that make Chicago school economics function but don't exist in actual reality. I've never met anyone who wouldn't rather be at home, gardening, mowing the lawn, or playing with their kids on a summer afternoon, except they can't.  If Judge Posner actually spent time with real people who are stressed and harried almost everywhere, he might actually realize that.

People spend money in their leisure time as well. And the good judge might want to look into things like couchsurfing, air bnb, rideshare, etc. if he's worried about not being able to afford luxuries like travel on a reduced budget.

Incidentally, those "layabout" English aristocrats founded the Royal Society and developed the scientific method, laying the discoveries that are the foundation for all of the "innovations" since the Industrial Revolution. You know, people like Boyle, Hooke, Malthus, Kelvin, you know people like that. I guess they found some time in between gambling and seduction (and what's wrong with those?)

Come on, these are the exact same arguments against lowering the work week to forty hours. Did the world end? Nope. These are the same arguments against giving Americans guaranteed vacation time, despite the fact that most countries give their citizens twice as much without bursting into flames, riots breaking out, or all the lights going off, such as of Western Europe. Oh, I forgot, they live in drafty homes with no heat, silly me.
What shall I do with my new leisure?
Well, Dick, I've got a few ideas. Have you tried looking into the literally thousand of volunteer organizations that are desperate for members? I'm sure you legal expertise would come in handy. Maybe you could learn programming and help write some free software. You could write a blog like me. I see you've written quite a few books (I've even read some of them). I presume you wrote them in your spare time and didn't shortchange your paying job on the bench. You could write twice as many now. Maybe you could even write one about how the world will end when we only work 20 hours. I'm sure it will be a bestseller - with peoples' newfound leisure time, they will actually have time to read it. Personally, I recommend exercise, as sitting in front of a desk is as bad for you as smoking. Wouldn't we have better health outcomes if people did less of it? Hmmm? Last time I heard, running is still free. Maybe you could try growing your own food; I hear it's all the rage.

And you know what? Some people are going to sit around and take walks and play video games anyway. They do that now with their weekends from their forty-hour-a-week jobs, and they will do it with 20-hour-a-week jobs, and somehow the world still goes round with people engaged in all those "nonproductive" activities. I mean, 48 whole hours with no productive activities! How does society function well enough that I am even able to write this? But I think enough people will use their newfound free time in beneficial way to make up for it.

I guess Posner's answer is the typical "conservative" answer: there is never enough.

I know Posner's not a stupid man, and he's certainly economically literate. This terrible argument wouldn't win a court case, and I think he's just desperate to argue the status quo. these things reveal more about the biases of people who write them than make any kind of cogent argument.

But the ultimate coup-de-grace to Posner's arguments came in the Times itself the very same week. Here's the dirty little secret: working less actually makes us more productive:
Change is important. When we were growing up, we got summers off from school. Summer vacation was change. It was something to look forward to. A few months of something different really meant a lot.

We grow out of a lot as we grow up. One of the most unfortunate things we leave behind is a regular dose of change. Nowhere is this more evident than at work.

Work in February is the same as work in May. June’s the same as October. And it would be hard to tell August from April.

Yes, some businesses are more seasonal than others, but ultimately the stuff we do at work isn’t that much different — it’s just busier some times than others. That isn’t change, it’s just more volume.

I wanted to do something about this. So, at 37signals, the software company I’ve run for the past 13 years, we take inspiration from the seasons and build change into our work schedule.

For example, from May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less.

Most staff workers take Fridays off, but some choose a different day. Nearly all of us enjoy three-day weekends. Work ends Thursday, the weekend starts Friday, and work starts back up on Monday.

The benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious. But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five.

When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.

At 37signals there’s another thing we do to celebrate the seasons: we cover the cost of a weekly community-supported agriculture share for each employee. We enjoy this benefit year-round, but fresh fruit and produce really glisten in the summer months. It’s a simple way to celebrate change.

In the spirit of continual change, this summer we tried something new. We decided to give everyone the month of June to work on whatever they wanted. It wasn’t vacation, but it was vacation from whatever work was already scheduled. We invited everyone to shelve their nonessential work and to use the time to explore their own ideas.

People worked independently or joined up with other employees on team projects. The only rule was: explore, see if there are ways to make our existing products better, or come up with a new product idea, create a new business model, or do whatever is of most interest.

Then, in July, we asked each person to share, with the rest of the staff, whatever idea he or she came up with, on a day we set aside as “Pitchday.”

The June-on-your-own experiment led to the greatest burst of creativity I’ve seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultraproductive. So much so that we’ll likely start repeating the month-off project a few times a year.
Be More Productive. Take Time Off (NYT)

It's hard to innovate when your nose is to the grindstone, and isn't innovation what we're staking all our hopes on? Face it, excess working hours have nothing to do with choice or lifestyle or productivity or essential services. It's all about extracting the maximium value from each worker for profit. Period. the weakness of Posner's arguments only illustrate that fact.

Mayans and Rainfall

More evidence for man-made climate change bringing down empires:
The city states of the ancient Mayan empire flourished in southern Mexico and northern Central America for about six centuries. Then, around A.D. 900 Mayan civilization disintegrated.

Two new studies examine the reasons for the collapse of the Mayan culture, finding the Mayans themselves contributed to the downfall of the empire.

Scientists have found that drought played a key role, but the Mayans appear to have exacerbated the problem by cutting down the jungle canopy to make way for cities and crops, according to researchers who used climate-model simulations to see how much deforestation aggravated the drought.

"We're not saying deforestation explains the entire drought, but it does explain a substantial portion of the overall drying that is thought to have occurred," said the study's lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate modeler at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a statement.

Using climate-model simulations, he and his colleagues examined how much the switch from forest to crops, such as corn, would alter climate. Their results, detailed online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggested that when deforestation was at its maximum, it could account for up to 60 percent of the drying. (The switch from trees to corn reduces the amount of water transferred from the soil to the atmosphere, which reduces rainfall.)

Other recent research takes a more holistic view.

"The ninth-century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatán peninsular region were the result of complex human–environment interactions," writes this team in a study published Monday (Aug 20) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
What Was Behind Mysterious Collapse of the Mayan Empire? (Live Science)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


A new study says that the American food chain is so wasteful that roughly 40 percent of all our food goes uneaten, because we basically just throw it in the garbage. The report, which was issued by the National Resources Defense Council (via Reuters), looks at inefficiencies throughout our entire food production system — from the farm to stores to homes and restaurants — and finds that Americans throw out about $165 billion worth of food every year, or 20 pounds of food per person per month. That doesn't include the water used in the growing and production of wasted food (about one quarter of all our freshwater consumption), the cost to transport it, put it on and remove it from shelves, and the space in takes up in our landfills, where it ends up contributing 25 percent of the methane emissions in the United States.

Where does it all go? Well, some of it lost before it even makes it to consumers: Fruit that's edible, but not quite pretty enough for stores; animals that get sick and can't be slaughtered; fish that aren't frozen properly and rot on a dock. Then there's the "illusion of abundance" created by grocery stores. No store wants its shelves to ever appear to be empty, so they are constantly restocked with fresh alternatives that can never be sold fast enough to match the replacement rate. Unless shoppers storm the store five minutes before closing and buy it all up, most of the fresh produce and vegetables will end up in dumpsters that night. Then there are our refrigerators, which pile up with unused items that get tossed out with every "spring cleaning." Meanwhile, restaurants serve us portions that are too big to finish and entire neighborhoods go without places to buy fresh food.
Americans Throw Away 40 Percent of Our Food Every Day (The Atlantic Wire)
In Germany zero percent of the garbage goes into landfills, and two-thirds goes for recycling/composting.  The same figure is one percent in the Netherlands and Austria, with sixty and seventy percent respectively going to recycling/composting.

In Spain it is 52 percent to landfills, and in the United States it is 68 percent, with 24 percent going for recycling/composting.
Garbage landfills around the world (Marginal Revolution)

Time Wars

This essay, highlighted by BoingBoing a couple of weeks ago, is bloody marvelous. Since we've been talking about automation this week, it seems high time to refer to it here:
For most workers, there is no such thing as the long term. As sociologist Richard Sennett put it in his book The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, the post-Fordist worker “lives in a world marked … by short-term flexibility and flux … Corporations break up or join together, jobs appear and disappear, as events lacking connection.” (30) Throughout history, humans have learned to come to terms with the traumatic upheavals caused by war or natural disasters, but “[w]hat’s peculiar about uncertainty today,” Sennett points out, “is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism.”

It isn’t only work that has become more tenuous. The neoliberal attacks on public services, welfare programmes and trade unions mean that we are increasingly living in a world deprived of security or solidarity. The consequence of the normalisation of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic. Fear, which attaches to particular objects, is replaced by a more generalised anxiety, a constant twitching, an inability to settle. The uncertainty of work is intensified by digital communication technology. As soon as there is email, there are no longer working hours nor a workplace. What characterises the present moment more than our anxious checking – of our messages, which may bring opportunities or demands (often both at the same time), or, more abstractly, of our status, which, like the stock market is constantly under review, never finally resolved?

We are very far from the “society of leisure” that was confidently predicted in the 1970s. Contrary to the hopes raised at that time, technology has not liberated us from work. As Federico Campagna writes in his article “Radical Atheism”, published on the Through Europe website. “In the current age of machines … humans finally have the possibility of devolving most productive processes to technological apparatus, while retaining all outcomes for themselves. In other words, the (first) world currently hosts all the necessary pre-conditions for the realization of the old autonomist slogan ‘zero work / full income/ all production / to automation’. Despite all this, 21st century Western societies are still torn by the dusty, capitalist dichotomy which opposes a tragically overworked section of population against an equally tragically unemployed one.”

Work looms over us as never before. “In an eccentric and an extreme society like ours,” argue Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming in their book Dead Man Working, “working has assumed a universal presence – a ‘worker’s society in the worst sense of the term – where even the unemployed and children become obsessed with it.” (2) Work now colonises weekends, late evenings, even our dreams. “Under Fordism, weekends and leisure time were still relatively untouched,” Cederström and Fleming point out. “Today, however, capital seeks to exploit our sociality in all spheres of work. When we all become ‘human capital’ we not only have a job, or perform a job. We are the job.”

Given all of this, it is clear that most political struggles at the moment amount to a war over time. The generalised debt crisis that hangs over all areas of capitalist life and culture – from banks to housing and student funding – is ultimately about time. Averting the alleged catastrophe (of the end of capitalism) will heighten the apocalyptic temporality of everyday life, as the anticipation of catastrophe gives way to a sense that we are already living through the catastrophe and it, like work, will never end. The increase of debt justifies the extending of working hours and working life, with retirement age being pushed ever further back. We are in a state of harrassed busyness from which – we are now promised – there will never be any relief.
'Time Wars' by Mark Fisher (Gonzo Circus)

Here are some more good bits, but be sure and read the whole thing at least once:
The consequence is a strange kind of existential state, in which exhaustion bleeds into insomniac overstimulation (no matter how tired we are, there is still time for one more click) and enjoyment and anxiety co-exist (the urge to check emails, for instance, is both something we must do for work and a libidinal compulsion, a psychoanalytic drive that is never satisfied no matter how many messages we receive)...The characteristic affective tonality for the insomniac drift of cyberspace, in which there is always one more click to make, one more update to check, combines fascination with boredom. We are bored even as we are fascinated, and the limitless distraction allows us to evade confronting death – even as death is closing in on us.
The neoliberal gambit was that the destruction of social security would have a dynamic effect on culture and the economy, liberating an entrepreneurial spirit that was inhibited by the red tape of bureaucratic social democratic institutions. The reality, however, is that innovation requires certain forms of stability. The disintegration of social democracy has had a dampening, rather than a dynamic, effect on culture in highly neoliberalized countries such as the UK.
To understand the time-crisis, we only have to compare the current situation with the height of punk and post-punk in the UK and the US. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of punk and post-punk culture happened at a time when cheap and squatted property was available in London and New York. Now, simply to afford to pay rent in either city entails giving up most of your time and energy to work. The delirious rise in property prices over the last twenty years is probably the single most important cause of cultural conservatism in the UK and the US. In the UK, much of the infrastructure which indirectly supported cultural production has been systematically dismantled by successive neoliberal governments.
These developments precisely opened up a kind of time that is now increasingly difficult to access: a time temporarily freed from the pressure to pay rent or the mortgage; an experimental time, in which the outcomes of activities could neither be predicted nor guaranteed; a time which might turn out to be wasted, but which might equally yield new concepts, perceptions, ways of being. It is this kind of time, not the harassed time of the business entrepreneur, which gives rise to the new. This kind of time, where the collective mind can unfurl, also allows the social imagination to flourish.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Are People Good For Redux

Yesterday I flagged this article in The New York Times. Not much to say, except it confirms everything we’ve been saying here on the HCV since our inception. It’s also a rebuke to those who believe that that fossil fuel shortages will cause massive amounts of labor-intensive jobs to be resurrected. Here’s a taste:
Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.

It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.

Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.

The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.

Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.

The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt their backs.

Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box per second.

“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”
Skilled Work, Without the Worker (New York Times)

The article is getting a lot of attention, and today on Naked Capitalism I see a link to an article by independent analyst Michael “Mish” Shedlock running down all the developments in automation of late. I love it when other people do my work for me:

Robots to Rule the World? Taking All Jobs? Replace Women? (Michael Shedlock)

Although the female robot thing is a little creepy. Looks like The Windup Girl was more realistic than I thought.

And don't forget, it's not just automation, it's the effect of computers on how we do our transactions as well:
Best Buy made just $12m in profit on revenues of $10.6bn in the last quarter, falling from $150m over the same period last year. With stock and sales alike slumping, the firm suspended its profit forecast and share buybacks. Best Buy knows exactly what the problem is—it freely admits that everyone uses it to check out gadgets they then buy cheaper online—but hasn't found a way to turn the tide. [BBC and Dealnews]
Best Buy a bad buy for investors (BoingBoing)

Something to consider while hearing the blowhard politicians talking about "creating jobs." Capitalism is not nor ever was about creating jobs- it's about making as much profit with as few jobs as possible.

Monday, August 20, 2012

We're Not Broke

During the last gubernatorial election here in Wisconsin, one of the major issues was the train connecting Milwaukee and Madison. The constant refrain we heard from our Tea Party governor was “we can’t afford it!" (even though the funding was already there) This was music to the ears of the Tea Party, who object to government spening in any form whatsoever. Of course, if you think we can't afford it now, wait until gasoline is five dollars a gallon. Sadly, the train won't be there.

Here are some things, we CAN afford, however:
In spite of clichés about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.

That's right, two billion dollars not going for alternative transportation or infrastructure, but rather to persuade a few million"low information voters" to vote for KFC instead of Taco Bell. Oh, and what else can we afford?
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is spending big - just under $100 million - to combat drug smugglers who use small aircraft worth only a few thousand dollars each to ferry narcotics into the U.S.

 So the next time you hear the Tea Party complain about how "broke" we are, you might want to cast an eye of suspicion. We're not broke, we're spending plenty of money on the wrong things.

If you heard the latest Extraenvironmentalist podcast, you heard the guest talk about how the smartest thing we can do is to start moving people by rail instead of by airplane, especially for trips under 500 miles. He also recommended investing in a high quality DC grid to prepare for the evental electrification of transport, and stated, "Fifty years from now if you haven’t figured out how to run your society on less oil, than your economy will shrink." I guess that's what we're in for, thanks to the supposedly uber-capitalist Tea party, who, as I posted a bit ago, are now opposing streetcars here in Milwaukee. Face it, a dumbed-down reactionary America will never invest in the things we will need to make a functional economy in the age of diminishing petroleum supplies.

And in other news, No One Will Charged With a Crime for the MF Global Collapse (Yahoo!)