Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Got Civilization?

The spread of the lactose-tolerant gene seems to coincide with the beginning of civilization:
“I've probably worked more on the evolution of lactose tolerance than anyone in the world,” says Thomas. “I can give you a bunch of informed and sensible suggestions about why it's such an advantage, but we just don't know. It's a ridiculously high selection differential, just insane, for the last several thousand years.”

A “high selection differential” is something of a Darwinian euphemism. It means that those who couldn't drink milk were apt to die before they could reproduce. At best they were having fewer, sicklier children. That kind of life-or-death selection differential seems necessary to explain the speed with which the mutation swept across Eurasia and spread even faster in Africa. The unfit must have been taking their lactose-intolerant genomes to the grave.

Milk, by itself, somehow saved lives. This is odd, because milk is just food, just one source of nutrients and calories among many others. It's not medicine. But there was a time in human history when our diet and environment conspired to create conditions that mimicked those of a disease epidemic. Milk, in such circumstances, may well have performed the function of a life-saving drug.

There are no written records from the period when humans invented agriculture, but if there were, they would tell a tale of woe. Agriculture, in Jared Diamond's phrase, was the “worst mistake in human history.” The previous system of nourishment—hunting and gathering—had all but guaranteed a healthy diet, as it was defined by variety. But it made us a rootless species of nomads. Agriculture offered stability. It also transformed nature into a machine for cranking out human beings, though there was a cost. Once humans began to rely on the few crops that we knew how to grow reliably, our collective health collapsed. The remains of the first Neolithic farmers show clear signs of dramatic tooth decay, anemia, and low bone-density. Average height dropped by about 5 inches, while infant mortality rose. Diseases of deficiency like scurvy, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra were serious problems that would have been totally perplexing. We are still reeling from the change: Heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, celiac disease, and perhaps even acne are direct results of the switch to agriculture.

Meanwhile, agriculture's alter ego, civilization, was forcing people for the first time to live in cities, which were perfect environments for the rapid spread of infectious disease. No one living through these tribulations would have had any idea that things had ever been, or could be, different. Pestilence was the water we swam in for millennia.

It was in these horrendous conditions that the lactose tolerance mutation took hold. Reconstructed migration patterns make it clear that the wave of lactose tolerance that washed over Eurasia was carried by later generations of farmers who were healthier than their milk-abstaining neighbors. Everywhere that agriculture and civilization went, lactose tolerance came along. Agriculture-plus-dairying became the backbone of Western civilization.

But it's hard to know with any kind of certainty why milk was so beneficial. It may have been the case that milk provided nutrients that weren't present in the first wave of domesticated crops. An early, probably incorrect, hypothesis sought to link lactose tolerance to vitamin D and calcium deficiencies. The lactose-intolerant MIT geneticist Pardis Sabeti believes that milk boosted women's fat stores and thus their fertility, contributing directly to Darwinian fitness, though she and others allow that milk's highest value to subsisting Homo sapiens may have been that it provided fresh drinking water: A stream or pond might look clean yet harbor dangerous pathogens, while the milk coming out of a healthy-looking goat is likely to be healthy, too.

Each of these hypotheses makes rough-and-ready sense, but not even their creators find them totally convincing. “The drinking-water argument works in Africa, but not so much in Europe,” says Thomas. He favors the idea that milk supplemented food supplies. “If your crops failed and you couldn't drink milk, you were dead,” he says. “But none of the explanations that are out there are sufficient.”

The plot is still fuzzy, but we know a few things: The rise of civilization coincided with a strange twist in our evolutionary history. We became, in the coinage of one paleoanthropologist, “mampires” who feed on the fluids of other animals. Western civilization, which is twinned with agriculture, seems to have required milk to begin functioning. No one can say why. We know much less than we think about why we eat what we do. The puzzle is not merely academic. If we knew more, we might learn something about why our relationship to food can be so strange.

For the time being, the mythical version of the story isn't so bad. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were gatherers, collecting fruits as they fell from the tree. Cain the farmer and Abel the pastoralist represented two paths into the future: agriculture and civilization versus animal husbandry and nomadism. Cain offered God his cultivated fruits and vegetables, Abel an animal sacrifice that Flavius Josephus tells us was milk. Agriculture, in its earliest form, brought disease, deformation, and death, so God rejected it for the milk from Abel's flocks. Cain grew enraged and, being your prototypically amoral city-dweller, did his brother in. God cursed Cain with exile, commanding him to wander the earth like the pastoralist brother he'd killed. Cain and agriculture ultimately won the day—humans settled into cities sustained by farms—but only by becoming a little like Abel. And civilization moved forward.
The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History (Slate)

It moved forward did it? Read that last paragraph again - civilization stared with murder, and it's been so ever since. Folk memory perhaps? Then reread paragraphs 4 and 5, with reference to Jared Diamond's essay. It's a good summary of the view now almost universally shared by anthropologists - and a complete inverse of the views formerly held - that agriculture was a great leap forward because we never had to worry about food shortages. By contrast, it increased population such that we always had to worry about food shortages, and we had far less variety and inferior quality of food than before. In addition to communicable disease, cavities, anemia, famine and protein deficiency, storable surpluses also led to indebtedness, private ownership, patriarchy, slavery, and war (grain could feed armies on long campaigns rather than just tribal skirmishes). As I posted a while back from this BBC article on the world's oldest writing:
Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr Dahl says it's possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets. The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.

This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like "cattle with names". Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status - the equivalent of being called "Mr One Hundred", he says - to show the number of people below him.

It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers. Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer. The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level.

However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle. For the "upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now", he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today's poorest countries.
Of course, this is the best evidence of my theory that something else happened about 10,000 years ago that made civilization possible - the emergence of the authoritarian personality, possibly linked to the development of "organized" religion. Once this "gene" became dominant like the lactose gene, civilization would be possible due to people willingly submitting to and working on behalf of their "betters" who now "owned" everything. Command-and-control societies would have had a huge advantage in warfare over individualistic societies, ones where people did not accept the authority of a "leader" or obey his every whim because of some commitment to a god or nation. Such people were wiped out, the thinking goes, and authoritarians bred with the women passing along their genes. By accident I ran across this post, which gets at pretty much a similar idea:
In his book, The Third Chimpanzee, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond explains how the earliest Europeans owed their success to their continent’s domesticatable animals. As Dr. Diamond explains, of the hundreds of potential candidates, only a small number of animals are capable of being domesticated.
Domestication, as opposed to taming, requires a short list of unimpressive traits. In addition to living in herds, the animals must breed in captivity. They can’t be high-strung. And they must be innately submissive towards dominant members of their own species. Most importantly, their submissiveness must be transferable to human handlers.

It’s a complicated mix. Reindeer are only one out of over forty deer species that have been domesticated. Five of the eight horse species have never been broken. Camels can be domesticated but their cousins, the vicuna, can’t. Most species of sheep refuse to behave like ‘sheep.’ And except for cats and ferrets no other solitary territorial species have succumbed.

Professor Diamond’s book doesn’t contain any mention about Homo sapiens being prime candidates for domestication. His omission seems strange, especially since Homo sapiens’ undeniable submissiveness and herding instincts, coupled with a strong aversion to independent thinking, provides so many insights into how unconscious war mongers managed to cripple our species’ fate.

Diamond’s oversight raises an interesting question: What if there were more than a few, or dozens of, hominid species in addition to Homo neanderthalis and Homo sapiens? And what if the hominids who couldn’t be domesticated, including Homo neanderthalis, were simply slaughtered by vengeful control freaks who destroyed their indomitable male counterparts, impregnated the females, and eliminated irrepressible offspring? 

Primatologist Frans de Waal noted, “Nevertheless, it cannot be coincidental that the only animals in which gangs of males expand their territory by deliberately exterminating neighboring males happen to be humans and chimpanzees.”

Homo sapiens and chimpanzee males, who are also known to practice infanticide, murder neighboring males to get at the females. Knowing what we know, it seems more than possible that we are descendents of Homo Rudolphis.

The primitive gangsters responsible for the artificial selection of our species didn’t have to be rocket scientists. Derailing evolution was as easy as following the dopamine-influenced instincts that kept them ingesting the foods that turned them on and swatting the mosquitoes that turned them off. The foods that turned them on were the edibles that turned on the dopamine flow. Mosquitoes turned them off because mosquito bites turned the dopamine flow off.

For millennia, acquiescent minions were permitted to live and reproduce, as long as they did their part to keep the bosses’ dopamine flowing. Throughout history, the most brutish minions earned their keep by swatting annoying questioners and other threats to the bosses’ dopamine flow. Genetics took care of the details.
Rudolph the Brown-Nose Hominid: Were Homo Sapiens Bred to Be Submissive? (The Dopamine Project)

Once you have an authoritarian class that will obey the leader and twist their thinking around to believe whatever power justifications and reasons for war that are given (authoritarianism is characterized by compartmentalized thinking and bottomless self-rationalization [example]), you can be the head of a civilization, and enslave people. So the conquest theory for lactose tolerance (that it was spread by conquering peoples, probably proto-Indo-Europeans) works doubly well for this, in fact it requires it. As above, the people who are submissive (sheeple) are allowed to breed, while those who resist (anti-authoritarians) are slaughtered. In fact, authoritarianism is linked with a desire to breed, as evidenced by the obsession with babies and families by the Christian right (I see cheesy billboards with babies from Pro-Life America on my way home from work, and I also saw a Christian bookstore monikered "Family" out in the burbs). It also explains the justification for rape and incest and the forbidding of all birth control by far right (invariably Republican) religious groups in America. Authoritarianism and reproductive success are linked, and probably have been for a long, long time.

As this commenter put it: "If your tribe doesn’t drink milk, you are killed or enslaved by the more numerous warriors of the neighboring tribe that does. If your tribe does drink milk, you gain reproductive access to the enslaved women of the neighboring non-milk-drinking tribe. Sounds like a basis for extremely rapid genetic success, though it would require more study of early agricultural yields to pin down with real confidence." Remember, as with lactose tolerance, you don't expect everyone to have it, just enough to achieve your objective. Then the authoritarians will keep the non authoritarians in line. Perhaps you recall the scene from the original Conan The Barbarian film (written by Oliver Stone and John Milius) where Thulsa Doom answers the "Riddle of Steel." His point was, no matter how strong your arm or how able you are with a sword, you will be defeated by numbers. Thus it is much more powerful to have control over the hearts and minds of others than to be the greatest single warrior in history.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Where the Money Went

The conventional wisdom is that the rich are overtaxed, and that this is “crowding out” investment. That if you just turn over tax money that goes to waste to the rich, they will spend it in ways that will benefit us all. The wealthy pashas will allocate wealth much more wisely than “corrupt” governments, which waste it on things like infrastructure, public universities, high-speed rail lines and subsidies for solar energy and affordable housing. But where have the trillions in tax cuts really gone in a country with Great Depression levels of unemployment and underemployment and people dying from lack of health care? Here area few things the wealthy have spent their extra tax bonanza on.

Billionaire Bill Koch's new Colorado town is a private Old West marvel

KEBLER PASS —There's a new town in Colorado. It has about 50 buildings, including a saloon, a church, a jail, a firehouse, a livery and a train station. Soon, it will have a mansion on a hill so the town's founder can look down on his creation.

But don't expect to move here — or even to visit.

This town is billionaire Bill Koch's fascination with the Old West rendered in bricks and mortar. It sits on a 420-acre meadow on his Bear Ranch below the Raggeds Wilderness Area in Gunnison County. It's an unpopulated, faux Western town that might boggle the mind of anyone who ever had a playhouse. Its full-size buildings come with polished brass and carved-mahogany details and are fronted with board sidewalks and underpinned by a water-treatment system. A locked gate with guards screens who comes and goes.

Read more: Billionaire Bill Koch's new Colorado town is a private Old West marvel - The Denver Post 

Oracle founder Larry Ellison buying Hawaiian island of Lanai

Ellison agrees to buy 98% of Lanai from L.A. billionaire David Murdock, who controls Dole Food and many other businesses. Local observers value the deal at more than $500 million.

Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corp., has agreed to buy 98% of the island of Lanai from David Murdock, a Los Angeles billionaire who controls Dole Food Co. and many other businesses under Castle & Cooke Inc.

Lanai, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island at 141 square miles, was once a pineapple plantation and is still sparsely inhabited. According to documents filed with Hawaii's Public Utilities Commission, the purchase will include two resort hotels and two golf courses with clubhouses.

The sale price has not been disclosed, but local observers value the deal at more than $500 million. That's a large real estate transaction by any standard, though not earth-shattering in the realm of trades among wealthy investors.


Steve Jobs' Yacht and the Price of Inequality

Dutch blog One More Thing has photos of Steve Jobs' mega-yacht, designed by Phillipe Starck and only completed posthumously. It's a valuable reminder of the best argument for reducing economic inequality.

Jobs is a good case for this precisely because he's widely acknowledged to be a good businessman. He didn't get rich running some kind of scam or exploiting regulatory arbitrage. From the Apple II to Pixar to the iPhone, Jobs made money by ushering into existence things that people wanted even more than they wanted money. It's a great story of entrepreneurship and capitalism. And yet at the end of the day what you have is an enormous boat with six iMacs on board. The absurdity of these watercraft and the fact that there's clearly a large positional element to the race to acquire them (the goal is to have the awesomest yacht in the marina not necessary to meet any absolute standard of yachtness) shows that beyond a certain point it becomes extremely difficult to transform additional money into additional happiness.

As Brad DeLong writes "The time and energy and work devoted to making, toasting and serving a $40 bagel at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan would, in a more equal America, buy a full dinner for four at Sizzler Steakhouse for a family to whom going to Sizzler is a once-a-month treat - and thereby produce more human happiness."

By the same token, one man's super-yacht could have been more spacious accommodations for a dozen regular families.


And then there's all the money spent on life-extension, offshore private islands and trips into outer space.

I guess we can see where Romney's trillions in tax cuts will end up.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dying Alone

Behold the fate of ordinary people in the globalized economy's "winner":
For many in China isolation is a new experience brought on by economic transformation. From the 1950s to 1970s people were allocated to factory units for life by the Party authorities. Megaphones blared propaganda continuously. Workers had to sing Maoist songs, wear uniforms and participate in daily group exercises. Party officials were everywhere and permission was needed for everything, including getting married or moving house.

But there was an upside. The residents were promised a job for life, a free school and clinic. The intention was they stayed in one place all their lives, though the Cultural Revolution threw that into turbulence. Over time living side-by-side turned neighbours into families and families became communities, however hard their lives.

Since the 1990s the factories have been closed and demolished. Farmers' land near cities is being sold for development into high-rise flats. One ex-farmer in Chongqing whose land had been confiscated told me: "My land being expropriated [changed my life. I wish] to have my own land and to live my life as a peasant farmer." Another was worried about where he would live now that his land had gone: "[My greatest worry] is having no place to live. [I wish] to have more living places built for the peasant workers." Another said: "[I wish] the urban residents who have just changed from rural residents could all get employed."

In fact, longstanding residents are evicted from their homes and given a small flat and minimal financial compensation in the least desirable accommodation. Either there is no public space or it is far away and soulless. Employment prospects for ex-farmers are poor or non-existent. There is nothing to do except stay indoors, watch TV or gamble on the stock market - now, some believe, approaching a national obsession.

Millions of mostly young people have moved to the east coast to work in factories and live itinerant and restricted lives. The hours are long and the work is repetitive. The workers, many young women, live in dormitories and are corralled with other people from their region under the watchful eye of an overseer from the same part of the country. They work hard, save assiduously, send money home and if they lose their job, they often don't go back, because they cannot face the shame of returning home unemployed and no longer supporting their families. Some, in desperation, are driven to prostitution to maintain their remittances home. Sex can be bought for less than £1 ($1.60) under a bridge or flyover in Sichuan. Suicide rates are so high in some of these factories that the owners have put nets around them to break the fall of people jumping out of windows.
Back home the parents of these "factory girls" are left alone to grow old without the care of their children - breaking a long Confucian tradition of caring for elders.
As one man in Chongqing told me: "I'm a lonely old fellow. I have had good service for the elderly [from social workers]. I hope this service will carry on." This old man was facing a fate unknown in China until recently, but all too familiar in the West. "I hope the old people's home can be built quickly," he said.
In many villages there are no young adults, just old people and a few of their grandchildren sent back to the countryside. Old people without family support and few financial resources have to fall back on social workers. The one child policy has made children lonely too. Without siblings for company or rivalry, all their parents' and grandparents' expectations rest on their young shoulders, bringing untold anxiety and pressure. As one 11-year-old boy told me: "I'm worried in the future I will not be a good student and I will disappoint my parents. I hope I can go to university and make a positive contribution to my homeland." Play and the pleasures of childhood are hard to fit in around homework. One girl told me: "I have little time to get rest because I need to study hard every day and to learn singing… I wish to be a very good student and to become an artist when I grow up."
The old restricted, hierarchical, multi-generational families built on Mao's authoritarian utopianism and an older tradition of Confucian values have been replaced by isolated and impoverished old people, listless ex-farmers, hard-pressed factory girls and children trying to cope alone with extreme educational pressure and unrealistic family expectations.
Loneliness, ineradicable and irreversible, coupled with anxiety about the unpredictability of the future, could become pervasive across all generations in China.
Viewpoint: Fear and loneliness in China (BBC)

Contrast this with the "poor" Greek island of Ikaria, recently profiled in a popular New York Times article on longevity:
 Although unemployment is high — perhaps as high as 40 percent — most everyone has access to a family garden and livestock, Parikos told me. People who work might have several jobs. Someone involved in tourism, for example, might also be a painter or an electrician or have a store. “People are fine here because we are very self-sufficient,” she said. “We may not have money for luxuries, but we will have food on the table and still have fun with family and friends. We may not be in a hurry to get work done during the day, so we work into the night. At the end of the day, we don’t go home to sit on the couch.”

Parikos was nursing a mug of coffee. Sunlight sifted in through the window shades; the waves of the nearby Aegean could be barely heard over the din of breakfast. “Do you know there’s no word in Greek for privacy?” she declared. “When everyone knows everyone else’s business, you get a feeling of connection and security. The lack of privacy is actually good, because it puts a check on people who don’t want to be caught or who do something to embarrass their family. If your kids misbehave, your neighbor has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, not because of good policing, but because of the risk of shaming the family. You asked me about food, and yes, we do eat better here than in America. But it’s more about how we eat. Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”

In the United States, when it comes to improving health, people tend to focus on exercise and what we put into our mouths — organic foods, omega-3’s, micronutrients. We spend nearly $30 billion a year on vitamins and supplements alone. Yet in Ikaria and the other places like it, diet only partly explained higher life expectancy. Exercise — at least the way we think of it, as willful, dutiful, physical activity — played a small role at best.

Social structure might turn out to be more important. In Sardinia, a cultural attitude that celebrated the elderly kept them engaged in the community and in extended-family homes until they were in their 100s. Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy. In Okinawa, there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. As Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.

 Ask the very old on Ikaria how they managed to live past 90, and they’ll usually talk about the clean air and the wine. Or, as one 101-year-old woman put it to me with a shrug, “We just forget to die.” The reality is they have no idea how they got to be so old. And neither do we. To answer that question would require carefully tracking the lifestyles of a study group and a control group for an entire human lifetime (and then some). We do know from reliable data that people on Ikaria are outliving those on surrounding islands (a control group, of sorts). Samos, for instance, is just eight miles away. People there with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria. But people on Samos tend to live no longer than average Greeks. This is what makes the Ikarian formula so tantalizing.

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat. 
The Island Where People Forget To Die (New York Times)

UPDATE: It's not just China, this is from "wealthy" Japan earlier this year:
The discovery of three bodies that lay unnoticed for up to two months in an apartment in Japan has raised concern over so-called "lonely deaths".

The three people, believed to be from the same family, were discovered on Tuesday in Saitama, north of Tokyo. Electricity and gas to the house had been cut off, there was no food in the house and just a few one-yen coins. Despite being the world's third richest country, Japan has seen a number of similar cases in recent years. Such deaths are referred to as "kodokushi" - lonely deaths.

Our correspondent says the case has prompted soul-searching in one of the most affluent societies on earth about whether the needy are falling through gaps in the welfare system. Increasing numbers of poverty stricken elderly people are dying lonely and unnoticed deaths in Japan. Last month two sisters in their forties were found dead in their freezing apartment on the snowbound northern island of Hokkaido. In 2010 the authorities discovered that Tokyo's oldest man had actually been dead for some 30 years, which in turn triggered a hunt for "missing" centenarians around the country.
Japanese authorities concerned about 'lonely deaths' (BBC)

And about that Korean economic miracle:
Once a byword for hyper-exploited sweatshop labour, churning out cheap transistor radios and trainers, the country now possesses the only thing that stands between iPhone and world domination (the Samsung Galaxy). It is also a world leader in industries such as shipbuilding, steel and automobiles.

The country is, per capita, the third most innovative in the world, after Japan and Taiwan, when measured by the number of patents granted by the US patent office. It has one of the world's highest university enrolment ratios, and schoolchildren who rank in the top five in virtually all standardised international tests.

So, when things seem to be going so swimmingly, why are Koreans clamouring for big changes in the run-up to the general election next week? Because they are desperately unhappy.

According to a recent World Values Survey, Koreans are the second unhappiest people (after Hungary) among the citizens of the 32 OECD countries studied. Worse, its children are the unhappiest in the rich world, according to a survey of 23 OECD countries done by Yonsei University in Seoul. In 2009 the country topped the international league table for suicides, with 28.4 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan was a distant second with 19.7. But Koreans never used to be this unhappy. Until 1995 its suicide rate was, at about 10 per 100,000 people, just below the OECD average. Since then it has almost tripled.  
South Korea's Economic Reforms--A Recipe For Unhappiness. Ha-Joon Chang, The Guardian

Friday, October 26, 2012

Simple Solutions

Here is a tidbit from Slate columnist Matt Yglesias:
    A useful reminder that it will forever be difficult to improve on electrification as a general purpose technology for human betterment:

        Some mechanical spit-roasts in Elizabethan England were powered by geese or small dogs in a wheel.

    And of course that's just one small case. In general, one either had to rely on human physical labor for everything or else use animal substitutes and deal with the enormous quantities of manure that resulted.
Now, of course we who are knowledgeable about Permaculture see this through an entirely different lens. To me, this is an amazingly clever idea. Where can I get one? It seems to be a portrait of time when people solved problems with the least amount of impact using what they hand on hand. Renewable forever, and the waste products can be used in the garden. Who needs fancy electronics? It's all in how you look at it, through the lens of "economic productivity" or through the lens of Permaculture (solving problems in a sustainable way using natural processes and the least amount of negative impact). And we used to live this way (but of course we know a lot more today about disease, science, medicine, etc.).

If you click through the link, you get an interesting and readable short paper on the horse manure situation in cities prior to the invention of the automobile. This story is one of the most common stories that is always trotted out about how doomers are always wrong and innovation solves all problems. We were going to be buried in manure three stories deep by 1930! Of course, no one saw the automobile being invented, so all the dire predictions were dead wrong. Humans always innovate, and crises are always averted by innovations we cannot even imagine or predict. Doomers will always end up looking silly in the long run, just like old Malthus. Case closed.

It's a nice just-so story. However, there are a couple of points that must be made. Note that The horse manure problem was not caused by using horses in transportation. This had been done for millennia. It was caused by the out-of-control growth and gigantism of cities brought by rapid industrialization. People we forced off of farms (where horses had been successfully integrated) and into teeming cities. There, a complete lack of proper housing, infrastructure, foresight and planning (libertarians, please note!), led to the conditions described in the article (no place to go with manure, inadequate places to stable horses, etc.). Note that the author even states that it was the enormous amount of goods brought in by rail that had to be transported which required the enormous amount of horses. Horses weren't the problem - they were one subset of problems caused by unplanned, disorganized industrialization. This is often forgotten (Lewis Mumford writes a lot about this).

Actually, curiously omitted from this article, is the fact that after the horse and before the private automobile, most American cities installed relatively safe, clean, efficient electrical streetcar transportation systems. Many of these streetcars were convenient, convivial, and even beautiful (although some disliked the unsightly overhead lines). While not one hundred percent safe (no mode of transportation is), they solved the horse problem much more elegantly and without the numerous downsides which were to emerge out of the "every person must have a car" attitude. And around that time as well the bicycle started becoming widespread, leading to the beginning of lobbying for better quality roads and streets. Bicycles were the first mode of transportation that offered individual freedom, and for a brief halcyon period, they, not the car, obliterated distance for the common man (and woman - bicycles were a precursor of feminism).

We all know what happened next. The oil/automobile companies bought the lines and had them ripped out to be replaced by buses which they made. Public transportation became demonized, and then associated exclusively with the poor and minorities (in contrast to Europe and Asia). Bicycles became relegated to kid's toys. Roads became the places for cars exclusively, driving all other uses away and inside.

But if you know the Vicious Circle Principle of Craig Dilworth, it's all familiar. Growth in urban areas causing a problem (manure and dead animals, causing unsanitary conditions and disease), forcing another "innovation" to be put into place (although the internal combustion engine certainly would have been invented anyway), leading to even more growth (bigger cities, suburban sprawl, automobile dependency), causing another set of problems (pollution, sprawl, Peak Oil, accidents, road rage, etc.), forcing us to have to "innovate" again (electric cars, biofuels, etc.) causing even more problems, with no easy way back thanks to the ratchet effect (bigger and bigger - forward or death!).

So we didn't "solve" anything, really - we just traded one set of problems for another, and with even less planning and foresight then before. And is the new problem even worse? Lately I've begun seeing these makeshift shrines almost everywhere by the sides of streets (there are several just in my neighborhood) where people were killed in auto accidents. In fact, more people die per year in auto crashes than in all of the world's conflicts. Was this true of horse fatalities? As for unsanitary conditions, how many were crippled and disabled by leaded gasoline before its effects were known? Did horses cause widespread asthma? Acid rain? Correct me if I'm wrong, but we never had to fight wars in the Middle East for horses, did we? And on top of all that, I still see hose-drawn carriages plying the streets (now a romantic "luxury" that couples will pay for) and sheriffs still ride them. And as for the social and economic effects, well, I don't even need to go into those.

So give me my dog and goose powered spit any day!

BONUS: some facts about food in Elizabethan times:
The Elizabethans believed in ‘head to tail’ eating, not wasting any part of the animal. This is something us modern squeamish and wasteful eaters could learn from. (If you think about it, the French and the Chinese, creators of two of the most renowned cuisines, still eat a lot o the animal, like tripe and sweetbreads.)

Tea and coffee were still unknown, so Sue and Giles missed them terribly (Sue was almost hallucinating about tea bags). People drank beer since water was undrinkable, and rich people had wine at dinner. Hippocras was a sweet mulled wine that was popular to drink near the end of a meal.

The Elizabethans loved pretty foods, like this sallet (salad) with lots of flowers. I have experimented a bit with edible flowers (nasturtiums are nice and peppery), but you really have to grow your own. I wouldn’t mind seeing this come back into fashion.

Back to the Elizabethans. Much of life was relegated by religious and royal command. People were allowed to only eat fish on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays—this was expanding on the religious reasons for eating fish on Fridays, and was purely pragmatic. The Royal Navy, which needed to keep active to protect merchants ships going back and forth to the New World, harass the Spanish and so on, also doubled as a fishing fleet, and they needed to be kept afloat.

One key ingredient merchant ships brought back in bigger quantities was sugar. It was still a luxury item, so the rich tried to use it as much as possible. Queen Elizabeth liked sugary sweets so much that her teeth turned black. This was turned into a fashion, so all ladies blackened their teeth and whitened their faces, following the example of their Queen.

 So after a week of heavy meat eating with plenty of fat and sugar, how did Giles and Sue fare health wise? Sue lost 4 kilo, and Giles lost 3 kilo and lowered his cholesterol.Sue was even told to regain the weight since she was now underweight. It’s like the Atkins Diet…but with sugar! The body is an odd thing.
 The Supersizers Go...Elizabethan (Just Hungry)

In 1900, 34 percent of cars in New York, Boston and Chicago were powered by electric motors. Nearly half had steam engines...There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery. 
Why Your Car Isn't Electric (NYT)

Thursday, October 25, 2012


So today I check out out James Kunslter’s Eyesore of the month, and what do I find but our Amsterdam washtub featured here a while back.

While I’d like to flatter myself by thinking that James reads this site, or that someone forwarded him my commentary, in reality it’s probably just the sheer awfulness of this building that attracted the attention we both paid to it. Still, it would be cool if I played a part.

And since we’re on the subject, check out the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland by Farshid Moussavi:

Again, what are these disjoined shard “objects” telling us about our society? That we’re atomized individuals with opaque faces and a “don’t get too close, or you’’ll get cut” attitude? That there is no common social context or purpose?  Note that the tallest building in Europe is actually called "The Shard." I think I featured this before: The Shard Is The Perfect Metaphor For Modern London (Guardian). Remember when the grandest buildings in a community were civic buildings?

What's sad is that there are probably tons of beautiful pre-war buildings that are probably in various states of disrepair and falling apart all over town. If Cleveland is anything like Milwaukee, these old buildings occupy the best, most vibrant areas of town, and have gone through many lifetimes and changes of use. The building I work in was built as an unloading place for ships with factories upstairs. Today it has businesses in the lowest floor, with condos above, including a two-story addition with some of the most desirable real estate in the city (Brandon Jennings of the Packers just moved out). Can anyone imagine the above building being retrofitted for any other purpose? Instead, in modern times, we get this:

What is it? A business school, of course (Case Western Weatherhead School of Management). I wonder if their management graduates are as warped as the building they inhabit.

Look, there's an ocean of difference between endlessly repeating the classical forms of Greek and Roman architecture and this crud. Modernism, in its early stages recognized that, and had the potential to create dynamic new forms that utilized the best of new technology without creating pieces of mad inhabited sculpture springing from no context except the mind of the "genius" architect who has never had a draw a detail in his or her life. That will be the topic of a future essay.

P.S. Note also this previous entry - a "high tech" campus for Roosevelt Island in New York City. Bonus LOL:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

United States = Saudi Arabia?

And not just because both are chock full of religious wackos. This article by the Associated Press is getting some attention: U.S. Poised To Become World's Top Oil Producer; May Soon Overtake Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to Peak Oil, it seems both camps have things to point to that they are right about.

1.) Technological innovation really has made more energy supplies available to us. Note that the innovations do not include any fundamental new ways to generate energy apart from fossil fuels, just that we can access fuels that were not previously accessible. Also note that many of these technologies were developed years ago, and are only being deployed now.

2.) U.S. domestic fossil fuel production is rising relative to the rest of the world. Certain fuels, such as natural gas, are very cheap right now.

3.) There are some major new discoveries which are now accessible.

4.) We are getting more efficient with things like cars, buildings, etc., and new economic activities are less energy-intensive.

1.) Additional fossil fuels take much more effort/cost/resources leading to higher energy prices overall. High prices are actually required, in fact, to make these methods viable.

2. These techniques are hideously environmentally destructive, from injecting toxic chemicals into the earth and water to putting massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc with the climate.

3. Competition for the remaining fossil fuels from developing economies will keep driving the prices high. The US still has to import fuel to meet its needs.

4. You have to add in biofuels which are net energy sinks, take valuable cropland out of production and have less embodied energy.

5. Growing biofuels and fracking use a lot of water. Will we have enough?

Of course, no matter how much we drill, all hydrocarbons will eventually become depleted anyway, and if spend all that hydrocarbon fuel growing our economy we’ll be in an even worse predicament when they run out, which they will. How will we cope in a bigger, even more polluted world? Is it worth it to keep the status quo going?

And if you know the Vicious Circle Principle, you know that increasing energy just creates the conditions for economic and population growth, leading to another inevitable period of scarcity, and with an even worse shortfall and more dire consequences down the road (leading to more innovation, and the circle turns again...)

One thing's probably true though - people who predict a fast crash of the U.S. economy due to energy shortages are probably off the mark, as well as people who predict rapid changes in lifestyle being forced upon Americans. This includes Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer and James Howard Kunstler. Three thousand mile supply chains are still not a good idea, but I don't think the shelves are going to be empty overnight, or the combines stop turning in the fields.

I’m of the probably minority opinion that our economy will crash and fail to its fundamental problems rather than any kind of energy shortage in our lifetimes. This puts me in a minority camp, I suppose.

Consider the Great Depression. In the 1930’s, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of oil. Yet despite being awash in energy, a quarter of people were unemployed with widespread poverty and misery. Farms were going bankrupt, workers were selling fruit on street corners, factories sat idle. Obviously none of this had to do with energy shortages. This leads to my rule, below:

Sufficient energy does not guarantee a functional economy.

Corollary : Energy shortages all but guarantee a non-functioning economy.

In other words, your economy can be fucked up by a lot more than energy shortages and high prices.High prices can theoretically be absorbed.

People of the United States have been experiencing declining living standards now since the 1970's well before the advent of Peak Oil. Some people say that the U.S. domestic peak was the cause of that. I disagree. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. If that were the case, then how do you explain that Germany and Japan (I'm omitting Britain because of the North Sea), countries that import nearly all their oil, continued to have thriving middle classes, even as ours was gutted like a fish? The average German had a higher living standard in 1980 then in 1930, when Germany passed Peak Oil. As long as you can import oil, you can continue to raise living standards and incomes. Of course, once global peak passes, this may change. No, the reason Germans continued to maintain a middle class society when we did not is because of political choices. We chose offshoring, union-busting, "staving the beast," tax cuts for plutocrats, mass immigration from poor countries, H1-B visas, financialization, predatory health care, and a host of other things that all but insured the middle class was toast, Peak Oil or not. Even if we really did have all  the oil we needed domestically, there will still be overall less jobs, more debt, less pay, longer hours, less vacation, more expensive health care and housing, and so on.

The economy will continue to falter for a number of reasons which have nothing to do with Peak Oil:

- Insufficient opportunities for people to sell their labor. Surplus labor greater than that in all of human history combined. Competition among all the world’s workers driving wages down. Efficiency sidelines ever more workers with no opportunities for supporting families or advancement. According to figures, 600 million new jobs are needed worldwide for population growth. Anyone living in the real world knows that will never happen.

- Only low-wage/temporary/scut jobs are predicted grow and will be the only employment avenues for the majority of people.

- Unfathomable chasm between rich and poor, slowing growth. Increasingly two-tiered societies will reject any idea of a shared commons, causing conflicts as the rich pay for everything “out of pocket” and the poor are left with no access to basic services (schools, libraries, health care, etc.). Breaking the back of unions and lowering workers' pay will prevent the natural mechanisms in the economy from absorbing higher energy prices, leading to a worse situation than necessary, especially in the U.S.

- Technological plateau preventing the rapid growth of the past. Low-hanging fruit of innovation has already been harvested. New inventions will be prohibitively expensive, low marginal utility, and new industries will only employ a small number of specialists.

- The globalized economy will continue to suck up all the world’s wealth and deliver it to a handful of super-rich based in a handful of financial centers. The super-rich will be a nation unto themselves,with no loyalty to the country of their birth, its government, or its citizens.

- Governments will continue to go bankrupt because future revenue streams will not materialize. The rich will continue to play regions against one another and hide money offshore, depriving governments of revenue. Necessary infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

- Breakdown of the rule of law in legal affairs as governments become co-opted by the rich. Frauds and scams will proliferate and undermine the trust required to make economies function properly. Laws will be determined by the biggest bribe or campaign donation, rather than fairness or equality under the law.

- Increasing consolidation of big globalized corporations. Monopolies, monopsonies, oligopolies, anti-competitve practices, corporate welfare, bailouts, and all sorts of other “distortions” in the market. Central planning by a handful of producers worldwide, except with profits flowing to a small elite. Small businesses will be bought up or put out of business.

- The natural tendency of the rate of profit to fall as described by numerous economists. Increasingly diminishing returns.

- Oversupply/glut of consumer goods piling up on shelves with inufficient wages to buy them.

- Funding models for non-scarce goods like internet/music are destined for failure. Draconian methods to enforce artificial scarcity, like copyright policing, will harm the economy.

- Expenditure cascades will force the poor to pay more for everything, even in a declining economy.

- Governments continue to embrace "austerity" by gutting their societies in order to make debt repayments to already wealthy banks and bondholder classes. Diminishing of human capital will most likely be permanent.

- Higher education available only to the rich. New hereditary aristocracy forming based on ownership of assets. General population reduced to virtual peasanty.

- Public government goods replaced by rent-seeking and extractive institutions. Infrastructure sold off and essential government services "privatized" as part of Neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

- Shortages of other key materials such as rare earth elements, copper, helium, water, phosphorus, etc.

- Climate change leading to bad harvests, massive property destruction, increased health costs, etc.

- Soaring housing, health care and education costs, especially in the U.S. where education and health care are predatory industries based on profit rather than public utilities.

- Increased health care costs due to more pollution, more stress, unhealthy food, an aging population, medical advancements, etc.

- Extreme social instability due to the above. Nationalist/fundamentalist/proto-fascist parties already gaining in popularity around the world.

- The growing repression and police state required to keep citizens docile will eat up resources from elsewhere. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is already higher than any civilization in history. Out of control military spending will divert needed resources from economic activities that enhance future living standards rather than blow people and things up.

As we saw with the Robert Gordon paper which we covered here, we do not need to bring in Peak Oil at all to our analysis to see that our economic system is in serious trouble and is falling apart. Now you know why we spend a lot of time covering things like the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the encroaching police state, automation and joblessness, and the lack of any new technological innovations to magically turn the economy back to 1955. In my opinion, those are even more dire than the Peak Oil situation.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Some Things Never Change

The rich shitting on the poor goes back to very earliest written word:
In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too. You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind. These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we're doing now - my writing and your reading - is a direct continuation. But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn't so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.

Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr Dahl says it's possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets. The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.

This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like "cattle with names". Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status - the equivalent of being called "Mr One Hundred", he says - to show the number of people below him.

It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers. Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer. The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level. However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.

For the "upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now", he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today's poorest countries.
Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing (BBC)

Again, how did we go from hunter-gathers to this? Why did those workers put up with it? Religion? something else?

Monday, October 22, 2012

The 15 Hour Work Week

So I’ve been sitting on this a bit, since I had just posted a number of posts on the same theme, mostly from the Skidelsky’s (Skidelskies?). The author of the article,  Australian economist John Quiggin notes the same:

“Since long before I started blogging, I’ve been planning a big article on the prospects for Utopia, starting off from Keynes’ essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. While I procrastinated, lots of others had the same idea, most recently Robert and Edward Skidelsky. But, with encouragement from Ed Lake at Aeon Magazine, I went ahead anyway and the article has just appeared.”

Here’s the article he refers to: Prospects of a Keynesian Utopia (Aeon Magazine):
Keynes’s discussion of economic possibilities was one of the first to spell out the argument that improvements in living standards, based on a combination of technological progress and capital accumulation, might be expected to continue indefinitely.

He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less. This, Keynes thought, would be sufficient to satisfy the ‘old Adam’ in us who needs work in order to be contented.
But we’ve been going in the opposite direction, thanks to trickle-down economics (which he terms "market liberalism"):
In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer. This claim is rarely spelt out explicitly by its advocates, so it is best known by its derisive label, the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.

As long as market liberalism rules, there is no reason to expect progress towards a less money-driven society. The global financial crisis and the subsequent long recession have fatally discredited its ideas. Nevertheless, the reflexes and assumptions developed under market liberalism continue to dominate the thinking of politicians and opinion leaders. In my book, Zombie Economics (2010), I describe how these dead, or rather undead, ideas have risen from their graves to do yet more damage. In particular, after a resurgence of interest in Keynes’s macroeconomic theory, the entrenched interests and ideas of the era of market liberalism have regained control, pushing disastrous policies of ‘austerity’ and yet more structural ‘reform’ on free-market lines. Social democratic parties have failed to put up any serious resistance so far. Popular anger at the crisis has been channelled into right-wing tribalist movements such as the Tea Party in the US and Golden Dawn in Greece.
One consideration I have not seen elsewhere is the fact that Keynes did not take into account the entire world; when he was writing China, India, Brazil, et. al, were not part of the global economy the way they are today. What happens when we look at productivity growth for the entire world, not just "developed" countries?
Once we try to apply Keynes’s reasoning to the world as a whole, it’s clear that the end of scarcity is further away than he supposed. How much further? To be more precise, how much technological progress would be needed for everyone to enjoy the average standard of living of Britain in 1930 (when Keynes was writing) by working only 15 hours a week?
By 1990, 60 years after Keynes’s essay, average income for the world as a whole had just reached Britain’s level in 1930. So, it seems we need to add another 60 years, or two generations, to his timescale. On the other hand, because developing countries are mostly adopting existing technology, the average world growth rate of income per person is around three per cent, not the two per cent proposed by Keynes. In that case, an eightfold increase would take only 70 years. So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to 2060 — within the expected lifetime of my children.

The problem of distribution, sharp enough in the Britain of the ’30s, is far worse for the world as a whole. A billion or so people live in destitution, and billions more are poor by any reasonable standard. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor. In fact, more people are rich, by any reasonable historical standard, than are poor.
He also discusses housework and child-rearing. The final conclusion?
If work was distributed more equally, both between households and over time, we could all be better off. But it seems impossible to achieve this without a substantial reduction in the centrality of market work to the achievement of a good life, and without a substantial reduction in the total hours of work.

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.
And this is followed by a discussion of the Guaranteed Minimum Income, which we have also discussed here. I will save the reality of this, or lack thereof, for another day. Quiggin also does not take into account our energy or population situations; those are beyond the scope of the article.

So since this essay was published, I’ve run across two almost staggeringly stupid responses. I almost didn’t want to include this one, from Forbes, because it is so staggeringly idiotic. But what the heck, it shows just how ridiculous the arguments against this are getting. His argument, and I am not making this up, is that people would spend every single minute of their leisure time vegging out on the sofa watching the boob tube. This would soon lead to an obesity crisis, causing an expansion of the dreaded nanny state to take our chips and Haagen-Dasz away from us. Wow. So keeping us chained to our desks for forty hours a week is preventing an obesity health crisis. And this person is paid to write.

And this one, from Slate writer Matt Yglesias, looks at the precipitous fall in individual working hours and concludes that we actually are approaching the utopia of leisure predicted by Keynes. I’m not sure how the Harvard-educated Yglesias can stick by a position so incredibly stupid and divorced from collective reality, unless the bubble he is in in Manhattan is even worse than I thought. Of course these statistics are actually due to a combination of unemployment, the explosion of temporary/part-time jobs (with the resultant uncertainty and hand-to-mouth lifestyle), and those forced into school for “more training” (and more debt). This exists alongside a reality of never-ending stress and rampant overwork for the small technocratic/elite class thanks to ubiquitous electronic devices (although this is probably overreported –see this). There may be some who are able to work less by choice, but they are certainly a minority. The rising costs of everything don’t help, along with the fact that you don't get health care benefits if you work less than 30-35 hours per week in the U.S. As I commented on the article, by the same logic the decrease in doctor visits by the poorest Americans must mean that they’re getting steadily more healthy.

Ultimately it’s not about grinding away long hours – that doesn’t make anybody rich, nor does it make a society prosperous. It’s all about productivity.
According to the OECD, the rich world's think tank, the average number of hours worked each year by someone employed in the United States is 1,787. In Britain, it's 1,625 hours -- or about 20 fewer working days. In Germany, the engine of Europe's economy, the average employee works just 1,413 hours a year -- that's more than 12 workweeks off. Nobody ever accuses Germans of being lazy; a lot of that is because the European Union mandates four weeks of paid vacation a year. But if you live in the United States, the government guarantees exactly zero paid vacation time. Thanks to the lack of any legal holiday requirement, nearly a quarter of workers get no paid vacation or holidays at all. Japan, the next stingiest among industrial countries, mandates 10 paid days off, with more the longer you have worked.

But doesn't working harder make you richer? It's true that at the individual level there is a link between working hard and being paid more. Nearly two-thirds of high-earning U.S. workers surveyed for the Center for Work-Life Policy clocked more than 50 hours a week, and one-third logged more than 60 hours. At the other end of the income scale, of course, many of those in poverty can't find a job to put in the hours at all. It's also true, however, that in many low-income families, parents are working two jobs just to stay above the poverty line. Poor people are poor because they don't get paid much per hour -- not because they don't work hard enough.

A similar story applies across countries. The United States is more productive than the European Union -- with annual output of around $42,500 per person, about 19 percent higher than Germany and 30 percent higher than France. But not much of that difference is due to working more hours. Take an example from a benighted country in Southern Europe: OECD data suggest that, in 2011, the average Greek who was actually employed worked 2,032 hours that year. The average German worked 30 percent less than that. For all that hard work, however, Greek GDP per hour worked was only $34 -- compared with $55 in Germany. When it comes to relative economic strength, more efficient German production (alongside higher overall employment) completely outweighs those long hours the Greeks put in at the office.

And it's not just Greece. The link between work hours and output is pretty weak in general. In 1974, Britain was gripped by the threat of a coal miners' strike that forced the government to impose a three-day workweek to ensure there was enough electricity to go around. Despite the dramatically reduced number of hours worked, industrial production in those two months fell only 6 percent. In 2000, France cut its 39-hour workweek by four hours, but the country's GDP per capita climbed from $27,396 to $28,520 between 1999 and 2001. After President Nicolas Sarkozy effectively rescinded the 35-hour workweek in 2008, however, France's per capita GDP fell from $30,466 in 2007 to $29,169 in 2009. Clearly, the financial crisis was to blame for that decline, but the point is that working hours didn't do much, if anything, to move the needle in either direction.

So why do Americans fetishize hard work when the link between labor and economic strength is so tenuous? The bottom line is that productivity -- driven by technology and well-functioning markets -- drives wealth far more than hours worked. And very few jobs in developed economies nowadays are classic assembly-line positions, where working 20 percent longer will mechanically produce 20 percent more widgets. Psychology plays a role here too: At least 40 years of studies suggest that people work harder if you limit their time to complete a certain task. In some cases, working too hard can actually reduce output. Long working hours are also associated with ill health, which means lost labor in the long term, as well as higher medical costs for employers and government. A study of hospital interns found that young doctors who worked longer shifts made almost 36 percent more serious mistakes, like giving the wrong dose or the wrong medicine altogether to patients.

Working too hard has societal costs as well. Nearly two decades ago, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam warned that the "social capital" of the United States was decaying as Americans spent less time with family, friends, neighbors, and community organizations and more time "bowling alone." Over the last quarter of the 20th century, Putnam recorded a 58 percent decline in attendance at club meetings and a 43 percent drop in family dinners. He blames television and commuting for much of the decline. But note also that the hyperactive U.S. worker put in over 20 percent more hours at the office than the average French worker in 2011. All that extra parental time at home might be why French kids are so much better behaved -- rather than greater parental neglect, as suggested by the recent U.S. parenting hit Bringing Up Bébé.
Work More, Make More? (Foreign Policy)

Finally, about long hours as synonymous with being a good worker:
Firms that bill by the hour are not alone in emphasizing hours over results. For a study published most recently in 2010, three researchers, led by Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis, interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. The managers viewed employees who were seen at the office during business hours as highly “dependable” and “reliable.” Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as “committed” and “dedicated” to their work.

One manager said: “So this one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy.” Another said: “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”

The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.

By applying an industrial-age mind-set to 21st-century professionals, many organizations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient. If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite “face time” whether they are surfing the Internet or analyzing customer data. It’s no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task.

There is an obvious solution here: Instead of counting the hours you work, judge your success by the results you produce. Did you clear a backlog of customer orders? Did you come up with a new idea to solve a tricky problem? Did you write a first draft of an article that is due next week? Clearly, these accomplishments — not the hours that you log — are what ultimately drive your organization’s success.
They Work Long Hours, but What About Results? (New York Times)

On a side note, Aeon Magazine seems to be a fairly new addition to the scene, and it really has some amazing articles.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Horatio Alger, R.I.P.

Sorry about the length, but a lot of good stuff here. I'll refrain from comment, because I think these articles speak for themselves.
IN the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.
The Self-Destruction of the One Percent (New York Times)
As Republicans head toward next week’s convention something extraordinary has come into view now that their ticket is complete. Mitt Romney came from wealth and went on to build his own quarter-of-a-billion dollar fortune. Paul Ryan, who has never worked a day in the private sector (outside a few months in the family firm) reports a net worth of as much as $7 million, thanks to trusts and inheritances from his and his wife’s family.

Wealthy political candidates are nothing new, of course. But we’ve never had two wealthy candidates on a national ticket whose top priority is to reduce already low taxes on the well-to-do while raising taxes on everyone else — even as they propose to slash programs that serve the poor, or that (like college aid) create chances for the lowly born to rise.

Call them the Drawbridge Republicans. As the moniker implies, these are wealthy Republicans who have no qualms about pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Such sentiments used to be reserved for the political fringe. The most prominent example was Steve Forbes, whose twin obsessions during his vanity presidential runs in 1996 and 2000 — marginal tax rates and inflation — were precisely what you’d expect from an heir in a cocoon.

Most rich Republicans who champion regressive tax plans find it necessary to at least pretend they’re doing something to help average folks. John McCain, who’s lived large for decades thanks to his wife’s inheritance, famously had trouble keeping track of how many homes he owned — but McCain also tried bravely to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” and touted education initiatives that made this claim plausible.

Today’s Drawbridge Republicans can’t be bothered. Yes, when their political back is to the wall — as Romney’s increasingly is — they’ll slap together a page of bullet points and dub it “a plan for the middle class.” But this is only under duress. The rest of the time they seem blissfully unaware of how off-key they sound. As the humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted the other day, “As a general matter, it’s a bad idea to talk about austerity if you just had a horse lose in the Olympics.”
The Rise of the Drawbridge Republicans (Washington Post)
So, I was amazed to hear Mitt Romney describing himself as having “come through small business”, as if his private equity firm were just like a mom-and-pop store or something. But Digby informs us that he made similar claims in his convention speech, making Bain sound like a scrappy little start-up. And it’s true it had only 10 people at first — that, and $37 million, yes, $37 million, in seed money.

Where did that $37 million come from? A large part from foreigners, in many cases investing via Panama-based shell companies. Also, funds from families of Central American oligarchs, who were sitting things out in Miami while death squads sponsored by their class, and in some cases by their relatives, were roaming their home countries.

Hey, doesn’t this sound like just your usual small-business success story?
Small-Time Mitt (Paul Krugman)
There's a reason he wasn't named Horatio Alger Romney. There is nothing here like Mitt Romney's giveaway of the George Romney inheritance. Instead, after the campaign, Tagg "kicked around ways to parlay his campaign experience into a business venture and settled on launching a private-equity firm with his father’s 28-year-old fund-raising chief, Spencer Zwick."

    Solamere Capital—named after an exclusive neighborhood in Utah where the family had a vacation home—was incorporated in February of 2008, only weeks after the campaign ended. Its first office address was the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston’s North End. One of its first big commitments was $10 million from Ann Romney’s blind trust... According to a copy of the Solamere prospectus that The Boston Globe obtained, they promised “unique access” to lucrative deals that the partners would land thanks to their “close personal and business relationships.” The New York Times reported that the firm ultimately raised money from a variety of Romney donors and fund-raisers, including John Miller, a longtime family friend and former corporate CEO, and Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay.
You Didn't Build That, Somebody Else's Last Name Did (Slate)
Luckily, Melissa grew up as a rich kid (whose mythical trust fund is tied up until she can figure out how to create a life her dad likes, which, frankly, will be never when we are starting with a junk shop online and New Yorkers in bed). In case you don’t know the benefits conferred on rich kids, here’s a snapshot:

Melissa picks up her phone and it’s her mom’s friend. Her mom is a doctor. Her mom’s friend is a lawyer. And her mom’s friend has a client in the Middle East who has a textiles business, and a meeting set up with Nordstrom to sell stuff to them. The lawyer wants Melissa to represent the textile firm to Nordstrom.

Not that Melissa knows anything about textiles. Or the Middle East. But so what?

She decides they need a lookbook – which is how you pitch high-flying buyers on products that have to look expensive and precious. Melissa is a great photographer who never markets herself, so it’s the perfect storm.

She takes photos of the stuff. With her friend who is not a model but looks like a model because all girls who go to expensive private schools look like models.

Then, at Nordstrom, Melissa meets all sorts of budding entrepreneurs who need lookbooks. Melissa makes the sale to Nordstrom, because Melissa can sell anything if she tries. Then she collects all the business cards of people who want Melissa to photograph their product.

Just like that, Melissa has a new, exciting job.
Find the right career by doing the wrong career (Penelope Trunk)
A friend forwarded me Posner’s latest blog post, “Luck, Wealth, and Implications for Policy,” parts of which sound vaguely like a post I wrote three years ago, “Do Smart, Hard-Working People Deserve To Make More Money?“* In that post, I argued that even if differences in incomes are due to things that people ordinarily think of as “merit,” like intelligence and hard work, that doesn’t mean that rich people have a moral entitlement to their wealth, because they didn’t do anything to deserve their intelligence or their propensity to work hard. In summary, “I have little patience for the idea that rich people deserve what they have because they worked for it. It’s just a question of how far back you are willing to acknowledge that chance enters the equation.”

Posner now goes even further than I did: “I think that ultimately everything is attributable to luck, good or bad,” he writes, including the propensity for working hard, a low discount rate, and so on. “In short, I do not believe in free will. I think that everything that a person does is caused by something. . . . If this is right, a brilliant wealthy person like Bill Gates is not ‘entitled’ to his wealth in some moral, Ayn Randian sense.”

He goes on—he is still Richard Posner, after all—to argue that tax policy should be concerned solely with incentive effects. High taxes on the wealthy are not unfair in any meaningful sense, and it is meaningless to say that rich people pay a disproportionate share of their income in taxes, absent some incentive-based argument. It does make sense to tax inherited wealth more than earned income, because of the incentives it creates. The same goes for investment profits, either because they are the product of luck (in the ordinary sense) or because people with lots of money are going to invest it anyway rather than consuming it all in the current period.
'Ultimately Everything is Attributable to Luck' (Economist's View via Baseline Scenario)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Are We Baboons?

For the last 12 years, Seyfarth, Dorothy Cheney, a professor in Penn Department of Biology, and their colleagues have studied a troop of more than 80 baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.  Their research explores the cognitive mechanisms that might be the basis of primate social relationships and how such relationships may have influenced the development of human social relationships, intelligence and language.

During the 12 years, the researchers have become familiar with the social organization of the baboon troop and documented the existence of stable, long-term familial hierarchies within the troop.  Baboon groups contain a number of adult females arranged in a linear dominance rank order. Each female offspring acquire ranks immediately below those of their mother, with the youngest offspring holding higher ranks than their older siblings.  The result is a social structure based simultaneously on rank and matrilineal kinship at least that is how it looks from the perspective of a human observer.

"We have watched the extended drama of baboon interactions and have a detailed understanding of the hierarchy of their relationships," Seyfarth said. "But this could be just idle anthropomorphism.  The big question is whether the baboons themselves have an equally sophisticated view of their society."

Dominant baboons make threatening grunts, which lower ranked baboons answer with supplicating screams.  The researchers tape-recorded the calls of known individuals, then used a computer to mix and match the grunts and screams to make it seem as if a lower-ranked baboon was effectively dominating a higher ranked baboon.  Then, in a playback experiment, the researchers played recorded interactions to individual baboons to see if there would be a response.  Some playbacks mimicked the existing hierarchy, whereas others mimicked a rank-reversal, either between two members of the same family or between two members of different families.

"Rank-reversals run counter to their expectations, and a baboon will momentarily pause and give a look, just as you might if you didn't quite believe what you had just heard," said Thore Bergman, lead author on the paper. "Our results demonstrated that these relationships were real and relevant to these baboons."

By analyzing video of the baboons' responses to various rank-reversals, Seyfarth, Cheney and their post-doctoral colleagues Bergman and Jacinta Beehner found that baboons respond more strongly to recordings mimicking rank-reversals between families than within families.

"Rank reversals within families are surprising, but rank-reversals between families are of potentially much greater importance and we see that the baboons recognize the significance of these events," Seyfarth said. "To do so, they must be astute observers, watching animals interact and deducing a social structure on the basis of what they've seen."
Baboons Identify Each Other by Status and Family; Such Abilities May Have Influenced Human Evolution (University of Pennsylvania)

Isn’t it ironic that those who refuse to believe that we are descended from lower orders of primates behave the most like them? And also It Pays To Be A Nice Baboon (LiveScience):
 Like humans, baboons with good friends often enjoy better health and longer lives. Now research suggests the strength of a baboon's social circle depends less on its rank than its personality — and being nice pays off.

"These results have allowed us to, for the first time in a wild primate, link personality characteristics, social skill and reproductive success," researcher Robert Seyfarth, of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. "By being a nice baboon, you increase the likelihood of having strong social bonds, which in turn translates to a better chance of passing on your genes."  

In baboons' hierarchical societies, females inherit their rank from their moms, which determines their access to food and mates. But a higher rank and a bigger network of kin does not always lead to greater fitness and reproductive success, the researchers said.

"In fact, dominance rank is not as good a predictor of reproductive outcomes as a close network of social relationships and stable relationships over time," Seyfarth explained. "So our question became 'What predicts having a strong network?'"

Seyfarth and his fellow researchers observed 45 female baboons in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana over the course of seven years, paying close attention to each baboon's friendly or aggressive tendencies. The team also studied how long the baboons and their offspring lived and measured their stress levels by testing their droppings for certain hormones. Based on trends they saw in the baboons' behavior, the researchers lumped the females into three personality groups: "nice," "aloof" and "loner."

Nice baboons were friendly to all others regardless of status — they even reassured lower-ranking peers with grunts — and they formed strong social bonds with long-term grooming partners. Aloof females also had consistent grooming partners as well, but they formed slightly weaker bonds and were more aggressive to others, often reserving their grunts for higher-ranking females with infants. Both nice and aloof females had the health and reproductive benefits associated with strong social bonds, the researchers said.