Thursday, November 28, 2013

Five years into the apocalypse

This isn't quite 900 posts, but it's close enough for a celebration. So, for your Thanksgiving reading, let's take a look back.

"Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over."

–HERBERT HOOVER, June 1930, in his dismissal of a delegation of public-spirited men who urged an expansion of public works to ease the plight of the unemployed

As we end November 2013, we should note that it has been five years since the economic meltdown in 2008 that threatened to topple the world's economy. And, depending on how you measure it, the global maximum of petroleum extraction was achieved in either 2006 or 2007. That means any way you slice it, we are at least five years into the post-peak oil world.

In the years leading up to 2008, there were a lot of predictions of what would happen in the event of Peak Oil and a financial crash. Books like 2003's The Long Emergency made some pretty drastic predictions, as did various Web sites by Matt Savinar, Jay Hanson and others. Sites like The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin were among the earliest sites to deal with it in a systemic way.

But now that we're actually in the crisis, and five years in to boot, we can actually look at the results and test them against the predictions that were made. Based on my entirely unscientific reaction, I would argue that the arguments made by Peak Oil were about half right. Those who claimed industrial civilization would be abandoned, that we would revert to the Stone Age, that there would be a massive die-off (on the order of billions), that economic growth would end forever, or that the global economic system would permanently crash have been proven wrong. Modern industrial society is still going, growth is still occurring, albeit mostly in developing countries, the U.S. government is still functioning (barely), and Wall Street is still raking in billions.

However, many predictions were clearly closer the mark. The U.S. economy is mired in permanent stagnation, with rapidly deteriorating living standards for the majority of citizens. Some states, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, are in a state of what can only be described as outright collapse, with medicine unavailable to hospitals, 25 percent unemployment, burning trees for fuel, riots in the streets, bank accounts being seized, and in some cases revolution and civil war. The U.S. and Canada are frantically exploiting low grade sources of fuel - "tight" oil, shale oil, tar sands, and the like, including destroying fragile groundwater supplies with fracking and pipelines. We are indeed going after the low-quality, hard-to-get stuff, just as Peak Oil predicted, and prices are indeed high as a result. However, at present, there is enough low-quality stuff to keep things limping along for now.

So let's look at some of the predictions of Peak Oil made in the late nineties and early twenty-first-century and test them. We have passed the realm of theory and are now in the realm of reality, so we no longer have to speculate, five years in we can actually see what the results are:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ironic page

See if you can spot all the ways this screen cap is ironic. Click for full size.

Insights from Vaclav Smil

From an interview with Wired Magazine (see especially the last two paragraphs):
What draws you to such big, all-encompassing subjects?

I saw how the university life goes, both in Europe and then in the US. I was at Penn State, and I was just aghast, because everyone was what I call drillers of deeper wells. These academics sit at the bottom of a deep well and they look up and see a sliver of the sky. They know everything about that little sliver of sky and nothing else. I scan all my horizons.

On Manufacturing:

In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up manufacturing, you end up with haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole lower middle class sinks.

Most innovation is not done by research institutes and national laboratories. It comes from manufacturing—from companies that want to extend their product reach, improve their costs, increase their returns. What’s very important is in-house research. Innovation usually arises from somebody taking a product already in production and making it better: better glass, better aluminum, a better chip. Innovation always starts with a product.

Look at LCD screens. Most of the advances are coming from big industrial conglomerates in Korea like Samsung or LG. The only good thing in the US is Gorilla Glass, because it’s Corning, and Corning spends $700 million a year on research.

Look at the crown jewel of Boeing now, the 787 Dreamliner. The plane had so many problems—it was like three years late. And why? Because large parts of it were subcontracted around the world. The 787 is not a plane made in the USA; it’s a plane assembled in the USA. They subcontracted composite materials to Italians and batteries to the Japanese, and the batteries started to burn in-flight. The quality control is not there.

Can IT jobs replace the lost manufacturing jobs? No, of course not. These are totally fungible jobs. You could hire people in Russia or Malaysia—and that’s what companies are doing.

On Apple:

Apple! Boy, what a story. No taxes paid, everything made abroad—yet everyone worships them. This new iPhone, there’s nothing new in it. Just a golden color. What the hell, right? When people start playing with color, you know they’re played out.

Apple has tremendous profit margins. They could easily do everything at home. The iPhone isn’t manufactured in China—it’s assembled in China from parts made in the US, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and so on. The cost there isn’t labor. But laborers must be sufficiently dedicated and skilled to sit on their ass for eight hours and solder little pieces together so they fit perfectly.

On Innovation and Efficiency:

It’s a categorical mistake. You just cannot increase the efficiency of power plants like that. You have your combustion machines—the best one in the lab now is about 40 percent efficient. In the field they’re about 15 or 20 percent efficient. Well, you can’t quintuple it, because that would be 100 percent efficient. Impossible, right? There are limits. It’s not a microchip.

The same thing is true in agriculture. You cannot increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. We improve the performance of farms by irrigating them and fertilizing them to provide all these nutrients. But we cannot keep on doubling the yield every two years. Moore’s law doesn’t apply to plants.

Innovation is making products more energy-efficient — but then we consume so many more products that there’s been no absolute dematerialization of anything. We still consume more steel, more aluminum, more glass, and so on. As long as we’re on this endless material cycle, this merry-go-round, well, technical innovation cannot keep pace.

So the answers are not technological but political: better economic policies, better education, better trade policies.

Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.”

You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.
And speaking of Apple: Of course Apple is engaging in planned obsolescence (Quartz)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An open letter to Tank Riot

Note: One of my favorite podcasts, Tank Riot, did an episode a while back, one of their regular episodes on conspiracy theories. One of their conspiracy theories was opposition to genetically modified crops. As someone who is skeptical of GMO crops and their long-term benefits, I felt a bit hurt, and I felt labeling these concerns as a "conspiracy" was very dismissive. I get the feeling that Tank Riot collectively are techno-optimists and believers in "progress," and I felt I needed to express an alternative opinion, so I include the letter here.

Well, I doubt they care what I think, and they've done a couple of episodes since then (on the NSA and Lou Reed - they're nothing if not diverse). I don't know if I'm happy with it, or that it quite said what I wanted it to say, but here it is anyway.

Hello Tank Riot. I'm a long-time fan and enjoyed your recent episode on conspiracy theories, but allow me to sound a discordant note. I think your inclusion of concerns about GMO food as a "conspiracy" are a bit disingenuous. While you may have strong opinions on the topic, I think you're creating a straw-man argument, and are dismissing a lot of very legitimate concerns.

I will concede upfront that there is a lot of misinformation, pseudoscience, quackery, demagoguery, scare-mongering and alarmism on the topic, and you rightly pointed out.  I will concede that many of the claims made by the anti-GMO crowd do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

But I wonder, if all of the concerns over GMO foods are unfounded, then why have most of the countries in the European Union banned or restricted their use? Are we to assume that all of the citizens of Western Europe, collectively the world's largest economy, are all conspiracy theorists, as are their regulatory and legislative bodies? This would easily constitute the largest conspiracy in the history of the world (narrowly edging out the New World Order). Why has Mexico recently blocked the planting of GM corn in the country? Is the judge who issued the order a conspiracy theorist? Or perhaps he is in on the conspiracy? Surely, these enormous entities cannot be written off as irrational chicken littles. While certain individuals can exhibit irrationality on the topic, are we to believe that all of these countries are behaving irrationally? I find this difficult to swallow.

You may dismiss some of the more irrational and nonfactual claims made by opponents of GMO's, some of whom view anything man-made as unnatural (which would include, as you pointed out, all domesticated crops and animals - although I would argue that selective breeding is wholly different than intentionally manipulating an organism's genome). But for the reasons cited above, I think it's disingenuous to label opposition to GMO foods as merely a "conspiracy theory." And I think it's dismissive of a host of very legitimate issues that got no mention in your podcast and were summarily dismissed as somehow irrational. There are a lot of legitimate concerns that were glossed over or simply not mentioned. There are a lot of concerns beyond people eating glowing corn laced with jellyfish DNA. the Union of Concerned Scientists says the following:
While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.
At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.

In short, there is a lot we don't know about the risks of GE—which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.
And even though Monsanto may not be sacrificing babies to Cthulhu, I think it's understandable that there are concerns over putting the world's food security in the hands of multinational corporations.

I suspect that, like me and a lot of others, the gee-whiz factor of human cleverness and invention is something that is inherently appealing to people who are scientifically literate, technically sophisticated, care about big issues, and like to solve problems. Believe me, I totally get this. Like you guys, I used to be an unabashed believer in "progress." I would see things like GMO crops, insect farming, lab-grown meat, vertical farms, aquaponics, Thorium reactors, electric cars, desalinization of water, geoengineering, robots, shirts that never need ironing, and other high-tech solutions and be convinced that there were going to "save the world." I would spread these ideas, tout them, and like most people, encourage their adaptation as part of the solution.

But the more I learned about and studied these issues, a deeper picture emerged. What that picture told me was this: That these solutions almost always benefit those at the top strata of the income/power hierarchy, that often times those lower down are left worse off in the long-run; that these solutions are specifically designed to prevent us from asking deeper questions about the root cause of these problems, and that such solutions invariably led to more and even worse problems down the road. The more I learned and studied, the more I realized how true Sevareid's law is: the  major cause of problems is solutions, and my views completely changed. These high-tech solutions never really solved anything, and in many cases created problems that were even worse than the original.

It was also apparent that certain solutions were heavily pushed by the powers-that-be in government, corporations and the media while others were off the table. The difference seemed to be that solutions that left the existing power structures in place were deemed to be acceptable, while those that upset this order in some way were not, despite being easier to implement, more long lasting, and less likely to produce unintended consequences.

 My views did a 180-degree turn. Now I look upon such things with a critical eye. I ask myself, cui bono, who benefits from this invention, and what are the likely consequences of its implementation? And the answer more often than not is not positive.

To illuminate this, I need to give a brief laundry-list. Increased food production has led to a population explosion such that we now need to desperately innovate just to feed seven billion people, heading to over ten billion by 2050. The fundamental problem has always been that as the food supply increases, so too does the number of hungry mouths to feed, such that you are no better off in real terms than you were before. What has increasing crop yields really solved? Even the founder of the green revolution, Normal Borlaug, stated that we have not solved the food crisis, only "bought time." But eventually time runs out. Kicking the can is not a solution.

We have run ahead of the dire predictions of Malthus and others by an even greater folly: the construction of an entire society, including food production, around the use of staggering amount of fossil fuels. This has allowed us to construct a society capable of supporting seven billion persons (although a significant percentage still live on the edge of subsistence, probably more than half). It's been estimated that each calorie of food on our plates in the United States today requires ten calories of fossil fuel energy to get there.

And, of course, those fossil fuels are a finite and limited resource, destined to go into eventual decline in production. We are already relying upon lower-grade sources of fuel such as tar sands and shale oil, as well as radical, expensive procedures like hydraulic fracturing and sideways drilling to keep the gas flowing, procedures that have significant environmental consequences like groundwater pollution and earthquakes. Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima Daiichi are reminders of the consequences of our insatiable appetite for energy, and also showed that we are quite capable of instigating problems that we don't quite know how to solve. An apt and often-used metaphor is of someone climbing a ladder and kicking out the rungs underneath them as they ascend.

But the consequences of our previous use of fossil fuels are well evident. The pollution of our world has made even the air we breathe and the water we drink toxic to us. A recent article began with the following sentence: "The air we breathe is laced with cancer-causing substances and is being officially classified as carcinogenic to humans, the World Health Organization's cancer agency said on Thursday." Recently in the city of Harbin in China, the smog was so intense that the city shut down, and visibility was limited to twenty feet. Mercury from smoke stacks ends up in the bodies of fish, meaning that we can not eat too much or we will suffer from poisoning from heavy metals (just ask Jeremy Piven). And, of course, we are altering the earth's climate, a fact now all but agreed upon by climate scientists, with unforeseen consequences. A recent story in The New York Times began with the following line: "Climate change will pose sharp risks to the world’s food supply in coming decades, potentially undermining crop production and driving up prices at a time when the demand for food is expected to soar, scientists have found."

It's now been found that pesticides and fungicides combine to create colony collapse disorder. Plastics find their way to the oceans where the break down into their constituent chemicals. The widespread abuse of antibiotics, an invention so miraculous and powerful that most of us are probably alive today because of it, has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria so dangerous and powerful that the UK's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies,  has called antibiotic resistance a "potential apocalypse," and an associate director at Centers for Disease Control has recently declared that, "we’ve reached the end of antibiotics, period." An Australian sailor who recently traveled across the Pacific declared flatly that "the ocean is broken." These are just a few of the consequences of our "progress" to date.

Thalidomide was once given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. DDT was once widely sprayed on crops (as you pointed out in your podcast on Rachel Carson). Lead was once commonly added to gasoline and paint. Asbestos was once widely used (and may have killed Steve McQueen). I could cite other examples. All of these substances were deemed "safe" and in widespread use at the time of these discoveries (whose conclusions were resisted by industries profiting from their use). The fact is, we humans are often ignorant. We know a lot, but we also don't know what we don't know, as indicated above.  And now you're expecting us to trust these guys? The same guys who fought for years against the idea that tobacco caused cancer? I feel a facepalm coming on. It should be noted that the GMO industry is fighting  tooth-and-nail against the labeling of GMO foods. Why?

The precautionary principle applies here. I repeat: we don't know what we don't know. The long-term consequences of GMO foods are simply not known, and people who say that they are are lying. And the issue goes far beyond whether such foods are "safe" to eat. Screwing with nature does not typically lead to beneficial outcomes in the long run. The key phrase is, in the long run.

I would simply ask that you think about the deeper issues involved here, rather than seeing GMO crops as a solution. How have we gotten to this point? And what happens when GMO crops are no longer enough?

I wish a fraction of the time you spent looking into the research on GM rice was spent looking into the reasons why 1.7 million Filipino children cannot afford a common nutrient like vitamin A, found in orange foods like carrots and yams (and making 'golden' rice golden), and one which few American children have to be worried about getting enough of. I wish you had asked why in a lush tropical climate, farmers cannot grow these foods. But you didn't ask those questions did you? Yet somehow, those of us who do ask these questions are standing in the way of "progress" and have even been labelled as "wicked."

I will acknowledge that the situation is dire, and that golden rice, if it can alleviate suffering right now, is acceptable. But I don't see it as a long-term solution. I see it as a kludge, and one that doesn't really solve the problem of poverty or malnutrition. And as for those alternative solutions that are off the table, according to the BBC:
Anti-GM campaigners fear Golden Rice threatens the nation's food security, through as-yet unknown long-term effects on natural varieties resulting from cross-pollination. Daniel Okompo, sustainable agriculture campaigner for South East Asia at Greenpeace says rice is too precious to tinker with: "Golden Rice is one of our biggest battles to date mainly because it's our staple. Rice is eaten by more than half of the world's population every day."And if you have Golden Rice out there or any genetically modified rice that will eventually contaminate our rice varieties, this is a very big problem, especially for the farmers who don't want to plant [GM] rice," he said. "We don't know how this variety will evolve and that's why we think it should be contained in laboratories."
Mr Okompo advocates more government spending on their Organic Agriculture Programme. In fields outside the town of Tayabas in south Luzon, Dr Chito Medina, national coordinator of charity MASIPAG, is working with farmers to improve the diversity of their crops using organic growing techniques. He argues that a more diverse harvest contains naturally high levels of Vitamin A and other nutrients, making Golden Rice redundant."Malnutrition is a broader issue, therefore the solution needs to be broader also," he explained.

"The more important thing is alleviating poverty, providing more diverse seeds to farmers so they can grow more diverse crops and having more diverse food and a more balanced diet. Then there would be no vitamin deficiencies at all. There are so many natural sources of Vitamin A, especially in tropical countries: almost all green and leafy vegetables, yellow vegetables and fruits like mangos and cantaloupes."

Dr Medina added: "We have a variety of sweet potato which has five times the level of Vitamin A than there is in Golden Rice. Ecologically, this is more sustainable and it's the way agriculture should be in the future.Economically, it generates more income for farmers because there are fewer expenditures: they don't have to buy chemical pesticides, fertilisers or seeds."

So, in conclusion, assuming anyone's still reading at this point, I think dismissing anyone who has concerns about GM rice, GMO foods, or whatever new techno-fix is being dreamed up by corporate America and the plutocracy to solve the problems of a society that has made them very, very rich, should not be dismissed as a "conspiracy theorist." Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not really out to get you.

BONUS: A similar concept is well articulated in this article:
So here, finally, is the principle: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural."

I take this principle directly from a book I've mentioned previously, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And, my discussion of it is largely based on his observations. This principle is the clearest expression of the precautionary principle I've ever seen, and it is even more stringent.

Now, those who shower our air, water, soil and bodies with newfangled chemicals (some of them called pharmaceuticals), tell us that it is our responsibility to provide evidence that these novel chemicals are harmful. In fact, logic dictates that those who introduce non-natural substances into the environment should be obliged to prove that those substances are safe. Nature's record is long, unassailable and open to inspection. The chemical industry has been with us for less than 200 years, and the modern chemical industry as we know it is a post-World War II phenomenon, an industry not exactly celebrated for its openness to public scrutiny.

So, here's a corollary to the principle above. A novel substance or action used to address a perceived problem for individuals or society should have far greater benefits than natural substances or than just doing nothing. Taleb suggests absolutely NO medical treatment for minor ailments such as headaches (the temporary kind), muscle spasms, and indigestion, for example. Nature suggests a change of diet, a change of routine, or even a change of jobs, strategies which have little risk associated with them compared to novel treatments.

Friday, November 22, 2013

How elite overproduction causes breakdown

There’s a new article on Bloomberg by Peter Turchin, whose blog I mentioned a few days ago. It’s entitled Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays (Naked capitalism suggests ‘highly credentialed' as an alternative for 'overeducated'). Apparently Turchin himself was not happy with the title.

Turchin argues that “elite overproduction” is a fundamental cause behind inequality, polarization and social unraveling. The number of millionaires has increased dramatically since 1970, and these millionaires are very politically active. Yet the amount of senators and representatives has not increased to compensate. Similarly, more  and more lawyers are churned out by the country’s diploma mills with not nearly enough jobs for all of them, leading to a polarization between a small number of “winners” and a large number of “losers.” He includes a chart showing that in the past, most layers were clustered around a median income, whereas today you see a spike in incomes at the high and low ends, with not much in the middle. The same trend can be seen in many professions, for example MBA’s (and I would hazard, architects).

This leads to a breakdown in social cooperation and social trust as elites compete ever more with each other. Turchin concludes, “Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.” He also points the finger at decreasing living standards for the majority and state indebtedness (although I would argue that’s a symptom not a cause). Turchin looks at various similar periods in history and concludes that things will only get worse. It’s another interesting facet of our slow decline and breakdown as a viable society.

Turchin's blog post on his article, entitled How Elite Overproduction Brings Disorder includes many of his blog posts that provide the background for the article. I suggest reading them in full. Here's a good one: The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America.

I would argue that in America we have two especially unique problems that make this trend worse: 1.) the emergence of an extreme sociopathic elite that gains money and power by playing Americans against one another. You see this with people like the Koch Brothers, whose media funding is designed to appeal to the angry, impoverished American losers in the global economy (as we saw last time, poverty is making them more extreme and amenable to their message). When they shut down the government and block legislation, the plutocrats win, because now there is no protection for the working classes, and they can be exploited at will. And 2.) As Morris Berman has pointed out, America has no other basis besides making a buck and hustling. We have no social identity or social glue apart from getting richer and buying more stuff, and as that no longer becomes possible, we are likely to turn on each other even more than more homogeneous societies, which tend to be more stable. These are sure to make Mr. Turchin's predictions and analysis even more dire. I wonder if we can even remain a viable society for another century.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The hardening of America's heart

One might think that the deteriorating economy would produce more sympathy for the unemployed and down-on-their-luck, since more and more of us are threatening to fall into that trap. But, as it turns out, as we get poorer as a society, we become even more hostile to the poor and downtrodden. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's bearing out, especially in America's "every man for himself" culture of sociopathy and Social Darwinism.

Richard Florida says:

The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened America's conservative drift - a trend which is most pronounced in its least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.

Indeed, research indicates that America is becoming more “conservative.” This is a misnomer, of course, as what they mean by "conservative" has nothing to do with preserving and maintaining existing social institutions, or suspicions of radical, sudden social change. It has nothing to do with  classical Burkean conservatism. Rather, by "conservative," what they really mean is politically reactionary and hostile to the poor.

Barry Rithotz wonders why:
The trend towards the hard right is most pronounced in the least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. 
It is a fascinating glimpse into the Human (or is it American?) Psyche — and I am very curious about it: 
• Conservative states are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states. And, this correlation between religion is increasing. 
• Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones; This correlation between conservative affiliation and education (percent of adults who are college graduates) is also substantially higher than before. 
• States with more conservatives are less diverse. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants or gay and lesbian. 
• There is no correlation to race or ethnicity, however, whether measured as percent white, percent black, or percent Hispanic (Fascinating). 
• Conservative political affiliation is strongly correlated with percentage of a state’s workforce in blue-collar occupations; 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with proportion of workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work. 
• States with more conservatives are considerably less affluent than those with more liberals. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with state income levels and even more so with average hourly earnings.
This article speculates that the hostility to Obamacare has less to do with the feasibility of it, but rather that Americans are becoming ever more sociopathic toward their fellow Americans:
New Gallup poll numbers show Americans increasingly dispute the idea that government has a responsibility to make sure everybody can get health insurance. It's tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks. 
What's clear is that the shifting views on health care predate the Affordable Care Act. The number of Americans who think health care is the government's responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year. 
The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn't just about health care. The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others. 
Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year. People who said the government should help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, fell from 54 percent to 43 percent over the same period. 
That increased callousness extends beyond Americans' views of helping the needy. In 2007, 60 percent of respondents agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment; by last year, that figure was 43 percent. The share who said the U.S. should "pay less attention to problems overseas" rose from 76 percent to 83 percent between 2007 and 2012. 
It's not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they're needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature.  
What's different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.
Obamacare Shows How Americans Are Becoming Jerks (Bloomberg) Indeed, Americans blowing each other away is becoming about as common as fender-benders here in sociopath nation. What do you expect in a country where Ayn Rand is a a national hero? Remember when a crowd at a Republican debate erupted into cheers of someone dying without health insurance? Because I do. Welcome to this "Christian" country.

Here's at least one reason - as people become poorer, their attitudes become more hostile and more intense:
Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau first manipulated subjects' perceptions of their income by inviting some to compare themselves to high incomes ($500,000 per month) and others to low incomes ($500 per month). They found that people primed to believe they had low incomes then expressed harsher judgments about violent acts than those who were primed to think themselves rich. 
This, they say, supports the idea that when people feel themselves to be poor, they feel more vulnerable to others' harmful acts, and this causes them to make harsher judgments about them. If you can afford to replace your iPod you'll be less censorious of muggers than if you can't. If you're driving your children around all the time, you'll be less hysterical about paedophiles than if your kids have to walk everywhere. And so on. 
Thanks to the work of Ben Friedman, we should know by now that economic insecurity creates intolerance. This paper provides experimental evidence of microfoundations for this. That's progress. 
Now, we should distinguish here between the extent of illiberal opinions and the intensity of them. Surveys suggest that working class folk aren't much more opposed to immigration, drug legalization or gay marriage than richer people. But this is quite consistent with them having more intense feelings. Gillian Duffy's antipathy towards immigrants is, sadly, shared by the middle class; the difference is the vehemence with which those opinions were expressed...when liberal leftists complain about working class illiberalism, they should remember that the failing here lies not (just) with the working class themselves, but in social democracy itself. This has - so far - failed to sufficiently reduce the sense of vulnerability among the poor which produces illiberal attitudes.
The economic base of illiberalism (Stumbling and Mumbling) And see this: America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy (Salon)

Well, we've got a lot of poor people in this country, and more and more every single day. And as the ranks of the poor swell, their attitudes are likely to become more hostile and intense, causing the cycle to repeat itself in a viscous downward spiral as we increasingly turn on each other while the elites watch from their penthouses and offshore havens.

The only people who can stop it is us. Turning on ourselves is exactly what they want.

And see this: Let Them Eat Cake (New York Times)


Sunday, November 17, 2013

A world on auto-pilot

Another quick one, while I have wi-fi - this excellent article from The Atlantic: All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines
Pilots today work inside what they call “glass cockpits.” The old analog dials and gauges are mostly gone. They’ve been replaced by banks of digital displays. Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. What pilots spend a lot of time doing is monitoring screens and keying in data. They’ve become, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, computer operators.

And that, many aviation and automation experts have concluded, is a problem. Overuse of automation erodes pilots’ expertise and dulls their reflexes, leading to what Jan Noyes, an ergonomics expert at Britain’s University of Bristol, terms “a de-skilling of the crew.” No one doubts that autopilot has contributed to improvements in flight safety over the years. It reduces pilot fatigue and provides advance warnings of problems, and it can keep a plane airborne should the crew become disabled. But the steady overall decline in plane crashes masks the recent arrival of “a spectacularly new type of accident,” says Raja Parasuraman, a psychology professor at George Mason University and a leading authority on automation. When an autopilot system fails, too many pilots, thrust abruptly into what has become a rare role, make mistakes. Rory Kay, a veteran United captain who has served as the top safety official of the Air Line Pilots Association, put the problem bluntly in a 2011 interview with the Associated Press: “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

A hundred years ago, the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” It’s hard to imagine a more confident expression of faith in automation...History provides plenty of evidence to support Whitehead. We humans have been handing off chores, both physical and mental, to tools since the invention of the lever, the wheel, and the counting bead. But Whitehead’s observation should not be mistaken for a universal truth. He was writing when automation tended to be limited to distinct, well-defined, and repetitive tasks—weaving fabric with a steam loom, adding numbers with a mechanical calculator. Automation is different now. Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action, software ends up narrowing our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.

Most of us want to believe that automation frees us to spend our time on higher pursuits but doesn’t otherwise alter the way we behave or think. That view is a fallacy—an expression of what scholars of automation call the “substitution myth.” A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity. It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skills of the people taking part.

Automation turns us from actors into observers. That shift may make our lives easier, but it can also inhibit the development of expertise. Since the late 1970s, psychologists have been documenting a phenomenon called the “generation effect.” It was first observed in studies of vocabulary, which revealed that people remember words much better when they actively call them to mind—when they generate them—than when they simply read them. The effect, it has since become clear, influences learning in many different circumstances. When you engage actively in a task, you set off intricate mental processes that allow you to retain more knowledge. You learn more and remember more. When you repeat the same task over a long period, your brain constructs specialized neural circuits dedicated to the activity. It assembles a rich store of information and organizes that knowledge in a way that allows you to tap into it instantaneously.

The small island of Igloolik, off the coast of the Melville Peninsula in the Nunavut territory of northern Canada, is a bewildering place in the winter.... Despite the brutal conditions, Inuit hunters have for some 4,000 years ventured out from their homes on the island and traveled across miles of ice and tundra to search for game. The hunters’ ability to navigate vast stretches of the barren Arctic terrain, where landmarks are few, snow formations are in constant flux, and trails disappear overnight, has amazed explorers and scientists for centuries. The Inuit’s extraordinary way-finding skills are born not of technological prowess—they long eschewed maps and compasses—but of a profound understanding of winds, snowdrift patterns, animal behavior, stars, and tides.

Inuit culture is changing now. The Igloolik hunters have begun to rely on computer-generated maps to get around. ..But as GPS devices have proliferated on Igloolik, reports of serious accidents during hunts have spread. A hunter who hasn’t developed way-finding skills can easily become lost, particularly if his GPS receiver fails. The routes so meticulously plotted on satellite maps can also give hunters tunnel vision, leading them onto thin ice or into other hazards a skilled navigator would avoid. The anthropologist Claudio Aporta, of Carleton University in Ottawa, has been studying Inuit hunters for more than 15 years. He notes that while satellite navigation offers practical advantages, its adoption has already brought a deterioration in way-finding abilities and, more generally, a weakened feel for the land. An Inuit on a GPS-equipped snowmobile is not so different from a suburban commuter in a GPS-equipped SUV: as he devotes his attention to the instructions coming from the computer, he loses sight of his surroundings. He travels “blindfolded,” as Aporta puts it. A unique talent that has distinguished a people for centuries may evaporate in a generation.
Anecdotally, I've seen this up close, where old-timers lament that architects today no longer know how to hand-draft, and that losing this skill has had knock-on effects even in the world of computer CAD drafting. In fact, even computer drafting skills are becoming endangered now that we're modelling buildings in 3D for our documents. What happens if and when we no longer have that software available to us? Are we so sure we will never go backward? I'm consistently amazed whenever the network goes down at work that we're essentially reduced to standing around doing nothing.

And another story - one of the field engineers I'm working with is fairy inexperienced, and he relies on electronic CAD files in his TOTALstation to lay out the building. "He's not looking at the documents," lamented my project manager. This is an issue, as our documents are the records of what is to be built, not the electronic files, and information may be overlooked without reading the paper documents. He's been taught to rely on the computers in school and is using it as a crutch, whereas the "old timers" we've previously worked with know their way around a set of documents. It's another example of the skills we're losing, and, as in the Inuit example above, I think we're losing a fundamental portion of what it means to be human. We have so much potential that's being squandered, and I think people sense this.

You may recall a popular Archdruid Report post from last year which covered some of the same ground: The Revovery of the Human:
Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel Dune has one character explain this to another with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them." The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines, for reasons that follow from the points made last week.

It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does...Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves. That can’t be done effectively, please note, by trying to manipulate them like so many machines, or by teaching them to manipulate themselves in the same manner; I-It relationships do very poorly at directing human productive and creative powers. It will require instead the ability to understand human beings as human beings rather than inconveniently squishy bipedal machines, and the capacity to enter into I-Thou relationships, that has always defined good teachers and good leaders.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry.
But while Greer sees a rapid decline in our ability to outsource our capabilities to machines, I see nothing but full speed ahead and increasing automation on the near-term horizon. Eventually, we may lose those abilities, but how atrophied will our human skills be then? Yet at the same time, you see people pushing back the other way against this, whether physically by things like 100-mile ultramarathons, or mentally with the Art of Memory, Trachtenberg math and the Trivium.

I fear our mechanized view of the world is giving us a mechanized view of humanity, the idea that we're all nothing more than an amorphous mass of numbers to be manipulated at will. And that can't lead anywhere good.

Okay, I will!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tribes, Anarchy, Civilization and Bureaucracy

Okay, still on hiatus, but here are some must-reads. First up, anarchist philosopher James C. Scott reviews Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday:
Two fatal objections come immediately to mind. First, it does not follow that the state, by curtailing ‘private’ violence, reduces the total amount of violence. As Norbert Elias pointed out more than half a century ago in The Civilising Process, what the state does is to centralise and monopolise violence in its own hands, a fact that Diamond, coming as he does from a nation that has initiated several wars in recent decades and a state (California) that has a prison population of roughly 120,000 – most of them non-violent offenders – should appreciate.

Second, Hobbes’s fable at least has nominally equal contractants agreeing to establish a sovereign for their mutual safety. That is hard to reconcile with the fact that all ancient states without exception were slave states. The proportion of slaves seldom dropped below 30 per cent of the population in early states, reaching 50 per cent in early South-East Asia (and in Athens and Sparta as much as 70 and 86 per cent). War captives, conquered peoples, slaves purchased from slave raiders and traders, debt bondsmen, criminals and captive artisans – all these people were held under duress, as the frequency of state collapse, revolt and flight attests. As either a theory or a historical account of state-formation, Diamond’s story makes no sense.

The straw man in his argument is that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are oases of peace, co-operation and order. Of course they are not. The question, rather, is how violent they are compared to state-societies and what are the causes of the violence that does exist. There is, contra Diamond, a strong case that might be made for the relative non-violence and physical well-being of contemporary hunters and gatherers when compared with the early agrarian states. Non-state peoples have many techniques for avoiding bloodshed and revenge killings: the payment of compensation or Weregild, arranged truces (‘burying the hatchet’), marriage alliances, flight to the open frontier, outcasting or handing over a culprit who started the trouble. Diamond does not seem to appreciate the strong social forces mobilised by kinsmen to restrain anyone contemplating a hasty and violent act that will expose all of them to danger. These practices are examined by many of the ethnographers who have carried out intensive fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands (for example by Edward L. Schieffelin in The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, Marilyn Strathern in Women in Between, and Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart’s work on compensation), but they make no dent in Diamond’s one-dimensional view of the desire for revenge.

On the other side of the ledger, when it comes to violence in early agrarian states, one must weigh rebellion, war and systematic violence against slaves and women (as a rule of thumb, agrarian states everywhere created patriarchal property regimes which reduced the status and freedom of women) against ‘tribal conflicts’. We also know, and Diamond notes, that hunter-gatherers even today have healthier diets and far fewer communicable diseases. Believing, against the evidence, that hunters and gatherers live in daily fear of starvation, he fails to note that they also work far less hard and thus have far more leisure. Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers, even when relegated to the most undesirable environments, ‘the original affluent society’. It’s hard to imagine Diamond’s primitives giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, their relative freedom from famine, large-scale state wars, taxes and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be ‘the king’s peace’. Reading his account one can get the impression that the choice facing hunters and gatherers was one between their world and, say, the modern Danish welfare state. In practice, their option was to trade what they had for subjecthood in the early agrarian state.

No matter how one defines violence and warfare in existing hunter-gatherer societies, the greater part of it by far can be shown to be an effect of the perils and opportunities represented by a world of states...In the world of states, hunter-gatherers and nomads, one commodity alone dominated all others: people, aka slaves. What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to cultivate their fields, build their monuments, man their armies and bear and raise their children. With few exceptions, the epidemiological conditions in cities until very recently were so devastating that they could grow only by adding new populations from their hinterlands. They did this in two ways. They took captives in wars: most South-East Asian early state chronicles gauge the success of a war by the number of captives marched back to the capital and resettled there. The Athenians and Spartans might kill the men of a defeated city and burn its crops, but they virtually always brought back the women and children as slaves. And they bought slaves: a slave merchant caravan trailed every Roman war scooping up the slaves it inevitably produced.

The fact is that slaving was at the very centre of state-making. It is impossible to exaggerate the massive effects of this human commodity on stateless societies. Wars between states became a kind of booty capitalism, where the major prize was human traffic. The slave trade then completely transformed the non-state ‘tribal zone’. Some groups specialised in slave-raiding, mounting expeditions against weaker and more isolated groups and then selling them to intermediaries or directly at slave markets. The oldest members of highland groups in Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma can recall their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of slave raids. The fortified, hilltop villages, with thorny, twisting and hidden approaches that early colonists found in parts of South-East Asia and Africa were largely a response to the slave trade.
Crops, Towns, Government (London Review of Books)

It seems like a good time to post this interesting interview with Kirkpatrick Sale:
Do you think that the Luddites today are one of the last positive minorities?

I do. And I wonder how much of a minority they are. Sometimes I'm persuaded they're a majority. Millions of people believe that this new industrial revolution is, as Newsweek said in February, "outstripping our capacity to cope and shifting our concept of reality."

People feeling this way range from those who simply don't like these new technologies, to people who have lost their jobs because of them, to people who understand that specific technologies such as asbestos or nuclear power or pesticides or silicone implants that were sold to them as great benefits of technology have turned out to hurt us. Then there are philosophical opponents of these technologies.

If you put them all together, I think we have many tens of millions of people who at least understand the dangers of this technological revolution and wish they knew how to resist it.

Do you think these neo-Luddites see themselves as such?

Not for the most part. They have come to their positions often by happenstantial ways. What I hope is that we could get a movement going by saying to them, "Yes, there are a lot of other people like you-you are not alone." They might come to proudly say, "I am a Luddite, and I have millions like me who are proudly saying they are Luddites." If it happens to be a word like Quaker or Queer that started out as insults, but for people who were insulted that way said, "I'm proud of being a Quaker," and will take that. "I'm a Quaker, I'm a Queer, and will defend proudly what that means." And that same thing may happen to the word "Luddite."

Looking at your past works, they seem to outline a path to return to some sort of tribal mode of existence.

Yes. And by "tribal" I mean small-scale and communitarian and nature-based, which is what tribal societies have always been and always will be. This is why they were so successful, the reasons they have survived for a million years and remained the form of our society for the greater part of our time on Earth.
Rebel Against the Future: An Interview with Kirkpatrick Sale (Culture

I discovered Peter Turchin's Web site: Cliodynamics: History as Science
Empires rise and fall, populations and economies boom and bust, world religions spread or wither... What are the mechanisms underlying such dynamical processes in history? Are there 'laws of history'? We do not lack hypotheses to investigate - to take just one instance, more than two hundred explanations have been proposed for why the Roman Empire fell. But we still don't know which of these hypotheses are plausible, and which should be rejected. More importantly, there is no consensus on what general mechanisms explain the collapse of historical empires. What is needed is a systematic application of the scientific method to history: verbal theories should be translated into mathematical models, precise predictions derived, and then rigorously tested on empirical material. In short, history needs to become an analytical, predictive science.

Cliodynamics (from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes) is the new transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Mathematical approaches – modeling historical processes with differential equations or agent-based simulations; sophisticated statistical approaches to data analysis – are a key ingredient in the cliodynamic research program. But ultimately the aim is to discover general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of actual historical societies.
I've featured Turchin's work before. And see Peter Turchin's blog: Social Evolution Forum. There's some good stuff on there. See the following post in contrast to the above, War Before Civilization:
Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, painful and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before ‘civilization’—before large-scale states with their government and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.

Some anthropologists object to using the historically known societies of American Indians as a mirror of life in all small-scale, tribal societies before the rise of civilized states and empires. They argue that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas with their germs, metal tools, weapons, and an insatiable appetite for certain trading goods (such as furs) destabilized native societies and raised the intensity and lethality of inter-tribal warfare. There is much merit in this argument. More generally, war intensity has varied greatly between different regions and, within regions, over time. Nevertheless, life in small-scale tribal societies was much more precarious and violent than most people realize.

We know this is true because archaeology can tells us much more today, compared to a few decades ago, about the life in societies before history. Consider, for example, a village of Oneota Indians, who lived along the Illinois River 700 years ago (that’s 200 years before Columbus). The archaeologists located the village cemetery (the site is known as ‘the Norris Farms #36’) and studied the remains of 264 people who were buried there. At least 43 of them—16 percent—died a violent death. According to George Milner,

Many of them were struck on their fronts, sides, and backs with heavy weapons, such as celts [stone axes], or they were shot with arrows. Some people apparently were facing their attackers, whereas others were not. Presumably the latter were wounded when trying to flee. Victims were occasionally hit many more times than necessary to cause their deaths; perhaps several warriors struck blows to share in the kill. Bodies often were mutilated by the removal of scalps, heads, and limbs. Scavenging animals then fed on many corpses, which were left exposed where they fell until the remaining parts were found and buried in the village cemetery.

The pattern of deaths suggests a state of constant warfare, with men and women being ambushed singly or in small groups as they went about hunting and gathering. In other words, this Oneota village was quite similar to many later Indian villages observed by Europeans, although, as I said earlier, the general level of violence increased quite noticeably in the post-Columbus era.

The estimated proportion that died a violent death, 16 percent, lies in the middle range of such estimates for prehistoric populations. This is not to say that their life was uniformly grim. At times people living in small-scale societies enjoyed periods of peace and prosperity. But at other times, warfare was even worse than what the Oneota villagers had to endure. Roughly at the same time but several hundred miles to the northwest of the Oneota settlement, on Crow Creek, South Dakota, there was once a village of the Caddoan speakers. Crow Creek is one of the most famous prehistoric massacre sites. It was a very substantial village protected by a defensive moat, but it was nevertheless overrun and completely destroyed by enemies.
And see this: The Tall-but-Poor 'Anomaly':
One of the founders of anthropometrics, John Komlos, refers to the observation that the Plains Indians were the tallest in the world in the nineteenth century as the “Tall-but-Poor Anomaly.” But there is no anomaly here. It just shows that GDP per capita is a very poor measure of well-being. For example, between 1850 and 1890 GDP per capita, in inflation-adjusted dollars, increased by 130 percent, but the height of Americans fell by 2 cm. It’s not that Americans were becoming shorter as they were becoming richer. It was the top 1 percent who were becoming richer, while the 99 percent were becoming shorter.

So the Indians were nominally poor, but they lived in a way that only rich people can afford today. They exercised (riding them horses was a pretty good exercise!), ate grass-fed bison, supplemented by roots and berries (that’s paleo diet!), breathed fresh air, and drank uncontaminated water. Today this kind of living is only within the reach of the very wealthy.
And since we featured James C. Scott above, here's another review of Scott himself by economist Brad De Long, comparing it with the works of the so-called "Austrian School." Worth reading in full:
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's Seeing Like a State.

On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. Heaven knows that I am no Austrian--I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat--but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.
This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as "Austrian ideas" into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well. No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.
But on a second level, it is an act of displacement. Friedrich Hayek, after all, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for making many of Scott's key arguments: that the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility). These key arguments are well known: they are the core of the Austrian economists' critique of central planning.
James Scott and Friedrich Hayek (Brad DeLong) The above is why, while I find anarchist philosophy to be important and intellectually stimulating, I have no time for Libertarianism, especially as it is espoused today. All Libertarianism is is a stripping of protections for the weak in favor of the strong in the name of "freedom.". It is essentially "might makes right" dressed up in pseudo-intellectual drag and peddled to useful idiots by today's venal plutocrats. By contrast, anarchist philosophy takes a deeper look at power, centralization and coercion at all levels of society.

And a final point, engendered by this article:
Human beings coordinate their actions to do things which would be hard or impossible for them individually. This is not a particularly recondite fact, and the recognition of it is ancient; it is in the fifth book of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, for instance.... The nineteenth century, and to a lesser degree this one, have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the numbers of us engaged in administration, bureaucracy, management, oversight--that is to say, in formally-organized tasks of collective cognition and control. We did not invent bureaucracy, the mainstay of the ancient empires, but we're much, much better at it... corrupt, inefficient institutions which work poorly; every election, Piffleburg [WI]'s citizens mutter something like "what do we pay taxes for anyway?" Yet to run any one of these institutions at the level of honesty, efficiency and efficacy which makes Piffleburg grumble would have demanded the full powers and attention of even the ablest Roman propraetor or Tang magistrate. That all of those institutions, plus the ones not restricted to a single city, could be run at once, and while governed by a very ordinary slice of common humanity, would have seemed to such officials flatly impossible.

The immediate question this raises, of why we are so much better at collective endeavors than the ancients, can be answered fairly simply. To a first approximation, the answer is: brute force and massive literacy. We teach nearly everyone to read and write, and to do it, by historical standards, at a high level. This lets us staff large bureaucracies (by some estimates, over 40% of the US workforce does data-handling), which lets us run an industrial economy (the trains run on time), which makes us rich enough to afford to educate everyone and keep them in bureaucratic employment, with some surplus left over to expand the system. (let's not forget fossil fuel power - CH)

All this is in the realm of technique; when it comes to theory, we are quite at a loss. We can see, in a rough, common-sensical way, what makes us better at running things than the Romans were, but we don't understand how either they or us pull off the trick at all. That is to say, we don't really have a good theory about how collective action and cognition work, when and why they do, how they can be made to work better, why they fail, what they can and cannot accomplish, and so forth.
The final point is essential: we don't really know how cooperation works, and we don't know why it breaks down. But it does break down. To some extent, there is something profoundly unnatural about the massive governments, states, corporations and bureaucracies that we small-group primates find ourselves living in today. While some argue that our social "circle" will keep expanding to eventually encompass all of humanity, history teaches us a very different lesson, one which we can observe in the nascent hypertribalism of America today: sometimes things fall apart. Our cooperation has limits. Since we don't really understand these massive cooperative mechanisms in the first place, why do we simply assume their robustness as a matter of course? We shouldn't. And when they do fall apart, because of corruption, incompetence, sabotage, apathy, conflict, loss of trust, or what have you, it's clear that we will be able to accomplish much less than we were able to before as a society. This is one important reason why those of us who are suspicious of "progress" or that things will continue to get continuously better for everyone (in spite of massive recent evidence) have come around to our way of thinking.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where Inequality Comes From

Reader Vera asks:

"So let's back up a bit and say, what led to stored surpluses getting OWNED? What led to the rich fishing hole to be owned by a family? There is plenty of evidence of surpluses being left in a hole or other simple hut among some tribes, and used in times of need, by anyone. Whence ownership of surplus? That's my current puzzle. How do you go from a tribe where anyone hoarding a fishing hole would be ridiculed or ostracized, to a tribe where they just shrug it off and put up?"

The question is, how did we go from a world where surpluses are available to all, to one where they are controlled by a small hereditary elite, forcing the rest of us to work for them to acquire the basic means of our subsistence? How did this become the norm for all human societies?

While we don’t have a time machine, I don’t think it’s any mystery because we can observe this phenomena in contemporary society. Inequality has exploded just in my lifetime. When I was born, my parents lived in a world where one person could support an entire family with a job – almost any job. Today, millions of people work a job that pays so little that they are on public assistance, and even families with two incomes and college educations struggle financially. Thirty years ago you could afford to pay for college by working a summer job. Now, debts are so onerous that graduates need  to pay a significant chunk of their income for over twenty years just to finance an education. I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how this differs in any substantial way from the institution of indentured servitude, one of the five historical forms of slavery (chattel slavery, debt bondage, corvee labor, serfdom and wage slavery). Yet this is somehow regarded as "normal!" One can easily see how these things become institutionalized over time. The same thing goes for prison labor. How much longer before we “rely” on people breaking laws so we can put them in prison to use for cheap labor? Even debtor’s prisons are making a backdoor comeback. Will those return as well?

Currently, voter suppression efforts are going full-throttle in Republican-controlled states, potentially undoing universal suffrage, yet such efforts are actually supported by a significant number of voters! We’ve gone from being a country with some of the most freedom and income mobility relative to the rest of the world at the birth of our nation to the most imprisoned and surveilled people in all of human history. We lock up one out of every hundred people, a quarter of the world’s prison population. We have the lowest income mobility of almost every developed nation, even greater than Europe with its vestigial titles and peerage. We fought a revolution against kingship and royalty, yet today our politicians and wealthy elites are a class apart, separated from the common man even more than the patricians of ancient Rome or the royalty of ancien regime France. Are they so different from the kings of old (who in fact, actually controlled less of the wealth of their societies in practical terms). And our nation is less than 250 years old!

What’s that got to do with the Neolithic? Well, I think the same things happened in the past -  gradually outrages just became normalized over time, things like hereditary kingship, slavery and so on. It’s creeping normalcy. It’s the proverbial frog in boiling water. Just turn up the heat slowly enough. We don’t have a time machine, but we see it happening in contemporary times just as surely as it must have happened back then. And, as in the examples above, it can happen in as little as one generation. By my count, the distance in time between the first Natufian agricultural settlements and the city-states of Mesopotamia equals the distance in time between those city-states and us today. That’s a lot of time! If we in the age of the internet just suck it up and live with these injustices, how could they resist back then? Understand the underlying dynamics of how this is happening today in our own time, and you understand how free hunter-gatherers ended up as chattel slaves working in the fields surviving on a daily ration of thin gruel. It certainly didn’t happen overnight.

The key of course, is to legitimize this state of affairs. How were they legitimized? Well, I’ve been tossing around the theory that it’s the intentional exploitation on the part of the ruling class of a whole host of cognitive biases and distortions, perceptual filters, emotions, social instincts, subconscious drives and group dynamics - the classic definition of magic (i.e. the manipulation of irrational drives for specific ends). The same thread runs through religion, politics and marketing – the manipulation of large groups of people by a small group to keep themselves on top. We see it happening today just as surely as it happened back then. Here’s just a short list of what’s used to manipulate us:

Optimism bias
The Bandwagon effect (groupthink, peer pressure, etc.)
Ingroup bias
The Just World fallacy
The Self-serving bias
Learned helplessness
The Fundamental Attribution Error
The Halo Effect
The Status Quo bias
Confirmation bias
Projection bias
Social inertia
Creeping normalcy (see above)
Operant conditioning (schools, etc.)
Divide and Rule
The Prisoner’s Dilemma (problems with cooperation)
Personality Cults and Charismatic leadership
Associative mating (concentrating wealth in families)

All you need to do is convince enough people of the legitimacy of the system and make them scared enough of any alternatives and they will keep everyone else in line without you lifting a finger. That’s how the few control the many. What works in contemporary America certainly worked in the temples of Egypt of Mesopotamia or China 6,000 years ago; humans haven’t changed much. Is it any wonder that there has always been an air of magic associated with civilization, and that the ancient Egyptians, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, were regarded by the Greeks as having “secret” esoteric knowledge possessed by their priesthood? Maybe that “magic” was simply the art of manipulating people on the part of the rulers to create a society of people willing to be slaves, or fight and die for an idea. And maybe that “magic,” not seeds of grain, is what spreads civilization. Once humans live in large enough groups, they can be herded like sheep – the birth of domesticated sheeple.

There are two absolute prerequisites for all this:

1.) A large enough population that the individual no longer matters.
2.) Nowhere to flee.

Which has been noted previously, the first by Esther Boserup, the second by Rafael Carneiro in his circumscription theory.

Both of which are brought about by agriculture after a certain point. Thus you can see why agriculture is a prerequisite to these oppressive cultures. This is why we don’t see this in hunter-gatherer cultures. Not all agricultural cultures have this, of course. New world cultures often practiced agriculture, but population densities were low and there were plenty of places to flee if you didn't like being a slave. It’s no coincidence, however, that the Mesoamerican empires had the largest populations and were surrounded by mountains and deserts. So while you need settled agriculture for this sort of systematic oppression, it does not guarantee it unless the above prerequisites are also fulfilled. To some extent, even hunter-gatherer cultures can be oppressive when the above conditions exist for long enough. I remember hearing a description of how Hitler always gave his speeches in large groups, to avoid any individuals from questioning his words. This shows the powerful influence groups have. This would never happen in cultures without high population density. “Traditional” church operated in much the same capacity – group confessions of faith, repetition, suspicion of outsiders, blind acceptance of the leader’s worlds, etc.

And I think religion played a major role here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see organized religions run by a temple-based priesthood redistributing surpluses at the same time as civilization. These religions defined “us” versus “them,” and motivated people to work together, often in the task of killing other people. Religion is by its very nature irrational. But organized religion is all about legitimizing hierarchy, submitting to your betters, hating outgroups, and suppressing anyone who challenges these notions. What a wonderful tool for the rulers! Is it any wonder that authoritarianism and religion are so tightly wound? People who believe strongly in the dominant religion of a society are nearly always the defenders of that society, no matter how oppressive it is. And this religious impulse often translates to “secular” religions – as I’ve noted, economics today is another form of religion uses to justify modern society, with its own priesthood, orthodoxy, sacred texts, heresies and divine will (The “Invisible Hand”). As I've noted before, right-wingers, despite all their rhetoric about “freedom” are the most hive-minded and conventional people you will ever meet. Just take a look at the suburbs they live in if you doubt it.

Is it any coincidence that the most religious places in the U.S. are the most socially conservative, and have the lowest social mobility and highest levels of poverty, inequality and xenophobia? And around the world, counties with the most religion have the most extractive elites and the most oppressive institutions, while countries without religion are much more fair and egalitarian (e.g. Japan, France, Denmark). It even works on a municipal level – drive through America’s decaying and blighted inner cities and half the abandoned buildings are being used as places of worship. It is thought that the first kings were priest-kings, and before that priests. These priests may have begun as shamans, and their role  may have been to manipulate people’s belief systems in order to convince people that they could summon the herds or bring rain, or perhaps engage in faith healing or curses (via the placebo and nocebo effects). Because they were supposed to have a special conduit to the divine, they probably were able to command people’s loyalty and fear, thus manipulating them into putting them in charge. There’s good evidence that the first Chinese rulers were priest-kings with a connection to ancestral spirits. Even today this is evident – in cults like the Branch Davidians, for example, a leader like David Koresh had preferential access to basically all the females of reproductive age, no questions asked. You can see this in Mormon areas as well. Certainly being a priest-king had its advantages in terms of Darwinian survival. And people in these cults accept the leader’s authority unquestioningly, being even willing to die for him. Note that all kings and pharaohs in the ancient Near East were associated with the divine in some way – they were either gods themselves, or had ceremonial religious duties.

Or, more generally, the kings were probably once tribal or religious elders or “Big Men” who ruled by merit and equitably distributed the surplus, and over time decided to keep the surplus for themselves to gain power (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon word “Lord” originally meant “giver of loaves”). Why did people agree to this? Well, why do they agree to it today? Try this – go to any right-wing Web site and say anything about inequality. You’ll see a full-throated defense of the right of the wealthy to take whatever they want and amass as much as they can without limit by people who can be fired at any time for any reason.. Try and explain to them the inherent problem with wage labor or suggest universal health care and be labeled as a “communist” by people who are just one paycheck away from homelessness or one illness away from bankruptcy. How often do you hear people making minimum wage justify the outrageous fortunes of the investor class because the “work hard” or “create jobs”? These same people defended kingship and slavery back in the day (or rather their ancestors did). It’s easy to control the masses. They do it themselves. And to reiterate – the most religious places in the country are the most accepting of the status quo and most accepting of sociopathic and corrupt leadership (Texas, Dixie, etc.).

The people who didn’t like this state of affairs certainly could flee early on, and they probably did so, but eventually they ran out of places to flee. And their descendants eventually ran up against the civilizations they left, and were eliminated by superior numbers, effectively culling their genes from the gene pool. The authoritarians reproduced at a higher rate- even today religious people have more children than free spirits who feel less of a desire to reproduce at all costs and in any circumstances. The people who submitted to institutionalized authority continued to have children. The ones who didn’t were pushed to marginal lands and were less successful at reproduction. Like lactose tolerance, eventually unquestioning obedience spread through certain civilizations because those civilizations were more successful at organized violence, displacing everyone else and subsuming them. Those biases named above became more and more common. Even today, hunter-gathers have different perceptions about the world than people in WEIRD cultures.

Social manipulation is built into humans. In fact, according to some theories, it has been the primary driver behind brain growth and complexity. Even non-human animals take “slaves” and fight wars. We are also hard-wired to accept a place in the hierarchy, to submit to our “betters” and not rock the boat. We are also hard-wired for cooperation and reciprocity. These primate tendencies are hijacked by the alphas and used to control us – through debt, governmental authority, or what have you.

Side note: This blog is going on indefinite hiatus. My home internet access has been interrupted, so now seems like a good time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Automation Links

A couple automation links of note. The first references the book Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen, a book I've kind of been obsessing over lately. I have not read it (although it's on order from the library), but I've read a large number of reviews, as well as interviews and podcasts with the author.

In brief, Cowen is predicting a world where a tiny sliver of society (which he naively describes as "meritocratic" - ha!) lives like kings, while the majority of people (maybe 80-90 percent) eke out a precarious existence surviving in sprawling suburban shantytowns with minimal public services, surviving on beans (he even includes a helpful recipe) and anesthetized by cheap entertainment and video games. The model for this brave new world is Texas, where cheap land means housing cheap enough for even the barely employed minimum-wage drones that most of us will become to afford.

The common rejoinder - that this level of poverty and desperation across society will cause revolt is dismissed by Cowen as naive. First, inequality has already exploded with no real opposition (in fact, the notion of punishing the poor is actually used as a campaign tactic by Tea Party politicians). And second, the population will be aging, and aging populations don't revolt. As depressing as it sounds, I have to conclude that he may be right.

Anyway, a fuller review will have to wait. But automation is a key element in the story. Cowen gets praise from me for accurately describing the effects from automation on the labor force without falling into the two camps one too often sees - 1.) That robots will just do everything without us lifting a finger, like something out of The Jetsons, or 2.) Automation will create more jobs than it eliminates because they will grow the economy or create entirely new fields "we can't even imagine" or some such. No, the truth is that they will empower a small elite who will be extremely efficient and hoard opportunity to the greatest extent possible for themselves and their families. We  will find that our demands are neither infinite or insatiable, there are only so many hours in a day, and so much storage space, etc., and these will be met by a minimum of the workforce.

Here's Kevin Drum on that last point:
I haven't read Tyler Cowen's Average Is Over, but I'm familiar with its basic thesis: smart machines are going to put lots of people out of work over the next few decades, and this is going to substantially increase income inequality. A small number of very smart people will do really well, while the broad middle class will end up with bleak, low-paying jobs—assuming they're lucky enough to have any jobs at all.

Obviously I agree, as readers of the May issue of Mother Jones know. And since I enjoy reading opposing arguments, I was curious to see what James Bessen had to say about this today over at The Switch. Unfortunately, the answer is: nothing much. "People have been predicting that technology will kill the middle class since Karl Marx," he says. "They have generally been wrong."

Well, yes, they have. Unfortunately, that's his entire argument. The Industrial Revolution didn't put everyone out of work, and neither did 80s-era technology like ATMs and accounting software. Therefore, 2030s-era technology won't either.

This is, literally, the worst possible case you can make for the continued relevance of the middle class. To say that "intelligent machines per se are not new," as Bessen does, wildly misrepresents both intelligence and machines. No machine built before about 2010 has had anything even remotely resembling true intelligence. Not spinning machines that stopped if a thread broke, and not ATMs or accounting programs. Even now, the smartest machines out there display only the barest glimmers of intelligence. We simply don't have either the software or the hardware to do it. The machines that people like Cowen and I are predicting for the 2030s just flatly have no analog to previous machines.
Yes, Technology Is Going to Destroy the Middle Class (Mother Jones)

How do I know? Because this is exactly what's happened to my own profession. New software can't design buildings, of course, but it allows much smaller teams of higher-level people to put a building together, eliminating much of the entry-level work like drafting that's typically served as a foot in the door into the profession. Computers allow us to work more efficiently, so there is less need for people. At the same time, we cannot expect the construction industry to expand sufficiently to employ all the displaced people. Instead, they will go to ... what exactly?

Oh, and by the way, IBM's Watson is better at diagnosing cancer than human doctors (Wired UK). Also, the labor force participation rate is at its lowest level since 1978.

Finally, economist Brad DeLong has also been jumping on the automation speculation bandwagon:

Uncharted: May I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords? UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Trying Yet Again to Get a Proper Frame for Tomorrow's Uncharted "Robots" Conversation...

Rise of the Machines?: From the Inaugural "Uncharted"
Lance Knobel: So, Brad, one of your areas is economic history. I am curious: as we face this increasing automation, robotization, is this something that’s likely to be something we have seen before in economic history or is this time going to be different?

Brad DeLong: Well, it is always going to be different, because history does not repeat itself--although it does rhyme. The question is: how is it going to be different?

Looking back at all the major transformations in history before--as we have seen entire categories of things we do to add value to our society vanish--we always found new valued things for people to do. Technological unemployment has been a yearly thing, a decade thing, a generational thing perhaps--but never before more than a generational thing.

At times, the consequences of change have been horrible for the standard of living of the average guy. Jared Diamond has a nice line about how the invention of agriculture was the greatest mistake in the history of the human race. It allowed us to support 100 times more people on the planet than we could by hunting and gathering, yes. But the average life of an agriculturalist, staring at the hind end of an ox for eight hours a day--if they are lucky, and pulling the plough themselves if they are not--is not a very rewarding use of the incredibly flexible cognitive instrument that is the human brain.​Yet that’s what most people wound up doing for most of the time between 5000 BC and 1700 or so.

Moreover, there is the fact that your average hunter-gatherer back in the Neolithic was 5’8" or so for adult males, and your average agricultural peasant in China or in Europe or even in America was 5’2". I don’t know about you, but if I fed my children a diet that would make them 5’2 at adulthood, Alameda County Child Protective Services would come and take my children away and I would never see them again.

​The fear that this time may be very different arises because in the past the human brain has been a uniquely effective control and guidance mechanism for all kinds of things. The ear, eye, brain, hand, voice loop is something hitherto unmatched. Plus: the human smile and touch and glance is an extraordinarily effective social mobilization device for getting people to pull more or less in the same direction.

​We are looking forward into the future in which people are going to find ways to make machines do huge amounts of tasks that have been reserved for the human ear-eye-brain-hand-voice loop in the past. I don’t know about your children, but I look at mine watching anime with the big googly eyes, and I wonder how long the human smile and glance is going to have its favored place as well...

Though I suppose one way to approach that question is to ask: Is the singularity in our future or in our past? And: Is it scary? Our lives are already so different from those of our hunter-gatherer environment of evolutionary adaptation. I am reminded of Isaac Asimiov's novels--The Caves of Steel and the Naked Sun--about his robot detective and his human partner, trying to deal with societies that had become so wired and so isolated that individual members could barely stand to be in the same room with each other, and found it completely gross and disturbing to actually have another human body within 10 feet of them.

These are books by a New Yorker of the 1950s, who feels that he is a bit too focused on technology and chemistry and atoms and so forth, and trying to write about this as metaphor. He is worried that that’s a place where we are heading. And he worries that he is already somewhat less human. On the other hand, I try to think back to what the lives of my ancestors 20,000 years ago were like--let alone the lives of my ancestors 80,000 years ago before the leap that was modern speech as we know it.

​I think they probably spent a huge amount of time being hungry. I think they turned all of their processing power to trying to figure out the exact emotional state of everyone else of the 50 people they knew at any point in time. I think they were also trying to watch out for dangers, and for possible food sources. That is the natural life. And in some ways, we are still pretty close to it. Look at daytime TV. Look at the magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket. It’s pretty clear that at some fairly deep level we are still wired to focus on three and only three things:

   - Possible dangers of violent death. especially as it affects children.
   - Sources of food or perhaps of other valuable and especially rare. resources.
   - Who is sleeping with whom--so you don’t get a black eye by making a bad mistake...