Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Spirit of Christmas

a bit late, but I think still relevant :)
Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Spirit of Christmas

Are we inherently bad? Or is it dysfunctional institutions run by elites for their benefit that make us so?

There have been a number of stories about an event that happened one hundred years ago this month and has taken on an almost mythic significance in the intervening years. I'm referring to the "Christmas Truce" of 1914 during World War One.

I'm sure my readers know the story, but to review- World War One commenced in Europe in August, 1914 - "the guns of August" - and people who had known a century of relative peace from large-scale military conflict suddenly found themselves almost inexorably marching to war all over the continent for rather incomprehensible reasons. Making matters worse was that military technology had changed more in the past century due to mechanization than ever before in all of human history. Across the Atlantic, the Americans had fought arguably the first highly mechanized war in their Civil War, and European military leaders had studied that conflict, but studying was far different than planning and strategizing. The planners were used to wars fought on horseback with cannons and bayonets and were unprepared for the new weapons and tactics, and the soldiers and officers on the ground  were unprepared for poison gas, brutal trench warfare, artillery shells and machine gun fire. Both sides dug in their trenches and were unable to budge, and thousands were frequently slaughtered just to gain a few feet of bare, muddy ground.

The first Christmas came around five months later, and the tired and weary German, French, Belgian and English soldiers didn't particularly feel like killing one another in the cold and the mud, especially since the average person had little idea about what they were fighting about, and certainly had no personal beefs with the soldiers in the opposing trenches. During the century of peace, many had even traveled widely in each others' countries. They had all seen the wonders of new technologies, and there was a sense that the world had been brought closer together. Ideas about the "brotherhood of man" competed alongside ideas of national glory on the battlefield. The average enlisted man had more in common with the enemy in the opposing trench than generals and politicians back home for whom the muck and blood and cold and death were just abstractions, and the territories and the trenches were just meaningless lines on a map.

So, in a famous incident during Christmas in that first year of the conflict, peace broke out in the midst of war. German and English soldiers, particularly, decided to forget about what they were "supposed" to do, and decided to behave like human beings, singing carols, playing soccer, bartering goods, even getting each others' contact info to keep in touch after the war.

It was only the fifth month of what was then known simply as the Great War. Both sides longed for home. The men felt death looming in the trenches where they watched their friends die. The soldiers wielded monstrous weapons: flamethrowers, chlorine and mustard gas, machine guns that could shoot 500 rounds a minute. More than one million lay dead already. 
But on Christmas Eve in 1914, an incredible scene began to unfold. The faint sounds of carols drifted from the muddy, half frozen and blood-splattered trenches British and German soldiers had been occupying that night. “All is calm, all is bright,” was sung in both English and German. The soldiers hugged the chopped-off tops of pine trees, which were ornamented with candles and paper lanterns. Paper lights festooned heavy artillery, ammo boxes, crates of food rations, and the wooden beams that kept the trench walls in place. 
“Merry Christmas” was yelled out in a German accent. “Frohe Weihnachten” followed in a Scottish accent. The opposing trenches were so close that the words could be heard easily. Lighted trees began to rise over the lip of the German furrows. British soldiers watched through their periscopes.
The Christmas Truce (Jacobin)
The relaxation of hostilities spread, and what has come to be called the “Christmas truce” took hold. Soon, soldiers were holding joint burial services for the dead. They began trading goods. British soldiers had been given holiday tins of plum pudding from the king; German soldiers had received pipes with a picture of the crown prince on them; and before long the men were bartering these holiday gee-gaws that celebrated the enemy’s royals. Eventually, soldiers prayed and caroled together, shared dinner, exchanged gifts. Most famously, there were soccer matches at various locations, played with improvised balls. 
The truce mostly held through Christmas and, in some cases, even to the New Year. It took senior officers’ threats for fighting to resume, and such comprehensive battlefront peacemaking never happened again during the Great War. Courts-martial were brought against those involved later in even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead. 
The Christmas truce was an extraordinary event, not just in World War I but in the history of warfare. But its familiarity and fame—just last month, a short film dramatizing the episode, produced by the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, created a sensation in the U.K.—should not lead us to ignore less dramatic instances of cooperation and trust-building across battle lines during World War I. Indeed, these more modest episodes may be the key to understanding how, in our own day, we might work to lessen political violence and hostility, even among the most bitter enemies.
The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce (Robert Sapolsky, The Wall Street Journal)
As might be expected with any story passed down through generations, new narrative threads emerge, much like the recently discovered letter written by General Walter Congreve, who described the act as “one of the most extraordinary sights anyone has ever seen.” 
When British and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land, it “was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”
The most enduring image out of the cease-fire is the impromptu game of soccer that apparently occurred between enemies. And although historians continue to debate whether a soccer match ever took place — Congreve’s letter doesn’t actually mention a game of soccer — the public has embraced the symbolic possibility that tired soldiers sought a respite from hellish war with something as leveling as soccer.
Did German and British troops really stop fighting and play soccer 100 years ago? (PBS)
1914-1918 was more than just a date written in my school exercise book. It provided the backdrop to my childhood.I later realised that this war was the most important event of the 20th Century. It carried the seeds of the next war while heralding the Soviet era and American hegemony since Europe had pressed the self-destruct button.
In 1992, I learned from Yves Buffetaut's book, Battles of Flanders and Artois, that enemy soldiers on opposing sides fraternised with each other over the Christmas period of 1914. I read that some French soldiers applauded a Bavarian tenor, their enemy a German, on Christmas Eve while others played football with the Germans the next day.

Joint burials also took place in no man's land with Masses read in Latin. Soldiers visited each others' trenches to compare working conditions. Some evenings when the Scotch whisky had been flowing, soldiers fell asleep in the opposite trench and left the following day, apologising to those who "lived" there.

I neither wanted nor was able to believe any of that. This was so contrary to the war I had learnt about at school, full of suffering, selflessness, and courage in the face of the enemy.
How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers (Christian Carion, BBC)

But what interests me is that the Christmas truce is an ideal example of the idea that people don't naturally want to kill another. It was an ideal example that war was not inherent in human nature. Those soldiers did not want to be there - they were compelled to do so by the hierarchical, authoritarian structures of the time - the government, the army, etc. Plus, they had been indoctrinated in the romantic glory idea of war -that sacrificing for ones country was good and glorious - dulce et decorum est, and all that. And the media in the respective countries constantly whipped up hatred.

There was nothing "natural" about the war at all. People didn't want to fight - they wanted peace.

In fact, when they got there, the soldiers did everything they could to avoid killing one another. When the "adults" weren't looking, both sides cooperatively worked out ways in which they could appear to be fighting without actually risking their lives. They shot over one anothers' heads. They overshot with artillery. This infuriated the commanders. It was only when the higher-ups came around that they had to really fight, but they warned one another in a myriad of clever ways.
I remember a note written by German soldiers which reached the French trench and was reported by a Second Bureau officer.This message, written in rudimentary French, warned French soldiers that a colonel was due to visit their trench and they would have to open fire at about 2pm. So it would be a good idea to duck at about that time. However, it would definitely not prevent them from having a drink as planned at 5pm. It was signed: "Your fond German comrades."
How France has forgotten the Christmas truce soldiers (BBC)
There tended to be a lull in the fighting during meals. Those pauses existed for the simple reason that no one, on either side, wanted to interrupt dinner to kill or be killed. But these lulls began to be used as ways to send signals to the other side. As the British historian Tony Ashworth writes in his book “Trench Warfare 1914-18,” ritualizing these pauses made it possible to communicate through contrasting behavior. So the soldiers would make a point not just of shooting less frequently during dinner: They would let the guns thunder until the stroke of 6 p.m. and then go utterly silent until 7 p.m., every day. And if the other side started doing the same, they had essentially negotiated a narrow truce: no fighting during dinner. Similar truces evolved from lulls in fighting during horrible weather, when everyone’s priority became avoiding hypothermia. 
[...] The system of “live and let live” would spread further. One side might get their best sniper to put a bullet into the wall of an abandoned house near enemy lines. Then he would do it repeatedly, hitting the same spot. What was being communicated? “Look how good our guy is. He could have aimed at you, but chose not to. What do you say to that?” And the other side would reciprocate with their best sniper. What had just started? An agreement to shoot over each other’s heads.
The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce (Wall Street Journal)

Without the constraints - the officers in charge who must enforce discipline, the generals and military commanders who were charged with "winning" the war, and most of all the politicians back in their respective countries' national capitals playing geopolitics over territories and making pointless alliances  - none of those solders would have any personal stake or interest in being in a muddy, lice-ridden trench and killing people whom they were told were "the enemy." In fact, the authoritarian power structures had to take extraordinary measures to keep soldiers fighting on both sides and hating one another enough to kill:
These "overspills" took the top brass by surprise. They attempted to restore order by moving "contaminated" units, as one senior officer described them at the time. Some Scottish volunteers were sent home after two weeks of drinking tea and playing football with the Germans.
No-one faced the firing squad for fraternisation as too many men had been involved.

However, fraternisation and particularly its memory, from a French perspective, had to be broken. Had an entire population not been raised to surrender its young to the "field of honour" when the time came? All this work had been undone in the space of an evening by singing from the opposite trench, the sound of a harmonica or bagpipes, or a candle lit to guide those walking unarmed through no man's land.

The newspapers in Great Britain and Germany gave accounts of the phenomenon of fraternisation. Photographs were posted by the press on the banks of the Thames.

In France, not a word was written on the subject. The newspapers had become tools enabling the army and authorities to spread propaganda.In the country that had given the world human rights, the press was no longer free.There was no question of fraternisation being covered in newspapers which were in the pay of a government run by Raymond Poincare whose home town was acquired by Germany in 1870.
Such truces emerged repeatedly during World War I, and just as often, the brass in the rear would intervene by rotating troops, threatening courts-martial and ordering savage raids requiring hand-to-hand combat—all to shatter any sense of shared interests between enemies. And still the truces would start up again. 
Mr. Ashworth describes various steps in these soldiers’ development of a psychological portrait of each other. First, once mutual restraint emerged, they could conclude that their enemy was rational and responded to incentives to hold fire. This prompted a sense of responsibility in dealing with them. Initially, this was a purely instrumental impulse, self-serving cooperation to prevent retaliation. 
With time, however, this sense of responsibility developed a moral tinge, tapping into the soldiers’ resistance to betraying those who dealt honorably with them. It occurred to them that: The other side didn’t want dinner disturbed any more than we do; they also don’t want to fight in rainstorms; they also have to deal with brass from headquarters who screw up everything. A creeping sense of camaraderie emerged. 
This produced something striking. The war machines in Britain and Germany spewed typical propaganda about the enemy’s subhuman nature. But in studying diaries and letters, Mr. Ashworth observed surprisingly little hostility toward the enemy expressed by trench soldiers; the further from the front, the more hostility. In the words of one front-line soldier, “At home one abuses the enemy, and draws insulting caricatures. How tired I am of grotesque Kaisers. Out here, one can respect a brave, skillful, and resourceful enemy. They have people they love at home, they too have to endure mud, rain and steel.” 
Feelings of “us” and “them” were always in flux. If someone was shooting at you, they were certainly Them. But otherwise, soldiers on both sides were likely to think that the more formidable Them was the rats and lice, the mold in the food, the cold or the comfortable officer at headquarters who seemed, in the words of one soldier, an “abstract tactician who from far away disposes of us.”
The sun set and the officers, with Gen. Smith-Dorrien’s words echoing in their minds, gave the order to return to the trenches. They couldn’t let the men gain the confidence to openly question the chain of command. The brass couldn’t let the lower ranks see that they were stronger than the higher ranks — the minority. 
The next day was Boxing Day. The calm lingered, but more than 100 soldiers were dead by end of the day. The officer-directed fighting commenced. Troops from both sides were ordered to fire on the people they played soccer with, exchanged presents with, showed photos to, only hours before.
These soldiers killed people with whom they had far more in common than those who were ordering them to fight. They were mostly poor and working class. The generals in the rear had titles like “sir” and “lord.” They owned large estates. They were collaborators with robber barons, kings, and other heads of state. They lived in worlds the fighting men only read about.

The Christmas Truce is one of the major events used by those who argue that it is institutions that drive people to war, not human nature. Without all of these institutions - the military, the officers, the government, the press; the rigid hierarchical structures that trap us all in their web, people are naturally kind and benevolent. The Christmas Truce revealed that, when those things were stripped away, human nature was peaceful, not violent. And people did everything they could to assert their true, nonviolent and cooperative natures in the face of the force of those malignant, authoritarian structures  in charge. In turn, those structures did everything they could to assert their authority and keep people killing one another. Those structures had to compel people from the top down, because people didn't want to fight since they were the ones dying and only the sociopathic elites were the real beneficiaries:
These men were fighting in a war that served none of them. It was an imperialist war, a war among the world’s most powerful nations to re-divide the world, a war to ensure the collection of bank debt. They knew it was only a matter of time before they, too, would meet the same fate as the so many others who had already lost their lives. 
What was it all for? So the rich could stay rich? In their mind’s eye, the soldiers could see their significant others, their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters, tucked away in warm homes, next to their own Christmas trees. The enlisted ranks couldn’t fight in these conditions. So they didn’t.
The Christmas Truce (Jacobin)

It is those political, economic and social structures that were responsible for the slaughter of millions of innocents who did not have to die.

This is essentially the modern version of the Rousseau ideal. That it is the human society and institutions, not human nature itself, that is at the root of the misery, violence and poverty that we see everywhere today. The economic institutions that play us against one another for money and jobs. The scarcity and poverty mentality in which some have more than they can spend in a hundred lifetimes, while others must labor their entire lives for nothing, while still others go without even the basics like food and shelter. Or nationalism (aka 'patriotism' in the US) which teaches us that our country is better and other countries are the enemy and must be fought for whatever reason (e.g. 'freedom'). Or religions that teach us that we have the one true religion and unbelievers must be slaughtered to please our god (e.g. the Islamic State). There are innumerable examples of these tribal beliefs. 

"Man is born free but is everywhere in chains" asserted Rousseau; chains of tradition, of custom, of nationalism, of religion. Stripped of those illusions and compulsions, we would be much better off, he argued. The "state of nature" was peaceful, and violence was a social product. Rousseau looked at tribal cultures in North America without sophisticated governments like those in Europe and found natural man meek and mild and not driven to murder; it was only nation-states that made people violent with their wars and competing ideologies.

These institutions only benefit the elites of society - kings, emperors, politicians, capitalists. They want them to continue. The common man is not served by them at all. We are all constrained for their benefit, throwing our lives away to build their fortunes, and dying to enforce their territorial ambitions. We must constantly be convinced that this is all good and necessary by indoctrination from above, and if we can't be convinced, we will be coerced at the point of a gun or by some other means such as starvation and necessity. All of these sociopolitical structures are backed by violence. If you are drafted, you must go or face prison. If you do not pay taxes, you go to jail and your assets will be seized. If you protest, the police will douse you with tear gas and beat you with billy clubs. If you refuse to work for the capitalist's profit, you will starve. And so on.

Theoretically, according to the Rousseauian optimists, these malignant institutions can be changed or, ideally, eliminated. Furthermore, if we got rid of these institutions and the power they have over us, we would have a more peaceful and just world. People are naturally good and cooperative, and once we consign all these artificial thought viruses to the trash heap, the thinking goes, we will be able to go back to true human nature like those troops in 1914 who wanted brotherhood, not violence and mayhem. Furthermore, such people promote and emphasize human peacefulness, empathy, playfulness, and cooperation, and downplay human aggression and violence. They believe that we are forever being pushed away from our natural inclinations by hidebound social, religious and economic institutions.

This school has a number of proponents. They study anthropology and see few examples of naturally occurring war, particularly among hunter gathers who have little in the way of possessions and are "fiercely" egalitarian. They consistently point out that we are descended from peaceful, promiscuous bonobos as much as violent, misogynist chimpanzees. And they emphasize human cooperation and empathy rather than violence and greed. They tend to lean toward weak-state or stateless political ideals like libertarianism and anarchism, or cooperative economic systems like socialism/communism. They tend to favor economic structures that emphasize cooperation instead of violence or coercion.


The opposite idea has been aggressively promoted in recent years. According to this view, humans are naturally aggressive and violent, and in the absence of human institutions will naturally kill one another. They argue that violence will naturally increase without some sort of power over us keeping things under control, adjudicating disputes peacefully, and maintaining basic social order.

Furthermore, they argue that these power structures have, in fact, not made the world more violent, but rather have caused the  world to become more peaceful over the intervening centuries. They argue that in the natural state of hunter-gatherers, small groups are in a permanent state of conflict with other hostile tribes over resources and territory. Furthermore, jealously and violence are rife, and with no one to keep the peace or punish violators, anyone can do whatever they want to anyone else. Might makes right and the strong rule. Tit-for-tat is the order of the day keeping cycles of violence snowballing until bodies litter the ground. No private property also means no technological improvement.

They point to the numerous raids, conflicts, captives and slaves taken by "primitive" peoples. Rather than the noble savages of Rousseau, hunter-gathers are portrayed as even more violent than most industrial societies today. They point to people like the Aché, who have a higher homicide rate than modern urban ghettos, and the Yanomami, where men who kill the most people are the most reproductively successful, and wives and children are chattel who are beaten mercilessly.
They point to ancient skeletons riddled with signs of damage from weapons like cut marks and blows to the skull. They point out that the homicide rate in Medieval Europe was orders of magnitude higher than today. They point out all the wars and conflicts in recorded history, as well as the arbitrary justice meted out by despotic rulers as a mater of course. They point out that torture was once commonplace, as were brutal methods of execution like crucifixion and being burned alive. They point out that ancient texts like the Bible and the Iliad are chock full of slaughter on a scale that we would find unimaginable today, including of women and infants. 

For example, when presented with the story of the Christmas truce, a proponent of this view could also point out this story which also appeared on the BBC the same week as the Christmas Truce article and told the following stories which took place during Victorian times:
Unlike his brothers-in-arms, [James King] didn't die in the killing fields of the Crimea. No, Pte King fell in Hampshire, in the long-forgotten Battle of Christmas Dinner.

You'd be forgiven for never having heard of it. It wasn't the bloodiest. It wasn't the lengthiest. It wasn't the most significant. But it was certainly the weirdest. One side, stood the British Army. On the other… Actually, that was the British Army too.
Hostilities broke out Christmas Day in 1859. The 24th Regiment of Foot and the Tower Hamlets Militia had been sharing a barracks in Aldershot. They'd eaten their Christmas dinner, served, as was the custom, by the officers, who had then left the troops to their own devices. 
When the soldiers mingled afterwards, replete and content, talk turned to the meal they'd just scoffed. The Tower Hamlets Militia had dined on beef and pudding, washed down with a pint of beer each. Ours was better, sniffed the men of the 24th, who'd eaten goose.
The row began harmlessly enough, but, in the way of these things, it soon escalated. Voices were raised. Words were exchanged. There was a push. Then a shove. Mops and brooms were commandeered as weapons. Somebody lobbed a few rounds of coal.
Someone lobbed a few back. Salvos of coal were exchanged. There was a great crash of glass. Then, with the mood darkening, some of the 24th went to fetch their rifles, and began loading them. 
Pte King had been singing Auld Lang Syne with his pals when a volley of fire erupted from across the parade ground. "I am shot," he cried, then collapsed. 
"I felt for the wound, but could not find it," Pte George Sawyer told the inquest into King's death, "and told him he was only larking, but a comrade pulled up his shirt, which was bloody, and then we saw a little hole, bleeding slowly." 
The guns blazed for up to 10 minutes, and when they fell silent, almost every window in the block was smashed, and the walls, doors and windows were peppered with bullet holes.
Or, another example of human nature:
For quite some time, there had been bad blood between the Poles and Austrians of Hazleton. That regrettable state of affairs wasn't helped by the decision of some dastardly Austrians to pack dynamite into the house where the happy couple would return as husband and wife. 
The fuse was about to be lit when one of the Austrians felt a sudden pang of conscience and let slip that the best man's speech wasn't going to be the most charged part of the afternoon. 
As the guests scarpered, the house exploded. When the smoke cleared, the furious reprisals began in a frenzied fire-fight. 
A dozen were shot, and many more injured by lunging knives and thwacking clubs. Somewhere amid the melee, the groom was killed. 
So all things considered, maybe the headline in the Middlesbrough Daily Gazette didn't really convey the jaw-dropping turmoil of the day: Lively Conflict at a Wedding. 
Victorian Strangeness: Four Christmas incidents (BBC)

It's a bit harder to blame these on human institutions. In these stories, people are naturally aggressive and quarrelsome even over trivialities, form into warring tribes (different regiments of the same army or different families and ethnic groups), and bodies end up on the ground without any political coercion whatsoever.

This was the view articulated by Thomas Hobbes, who used it to justify the hegemonic powers of the state over the common people. In Hobbes' formulation, the natural state of society was conflict - over women, property, resources, etc.  In Hobbes words, it was "a warre of all against all," and people agreed to submit to a central authority to keep things under control. That is, they voluntarily surrendered a bit of their liberty, and invested a ruling authority with coercive power (to jail, to tax, etc.) in order to prevent this natural state of permanent conflict and allow people to cooperate enough to have an advanced society with private property. This led to less, not more interpersonal conflict. Hobbes called this authority the Leviathan, after a monster from the Old Testament.

The ruling authorities naturally do not want conflicts among the people they rule. Conflicts would cause the society to become less wealthy. So, when there is a unitary ruler and resources flow to the top, paradoxically that authority is highly motivated to keep the peace and does so, unlike where there are no rulers. The authority imposes peace through a justice system, laws, courts, police, army, militia, etc. This leads to advanced and fairly stable societies, from ancient kingdoms to empires like Rome and the Islamic caliphates, to the emergence of nation-states like China, France or England. These governments allowed more people to do more things peacefully than ever before and thus humans were able to achieve their potential.

Proponents of "Leviathan Theory" say that we have gained a great deal in return. It has led to vast trading networks and complex economies that have led to an unprecedented rise in living standards, plentiful food, and longer life spans for most of humanity. They point out that the average person has less of a chance of dying from violence than ever before in our species' history, and point to nation states and centralized institutions as the fundamental cause. Coercion is a necessary precondition for civil order and private property, and private property is a precondition for prosperity. Otherwise, they say, we would be still living in the stone age.

And they argue that even though World War One led to slaughter on an unprecedented scale, when you look at percentage of casualties compared to the number of people alive at the time, the trend toward dying from violence is still down from previous centuries despite the power of mechanized warfare and militaries made up of millions of recruits. Even more optimistically, they point out that our attitudes toward violence have become even more mild in recent years. Ideas of dying gloriously on the battlefield are no longer fashionable, and people are less likely to see wars as noble thanks to depictions in the media. Indeed, anti-war protests commonly greet marches toward war by politicians today in capitals around the world. As we get richer, we have more to lose from fighting and more to gain from cooperation, they argue. We are moving away from zero-sum games and toward positive sum games thanks to these institutions.

Furthermore, they argue that, paradoxically, it is our very prowess at war that has made war recede into the background. Since we have become so good at killing one another, the thinking goes, we no longer do it as often since it would destroy both sides - a sort of Christmas Truce on the level of entire nations. A nuclear war would wipe out humanity, so large nation states are now in permanent standoff mode leading to unprecedented peace.

And they come armed with a massive array of statistics to bolster their cause. Throw in whatever you want including World War Two and the Holocaust; as a percentage your odds of personally dying of violence are still less than during the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, Late Antiquity, the Classical World, or Biblical times. And they say that this means we are becoming much more peaceful through trade, literacy, economic cooperation, travel, communication, and so forth.

Yes, there is some coercion, but it is a necessary evil for all the good things gained by political stability; and besides, with the democracy and human rights revolutions, coercion is less arbitrary and unjust than ever before, and barbarities like torture are on the wane. Human rights have been extended to more and more people, and ethnic hatred, while still there, is less common in a globalized world. We're making continual progress along this path, they argue, and things like the world wars, holocausts, genocides, crime, and today's low-level conflicts are just bumps on the road  to a more just and peaceful world. The trend is clear, they say. Get rid of institutions, and we are back to conflict and chaos.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. … The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”

As troubling as the recent headlines have been, these lamentations need a second look. It’s hard to believe we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, or during other perils such as the periodic nuclear confrontations during the Cold War, the numerous conflicts in Africa and Asia that each claimed millions of lives, or the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to choke the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and cripple the world’s economy.

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Cohen laments the “annexations, beheadings, [and] pestilence” of the past year, but surely this collection of calamities is a mere coincidence. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.

Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it. Let’s examine the major categories in turn.


An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits. It would calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers that face us. It would limit the influence of terrorists, school shooters, decapitation cinematographers, and other violence impresarios. It might even dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.
The World Is Not Falling Apart (Steven Pinker, Slate) Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times.

Such people tend to be apologists for the current power structure.  They tend to be believers in progress, in all its forms - technical, social, economic, etc. They tend to excuse manipulative and exploitative power structures that keep us doing things we don't want to do and play us against one another because in their calculus it's still a net gain for most people.

They also have their favorite anthropologists like Napoloeon Chagnon, and Jared Diamond who claimed that primitive peoples are "in a constant state of war." They like historians like Ian Morris and Niall Ferguson, political scientists like Francis Fukuyama, and economic historians like Douglass North and Daron Acemoglu, who argue that powerful modern western institutions are the root cause of prosperity, and thus a net good for all. They point to books like War before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley and War in Human History by Azar Gat to make their case that people are naturally violent, and that the past was much poorer and much more violent before the rise of coercive power structures and nation states. They also point to the work of primatologists like Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males about how chimpanzees are naturally violent, aggressive and territorial and will attack and kill any chimp in their territory if they outnumber him by a factor of 4-1.


So what fascinates me is how this centuries old fundamental battle over human nature continues to be fought even today, hundreds of years later. There are two sides, each with their own  view, and each side has their own preferred books, papers, academics and scholars, research, and other pieces of evidence to bolster their side, and it seems as though they are constantly taking past one another. It's worth noting that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau ever left Europe or had direct contact with any people outside it. Despite a century of research from numerous anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, forensic scientists, economists, political philosophers,and so forth, we are still no closer to a resolution than those two men who wrote centuries ago.

For example, on team Bonobo is is Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan, who points to the works of Frans de Waal, Robert Sapolsy and others. He is very critical of modern institutions and how they make us go against what he believes is human nature, making us frustrated, sick, and mentally damaged. Such people tend to have a benevolent view of human nature emphasizing people's natural cooperative instincts and contend that while total and complete nonviolence is unrealistic, there is nothing "natural" about violence and conflict. People do not naturally want to fight and kill one another, they argue. Conflicts are caused by elites for their own aggrandizement, or over scarce resources due to overpopulation, overexploitation and inequality. World War One is a prime example of elites slaughtering their own people for essentially meaningless reasons, and the Christmas Truce is a prime example what people would do in the absence of those institutions. They prefer the philosophy of Hobbes the stuffed tiger to that of Hobbes the English philosopher.

The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim -- and Why We Should Be Inspired This Week (Johann Hari, The Huffington Post)

A Friendly Species (Slate) An anthropologist finds cooperation, not savagery, throughout the Pacific Islands.

101 - Doug Fry (Anthropologist of Peace) (Tangentially Speaking)

Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914 (Patrick F. Clarkin)

No, War Is Not Inevitable (Discover)

They point out things like this letter from Christopher Columbus about so-called "primitive savages":
All the people on this island and all the others I have found or have learned of go naked, men and women alike, just as their mothers bear them, although some women cover themselves in one place with a leaf from a plant or a cotton garment which they make for the purpose.
They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid. They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off, parents not even waiting for children, and not because any harm has been done to any of them; on the contrary, everywhere I have been and have been able to speak to them I have given them some of everything I had, cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in exchange; but they are simply incurably timid.

The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given.

By far the most famous member of team Chimpanzee has been Steven Pinker. Pinker has been at the center of defending institutions as beneficial despite their obvious flaws and downsides. Conservative authors tend to support Pinker's views. Yes, we had two world wars and the holocaust and so forth, they argue, but if you put yourself in the shoes of the average person, we've never had it so good. Institutions are a big part of that, they contend. To make their case, they emphasize how violent the past was in contrast to the present, and argue that absent these power structures we would be more violent. They emphasize modern scientific thought and economic development, and the resulting increase in living standards for much of the developed world. They have their own favorite anthropologists and historians. They would point out this, also from Columbus' same letter:
"So I have found no monsters, nor heard of any except on an island here which is the second one as you approach the Indies and which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh.35 These people have many canoes in which they sail around all the islands of India robbing and stealing whatever they want; they are no more malformed than the others except that they wear their hair long like women and they carry bows and arrows made from the same cane stems with a small stick at the end for want of iron which they do not have. They are ferocious with these other people who are excessively cowardly, but I take no more account of them than of the rest."
"These are the people who have relations with the women of Matinino, which is the first island on the way from Spain to the Indies, and on which there are no men.36 These women do not behave like women but carry bows and cane arrows like those I have already described, and they arm and protect themselves with plates of copper, of which they have a great deal."
Hobbes Was Right: Anarchy Sucks (Pieria)

The War over War (Social Evolution Forum)

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism (Social Evolution Forum)

Study suggests violence is an evolutionary adaptation (Boston Globe)

Chimps Are Naturally Violent, Study Suggests (Live Science)

And even in modern times, both sides have plenty of incidents to points to. When the Egyptian state broke down, violent gangs took over the streets. In lawless areas of Mexico, violent drug gangs rule slaughtering indiscriminately. Street gangs rule by violence and kill their enemies in failed states all over the world, and rough tribal justice rules in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes looting and rioting breaks out even in Western democracies. They look inside prisons and ghettos and see violence divorced from any institutional coercion (except, their opponents would argue, poverty).

Not so fast, says the other side. They point out how people tend to cooperate in the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane such as the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. They point out how the media enforces dark views of human nature that plays into the hands of elites. They point out that the rioting after hurricane Katrina was greatly exaggerated for political purposes. They point out how people pull together in conflict zones.  As Ryan points out, no one ever got PTSD from helping someone.

It reminds me of economic conflicts as well. People are naturally greedy, claim capitalist boosters, taking almost perverse pleasure in pointing out incidents where people go to great lengths to benefit themselves and their families even when it is discouraged or they are told to profess altruistic ideals like the brotherhood of man. People's natural impulse is to look for personal profit, say capitalists and free marketeers. By allowing that sort of behavior without any constraints, we will all be made better off through the invisible hand, they argue.

But others argue that every day people do things to help one another without any expectation of reward. They return lost wallets. They donate food and volunteer at food banks. They babysit for their neighbors. They run into burning buildings to rescue pets. Nobody asks their kids to reimburse them for the cost of raising them, after all. We are not just self-interested rational calculating machines like we are assumed to be by economists. They point to gift economies, communes, and hunter-gatherer cultures. We want meaningful work and good relationships as much as riches and profit, they say, but our system forces people and institutions to behave in certain destructive ways.

The surprising truth about what motivates us (Daniel Pink, TED)

In short, your view of the government and politics tend to follow from your view of human nature. This will inform a lot of what we will need to do in the next century.

So these are two fundamental ideas of human nature. Are they irreconcilable? How can humans be both angels and devils simultaneously? I don't have a dog in this fight. I know what I want to believe, but I like to keep an open mind. Instead, I prefer to grab a handful of popcorn and watch the fight from the sidelines. I do point out evidence that seemingly supports both sides, and like most things, I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Each side makes valid points that need to be considered and taken seriously.

Obviously I am not going to resolve it here. I'm just as conflicted as everyone else. As usual, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It is obvious that we harbor violent tendencies. And it is equally true that people are often friendly and cooperative without any coercion involved. But what does that mean? Do we need political institutions? I think we do need some of them, but I think others we would be better off without. Scale matters too. I'm not sure we will ever have a definitive view of human nature that will answer all our questions and solve the above conflicts. So it seems like the descendants of Hobbes and Rousseau will continue quarreling for quite some time.

Lets just hope it doesn't turn violent.

BONUS: For further reading, see this free e-book War and the Noble Savage by Gyrus.
Over the past decade or so, works such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization have attacked the idea that indigenous and prehistoric societies were more peaceable than modern states. This brief study surveys this recent literature, digging beneath polarized surfaces using less publicized anthropological scholarship. The debate’s age-old frame, emerging from an opposition between Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” and Thomas Hobbes’ vision of primitive life as “nasty, brutish and short,” is analyzed afresh, and related fields, such as studies of chimpanzee violence, are reviewed. Also included is a look at the closely entwined recent controversy over whether tribal cultures have an ecological record as spotless as that often attributed to them.

Always at stake is the inevitable drama of Progress: has the modern world degraded human freedom and the environment, or does it represent an emancipation from millennia of conflict and ignorance?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Techno-Fixes Are Counterproductive and Mad

This article is about all of the high-tech ideas that are tossed out every so often to clean up the ocean and deal with things like the giant plastic garbage patches floating out there (larger than the state of Texas by now!). You’ve probably seen these in TED talks, the pages of Wired Magazine or promoted by the Long Now people and other “bright green” environmentalist types. You know the story – brave, earnest, high-achieving high school student invents magic super-machine that will solve (_insert problem here_). Now we can all relax and forget about all the problems, because “they” have solved them.  It's a sign of our easy quick, cargo-cult, techno-fix culture that refuses to ever question the secular religion of growth, innovation and technological progress:
 Every so often, somebody comes up with a plan for finding and removing the particles of plastic that litter our oceans and accumulate in "garbage patch" gyres. These plans meet with great acclaim ... from everybody except the people who know the most about garbage patches and plastic pollution.

Why do marine scientists and non-profits like The Ocean Conservancy speak out against ideas like 19-year-old Boyan Slat's ocean cleanup technology? Primarily, it's because plans like Slat's tend to be based on a really simplistic understanding of both the problem and ocean systems and, as a result, wouldn't actually work in the real world.

But there's a bigger issue here as well. This isn't a matter of mean old scientists talking dirt on the big ideas of a brave, smart kid. Great-sounding-but-not-actually-effective ocean cleanup plans have real consequences. They divert limited money and time away from the actually useful work. Worse, they inadvertently help prop up an unsustainable system where it's totally okay for us to keep letting plastic get into the oceans ... because we can just come back later and clean it up. But that's simply not true, writes Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit

    "I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans. Gyre cleanup plays into the hand of industry, but worse, it diverts attention and resources from viable, but unsexy, multi-pronged and critically vetted solutions..."

There are real solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, but they don't come in the form of feel-good gadgets that will sift the particles out of the water. And if we convince ourselves otherwise, then we're going to ignore the stuff we should really be doing
Plastic pollution in oceans can't be solved with a gadget (BoingBoing)

Teen invents device to clean giant ocean garbage patches (Treehugger)

This is a point I've tried to make too - these techno-fixes divert time, money and resources from real, honest solutions that will have less blowback and achieve a more permanent resolution. But they wont preserve the wealth and power of the elites, and so they are ignored in favor of the latest wonder gadget, will will just cause more (profitable) problems down the road.

Not only do these techno-fixes not actually deal with the underlying problem, they are actually counterproductive. What they do is give people the false idea that there is a quick fix with some sort of gee-whiz technology and that the status quo is sustainable. This allows the people who benefit from the status quo to keep it going, to deflect criticism, to head off any uncomfortable questions, and to prevent any significant, meaningful change that will tip their apple cart. Instead, they assure us that there is a techno-fix for every imaginable problem. You name it, air pollution, resource scarcity, peak oil, climate change, topsoil erosion, droughts and falling aquifers, etc.; for example, electric cars, carbon sequestration, geoengineering, carbon trading, putting prices on “ecosystem services,” genetic modification , desalinization, and so on. Even social problems like inequality and unemployment will magically disappear with technological progress (Vote online! Computers will magically create jobs! Online courses!).

My favorite recent example is colony collapse disorder. This seems like a  parody straight out of The Onion, but as we know, there is no way to make the culture we live in any more ridiculous and insane than it actually is. People are now proposing to build millions of tiny flying robots to pollinate the crops to replace all the bees we’ve killed off with (most likely) neonicotinoid pesticides (which also, by the way, are killing birds). I swear I am not making this up!:
Honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat, have been dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The situation is so dire that in late June the White House gave a new task force just 180 days to devise a coping strategy to protect bees and other pollinators. The crisis is generally attributed to a mixture of disease, parasites, and pesticides.

Other scientists are pursuing a different tack: replacing bees. While there's no perfect solution, modern technology offers hope.

Last year, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science. A coauthor of that report, Harvard graduate student and mechanical engineer Kevin Ma, tells Business Insider that the team is "on the eve of the next big development." Says Ma: "The robot can now carry more weight."

The researchers believe that as soon as 10 years from now these RoboBees could artificially pollinate a field of crops, a critical development if the commercial pollination industry cannot recover from severe yearly losses over the past decade.
Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees (Business Insider)

So we’re going to spend millions of dollars to develop robotic bees which still aren’t even viable (“But RoboBees are not yet a viable technological solution. First, the tiny bots have to be able to fly on their own and "talk" to one another to carry out tasks like a real honeybee hive”) instead of, you know, trying not to kill actual bees that have co-evolved with plants over millions of years. That might impact profits, after all. Because one good technofix (synthetic pesticides) deserves another (robot bees!). I’m sure our artificial solution will be even better and cheaper than the original, right? I can’t think of a better example of what I’ve been saying on this blog over the years – most innovations today are just trying to solve the problems caused by earlier innovations.

In fairness, they do note, “Although Wood wrote that CCD and the threat it poses to agriculture were part of the original inspiration for creating a robotic bee, the devices aren't meant to replace natural pollinators forever. We still need to focus on efforts to save these vital creatures. RoboBees would serve as "stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented," the project's website says.” Sure. But somehow stopgap measures have a way of becoming permanent solutions in our modern industrial global civilization. I wonder how many resources will go into building millions of these robot bees. But those resources will spur economic growth! More profits for robotics companies! After all, that’s the main purpose of human society, isn’t it? Surely that will be the new “green” solution.

I also love how the execrable business tabloid Business Insider (have those ads crashed your browser, too?) calls this a “game changer” and lumps it in with all the other high-tech intensification “game changers” being touted by global mega-corporations and Silicon Valley  – Frankenmeat, insect ranching, and “Future Food: How Scientists And Startups Are Changing The Way We Eat.Future food, eh? Somehow, I don’t think "future food" is going to be as good as "past food" and I don’t think "changing the way we eat" is going to end up well for us. It hasn’t historically – obesity sits side-by-side with starvation. Will we even get a choice in the matter? Somehow, I’m guessing that the rich and powerful will get to stick with the old way of eating the past foods that the rest of us won’t be able to afford anymore. They probably won’t suffer from the same diseases and die prematurely either. But the corporate media won’t tell you that, or course, they’re busy flogging the newest techno-fix (water from clouds!, Robot farmers!, artificial leafs!)

What’s the alternative? Less growth, less profit, less technology, and more sanity that takes into account the quality of human life and the realities of our planetary ecosystem.. But you won’t read about that in “Business Insider” or see it at TED anytime soon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let Them Eat Beans!

Let Them Eat Beans: Tyler Cowen’s Neofeudal Dystopia – coming to a shantytown near you.

I’ve mentioned the Book Average Is Over many times before, and here, finally, is my review. The author of the book, Tyler Cowen, is an economics professor at George Mason University, and is affiliated with the Mercatus Center, a neoliberal/market oriented think tank (and yes, there is Koch brothers money involved here). He is also maintains the excellent Web Site Marginal Revolution (with Alex Tabarrok), one of the few libertarian blogs worth reading, and considers himself a “small-L” libertarian.

Despite these dubious affiliations, he is an idiosyncratic thinker, and not afraid to wander off the libertarian reservation, which makes him worth reading, unlike many of his peers who are simply courtiers and propagandists. He is best known before this book The Great Stagnation, which argued (against the libertarian party line*) that slower American economic growth results from harvesting the low-hanging fruits of innovation, and new inventions are useful, but don’t add up to as much GDP growth as past innovations**. However, he has the obligatory silver lining, arguing that this is only a temporary rough patch and things will get better in the future (a standard in his work; he will make the same argument in Average, as we shall see). He is usually mentioned in the context of stagnationist arguments, although economists like Robert Gordon have stolen much of his thunder, following such conclusions much further, and being much more pessimistic about future growth.

About that title. It comes from a column by "the pope of globalism," Thomas Friedman (which ought to tell you something right there). I can’t do better than this wry commentary on Thomas Friedman: Tom Friedman: A New Ayn Rand for A Dark Digital Future
 Consider this passage from Friedman’s column:
“In a world where, as I’ve argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids’ rooms, their cars or their power tools.”

This paragraph reads like a Zen koan pieced together from cast-away fragments of motivational sales speeches. We’re left to infer the meaning of its more obscure phrases from their context, the same way World War II code breakers cracked particularly difficult passages in enemy telexes. So let’s try to tease out its meaning, phrase by phrase:

“In a world where, as I’ve argued, average is over …” (Emphasis from the original.)

“Average is over”?  Averaging is a mathematical function, inextricably woven into the fabric of reality as we understand it. How can it be over? It’s like saying that subtraction is over, or means and medians are null and void.  (Watch yourself, standard deviation. Thomas Friedman has his eye on you.)

What’s he really saying here? The “as I’ve argued” offers one clue to motivation, if not meaning: Anything self-referential from this author – and that’s a lot – is a signal that he’s floating another potential “The World Is Flat” book title.

But what’s he saying?  Our context-driven code-breaking takes us to the next phrase:

“… the skills required for any good job keep rising …”

Ah, I see. “Average is over” is connected to job skills. Friedman apparently means that you can’t get a good job anymore if your skill level is only average.

Why didn’t he just say so?
Well, Tyler Cowen used the book title, not Tom Friedman, and that is exactly what he's saying. Since most of us, by definition are average (I know I am), we are “over.” What he means is that anyone who is not “above average” can kiss any kind of stable, prosperous existence goodbye in the new world of corporate libertarian capitalism. That is the core message of the book. I found this comment to a recent MR post a good summary:
Consider the bell curve distribution of IQ in the general population. Now consider a curtain being drawn across that graph from stage left. As that curtain, which represents technological advance, blankets a population segment, it renders them useless in terms of economic competitiveness. 
We didn’t much care when this impacted those with an IQ < the mean, but the curtain's leading edge is now at 1 σ above the mean, and accelerating to the right. How long till you and your family are also rendered useless? You will mistakenly overestimate that value.
Basically in addition to Friedman, it rides on the back of the work of MIT economists Brynolfsson and McAfee (and to a lesser extent David Autor), arguing that automation will disrupt much of the workforce through robots and smart machines (the self-driving car gets particular mention). The book dismisses starry-eyed notions of a singularity or post-scarcity, and instead makes the case that people laboring complementarily with machines is the wave of the future, using something called “freestyle chess” as an example*** where teams are allowed to make use of computers in tournaments, yet still make the executive decisions themselves****. Computers will also lead to a lot of low-cost or free services like education. The book claims that people who are conscientious, disciplined, and highly social will prosper due to these developments, while those who are not will experience falling living standards and precariousness. The book provocatively argues that women, who generally rate higher on conscientiousness (I would say docility and malleability) and are generally more sociable will be the big winners and men the big losers (also indicated by falling rates of men graduating from college). In other words, the way he sees it, the benefits of digital technology will not be broadly shared among the American people, as some optimists claim, but instead accrue to a tiny elite that owns the machines, in line with the more pessimistic vision.
"It's clear: The world is demanding more in the way of credentials, more in the way of ability, and it is passing along most of the higher rewards to a relatively small cognitive elite. After all, the first two categories of earnings winners--namely those with advanced degrees--account for only about 3 percent of the US population"
What this means is that a small slice of the American workforce will be wildly successful, living “like today’s millionaires”  – Cowen puts this number as 10-15 percent of the American workforce. As for the rest of us, well, the outlook is not so good. While he never uses the new portmanteau term “precariat” this is exactly what he’s describing. The vast majority will be marginally attached to the workforce with intermittent and temporary employment, enjoy few or no benefits, no upward mobility, little chance to accumulate wealth or savings, or even gain a modicum of stability or job security. Shared prosperity will be a distant memory. Some workers will even be "zero marginal product" workers - unable to be hired at any price. Cowen speculates the arrival of vast shantytowns and slums outside American cities, including “off the grid” living in tents and mobile homes for many. The middle classes will be hollowed out leading to a society of spectacularly rich and oceans of desperate poor, very similar to Latin America or Southeast Asia. In other words, Inequality, already at Great Depression levels, is just getting warmed up, says Cowen.
"We will move from a society based on the pretense that everybody is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now. I imagine a world where, say 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, the equivalent of current-day millionaires albeit with better health care."

"Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and also cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well, and those will be the people who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or near-free services modern technology has made available. Others will fall by the wayside."

"It will become increasingly common to invoke "meritocracy" as a response to income inequality, and whether you call it an explanation, a justification, or an excuse is up to you. Since the self-motivated will find it easier to succeed than ever before, a new tier of people from poor or underprivileged backgrounds will claw their way to the top. The Horatio Alger story will be resurrected, but only for those segment of the population with the appropriate skills and values, namely self-motivation and the ability to compliment the new technologies...This framing of income inequality in terms of meritocracy terms will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will in fact rise from poverty on a regular basis, and that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind....what does that mix of values mean for actual social choices? We'll pay for as much of a welfare state as we can afford to, and then no more."
There are a few things computers can’t do, he says, and one is come up with good marketing ideas to sell to the new rich class. Because only a small slice of America will have a job or reliable income, everyone will want a piece of them, so Cowen sees marketing to this new elite as a major job of the future. Due to vast disparities in power and wealth, people will be aggressively clamoring for any moment of time or spare dollar from the wallet of the elites – he uses the analogy of a billionaire rolling in a limousine through the streets of Calcutta, and anyone who has stepped off the plane in a poor country and been immediately inundated with salesmen and con artists can relate (except those people will now be us).
"Despite all the talk about STEM fields, I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy...If you imagine two wealthy billionaire peers sitting down for lunch, their demands for the attention of the other tend to be roughly equal. After all, each has a billion dollars (or more) to spend and they don't need to court each others for favors so much...Compare it to one of those same billionaires riding in a limousine, with open windows, through the streets of Calcutta. A lot of beggars will be competing for the attention of that billionaire, and yet probably the billionaire won't much need the attention of the beggars. The billionaire may feel overwhelmed by all of these demands, and yet each of these beggars will be trying to find some way to break through and capture but a moment of the billionaire's attention."

"This is in short what the contemporary world is like, except the billionaire is the broader class of high earners and the beggars are wealthier than in India. Instead of begging, there is a large class of people trying to command our attention using modern technologies such as email, spam, AI-targeted advertisements, coupons, Groupons, direct mail, advertising supplements in your credit card bill, and flashing ads on the Internet, among hundreds of other techniques...getting attention will continue to be a critical function in the new world of work and is likely to require ever-greater effort and sophistication."
Billionaires and beggars? Nice analogy for the new economy. Millions clamoring for their attention and table droppings. Doesn't sound like a very "efficient" economy now does it? Does that seem like a good use of natural resources or human capital? Are you ready for even more intense advertising (is that even possible?)

The other thing digital technologies aren’t very good at is human interaction and motivation. Thus he sees the rise of a new servile class of motivators and coaches to motivate the one percent to “achieve” even more, along with educational tutors, personal chefs, personal trainers, event planners, and other assorted toadies to the new aristocracy as a major job growth field for the new underclass - just like Downton Abbey, except you live alone and have to pay for everything yourself.
"High-skilled performers, including business executives, will have some kind of coach. There will be too much value at stake to let high performers operate without a steady stream of external advice, even if that advice has to be applied rather subtly. Top doctors will have a coach, just as today's top tennis players (and some of the mediocre ones) all have coaches. Today the coach of a CEO is very often the spouse, the personal assistant, or even a subordinate, or sometimes a member of the board of directors. Coaching is already remarkably important in our economy, and the high productivity of top earners will cause it to become essential."
Pervasive automation will have other knock-on effects. Everyone will be continually monitored and tested by digital overlords, from birth to death. Your productivity will be ruthlessly monitored 24-7 and regularly tested, so that even a slight trip up will cast you down into the underclass if you can’t keep up. If you have visions of a fluorescent-lit digital cubicle sweatshop where employees labor away under a tireless all-seeing eye watching every move for the benefit of the owner class in the executive suites, well, so do I. Since this affects his class, Cowen manages to muster a bit of sympathy for these workers, unlike the rest of us. Even the “winners” will be losers in this new system. I imagine much higher rates of drugs to keep up and ameliorate the psychic effects of this digital tyranny (Adderall, Provigil, Paxil, etc.). This measurement and sorting of the economic sheep and goats will begin frightfully early, so your economic destiny will probably be determined by age 7-8 or so, if not earlier, so if you aren’t a genius by age 7 or don’t fit well into the school system from an early age, well, get ready to stack shelves or work the deep fryer. While obscure prodigies will rise to the top thanks to this (Cowen relies on a sole example of an obscure Mongolian math genius), for most of us, Cowen warns ominously, there will be “far less second chances.” Our “permanent record” will follow us from birth to death, determine everything about our lives, and be uneraseable and inescapable.
"Another development is this: The better the world is at measuring value, the more demanding a lot of career paths will become. That is why I say 'Welcome to the hyper-meritocracy' with a touch of irony. Firms and employers and monitors will be able to measure economic value with sometimes oppressive precision."
But there’s a silver lining here, Cowen assures us. Digital technology means lots of opportunities for “cheap fun and cheap entertainment” for a new class of digital bohemians and vagabonds. Couchsurfing, AirBnb, Uber, Reddit, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Netflix, Hulu, blogs and podcasts, - there’s plenty to do inside your tarpaper shack or parents’ basement, thanks to the Internet, provided by free municipal wireless. It could even be culturally vibrant, just like Latin America. After all, America’s cultural hub, New York City, has the same income inequality as sub-Saharan Africa. It’s rather bizarre to see a libertarian economist suddenly do a 180 and invoke the “experiences are worth more than money” argument, since libertarian capitalism has depended upon the fact that it provides mountains of inexpensive food and consumer crud for people to buy as its main justification for a century or so. One is reminded of the eighteenth-century English aristocrats who rode through starving villages in their carriages with a perfumed kerchief over their noses, remarking on the jollity of peasant life with their harvest festivals, drinking and merrymaking, ignoring the fact that the peasants also lived in hovels, slept in straw, ate nothing but gruel, and died prematurely.

Extensive in-migration to the Sunbelt leads Cowen to conclude that Texas is the future of America – cheap automobile-dependent suburban sprawl, dilapidated infrastructure, lousy schools, threadbare public services, high user fees, and low, low taxes. Because people are “voting with their feet” by moving to Texas, he concludes that people prefer “more money in their pockets” thanks to low-cost suburban sprawl and low taxes, rather than good government services (or even honest, competent government). I would interject that the increasing “Dixiefication” of America means people have less choice in this matter than ever before. The “race to the bottom” means that states with this philosophy have a comparative advantage, and people will move where the jobs are, regardless of what they may really want, especially if the weather is good. The explosive growth of San Antonio/Ciudad Juarez is touted as an example of how economically vibrant cities attached to impoverished shantytowns can lead to the successful cities of the future.
"Since there is considerable net in-migration to Texas, I conclude that a lot of Americans would rather have some more cash than better public services...Many Americans will end up living in areas with cheaper housing and lower-quality public services, if only to give themselves more cash in their pocket. Some of those areas might be a bit ugly to the eyes, again as a trade-off for lower costs. As a cross-country moving proceeds, and changes what we are, the United States as a whole will end up looking more like Texas."
"When I visit Latin America, I am struck by how many people there live cheaply. In Mexico, for instance, I have met large numbers of people who live on less than $10,000 a year, or maybe even less than $5000 a year. They hardly quality as well-off but they do have access to cheap food and very cheap housing. They cannot buy too many other things. They don't always have the money to bring the kid to the doctor or to buy new clothes. Their lodging is satisfactory, if not spectacular, and of course the warmer weather helps."
"What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in the warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living? We would build some "tiny homes" there; tiny homes that might be about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. We would build some very modest dwellings there, as we used to build in the 1920s. We would also build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela. the quality of the water and electrical infrastructure might be low by American standards, though we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless (the future version of Marie Antoinette's famous alleged phrase will be "Let them watch Internet!"). Hulu and other web-based TV services would replace more expensive cable connections for those residents. Then we would allow people to move there if they desired. In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part of the United States....Many people will be horrified at this thought. How dare you propose we stuff our elderly into shantytowns? Maybe they are right to be upset, although recall that no one is being forced to live in these places. Some people might prefer to live there...
"The most extreme low-rent move is to go 'off the grid.' For all the technological progress we have seen, a growing number of Americans are disconnecting from traditional water and electricity backups and making their own way, often in owner-built homes, micro-homes, trailer parks, floating boats, or less elegantly in tent cities, as we find scattered around the United States, including in Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Some of these options are gruesome, but many people are doing it by choice. New technologies, such as powerful local generators and solar power, are making it easier to strike out on one's own."
"There is one final way we will adjust to uneven wage patterns and that is with our tastes. Many of society's low earners will reshape their tastes--will have to reshape their tastes--toward cheaper desires. Caviar is an expensive desire and Goya canned beans is a relatively cheap desire. Don't scoff at the beans: With an income above the national average, I receive more pleasure from the beans, which I cook with freshly ground cumin and rehydrated, pureed chiles, Good tacos and quesadillas and tamales are cheap too, and that is one reason they are eaten so frequently in low income countries."
"Just as some poorer people will do without fancy infrastructure, so will others do without advanced health care. Since we won't be willing to pay for full-benefit Medicare and Medicaid for everyone who will need it, some people will see cut benefits or rationed access to doctors. Our political system will try to construct that rationing so that voters blame the doctors rather than the politicians, but one way or another rationing will increase. Imagine many more millions of people wishing to see a doctor and having to wait weeks or months to do so."
So slums, sprawl and shantytowns with decaying infrastructure will be where people "prefer" to live. Funny how very few Americans "preferred" to live in dilapidated shantytowns and favelas from 1950-1979. Well, I guess tastes change. Remember, nobody's forcing you to sell your plasma to pay the rent.

As the rich get richer they will become even more influential. The political class will increasingly cater to their needs while turning a blind eye to the exploding poverty of most Americans, pretty much as they do now. The realities of automation and robots causes Cowen to be much less hostile to redistribution than most of his libertarian brethren, but he nonetheless doesn’t think it will happen due to the influence of the rich on politicians. Throughout the book, he makes reference to this realpolitik dynamic, saying that, even though it may not lead to the best outcomes, the needs and desires of the elderly and wealthy elites will rule the day to the detriment of everybody else.

Throughout the book, the right-wing belief in ‘Meritocracy” is constantly invoked. This is a standard article of right-wing libertarian belief, arguing that the winners at the top of society deserve their wealth and position through superior talent or merit, and the losers (the vast majority), are less talented, conscientious, motivated, etc.. Thus, it is a just world where people earn exactly what their talents give them, no more and no less, with the most talented benefiting most of all,  Interestingly, on his blog, Cowen has been waging a one-man crusade against Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This may seem bizarre, since they both paint a picture of the future that is very similar – a tiny fantastically wealthy elite lording over a precarious and immiserated working class, with ever-increasing disparities in wealth. The crucial difference is that Cowen depends on his elite being “deserving” of their elevated status by being smarter, more talented, harder working, etc., while Piketty claims that inherited wealth will be the prime determinant of the new overclass. Cowen’s inequality is caused by income, not wealth as in Piketty, and income is earned by their awesome marginal productivity, and not because of inherited wealth or systemic advantages. Thus, Cowen is not overly bothered by the new social order, since it is a true "hyper-meritocracy."

Two points should be made here. One, Cowen is an academic who, as far as I can tell, has been in academia his entire life. The academic world he has lived his entire life in, and has played so well, is much closer to this meritocratic ideal then most of society (outside of the military), so I think Cowen has a major blind spot here. For example, see this: Secret Handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street. American society is based on realities of class and wealth, and the biggest determinant for most people will not be talent (which will play some role, certainly), but who your parents are, leading to a much more sclerotic society with low social mobility, in line with Piketty’s predictions. After all, without jobs, what ladder rungs will there be to raise your status? Somehow I doubt “online classes” will fix this. And, as Thomas Frank has pointed out, colleges, which were designed to ameliorate class distinctions, are now the chief enforcer of class distinctions in America. The stratospheric cost of higher education will make sure that the jobs of the future will only be available to the already wealthy, and a few rare exceptions will be thrown in our face to “prove” this is not the case.

Second, even if we are headed to the meritocracy that Cowen claims, Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy points out that this will probably lead to more incompetence, inferior leadership and corruption, just as it has for the past few decades. The “best and the brightest” have presided over an unprecedented erosion of society, institutions and social trust, along with increasing chaos, wars, dissolution and poverty around the world. Because they are insular, these meritocrats feel that what’s good for them is good for everybody. And because they have been told that they are “superior” their entire lives, they believe they are infallible and entitled to everything. Plus, as Hayes points out, elites will rig the system to keep themselves and their friends and family on top - in other words, to "pull the ladder up after them." We can see that this is already happening.

And won’t the newly impoverished formerly middle classes rise up and revolt in their favelas? Nope, says Cowen, and although I find his arguments incredibly depressing, I also find them convincing. First, the baby bust means that the population is getting older, and older people don’t fight the system. Since America gives benefits disproportionately to the elderly (free health care, social security, etc.), they will have more invested in the status quo. Second, the crime rate has been going down, not up, even as income and wealth inequality has skyrocketed over the past thirty years. Finally, people don’t envy the rich, according to Cowen, they envy their immediate friends and neighbors. Facebook has caused more consternation over inequality than anything else, he claims. The poorest areas of the country are becoming more conservative, he points out, seemingly oblivious to the millions of dollars spent every year to maintain this result.
"For all the prognostications about the American future, the most important single fact, and the easiest to predict, is simply that we will be a lot older. That will make us more conservative, in this case referring to the literal rather than political sense of that term. Revolutions and protests are the endeavors of young hotheads, not sage (or tired) sixty-four year olds. The societies with lots of unmarried young men are the most vulnerable to sudden revolutions and major political changes...Societies have a strong staus-quo bias, particularly if they have high status relative to other parts of the world...If you're trying to measure the scope or potential for social disorder, look at the rate of crime. In the United States crime rates have been falling for decades and in recent times they have surprised researchers by falling even faster than expected. Yet over those same decades income and wealth inequality have been rising significantly in the United States....It's again worth seeing what is happening, politically speaking, in the parts of the United States with relatively stagnant incomes. Political conservatism is strongest in the least well-off, least educated, and most economically hard-hit states...As Richard Florida puts it, 'Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind.'...If you think about it, we really shouldn't expect rising wealth inequality to lead to revolution and revolt. That is for a very simple psychological reason: Most envy is local...Most of us don't compare ourselves to billionaires."
Obviously, the U.S. government does not share Cowen’s placidity. Since 2001, we’ve witnessed the construction of a vast and unprecedented police/surveillance state in the U.S. and around the world. Many have made the obvious point that governments seem to be preparing to face their own people as adversaries much more than any foreign invasion, and they have pointed to the extreme inequality that Cowen is describing as the chief culprit. For example: Defence officials prepare to fight the poor, activists and minorities (and commies). (The Guardian) And see this:
After the U.S. Postal Service finalizes its purchase of "small-arms ammunition," it will become only the most recent federal agency to make a large purchase of bullets for its armed agents (who are perhaps more numerous than the public realizes). In the last year or so, reports have surfaced that the Social Security Administration ordered 174,000 hollow-point bullets, the Department of Agriculture 320,000 rounds, Homeland Security 450 million rounds (for its 135,000 armed agents), the FBI 100 million hollow-points, and even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 46,000 rounds. (In May, the Department of Agriculture added an order of submachine guns and body armor.) [Newsmax, 4-14-2014] [Washington Times, 5-16-2014] 
Cowen has been accused by many of “moral indifference” due to his clinical and calloused description of America's future. Cowen argues that a prognostication of the future based on what’s actually happening is best served just by an unemotional interpretation of the facts without trying to interject one’s personal opinions. In this interview, for example, he says:
...I think 'pessimistic' and 'optimistic'--they are words everyone in this debate is applying too quickly. I think in this debate the radical thing to do is to write a book which isn't trying to be too normative; just try to think through what will things be like. And by keeping the evaluation at much more of a distance I think we'll actually get further with the analysis. ... I've had people confront me in outraged fashion: How can you accept all of this? But look: as a writer the point is to try to figure it out as best you can, and at the end of the book if one wants to say, let's not go that route, well that's worth a discussion. But the notion that at every intermediate point you have to inject your emotional outrage I think has become one of the worst features of this whole debate.
I’m sympathetic to this view. I write about a dark future all the time, and it’s not things I want to happen. In fact, it’s mostly things I don’t want to happen. To be fair, Cowen never states that this new world he’s describing is ideal or desirable, just that it’s the scenario that he sees as most likely if current trends continue. I agree, which is why I’m reviewing the book.  It is, however, difficult to escape the conclusion that Cowen’s lack of agitation at this future is due to his class position. This new digital future will be great for him and his family. I imagine the target audience for this book are right-leaning pro-market libertarians who will see themselves as the big winners in the new economy, and naively believe that they and their families will escape falling into the underclass by staying ahead of the curve by following Cowen's sage advice.

But in the end, it will all turn out okay, he assures us, once we've finished sorting ourselves out into our new permanent caste system and fully integrated the new technologies into our social order. The nouveau-poor will learn to live with less and enjoy all the new digital distractions, while the rich, well, they'll be the new benevolent ruling class.
"The American polity is unlikely to collapse, but we'll look back on the immediate postwar era as a very special time. Our future will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow the real wages of many workers to fall and thus we will allow the creation of a new underclass. We won't really see how we will stop that. Yet it will be an oddly peaceful time, with the general aging of American society and the proliferation of many sources of cheap fun. We might even look ahead to a time when the cheap or free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx's communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism. That is the real light at the end of the tunnel. Such a development, however, will take longer than I am considering in the time frame of this book...One day soon we will look back and see that we produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over."
Reactions have been predictably hostile from both the left and the right. The left's reaction is obvious. After giving his description of future America on NPR's On Point, the host incredulously asks whether his vision is exactly what European Americans' ancestors came across the ocean to escape. It's a valid question, especially since social mobility and middle class living standards are now higher in "socialist" Europe then in America.

The reaction on the right has been more complicated. A standard tenet of libertarian belief is that 1.)Inequality is not happening, and/or 2.) Capitalism always makes the average person better off, and if it fails to do so, it is always and everywhere due to some sort of government interference in the infallible market (taxes, regulations, subsidies, etc.). In the interview cited above with another libertarian economist from George Mason University (Econtalk is also part of the Koch Brother's empire), the host says early on, "So, I think you know I'm somewhat of a skeptic about the inequality data--that I think it's distorted by changes in family structure, immigration, and other factors...."  One wonders how sheltered a life this man leads. It proves Upton Sinclair's adage that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when is salary depends on him not understanding it." But the biggest challenge is that Cowen's book makes the case that the natural workings of the capitalist economy, without major government interference, will make most people far poorer and worse off, rather than some big-government bogeyman. It's a direct challenge to the standard right-wing tenet that allowing the rich to accumulate without bound will lead to better lives for all. Hence the hostility.

One of the most hostile reviews came from, or all places, The Wall Street Journal. The reviewer writes:
If this were Swiftian satire, Mr. Cowen could retire the Best Deadpan Award. But it isn't. It's a prediction coupled with the injunction that resistance is futile. There's nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans.

Bread and circuses is not the policy of a republic, but rather of an empire entering moral senescence. Nonetheless, Mr. Cowen seems untroubled by his hyperpolarized vision....Whether by accident or design, Mr. Cowen's book represents a fundamental challenge. To government-hating, market-worshiping conservatives, it poses a question: If this is the consequence of your creed, are you prepared to endorse it? To liberals and progressives: What are you going to do about it? And to all of us: Is this a country you would want to live in? I know I wouldn't.
Finally, I have been struck by certain similarities between Cowen’s vision of the future and Ran Prieur’s latest thoughts on the future of America. It’s hard to think of two more different prognosticators, yet their visions seem to be converging, although to be sure Ran places much more emphasis on Peak Oil and resource scarcity, while Cowen has apparently bought into the shale-gas and fracking revolution hype.

Both predict continual improvement in digital technology and automation, with most people getting poorer and poorer, as the middle class vanishes. Both predict a future in which downtrodden Americans will live on a few thousand dollars a year in Latin-American style poverty in slums and shantytowns at the margins of society, yet have access digital gadgets straight out of Star Trek. Both predict a future of mass unemployment where people work outside the money system to survive via barter, tent cities, and dumpster diving. Both predict that the system is locked down tightly, and mass uprising is unlikely, if not impossible. Both predict a future where working a “conventional” job gets more and more oppressive as digital technologies monitor workers like feedlot cattle. Both predict that people will be desperate to somehow sell stuff to, get the attention of, or become some sort of servant, to the upper class, because they will be the only ones with money. Both predict that accumulating "stuff" will fall by the wayside compared to experiences, and that digital technology will lead to a new class of bohemian/hippie types who will live on the fringes of society using the Web to entertain themselves and seek out low/cost free stuff. Both predict that people will anesthetize themselves from their poor and meaningless lives by retreating into an increasingly virtual reality while turning their back on the real one which offers them so little. No word on Ran's position on canned beans, however:
I expect artificial intelligence and biotech to spice up a decades-long economic depression as the global system muddles through climate change and the end of nonrenewable resources. Low quality manufactured items and industrial food will remain affordable, but good food, transportation, and services from actual humans will be more expensive. I think the best place to live is in a small house with a big yard in a city with a seaport or railroad hub. You want to be close to the supply lines, but have enough land to grow luxury foods like blueberries and good tomatoes. As you move farther into the country, the money you save by growing more of your own food will be less than the money you spend on transportation and shipping. Total self-sufficiency would be a good thing to write a novel about.

My generation was the first in American history to be poorer than our parents. Now the Millennials are poorer than us, and this trend will continue until the global infrastructure adapts to feed from a growing base of renewable resources, maybe around 2060. Meanwhile, if you can stay out of debt and find a low-stress job to build up savings, you'll be relatively well off. "Debt" is exactly as real as we believe it is. Mostly it's a trick to make people feel ashamed that they have no political power. Not that it would work any better if we felt angry. The system is totally locked down, and the most revolutionary political change of the 21st century, the unconditional basic income, will be necessary to keep the system stable, to turn the unemployed majority from hungry militants back into consumers.

Technology will promise revolution, but in practice ninety percent of the new powers will be used to keep the remaining ten percent from doing anything dangerous. By the year 2200 there will be no poverty, no disease, and no opportunity for anyone to make a difference, except by more quickly closing off the opportunity for anyone to make a difference. Reasonable people will know that they're better off than we were, but still fantasize about living in our time. Suicide will be the leading cause of death, and by 2300, any death not from suicide will be global news. By 3000 we will either be extinct or moved to another level of reality through some technology of consciousness that would seem completely loony if you described it today.
Ten years ago, when I imagined "collapse", it was interesting: industrial collapse means there are no factories and everything new is made by hand. Infrastructure collapse means there are no electric grids and we're riding horses on the ruined freeways. Economic collapse means the banks are just gone, cash is worthless, and economies are gift and barter. Political collapse means you don't have to pay taxes, kids don't have to go to school, and there are no police. Now it's increasingly clear that none of these things are going to happen, even slowly over 100 years...

Now, there are possible technologies that are truly revolutionary. But my fear is that they will all be stopped, that the increasing power of the tech system will be used to keep the world stable and predictable, and to make us happy in the shallowest and least satisfying way. To avoid this dreadful fate, we need a cultural shift in which we gain a deeper understanding of quality of life, and we need to apply this understanding to technology, and start using it to increase danger and pain. I know, people in Africa would love to have the problem of not enough danger and pain. Don't worry -- in a hundred years, they will, and we'll have it worse than we do now.
If the tech system can adapt to resource exhaustion, we might emerge into a high-tech utopia/dystopia, in which it's easy to be comfortable but difficult to be happy. Social class will no longer be about power or even standard of living, but valuable activity. The upper class will hold the few important jobs that still require humans. The middle class will be hobbyists, practicing difficult skills that are not necessary for society. And the lower class will be content to consume entertainment. 
 I no longer expect any kind of tech crash, except that resource-intensive benefits like driving and eating meat will become more expensive and less available to poor people. Economies will collapse as they adjust to decades of zero or negative growth, weaker nations and businesses will fail, but computers will continue to get stronger, and automation will adapt to resource decline by becoming more efficient and better able to compete with human workers. At the same time, no government that can possibly avoid it will allow its citizens to starve, so there will be even more subsidies for industrially produced human dog food.
Over the next few decades I see the global system passing through a bottleneck as it shifts from nonrenewable to renewable resources...I imagine an airtight sci-fi utopia/dystopia, where almost everything will be automated, nobody will have to do any work, everyone will be comfortable and safe, and we will have amazing powers to entertain ourselves. Other than that, we will have less power than any people in history or prehistory. The world will be lifeless and meaningless, a human museum, a suicide machine.
I expect global economic collapse and decades of poverty while we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Extreme poverty will cause political upheavals, but not such a deep political collapse that you won't have to pay taxes. And I expect little or no technological collapse. Even energy-intensive technologies like cars will not disappear, just shrink to serve the elite. And I think information technology will continue its present course, so people with gadgets out of Star Trek will be digging up cattail roots for food.
I'm going to say that liquid fuels continue to decline, renewable energy cannot replace them nearly fast enough, and everything that now depends on liquid fuels gets much more expensive. This contributes to decades of zero or negative economic growth. Another contributor is the de-monetization of labor: a lot of the economic growth of the 20th century came from taking labor that used be outside the money economy, like child care and food preparation, and bringing it into the money economy. This is going to reverse as people lose their jobs, do stuff at home for free instead of paying other people to do it, those people lose their jobs, and so on.

New money-making opportunities will be snatched by whoever is in the best position: mostly the already rich. So wealth inequality will increase, and the cost of good food and human labor will continue to rise, until only the rich can afford to buy much of either. Meanwhile manufactured items and low-quality industrial food will remain cheap.

So you won't be in danger of starving, but you're likely to find yourself deep in unpayable debt, squeaking by on government assistance, and struggling to find something to sell to the rich so you can afford to buy small luxuries to make your life tolerable.

In summation, what fascinates me about the book is that it is so–far the best and most thought-out description of the future we have termed Neofeudalism. If you want to give someone a description of what the Neofuedal society looks like, hand them this book. Barring change in course, this is where I believe we’re headed as a society. In short:
  • 10-15% fabulously wealthy, vast majority living an ephemeral, precarious existence.
  • Most people desperately fighting over table scraps and crumbs dropped from the tables of the wealthy.
  • A vast servant class dedicated to catering to the needs of the wealthy in some form and dependent upon their largess. (servants, coaches, tutors, gardeners, consultants, baristas, musicians, etc.). These will not be live-in servants, but wage earners in businesses that depend on the enormous incomes of a small class of privileged people - think service industries in San Francisco.
  • All of society’s wealth is funneled to a small wealthy stockholding elite. Little to no savings or wealth accumulation for most people. Low social mobility enforced by stringent educational requirements, credentialism, low economic growth and saturated markets.
  • No health care or retirement for most people.
  • An ineffective and incompetent government that provides very little for the common general welfare, but exists mainly to uphold elite interests (armies, police, intelligence, contract enforcement, corporate subsidies, banks, patents, bare-bones infrastructure, etc.)
  • The poor left mainly to fend for themselves. Slums, shantytowns, favelas, tent cities, trailer parks and hovels abound. Suburbia will become “Slumburbia”
  • Urban areas either decay (Detroit, Gary, Flint) or become 'elite citadels' (San Francisco, L.A, Manhattan). Urban income inequality at sub-Saharan African levels or worse.
  • Elites outside cities in gated exurban communities protected by heavily armed police.
  • Weak nation states depleted of funds. Corporations will rule. Most wealth will be offshore and untaxable.
  • Everything owned by wealthy elites and appropriated though the market rather than common goods. Public libraries, transportation, museums, parks etc. abolished. Most people will pay through the nose to rent these services from the 10-15% wealthy elites. Those who can’t afford them will go without.
  • More social dysfunction due to lack of opportunities.
  • Municipal services curtailed or abolished except in wealthy areas.
  • Employees will get their needs (health care, dental transportation, etc.) by contract through their employer (e.g. Google campus and buses). Those without employers will have nothing.
Notable differences from feudalism:
  • Warring corporations rather than warring states. Combat will be done in the boardroom, not the battlefield. Battles will be for market share rather than territory. Wealth will be stocks and bonds rather than land.
  • Elites will be transnational and have more common interests than in the past. It will be their own fellow citizens they will need to violently contend with.
  • Living standards for the poor will be higher than the middle ages. In wealthy countries, few will starve. Most will still have some sort of shelter, although less and less people will own their property.
  • People will not be tied to the land, as with serfdom. They may end up tied to their jobs, however, to keep their benefits, especially since there will be few options to change jobs thanks to oligopolies, cartels, non-compete clauses, and extreme specialization. Less job mobility outside of the 10-15% due to fear of unemployment.
  • Lower family formation and decreased birthrates.
  • People will be watched and continually monitored (drones, cell phones, etc.) far beyond the wildest imagination of the most absolutist czar, monarch or emperor.
  • Most people will be economically “redundant” i.e. they will not be needed to produce food and fodder for the elites.
  • Vast prisons, which were unfeasible in medieval times, but less outright torture and general lawlessness.
  • People will live longer than their medieval counterparts, but with more chronic diseases.
  • Obviously, much more entertainment, activities, geographical mobility, and so on. As long as you don’t threaten elite power or control, you will be mostly left alone.
  • Relations between people mediated by money and the market rather than webs of reciprocity.
  • People will not live off the land – land will be owned by the wealthy.
It's not so far-fetched. Cowen himself says on pp.253-54, "There are many other historical periods, including medieval times, where inequality is high, upward mobility is fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable, even if we as moderns find some aspects of that order objectionable."

Serf's up!


* Libertarians use as their justification for the low taxes and unlimited accumulation by the wealthy elite the fact that this leads to “growth' and that if the wealthy pay taxes like the rest of us, growth will be diminished and we all be hurled into poverty. In addition, making the pie bigger is used to avoid any question of redistribution. The richer the rich get, the better off even the poorest will be, the argument goes. Thus to question growth goes against the standard libertarian party line.

** To make his point, he initially published the book only in eBook format. eBooks are very useful – cheap to download, easy to carry around with a Kindle or Nook, but don’t really add much more to GDP than a “conventional” book.

*** This is off-topic, but Cowen picks this example because he was a youth chess prodigy. Many prominent economists are chess players. It’s easy to see why chess as the ultimate training for economic thinking. Human beings are treated simply as abstractions who behave according to predictable laws (pawns, knights, bishops, queens, etc.), and whose actions follow predicable rules. A chess game, like an economy, although it exhibits a degree of uncertainty, can be regularly determined by mathematical laws, hence chess-playing computers. Thus the kind abstract mathematical reasoning that leads people to be good at chess also motivates them to become economists, where they see the economy as one giant chess board, with all of us as mere interchangeable pieces making predictable moves that can be abstracted through sufficient mathematical equations.

**** A superior example would be from my own field of architecture. We used to draw on paper by hand. Then we drew digital lines on computers. Now, small teams can visualize and model entire buildings in 3D and build off of that. The shift is to less people with higher levels of building/construction knowledge. Consequently, there is much less need for "drafters," entry-level jobs are harder to come by, and the well-connected can do more work with less labor than ever before.