Monday, February 24, 2014

Narratives of Explanatory Value

While listening to the latest edition of the C-Realm podcast, I was amused at the parts of it where KMO attempted to try and come up with an "elevator speech," that bastion of corporate blandness and groupthink, to summarize a podcast which defies easy categorization or summation. It's amusing for me to think that you could come up with a soundbite to describe something that, by design, stands in opposition to the sound-bite culture of the mainstream media, and eventually the guest host caught on to the futility of that mission too.

Nevertheless, it got me to thinking. I had been tossing about ideas about trying to summarize some of the underlying themes behind this blog as well, so I thought it might be helpful for me to try and explain what I think his podcast is, and in return clarify a little bit about what I hope to accomplish with my writing here. This is a long one (I haven't done one of these in a while), so you may want to print it out.

1. The Question

Five years since the financial crisis, the mainstream media assures us that everything is under control, that things will eventually get “back to normal,” that our political and economic systems are fundamentally sound, and that we’re just in a temporary rough patch caused by the housing bubble and the resulting debt overhang. They assure us that we are experiencing just another one of our periodic temporary recessions that frequently occur under capitalism, and that the economy will eventually automatically sort itself out, returning to the good old days of permanently higher living standards, plentiful jobs, economic growth, and technological progress for all, because that’s simply how capitalism works and will always work. We’re told that anyone who can’t get ahead has only themselves to blame due to being lazy, or not working hard enough, or making the wrong life choices, and so on, and that the rich have earned every penny of their fortunes through pluck and hard work alone. The mainstream media also tells us not to worry, that everything is all right, that our leaders know what they are doing, and that they have our best interests at heart. They assure us that once we get growth going again, all our problems will eventually be solved.

But there are a number of reasons to question this narrative. What if the story we are being told is false? To use the phrase KMO used, these narratives have very little explanatory value - that is, they don't seem to explain the world most of us are actually living in at all. The end result is a growing cognitive dissonance between what we're seeing with our own eyes and what we are being told by the media, economists, academics, and politicians.  This is in turn leading to the confusion and anger that we see all around us.

The reasons to question the above narrative could run to book length, but to name just a few:

1.) Five years after the financial crisis, the jobless rate has remained stubbornly high. Corporate profits have hit all-time highs, yet wages as a share of profits are at all-time lows. The workforce participation rate is back to what it was in the late 1970s before women entered the workforce en masse, and wages back to what they were in the late 1990s. Real inflation-adjusted incomes have been stagnant for a generation. The reduction in the unemployment rate since the crisis has  been exclusively due to people dropping out of the workforce rather than growth in job creation, and most jobs that are being created are extremely low-paying. The largest employers in America used to be places like Ford, IBM, and General Electric, now they are McDonalds and Walmart. We're told that only the private sector can create jobs, and that they will do so only if their taxes are low enough, and if wages are low enough. We are told that more education and worker retraining are key, despite the fact that we have the most educated workforce in history, and roughly three people for every job opening.

2.) A small pool of wealthy elites are amassing unimaginable fortunes, while what has been traditionally been considered to be the middle class has been struggling, drowning under massive medical and college debt burdens, evicted from their homes during the housing crisis, and living in their cars. The "recovery" seems exclusively confined to the wealthy and asset prices. The wealth of the richest Americans is growing spectacularly every year, even as people under forty are downwardly mobile and told that they will be the first generation to be worse off then their parents. Inequality is increasing without bound, and just 400 Americans have as much wealth as half of the workforce. The share of income going to the nation’s richest 1 percent more than doubled between 1980 and 2008, rising from 8 percent to 18 percent. Overall, inequality among working Americans has risen 25 percent since 1980.

3.) Much of Middle America has become a hollowed-out shell, with  local governments perennially tightening their belts, decreased public services like libraries and public transportation, food pantries and homeless shelters overwhelmed with demand, boarded up storefronts and vacancies up and down main streets, abandoned strip malls, empty foreclosed homes stripped of copper wiring, streets full of potholes, homeless people begging on the streets, overcrowded prisons, street gangs and rampant drug abuse, abandoned factories surrounded by barbed wire rusting in the rain, formerly bustling downtowns littered with hulking ruins, and infrastructure in advanced stages of disrepair. Health care, government, military, and prison jobs are the only gainful options for many Americans, and even these are shrinking.

5.) A vast surveillance state of unprecedented proportions has been constructed over the past decade in many Western democracies, accompanied by a draconian curtailing of civil liberties. Every phone call, every email, every credit card purchase, and even personal movements are tracked and monitored by the government. Local police forces have been militarized, and have been given advanced weapons systems like drones, tanks and body armor, even in small rural communities. The United States is mired in any number of permanent, never-ending wars in impoverished, far-away countries all across the world while most Americans have no idea of the reason for any of them, even though they are paying for with their tax dollars (and in some cases their lives).

6.) Oil prices remain stubbornly high, despite being told that we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels left, that America is the new Saudi Arabia, and that we will soon be energy independent.  The Bakken shale in North Dakota is booming creating overnight fortunes; the Keystone XL pipeline is being deliberated by Congress to ship Canadian Tar Sands abroad triggering protests; and hydraulic fracturing wells are being drilled in every corner of the country, even in water-stressed areas. These resources have always been there, but have been uneconomical to exploit until now, yet we're told that there is no reason to worry about energy supplies.

7.) The climate seems to be getting markedly weirder all over the globe, with hundred-year storms and weather events occurring almost every single year now. Massive superstorms like Katrina and Sandy drown major American cities. California struggles under extreme drought while England is beset by its wettest winter in modern history. The Midwest and East Coast of the U.S. are hit with snow and bitter arctic cold while  the Iditarod and the Winter Olympics are threatened because of warm temperatures and a lack of snow. Ice storms penetrate as far south as Georgia and Texas. Australia suffers record heat waves and wildfires year after year. Typhoons slam into the Philippines and Southeast Asia disrupting the world economy. Entire nations are being submerged under rising oceans. People are starting to take notice of the strange weather which seems to be increasingly permanent.

8.) Instability, unemployment, inequality and poverty are exploding all around the world, with governments are becoming steadily more oppressive. Riots have occurred all over the world during the past five years, from the Arab spring across the Middle East, to riots against austerity in Southern Europe, to the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis in Syria, to continued state failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the current massive citizen protests in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand. The number of failed states is increasing. Journalistic freedom is under threat, and Internet controls are being put in place even in Western democracies.

9.) There seems to be a system in place of socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. Wealthy financiers who wrecked the global economy were bailed out and not only not prosecuted, but allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains and are wealthier now than before the crash. Banking reforms are resisted, and financial regulations continue to be dismantled. The financial system seems to be out of control, with trillions of dollars in derivatives ready to blow up at a moment's notice. The revolving door between government, big business and academia becomes ever more shameless even as elites become more concentrated and insular. The "free market" seems to be increasingly dominated by monopolies and cartels in many areas, with a tiny number of companies controlling entire sectors of the global economy. Bankers and financiers make billions while doing seemingly no productive activity whatsoever, and in many cases their activities even seem to be socially harmful. They mostly appear to be engaging in wealth extraction rather than wealth creation.

10.) Despite being theoretically a representative democracy where the leaders are chosen by the citizenry, our political choices are permanently narrowed to two preselected candidates from the existing political parties who can raise the most campaign funds. Political candidates spend most of their time fund-rasing, and seem to advance the interests of deep-pocketed donors rather than those of the people who elected them. A vast network of lobbyists and think-tanks writes our legislation and controls what is considered legitimate political discourse. Support for congress hovers permanently in the single digits, most Americans don't bother to vote, and the majority of Americans say that the country is divided and headed in the wrong direction.

11.) Local governments are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy all across the country (and in Detroit's case already bankrupt), with public amenities being sold off to investors at fire-sale prices. Public services are being slashed, user fees are being raised, and public amenities sold off to pay debts. Formerly public services such as trash collection, sewer services, and public schools are now provided by private, for-profit corporations, with access based on your ability to pay. These changes are usually permanent, with little to no public control or oversight. In some localities, streetlights are being shut off, roads are being turned back into gravel, and fires burn themselves out for lack of firefighters--not what we would expect of a “wealthy” country. Five years after the “crisis” has supposedly passed and the "recovery" under way, these trends show no signs of abating and are only accelerating.

I could go on, but you get the idea. People know that something is wrong. They can sense it. They are scared and frightened, and the stories they are being told by those in authority make absolutely no sense. Yet we see none of this when we turn on the television--only happy, smiling, successful people happily consuming the infinite bounty of a capitalist economy without a care in the world. This has caused some people to freak out - to stockpile guns and ammunition, or to prepare for some sort of imminent apocalypse.

Into this vacuum of legitimacy have stepped various demagogues underwritten by the wealthy and corporations. It is no accident that the world-view they espouse, when followed to its logical conclusion, leads to outcomes which favor wealthy investors and corporations. These views essentially advocate a return to the Robber-Baron era of no business regulations, removal of all taxes on industry and investment capital, shrinking of government functions, curtailing government authority, no social safety net or insurance of any kind, no workplace regulations, scapegoating of minorities and unions, the abolition of the Federal Reserve, and a return to the gold standard. This backward-looking narrative, depicting the nineteenth century as some sort of lost golden age, resonates with a lot of Americans, Americans who have no conception of what that time was actually like, and plays on people's fears and bigotry.

Embedded in these narratives are certain assumptions, assumptions which are never questioned but are implicit. These assumptions are almost never directly articulated, but have been internalized by most Americans and informs their world-view. Among these assumptions are:

That the future will be like the past, only better. That economic growth will continue and solve all our problems.  That a rising tide lifts all boats. That the best way to ensure prosperity is to cater to the needs of the wealthy so that the trickle-down effect will produce widespread prosperity. That unregulated "free trade" benefits everyone and is always a good idea. That we just need more technological innovation to get the economy moving again. That there will always be enough jobs to go around for everyone. That  government interference in the economy is always a bad idea and that "free market solutions" are best. That anyone can be rich if only they work hard enough. That poverty is always simply the result of individual failure, and that government help encourages dependency and sloth. That our societies are on a path of never-ending progress.

But if what if things aren't getting “back to normal?” What if we've entered a new period, one where these assumptions are flat-out wrong?

2. The Answer

The value that the C-Realm gives is that it provides an outlet for narratives which differ from the above story. In fact, there are a growing number of people questioning this narrative, and there are a  number of brilliant thinkers, academics, futurists, visionaries, leaders, philosophers, writers, artists, farmers, businesspeople, and activists who have different ideas about our society and its future. But you would never know it from the mainstream media.

Why not? Because the media does not exist to inform or further the debate. It exists to limit the terms of the debate, to enforce the existing status quo, to legitimize the existing social arrangements and institutions, and to provide a  convenient distraction for the masses. It is designed to maximize profits and is dependent upon funds from advertisers, and the last thing advertisers want is people asking inconvenient questions (especially about the economy or consumerism). So the media plays it safe and panders to the lowest common denominator, because that is the way to maximize its profits. Hence the constant stories about celebrities, the puff-piece interviews, the rapid-fire sound bites, the arguing and bickering with no real resolution, opinion pieces with no data to back it up, the suppression of unpleasant facts, the short-attention span "news cycle," and so on.

And so there is a vacuum.

Into this vacuum stride intrepid individuals like KMO of the C-Realm podcast, providing what I believe to be a valuable public service. They satisfy the hunger for alternative narratives which do a better job of explaining the changes we currently observe in the world around us. Rather than reinforce a clearly dysfunctional status quo, KMO questions it on a weekly basis, along with the implicit assumptions that I talked about above. Rather than pandering to people's biases or demagogue to people's fears, KMO provides a intellectually curious, wide-ranging and thoughtful inquiry into alternative narratives, giving a desperately needed platform to the numerous thinkers and scholars who can articulate these alternative narratives and who are marginalized and ignored by the existing media. Sometimes these narratives can also provide a powerful antidote to the sense of dissolution and despair which we see all around us, and articulate a better future, one which we secretly all wish and hope  for. There used to be much more of this type of discussion in the past before the hegemony of the mainstream media narrowed the terms of the debate. Now, thanks to the Internet, there are new opportunities to restore this.

So how can this not be popular? I think it is much more important than we give it credit for. To use the old saying, people do not want their leg to be pissed on and be told that it's raining. Yet this is what the mainstream media does every single day. There is a hunger out there for alternative narratives, narratives which provide a better explanation for what is going on, even if people don't yet know it.

So, now, here are just a few of the alternative narratives that the C-Realm podcast has provided an outlet for over the years that the mainstream media has suppressed or ignored.

3. Alternative narratives

Many arguments center around the limits to growth and our relationship to the biosphere:

1.) One popular narrative that KMO has explored over the years is that associated with the Peak Oil movement which began with the work of M. King Hubbert in 1949 and came into widespread study in the 1990s. At that time a large number of geologists, scientists, engineers, economists, historians, writers and thinkers began studying and writing about the fact that oil, and more generally fossil fuels, are absolutely essential to the functioning of the globalized industrial  economy, and that these resources are finite and non-renewable, and once they are used they are gone forever. They have permitted the exponential growth of human population and economic output that we've experienced since the nineteenth century. While it is taken for granted in economics that these resources will always be there and be able to be increased in supply at will, the Peak Oil movement has argued that the production of liquid fossil fuels will peak sometime in the near future (or has already), and that supplies will become constrained causing economic disruption and contraction. They furthermore argue that the largest and easiest to access resources are utilized first, meaning that future sources will be harder to access and more costly to reach in terms of energy and capital expenditures.

Peak oil theorists predict that this inability to easily increase the amount of fossil fuels supplied to the global economy, and the lower net energy supplied by them (the energy available for end use from fossil fuels after the amount to extract and process them has been accounted for), will require a thorough rethinking of the social and economic arrangements that we have constructed during the age of expansion. Predictions for the effects of this geological fact run the gamut from an apocalyptic collapse of modern industrial civilization to more level-headed arguments for slower economic growth and  recession in perpetuity, as well as a turn to dirtier and harder to reach sources of carbon.

2.) Another argument might be called the Ecological Economics narrative. Ecological economists tell us that money and debt are abstractions layered over a real world of finite, often nonrenewable resources that are subject to the laws of thermodynamics and ecology, and that this is not figured into the economic calculus. They point out that all natural resources, including fossil fuels, are subject to a bell-curve shaped rate of extraction and depletion. They point out that infinite growth on a finite planet is simply not possible, but all of our existing institutions are predicated on that notion. They also point out that we are utterly dependent on the services produced by the biosphere - breathable air, fresh water, arable land, crops, minerals and ores, forests and timber, fishing stocks, and so on, and that we are harvesting these at an ever-increasing and unsustainable rate. In conventional economics for example, a forest has zero value until it is cut down to make chopsticks or toothpicks.  They point out that our economy is designed to turn resources into pollution as quickly as possible for profit. They further add that the planet has a finite carrying capacity for all animals, including humans, and that we cannot expect the human population to grow forever.

3.) The Degrowth Movement points out that while we have experienced vast economic growth over the past fifty years in developed economies, we have seen no real increase in subjective measures of human happiness and well-being. In fact, they point out that we have actually been going in the opposite direction, with decreasing measures of happiness and well-being in industrial societies including increasing rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and alienation. They point out that growth for its own sake can be likened to a cancer, and that focusing on it exclusively distracts us from the real goals of any economy - the thriving of people living under it. The never-ending calls for "more growth" by economists and politicians make no distinction between growth in things that enhance our lives, or the growth of things like sickness, pollution, injuries, social dysfunction and so on, and they assign zero value to social interaction or leisure time.

They also point out that calls for economic growth conveniently obscure any uncomfortable questions about wealth distribution. They argue that theoretically the economy only has to be large enough to service the people who live within it, but instead we have structured our economic institutions like an airplane that will fall out of the sky and crash the minute its forward velocity stops. They also point out that growth is not neutral - it often has detrimental effects such as more pollution, environmental destruction and overcrowding, and that these often outweigh the benefits.

4.) The Permaculture Movement began with a criticism of the destructiveness and unsustainablity of so-called conventional farming methods, instead advocating alternative agricultural methods to provide food, fuel and fiber that are based around mimicking natural ecosystems, preserving or enhancing soil fertility and biodiversity, using local resources instead of costly imports of fossil fuels and water, recycling or minimizing waste and pollution, and minimizing ongoing intensive labor, creating a "permanent agriculture." It also advocates strict ethical guidelines for its practitioners.

This led to a wider criticism of our political, economic and social systems, our disconnect from the natural world, and our abusive and exploitative relationship with nature and with each other. Some Permaculture practitioners began to go beyond agricultural criticism, advocating alternative ways of constructing buildings, arranging economies, producing goods, and political governance.

Permaculture practitioners see our current living arrangements as unsustainable and destined for eventual failure, and believe that we need to reclaim our connection to the living earth and adopt lifestyles that are more in harmony with nature. They generally advocate small-scale local solutions that are based around human social relationships.

5.) Related to the above arguments are concerns about anthropogenic climate change. As we burn staggering amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas to power our ever-growing industrial economies and cut down forests for farmland, ranches, housing, timber and biofuels, we are altering the earth's climate, changing the balance of the planet's carbon cycle and causing it to heat up via the greenhouse effect. Because the earth's climate is so complex, we do not fully understand the end results of all this or what the final outcome will be. They point that all our civilizational history  has unfolded under the relatively stable climate of the Holocene era, and that climate change will dramatically affect our ability to feed an increasing global population. They point to things like melting arctic ice, thawing permafrost, disappearing coral reefs, and rapid species extinction as just some of the results we are already experiencing. They depict a future of superstorms, floods, megadroughts, rising sea levels, and climate refugees undermining the stabilty of our existing political and economic order. Some of the more extreme voices even raise the possibility of human extinction.

The above arguments are all related, of course. If we are facing real constraints on our demands upon the earth for energy and resources, growth is not only no longer beneficial for certain parts of humanity, but it is no longer even possible. Furthermore, the effects of permanent growth of populations and economies are having detrimental effects on the underlying ecosystems that we all depend upon for our very survival. The common theme is that we need to wake up to this reality.

Other arguments are related to technology and our relationship with it:

5.) The Technological Singularity movement is an extreme optimistic view of our relationship to technology. It takes Moore's Law- the fact that the amount of transistors that can fit on a microchip is growing exponentially-and extrapolates it to all areas of technological development. This causes them to argue that technological development is advancing at such a rapid pace that we are approaching a clean break with all of human history that has preceded us - a technological singularity in their parlance - and that this will create a world where all problems will be solved or become irrelevant. They believe that we will soon be able to transport our consciousness into machines, enabling us to create our own virtual worlds and live forever. They believe that we will master nature to such an extent that things like hunger, sickness, scarcity, poverty, warfare, social strife and so on will be abolished.

Less extreme versions of this view hold out that while we may not achieve a true utopia, future developments in technology hold the promise of creating a world of unprecedented human flourishing. They believe that the inevitable march of technological progress will solve or ameliorate a lot of problems which seem intractable now, and that we should encourage these developments to the greatest extent possible and take advantage of them as much as we can as individuals. They point out things like 3-D printing, peer-to-peer computer networks, ubiquitous embedded microchips, artificial intelligence, solar, wind and nuclear power, genetic engineering, nootropics, crowdsourcing, and the like, and argue that once we harness these effectively, we will make vast progress in the upcoming years that will dramatically improve all of our lives for the better.

6.) The Zeitgeist Movement holds that our current political, economic and social arrangements actually  lead to waste and inefficiency and that these arrangements are actually holding back technological progress rather than promoting it. They argue that the economic system is entirely predicated on maximizing profits for competing corporations and on scarcity and debt, rather than providing actual solutions to the problems that plague humanity. Rather than encourage technological innovation, this system thrives on preserving the status quo, exploitation, suppression of alternatives, and wasteful competition. By abolishing or reforming this arrangement, we could use already existing technologies to solve or drastically curtail problems like poverty, sickness, climate change, environmental destruction, unemployment, inequality, and economic recessions, and enable humans to thrive today, even as we invent new solutions. They look to things like automation, efficient high-speed public transportation, non-carbon energy sources like solar and wind power, prefabrication, mass production, and so on, as ways to solve problems that are held back by the existing vested political, religious and corporate interests. The Venus Project is a demonstration of their vision for the future.

Some arguments are economic in nature:

7.) Libertarian and anarchist narratives are deeply suspicious of hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control social structures. Libertarians have an almost fundamentalist-like faith in economic markets and free exchange, believing that any distortions and inefficiencies in markets are caused solely by outside interference, and that markets when left alone are self correcting and will deliver outcomes that are, if not perfect, at least the best we can hope for. They believe that private enterprise alone creates value, and that government is nothing more than a parasite and should be constrained to doing little more than providing for the efficient functioning of markets, typically confined to maintaining domestic civil order and legal adjudication. They believe that taxation is a form of theft, and that governments should not redistribute income in any way whatsoever, and that "the invisible hand of the market" will distribute goods and incomes in ways that are far more fair, equitable, and just than government bureaucrats. Many libertarians believe that digital technologies will create frictionless markets enabling them to function more efficiently and without any centralized control by governments. They point to things like Kickstarter, Taskrabbit and Bitcoin.

Anarchists are more suspicious of all sources of concentrated hierarchical power, including those that are built in to the very functioning of capitalist economies such as corporations, banks, police and the military, as well as institutions like absentee ownership and private property. They are critical of all forms of coercion and hierarchy, and unlike libertarians, believe that capitalism as we know it is utterly dependent upon coercion and control to function under our current arrangements. They argue that centralized, institutionalized power always leads to oppression, and point to numerous historical examples. They tend to advocate a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power, breaking up existing power structures, democratic control over government and the means of production, and for political and economic structures to be as small and localized as possible. They argue that humans are naturally cooperative, and will cooperate freely even in the absence of top-down control structures to meet their needs. The anarcho-primitivist critique goes even beyond this, and argues that  technological progress does not lead to human freedom and thriving, but inevitably to top-down control and repression, and that technological civilization is inherently oppressive and cannot, by its very nature and the nature of flawed human beings, be reformed. They argue that modern technological civilization is irredeemable and we would be better off curtailing or abolishing it, and that we should work towards this goal.

8.) Marxist economists have been deeply critical of capitalism historically. Rather than a perfect functioning mechanism headed toward equilibrium and voluntary exchanges between equals as capitalists and libertarians describe the economy, they see capitalist economies as inherently exploitative and prone to wild cycles of instability, as with the latest financial crash. Marxists see capitalist economies as based upon the exploitation of a vast pool of workers by a small class of greedy capitalists who own and hoard the means of production, producing extremes of poverty, inequality and alienation from what the workers themselves produce. They see economies not as neutral constructs but based in social relationships,class structures and the means and methods of production. They argue that the imperative of capitalism is to expand the amount of capital in the world in perpetuity, but argue that the natural tendency is for the rates of profit to fall over time due to intranicene capitalist competition, causing capitalism to enter periodic crises that will become worse and worse over time until the whole system breaks down and falls apart. Due to their association with the failure of Communist regimes around the world, Marxist economists have been marginalized and sidelined, and their arguments are suppressed and removed from mainstream economic discourse.

9.) Some heterodox economists focus on the role of debt and usury in the economy. They see cycles of debt leading to endless cycles of boom and bust. Rather than a perfectly balanced mechanism for economic coordination and distribution, they see markets as casinos based upon greed and fear. Furthermore, they argue that debts that cannot be repaid won't be repaid, and to pretend otherwise is folly. They argue that the insistence on paying every penny of debt is undermining the social contract and making a small sliver of society rich at everyone else's expense. They see debt as a potential mechanism of enslavement and control by financial elites over the rest of us. They point out that while debt can theoretically grow exponentially forever, the real world has no such ability and is subject to limitations. They argue for periodic debt jubilees, and point out numerous historical examples where debts have caused societies to fall apart in the absence of such. They also call for restrictions on usury, again pointing out numerous examples from the historical record.

10.) Some economists look at automation and artificial intelligence and see its abilities growing by leaps and bounds every year. They see this trend as exponential, and worry about its effects on the workforce.  They argue that the Fordist economy that underpinned the post-war period where most people work for a corporation in labor intensive occupations where they are paid sufficiently to consume what they produce, is a relic, and that we entering a post-Fordist period. If too many jobs are displaced by automation there will not be enough people with sufficient incomes to buy the economic output produced by automation under the current economic arrangements. Furthermore, if the owners of robots and automation can produce goods and services while requiring  minimal labor, much of the workforce will be sidelined with no real role as either workers or consumers becoming nothing more than dead weight, leading to even worse extremes of inequality. They point to things like manufacturing robots, self-scanning checkout lanes, ATM machines, IBM's Watson, Google's driverless cars, and online stores like These economists call for things like a universal basic Income, or gradually reduced working hours to cope with the effects. Some believe this will lead to a golden age of less work and expanded leisure time, while others worry about social unraveling and exploding poverty and unemployment.

These are just a few of the more popular alternative narratives that have appeared on the C-Realm podcast over the years. Certainly there are many more, along with stimulating discussions about consciousness, spirituality, philosophy, psychedelics, zombies, and other topics that do not fit into a convenient ideological box.

There is no one "correct" argument in the above, and I hope my summaries have done justice to these views. These arrangements have one thing in common - they are all virtually absent from mainstream discourse or debate in modern American society (with the possible exception of libertarianism). The media is designed to manufacture consent, not to further critical thinking. The above narratives are considered opinions that are currently extreme or beyond the pale by most people.  But I would argue they have something else in common: that they do a better job of explaining the world and predicting possible positive futures than the useless or even counterproductive discourse in the current media. So let us give thanks that week after week KMO seeks out these brilliant thinkers and gives them a platform where their ideas can be expounded and elucidated instead of marginalized and ridiculed.

I believe the amount of alternative narratives is steadily increasing, and I believe that the appetite for these narratives will only continue to grow as the mainstream media narrative spun by those in authority becomes ever more ridiculous, desperate, and at variance with what we see all around us, eventually turning into self-parody. And as that happens we may, finally be able to start talking about these things in the open. I an increasingly certain that that day will come. Thank goodness the C-Realm is there.

While this blog may seen like a grab bag of sorts, one thing I have wanted to provide is sources that question that narrative as well. In original writings and articles I post here, I want to question what I think question are the narratives we are all told to believe: that more technology is always better, that technological innovation and growth will solve all our problems, that we're living in the best of times, that produtivism should be the end goal of the economy, and so on. Later, I plan to explore a little bit more what some of the assumptions are behind what we're being told, and what some alternative views may be.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday Night Music, Ragnarök edition.

Well, temperatures late next week as March begins are expected to be in the single digits with below-zero windchills. So as Fimbulwinter continues here in the Midwest, it's appropriate that Ragnarok is set to begin this weekend. In honor of that here's some appropriate theme music.

Incidentally, some scholars think that these Norse legends were inspired by an actual ten-year winter during the Dark Ages that began in the year 536. Scholars have recently found some evidence that the winter may have been caused by dusty fragments from Halley's comet causing increased metor showers putting soot into the atmosphere. In any case, I for one will be enjoying watching the wolf Fenrir devouring the sun this weekend.

Prices and Revolutions

The Math That Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now (Motherboard):
Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we're seeing them now. The paper's author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.

Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient—2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that's when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sewn.
Interesting. This ties in nicely to Peter Turchin's ideas of Cliodynamics - using mathematical models to understand history. In fact, this theory has been put forward before; several years back historian David Hackett Fischer wrote The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. I've been meaning to pick up a copy at my local used bookstore, but in the interim, a review will have to suffice:
Like Paul Kennedy's ''Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' ''The Great Wave'' puts the present day in a historical perspective encompassing many centuries. Mr. Fischer, however, is less concerned than Mr. Kennedy with the effects of economic change on competition among nations. His focus is on the internal changes that societies and political cultures have experienced as the result of what he calls ''price revolutions.''

 Combining vivid narrative with shrewd dissections of quantitative evidence, he examines four eras in which prices steadily rose -- culminating in culture-shaking crises that were followed by briefer eras of stability and social progress before the next wave in price escalation hit. Thus, a medieval price revolution began in 1180, imploded around 1350, during the Black Death, and was followed by what Mr. Fischer calls the ''equilibrium of the Renaissance.'' Another price wave began in 1470, concluded with the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648, and was followed by the Enlightenment equilibrium. A third price revolution began in 1730, culminated in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and was followed by the ''Victorian equilibrium.'' Mr. Fischer argues that the world is now in the late stages of a 20th-century price revolution that began in 1896.

He describes each price revolution as proceeding through four stages. Rapid population growth and rising expectations start the wave by creating a demand-driven inflation. Prices eventually break the limits within which they fluctuated during the preceding period of equilibrium, society accepts inflation as a natural condition and individual citizens and governments act to shelter their own short-term interests. The choices made -- raising prices, expanding money supply and large-scale borrowing -- aggravate inflation. Because the rich can better protect themselves, social inequality increases during the third stage and instability ensues. In the final stage, the wave crests and breaks, and the existing social order crumbles.

Is the world in the final phase of this century's price revolution? Mr. Fischer is unclear. He points to crime waves and crumbling families as evidence of the instability encountered before the ultimate crisis, but the argument has the vagueness of analogy. He presents the fall of Communism as a beneficial part of the disintegration of the old order associated with the final stage. But why should it not be considered evidence of an instability that may lead to a less welcome collapse of order?
The High Cost of Living (NYT) Maybe Fischer was a bit too early (the book was published in 1997)

I see Ran beat me to this one (February 21). He connects it to something we posted a while back from David Brin: that the new epoch really begins about a decade and a half after the turn of the century. Of course, in addition to food, all commodities including energy are coming under pressure. I believe The Limits to Growth model had a tipping point being reached by 2030 on the standard run (which we are apparently following). His comment about agriculture is essentially the Marxist interpretation--that money is used to produce commodities to sell for more money rather than money serving as merely a neutral medium for the exchange of commodities as in conventional economic theory. This post has much more:
Marx begins by contrasting two forms of circulation: simple commodity circulation (C-M-C) and the circuit of capital (M-C-M).

Susan sells a pie for $10. She then uses this $10 to buy a book. A commodity (C) has turned into money (M) and then this money has turned into another commodity (C). The same sum of value has changed forms twice: Commodity-Money-Capital, or, as Marx abbreviates, C-M-C. C-M-C, or simple-commodity-circulation, deals with the production of commodities and their exchange with money.

This is contrasted to the circuit of capital: M-C-M. Here a capitalist starts with a sum of money with which she buys commodities. She then sells these commodities for money. Obviously this process is only worth the investment if the capitalist ends up with more money at the end of the process. There must be a profit in sight at the end of M-C-M in order for the circuit to begin.

These two processes, C-M-C and M-C-M, are qualitatively and quantitatively different. C-M-C starts with a use-value and ends with a use-value. When Susan begins the circuit she has a final use-value as her aim even though her initial production is production for exchange. By contrast our capitalist begins with value in the abstract and ends with value in the abstract. The goal of capitalist investment is not the attainment of a specific use-value but rather the attainment of value in the abstract, unattached to any specific use-value.
As for that point about Ukraine and food: Ukraine: forgotten granary of Europe (The Guardian)

Thursday, February 20, 2014


I've often wondered this - with humans being able to eat such a diverse variety of meats, why does our diet consist of chicken/beef/pork? Well, here's an article shedding some light on exactly that:

Why are the only American meat options chicken, beef and pork? (io9):
Before the American Civil War, Americans actually ate very little in the way of beef. Before the country started pushing West, most of the cattle Americans kept were dairy cattle, the sort that earn their room and board before heading to the abattoir. And beef wasn't as easy to preserve as pork, which could be salted or smoked. But as Americans spread out across the continent, so too did cows and pigs, and the availability of land made beef ranching practical where it hadn't been on the East Coast.

Even as urban Americans became increasingly removed from their food supply at the turn of the century, beef became an integral part of the American diet. A brief "beef famine" in 1902 saw both beef prices and American outrage soar. Even in the wake of the lean years of the Great Depression and during the meat rationing of World War II, the national appetite for beef continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and as incomes rose in post-war America, beef became a symbol of the suburban middle class, associated with, for example, backyard barbecues. And the beef industry matched the growing demanding for convenience, offering canned beef perfect for chili and hash. Beef wasn't just popular, not just a legacy from European meat-eaters; beef was modern.
Of course, now beef is so popular we're burning down the rainforests to get more of it. And meat production has all but assured the impotence of antibiotics in the near future.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Justifying unfairness

This study is fascinating. What is shows is that the more unequal a society, the more people feel that inequality is justified, and the more willing they are to believe in unfair outcomes:
There are two reasons for this, says Dr Trump. One is the status quo bias; a form of anchoring effect causes us to accept actually existing conditions. The other is the just world effect. We want to believe the world is fair, and if we want to believe something, it's very easy to do so. This is the system justification theory described (pdf) by John Jost and colleagues. There is, they say, "a general psychological tendency to justify and rationalize the status quo" which is "sometimes strongest among those who are most disadvantaged by the social order." 
All this corroborates my Marxian prior, that inequality generates cognitive biases - ideology - which help to sustain that inequality. 
Accepting Inequality (Stumbling and Mumbling). So inequality is a self-enhancing process.

And this study shows that lottery winners adopt more right-wing beliefs after hey become rich. This makes sense. In reality, most rich people have got there by winning some sort of lottery, whether it be by getting the right parents or being in the right place at the right time. They feel that because they clawed their way to the top, they must be better than everyone else by definition. So it is logical that the rich and powerful adopt right-wing economic beliefs to justify this:

Money makes people right-wing and inegalitarian (VoxEU)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

East is East and West is West

Some alternative Asian history today. This entry tries to answer a common question - why did China unify so early and stay fairly unified culturally while Europe was so divided among different states/peoples.
A new paper by economists Chiu Yu Ko and Tuan-Hwee Sng of the National University of Singapore, and Mark Koyama of George Mason University, says the Mongols have a lot to do with it:
"Historically, China faced a large unidirectional threat from steppe nomads. Europe confronted several less powerful external threats from Scandinavia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. We show that if multitasking is inefficient, empires will be unstable in Europe and political fragmentation the norm. On the other hand, empires were more likely to emerge and survive in China because the nomadic threat threatened the survival of small states more than larger ones."

According to the authors, centralization has allowed China to experience faster population and economic growth during peacetime—we’re clearly in the middle of one of those periods right now—but the presence of multiple states in Europe protects different parts of the continent and makes Europe less vulnerable to economic shocks.
How Come China Became One Country but Europe Became Lots of Countries? (Slate)

In fact, China's huge population may have hindered the creation of any sort of Industrial Revolution, since it was always pushing up against Malthusian limits. Unlike Western Europe, they did not have the population "release valve" in the form of the Americas. This article points out all the superior agricultural tools that were first invented in China and adopted much later in Europe:
1.) Seed drills are tools that bury seeds at a correct depth in a timely manner. Planting seeds at a good depth increases the chances of an individual seed sprouting without being eaten by birds. The use of seed drills also allows for planting in nice orderly rows with good spacing, so the sprouting plants have enough room to draw nutrients from the soil without mutually starving one another. Not every grain will germinate, but using seed drills to plant crops in rows increases the chances of any individual grain germinating. This allows you to eat more grains because you know only a small quantity is needed to replant fields. Chinese were using metal multitubed seed drills as early as 200 B.C. Seed drills make an appearance in Europe in 1566 A.D., about 1,700 years after their appearance in China.

2.) Iron moldboard plow:
The earliest plows in human history were basically a plank of wood that you knifed into the ground. Around 300 B.C., Chinese started using plows that were shaped in a way that they simultaneously cut into the earth and turned it, too. By 100 A.D., they were made entirely out of iron. Turning the earth is important for getting more nutrients out of your land and can even turn "barren" land fertile. So why did Chinese have all of these iron agricultural tools centuries earlier than Europeans? Because their methods of iron (and steel) production were also centuries ahead.

3.) Blast furnace: ...[S]ome time around 600 B.C., Chinese developed a furnace that could create a heat intense enough to melt iron: the blast furnace. Once liquified, iron could be poured into casts already in the shape of tools that were needed. The iron-casting industry was officially supported by dynastic governments, leading to widespread adoption of iron tools made to a standard. Cast iron is very high in carbon content, making it hard but brittle. Steel is iron that has a perfect balance of carbon to retain an edge but also maintain just enough flexibility to avoid brittleness. Around 200 B.C., Chinese learned that if air was blown over iron as it was being cast, the carbon content could be reduced, and what you wound up with was steel. Around 600 A.D., steel tools began to widely replace iron ones.

The earliest evidence of blast furnaces in Europe is 1100, with widespread adoption occuring in 1400. The process of creating steel I described above first appears in the Western world in 1855, and there's some contention that the "inventor" may have actually gotten the idea from Chinese workers in the U.S.As another illustration of the difference in iron production, by 1078 the foundries of northern China could produce 114,000 tons of iron a year. In 1788, England produced about 50,000 tons of iron.

Horse collar: A plow (or any other load) attached by a throat-girth harness means that a horse is basically pulling with a noose around its trachea. Around 300 B.C., someone in China thought, What if the horse pulled with its chest instead of its throat? So the breast-strap harness was born, and horses across China breathed a sigh of relief. This was improved on in 500 A.D. with the horse collar as we know it. The breast-strap harness appears in Russia in 700 A.D., and shows up further west in Norway around 800 A.D., with widespread adoption by 1200.
How Did Technology Help Create China's Historically Large Population? (Slate) By coincidence, I found a copy of Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White Jr. in my local used bookstore. That book goes into exhaustive detail about how and when each of the above inventions came to Medieval Europe and the effect each one had. In addition, it talks about the stirrup, three-field crop rotation using legumes, cannons and gunpowder, waterwheels, windmills, and clock-making. All of these were developed earlier in the East of course, with the possible exception of waterwheels, however the book details how the pendulum clock was vastly different than the Chinese water clock, and what that meant for technology and the conception of time.

Here's another take on why no industrial revolution in China:
The best answer we have is that it [Kiangnan and China] could not surmount the classic constraints of pre-industrial growth.  By the late eighteenth century it faced steeply rising costs for food, fuel and raw materials.  Increasing population and expanding output competed for the produce of a more or less fixed land area.  The demand for food throttled the increase in raw cotton production.  Raw cotton prices probably doubled in the Yangtze delta between 1750 and 1800.  The demand for fuel (in the form of wood) brought deforestation and a degraded environment.  The escape route from this trap existed in theory.  Kiangman should have drawn its supplies from further away.  It should have cut the costs of production by mechanization, enlarging its market and thus its source of supply.  It should have turned to coal to meet the need for fuel.  In practice there was little chance for change along such lines.  It faced competition from many inland centres where food and raw materials were cheaper, and which could also exploit China’s well-developed system of waterway transport.  The very perfection of China’s commercial economy allowed new producers to enter the market with comparative ease at the same technological level.  Under these conditions, mechanization — even if technologically practical — might have been stymied at birth.  And, though China had coal, it was far from Kiangnan and could not be transported there cheaply.  Thus, for China as a whole, both the incentive and the means to take the industrial "high road" were meagre or absent.
Why no Industrial Revolution in China? (Marginal Revolution)

And this gives me an opportunity to post this deleted chapter  from Brad DeLong's forthcoming economic history book (which was also featured in Progress was invented around 1870)
In the Tang Dynasty years before and the Sung Dynasty years after the year 1000, China had been the most progressive and innovative civilization in the world: innovative technologically, organizationally, and militarily. Its population—-60 million? 80 million? 100 million?—-was one of the most rapidly growing and best-fed populations in the world, thanks to the development of strains of rice that could be wet-planted, irrigated, and produce three crops a year in the fertile soil of China from the Yangtze basin south. China then led the world in non-agricultural technologies as well. At the start of the seventeenth century the British savant, politician, and bureaucrat Francis Bacon had marvelled at three inventions that he said had utterly transformed Europe: gunpowder, printing, and the compass. China had developed all three, and had developed all three before 1000.

China in the twelfth century at its pre-industrial relative apogee produced more iron and saw a greater share of agricultural production sold on markets than Britain would produce and market in the eighteenth. Zheng He's mid-fifteenth century voyages of exploration sailed four times as far with twenty times as many sailors as Columbus, and could land ten times as many soldiers at Dar es Salaam and Trincomalee as Cortez would land at Vera Cruz. China had long had the capability of launching its own “voyages of discovery.” Its governments had chosen not to, with that one exception. Zheng He’s fleet reached Zanzibar, and touched Africa, bringing back a giraffe. Annoyed at their treatment by a Sri Lankan king, they captured him and brought him back to China to make his apology to the emperor. But the political balance in the Ming court changed, the follow-up expeditions were cancelled, and the exploration program abandoned.

China led the world in political organization as well. No other ruler's writ ran a third as far or has even a third as large a chance of being obeyed as that of China's emperor. Tang Dynasty cavalry skirmished with Persians on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Sung Dynasty river navy was the only military force to even temporarily stymie Chingis Khan's Mongols, before his descendants took to fighting each other rather than expanding the empire. No pre-industrial central government anywhere ever managed to match the reach, extent, and power of the landlord-scholar-bureaucracy mode of domination invented under the Tang and developed under the Sung. The Sung Dynasty capital, Hangzhou, was before the Mongol conquest the largest city in the world—-larger than Baghdad or Constantinople or Cordova or Delhi—-with perhaps half a million inhabitants: the closest thing to an economic, cultural, and political capital the twelfth-century world had.

After 1800 British merchants did discover one commodity besides silver that Indian producers could supply and that Chinese consumers were eager to buy: opium. By the end of the 1830s the Chinese government was beginning to worry about the consequences of opium addiction on the country, and the exchange of European silver for Chinese goods had turned around: the bulk of the China trade was the exchange of Chinese silver for Indian-grown opium. The Chinese government attempted to suppress the opium trade and opium smuggling. The result was the 1839-1842 "Opium War," in which the British fleet intervened on the side of free trade, the sale of opium, and drug addiction. The British Empire acquired the then nearly barren island of Hong Kong as a base, European influence was established in a substantial number of "treaty ports" along the Chinese coast, and the division of China not into European colonies but into regions in the "spheres of influence" of different European powers began.

By the second half of the nineteenth century China’s relative apogee was three-quarters of a millennium past, and the government and the people were in crisis. The people were in crisis because they were more than three times as numerous as their predecessors at the pre-industrial apogee, because they were ruled by a rapacious landed aristocracy, and because progress in agriculture and industry to counterbalance rising population had been nearly absent for most of the second millennium. In 1100 the Chinese people were rich, or at least as rich as pre-industrial peasant societies get. At the start of the second millennium development of new types of crops and new strains of rice had greatly boosted agricultural productivity and triggered the centuries-long spread of China’s heartland from the Yellow River to the Yangtze and further south, to Hunan and Guangzhou. But by the second half of the nineteenth century Malthus was having his revenge. China had filled up, with more than 300 million people, which left average farm size less than third of what they had been three quarters of a millennium before, the bulk of peasant families were close to the edge. It is virtually certain that the average Chinese peasant family in the second half of the nineteenth century had less food than its predecessors in the twelfth: think of 1300 calories per person per day as a rough guess.

The technological dynamism and organizational relative edge that China had possessed in the twelfth century was gone as well. Chinese producers still had substantial technological edges in limited industrial segments: high end silk textiles, high-end porcelain, tea. But there had been little internally-driven technological progress in any industry for more than half a millennium. And the bureaucracy that in 1150 had looked efficient and powerful compared to a Europe—a place where no king would even think of asking an Earl of Pembroke to explain anything—by 1870 looked corrupt and incapable.

Why this 750 year relative stagnation is a great mystery. There are many potential suspects to take the blame as the root cause of China's long, long relative stagnation.

    Perhaps the root problem was that emperors, grand secretaries, and landlords feared their own generals more than they feared their neighbors' soldiers. European kings, ministers, and landlords sought a strong military to protect them and theirs against the next William the Conqueror or Friedrich II or Francois I or Napoleon I from across the border. In China there was little to fear from outside the empire (as long as the Mongols were kept divided), but a great deal to be feared inside the empire from your own generals—-men like the ninth-century An Lushan or the seventeenth-century Three Feudatories. Thus the military-industrial-metallurgy-innovation complex that drove so much of pre-industrial and early-industrial European technological progress was absent.

    Perhaps the root problem was that with triple-cropping rice strains the wet-rice fields were too fertile, the governmental bureaucracy too effective, and the avenues of establishment-oriented upward mobility to the striving and aggressive too open. After making a little money the logical next step was to buy some land. Because the land was rich, because labor was plentiful and cheap, and because the empire was (most of the time) strong internally, one could live well after turning one's wealth into land. One could also easily make the important social contacts to pave the way for one's children to advance further. And one's children could do the most important thing needed for upward mobility: study the Confucian classics and do well on the examinations: first the local shengyan, then the regional juren, and then the national jinshi. Those who had successfully written their eight-legged essays and made proper allusions to and use of the Confucian classics would then join the landlord-scholar-bureaucrat aristocracy that ruled China and profited from the empire. In the process of preparing for the examinations and mastering the material needed to do well on them, they would acquire the habits of thought and values of a Confucian aristocrat landlord-scholar-bureaucrat. Entrepreneurial drive and talent was thus molded into an orthodox Confucian-aristocratic pattern and harnessed to the service of the regime and of the landlord class: good for the rents of the landlords, good for the stability of the government, but possibly very bad indeed for the long-run development of technology and organization. Carlson (1957) quotes an imperial edict of 1724 condemning mining as a potential source of disorder and treason, for "[M]iners are easy to recruit but hard to disband. If mining is left to the initiative of merchants there wil be danger of crowds assembling and harboring treachery…"

    Perhaps the root problem was the absence of a new world rich in resources to exploit and helpless because of technological backwardness.

    Perhaps the root problem was the lesser weight attached to instrumental rationality as a mode of thought

    Perhaps the root problem was the absence of dissenting hidey-holes for ideological unconformity.

    Perhaps the root problem was the fact that the merchants and hand-manufacturers of China's cities were governed by landlords appointed by the central government rather than governing themselves.

    Perhaps the root problem was that large-muscled animals like oxen and horses turned out to be powerful productive multipliers for temperate rain-irrigated wheat-based agricultural but not for sub-tropical paddy-irrigated rice-based agriculture

    Perhaps the root problem was some combination of these.

    Perhaps the root problem was one or a combination of any of a host of other possibilities over which historians will struggle inconclusively (but thoughtfully and fruitfully) for the rest of time.
Where Was China?: Why the Twentieth-Century Was Not a Chinese Century: A Deleted Scene from My "Slouching Towards Utopia?: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century" Ms.

And as an added bonus: Why Didn't Japan Find the Americas First? (Slate) I've always thought Japan was the most likely contender for an Industrial Revolution outside of England. It was a fairly stable, uniform and peaceful society (in the Tokugawa era), with a high level of economic development. According to Wikipedia:
Economic development during the Edo period included urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, a significant expansion of domestic and, initially, foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries. The construction trades flourished, along with banking facilities and merchant associations. Increasingly, han authorities oversaw the rising agricultural production and the spread of rural handicrafts.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo had a population of more than 1 million and Osaka and Kyoto each had more than 400,000 inhabitants. Many other castle towns grew as well. Osaka and Kyoto became busy trading and handicraft production centers, while Edo was the center for the supply of food and essential urban consumer goods.

Rice was the base of the economy, as the daimyo collected the taxes from the peasants in the form of rice. Taxes were high, about 40% of the harvest. The rice was sold at the fudasashi market in Edo. To raise money, the daimyo used forward contracts to sell rice that was not even harvested yet. These contracts were similar to modern futures trading.
But perhaps most importantly, they had fairly sophisticated mechanical engineering of automata called Karakuri:
Karakuri are incredibly sophisticated mechanized puppets dating from Japan’s Edo period (200 to 300 years ago). The puppets perform astonishingly intricate tasks like writing and shooting arrows, powered by nothing more than handmade clockwork technology.
Karakuri, Centuries Old Japanese Clockwork Puppets (Laughing Squid) It's notable that they embarked on a path of conservation and isolation rather than expansion and conquest like the island on the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass.

Bonus: A short introduction to Confucianism (Disinformation)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday night music

How romance wrecked marriage

Some social history:
For most of recorded human history, marriage was an arrangement designed to maximize financial stability. Elizabeth Abbott, the author of “A History of Marriage” explains that in ancient times, marriage was intended to unite various parts of a community, cementing beneficial economic relationships. “Because it was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” Even the honeymoon, often called the “bridal tour,” was a communal affair, with parents, siblings, and other close relatives traveling together to reinforce their new familial relationships.

By the Middle Ages, gender inequality was not only enshrined in social customs, but also common law. In most European countries, married women were forced to give up control over any personal wealth and property rights to their husbands...Under such laws, children were generally viewed as assets, in part because they were expected to work for the family business. “People saw their kids as pawns, literally,” says Abbott. “They might love them, but even if they did, their children had a function to further the family’s economic interests, which was thought to be good for the whole family.”

But during the 18th century, increased globalization and the first Industrial Revolution were changing the world in ways even that the most affluent parents couldn’t control. “With the development of wage labor, young people started making more decisions independently from their parents,” says Coontz. “If I were a young woman, I could then go out and earn my own dowry, instead of waiting for my parents to bestow it on me after I married someone they approved of. Or, if I was a young man, I didn’t have to wait to inherit the farm; I could move somewhere else if I wanted to. This was greatly accelerated by the rise of the Enlightenment with its greater sense of personal freedom and, of course, the French and American revolutions of the 18th century, with the idea that people are entitled to the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”

As this philosophical support for individual choice spread, more young people wanted some say regarding their future spouses. “Demands for consent from the people actually getting married were thought to be quite radical,” says Abbott. Even more radical was the idea that marriage might be entered into for emotional, rather than financial, reasons.
Can't Buy Me Love: How Romance Wrecked Traditional Marriage (Collector's Weekly)
The Church of England’s resistance to divorce was so strong that the only route to a divorce was via an act of Parliament—a law voted through by both houses. Not surprisingly, few people had the means or inclination to expose their private unhappiness to the press, the public and 800-odd politicians. When a divorce law was finally enacted in 1857, and the “floodgates” were opened, the number of divorces in English history stood at a mere 324.

Only four of the 324 cases were brought by women. A husband needed to prove adultery to obtain a divorce. By contrast, a wife was required to prove adultery and some other especially aggravating circumstance to have the same grounds. Over the years, women learned that brutality, rape, desertion and financial chicanery did not count. In fact, Parliament seemed hard pressed to say what did, until Jane Addison launched her case in 1801. She won on the basis of Mr. Addison’s adultery and incest with her sister in the marital home.
The Heartbreaking History of Divorce (Smithsonian)

Don't take it personally...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why do we want more work?

The focus of conventional employment policy is on creating ‘more work’. People without work and in receipt of benefits are viewed as a drain on the state and in need of assistance or direct coercion to get them into work. There is the belief that work is the best form of welfare and that those who are able to work ought to work.  

This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating ‘less work’. Yet, as I will argue below, the pursuit of less work could provide a route to a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life.

The idea that society might work less in order to enjoy life more goes against standard thinking that celebrates the virtue and discipline of hard work. Dedication to work, so the argument goes, is the best route to prosperity. There is also the idea that work offers the opportunity for self-realisation, adding to any material benefits from work. ‘Do what you love’ in work, we are told, and success will follow.

But ideologies such as the above are based on a myth that work can always set us free and provide us with the basis for a good life. As I have written elsewhere, this mythologizing about work fails to confront – indeed it actively conceals – the acute hardships of much work performed in modern society. For many, work is about doing ‘what you hate’.


Economists may cry foul that a reduction in working time will add to firm costs and lead to job losses (mainstream economics accuses advocates of shorter work hours of succumbing to the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ and of failing to see the extra costs of hiring additional workers on shorter hours contracts). One retort to this is that longer work hours are not that productive. Shorter work hours may actually be more productive if they increase the morale and motivation of workers. In practice, we could achieve the same standard of living with fewer hours of work.

But the more profound question is whether we should be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero work hours for others. Surely society can achieve a more equitable allocation of work that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time, it can be argued here, would offer a route to such an allocation. 

There is also the deeper issue of whether we should be measuring the value of our lives by what we produce. The cult of productivity crowds out other more ‘leisurely’ ways of living that can add to human well-being. Challenging this cult and seeking ways to lighten the burden of work could allow us all to live better lives inside and outside of work.
The case for working less (Pieria) Much more at the link.
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal. 
These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear seperately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings. 
It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them — whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”

So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.

I like the way Drum puts it: “people want to believe that their fellow citizens are working.” The word believe suggests that it’s the ideology of what counts as work that’s doing the work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name of social solidarity.
Work It (Jacobin)
MG: How do you think employers would react to the proposal of a shorter working time?
AC: I have come across employers who said that their workforce is much more committed and harder working because most of them are on shorter hours. I have also come across employers who said they couldn’t imagine anything worse than having to manage a part-time workforce. As it happens I manage a part-time workforce and I have every variation on my team who come to work from one to five days per week. You’ve got to get used to it, but it’s not that difficult. Employers should be given incentives to take on part-time employees. We used to have a six day working week, and now we don’t. So you can get used to it. 
MG: And what is the reaction of politicians? 
AC: They are not very interested at the moment. We don’t think it is a proposal for next year’s election manifesto. But there is a huge interest among the public at large and in the media. It’s something that everybody relates to. So my feeling is that politicians will come round to it eventually. 
MG: But I wonder, isn’t it a good idea for these times of economic crisis — because it seems it would increase employment? 
AC: Well, indeed. And that’s what happened when we had a crisis in the 1970s. There was a national three day week in Britain, when the coal miners went on strike. Everybody thought it would be terrible for the economy but actually it hardly dented productivity, certainly not as much as people expected. It was quite a successful demonstration project.
A shorter working week is possible (Resilience) 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shitty jobs

It seems like every job in America is just getting worse and worse no matter who you are. I listened to this Radiolab podcast on working inside an Internet shipping warehouse:

 Even Apple employees aren't immune:

This Designer's Blog Post Makes Apple Sound Like an Awful Place to Work (Slate)

I love some of the comments:
GOP_Refugee: Empowered by positioning on an org chart, some seem to think they can treat others in a way that they never would in any other setting.  It never ceases to amaze me how people treat one another at work.

Pete R: That's true, but as a contractor (which I've done before), you just have to realize that you're not on the org chart.

GOP_Refugee: True but his experience is not that far off from what many full-time permanent employees experience.  The corporate culture at many American companies fosters psychopaths.

T3k: Success favors a certain kind of sociopath...The culture projected by Apple is a bunch of activated superdudes working in a Kubrick-style thought commune to save the world with whatever comes after the computer-phone. Sitting in egg chairs, openly smoking dope, letting the janitor bring an idea to the room.

But large companies tend to always be the same. Heirarchy, profit-centric decision making, petty tyrants, jammed printers, big paychecks, 24-hour-a-day work, and horrible soul-shattering meetings - this is what American business is made out of.
And as for the largest employer in America, well, things aren't too pleasant for the workers or for the customers:

A Walmart Worker Explains Why Walmart's Customer Service Is Horrible (Gawker)

Surely entrepreneurs, the heroes of our society, have it made:
Evernote chief executive Phil Libin:
The boss of note-writing mobile phone app and website Evernote, Mr Libin cautions that being a successful entrepreneur requires rather a lot of commitment.He says: "It is amazingly difficult work - you have no life balance, no family time, and you will never work harder in your life. It really can be brutal."

Mr Libin, whose company is based in Silicon Valley, California, also warns that most start-up business do not make their founders rich."If your motivation is to make money and have power, then you will be a very unhappy as an entrepreneur," says the 42-year-old. "But if your motivation is to make the world a better place, you can be a happy entrepreneur, a person who strives to achieve something."

Shazia Saleem:
Still just 29, Ms Saleem, of Luton, is already a veteran entrepreneur. Her previous business ventures have included redeveloping a rundown holiday resort in Cambodia, and she is about to launch a UK halal food brand called Ieat Foods.

She says business owners have to guard against loneliness.

"Everyone tells you it's lonely as an entrepreneur - it's a bit of an understatement," she says. "Many times the only person you can turn to for inspiration or comfort is the person staring back at you [often blankly] in the mirror. Carry your ego with you and it's a pretty lonesome journey. Ditch it, and you invite [from the right people, of course] support, company and experiences that make the journey much more worthwhile."

Box founder and chief executive Aaron Levie:
The chief executive of global cloud storage business Box, Mr Levie says starting your own business involves having to put up with tremendous hardships. This is something the 28-year-old has first-hand experience of, as after launching Box back in 2005 he spent the first two and a half years of the business sleeping on a mattress at its office in Silicon Valley, California.

And he lived off tins of spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce, and instant noodles.

"Starting up a new company requires an incredible level of commitment and determination over a very long period of time," says Mr Levie, who is now worth an estimated $100m. You pretty much have to clear your calendar for the next 10 years, and be focused on just one thing - your business. This leaves very little time for anything else - all you will be doing is working. This can be painful, so if you don't deeply enjoy what you are doing, then it really isn't worth doing it."
Is being an entrepreneur a nightmare? (BBC)

I recall that report from last year that said 70 percent of people hate their jobs and have basically checked out. It seems like everyone is demoralized and just going through the motions at this point. Is there anyone that cares about preserving this system anymore? Maybe 10-25 percent of people. Then why do people still support the status quo? How do things still go on?

History repeating?

Concentration of nation's wealth in the hands of the super rich - check.

A government captured by the interests of the wealthy - check.
A financial system out of control - check.
A new dust bowl - check.

All we need now is the crash:

Scary 1929 market chart gains traction (MarketWatch)

Scary, indeed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Peak water?

This is starting to make peak oil look tame:
On 17 January, scientists downloaded fresh data from a pair of Nasa satellites and distributed the findings among the small group of researchers who track the world's water reserves. At the University of California, Irvine, hydrologist James Famiglietti looked over the data from the gravity-sensing Grace satellites with a rising sense of dread.

The data, released last week, showed California on the verge of an epic drought, with its backup systems of groundwater reserves so run down that the losses could be picked up by satellites orbiting 400km above the Earth's surface.

"It was definitely an 'oh my gosh moment'," Famiglietti said. "The groundwater is our strategic reserve. It's our backup, and so where do you go when the backup is gone?"
There are other shock moments ahead – and not just for California – in a world where water is increasingly in short supply because of growing demands from agriculture, an expanding population, energy production and climate change.

Already a billion people, or one in seven people on the planet, lack access to safe drinking water. Britain, of course, is currently at the other extreme. Great swaths of the country are drowning in misery, after a series of Atlantic storms off the south-western coast. But that too is part of the picture that has been coming into sharper focus over 12 years of the Grace satellite record. Countries at northern latitudes and in the tropics are getting wetter. But those countries at mid-latitude are running increasingly low on water.

"What we see is very much a picture of the wet areas of the Earth getting wetter," Famiglietti said. "Those would be the high latitudes like the Arctic and the lower latitudes like the tropics. The middle latitudes in between, those are already the arid and semi-arid parts of the world and they are getting drier."
Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war (The Guardian)
China has lost more than an entire Netherlands-worth of wetlands in the last decade—340,000 sq. km, or 9% of China’s total land—to agriculture, development, and climate change, according to new figures from its State Forestry Administration. It’s the latest in a long line of ominous warnings about the water supply in China, which has one-fifth of the world’s population but only 6% of its freshwater.
China’s water shortage is so bad it could turn out the lights (Quartz)
In 2005, Jacob Sewall, then a scientist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, used computer modeling to predict that over the next 30 to 50 years in North America, changing current patterns caused by melting sea ice would increase average annual precipitation by 40 percent in the Northwest while decreasing it by 30 percent in the Southwest. Sewall told Mother Jones last week that sea ice has been melting faster than predicted, which could speed up the precipitation changes.
What else is the drought screwing up? Hydroelectric energy, which makes up about 14 percent of the state's power supply. With less water running through turbines, the grid may need to use more natural gas, which is more expensive. As a result, Californians' power bills may increase slightly in the coming months.
California's Drought Could Be the Worst in 500 Years (Mother Jones)
Californians need to be ready, because if some scientists are right, this drought could be worse than anything the state has experienced in centuries. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at rings of old trees in the state, which helps scientists gauge precipitation levels going back hundreds of years. (Wide tree rings indicate years of substantial growth and therefore healthy rainfall, while narrow rings indicate years of little growth and very dry weather.) She believes that California hasn’t been this dry since 1580, around the time the English privateer Sir Francis Drake first visited the state’s coast.
Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse. Scientists fear California's long-ago era of mega-droughts could be back (Time)

Shades of the Mayans and Anasazi?:
Twenty years ago, the water table under the Willeys’ farm measured 120 feet. But a well test in late January revealed that it is now 60 feet lower. Half of that decline, Tom estimates, has occurred in the last two years.  
The Willeys have done what they can to cope. They’ve cut back on less profitable crops, and they are already dedicated practitioners of sustainable agriculture. But many farmers aren’t, and the future is worrisome. Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. It’s no surprise Tom Willey wakes every morning with a lump in his throat. When we ask which farmers will survive the summer, he responds quite simply: those who dig the deepest and pump the hardest. 
Yet for all the doom around us, here in Fresno itself it is hard to find evidence that the drought is changing the behavior of city dwellers. Locals have made a few concessions, though mainly to mitigate the effects of the bad air. The two of us, for instance, have skipped afternoon jogs to ease the strain on our lungs.  
And while religious communities around the valley organized a day of prayer and fasting, entreating God to send rain, concrete efforts to solve the water problem are less apparent. Gov. Jerry Brown has called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent, but residential lawns, seeded each year with winter ryegrass, continue to glow in brilliant, bright-green hues, kept alive by sprinkler systems that are activated in the dark of night. 
Our behavior here in the valley feels untenable and self-destructive, and for much of it we are to blame. But we also find support among an enthusiastic group of enablers: tens of millions of American shoppers who devour the lettuce and raisins, carrots and tomatoes, almonds and pistachios grown in our fields.
The Dust Bowl Returns (New York Times)