Friday, October 31, 2014

The Vaporware of Techno Utopianism

I’ve written many times before on the tendency to see some sort of new wonder technology as the savior for all our problems, so I hope I don’t sound like a broken record. But the hits just keep coming, so I thought I’d single out a few new technologies that have been nominated in the press recently as “game changers” that “will save the world” in the popular press.

The reactions to these are as fascinating as the technologies themselves. Each one promises to plug in to our current arrangements and make our current living arrangement sustainable. The popular press, as is its wont, serves these up on a platter to an American public looking for some sort of technological miracle to keep us from having to make hard choices or change our living arrangements in any way.

First, let’s look at something which got a bit of attention a while back – solar roadways. Given America’s love affair with driving, it seems awfully appealing that we could just turn all our roadways into solar panels and keep the Happy Motoring utopia chugging along. “Solar FREAKIN' roadways!” screams the over-the-top press juvenile release.

More level heads immediately saw the unfeasability of this idea. The immediate thing I noticed when I first saw the promotional image was that a series of low rise buildings line the road on both sides, but none of them have solar panels on the roof!

Solar panels function best when the sun’s rays are perpendicular to the panel, which is why they are recommended to be mounted at +-5 degrees of altitude (45 degree angle at 45 latitude). It just so happens that such a roof configuration is also ideal for shedding rain and snow in wet climates that exist at that latitude (too bad modernism dictates flat roofs). So why put all your solar panels flat on the ground, where they would be less efficient?

More to the point, why would come up with some sort of fancy high-tech solar roadway when you haven’t even bothered to put the solar panels we have right now on the roofs of your buildings? To me, this was the epitome of our starry-eyed worship of techno-novelty in the place of simpler common-sense solutions we could engage in right now.

But that’s only the beginning. What happens when ice and snow covers the roadways? What about all the difficulties of engineering glass to withstand the weight of cars and trucks. Isn’t glass slippery in wet conditions? Are there enough rare earth metals in the universe to cover the nation’s 75,000 square kilometers of road? And how, when governments can’t even maintain the roads they have now can we put down solar roadways down when we can’t even afford asphalt? We’re already turning roadways back into gravel for cost reasons. We can’t even afford to bury our electrical cables instead of hanging them on poles where they are vulnerable to weather. Parts of our electrical system date back to Thomas Edison. Shouldn't we fix that first?

Fortunately, I don’t have to go further debunking this idea because it’s been done for me, and with much more information:

Would Solar Roadways Work? A Government Engineer Discusses the Controversial Technology (GreenTechSolar)

Hard Road Ahead for Solar Freakin’ Roadways (Scientific American)

Are Solar Roadways the Answer to Our Energy Problems? (Sam Woolfe):
Now, the ‘Solar Freaking’ Roadways’ video praises the money-saving benefits of this futuristic technology, but much more money (and time) could be saved if solar panels were installed above parking spaces and/or by the side of the road, rather than beneath it. Why install solar panels in a harsh environment when they are constantly being run over and flexed by millions of tonnes of vehicles? There are many more practical locations. The textured glass surface itself will also reduce the amount of sunlight that could potentially reach the solar panels. 
Another problem with the supposed costs of building these solar roadways is…who is going to pay for this astronomically expensive project? Well, it would have to be the government, but more pertinently, the taxpayers. It has been argued that the solar panels will pay for themselves because they generate energy (and therefore revenue) but how long would it take to match and then surpass the initial (astronomical) investment? 100 years? More? The planet is in a dire state of affairs – what we need are cost-efficient, speedy and eco-friendly solutions, not far-fetched utopian ideas.  
Many others have been re-iterating these criticisms, saying that the project is not well thought out. Aaron Saenz on Singularity hub estimates that to replace all of the US roadway systems with solar roadways would cost $56 trillion dollars! That’s four times the country’s national debt. This estimate is based on Brusaw’s valuation of each solar unit costing $10,000 (which has a lifespan of only 20 years by the way) and based on the ~800 billion square feet of US roadway that would need to be covered. Furthermore, based on the prototypes developed, it is not clear that the panels can generate significant amounts of electricity. Another issue is how the roadways could store the electrical energy – as Saenz says: “…there would have to be some major infrastructure to translate a solar road into a continuous source of electricity.” In other words, more costs! 
Another cost incurred from solar panels would be the need to convert DC electricity (which is what the solar panels would generate) into AC electricity (which is what we use and which is the easiest way to transport electricity around). To bury the necessary cables, which the couple envision doing, would also be very expensive.
No Solar Roadways Anytime Soon (Chris Martenson):
I think the vigor and intensity with which people donated to this project speaks mainly to the desire to find a quick fix to our self-destructive ways. Turning our roadways into a magical paths that will end our economic woes, eliminate pollution, and reduce accidents touches right down upon that particular nerve. 
But the idea simply does not pass the common sense test. 
Why would we spend more on a per watt basis to get less out of a roadway when we could simply put known and proven technology up on all the vacant rooftops? 
If people aren't inspired by the current returns of solar on rooftops or in open fields, they are going to positively hate the returns from the solar roadways idea.  Poor orientation, shading, dirt, water and ice, wear and tear, and design considerations being driven by vehicle weight vs. maximizing solar gain are all going to erode this idea's final delivery compared to a traditional dedicated installation. 
Instead of getting excited about a solar roadway, it's time to get serious about reducing our use of energy and putting what funds we have at our disposal into the myriad proven technologies that already exist and which can be implemented in known ways with calculable benefits. 
Nowhere in this pitch for solar roadways that so many people have responded to is any science, economics or engineering for the viewer evaluate.  There is no guesstimate of cost, no evaluation of output per unit of area, no comparison to existing solar substitutes, and no tests of dirt/grime or other occlusions showing the effect on output.
In other words, nothing that any reasonable person might use to assess whether this is a worthwhile idea or not.  
From a marketing standpoint, though, I think they did fantastically. Solar FREAKIN' Roadways!!!
Yup, in America it's all about the marketing isn't it?

Moving on past this stupid idea, we get to one with a bit more realism – self driving cars. I have to admit, from everything that has been reported so far, it seems like this is a slam dunk, ready to go solution. This has been touted as the solution for all our traffic woes. Because the computer drives so perfectly, it is argued, we will be able to cram even more cars on the roadways and with no accidents. In fact, this article claims that driving will become so simple and easy that suburbs will be a more attractive option and we'll have even more suburban sprawl. This article speculates about how the self-driving car will reshape our cities.

Like solar roadways, this is another techno-utopian solution that promises to keep the status quo going. But hold on a minute. This article on Slate casts serious doubt on whether the self-driving car is even viable. And reading it, I have to admit, I don’t see how self-driving cars stand a chance.

1.) They are dependent upon complex mapping and networks to navigate. What happens when the network goes down? And what happens when driving becomes dependent upon a single company? Will we have to pay Google just to drive?

2.) There is no way to deal with road closures and construction. Where I live, half the roads are closed at any given time, often with very little notice. What happens if a water main breaks and a street is closed. Keeping track of every road closure and every construction project in the country with perfect accuracy is nigh unto impossible.

3.) It’s been said that the car has driven 700,00 miles safely. But it turns out that these are miles on the same patch of roadway over and over again in sunny southern California!

4.) The car cannot park itself.

5.) The car cannot distinguish even simple obstacles like a plastic bag or cardboard box in the middle of the road from actual obstacles. Can it even handle potholes? It’s amazing how little this has been reported.
[T]he Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway....But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. Since maps are one of the engineering foundations of the Google car, before the company's vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you'd ever want to take the car. So far, only a few thousand miles of road have gotten the treatment, most of them around the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company frequently says that its car has driven more than 700,000 miles safely, but those are the same few thousand mapped miles, driven over and over again. 
Another problem with maps is that once you make them, you have to keep them up to date, a challenge Google says it hasn't yet started working on. Considering all the traffic signals, stop signs, lane markings, and crosswalks that get added or removed every day throughout the country, keeping a gigantic database of maps current is vastly difficult. .. MIT roboticist John Leonard says it goes to the heart of why the Google car project is so daunting. "While the probability of a single driver encountering a newly installed traffic light is very low, the probability of at least one driver encountering one on a given day is very high," Leonard says. The list of these "rare" events is practically endless, said Leonard, who does not expect a full self-driving car in his lifetime (he’s 49). 
But the biggest issue with the Google car is one that has bedeviled computer researchers for as long as computers have been around: how to endow the machines with the sort of everyday knowledge that humans acquire and use from childhood on. Because Google is promising the world a totally driverless car, it will need an in-vehicle computer that can deal not only with all the obvious tasks of driving but anything else the world throws at it, whether on a congested city street or a highway with an 85 mph speed limit. 
Computer scientists have various names for the ability to synthesize and respond to this barrage of unpredictable information: "generalized intelligence,” "situational awareness,” "everyday common sense." It's been the dream of artificial intelligence researchers since the advent of computers. And it remains just that. "None of this reasoning will be inside computers anytime soon," says Raj Rajkumar, director of autonomous driving research at Carnegie-Mellon University, former home of both the current and prior directors of Google's car project. Rajkumar adds that the Detroit carmakers with whom he collaborates on autonomous vehicles believe that the prospect of a fully self-driving car arriving anytime soon is "pure science fiction."
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen. (Slate)

So the actual experts believe this is “pure science fiction.” But you wouldn’t know this from reading the press would you?

Finally, let’s turn to a potential solution to our energy predicament – fusion reactors.

Consider the reaction to the news that Lockheed Martin had made some sort of “breakthrough” what was actually quite fuzzy) in creating a fusion reactor. This was widely reported. This certainly falls under the rubric of “they will think of something” After all, those scientists at Lockheed Martin are very smart people.

But people who know a little bit more about this idea were skeptical:
On paper, fusion energy has almost unlimited potential. A fusion reaction releases an extraordinary amount of energy by slamming together light atoms, such as hydrogen, to make heavier ones, such as helium. (Fission is essentially the opposite: breaking apart heavy atoms, such as uranium, to make lighter ones.) Fusion is the same process that powers the sun—and it's so efficient that we'd have enough atomic fuel on Earth to satisfy our civilization's need for energy for, essentially, forever. The problem is that it's really hard to slam those atoms together hard enough. You need incredibly high temperatures, tens or hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, so that the atoms are moving fast enough to get the reaction going. But as you heat your fuel up, you have to keep it contained. A 100-million-degree plasma wants to explode in all directions, but if you're going to keep the reaction going, you have to keep it bottled up. What do you make the bottle out of? 
The sun's bottle is gravity. Because the sun is so massive—more than 300,000 times the mass of our planet—it has an enormous gravitational field. It's this field that compresses and constrains the hydrogen fuel and keeps it from flying off every which way. But without a sun-size mass to provide the gravity, you've got to find other ways. One way—and it works beautifully—is to use an atom bomb as the bottle. …The design works, but it’s a pretty poor solution to the world's energy needs. It's tough to turn a fusion weapon into a safe supplier of electricity. 
Bottling up the power of the sun will always be 20 years away. (Slate)

And another comment:
Lockheed hasn’t released many details of their concept (at least, not enough details that it can actually be evaluated in technical detail), but it looks like it’s a combination of a magnetic mirror and a levitated dipole. The magnetic mirror was studied in detail in the 1960s and 1970s and didn’t work out (due to [detailed plasma physics reasons]) and the levitated dipole has a fundamental flaw as a power-producing reactor in that the superconducting magnets are inside the neutron shielding – neutrons destroy the magnets.  
It’s tough as a scientist to be able to comment on things like this, because it’s “science by press release”, i.e. there’s a big media hype but the actual researchers don’t release enough technical details to actually evaluate it. One wants to remain cautiously optimistic, but with fusion in particular, we’ve been down this road many, many times. Thus I predict that the most likely outcome is that as they scale their device up, they’ll find that the confinement (a measure of how well the device holds a fusion plasma) unexpectedly drops off due to some different types of turbulence turning on at higher temperatures / higher pressures… and it will quietly go away. 
From the comments, on a fusion reactor (Marginal Revolution)

Grist also points out the fallacy of thinking some new gee-whiz technology will solve all the world’s energy and climate woes:
First, to address climate change, we need to stop using fossil fuels fast. To stay below the internationally agreed upon limit of 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent by the year 2050. If we put off our reductions until the second half of the century, we will have overstuffed the atmosphere with so much carbon that we will be sailing into 3 degrees C and greater temperature rise by 2100, triggering very serious long-term feedback loops that put us at risk for warming that will continue for centuries, even if we get our carbon emissions under control. 
Second, for this new technology to displace fossil fuels, it would need to reach billions of people in very short order. Over a billion people worldwide don’t have access to electricity, but millions each year are gaining access. This new technology would need to be deployed worldwide to reach people with energy access now, and others who will soon get it. To do this, Lockheed Martin would have to produce and ship millions of fusion reactors, each of which is expected to be the size of a school bus. 
So, the challenge, for those betting on new technology to get us out of this climate mess, is that within 35 years, we need a new zero-carbon technology to come out of the lab, become commercially available, and for the world to adopt its use right away. Anything that develops beyond 2050 will be important, but won’t help us avoid the worst of climate change...Consider this: The first public cellphone call was made in 1973. Ten years later, the first cellphones became commercially available. From 1984, it took another 15 years or so for cellphones to become the ubiquitous devices they are today. That’s very fast. We’ve never seen this in the energy sector. 
Fusion won't save us from climate change (Grist)

So these three techno-solution reported by the popular press and trumpeted by a bunch of optimists who don’t know anything about the technologies themselves. When examined closely by people who do know what they are talking about, however, these turn out to be “vaporware” a product announced with great fanfare to the general public but never actually manufactured or officially cancelled.
This reminds me of all the talk about how solar panels and 3d printing will bring about a New Industrial revolution – the implication being we’ll go back to the employment and growth rates of the first two industrial revolutions. But to me, it seems like 3D printing just produces more plastic junk which we have too much of anyway. And by many measures, producing 3D goods takes more energy than large-scale manufacturing and distribution. See:
I won’t point the finger at one company or one discipline but I am struck by the absence of sustainable discourse in the maker movement. Daily, we read swooning odes to the 3-D printer, the CNC router and other cutting edge manufacturing technologies but read almost nothing that approaches these developments through a much-needed critical lens. Every tchotchke is celebrated as if it were as significant as the wheel or the printing press. 
In Japanese culture, there is a word for this: chindogu. The literal translation is “weird tool,” but the concept is about utility, or lack thereof. Kenji Kawakami coined the term as a way to point out objects that are invented under the premise of solving a problem, but which, in practice, only generate more problems, rendering them devoid of utility. Kawakami humorously calls them “unuseless,” which is to say, they have a function, it’s just not one that helps us (and it may be one that harms us). 
In Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner writes of what he calls the “ironic unintended consequences’’ of human ingenuity, ranging from antibiotics that promise the cure of disease but end up breeding resistant microorganisms, to a new football helmet, designed to reduce injuries, that actually encourages a more violent style of playing, thus creating the risk of more serious injury. We’re experiencing some of these ironies now as we use technology to solve the wrong problems. We’re in a period where almost anyone has the tools to make almost anything – but are we making the right things? Or too many of the wrong ones? 
There seems to be a misconception about what 3D printing does and does not enable. Does it allow us to delight a four-year-old by pulling a mini Darth Vader toy seemingly out of thin air? It does. But the object doesn’t materialize from nothing. A 3D printer consumes about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding to make an item of the same weight. On top of that, the emissions from desktop 3D printers are similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove. And the material of choice for all this new stuff we’re clamoring to make is overwhelmingly plastic. In a sense, it’s a reverse environmental offset, counteracting recent legislation to reduce plastic use through grocery bag bans and packaging redesigns. While more people tote reuasable cloth bags to the supermarket, plastic is piling up in other domains, from TechShop to Target.
Yes We Can. But Should We? (Allison Arieff, Medium)

And this brings me to another point I make often – I believe we’re constantly promised these miracle technologies in order to keep us complacent and to prevent us from questioning a system that is increasingly falling apart. As long as we keep waiting for the big techno-fix to come along and solve all our problems, we will endure any hardship along the way to make it happen. As James Howard Kunstler has said, we are "conditioned to expect miracles." But we need to get over it. Miracles, by definition, are impossible.

“They will think of something” takes all the agency out of our hands – which is what those in power want.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Novelty versus Progress

Good essay on technology:
Consider something relatively straightforward, like a multi-touch interface on your closet door that allows you to easily browse and experiment with your wardrobe, offering suggestions based on prior behavior, your upcoming schedule and the weather in the locations where you are expected throughout the day. Or a car that, as it makes real-time navigational adjustments in order to compensate for traffic anomalies, also lets your co-workers know that you will be a few minutes late, and even takes the liberty of postponing the delivery of your regular triple-shot, lactose-free, synthetic vegan latte. There’s very little about these types of scenarios that isn’t entirely possible right now using technology that either already exists, or that could be developed relatively easily. So if the future is possible today, why is it still the future?

I believe there are two primary reasons. The first is a decidedly inconvenient fact that futurists, pundits and science fiction writers have a tendency to ignore: Technology isn’t so much about what’s possible as it is about what’s profitable. The primary reason we haven’t landed a human on Mars yet has less to do with the technical challenges of the undertaking, and far more to do with the costs associated with solving them. And the only reason the entire sum of human knowledge and scientific, artistic and cultural endeavor isn’t instantly available at every single person’s fingertips anywhere on the planet isn’t because we can’t figure out how to do it; it’s because we haven’t yet figured out the business models to support it. Technology and economics are so tightly intertwined, in fact, that it hardly even makes sense to consider them in isolation.

The second reason is the seemingly perpetual refusal of devices to play together nicely, or interoperate. Considering how much we still depend on sneakernets, cables and email attachments for something as simple as data dissemination, it will probably be a while before every single one of our devices is perpetually harmonized in a ceaseless chorus of digital kumbaya. Before our computers, phones, tablets, jewelry, accessories, appliances, cars, medical sensors, etc., can come together to form our own personal Voltrons, they all have to be able to detect each other’s presence, speak the same languages, and leverage the same services.

The two reasons I’ve just described as to why the future remains as such — profit motive and device isolation — are obviously not entirely unrelated. In fact, they could be considered two sides of the same Bitcoin. However, there’s still value in examining each individually before bringing them together into a unified theory of technological evolution.
And this is a good point:
I’ve come to the conclusion over the last few years that it’s far too easy to confuse novelty with technological and cultural progress, and nothing in my lifetime has made that more clear than smartphones. It used to be that computers and devices were platforms — hardware and software stacks on top of which third-party solutions were meant to be built. Now, many devices and platforms are becoming much more like appliances, and applications feel more like marginally tolerated, value-add extensions... let’s consider a few other attributes of appliances: They typically only do what their manufacture intends; they are the very paragons of planned obsolescence; and they generally operate either entirely in isolation, or are typically only compatible with hardware or services from the same manufacturer.

The reality is that novelty, and both technological and cultural progress, are only loosely related. Novelty is usually about interesting, creative or fun new products and services. It’s about iterative progress like eking out a few more minutes of battery life, or shaving off fractions of millimeters or grams, or introducing new colors or alternating between beveled and rounded edges. But true technological and cultural progress is about something much bigger and far more profound: the integration of disparate technologies and services into solutions that are far greater than the sum of their parts.

Progress is about increasing access to information and media as opposed to imposing artificial restrictions and draconian policies; it’s about empowering the world to do more than just shop more conveniently, or inadvertently disclose more highly targetable bits of personal information; it’s about trusting your customers to do the right thing, providing real and tangible value, and holding yourself accountable by giving all the stakeholders in your business the ability to walk away at any moment...
The future is disappearing: How humanity is falling short of its grand technological promise  (Salon)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Human Germ

A lot of times when you hear studies pointing out that human population will not magically stabilize at nine billion when we all become latte-sipping, SUV-driving cubicle drones, but will just keep growing to perhaps 11 billion by century's end, you hear people saying "We'll never reach that!"

According to this study, neither another world war, a global pandemic, or a universal one-child policy will do anything to stop runaway population growth thanks to demographic momentum.

Apparently nothing can stop humanity from behaving like yeast:
According to the study, attempts to curb our population as a short-term fix will not work. If China's much criticised one-child policy was implemented worldwide, the Earth's population in 2100 would still be between five and 10 billion, it says.

"We've gone past the point where we can do it easily, just by the sheer magnitude of the population, what we call the demographic momentum. We just can't stop it fast enough," said Prof Corey Bradshaw from the University of Adelaide. "Even draconian measures for fertility control still won't arrest that growth rate - we're talking century-scale reductions rather than decadal scale, because of the magnitude."

In their paper, the researchers also look at the impact on numbers of a global catastrophe in the middle of this century. They found that even an event that wiped out two billion people would still leave about eight and a half billion in 2100. "Even if we had a third world war in the middle of this century, you would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years," said Prof Bradshaw, something he described as "sobering".
Population controls 'will not solve environment issues' (BBC)
The pace of population growth is so quick that even draconian restrictions of childbirth, pandemics or a third world war would still leave the world with too many people for the planet to sustain, according to a study.

Rather than reducing the number of people, cutting the consumption of natural resources and enhanced recycling would have a better chance of achieving effective sustainability gains in the next 85 years, said the report published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were surprised that a five-year WW3 scenario, mimicking the same proportion of people killed in the first and second world wars combined, barely registered a blip on the human population trajectory this century,” said Prof Barry Brook, who co-led the study at the University of Adelaide, in Australia.

The second world war claimed between 50 million and 85 million military and civilian lives, according to different estimates, making it the most lethal conflict, by absolute numbers, in human history. More than 37 million people are thought to have died in the first world war.

Using a computer model based on demographic data from the World Health Organisation and the US Census Bureau, the researchers investigated different population reduction scenarios. They found that under current conditions of fertility, mortality and mother’s average age at first childbirth, global population was likely to grow from 7 billion in 2013 to 10.4 billion by 2100.

Climate change, war, reduced mortality and fertility, and increased maternal age altered this prediction only slightly. A devastating global pandemic that killed 2 billion people was only projected to reduce population size to 8.4 billion, while 6 billion deaths brought it down to 5.1 billion.

“Global population has risen so fast over the past century that roughly 14% of all the human beings that have ever existed are still alive today. That’s a sobering statistic. This is considered unsustainable for a range of reasons, not least being able to feed everyone as well as the impact on the climate and environment,” said co-author Prof Corey Bradshaw, also from the University of Adelaide.
Global overpopulation would ‘withstand war, disasters and disease’ (Guardian)

In other words, we're f*cked.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Secular Stagnation and the Limits to Growth

You have heard the term “secular stagnation” recently in regards to the economy. This is a major point of discussion among economists right now, and since long-term trends in economics is one of the things we do here, it makes sense to pay attention to it.

Matt Yglesias has written a good article at Vox explaining the basics.
For starters, it has nothing to do with secular versus religious. Instead, the term comes to us from a 1939 presentation given by Alvin Hansen titled "Economic Progress and Declining Population Growth." In these tailing days of the Great Depression, Hansen was trying to draw a contrast between a cyclical period of slow growth and a structural transformation of the economy. Hansen believed that the world was not experiencing a down period during an up-and-down series of fluctuations. Instead, he said, "we are passing, so to speak, over a divide which separates the great era of growth and expansion of the nineteenth century" from a new era of much slower growth. 
The Depression, in other words, was not a passing phenomenon but rather something that might last indefinitely. Instead what happened is that Nazi Germany launched a war that ended up intersecting with an already-ongoing military conflict between Japan and China. This battle lasted for years and involved nearly the entire planet. During its course, global output surged — though production was mostly dedicated to killing people and blowing things up rather than increasing living standards. But after the war, the economies of Western Europe and North America boomed. Secular stagnation was largely forgotten. But with growth consistently disappointing in recent years, interest in Hansen's ideas has rebounded. 
Importantly, although the rapid return of growth led to a collapse of interest in the secular stagnation hypothesis it didn't exactly debunk it. Hansen's argument was that the American economy lacked the kind of self-correcting forces that would restore an adequate level of demand and end the Depression. The outbreak of a giant world war is definitely not the same thing as an economy self-correcting — it was an enormous external source of stimulus.

Or more basically:

...the hypothesis was that there was a fundamental excess of desired savings over desired investment, and that this would require government intervention on a sustained basis to achieve full employment.

This ideas and terminology from Albert Hansen were resurrected when economic high priest Larry Summers began using it to explain what he thought was wrong with the economy. Secular stagnation is not a realization of the fact of lower growth, it is a theory as to the cause of lower growth. It argues that the problem is not with supply, but inadequate demand, and that restoring this demand requires a stimulus. In the Great Depression, World War 2 provided the necessary stimulus. Here’s Paul Krugman:
To the extent that secular stagnation is an important and perhaps shocking concept, it really has to be distinguished from the proposition that potential growth is slowing down. 
What I wrote:
For those new to or confused by the term, secular stagnation is the claim that underlying changes in the economy, such as slowing growth in the working-age population, have made episodes like the past five years in Europe and the US, and the last 20 years in Japan, likely to happen often. That is, we will often find ourselves facing persistent shortfalls of demand, which can’t be overcome even with near-zero interest rates. 
Secular stagnation is not the same thing as the argument, associated in particular with Bob Gordon (who’s also in the book), that the growth of economic potential is slowing, although slowing potential might contribute to secular stagnation by reducing investment demand. It’s a demand-side, not a supply-side concept. And it has some seriously unconventional implications for policy. 
This is a really important distinction, because secular stagnation and a supply-side growth slowdown have completely different policy implications. In fact, in some ways the morals are almost opposite. 
If labor force growth and productivity growth are falling, the indicated response is (a) see if there are ways to increase efficiency and (b) if there aren’t, live within your reduced means. A growth slowdown from the supply side is, roughly speaking, a reason to look favorably on structural reform and austerity. 
But if we have a persistent shortfall in demand, what we need is measures to boost spending — higher inflation, maybe sustained spending on public works (and less concern about debt because interest rates will be low for a long time).
Krugman mentions other theories of stagnation, such as those of Robert Gordon who we’ve covered extensively in the past. Yglesias fills in some details:
The most prominent alternative to secular stagnation is probably the technological slowdown hypothesis. This view, best represented in academia by Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon, in the business world by investor Peter Thiel, and in the popular press by Tyler Cowen, posits that slow growth is a structural phenomenon due primarily to a slowdown in the rate of technological progress. Cowen's book the Great Stagnation is a good treatment of these ideas. 
Another idea you sometimes hear about is the Limits to Growth hypothesis which dates back to a 1972 book by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens. This is the view that there are fundamental ecological limits to the expansion of human economic activity, and that only a slowdown or cessation of growth can make continued human existence sustainable. 
These ideas distinguish themselves from secular stagnation in that they are primarily ideas about the supply side of the economy. In other words, they say the economy is growing slowly because we are running out of new inventions or natural resources. The secular stagnation hypothesis, by contrast, is the view that the economy can no longer be trusted to maintain an adequate level of demand. One way to dramatize the difference is to specifically focus on unemployment. The technological slowdown hypothesis is primarily the belief that we won't get much richer over the next few years, even if people do manage to get jobs. The secular stagnation hypothesis is the opposite view — the view that we may get a bunch of shiny new gadgets, but unemployment will stay high.
The mention of the Limits to Growth study is good, but it does not really acknowledge the problems of Peak Oil – the idea that we’ve reached limits because we’ve maxed out the return on investment of crucial energy supplies, and thus will be economically constrained. My guess is that, since LTG was mentioned, the lack of Peak Oil theory comes from a lack of knowledge rather than a deliberate attempt to ignore it. It’s a sad sign of the ignorance of these ideas of the punditocracy.

Fortunately, Nate Hagens has given an excellent speech summarizing the ideas and ramifications of Peak Oil (long, but well worth watching in full). Someone might want to email this to Yglesias (as if he would watch it):

Also missing is the Marxist theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. I don’t know much about this theory, so I don’t know if this is a valid cause or not.

There’s another reason there is inadequate demand – inequality. The middle class is being gutted and doesn’t have the money to afford what the economy produces, while the rich have so much money that they have nothing to do with it but watch it pile up. It reminds me of the manure theory of the money – if it piles up it stinks and festers, but if you spread it around it helps things grow:
Secular Stagnation and Wealth Inequality, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: Alvin Hansen introduced the notion of “secular stagnation” in the 1930s. Hansen’s hypothesis has been brought back to life by Larry Summers... 
A brief summary of the hypothesis goes something like this: A normally functioning economy would lower interest rates in the face of low current demand for goods and services... A lower interest rate helps boost demand. 
But what if ... real interest rates need to be very negative to boost demand, but prevailing interest rates are around zero, then we will have too much savings in risk-free assets — what Paul Krugman has called the liquidity trap. In such a situation, the economy becomes demand-constrained. 
The liquidity trap helps explain why recessions can be so severe. But the Summers argument goes further. He is arguing that we may be stuck in a long-run equilibrium where real interest rates need to be negative to generate adequate demand. Without negative real interest rates, we are doomed to economic stagnation. ... 
In our view, what is missing from the secular stagnation story is the crucial role of the highly unequal wealth distribution. Who exactly is saving too much? It certainly isn’t the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution! We have already shown that the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution holds almost no financial assets. 
Further, when the wealthy save in the financial system, some of that saving ends up in the hands of lower wealth households when they get a mortgage or auto loan. But when lower wealth households get financing, it is almost always done through debt contracts. This introduces some potential problems. Debt fuels asset booms when the economy is expanding, and debt contracts force the borrower to bear the losses of a decline in economic activity. Both of these features of debt have important implications for the secular stagnation hypothesis. We will continue on this theme in future posts.

Others argue that the financialization of the economy has meant that it's all about wealth taking rather than investment in productive assets:
I wonder if the key is “secular,” as in sector, as in sectoral misallocation. Many observers of the US economy have worried about the impact of financialization—the relative growth of the finance sector—on growth. Part of the concern is the bubble machine, and part is the devotion of considerable resources to non-productive activities. 
And the misallocation is profound. Who out there thinks financial markets are playing their necessary role of allocating excess savings to their most productive uses? Anyone?
And what does mainstream economics recommend. Mainly low interest rates. But what if low interest rates do nothing more than inflate bubbles?
Summers ... thinks low rate policies contributed to full employment in the mid-aughts and late-'90s only by encouraging speculative bubbles in first the stock market and then the housing market. For Summers, the question is not what's happened for the past five years but rather "can we identify any sustained stretch during which the economy grew satisfactorily with conditions that were financially sustainable" in the last 15 years. In this view, government spending — especially on infrastructure — is the only real cure.
Wikipedia also has some information on the possible causes of economic stagnation:

I think this explains the skepticism on the part of peak oil people for both the actions of the Federal Reserve and government-funded economic stimulus. Economists typically assume the problem is demand, whereas Peak Oil and Limits to Growth believes the problem is supply, that is, growth is no longer possible nor desirable. As Krugman himself points out, if you believe that is the case then your proescriptions are totally different – “If labor force growth and productivity growth are falling, the indicated response is (a) see if there are ways to increase efficiency and (b) if there aren’t, live within your reduced means. A growth slowdown from the supply side is, roughly speaking, a reason to look favorably on structural reform and austerity.”

And I think this is why so many Peak Oil people favor of policies that restrict growth and shrink the economy.

I would argue that this also fits in with a degrowth agenda. Not pointed out above is the argument which I’ve made extensively that there are diminishing returns inherent to growth and technological progress. That is, each unit of growth and each new electronic doodad gives us less and less benefit at the margin, while producing more downsides in terms of pollution, stress levels, etc.. However, if we pursue lower growth as a policy, then we also need to think about distribution. William Galton writes:
Unforeseen developments may have a similarly transformative effect in the decades to come. But we cannot rule out the possibility that the current woes of the developed economies reflect long-term structural changes. Because growth is so central to healthy societies and healthy politics, we should do everything possible to ward off stagnation—including adopting policies that would have been unthinkable when the magic of the market was regarded as the sure cure for our ills.
For me, those “unthinkable” things would be Modern Monetary Theory - the idea that the government is not “revenue constrained,” but can spend directly to build public transportation, micro-housing for the homeless, solar panels, rebuild crumbling infrastructure, and so forth. It would include be a shorter work week. It would include revitalizing local economies to able to provide for people rather than a global economy of exports and workers competing against the cheapest labor anywhere in the world. And it would certainly include putting restrictions on the predation of the working classes.  Too bad none of these things are possible as long as plutocrats control our politicians and media outlets.

If we don’t do anything, as Thomas Piketty has argued, the rate of return on investments will exceed the growth rate of the economy and the wealth of the already wealthy ill increase without bound. This will lead to “patrimonial capitalism” in his phrase, or as I’ve argued, a Neofeudal social order.

We’ve seen how this works out in practice – soaring levels of debt, low-wage scut jobs, crumbling cities full of homeless people and drug addicts, declining education rates, the rich in gated communities, and a lack of public services including even a loss of first world services like running water. Some facts:

The bottom 90 percent of Americans are poorer than they were in 1987. Nearly all of the wealth accumulated by the middle class during the Great Compression after World War 2 has been wiped out.

The share of total income earned by the top 1 percent of families was less than 10 percent in the late 1970s but now exceeds 20 percent as of the end of 2012. Just 32,000 people, own about 11 percent of national wealth.

The Walmart heirs alone are worth more than the entire state of Louisiana.

Student debt is over 1 trillion dollars. One in 10 working Americans between the ages of 35 and 44 are getting their wages garnished.over an old credit card debt, medical bill or student loan.

Somehow I doubt that fiddling with interest rates is going to fix all of this.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is Intelligence Rooted In Movement?

We tend to believe that human intelligence and the human body are two separate things. That is, we think that the activities of the mind take place when we sit still, and that these are totally separate from, maybe even in opposition to, physical movement. Thus, the image of learning is sitting totally still in confined spaces (desks, cubicles) immobile, while physical activity is the opposite - merely "play" or "recreation."

It is commonly assumed that what makes humans unique is our neocortex which is associated with things like abstraction, planning, and forethought, and language. It is commonly believed that the expansion of these capacities is what led to the flowering of complex culture and human domination of the planet.

What scientists recently found, however, is that the cerebellum actually expanded faster than the neocortex in human evolution. I think this says something about the extreme importance we accrue to planning and self-control in modern societies, as opposed to our physical and creative sides which are constantly denigrated and suppressed in modern industrialized societies:
When we search for the seat of humanity, are we looking at the wrong part of the brain? Most neuroscientists assume that the neocortex, the brain's distinctive folded outer layer, is the thing that makes us uniquely human. But a new study suggests that another part of the brain, the cerebellum, grew much faster in our ape ancestors.
"Contrary to traditional wisdom, in the human lineage the cerebellum was the part of the brain that accelerated its expansion most rapidly, rather than the neocortex," says Rob Barton of Durham University in the UK.

With Chris Venditti of the University of Reading in the UK, Barton examined how the relative sizes of different parts of the brain changed as primates evolved.

During the evolution of monkeys, the neocortex and cerebellum grew in tandem, a change in one being swiftly followed by a change in the other. But starting with the first apes around 25 million years ago through to chimpanzees and humans, the cerebellum grew much faster.

As a result, the cerebellums of apes and humans contain far more neurons than the cerebellum of a monkey, even if that monkey were scaled up to the size of an ape. "The difference in ape cerebellar volume, relative to a scaled monkey brain, is equal to 16 billion extra neurons," says Barton. "That's the number of neurons in the entire human neocortex."
Cerebellum's growth spurt turned monkeys into humans (New Scientist)

If it's the cerebellum that made us human as much as the neocortex, then perhaps we've been going about education the wrong way by emphasizing "pure" intellect as something distinct from the body. Maybe that's why so many of our most fertile minds came not from the confines of a desk or a classroom, but people who were actually out in the real world exploring, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Thomas Edison to Einstein. The Greeks, the intellectual overachievers of the ancient world knew this - mens sana in corpore sano. But in the West, beginning with Descartes, we began emphasizing the intellect as its own unique thing separate (or even in opposition to) the physical body - cogito ergo sum.

That's the point of this article about education. Why is education considered so "boring," especially for young men whose bodies are designed for physical activity for a young age? It's not because learning is inherently boring, because our brains were designed for learning by evolution. It's because of the way we go about it in the West (and the East) where learning takes place by denying our physical selves to the greatest extent possible:
School and college are often cited as chronically boring mainly because of the teaching style and the subject material. But it’s more likely because of the ingrained sedentary culture of constant sitting, according to the documentary.

“The subjects don’t make school boring,” said Boredom director Albert Nerenberg. “It’s the constant sitting. Constant sitting turns people’s brains into mush.

According to a 2000 OECD survey of students in 35 countries, nearly half of 15-year-olds said they often felt bored at school on average. Ireland reported 67% of teenagers reporting frequent boredom, compared to 61% in the U.S.

From the onset, in almost every country in the world, students are trained to sit still in classrooms and this tradition of non-stop sitting continues well into college.

Psychologist and Author Earl Henslin, (This is Your Brain on Joy), explains in the film that it’s the immobile nature of students that will eventually make most experiences boring.“When a person stops moving, the cerebellum starts to slow down,” Henslin explains in the film. Because the cerebellum, which is largely activated by movement, is so central to the brain, that when the cerebellum deactivates, the whole brain slows down. Then the parts of the brain concerned with attention, and concentration have a tougher time operating.

“A person will have a very hard time concentrating,”said Henslin. Long term sitting causes the brain to fog up. Because you can’t pay attention, things will eventually become boring.
Traditionally educational styles have restricted movement for students. Desks limit movement while kids are trained to sit absolutely immobile for long stretches.

“When you look at a classroom,” said Boredom director Albert Nerenberg. “You’re basically looking at a room of people suffering the excessive effects of sedentary behaviour – listlessness, yawning, stress and inability to concentrate.” The sedentary effect may also extend to the political arena where people are known to faint or pass out while listening to political speeches. “When the cerebellum slows down and breathing stalls, it gets easier to faint,”said Nerenberg. “Particularly when a speech is extremely monotonous.
“What people don’t realize is that sedentary, monotonous culture is a menace to society,” said Nerenberg. “It’s boring and it’s deadly.” Sedentary behaviour has been linked to a number of chronic conditions including depression, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
The Secret Reason School Is Boring (Disinfo)

It's no wonder we've made relatively little progress intellectually since we began herding people into classrooms, as least compared to where you would expect us to be given our technological capabilities. An eighth grade exam from rural Kentucky 1912 would stump many graduate students today, despite all our patting ourselves on the back for our "educational attainment." Isn't it possible that chasing these slips of paper aren't making us any smarter, but rather they are used mainly as class differentiators and justifications for inequality? Is it any wonder boys are failing at education, and that educational achievement is falling across the board?

And the solution being proposed is supposedly staring into computer screens instead of staring into blackboards, along with less recess, longer school years, more standardized tests, and less music and art education. But if the above is correct, the expansion of the cerebellum is what made us human, including our art, music, science and intellect, rather than just the neocortex. Then why do we think denying what made us human will somehow help us to learn, especially since mass education is supposedly a key hallmark of "progress?"

Do we even want smarter people, or just more docile people willing to conform and do their jobs without making a fuss?

Don't answer that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

These are not instruction manuals

Somewhere I recall someone making the point that modern governments are acting is if George Orwell's 1984 was less of a warning than an instruction manual.

Now it seems like Silicon Valley is using Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as an instruction manual.

What does it say that the two greatest dystopias of twentieth-century fiction have been the most reliable guides to life in the twenty-first?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Peak Oil Derp

Paul Krugman (remember him?) has been taking about what he called  inflation “derp,” meaning an opinion held in contravention of all evidence, and posts this handy chart:

As I recall, runaway inflation has been a standard prediction of much of the Peak Oil blogosphere over the past several years as well. This was also combined with warnings of the imminent collapse of the U.S. dollar and a default on the federal debt. Many Peak Oil commentators also called for eliminating the Federal Reserve, and a return to the gold standard.

My question, and I ask it in all sincerity, is, why? These economic ideas come directly from the right-wing “Austrian School” of economics. Why were these obscure, right-wing economic doctrines embraced by so much of the Peak Oil commentariat? You know who these people are, so I’m not going to name names.

What’s exceptionally bizarre to me about this is that Peak Oil, rightly or wrongly (in my opinion wrongly), has been associated with the political Left. Yet so many people in the Peak Oil sphere enthusiastically embraced the narrative being promoted by right-wing Libertarians that the Federal Reserve is the (exclusive) source of all our economic woes, that gold is the only “real” money, and that “money printing” will lead to runaway inflation and a “debasement” of the currency. If you read many peak oil sites, you would also hear constant scorn being heaped on the likes of Krugman and Ben Bernanake (like Krugman, Bernanke seemed to inspire a bilious, visceral hatred in the angry white males of the blogosphere that Janet Yellen simply can’t match. Must be something about bearded Jewish Princeton economists)

Again, why? Why did so much of the Peak Oil movement embrace these narratives promoted by people like the Koch Brothers and Ron Paul? It’s strange bedfellows indeed – you had libertarian  free-market fundamentalists espousing the exact same economic ideas as people who believed that the very substance that underpins modern industrial capitalism was irretrievably running out. How did they end up espousing the exact same economic philosophy? Why did so many Peak Oil people align themselves politically with extreme free-market fundamentalists like Ron Paul, who believes that a nineteenth century economic regime with no central banking, regulations or worker protections is the key to prosperity for all?

And many in the movement have been doubling down on this. If you point out that inflation is low, you get conspiracy theories about how inflation numbers are secretly being manipulated. Oil prices are going up, but of course Peak Oil people should know that has nothing to do with money printing but rather the increased costs of going after harder-to-get oil sources. College and medical costs have been rising, but that’s because these industries are predatory and fuelled by federal subsidies. Housing costs have been rising, but this is due to a housing bubble, scarcity (in urban areas) and extreme income inequality. These aren't caused by “money printing.”

I think maybe the idea is that if the authorities were not talking about Peak Oil, than they were not talking honestly about other things, and conspiratorial anti-government ideologies were embraced. And the biggest ones on offer ready to go was the ones being stoked and kept alive by anti-government libertarians and the John Birch Society. So, many peak oilers encountered these ideologies and signed on board, thinking that these ideas were another “suppressed" ideology just like peak oil. If the authorities were lying and keeping peak oil a secret, then they must be lying about the Federal Reserve and money printing and all of that as well. And economists like Krugman were in on the scam!

I think there’s also an element of nostalgia. Ron Paul and his libertarians portray an idealized world before the Progressive movement and central banking destroyed a land of plucky individualists and striving entrepreneurs. The fact that the people themselves who lived in this time period (1880s-1920s) fought to end the rapacious rule of Robber Baron elites, the impoverishment (and sometimes outright murder) of the working classes and the complete immiseration of people who had no social safety net to fall back on (no “private charity” was not better) is not mentioned. America’s expansion took place before central banking and during the days of the gold standard (or bimetallism), and there fore if we go back to those days we will go back to economic expansion. Correlation does not equal causation, however. The nineteenth century expansion was caused by a wide-open frontier (the Homestead Act, land speculation), plentiful raw materials, and new technologies (telegraphs, railroads, electricity). Not to mention constant booms and busts occurred during that time ruining millions of people and plunging them into desperate poverty much worse than today. All of this is ignored by Libertarians.

Finally, there is a general anti-centralization, anti-government vibe in much of the movement that was amenable to the anti-government message of libertarianism. But the anti-government message of libertarianism has always been self-serving. It’s all about eliminating the regulations that hold back and restrict the power of the wealthy while maintaining and strengthening the powers of the wealth and corporations. The people who sign onto that agenda are “useful idiots” for the plutocrats. Many peak oil commentators (Kunstler specially) are openly nostalgic for the Horatio Alger days of nineteenth century America and believe that they can magically be recreated by shrinking the government. Peak Oil feeds into this nostalgia and distorts their views, causing them to embrace this libertarian idealization of the Robber Baron era.

But by embracing these fringe economic ideologies, hasn’t the peak oil movement done tremendous damage to their credibility? By throwing their lot in with these obscure schools of economics and constantly predicting things that haven’t happened (derp), the Peak Oil movement risks undermining the message of very real and imminent dangers of Peak Oil that threaten our civilization and our economy. It doesn’t help matters when people like Kunstler consistently predict a stock market collapse and that all 315+ million Americans will become dirt farmers staring at the backside of a horse all day and living like Amish in the next twenty years when the U.S. oil output is a actually increasing. Yes, its is temporary and these are wells that will deplete very quickly, but rather than examine the implications of that, he just doubles down on his earlier predictions.

And that leads me to another rant. Why is Ron Paul-style Libertarianism portrayed the only possible option for those opposed to the drug war and military industrial complex? This article got quite a bit of attention recently: Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived? (New York Times)
Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position, while the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders has led to the wondrous spectacle of Rick Perry — the governor of Texas, where more inmates are executed than in any other state — telling a Washington audience: “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money.” The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb, with calls by Republicans to rein in federal profligacy now increasingly extending to the once-sacrosanct military budget. And deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington, which is somewhat unanticipated given that the surveiller in chief, the former constitutional-law professor Barack Obama, had been described in a 2008 Times Op-Ed by the legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen as potentially “our first president who is a civil libertarian.”
So, according to the article, the reasons for the “Libertarian moment” are:

1.) Opposition to the failed drug war.
2.) Opposition to the military-industrial complex and persistent foreign wars.
3.) Opposition to the prison-industrial complex
4.) Support for gay marriage.
5.) Decriminalizing victimless crimes like drug use, prostitution, and abortion.
6.) Opposition to the banking and corporate bailouts (not mentioned, but also true)

How did these views become associated with the right-wing? It’s a stunning piece of co-opting. In the 1960’s the people protesting the war and dropping acid weren’t right-wing libertarians, they were left-wing hippies. Many were even Marxists! In fact, the left has always supported every single one of the above points. Yet we’re not told the country is moving to the left, or having a “Marxist moment,” instead it’s a “libertarian moment.” And then we’re given all this evidence that Libertarianism is “young,” “hip,” and “cool.” Gee, why is that?
Meanwhile, the age group most responsible for delivering Obama his two terms may well become a political wild card over time, in large part because of its libertarian leanings. Raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them, the millennials can no longer be regarded as faithful Democrats — and a recent poll confirmed that fully half of voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party. Obama has profoundly disappointed many of these voters by shying away from marijuana decriminalization, by leading from behind on same-sex marriage, by trumping the Bush administration on illegal-immigrant deportations and by expanding Bush’s N.S.A. surveillance program. As one 30-year-old libertarian senior staff member on the Hill told me: “I think we expected this sort of thing from Bush. But Obama seemed to be hip and in touch with my generation, and then he goes and reads our emails.”
How did the left become associated with big, oppressive government? When did it become associated with absolute statism? Do people on the left support any of the above things? WTF? The (real) left has opposed these things forever! But there is not “leftist” or “socialist” moment. Socialism isn’t “young, hip and cool." It doesn’t have fancy conferences and media personalities (generously funded by corporate elites as the article points out). Hmmm, I wonder why.

Moreover, if you oppose all of the above things (and I do), why must you also embrace the libertarian principles of no regulations for Wall Street, no unions, no worker protections, and no interference whatsoever in the “free” market? If you oppose the above, then apparently “Libertarianism” is your only option. Gee, isn’t that convenient that this anti-military, anti-drug war ideology also embraces eliminating all taxes and regulations on corporations and worker protections? Yet many who would consider themselves leftist have embraced this movement with open arms. As I remarked to KMO, the drug war has served as the best recruiting tool libertarians could ask for. But are libertarians the only people opposed to the drug war? I seem to recall that the people smoking joints in the sixties weren't exactly right-wingers. What happened?

Here’s what I think – the corporate elites see the writing on the wall with the failure of the drug war, the authoritarianism of the religious right agenda, and the frustration with an out-of control military/police/incarceration complex. These ideas were associated with the left in the 1960's, but a true leftist movement would threaten corporate power and extreme wealth  inequality as well. What to do? The answer: Embrace these obscure right-wing libertarian doctrines of free market fundamentalism and heavily subsidize them to co-opt the left. Voila, you have Libertarianism! Because if the corporate elites can co-opt this social shift and channel into Libertarianism (which they can control), they can ride the social changes without any threat to their wealth and power. In fact, they can even expand it! And that’s exactly what they have done; wealth inequality is back to where it was before the Great Depression, and yet people are fighting for a smaller social safety net, less worker protections, less regulation for Wall Street, and lower taxes on the wealthy thanks to Libertarianism. Genius!

And that ties in to my first point. Because the right-wing libertarian ideas are heavily subsidized, I think a lot of the Peak Oil commentariat jumped onboard, not realizing they were secretly backing the power of the wealthy and corporations. And that’s too bad. Because if you care about the implications of peak oil, you can’t help but be saddened by this ongoing display of peak oil derp. If peak oil wants to be taken seriously (and it should), it needs to start dealing with the real world and real facts, and not embrace these ridiculous fringe ideologies and conspiracy theories.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Collapse, 1177 Edition

From the "collapse is the norm, not the exception," files:
The Late Bronze Age that [George Washington University professor Eric H.] Cline is interested in stretches from about 1500 B.C. to 1100 B.C. The Bronze Age itself, as opposed to the Stone Age before it, begins somewhere around 3000 B.C. At that point, people developed sophisticated metallurgy techniques allowing them to mix copper and tin into an alloy — bronze — strong enough for serious sword blades and other goods. It is in the Bronze Age that city building, and the sprawling kingdoms they engendered, begins in earnest. Egypt of the pharaohs was a Bronze Age civilization as was the Babylonian empire.

It was the transport of copper and tin for bronze that helped establish complex trade networks. Grain and manufactured goods also became part of that transportation web. Alliances between city-states followed. In this way, the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians became the economic powerhouses of the ancient world — what Cline calls the "Group of 8." Together they built the first version of a "global" culture using long-distance economic and military partnerships that required advanced — for its day — technologies.

The evidence that a prolonged shift in climate was a factor in bringing down the Mediterranean Bronze Age comes from a number of studies...showing that cooling sea surface temperatures led to lower rainfall over inland farming areas. Pollen analysis ...also indicates a fairly rapid transition to a drier climate during this period that includes the Late Bronze Age collapse. What followed were drought, scarcity and desperation...And with famine came migration and wars. The scourge of the era was the mysterious "Sea Peoples" who had swept across the region... it is likely that the marauding Sea Peoples came from the western Mediterranean and "were probably fleeing their island homes because of the drought and famine ... moving across the Mediterranean as both refugees and conquerors."

For Cline, climate change — along with the famines and migration it brought — comprised a "perfect storm" of cataclysms that weakened the great Bronze Age "global" culture. But the final blow, the deepest reason for the collapse, may have come from within the very structure of that society.

The world of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians was complex, in the technical meaning of the word. It was a system with many agents and many overlapping connections. That complexity was both a strength and weakness. Cline points to recent research in the study of so-called complex systems that shows how susceptible they can be to cascades of disruption and failure from even small perturbations. Perhaps, Cline says, the Bronze Age societies exhibited the property called "hypercoherence" where interdependencies are so complex that stability becomes ever harder to maintain.

Thus complexity itself may have been the greatest threat to late Bronze Age civilization once the pressures began. And it is that fact, more than anything else, that speaks to the dangers we face today....
 Lessons From The Last Time Civilization Collapsed (NPR)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Progress and Happiness

(This short post turned into a long one again. Apologies.)
Here is an excellent and provocative article in the UK Guardian, Were we happier in the stone age? Does modern life make us happy? We have gained much but we have lost a great deal too. Are humans better suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

The article takes us through "The Whig View of History" In America we might call this the Conservative or conventional view:
One common preconception – often termed "the Whig view of history" – sees history as the triumphal march of progress. Each passing millennium witnessed new discoveries: agriculture, the wheel, writing, print, steam engines, antibiotics. Humans generally use newly found powers to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations. It follows that the exponential growth in human power must have resulted in an exponential growth in happiness. Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people.

But this progressive view is highly controversial. Though few would dispute the fact that human power has been growing since the dawn of history, it is far less clear that power correlates with happiness. The advent of agriculture, for example, increased the collective power of humankind by several orders of magnitude. Yet it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. For millions of years, human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind.

In return for all this hard work, peasants usually had a worse diet than hunter-gatherers, and suffered more from malnutrition and starvation. Their crowded settlements became hotbeds for new infectious diseases, most of which originated in domesticated farm animals. Agriculture also opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and possibly patriarchy. From the viewpoint of individual happiness, the "agricultural revolution" was, in the words of the scientist Jared Diamond, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".
It wasn't just the transition to agriculture, however. Much of human history has consisted of the immiseration of the masses and increasing control by sociopathic elites. The conventional view that 'progress' is good continues despite the fact that it has been so thoroughly discredited by modern scholars:
The case of the agricultural revolution is not a single aberration, however. The march of progress from the first Sumerian city-states to the empires of Assyria and Babylonia was accompanied by a steady deterioration in the social status and economic freedom of women. The European Renaissance, for all its marvellous discoveries and inventions, benefited few people outside the circle of male elites. The spread of European empires fostered the exchange of technologies, ideas and products, yet this was hardly good news for millions of Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians.

The point need not be elaborated further. Scholars have thrashed the Whig view of history so thoroughly, that the only question left is: why do so many people still believe in it?
They believe it because that's what they are taught to believe. Elites require us to believe it so that we will continue to throw away their lives in service of 'growth' and 'progress', which as the above illustrates, benefits predominantly elites at the top of the pyramid. Economics is the bible and economists are the high priests of this cult and must promote it at all opportunities.

Why else do they believe it? Well, the modern world after the Industrial Revolution, with its automobiles, airplanes, washing machines and iPhones is given as the evidence. But note that nowhere in this narrative do fossil fuels occur. The Industrial Revolution is the one time in history where living standards advanced for the majority of the population. But I contend that this has nothing to do with increasing growth or population, or even some wooly notion of 'progress.' It was entirely due to the surplus resources and energy brought about by the plundering of the colonial world and the harnessing of a massive and unprecedented surplus of energy in the form of half a billion years of stored sunlight. Now that those resources are in decline, I contend, increasing growth will only lead to poverty and immiseration for most of us, despite the panacea of "technological innovation," which as the article out more more often leads to lower living standards rather than higher ones. As we'll see below the Industrial Revolution has been a very short period of time in human history, one which we take for granted as lasting forever without evidence, and one with significant drawbacks of its own.

The author contrasts the Whig view of history with the views articulated by people like, well, me (and Christopher Ryan).
There is an equally common but completely opposite preconception, which might be dubbed the "romantic view of history". This argues that there is a reverse correlation between power and happiness. As humankind gained more power, it created a cold mechanistic world, which is ill-suited to our real needs.

Romantics never tire of finding the dark side of every discovery. Writing gave rise to extortionate taxation. Printing begot mass propaganda and brainwashing. Computers turn us into zombies. The harshest criticism of all is reserved for the unholy trinity of industrialism, capitalism and consumerism. These three bugbears have alienated people from their natural surroundings, from their human communities, and even from their daily activities. The factory worker is nothing but a mechanical cog, a slave to the requirements of machines and the interests of money. The middle class may enjoy better working conditions and many material comforts, but it pays for them dearly with social disintegration and spiritual emptiness. From a romantic perspective, the lives of medieval peasants were preferable to those of modern factory-hands and office clerks, and the lives of stone-age foragers were the best of all.

Yet the romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every novelty is as dogmatic as the Whig belief in progress. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has beaten back the army of diseases that prey on humankind, from tuberculosis and measles to cholera and diphtheria. Average life expectancy has soared, and global child mortality has dropped from roughly 33% to less than 5%. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who might otherwise be dead, but also of their parents, siblings and friends?
However, the author himself mentions above that these diseases only became prevalent after the rise of agriculture and sedentism. Here's Spencer Wells in Pandora's Seed: "Most of the worst scourges of human health until the advent of vaccination in the eighteenth century were imports from our farm animals, including measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and influenza...As far as we can tell from the archaeological record, none of these so-called zoonotic diseases...afflicted our Paleolithic ancestors--all seem to have arisen in the Neolithic with the spread of farming. [William H.] McNeill suggests that many of the plagues described in the Bible may coincide with the explosion of zoonotic diseases during the emergence of the urban civilizations of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages."

And here's anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen:
Many major vector-borne infections may also have been less important among prehistoric hunter-gatherers than they are in the modern world. The habits of vectors of such major diseases as malaria, schistosomiasis, and bubonic plague suggest that among relatively small human groups without transportation other than walking these diseases are unlikely to have provided anything like the burden of morbidity and mortality that they inflicted on historic and contemporary populations...The increase in the transportation of people and exogenous diseases seems likely to have had far more profound effects on health than the small burden of traveler's diarrhea imposed by the small-scale movements of hunter-gatherers...There is also evidence, primarily from ethnographic sources, that primitive populations suffer relatively low rates of many degenerative diseases compared, at least, to the more affluent of modern societies, even after corrections are made for the different distribution of adult ages.

Contrary to assumptions once widely held, the slow growth of prehistoric populations need not imply exceedingly high rates of mortality. Evidence of low fertility and/or the use of birth control by small-scale groups suggests (if we use modern life tables) that average rates of population growth very near zero could have been maintained by groups suffering only historically moderate mortality (life expectancy of 25 to 30 years at birth with 50 to 60 percent of infants reaching adulthood figures that appear to match those observed in ethnographic and archaeological samples) that would have balanced fertility, which was probably below the averages of more sedentary modern populations. The prehistoric acceleration of population growth after the adoption of sedentism and farming, if it is not an artifact of archaeological reconstruction, could be explained by an increase in fertility or altered birth control decisions that appear to accompany sedentism and agriculture. This explanation fits the available data better than any competing hypothesis.
And of course lowered infant mortality leads to increased population pressure causing competition for limited resources and a sicker population overall. And besides, there is a very realistic chance we will lose the use of antibiotics in the near future. So the author could have picked some better examples. Anyway,
A more nuanced stance agrees with the romantics that, up until the modern age, there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. But the romantics are wrong in their harsh judgment of modernity. In the last few centuries we have not only gained immense powers, but more importantly, new humanist ideologies have finally harnessed our collective power in the service of individual happiness. Despite some catastrophes such as the Holocaust and the Atlantic slave trade (so the story goes), we have at long last turned the corner and begun increasing global happiness systematically. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the decline of international wars; the dramatic drop in domestic violence; and the elimination of mass-scale famines. (See Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.

Secondly, the time frame we are talking about is extremely short. Even if we focus only on the fate of humans, it is hard to argue that the life of the ordinary Welsh coalminer or Chinese peasant in 1800 was better than that of the ordinary forager 20,000 years ago. Most humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850. Mass famines and major wars continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the 20th century. Even though the last few decades have proven to be a relative golden age for humanity in the developed world, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history, or an ephemeral wave of good fortune: 50 years is simply not enough time on which to base sweeping generalisations.

Indeed, the contemporary golden age may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades we have been disturbing the ecologic equilibrium of our planet in myriad ways, and nobody knows what the consequences will be. We may be destroying the groundwork of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.
Indeed, as we saw, for even the bulk of population in wealthy, industrialized countries, living standards only began to rise about 1870! Before 1850, people living in the industrialized countries actually lived worse lives than their ancestors. They had to be forced into factories by the elites:
[D]espite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support…

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

    "The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness."
Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’
That point about how short the timeframes are cannot be overemphasized. In the history of the human race, industrialism is a blip. One of the things I've pointed out repeatedly is that the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution are very tenuous things. We see the Enlightenment under siege from a million directions. Creationists in the heartland want to suppress teaching evolution and eliminate the separation of Church and state, encouraged by opportunist politicians. Large parts of the Middle East are governed by religious ideologies like Wahabbism and Sharia law, and these are very recent- go back to Libya or Iran or Syria or Afghanistan as late as the 1970's and they are tolerant secular societies. Not any more.

There are more slaves now than ever before in history. There are more black men in the penal system than there were slaves in 1850, and prisoners are forced to work for corporations (in prison, slavery is totally legal). I've argued that modern-day college is essentially indistinguishable now from the indentured servitude of the nineteenth century. Democratic governance has been replaced by an oligarchy of money and unitary individuals control more wealth than entire cities and decide how it is used based on nothing more than their own whims. By some measures, inequality is higher now than ever before in history, as is the power of elites. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So to people like Pinker, I would say that the Enlightenment may not be a turning point after all. It may turn out to be a fluke, an aberration. Enlightenment and scientific modes of thought are very alien to our "natural" modes of thinking, which are based on nepotism, raw emotion, status-seeking, self-serving biases, and so forth.

The author then makes a point I make often, that we have paid a terrible price with modern society for the things that actually give us joy and happiness - our relationships to other human beings:
Even if we take into account solely the citizens of today's affluent societies, Romantics may point out that our comfort and security have their price. Homo sapiens evolved as a social animal, and our wellbeing is usually influenced by the quality of our relationships more than by our household amenities, the size of our bank accounts or even our health. Unfortunately, the immense improvement in material conditions that affluent westerners have enjoyed over the last century was coupled with the collapse of most intimate communities.

People in the developed world rely on the state and the market for almost everything they need: food, shelter, education, health, security. Therefore it has become possible to survive without having extended families or any real friends...friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples. Replacing such precarious tribal networks with the security of modern economies and states obviously has enormous advantages. But the quality and depth of intimate relationships are likely to have suffered.

In addition to shallower relationships, contemporary people also suffer from a much poorer sensory world. Ancient foragers lived in the present moment, acutely aware of every sound, taste and smell. Their survival depended on it....Varied and constant use of their bodies gave them physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or tai chi.

Today we can go to the supermarket and choose to eat a thousand different dishes. But whatever we choose, we might eat it in haste in front of the TV, not really paying attention to the taste. We can go on vacation to a thousand amazing locations. But wherever we go, we might play with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but what good is this choice, when we have lost the ability really to pay attention?
George Monbiot recently made many of these same points in another recent article in The Guardian, The age of loneliness is killing us:
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is now no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.

British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses, more than a fifth now say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed. A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
The author then points out the biological impossibility of growth raising happiness levels:
Evolutionary biologists offer a complementary explanation for the hedonic treadmill. They contend that both our expectations and our happiness are not really determined by political, social or cultural factors, but rather by our biochemical system....Evolution has no interest in happiness per se: it is interested only in survival and reproduction, and it uses happiness and misery as mere goads. Evolution makes sure that no matter what we achieve, we remain dissatisfied, forever grasping for more. Happiness is thus a homeostatic system. Just as our biochemical system maintains our body temperature and sugar levels within narrow boundaries, it also prevents our happiness levels from rising beyond certain thresholds...If happiness really is determined by our biochemical system, then further economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions will not make our world a much happier place.
Here's Monbiot again:
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation...This self-medication aggravates the disease. Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration. It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.

Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.

So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. The bosses earn – sorry, I mean take – 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.

The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness. Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.

For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
And the conclusion of this article seems to be an endorsement of E.F. Schumacher's Buddhist economics:
Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction. Pleasant sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. If five minutes ago I felt joyful or peaceful, that feeling is now gone, and I may well feel angry or bored. If I identify happiness with pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but constantly to pursue them, and even if I get them, they immediately disappear, and I have to start all over again. This pursuit brings no lasting achievement. On the contrary: the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I become. However, if I learn to see my sensations for what they really are – ephemeral and meaningless vibrations – I lose interest in pursuing them, and can be content with whatever I experience. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises? For Buddhism, then, happiness isn't pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.
Taken in total, the above serves as a good summary of the ideas of those of us skeptical of the expansionist productivist philosophy of the capitalist modern world and why we believe that continuing to follow it like a secular religion will not only not lead to human flourishing, but rather to increasing social  misery, destruction of the natural world, and loss of human freedom. We must change course soon, or else.