Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cli-Fi Predicts the Future

Perhaps you’ve heard of Cli-Fi. Science fiction takes a look at future developments in science and projects what the future will look like. This genre began with the increasing effect of science on daily life. It usually predicted some sort of progress. Cli-fi is based on the knowledge that the climate is changing and that the future is going to be dictated by that fact- droughts- rising seas, climate refugees ,and so forth. Some cli-fi also assumes resource scarcity, while at the same time looking at developments in genetic engineering and alternative energy. It’s also speculative, but based on current scientific projections, and unlike historical sci-fi, it’s future projections are much less rosy.

I find this world amazingly fascinating on an intellectual level, and would imagine that it would fire the imagination of any aspiring fiction writer. Entire nations underwater and entire national populations on the move. Europe inundated with climate refugees from Africa and Asia. Major financial centers like New York, London and Shanghai underwater. Washington DC sinking by 6 inches and returning to swamp. Florida vanished. The southwest turning into an abandoned desert, the Upper Midwest into a frozen wasteland. Drilling in the Arctic. Oceans full of plastic. The Thermohaline effect shutting down and the jet stream wobbling. Major species wiped out, from elephants to lions. New diseases emerging. In short, a world totally different from our own and yet familiar. How would humans react? It almost sounds like one of those Reddit writing Prompts.

Cli-Fi—That’s Climate Fiction—Is the New Sci-Fi (Wired)

Cli-fi novelist Margaret Atwood turns her abilities to a non-fiction essay about climate change over at Medium: It's Not Just Climate Change, It's Everything Change. In it, she outlines two scenarios that should be familiar to long-time followers of the Peak Oil community:
“We’ve gone back to small-scale hydropower, using fish-friendly dams. We’re eating locally, and even growing organic vegetables on our erstwhile front lawns, watering them with greywater and rainwater, and with the water saved from using low-flush toilets, showers instead of baths, water-saving washing machines, and other appliances already on the market. We’re using low-draw lightbulbs — incandescents have been banned — and energy-efficient heating systems, including pellet stoves, radiant panels, and long underwear. Heat yourself, not the room is no longer a slogan for nutty eccentrics: it’s the way we all live now.”
Or maybe it’s more like:
“Other authorities would take over. These would at first be known as thugs and street gangs, then as warlords. They’d attack the barricaded houses, raping, pillaging and murdering. But soon even they would run out of stolen food. It wouldn’t take long — given starvation, festering garbage, multiplying rats, and putrefying corpses — for pandemic disease to break out. It will quickly become apparent that the present world population of six and a half billion people is not only dependent on oil, but was created by it: humanity has expanded to fill the space made possible to it by oil, and without that oil it would shrink with astounding rapidity. As for the costs to “the economy,” there won’t be any “economy.” Money will vanish: the only items of exchange will be food, water, and most likely — before everyone topples over — sex.”
Atwood and her fellow fiction writers aren’t the only ones attempting to spin scenarios for the future – so are people doing it professionally for governments and corporations. For example, Shell has its two scenarios – "Blueprints," and "Scramble."
Last week, when the Obama administration gave tentative approval to Shell Oil’s plan to return to the Arctic after its disastrous attempt to find oil there in 2012, I found myself thinking of a conversation I had several years ago with a man named Jeremy Bentham. … Bentham leads Shell’s legendary team of futurists, whose methods have been adopted by the Walt Disney Company and the Pentagon, among others. The scenario planners, as they call themselves, are paid to think unconventional thoughts. They read fiction. They run models. They talk to hippies. They talk to scientists. They consult anyone who can imagine surprising, abrupt change. The competing versions of the future — the scenarios — that result from this process are packaged as stories and given evocative titles: “Belle Époque,” “Devolution,” “Prism.” Then the oil company readies itself, as best it can, for all of them.

Over the course of almost half a century, Bentham’s predecessors in the scenario-planning group helped Shell foresee and prepare for events like the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic extremism and the birth of the anti-globalization movement. More recently — before California’s historic drought — the team focused on water scarcity. And long before most other oil companies, Shell’s scenario planners helped the company understand that climate change was a strategic and scientific reality.

In early 2008, weeks before Shell bid a record-breaking $2.1 billion on oil leases in the melting Arctic Ocean — the basis for the newly approved drilling plan — the company’s futurists released a new pair of scenarios describing the next 40 years on Earth. They were based on what Bentham called “three hard truths”: That energy demand, thanks in part to booming China and India, would only rise; that supply would struggle to keep up; and that climate change was dangerously real. Shell’s internal research showed that alternative energy systems — wind, solar, carbon capture — would take decades to make just a 1-percent dent in our massive global energy system, even if they grew at 25 percent a year. “It takes them 30 years to just begin to start becoming material,” Bentham explained to me.

One scenario, called “Blueprints,” painted a moderately hopeful vision of green energy and concerted action within the constraints of technological change, of a swiftly rising price on carbon emissions as the world comes together to remake its energy systems. In this vision of the future, there is active carbon trading. There is a strong global climate treaty. There is still far more warming than society can easily bear — approaching 7 degrees Fahrenheit — but the world still averts the very worst of climate change.

The second scenario, called “Scramble,” envisioned a future in which countries fail to do much of anything to reduce emissions, and instead race to secure oil and coal deposits. Only when climatic chaos breaks out does society take it seriously, and by then great damage has already been done. Drilling in the Arctic, thought to hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas, has a role in both scenarios — but under “Scramble,” it is irresistible.

In 2008, Shell surprised observers by announcing that it had a preferred scenario. The company would prepare for both outcomes, but for the good of the world and the good of Shell itself, it hoped for the carbon-constrained future of “Blueprints.” The oil giant awaited government action: a market signal in the form of a carbon price. But when I interviewed him four years later, Bentham admitted to me that the future, so far, was looking a lot more like the chaos of “Scramble.” We had no working international climate agreement and no real price on carbon. Instead, we had a global race for gas, coal and the last drops of conventional oil.
Shell Oil's Cold Calculations for a Warming World (NYTimes)

Permaculture’s David Holmgren published a book outlying a matrix of four future scenarios based on how much technology we will be able to retain and whether solutions tended to be from top-down or from bottom up and what the nature of those responses would be: Green Tech, Brown Tech, Lifeboats and Earth Steward. And of course there are the various scenarios of Limits to Growth model published by the Club of Rome in 1973 and updated since.

Right now we’re facing some version of Standard Run + Scramble + Brown Tech. In other words, the worse-case scenario of all three. Despite this, for most of us our daily lives seem remarkably unaffected. The only scenario that hasn’t played out is the “zombie apocalypse” scenario, even though it even embraced by right-wingers who don’t believe in human impacted climate change or oil scarcity (who instead attribute to, variously, moral turpitude, runaway debt, one-world government or the Rapture). Neither has the “near-term human extinction” scenario of Guy MacPherson, although if it does get that bad none of us might be around to say "I told you so."
“Unfortunately, like every other species on the planet, we’re conservative: we don’t change our ways unless necessity forces us. The early lungfish didn’t develop lungs because it wanted to be a land animal, but because it wanted to remain a fish even as the dry season drew down the water around it. We’re also self-interested: unless there are laws mandating conservation of energy, most won’t do it, because why make sacrifices if others don’t? The absence of fair and enforceable energy-use rules penalizes the conscientious while enriching the amoral. In business, the laws of competition mean that most corporations will extract maximum riches from available resources with not much thought to the consequences. Why expect any human being or institution to behave otherwise unless they can see clear benefits?”

“Planet Earth — the Goldilocks planet we’ve taken for granted, neither too hot or too cold, neither too wet or too dry, with fertile soils that accumulated for millennia before we started to farm them –- that planet is altering. The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer that was once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun and made lots of money and gobbled up lots of resources and burned lots of fossil fuels and then died, are happening much sooner than anticipated back then. In fact, they’re happening now.”
Atwood takes a detour into a couple or writers who draw the connection between art and culture and the energy sources of a society. For most of human history, ideas of growth and progress were foreign – the golden age was in the past, not the future, and our desires would be satisfied in the next life, not by transforming this material world to conform to our desires.
Briefly, [Barry] Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going…Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going? Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: ...Oil and gas, ...fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship” the energy driving it will be renewables...

The second book I’ll mention is by anthropologist, classical scholar, and social thinker Ian Morris, whose book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, has just appeared from Princeton University Press....Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth. The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.”
The coal-based society produces mass production, and the oil-based society mass consumption. That ties in with the previous post, where mass consumption had to be created to deal with mass production. With oil you get the automobile, and hence the suburbs, which is critical to mass consumption (as is the media). The most important oil side-product you get is probably plastic - mass consumption would be impossible without it. Go into nay big-box store, and literally everything you see in there will be made of plastic or have plastic as a major component.

Of course the values of the Middle Ages were humanism, stability, and social harmony, all regulated via religion by the institution of the Catholic Church. The central emphasis of society was the glorification of God, and this was the society that produced the great churches from the Basilicas to Gothic Cathedrals to Bernini to Christopher Wren, and artworks from altarpieces to Michelangelo. Art and architecture were dedicated to glorifying God. After the Enlightenment, the emphasis was Reason, which began elevating science, and the rise of the idea of the citizen and the nation-state which produced national armies, the civil service, colonialism and scientific inquiry. That society builds civic buildings and the City Beautiful movement. Our modern fossil-fuel derived vales are  individual wealth accumulation, materialist consumerism, meliorism, managerialisim, Taylorism, self-aggrandizement, individualism, technological invention, novelty, risk-taking and productivism, all of  which combine to form the Idea of Progress, a sort of secular religion. This society builds banks and skyscrapers and freeways and Wal-Marts. Even religion transmogrifies - Christianity once preached a stable social order, a Great Chain of Being and alms for the poor. Then along comes Calvinism and you get work as a form of salvation, wealth as a sign of God's favor, and contempt for the poor. Today's most vocal Christians embrace a philosophy almost the mirror opposite of the one they once did - one of incessant social striving, ladder-climbing, wealth accumulation as righteous and helping the poor as immoral. Christians in the U.S threw in their lot with the Republican Party and reacted with horror at the Pope’s recent criticisms of capitalism and acknowledgment of climate change.

As for the limits of scenarios, here are some thoughts from Ran Prieur:
So given severe climate change and human survival, how will we be living? This is an impossible question, because a few people at comfortable desks in 2015 cannot imagine the options and the creativity of millions of people with their backs to the wall in 2025. On the subreddit a reader mentioned the 1972 Limits To Growth model. It's been pretty accurate so far, and I think it has proven that we can't go on living exactly the way we've been living. But other ways of living are outside the scope of the model. I can't find the link, but someone took Limits To Growth and applied it to the year 1400, and it also predicted near-term collapse.
I’ll interject here and say that model would have been a very shitty model given how little of the world’s resources had been tapped into in 1400. The only way I can see is if the model did not include untapped resources of the Americas, Africa and Australia. Now if the model was run without the knowledge of those things (which Europeans did not know about in 1400), then I could see it. The massive reduction of the population of the Americas was also a variable that you wouldn’t see even if you did have knowledge of the whole earth in 1400. In fact, if you just considered Europe alone as a closed system – a collapse is exactly what happened from 1000-1350, concluding with the Great Famine and the Black Death. You would get the same result from around 1650-1750 without the New World. In fact, you can argue that that’s what did happen in Asia, which did not have the Americas to exploit – look at China and it seems this explains the history of China from 1780-1930 and it looks like a long collapse due to overpopulation and resource overexploitation. A similar thing happened to Japan and they built one of the few steady-state societies during the Edo Period as a response.
“There are two ways of thinking about future social adaptations -- or two extremes on a spectrum. At one extreme, any society that we haven't seen cannot exist, and our options are limited to what we have already tried. So if late 20th century industrial civilization can't keep going, then we have to go back to the 19th century, or the 13th, or the negative 100th. At the other extreme, what we have already tried is nothing, and there are unlimited options that we have not even imagined. Of course we're still constrained by physics, which rules out sustained exponential growth.”

“This whole subject keeps reminding me of Anne's comment that every model serves a purpose. When you build the worst scenario you can imagine, the purpose is to mentally prepare yourself so that whatever actually happens will not crush your spirit.”
What I worry about is this scenario: The people who control and manage the money tokens that society uses to ration its limited resources genetically engineer themselves to be “superior”, and use that as a moral justification for the elimination of everyone else aside from their immediate offspring. You’re already seeing this with the merging of two movements – Libertarianism and Human Biodiversity, which is the modern version of Social Darwinism. It postulates that one’s value as a human being is entirely what one can command in the Market, and that these superior traits (typically framed as I.Q., “self-control” and “time preference”) are passed down through a predictable process from the superior rich to their offspring, with the rest of us as useless eaters and barriers to progress. Furthermore it posits that the free market is teleological and inherently superior because only by its ministrations are we freed from the Malthusian trap. This thinking is very prevalent nowadays among elites and is behind a lot of things like eliminating the social safety net, automating all jobs, privatizing the world’s resources, and kneecapping democratically elected governments. Under this scenario, the changing planet will introduce a “survival of the fittest” regime and turn the world into a Hobbesian war of all against all where the naturally superior will rise to the top and engender the next phase of human evolution– immortal cyborgs who travel the stars! Don’t laugh – there a lot of powerful people who adhere to this ideology even though they don’t acknowledge it, even to themselves.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Efficiency and Economic Growth

All the talk about Jeb! Bush's call for Americans, who already work the longest hours of anyone in the developed world, to work even longer hours in a time of widespread unemployment made me recall an interview with Conrad Schmidt, who calls on workers to work less. Schmidt is the founder of the Work Less Party and author of Workers of the World, Relax. This is an interview on Tangentially Speaking with Christopher Ryan from a few years back. In this part of the interview, Schmidt talks about some things that economists fail to acknowledge about how the capitalist economy is designed to work.
Conrad Schmidt: "Growth is a consequence of efficiency. That's the driving impetus behind growth."

Chris Ryan: "So it's productivity driving growth."

Conrad Schmidt: "Efficiency. If you make something more efficient...Let me give you an example. If you make something more labor efficient, which is pretty much all efficiency, you land in the situation where you have a mandate on the economy. Either you consume more, or you have a recession. And it happens throughout history. Let me give you a few examples. James Hargreaves 1784... comes up with this marvelous new fantastic invention. This invention is the Spinning Jenny. What it does is, it spins yarn 4, 5, 6 times faster than a human being can spin it. And you'd think that this would be something great. But what was the consequence? Well, a lot of yarn spinners lost their jobs. And that was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

And it did cause quite a stir. It changed the social fabric. Eventually all the yarn spinners, well, they protested, they smashed James Hargreaves' machines, and the British government passes a law that if you harm a machine then you get the death sentence. It was at the point where you have the Luddites versus the entire British army. They were determined to smash machines; this was not a small little uprising. It was quite impressive.

But what eventually got England out of its little recession was wild, extravagant consumerist ideas such as changing your underwear weekly. And eventually people started to consume more. You see that' the impetus of growth--efficiency. If you make something more efficient, it means that you now have to consume more or you end up in a recession. That's the driving impetus of growth itself.
We'll jump up a little bit further in time--the Great Depression. Henry Ford comes up with this amazing idea. He didn't invent the production line, he invented the electrification of the production line. And in just 2-3 years, he could produce twice as many cars. And then it just doubled and doubled. With less and less labor--he was getting rid of employees as his output was doubling. And what he says to the rest of American industry is, 'Look at me, we can all do this! Electrify your assembly process.' Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, machines come along making anything you can imagine. The consequence was that you now had fewer people required to make the same amount of goods. And you ended up with the Depression because people weren't consuming enough of what they were able to produce. He invented mass production, but he did not invent mass consumption.

[Ryan argues that the factors in the financial sector -speculation and leveraging in the stock market were the main cause the Depression.]

Conrad Schmidt: Oddly enough, these are modern theories to explain the Great Depression. At the time that was the explanation. Later on economists said, 'Oh no, it has nothing to do with efficiency; efficiency you just consume more.' But you see there were several things happening...

Ryan asks about foreign markets. What about selling cars to Europeans? You don't really need the Americans to buy more and more if you can sell your surplus to foreigners.

I'll interject here and say Ryan's idea is exactly what has kept capitalism going over the last thirty or so years - dumping the overproduction on the entire world. But you couldn't do that in 1930. You didn't have the equipment, transportation technology and logistics to transport large goods like cars all over the world. All that changed during World War Two when the need to ship jeeps and tanks and armies and food all over the world led to the invention of the pallet, the shipping container, and large-scale cargo ships, as well as the rebuilding of ports large enough to handle them, along with the use of oil-based transport, and the logistical infrastructure. See this: Pallets, the Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy (Slate).

Add to the fact that people in Europe could just buy cars from European automakers. In the aftermath of World War Two, you had the logistics to ship goods all over the world, and you had the U.S. as the only major industrial power whose manufacturing capacity wasn't curtailed or destroyed. Thus you have thirty years of the golden age of America - widespread wealth and prosperity. By the 1970's, the major industrial powers like Germany and Japan had rebuilt, and their plants and production processes were newer and more efficient to boot. Thus you had widespread competition again, and you get the post-Keynsian crises of the 1970's (exacerbated by oil shocks). The result ever since has been to crush labor, eliminate trade barriers, and industrialize poorer nations as a source of labor and consumption (Neoliberalism). Back to the interview.

Conrad Schmidt: Mass consumption takes a little bit longer to invent. You see, they invented mass production, and back in those days, our grandparents and great grandparents, they were quite the frugal bunch. They really were. A chest of drawers was [unintelligible], and they fixed things. Most people lived in small spaces where they couldn't have more stuff. They saved things rather than spent things. And also, believe it or not, the cities were quite congested with cars at that time, and many people didn't even need them because they had the interurbans. All the cities had the interurbans. So you get anywhere faster than if you had a car.

Another important thing is that salaries and wages weren't increasing as fast as production. Yes you could produce all this stuff, but they weren't paying the employees enough to be able to afford them. So there were two things. One, they didn't have the cash, and two, they didn't need it! So that's the fundamental basic. Yes, everything came down like a house of cards. And each time the house of cards will fall down if the fundamentals are flawed.

Even now, the real fundamental that's slowing down the world economy is the internet. You see, the internet makes things incredibly efficient. Superefficient. You now no longer have to build a big department store and stuff it with goodies. Basically, you just go on your computer, order comes from a warehouse somewhere, you don't have any salespeople, you don't need any charming assistants. Banking, you don't have to go in line, you just, tap, tap, tap. That means we can do so much more with less labor. The consequence is you now have to grow the economy. The efficiency puts both the mandate and the ability. The ability is that you now have so many unemployed people looking for jobs, that's the ability. But the mandate is if you don't, you are in a very volatile situation, politically, because unemployed people, as you know...during the Great Depression the communist party was getting something like seven percent of the vote. Things get very turbulent. See its the efficiency that puts the mandate to create growth.

And what were facing at the moment in the environmental movement is a lot of the things that they're are that we need to make things more efficient. But it doesn't work that way. Let me give you an example.

The primary fuel source, not that long ago, used to be wood. Wood! Chop down a forest and then you've got your fuel. Along comes coal, which based on a definition of green, is twice as efficient as wood. Same mass, twice the amount of energy, and you don't have to chop down your forests. Consequence, does the ecological footprint decrease? No it grows, because you have the Industrial Revolution. You have more efficiency. You can grow the economy. Petroleum. Twice as efficient as coal and also less sulfur, less mercury in the air. Easily transportable. Our definition of green. Each one of these fuel sources should have been an environmental miracle, Now we have an environmental movement saying we need more efficient cars, we need more efficient buildings, we need more efficient airplanes...And the consequence will be what it always been. The efficiency puts both the mandate and the ability of growth, and it's the growth that destroys the ecology.


Conrad Schmidt: The Jeavons Paradox can be looked at from both a macro and micro perspective. Suppose you make a plane that uses half the amount of energy. That energy saving is fuel, fuel that has to be drilled, you have to get machines - there's a whole industry of people who have jobs supplying the fuel for that airplane. You now make the airplane more efficient, that means there are less jobs supplying that industry. So you've now created a situation where you have to grow the economy to replace those jobs and that's the issue is that you've created both the impetus and the ability for growth.

Chris Ryan: Now this presupposes stable or increasing population. If we have decreasing population than that loss of jobs isn't as much of an issue, right? Because you have fewer people looking for jobs.

Conrad Schmidt: From an ecological perspective there's two concepts. One is each individual, how much they consume, and the other one is how many people there are consuming.... Any efficiency anywhere in the system and you'll end up with increased consumption. The biggest example is a bicycle versus an SUV. Which is better for the environment? Well, I've just given you an example of where I switched from an SUV to a bicycle but it didn't decrease my ecological footprint.

Chris Ryan: But it could have. If you took that surplus money and put it in the bank.

Conrad Schmidt: Bank, the worst! Because they lend it out four times. Even if they're a bank that says they're green, they ain't green, I can promise you that.

Chris Ryan: ...What do they do with their surplus money that's actually good for the environment?

Conrad Schmidt: Well, there's one thing they can do with their surplus money and that is tear it up...The problem is very very simple you to solve. One is, you take that efficiency gain in the economy, and you reduce the hours of labor by whatever amount. There are a lot of countries that have a reduced workweek. Norway, Denmark, Germany--so many countries have a reduced workweek. And this was Keynesian idea. Keynes was the one who said, 'The efficiencies that you have in the system, you gotta do something with them, you can't just grow forever,' and he was the one who started saying, 'Reduce the workweek.'

Another thing you can do is counterbalance the efficiencies with labor-intensive activities that I'd say are inefficiencies. Anything that's labor, you increase the labor cost in certain areas. One way you can do it is organic farming...another one you can do, more teachers for a set number of're putting it into the quality of life aspect; you're increasing the quality of life.

Chris Ryan: But where does the money come from to supply these extra teachers?

Conrad Schmidt: Where does the money come form? It's more of an issue of where does the money go. If we have what we are currently doing, is a free trade, complete capitalist, whichever country is the most competitive, that has the strategic advantage. If, say you have a country that says, 'You know what we'll just pay everybody 2-3 dollars and hour, were not going to put any environmental restrictions,' that county is where all the money goes, where all the jobs go. And the countries that have this exodus of cash, they are in a financially strapped situation, because they can't really compete, they can't produce the same goods because they get produced elsewhere. In a free trade situation you can't afford anything expect to be as competitive and ruthless as possible.

If we now start putting in restriction and countries that exploit labor or countries that have lax environmental standards higher import duties, you now have a situation where the economy can reflect more of our personal values and quality of life because we're not struggling and we're not competing with the most unethical countries in the world. But if were going to be in a competition with other countries that don't have any type of background in environmental and social justice, well, we're just really following suit.

Chris Ryan: Right, its a race to the bottom. They discuss the near-slave conditions in third-world maquiladores. Schmidt describes where the maquiladores come from.

Conrad Schmidt: One of the inventions that Henry Ford comes up with is the mass produced tractor. Amazing! You could not have one farmer, he could farm multiple farms, he didn't need employees...and millions lost their jobs in agriculture and they went to the cities. So Roosevelt says, how do I solve this problem, because people are unemployed. One of the things Roosevelt did, and it is really quite incredible, he increased the price of food. And this is during a Great Depression! They way he did it is he put restrictions on farm size so that you wouldn't get as much benefit from mechanization. And this in many ways preserved the rural identity of the United States for many, many years.

So 1973 comes, and Nixon hires a new guy on the job, the Secretary of Agriculture, his name was Earl Butz. And he says, 'You know what, this is silly. What were going to do is were going to get rid of all these restrictions, and were going to make agriculture as efficient as possible.' So the farms got bought up, and the mechanization with gigantic monster machines, and millions lost their jobs again, and their homes. But now there's an interesting problem because the United States was doubling and tripling their food production. What were they going to do with all this food?

So what they did was they dumped the food on third world countries like Mexico. Like, you could not make corn faster than the U.S. could bring it to you. As the American rural society collapsed, so did rural communities around the world that didn't have the strength to say no to the United States....And so all these people moved to the maquiladores where they all make Nikes and the rest of it.

If we want to solve our social problems and our environmental problems, we have to go the opposite and make things more labor intensive, or another way, makes things more inefficient. It sounds crazy.

Ryan says that for him it always comes down to population levels.  He points out that agriculture is the first efficiency.

Conrad Schmidt: When you look at countries that have the longest hours of work, you also have countries with the biggest discrepancy between the rich and the poor. You have the biggest divide. You see, in countries where people are working the longest hours, they're not forming communities, they're not finding out whats going on, they have less time to hold politicians and corporations accountable. Democracy is weakened. And in countries where you have shorter hours of work, Denmark Norway Germany, lots of these countries where people have more time to be involved in social democracy, wages are higher and you have a more egalitarian society.

Chris Ryan: Interesting that those are often considered  the most efficient societies. German efficiency, Danish efficiency...

Conrad Schmidt: Oh, they're efficient, but they turn their efficiency into a reduction of hours. Norway it's two months less than here in North America. And as soon as I say Norway, somebody says, 'Oh but that's because they have all the oil and gas reserves.' And I say no, it's the other way around. You see, in Norway they had a populace that said, 'No were not privatizing these resources. They belong to us as a society.' They had the community structure to demand it. In other countries, in Canada, I mean the oil reserves, the land, the rest of it, it's been privatized. And people have to work longer hours and they're becoming poorer. Incomes in North America are declining. In other places where people have less hours of work, their incomes are increasing.
Tangentially Speaking 76: Conrad Schmidt (Work Less Party)

There is more here to discuss than one blog post will fit, so just a few brief notes:

1.) What I find most interesting is that this contrarian view of economics proposes the exact mirror-image opposite of what the economics priesthood prescribes as a matter of absolute dogma - less efficiency, less work, decreasing population, more trade barriers. It could be said that the entire economics profession is in place to keep us from even considering these proposals, and disguising that in the veneer as a "science."

2.) What Schmidt describes as "mass consumption," economists call "rising living standards." Most of us like changing our underwear more than once a week. So there is a built-in bias to see increased consumption as a good thing, and hence efficiency as an unalloyed good in every instance, and Schmidt doesn't really deal with this. I would argue that capitalism's built-in incentives drive overproduction and gluts in some areas, artificial scarcity in others, all while impoverishing the common social purpose and undermining social harmony.

3.) Not mentioned is that a major driver of the need for the growth is the need to pay back the interest on existing loans. That is, our financial system also imposes a built-in mandate for growth. I'm sure he's aware of this, but it's only an hour interview and can only cover so much.

As for population growth, it's often said by detractors that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme. But you can read articles about how every industrialized country on earth is concerned about stable populations, because how are we going to pay for retirees without more workers? What this concern acknowledges is that all of capitalism is a Ponzi scheme - it constantly needs more people to buy in at the bottom of the pyramid to work - the very definition of Ponzi.

4.) Getting more efficient doesn't make more sense unless you have someplace to absorb the extra labor. This is the modern problem. It assumes that work is always unlimited. that gives me an opportunity to post this: Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey (Econospeak). The writer of the site, who for some reason is called Sandwichman (not to be confused with Slenderman), looks at the history of that idea and finds that there really is no justification for it. It was originally used to argue that there was no fixed amount of trade, and the idea somehow got applied to work, but there has never been any empirical justification or comprehensive refutation of the idea, just rhetoric.

I always hear about Greece's bloated and inefficient public sector. That is, there's a lot of inefficiencies and employees that don't need to be there. So you shrink the government and loose the dead weight, and those workers go...where exactly? Certainly not the private sector - there aren't enough jobs there right now. So now people who at least got a paycheck in cushy government makework job now get no paycheck and all, and this is better how? And as for the thinking that bloated government and subsequent high taxes are the cause of private sector stagnation - well, austerity has gutted the private sector far beyond anything government has ever done.

5.) Historically, the Malthus-Ricardo model predicts that increased efficiency leads to higher living standards which translates into higher population growth, which end up destroying the increases in living standards (and ultimately becoming worse off, since you burn through your irreplaceable natural resources faster). This is what happened until the Industrial Revolution. As Ryan pointed out, agriculture is a lot more "efficient," than hunting-foraging, but the population increases made people worse off in the long run.
Here is how Malthus-Ricardo works. In any society at any time there is a reasonably well defined notion of "subsistence," a level of income, essentially wages, just adequate to support a standard of living that will lead the average family to reproduce itself. Subsistence has a hard physiological basis in calories, necessary nutrients, protection from weather, and the like, but it can be modified by cultural factors, social norms, and customs. If wages happen to exceed subsistence for a while, because of good harvests or a reduction in the supply of labor through war or disease, normal mortality will decrease, fertility may rise, and the population will increase. But not for long: the pressure of a larger working population on a fixed supply of land and resources will force labor productivity and wages to fall. (That is the famous law of diminishing returns: the idea is that as more and more workers are squeezed onto the same area of land, at some point each additional worker will be able to add less output than his predecessor did, simply because he has a smaller share of the land to work with.)

This process cannot stop until wages are back to the subsistence level. The population will be bigger, but its members no better off than they were. If harvests then go back to normal, productivity and wages will fall below subsistence and the process just described will go into reverse: higher mortality will cause population to fall until productivity and wages return to the subsistence level and then stabilize.

This is a simple and powerful story, and it has just the implications needed to explain the grim preindustrial history. The key implication is that the material standard of living of any population is determined only by the level of subsistence. Incremental technological progress, which certainly took place in England -- and elsewhere -- between 1200 and 1780, does not seriously improve living standards; it just allows a larger population to be supported.... Even more paradoxically, progress in health care and sanitation may mean that the subsistence wage falls, because now mortality can be contained with even less in the way of nutrition, clothing, and shelter. In principle, then, medical progress could lead to lower wages and poorer conditions of life in those other respects. This Malthus-Ricardo trap can certainly account for the long failure of living standards to rise...
'Survival of the Richest'? A review by Robert M. Solow (NY Review of Books)

Economists generally assume that this model is no longer valid, and there is some sort of "special" efficiency gains that happened during the Industrial Revolution which means that the Malthusian equilibrium is gone forever. That is, we innovate just so fast nowadays that we never have to worry again and we can just keep on growing population and resource usage forever.

But we know that is was the cumulative, compounding effects of innovation combined with the use of fossil fuels - weeks of labor in a single barrel of oil - and the plundering of non-state societies that got us here. Then, after the fact, the idea that "institutions" were the driving force behind  economic growth was developed into economic dogma, and along with that came  a series of assumptions.

What were those assumptions? That population growth is good, that innovation is unlimited, that resources are infinite, that governments should be restrained, that taxes on wealth should be low, that supply creates its own demand, that individual wealth accumulation and unbridled competition are the driving factors of growth, and that greed and selfishness are the primary motivations behind human action. Acknowledgment of the role of oil would render useless the political aspects of economic project, which is the important part.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

America Goes Nuts

Hate to say I told ya so, especially when it's this grim, but as the "American Dream" is morphing into the American Nightmare, the country is entering a profound state of sheer and utter psychosis. I've often said that mass shootings will eventually be so common in America that they will merit no more attention than the average traffic accident or burglary. It seems that day might have already arrived: There have been 204 mass shootings — and 204 days — in 2015 so far  (Washington Post)
The headlines all start to sound the same after awhile. Seven people shot inside Louisville nightclub. Four men shot in Suffolk early Sunday morning. Two dead, two hospitalized in Brice Street shooting.

The shootings happen so often, the circumstances become so familiar, that we tune them out. One dead, five injured in west Columbus shooting. Four shot in grocery store ambush. One dead, four injured in Stockton shooting.

Every now and then a particularly heinous crime makes us pause and reflect. Nine dead in shooting at black church in Charleston. Four marines, one sailor killed in attacks on Chattanooga military facilities. Gunman opens fire on Louisiana movie theater.

The Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced project of the anti-gun folks at the Guns Are Cool subreddit, lists 203 mass shooting events so far in 2015. Add in the shooting at a Louisiana movie theater last night and you get 204. Incidentally, yesterday was the 204th day of the year.

The Mass Shooting Tracker is different from other shooting databases in that it uses a broader definition of mass shooting. "The old FBI definition of Mass Murder (not even the most recent one) is four or more people murdered in one event," the site's creators explain. "It is only logical that a Mass Shooting is four or more people shot in one event."

Guns Were Used in At Least 15 United States Murder-Suicides Last Week Besides Louisiana  (Slate)

When you actually drill down and read the individual stories a pattern starts to emerge.
The serial bank robber who gunned down State Patrol Trooper Trevor Casper and a Wausaukee man in March was a "lone wolf" survivalist who was stockpiling weapons and ammunition in preparation for a "zombie apocalypse," those close to him told investigators.

Steven Snyder, who was 38, also spoke of going out in a "blaze of glory" and "righteous suicide," documents released Thursday night by the state Department of Justice show.

Snyder's estranged wife, Stacey, told authorities that he had even "built a tunnel under his house and kept dried goods and survival items in it," the records show.

"Snyder had many guns ready for 'when society collapsed,'" the documents read. "She described it as 'a zombie apocalypse' sort of thing."The documents portray Snyder — who has been linked to nine bank robberies — as an anti-social extremist with a white supremacist past, was obsessed with death, didn't believe the Holocaust had happened and opposed "mixing races," the records said. He also held chauvinistic views toward women.

Stacey Snyder told investigators her husband "wanted to have a polygamist marriage, and he talked about it for years," the report said. She said she left him because he was physically abusive, had affairs with other women and lived a dangerous lifestyle, among other issues. After they were separated, his wife reported a Christmas Day domestic assault that left her with a concussion. There was an outstanding warrant for Snyder in Michigan for that incident.

Snyder also was obsessed with training for mixed-martial arts and crossfit, and he spoke of being prepared to fight to the death. He told his closest friend "that he was planning for a 'zombie apocalypse,' but by that he meant that if the government goes down and all the poor people start marching and going around breaking into houses, he would be ready for that," the newly released records said.

He told the same friend that he "would probably end up dying in a gunfight during a 'shootout with cops,'" the report said.

That's what happened March 24 after Snyder robbed a Marinette County bank and stole a bank employee's van before killing another man, Thomas Christ, at the location where he abandoned the stolen van and changed to a rental car he had parked nearby...
Trooper's killer was preparing for 'zombie apocalypse' (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
Online profiles connected to Houser are also revealing more details about him and paint a picture of a paranoid man who felt that American economic policy and morals were bringing about an end of days.

'America is so sick that I now believe it to be the enemy of the world. I know next to nothing about Iran, but the little I do tell me they are far higher morally than this financially failing filth farm,' Houser, who goes by Rusty, wrote in a December 2013 post on an apparently conservative Christian website called Fellowship of the Minds.

Also that month, Houser wrote on his Facebook, asking for help translating Iranian newspapers. He spoke highly of the Middle East as well in his profile for the site InterPals, an online community for making friends around the world.

'Learning about the people of the Middle East is most important to me.They have been painted as scum by the 'establishment media,' wrote Houser in his profile.'It appears they are exactly the opposite, that they are family people.That is the highest status that a people can achieve, and it is what America has lost.'He said he was hoping to makes friends with Middle Eastern people on the site.

In yet another bizarre Facebook post, Houser preached a strict adherence to the Bible, while condemning America at the same time. 'The bible doesn't ask me to like what it says, only to obey it. Death comes soon to the financially failing filth farm called the US.'

Many of Houser's posts dealt with what he believed to be an inevitable end of days, spurred on by disintegrating American morals. Commenting on a news story about a man who was found murdered at his deer-processing business in 2013, Houser wrote: 'I am sincerely sorry for the loss of this fellow in the deer processing business. Most people over 50 in certain businesses are just as their parents were, rock solid morally.'

But when he continued, the post took a turn. 

'I am also sorry for what is to come for the other very few moral souls left in the entire US. I am not sorry for the 90 per cent immoral population which will be meeting the same fate. Filth is rampant. That none have stood against it causes me to take rest in the worst than MAD MAX future which approaches,' Houser said.
The pro-Hitler rants of Louisiana theater gunman who idolized Timothy McVeigh and called for lone wolf attacks on the 'failing filth farm' of America (Daily Mail)
Chattanooga shooter Mohammad Abdulazeez told a friend that ISIS was "doing wrong" and "it was a stupid group and it was completely against Islam," the friend told CNN on Monday.

The friend, James Petty, also said that Abdulazeez taught him how to shoot an AR-15 assault rifle and that the two would practice in the woods.

The revelations about Abdulazeez came as sources told CNN that writings uncovered by investigators indicated Abdulazeez was displeased with the U.S. government, particularly its war on terror. The writings are not thought to be recent -- some are more than a year old, predating his much-publicized trip to Jordan -- and should not be considered a diary of any sort, according to a person familiar with the family's interviews with investigators and a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation.

The writings also include other anti-U.S. sentiments and are consistent with someone who is having suicidal thoughts, the sources said.
Chattanooga shooting: New details emerge about the gunman (CNN)
Chaos erupted along the busy stretch of Ventura Boulevard about 3:20 p.m., when police received reports of a man with a gun near Vantage Avenue. Terrified witnesses peered out of store windows and from behind cars as police fired on the man, who died at the scene.

But the drama continued even after the gunfire stopped. Helmet-clad police officers swarmed the scene. Rumors swirled that the man had robbed a bank. (That was not the case, authorities said.) Buildings were evacuated as an LAPD robot examined at least two items near the man's body that police feared were explosive.

By Friday night, it was still unclear who the man was or why he opened fire, Los Angeles police said. Ventura Boulevard was closed for hours as investigators combed the scene.

“A lot will depend on making this identification and then working backwards,” Det. Meghan Aguilar said. “Who was this person and what drew him here?”
Gunman who opens fire in Studio City dies at the scene (L.A. Times)
The mystery behind a Los Angeles gun fanatic found decomposing in a car last week has deepened as his fiancée's family said he was an alien-hybrid secretly working for the government.

The bizarre statement came Wednesday as the betrothed woman's lawyer identified the dead man as Jeffrey Alan Lash — almost one week after he was discovered rotting in his car parked on the street in the tony Pacific Palisades neighborhood.

Los Angeles police found more than 1,200 guns, nearly 7 tons of ammunition, bows and arrows, knives, machetes and $230,000 in cash inside Lash's home last Friday.

They also discovered a Toyota SUV designed to drive underwater among the 14 vehicles registered in his name.

The collection was as odd as Lash's confessions to his soon-to-be-wife Catherine Nebron that he was working as an undercover operative for multiple unnamed government agencies, according to her defense attorney Harland Braun.

"The story itself sounds totally crazy, but then how do you explain all this?" Braun said. "There's no evidence he was a drug dealer or he stole these weapons, or had any criminal source of income, no stolen property, all the stuff you'd look for."
Dead LA man who had 1,200 guns, underwater car identified; believed to be ‘part alien’ secret government worker (NY Daily News)
...citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens (The Onion)

Pacific Standard makes some good points about the attraction of right-wing ideology to people suffering and on the edge:
It was the sort of language that 15 years ago we might have seen in a lo-fi video from a cave in Afghanistan: “Death comes soon to the financially failing filth farm called the U.S.” America is “the enemy of the world,” besmirched with “foolishness and perversion.” Iran is “far higher morally” than the United States. The speaker cites “God’s business” as his prime directive.

As for the political duties of the patriarchs: “If you are male, fight until the end, and enjoy it. People are good at what they enjoy, and your Maker would want it that way.”

As for ways and means: “Truth and death always go hand in hand.”

The speaker is not, however, what some Americans like to call an “Islamofascist,” nor any kind of Muslim jihadist. Instead, these nuggets all come from the prolific Web screeds of John Russell Houser, late of Phoenix City, Alabama, who murdered two moviegoers and wounded at least nine others at a cinema in Lafayette, Louisiana, yesterday evening before taking his own life. As usual, mental illness appears to have been a factor; a former neighbor told Yahoo! News: “You don’t know crazy. You don’t know what we went through with that house. He had lots and lots of problems.” We do know that Houser received mental health treatment in 2008 and 2009.

But, as we have seen with Dylann Roof and others, mental illness offers fertile ground for violent ideology, and Houser’s life online shows a demented but quasi-unified theory of American decline, which he blamed variously on “media brainwashing,” the erosion of values under a perceived gay cabal, the unstoppable rise of independent women, and the nation’s debauched and fractured Christianity. The first of two messages on Houser’s Twitter account reads, “Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America[members not brainwashed” [sic]. He wanted a stateside version of Greece’s neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn.” He expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, and for former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Like so many rightist lunatics who fixate on (and hasten) America’s downfall, Houser believed powerfully that whites are an aggrieved and oppressed demographic, and that the best practice is to take arms in defense of Caucasian primacy. 
John Russell Houser Did Not Act Alone. Where are all these “lone gunmen” getting their ideas?

See Also: There Are 22 Million Angry, Impulsive Americans With Guns (Pacific Standard)

The sad picture is of a nation in the grip of madness and paranoia. I only wish I had some good advice besides, "get the hell out if you can."

Friday, July 24, 2015

Do We Need to Work More Hours?

Over the years here, I've often pointed out that the amount of time we work is ridiculous. That for all our fossil-fuel powered extravagance, and with the power of a hundred or so energy slaves at our disposal each, we put in more hours than medieval peasants, and at largely meaningless and counterproductive tasks to boot. I've pointed out that history typically shows that technological advancements have resulted in more work for the  human race, not less, beginning with the hoe. Even today, with miracles of automation at our disposal and with the much-hyped computers in all our pockets, we are working more hours than in 1970, not even counting all thew work put in without pay because of the digital tether. I've also talked about the fact that there are not enough outlets to absorb all the labor sloshing around the world just, now, another cause for capitalism's breakdown, as it tends to relegate more and more humans redundant to the economic order.

So it is with great amusement that I read presidential candidate Jeb! Bush's recent call for Americans to work more hours to achieve "Four percent growth as far as the eye can see..."
During this interview, Bush, while discussing the American economy and his plan to give it a PED-like boost, grabbed what we’ll call the fourth rail of American politics and told Americans they need to work harder. A small price to pay in the name of sweet, sweet 4 percent growth. Are you with me? 
    "My aspiration for the country -- and I believe we can achieve it -- is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see," he told the newspaper. "Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in." 
Eek. Telling the American people they need to work harder is an untested political campaign strategy—presumably for good reason. Jeb Bush, perhaps sensing people weren’t as into the 4-percent or bust plan as he thought, clarified later in the day, telling reporters not everyone needs to work more. "If we’re going to grow the economy people need to stop being part-time workers, they need to be having access to greater opportunities to work,” Bush said.
Jeb Bush Narrowly Averts Telling American People They Need to Work More to Boost the Economy (Slate)
Jeb Bush's remarks also harken back to a controversial comment made by his brother, George W Bush, in January 2005. "You work three jobs?" then-President Bush asked a divorced mother of three in Nebraska during a town hall forum. "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. Get any sleep?"

Later on Wednesday Jeb Bush clarified his remarks, saying that he was referring to Americans who are looking for full-time work but are unable to find it. "Only Washington Democrats could be out-of-touch enough to criticise giving more Americans the ability to work, earn a paycheque, and make ends meet," a Bush campaign aide said.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.65 million Americans are working non-agricultural part-time jobs because they can't find full-time employment. When these individuals and others who have looked for work in the last 12 months are added to the official unemployed number, the unemployment rate in the US rises from 5.3% to 10.5%

The Protestant work ethic - that labour not only leads to prosperity but also personal salvation - has been ingrained in US culture since the days of the Pilgrims, of course. And when compared to other industrialised nations, Americans log some of the longest hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In 2014 US workers clocked 1,789 hours of labour per year, behind nations like top-ranked Mexico (2,228), Russia (1,985) and Hungary (1,858) but ahead of Japan (1,729), Canada (1,704), the UK (1,677) and Germany (1,371). In 2014 Gallup conducted a survey of Americans that found full-time workers averaged 47 hours per week and 18% worked more than 60 hours a week.

Americans also tend to take fewer holidays than their European counterparts, a phenomenon the US Travel Association's Project: Time Off labels the "work martyr syndrome".
Jeb Bush: Americans 'need to work longer hours' (BBC News)

More work! More growth! Work harder! Work faster! Work longer! "Tote that barge and lift dat bale!" A few notes are in order.

The most obvious one is that Americans already work more hours right now than almost anyone else on earth:
The average US workweek is 41 hours, 3 hours longer than Britain’s and even longer than in Germany, France, Spain, or the Netherlands (see the Table below). 
    32% of American employees work 45 or more hours, compared with 18% in Germany, and 4% in France. 
    Only in the UK does the percentage of employees putting in these long hours approach the US one. 
Over a year, the average American employee puts in 1,800 hours, which is more than any other wealthy country, even Japan. What is remarkable is the change during the past three decades. In 1979, Americans looked little different from workers in these other countries, working about the same number of hours per year as the French or the British, and many fewer hours than Japanese. Since then, employees in other countries have begun to take it easier, to enjoy their riches, but Americans have not. 
The picture is even bleaker than these numbers suggest. Not only do Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts, but they are much more likely to work at night and on weekends. 
    27% of US employees perform some work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 
    In France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany the comparable fractions are much lower. Even in the UK, only 19 % of workers are on the job at night.  
Work on weekends is also more common in the US than in other rich countries, with 29% of American workers doing some work on weekends, far above Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands; and even in the UK only 25% of employees do some work on weekends.
Americans work too long (and too often at strange times)  (VOX EU)
 That's what [Juliet] Schor's book tries to do, as well as two recent releases: The White-Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser, and The Working Life by Joanne B. Ciulla. 
All those books have been embraced by a large part of the public that apparently feels harassed by the pressures of the workplace. The authors all find evidence that many Americans are overstressed and overworked in trends that are not necessarily measured with a punch clock; trends such as road rage, workplace shootings, the rising number of children in day care and increasing demands for after-school activities to occupy children whose parents are too busy or still at work. 
They aren't the only ones finding long hours in at least certain parts of the workforce. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last year, more than 25 million Americans — 20.5 percent of the total workforce — reported they worked at least 49 hours a week in 1999. Eleven million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week...  
 The overall figures for how many hours a week the average American works have been held down by the increasing number of part-time service and retail jobs in the economy. But since many of the part-time jobs have been filled by the increasing number of women in the workforce, and many of these women had previously been housewives, there are fewer hours when anyone is taking care of household chores. Instead of coming home to find the refrigerator and cupboards stocked, dinner ready, the table set, the clothes washed, the house clean and the children entertained, men are coming home and finding they have to chip in, because their wives aren't "the little woman," anymore. They are now sharing duties as breadwinner, which means men have to share household chores. The situation is exaggerated when both spouses work full-time — particularly if they don't earn enough to hire help. 
If people aren't spending quite as many more hours at work as they think they are, the fact that they aren't allowed as much leisure time once they're off work might account for the apparent illusion. Authors like Fraser, Schor and Ciullo, though, argue that there is no illusion, and the case made by the harried Americans who fill their books — and fill commuter trains and highways — is hard to discount.
Americans work more than anyone (ABC News)

Another is that the shift to part-time work is not a choice on the part of the workers, it is a reflection of the fact that employers do not want to to offer benefits. The brutal treatment of workers in the United States is not a universal law of the "free market" as libertarians like to assume, rather, it has everything to do with social choices:
I was halfway through a job interview when I realized I was wrinkling my nose. I couldn't help myself. A full-time freelance position with a long commute, no benefits, and a quarter of my old pay was the best they could do? I couldn't hide how I felt about that, and the 25-year-old conducting the interview noticed. 
"Are you interested in permanent jobs instead?" she asked. 
"I could consider a permanent job if it was part-time," I said. 
She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and went right back to her pitch: long commute, full-time, no benefits. No way, I thought. Who would want to do that? And then it hit me: Either I had become a completely privileged jerk or my own country was not as amazing as I had once thought it to be. This wasn't an unusually bad offer: It was just American Reality. 
Before I moved to Switzerland for almost a decade, American Reality was all I knew. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment making $30,000 a year in a job where I worked almost seven days a week with no overtime pay and received 10 days of paid time off a year. In other words, for the hours worked, I was making minimum wage, if that. The glamour of this job was supposed to make up for the hours, but in reality, working every weekend is a ticket to burnout — not success. 
My husband and I were so accustomed to American Reality that when he was offered an opportunity to work in Switzerland, we both thought about travel and adventure — not about improving our quality of life. It hadn't occurred to us that we could improve our quality of life simply by moving. But without realizing it, or even asking for it, a better life quality came to us. And this is why, now that I'm back, I'm angry that my own country isn't providing more for its people. I will never regret living abroad. It taught me to understand another culture. And it taught me to see my own. But it also taught me something else — to lose touch with the American version of reality. 
The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary. 
In Switzerland, you don't arrive to a meeting late, but you also don't leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it's summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you...Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. ...Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour. Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can't even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It's just what you do.... 
The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary­ because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay. 
During my Swiss career, I was employed by various companies from 25 percent to 100 percent. When I worked 60 percent, for example, I worked three days a week. A job that is 50 percent could mean the employee works five mornings a week or, as I once did, two and a half days a week. The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me at varying points of my life was wonderful and kept me engaged and happy. 
Often, jobs in Switzerland are advertised with the percentage of work that is expected. Other times, you can negotiate what percentage you would like to work or request to go from working five days a week to four days a week, for example. There is normally little risk involved in asking.... 
At my former American job, I received 10 days of paid vacation per year, and each of those days came with a sizable portion of guilt if actually used. But in Switzerland, my husband's company gave employees six weeks of vacation a year. Most of the Swiss companies I worked for gave four — the legal minimum is four. Moreover, everything shut down between Christmas and New Year's, giving most employees like me another guaranteed week off. 
People in Europe took vacation seriously. Once, when I only took 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off. I learned to take vacation chunks in two-week intervals. Well rested, I noticed that I felt more productive and creative when I returned to work.
Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture (Vox)

Another frequently pointed out is that all of the additional work hours and productivity has not gone into increases in living standards for the workers themselves, only to the massive fortunes of the very wealthiest Americans. The average worker hasn't seen any of the benefits of growth, four percent or otherwise; only Wall Street has seen it. So the link between working more and increased incomes is dubious at best:
Bush claimed that if workers were able to get scheduled for more hours, they would “through their productivity gain more income for their families.” Obviously more hours would equal a larger paycheck. But Bush’s suggestion that being more productive will produce individual prosperity for American workers in the 21st century is flat wrong.

The relationship between American workers’ industriousness and their economic security has eroded so severely in recent decades that the two concepts aren’t even on speaking terms these days.

Workers were a staggering 25 percent more productive in 2012 than they were in 2000. But over the same period that bosses started getting a full quarter more work out of their employees, the median wage grew exactly zero percent. Even those with college degrees saw their pay stagnate over the past decade. Over the five-year stretch encompassing the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks and the first few years of the slow recovery Bush is criticizing, workers gave their bosses an 8 percent jump in productivity – and got back an outright decline in earnings.

Wages and work ethic were already decoupled long before the enormous economic sinkhole that Bush’s brother handed down to President Obama. After charting nearly identical growth trajectories for decades after World War II, productivity growth and wage growth unlinked in the mid-1970s. Productivity has more than doubled in those past 35 years, while wages have grown by roughly 13 percent...

More subtly, Bush’s comments paper over an extreme shift in corporate priorities that has enriched a relative handful of people – mostly investors, Wall Street advisers, and CEOs – at the expense of frontline workers. Working people now take home the lowest share of total corporate income that’s been recorded since 1950. After hovering between 78 and 84 percent for decades, labor’s share of overall income in the corporate sector dropped to 74 percent last year. It’s a small difference in percentage terms, but that slide reflects billions of dollars that once went to workers and now go to profits.
Mind The Gaffe: What’s Missing From The Media Scrum Over Bush’s Call To ‘Work Longer Hours’ (ThinkProgress)

This post marshals a bunch of studies that point out the obvious - that there are diminishing marginal returns to more hours of work. The overall number of hours worked doesn't matter, it is output per hour, and how that output is distributed per capita among the population. As has often been pointed out, poorer countries work more hours and lave a lower income per capita (like Nigeria or Honduras); richer countries work less hours and have higher output and income per capita (like Germany or Switzerland). Thus the "nose to the grindstone" attitude is more in line with a banana republic than an industrial superpower:
Productivity falls sharply after a 50-hour workweek, found Stanford economics professor John Pencavel. So connecting less is good for you and your company—though your boss may need convincing...Research shows working longer hours doesn’t increase productivity. Economists have argued for some time working longer hours would negatively affect productivity. John Hicks, a British economist who looked at this issue in the 1930s, concluded that productivity declined as working hours increased. And John Pencavel of Stanford University showed in his research that reduced working hours can be good for productivity. The study found that productivity declined markedly after more than 50 hours a week and that the absence of a rest day (such as Sunday) damaged productivity...Employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour working week and falls off the cliff after 55 hours, with those putting in 70 hours producing nothing more in those extra 15 hours, according to a recent study by John Pencavel of Stanford University. He says long hours are also connected to absenteeism and high employee turnover, and there are ancillary costs to employers such as providing light, heat, ventilation, and supervisory labour during those extra hours...
People Need to Work Longer Shorter Hours (EconoSpeak)

Most our work is "padding" anyway. Work expands and contracts in proportion to the time that it needs to fill (Parkinson's Law), which is why modern work patterns make no sense. We goldbrick to fill in the allotted "forty hours a week," and then work ourselves into a coffee-fueled, error-prone stupor as the deadline approaches.

When there are already not enough jobs to go around, it doesn't make sense for anyone to work longer hours:
Even if almost no one thinks that Bush’s 4.0% permanent growth target is remotely plausible, those that agree with his premise that Americans need to work more argue that we need more workers in order to sustain economic growth at all. In particular, they posit that, as our population ages, we will have to keep people in the work force beyond the current retirement age and get more hours of work from them each year until they do retire.

This view is striking given that the United States – and most of the rest of the world – has been suffering from the opposite problem for the last eight years: we don’t have enough jobs for the people who want them. The United States, Europe, and Japan all have fewer people working than would like to work because there is insufficient demand in the economy. Obviously we can’t both have a shortage of workers and a shortage of jobs at the same time.

One of the theories that is getting widely (and wrongly) repeated is that none of us will have work because robots are taking all the jobs. But, while the robots taking all our jobs story is an exaggeration, the basic point is right: we are seeing rising productivity, which means that we can produce more goods and services with the same amount of labor. Productivity, including that spurred by technological innovation, is the basis for rising living standards.

Historically, the benefits from higher productivity are higher pay and more leisure – if we go back a century, for instance, work weeks of 60 or even 70 hours a week were common. But while the American work week has been largely fixed at 40 hours a week for the last 70 years, other countries have pursued policies to shorten the work week and/or work year through paid sick days, paid family leave, and paid vacation.

Several European countries have actively pushed policies of work sharing as an alternative to unemployment: the government compensates workers, in part, for a reduction in hours rather than paying unemployment insurance to someone who has lost their job. Germany has led the way in pushing work sharing policies, which is an important factor in its 4.7% unemployment rate. And, as a result of work sharing and other policies, the average worker in Germany puts in almost 25% fewer hours each year than workers in the United States, according to the OECD. Most other wealthy countries are similar to Germany: in the Netherlands, the average work year is 21% shorter than in the US and, in Denmark, it is 20% shorter.
Jeb Bush wants us to work more for the collective good. Who's the socialist now? (Dean Baker, The Guardian)

Finally, what no one talks about is that most of the jobs that have been created over the past decade have been lousy jobs:
One of the lesser known facts about the post-recession economy is that while new jobs are being created at near record levels, a significant number are bad jobs. No one knows exactly how many, but in April 2014,the National Employment Law Project, which measured job quality by industry wage level, reported that 44 percent of jobs created (pdf) between 2010 and 2014 were in lower wage industries, compared to 56 percent in mid wage and high wage ones.

The proportion of bad jobs was probably even higher since the study set the low wage floor two dollars above the current federal minimum wage. We also know that growing industries like health and other care as well as tourist related enterprises and many small manufacturing firms all pay minimum wages.

The trend may not even be new, for there is some evidence that the rising proportion of bad jobs goes back as far as the 1970s. John Schmitt and Janelle Jones of the Center for Economic Policy Research estimate the ability and willingness of employers to create good jobs has decreased by a third since 1979.

More important, the forces behind the creation of bad jobs remain in place. Global competition with low wage countries, outsourcing of American jobs, increasing computerization and robotization, the political influence of corporate and Wall Street firms and the weakening of unions continue. Moreover, many industries and occupations that depend on low wage workers are still expanding. Consequently, the economy may continue to produce too many bad jobs even when it is also producing record profits for many employers and their shareholders.

A future economy which operates with an ever rising proportion of bad jobs is a horrifying possibility. It depresses consumer demand and thus sets the economy on an ever declining and deflationary path. Bad jobs also harm workers and their families. Frequent budgetary crises, economic worries and feelings of insecurity are known to endanger the physical and mental health of their holders. They can spread to partners, children and family life, and may even scar subsequent generations.
Fixing the bad jobs economy (Work in Progress). And as the economy creates more low-wage jobs, the people in those low-wage jobs tend to have children. These children growing up in poverty will have lasting scars and epigenetic effects which will lead to a downward spiral of the overall population lasting for generations:
Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development. Already high compared with other developed nations, the child poverty rate in the United States increased dramatically as a result of the economic crisis. The official poverty line in 2013 was $23,624 for a family of two adults and two children. Poverty and financial stress can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems and poor health. The risks posed by economic hardship are greatest among children who experience poverty when they are young and among those who experience persistent and deep poverty.
Children don’t count (Real World Economics Review)

So it's a bit hard to see how working more will achieve anything besides a worse and more dysfunctional standard of living for most people and higher profits for corporations and the wealthy.

BONUS: Americans are the most pointlessly overworked people in the world (The Week)
Over at Demos, Matt Bruenig came up with a clever way of thinking about this. In general, as countries become richer and more productive, they work less and less, since they can produce more with the same effort. Plot hours worked per person versus GDP per hour worked, and you can produce a trend line. Those above the line work unusually hard, while those under it do the opposite.

So who works the hardest, controlling for relative wealth? Americans, by far:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who Owns the Debt?

A while back I talked about how the decision was made to cut taxes on the rich and borrow from them instead. The rich prefer buying bonds to paying taxes because it gives them a safe, low-risk place to park their cash which they get back in the exact proportion they paid in, plus interest. By contrast, if they paid taxes, that money might be redistributed somewhat and spent on things that don't benefit the rich personally, and there is no guarantee they would get that money back in the same proportion they paid in (although since so much of government spending ultimately goes to the "private sector" they probably would, but still...). And, of course, with taxes the government is not obliged to return that money with interest, as it is with bonds. But where does the interest come from? The general revenue, in other words, from the rest of us who pay taxes instead of buy bonds. People like you and me. Thus more and more of the taxes we pay are redistributed to the rich in the form of interest payments instead of being spent on things like infrastructure, education, or jobs.

This assumes that the people funding the national debt are disproportionately the wealthy. I didn't have evidence then but now I do.
The chart below, taken from his 2013 article in New Political Economy, shows the share of the U.S. public debt held by the Top 1%. This share follows the general historical contours of the overall distribution of wealth, and is currently hovering around 45% – approximately the same level as at the turn of the twentieth century. 
Equally startling is the extreme concentration of debt holdings by the first decade of the millennium, 2,675 firms – representing a tiny 0.05% of all corporations – owned a whopping 82% of the public debt held by corporations. This concentration is significantly higher than it was in the 1950s, when a similar number of firms, representing 0.2% of all corporations, owned 66% of the debt held by corporations.
Who owns the public debt? (Real World Economics Review blog)

No wonder profits are so high!

This also explains why even though the government is perennially underfunded, the Republicans can simultaneously portray the deficit as an existential threat while making it their central policy to reduce tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. In fact, they just passed the "Death Tax Repeal Act" (HR 1105) which would eliminate taxes on the country's richest people while increasing the deficit by 269 billion dollars over the next ten years. Yet they will still turn around and claim things like the deficit is too high, and unemployment insurance must be eliminated.

This drives more borrowing, which is the point. Republicans then go one to claim that the solution is to just to reduce spending to whatever the tax rate happens to be, yet when they get in office, they never do that! In fact, both government spending and budget deficits have historically risen far more under Republicans than Democrats. And the claim that reducing taxes on the wealthy somehow supercharges the economy and increases revenue is failing year after year everywhere it has been tried.

So the next time someone says that "we" own the deficit, or try to portray the people owning saving bonds as salt-of-the earth ordinary people like grandma saving for retirement, you can call bullshit. The concept of "national debt" is a redistribution scheme pure and simple, whether here or in Greece.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Imagined Architectures

Check out this architecture specifically designed for our post-apocalyptic future. Talk about ruin value!
Nuclear war. Disappearing natural resources. Overpopulation, then underpopulation. Rising sea levels. These are just some of the challenges Londoners will have to face over the next 10,000 years. Royal College of Art graduate Alice Theodorou has designed a skyscraper concept she thinks can weather those ten millennia. How? By leveraging classical sculpture and the beauty of the human form to instill an innate desire in future Londoners to preserve it.

In Theodorou's concept, which she calls "The Future Will Just Have To Wait," London's Mount Pleasant Mail Centre would be the site for a skyscraper, the supports of which are made of massive marble caryatids, Atlases, and other Greco-Roman inspired sculptures. Even if it lasts 10,000 years, or even just 100, the building isn't meant to be a completely static structure: Theodorou expects that it will be renovated, repurposed, and rebuilt.

Think of it like a modern day Parthenon, which has been an Athenian temple, a mosque, a Christian church, a museum, and a marketplace in its 2,500 year history. Theodorous wants to do the same thing here. As part of her concept, she imagines how the Mount Pleasant site could be used as a nuclear shelter in 2049 when global thermonuclear war results from the depletion of the world's lead resources, or how the collapse of the European Union in 2040 might require the Mount Pleasant building to cope with laws requiring all households in Britain to grow their own food. She even imagines what the Mount Pleasant site might look like as an underwater lighthouse powered by gallium indium phosphide cells in the year 12,000, when all of London is at the bottom of the ocean.

But why does Theodorou think her building will last so long? When researching her project, Theodorou discovered that one of the oldest pieces of art on Earth is a 40,000 year old figurine of a woman, carved out of ivory. Asking herself how such an object could survive to be passed down to us, Theodorou's central premise is that humanity is hard programmed to try to preserve anthropomorphic art and design. The Mount Pleasant building of her concept will survive for the same reasons the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and the Laocoön have: humanity cherishes itself, favoring "the endurance of the human form over the fleeting nature of architectural style."

A Skyscraper Designed To Survive The Next 10,000 Years (Fast Company) It reminds me of the efforts of the Human Interference Task Force to design a resting place for nuclear waste that has to warn people away for the next 10,000 years:

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
An Architecture of Peril (Michael Brill)

WIPP Exhibit: Message to 12,000 A.D.

Designing a Nuclear Waste Warning Symbol That Will Still Make Sense in 10,000 Years (99 Percent Invisible)

See also: Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia (PDF Review)

It also reminds me of the visionary classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée:

 This student developed what he calls "architecture for atheists":

 Building on the philosophies of Alain de Botton, who in 2012 advocated Atheist temples for London, Chmielewski proposes a series of structures intended to inspire awe without any references to religion. He calls the project Atheistic Architecture.The designer claims that by 2040, less than one per cent of Britain's population will be a member of the Anglican Church. But there are still 55 churches in the City of London, which he believes have become wasted spaces – so he wants to replace them.

"In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton writes about the need for a new typology for atheistic temples," the designer told Dezeen. "He perfectly describes a sense of nostalgia that I feel for religious architecture.This project is a response accommodating both the discourse between nostalgia for ecclesiastical beauty and the rejection of fallen religious doctrine."

Chmielewski's proposal centres around St Mary-Le-Bow, the historic church on Cheapside designed by Christopher Wren to replace a predecessor destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.He proposes converting the building into what he describes as "an ever-evolving open cathedral" celebrating the life cycle of the oak tree. The aim is to create a building that incites awe through an awareness of the scale of nature and the universe.

"In today's world, society deprives atheists of places where they can submerse themselves in a moment of solitude, feel a part of something greater, or perhaps connect with nature and the universe," explained Chmielewski.The structure would feature a facade made up of 39,999 sheets of marble with gold trims – referencing the many generations of humanity – as well as a roof terrace for quiet contemplation, and a celebration hall for events.It would also house the headquarters and library for the British Humanist Association, a non-profit organisation that works on behalf of non-religious people.

Architecture for atheists imagined in designs by student Kacper Chmielewski (Dezeen)

Another vision of the future is promoted by architect Luc Shuiten of Belgium who designs what he calls "vegetal cities"

In the TEDxNantes video below (subtitles available), Schuiten explains how he believes that the tree's inherent structure is already sound, saying, "So why redesign the tree? Why redesign what was already there first?" and proposes that humans develop ways to plant trees, guide their growth, prune and graft them into dwellings that would populate these vegetal metropolises. Schuiten calls his approach to building "archiborescence": a portmanteau of "architecture" and "tree," using principles similar to biomimicry where one designs with nature as inspiration.

In this scheme of the "City of Habitarbres" (habitable trees), Schuiten explains how we might live amongst the trees, using biotextiles and bioluminescence:

    The city of habitarbres develops in a remodeled forest environment tailored to the needs of a new lifestyle. The people are no longer consumers, but the actors of a new ecosystem that enables the management and the development of every term and ensures a long-term evolution of the city. The outer walls forming the habitarbres facings are made of a skin-based translucent or transparent proteins inspired chitin dragonfly wings. These flexible and resistant biotextiles are different in nature depending on their location. The floor slabs and internal walls are made of known techniques earth stabilized with lime, and armies of plant structures. These soils are the thermal mass required to store calories and redistribution of heat. Natural ventilation of buildings is modeled on termite mounds. Night lighting of homes is produced by bioluminescence in mimicking the process used by fireflies or certain abyssal fish.

Architect's future 'Vegetal Cities' merge nature with the man-made (Treehugger)

It reminds me of the work of the late Malcolm Wells:
malcolm wells: passively heated underground buildings (designboom)

Probably a fantasy on the scale of cities, but check out The Root Bridges of Cherrapunji (Atlas Obscura):

The Ficus elastica produces a series of secondary roots from higher up its trunk and can comfortably perch atop huge boulders along the riverbanks, or even in the middle of the rivers themselves. The War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya, long ago noticed this tree and saw in its powerful roots an opportunity to easily cross the area's many rivers. Now, whenever and wherever the need arises, they simply grow their bridges.

In order to make a rubber tree's roots grow in the right direction — say, over a river — the Khasis use betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create root-guidance systems. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree, prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks, grow straight out. When they reach the other side of the river, they're allowed to take root in the soil. Given enough time, a sturdy, living bridge is produced.

The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional, but they're extraordinarily strong — strong enough that some of them can support the weight of 50 or more people at a time. In fact, because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time — and some of the ancient root bridges used daily by the people of the villages around Cherrapunji may be well over 500 years old.
And there is a man in England who is doing "biological manufacturing," growing furniture using trees: Let’s Grow Some Furniture: Botanical Manufacturing (No Tech Magazine) and The man who grows trees into chairs (BBC) See also Wisconsin’s Whole Trees Design.

Also check out the work of Patrick Dougherty: 
Patrick Dougherty has made over 200 sculptures in the 25 years that he has been creating Stickwork. But his construction work began when he was 28, working for the Air Force in the health and hospital administration. He decided to buy property in North Carolina and build his own house from the materials on the site. Collecting fallen branches, rocks and old timber, Dougherty was able to construct his home, in which he still lives with his wife and son, with a few additions. By 36, Dougherty decided to return to school for sculpture and attended the art program at the University of North Carolina. His interest in what nature had to offer led him to develop his tangled sculptures. Each sculpture is different and depends greatly on the site. Each project is different and depends on the volunteers that participate and the public that never fails to stop and watch the sculptures being woven together. 
Stickwork / Patrick Dougherty (Arch Daily)

It reminds me of that concept that any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.