Thursday, January 19, 2017

The effects of the lies we live by (hint: they’re not good!)

Still cleaning up some bits and pieces left over from last year, in my latest post I explained why I think the overwhelmingly repeated mantra of ever accelerating technological progress that brings us a new wonder every day and thus all but guarantees a brighter future for all of us is a naked, unabashed, shameless, bald-faced lie. I recognize there is a certain exaggeration in the way I presented it: some inventions are still being made, some activities within factories that up until now required human intervention are being automated, sooner or later (more the latter than the former) we will have autonomous cars in most cities… only much less and much later than what most journalists and pundits and commentators are trying to make you believe, so the real measure of how technology affects our lives (Total Factor Productivity, or how much labor, capital and raw materials must we consume to get any additional unit of output we exchange in the market) is still slowly crawling upwards. Do not expect then major “disruptions” to produce any dramatic change, especially for the better. Yep, there is one area where technological advance is more apparent: communications and information technologies.  But don’t forget the one thing I’ve learned in more than 15 years designing and implementing “cutting edge” information systems in multinational enterprises: their impact is almost always negligible, and their meager gains mostly limited to the salaries of the consultants called in for the implementation, so I recommend you too take the claims of the whole IT industry with a grain of salt.

Many of my readers, when confronted with such arguments, so opposed to the continuous, relentless and overwhelming onslaught of media stories about new wonders and promises, tend to think I may be a bit nutty or, more charitably put, just misinformed and out of touch (and plain ‘ol grumpy). Not that I care, or that I may indeed be all of those things just for funsies. I’ll only mention I’m not the only one noticing how the so vaunted ever-accelerating impact on our lives and on the economy of such progress is somwhat disappointing these last years: this is from “The Economist”, shocked (shocked, I tell you!) by the discovery that TFP is not growing much anywhere in the world: Light bulb moment for Buttonwood. Not exactly breaking news to any regular reader of this blog. And here is Alex Tabarrok on how to sustain the growth of ideas we have to double the number of researches (and he is not considering that the impact of those ideas grows weaker by the year): Depressing? may be for those not paying attention. Now that population growth has stopped except in a few African hellholes and educational attainment has also stagnated, I wonder where we will find the next crop of researchers and engineers, that would need to be as big as the current one just to keep the technology improving at the same anemic pace. But not everything is doom and gloom, also in Marginal Revolution we can find Tabarrok’s twin, Tyler Cowen illuminating us about the unsung (until now!) area outside of Sw development where we may actually be seeing some technological improvement No Great Stagnation in the drug market.

Be it as it may, and doesn’t matter how many knowledgeable pundits come to realize the overhyped revolution upon us is not much beyond the hype, I still have to argue ad infinitum  with any misinformed internet warrior about how the acceleration of technological progress is NOT going to simultaneously leave us all jobless AND bring untold wonders and comfort to all without having to bother with changing the social system a tiny bit (yup, both statements are incompatible, but if you compare it with the inability to see what is staring you right in the face logical inconsistency doesn’t seem so much of a problem)…

So it’s not that wrong that the future imagined in the Star Wars universe is grim, dirty, not-networked and more similar to WWII than to a giant Apple store, as noted in this recent review in “The Atlantic” No Google in "Rogue One"? what a letdown!  Yuck, the future (although the saga has always stated it happens “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” we still identify it as belonging to the Science-Fiction canon, and thus committed to depicting a possible future, when men travel between the stars along member of other alien species) may not look like it was designed by Jon Ive, the horror, the horror! Only if you believe that history is a linear process, where discoveries can’t be forgotten and technologies, once deployed, can’t be “unlearned”, it may surprise you that some elements of our daily lives may be absent from alternate universes (imaginary as they may be) which have acquired capabilities we lack. But if you accept, as I do, that history is a messy, highly contingent, multi-faceted process you wouldn’t find shocking at all a technologically advanced galaxy where interstellar travel coexists with very retrograde social forms (compatible, for example, with the institution of slavery) is lacking many features we take for granted in our more humdrum reality, like newspapers, television, the internet, etc. (all things that haven’t been around for the vast majority of our existence as a species, so why should we be surprised by its absence?).

As an interesting aside, and just to come back to the original intention of this post, the result of people being simply pissed off and angry may have been already described by none other than Hunter S. Thompson in his Hell’s Angels, as pointed in “the Nation” The angry and disenchanted Hell's Angels. A more nuanced analysis of the divorce between the people and their supposed elites was recently penned by Ivan Krastev in the NYT, circumscribed to Europe (but very much applicable to the rest of the world, it is not Europeans who elected Trump after all): Rise and fall of European meritocracy. I found especially intriguing the comment about Rawls being wrong: indeed, it does seem as if the lower rungs are not happier under a meritocracy than under an authoritarian regime, as the meritocracy keeps on telling them it is their fault to be under the foot of the elite, whilst the aristocratic regime, more so if it is of a populist bent, always finds a convenient scapegoat to fault, which human nature being what it is sounds to the majority of the oppressed infinitely more plausible.

What all this data points collectively indicate is that we are witnessing a stupendous, if historically infrequent, spectacle: the loss of legitimacy and disintegration of that irreplaceable construct I’ve called dominant reason. Remember, to function socially, to have different groups with different interests working together we needed more or less everybody to accept three "big" ideas (or guiding principles if you prefer):

·         What’s the ultimate end of life (what constitutes a life well lived)

·         What desires are socially sanctioned (are understood as being conductive to that ultimate end)

·         What are the criteria for ordering the social hierarchy (who can give orders and who shall obey)

In a well organized society (one that, among other features like low violence and high levels of self-reported life satisfaction, reproduces itself spontaneously) there is agreement about the three ideas, and thanks to that people widely believe they more or less “get” what they were implicitly promised, their expectations are fulfilled, and the unavoidable ruling minority (those who occupy the top of the hierarchy legitimized by the dominant reason in question) can rest contented and enjoy with tranquility the advantages of their superior status.

That is not the society we live in any more. The curtain that hid the Wizard of Oz has fallen, and we see the dominant reason as a construct, not as the unavoidable corollary of human nature, or the bending of the arc of history towards justice or the progress of the world-spirit towards greater self-knowledge. I recently re-read one of the manifestos of the 70’s that had impacted the most me when I was young, the “Weak thought” compiled by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, and, besides founding it much more muddled and confused than I remembered (so I reconfirmed my impression that the impact books have on us is as much due to our own peculiar and unplanned circumstances as to the content of the books themselves), I found this pearl by Franco Crespi:

I’ll translate the key parts for my Italian-challenged readers:

Culture being the result of the reflexivity of consciousness, its function appears directly linked to the problem of securing a measure of certainty regarding the sense of life and the rules on how to act […]

At a collective level it wouldn’t work to have a weak cultural order, as such weakness would directly compromise the possibility of constituting those dimensions of identity and of belonging on which the foundations of any social order are built.

The essential condition of actions’ predictability for constituting the social can’t be secured, at least regarding the basic demand for self-preservation and pacific coexistence […]
Hence the constant tendency of culture to treat itself as sacred, presenting itself as nature or as founded on immutable basis derived from Theology, from Reason or from Scientific Laws, in the search for an absolute legitimacy that allows it to remove (to hide) its character of historic, conventional product

I think we can identify in those lines a valid description (and explanation) of a good deal of the discourse of a significant portion of economists, New (and not so new) Atheists, progressives (and conservatives!), cultural “critics” (that criticize some isolated aspect in order to better defend the whole), political analysts and the like: all of them agree that our system is based in human nature (as revealed to us by applying the scientific method, which in matters of the soul never errs). It is the crystallization of centuries of progress, and thus it must be unquestionably good… To oppose it, even to question its greatness and wisdom and optimality, can only be explained by a sickly bigoted, fanatical, Neanderthal mind.

Lies, lies, lies, slathered in more lies, covered in additional lies, truffled with scrumptious lies as a side dish. And the people is realizing it. Slowly at the beginning, but expect it to accelerate, once the curtain falls and you see the wizard is a little man pulling clunky levers and pushing rusty buttons you can not “unsee” it and go on living as if everything still made sense, and the dominant reason was again a sensible way to organize our collective whereabouts. Now the big question is, what are they (the majority, the ones that typically make no decisions, that nominally hold no power at all, until they discover that without their consent the ruling minority is as powerless as themselves) going to do about it?

To advance an answer, I suggest we unpack separately the consequences of abandoning each tenet of our dominant reason, as I’ve expounded them so many times:

Tenet #1: social hierarchy based on the possession of money

Criteria for defining who is higher than who, who can command and who should obey, are the most volatile elements of a dominant reason (the one that has changed more frequently in the last three hundred years, varying roughly in cycles 50-70 years). So it’s not surprising that accepting the opinion of millionaires as the word of God (as they have more money than you, they are surely more right than you, aren’t they?) is the element more advanced in crumbling and falling within our desiderative compact.

Funny I should note it the day before Trump is sworn in as 45th president of the United States, given that his only claim to authority is the (supposedly) great fortune he has amassed, the one argument he uses once and again to settle any discussion seemingly being that he has earned so much above the average guy that he must be a business genius, and thus always on the right.
I’m the first to recognize that business knowledge, measured as the ability to earn vast sums of money, has until now been widely admitted as the ultimate criteria of social dominance, deserving of that final form of recognition that is fame and universal admiration. People like Steve Jobs come to mind: in most respects a despicable human being, detested by most of his former underlings that are not Tim Cook, but extravagantly eulogized after his death as the best thing ever to happen to humanity after the invention of sliced bread.

May be, but that opinion has to be moderated by two facts: first, Trump has been elected with less votes than those received by Barack Obama, but also by Mitt Romney or George Bush (or Al Gore or John Kerry). His victory is a testament to the even greater weakness (and lack of recognition) of another, different criterion for establishing the position in the social hierarchy: that of knowledge (aka wonkiness) and credentials (a criterion that was enshrined by bureaucratic reason, as long as it was sanctioned by the State, and thus superseded by the currently dominant one), not to the strength of the recognition given to money.

You can see the delegitimization of money as sole indicator of social position in the continuous humdrum of alternative lifestyles, and the disengagement of growing numbers of young people from the job market. What we do not have yet is a clear alternative, a different marker of status that is not amenable to being monetized that is starting to gain widespread acceptance, and we will probably not notice such alternative until much further in the XXIst century.

What we can already see is the effect of the vacuum left by the until now universally accepted measurement of social standing: growing tribalism, and a return of the values that are probably hardwired in our ancestral nature. What are those values, you may ask? Not very enlightened or progressive, I have to tell you: strength (for men) and looks (for women). Indeed, the election of Trump can be better understood in the light of such disintegration of old criteria, and tentative emergence of this new one: he brags incessantly about his strength (“man in best physical shape ever to get to be president”… hilarious I know, if it were not rather pathetic), and boasts of a wife whose only merit seems to be her gorgeousness and stunningly good looks.

Think about it: when the measuring rod you were taught to use shows to be of no value, how can you decide if a person you are dealing with is your superior or not (and thus you can effectively coordinate social actions with him without having to fight for every inch of terrain)? First, you limit your dealings with those you can more easily identify with and trust: those racially and culturally and even economically more like you. Second, if you are a man, you try to impose yourself physically unless you clearly see you would be defeated (in which case you yield to superior strength), If you are a woman, you try to assert your charm and wilily manipulate those around you, unless you recognize your opposite as being more charming, in which case you yield and try to be admitted in her circle in a secondary position.

Note that both for men and women, strength and looks may be proxys for a more diffuse feature we may well call charisma, and that it is also highly defining of our age: the rise of the charismatic leader (which, in the environment of multinational companies is leading us into a new form of feudalism) as opposed to the bureaucratic one, rule-bound and rational and predictable, is but another aspect of this same phenomenon.

Tenet #2: one single socially sanctioned desire, to  climb in the social hierarchy

Societies have always imposed a certain set of desires on their members. Indeed, our modern infatuation with desire-satisfaction can only be understood as a mechanism of social coordination. Since our good friend David Hume we only conceive as a “true” explanation of behavior the appellation to the agent desires: why did she act in a certain way? Because that action was conductive to (or consisted in) the satisfaction of a desire. Does it sound a bit circular, a bit question-begging? Well, of course it is! Unless you stop thinking of desires as “those impulses towards greater pleasure (or less pain) that ideally translate themselves in certain intelligible actions” and start seeing them as “ready-made explanations of behaviors that society wants to promote”. In the first sense, doesn’t matter what Liz Anscombe says, there is no way to explain why desiring a saucer full of mud doesn’t make any sense (why wouldn’t I find pleasure in having such saucer, and thus why wouldn’t an appellation to such desire be a valid explanation of my behavior?) or why, as Gabriel Albiac (a Spanish journalist and aspiring philosopher, don’t ask) says “that which nobody desires doesn’t need to be forbidden” (which forces us to accept that society is chock full of people desiring to kill, to steal, to rape and to lie, hence the need to forbid all those behaviors).

Just rehashing my old arguments of what a dominant reason here, nothing more. Now, back to my contention, people seem to be getting fed up with the idea that every one and single desire has to be a version of “I want to have more money than thou”, and at least since the 70’s some artists and thinkers have been exploring, and publicizing, the revolutionary potential of alternative desires that don’t lend themselves to being reduced to improving one’s position in a one-dimensional hierarchy. Probably (but this would need more research from me) the pure and primal drive for sex for sex’s sake has been leading the way, and a positive aspect of the sexual revolution (that was indeed soon monetized, and through commercial pornography and rank exploitation had all its original revolutionary potential entirely blunted) is the recovery of means of satisfaction partially free from market constraints. I say partially free because even in the most extreme manifestations of apparent liberation (like in the USA’s universities “hookup culture”) a preliminary condition for enjoying unlimited access to sexual gratification with no complications is to have lots of money (only the rich and beautiful can fuck as much as they want, as any poor non lily white student soon finds). Be it as it may, I sense a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the cult of money that burgeoned in the 80’s in the West (and is still burgeoning in the fastest developing economies, like India and China) that, as was the case with Tenet #1, still has not coalesced in any widely accepted alternative, but will sooner or later do so.

Of course, I don’t know what alternative set of desires the well-ordered, self-sustained society that is born from the ashes of our will sanction, but I can predict what the effect of abandoning the “single-party dictatorship of the pursue of material success to the exclusion of everything else” will be. And, as in the case of the abandonment of the first tenet, it won’t be nice. As in there, when a dominant reason falls apart without a widely alternative having been fully formed, without a widely shared opinion of what constitutes a better option, people resort to instinct and atavism. And atavistic instincts in the realm of desires are not very conductive to a well-ordered life, one in which the “better angels of our nature” take hold and guide our behavior. Rather, they devolve into a facile hedonism that ends up being self-destructive. And I think it should be non-controversial that in the most advanced society (or at least, the one that has gone further down the road of dissolution of the dominant reason) there is a lot of hedonism and self-destruction, to the point that it has managed to actually shorten the life expectancy of its members, for the first time (in the absence of major wars or famines) since we keep records, in what constitutes a big “showing the middle finger” to the idea that progress is linear and technological advance would necessarily lead us to a paradise of extended lifespans amidst more and more material comforts. The white working class in the USA (and in Russia, in a fine irony of history) believes so little in such comforting palaver that they’d rather drink and dope themselves into oblivion, thank you very much.

Tenet #3: because at the end of the day, a life well lived is a life of fulfilled desires

That’s the really tough nut to crack, isn’t it? As far as I know, in the last 2,400 years (in the West at least, I don’t know enough of the East to judge) we have only been collectively able to change that just twice. First, around 400 CE, when the collapse of the Classical world buried its old agonistic, self-perfectionist autarchic ideal and replaced it with following the dictate of a particular reveled religion, interpreted in a  very particular and somewhat weird (for the age) way as promising an eternal afterlife that crucially depended on our behavior in this one. Second, as I have abundantly documented, around 1750 when a bunch of guys oddly detached from the world and its worries (so-called free-thinkers and philosophers) convinced the rest of us that such idea was baloney, and the life really well lived consisted simply in satisfying desires and doing as close as possible to what we pretty much pleased (pleasure and desire being more or less interchangeable).

But I have a strong hunch that even that mainstay of our intellectual landscape is today up for grabs, and that unless we can successfully find a substitute for it, we will keep on stumbling, unable to form a new social compact that can successfully attract the future citizens to stop self-destructing, or joining in more and more tribal and homogeneous groups (deadening, stifling, uncreative in their idolization of an entirely imagined and sterile past) and trundling on joined only by their fear of a demonized external “other” that keeps them together always out of fear, never of hope.

Because without a shared idea of what the good life consists in, of what a life well lived is, we will not be able to forge the new bonds between peoples, and between individuals, to jointly overcome the stale definitions of what we can desire and how we should bestow respect that we have inherited, and that weigh so heavily on us. And indeed defining that idea is the highest purpose, the most noble task of nay thinker, as it is the thinkers who have to raise first and foremost to the responsibility of such definition (that would be another fruity subject: how dominant reasons are defined by a few, and then communicated and finally accepted by the many). A task, honestly, I don’t see anybody remotely able to attempt…

So this is what the future has in store for this and the next generation: we will see the occasional bump in our declining fortunes, we will have anemic recoveries, followed by steeper recessions (and outright depressions). We will have minuscule advances being hailed as “the revolutionary advance that changes everything” (we have had so many of those in the last decade alone!). But we won’t see major demographic recoveries (as the exhausted desiderative reason won’t be able to give people motive enough to consider their lives worth living, and thus they will keep on voting with their gonads not to reproduce a social model that has failed them). We won’t see dramatic increases in the species lifespan (sorry, Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey: you will both die, die, die, and so will I… such is life!). We won’t do collectively anything that merits being remembered through the ages (as I prognosticated here: already past peak civilization remember, I gave a zero probability to any of the eleven markers of civilizational greatness I defined being met in the next decade, or ever for what is worth).

But, if we are lucky, we may at least bequeath our descendants a set of functioning institutions (even if a majority of the people badmouths them, they will still abide by their rules), running water, a modicum of freedom and the (almost) certainty of something to eat the next day. Given our historical record, that’s not too shabby either. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

We are being lied to II (technology will deliver us? Ha!)

In my latest post I devoted some time to debunk one of the most pervasive lies we are being told, the fact that the economy is growing at an unprecedented pace (which it is not) and how that justifies any effort and any sacrifice from all the social body (as for some parts of the social body, that happen to be the vast majority of it, both income and wealth have not grown in the last half century, and in some not-as-well-measured aspect like population’s ability to reproduce itself they have indeed contracted). I briefly mentioned two other lies that act as additional alibis for keeping the current social compact going (that may weight against “rocking the boat” and attempting to change some fundamental rules) that are almost as widely held as sacrosanct truths but, not having much time I didn’t develop them as much as what I think they merit, so in today’s post I’m going to present in more length y arguments against them:

 Lie # 2: thanks to the spread of innovations, technology will solve all of our problems

In a number of fields, from growing inequality to the accelerating degradation of our shared environment (by biodiversity loss, depletion of non-renewable resources and global warming) the case is made from a number of opinion makers (which, on not-too-close examination many times happen to be funded by companies that benefit greatly from the maintenance of current arrangements) that no change is really required on how we organize society and conduct businesses, as new technologies, today unforeseen, will come to our rescue and solve today’s ills without pain and without anybody having to renounce to their current level of consumption. Ah, the paretian magic economists have been raised to believe in!

Of course, the luster of technological advance wears off quite fast when you dispel the previous lie and consider that most of the advantages new technology may bring will be enjoyed only by a tiny minority, and that the price to be paid for such minor improvements will be borne by the vast majority, who will live in a grossly despoiled and impoverished planet (but you don’t have to take my word for it, the pope of the Catholic Church, an institution not typically noted for its progressivism or distaste for earthly injustice, has devoted his latest encyclical just to such perils: on "Laudato si") without reaping any of the supposed benefits that the development of the latest generation of costly baubles has delivered.

However, that is not the worst part of it, and that is why the second lie has also to be put to rest independently of the first one. To that end, let’s get bac to basic, and try to disentangle what humans need to lead a rewarding life from what humans want to lead a satisfying life (a distinction that both economists and politicians tend to forget, and that their disciplines studiously erase). The first is dictated by our nature (oooops, such a slippery, contentious issue! Do human beings have a nature at all? Aren´t we all just 100% a product of malleable culture, free to invent ourselves in any way or shape we fashion? Well, of course not you silly, human nature is as stubborn and solid a reality as you can dream of, although being free, and thus having a certain leeway to overcome its dictates is part and parcel of it) whilst the second is imposed from outside, and coordinated so it is reasonably coherent within any self-perpetuating group by that wonderful collective arrangement called dominant reason (more about that towards the end of the post). And what our nature dictates we need is pretty simple, and can be summarized in the famous 4F+B formula: we need food, fiber (clothing), fuel (energy) and procreation, plus (outside the milder climates) building materials to erect shelters to protect us from the weather.

So let’s review how technology has improved our capability to produce any of those basic needs, and how it seems poised to push it further:

·         Food: tremendous advances in the last two centuries, since we got better at understanding what nutrients the different crops require from the soil, thus improving crop rotation and reducing the use of fallow lands, using manure (and later on, artificially produced fertilizers, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process) and finally reducing the loss to insects that competed with us for the food through pesticides. However, those impressive advances (that have allowed us to go from producing barely enough food for one billion human beings, requiring the toil of 95% of the population to producing in excess for 9 billion, requiring the work of less than 10% of the population) achieved their peak in the 70’s of last centuries (the “green revolution”, for which Borlaug received the Nobel prize in 1970) and although still producing great results today just by being applied in less developed countries (Bill Gates is a big proponent, and has donated 1.4 billion dollars to further it in places like India and Bangladesh… the result? Crop yields roughly doubled in the last decade) it is, thankfully, of less and less relevance because, hope you are seated before hearing such groundbreaking news, producing enough food is not a problem for the human species (we already do it at a clip of roughly between 1.2 and 1.4 times what we actually need or can conserve, having to basically dump 30% of what we cultivate). You may hear about the use of satellites to more finely monitor the situation of crops, and allowing to raise them with less water consumption and less pesticides, and of course, the omnipresent promise of genetic engineering to create magical varieties that will yield even more edible matter with less water and inbuilt resistance to pests. Guess what? We have been genetically engineering these things (technically called “plants”) for millennia, and the room for improvement over what is actually achievable is now exceedingly small. But hey, I’m not against ultra-rich philanthropists throwing money at a non-existing problem, far from it. Only I’m not very optimistic it’s going to have much impact.

·         Fiber: If having enough to eat stopped being a collective problem half a century ago, having enough to cover ourselves and protect our fragile bodies from the merciless elements is something we solved about twice that time ago. Sure, we have been very good at creating silly fashion waves to force consumers to keep on buying pieces of clothing at ever shorter intervals so we can keep lots of people in Bangladesh and Vietnam sewing in unsanitary conditions for a few pennies a day (and a few people in our own countries cashing nice, fat profits from distributing and advertising the garments, you wouldn’t believe for a moment that we kept on throwing “fashion weeks” at our main capitals for the Vietnamese and the Bangladeshis, would you?) Again, you may expect some improvements in how patterning, cutting and sewing are done in more automated factories, further reducing the amount of people that can earn a semi-decent living from the trade, and further increasing the speed of rotation due to obsolescence in the first world, but don’t expect any major breakthrough in that area either. It is an already solved problem, and society tends not to spend much effort to solve again what has already been solved.

·         Fuel: now, come on! At least here there must have been some advance! Germany is in the midst of the Energiewende! And they will cut greenhouse emissions by 90% by 2050! And they will produce 50 to 60% of their energy from renewables by that same date! And fusion energy is around the corner! And the price of solar has been cut in an order of magnitude! And solar is already economical without subsidies! And wind… well wind is probably slightly cheaper than it was a couple decades ago! Sigh… If “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinker’s hands. The only real effect of Germany’s valiant policy so far is to raise the price of electricity between a 30 and a 40% and to increase its production of greenhouse gasses. The intermediate targets for 2020 are almost certainly not going to be met, and only God knows what may happen after that (not that I’m against their push, only that before holding it as an example of what less wealthy countries should so it would be nice to have all the data). Fusion is just a super costly experiment in Cadarache which nobody knows what it is good for, and that is going (slowly and expensively) nowhere. Solar is in its very early stages of technological development (look at the “state of the art” plants for concentrated thermosolar, which would solve the problem of storage, both in Tonopah, USA, and in Ouarzazate in Morocco, and tell me how economical and competitive it already is; everything else are projects or demonstrators, I know, drawing plot plans is cheap and low risk) and it will take decades (not years) to have it working anywhere near competitiveness. Photovoltaic requires batteries being priced in the whole model so comparisons can be properly drawn, and is not competitive even in the Sahara desert, let alone Denmark, and on and on we could go. But we have a bright spot: fracking is a technological breakthrough that has allowed us, as a species, to pump cheaper hydrocarbons from the crust of the planet, so we can burn more of them. Whopeee! Some progress! In summary: no significant progress in the energy generation department

·         Procreation: it is the prerogative of every human generation to believe they have discovered sex (and of their parents to believe in turn they have discovered being scandalized by their progeny’s salaciousness) since we invented language. I already devoted some satirical space to the prospect of applying AI to sex toys (the final impulse for AI?) and won’t expand on that particular trope, but will at least say this: past certain point people need to fornicate not because some primeval urge forces them no matter what (although I reckon males between 18 and 45 years may find that point particularly hard to reach) but because they are bored. Human beings, once they have satisfied the need for the three previous F’s need something to turn their minds to and avoid facing the grim prospect of being left alone with themselves and having to, um, actually think something (just being unnecessarily obnoxious here, I now). Looking who to bang (and even better, who to prevent from banging others) has been historically one of the great sources of amusement of the species, and such need is not to be lightly set aside. Only it has traditionally happened mostly outside of the commercial sphere (yup, prostitution has been called “the oldest profession” for a reason, but optimistic me prefers to think that the hiring of someone for sex is but a very insubstantial part of the satisfaction of our desire for entertainment), and only in the last two centuries has it become an ever increasing part of GDP. We’ll have more to say about the growing weight of the “boredom-avoidance industry” (aka “culture”), suffice it to say at this point that although the way it is distributed is still undergoing massive changes, the way it is produced (and even what such production consists in) is not amenable to much change, and we shouldn’t expect dramatic changes in the coming decades (I’m fully aware this goes against the grain of much of mass media analysis, from MacLuhan on, for which new media is coextensive with radically new and altered messages… count me a contrarian also on this).

·         Building: just take a walk around any city, be it in the West, in the fast developing Asian economies or in the undeveloped world and tell me with a straight face we are witnessing a time of innovation in how human dwellings are conceived, built or sold… City halls still keep a wholly artificial scarcity of land (that super old fashion factor of production, that has stayed not just relevant into our days, but predominantly so) that has managed to smother any attempt at creativity from architects and engineers. I know, some visionary “star architect” (I’m thinking in Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry…) may have devised some highly original constructions here and there (but few for actually living in them) employing some new technique and innovative materials, but I think I’m not off the mark if I say their work has not been that much influential and that most architecture we see actually being built today is overwhelmingly “traditional” (even the megaprojects undertaken for prestige reason seem like version of what “futuristic” skyscrapers looked like in the 70’s with a few additional stories added on top).

So in any of the areas of providing for “basic” human needs, there is not much innovation going on. However, we are bombarded with the message that these are distinctly innovative times, that the very fabric of our society is being redesigned and reweaved from the ground up, that every institution and belief is up for grabs, questioned and streamlined by the ever accelerating impulse of wondrous and earth-shattering technologies that allow us to define how we want to live from the ground up, soon to be freed from the last remnants of necessity and scarcity in a world of plenty. Hence the disconnect?

The deep reasons behind the monstrous lies we are being ceaselessly told would require a post of their own, I’ll just point here that there are some groups that benefit enormously from the current status quo (the 1% that has been hoarding all the increased wealth that is being produced, and that indeed is benefitting from the minuscule amount of innovation -heavily concentrated on luxury goods- that has happened through a sclerotic system that is well past its prime of civilizational vigor).

Also, there is this one area where there have been innovations aplenty: that of entertainment and simulation, where software and computing squarely seats. A lot of enthusiastic journalists, knowing very little about how the world actually works (but, in a nice application of the Dunning-Kruger effect, believing that by having talked with some CEOs with a strong vested interest in convincing said journalists that them and the likes of them are going to fundamentally change the world, see latest and most refined example: Tom Friedman more and more away from reality) keep on parroting such lies, and a substantial part of the population seems to have taken their words, as they say, line, hook and sinker. I already devote some lines to try to debunk the impact of increasingly meaningless software (Guys, forget about Sw, it's gettin' you nowhere) and how its impact in how the world works, how society works, how human lives develop and flourish (or not) would be minimal, so I will not repeat them here. I’ll finish today by sharing a well-known fact, taken verbatim from the excellent The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon (o work I’ve quoted frequently of late). A puzzle of the last decade is why, if we are in the midst of such revolutionary times, total factor productivity has not only failed to grow, but is trending distinctly below the peak it reached around the middle of last century (after a brief reprieve in the 90’s):

So, frankly, next time somebody tries to sell me the wondrous effects of technology either show me something that affects the 4F+B, or something that explains why we seem to only improve minimally what it takes to produce the goods and services we actually are able to measure. And I know the tired argument of “people had a sad collection of a few dozen vinyl LPs and now they have all the music ever recorded at their fingertips (or the whole content of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or any movie ever filmed)”… which they then use to hear the same song by Justin Bieber again and again.

‘nuff said for today, we’ll deal with the 3rd lie another day 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We are being lied to! (oh, boy, are we!)

Let’s begin giving credit where credit is due, with the proverbial image that is worth a thousand words:

For those that arrived yesterday from an entirely different planet, too distant to ever have received the most cursory communication from Earth, the gentleman depicted above is Jim Wendler, the author of one of the finest methods for getting insanely strong ever devised by any human being (5/3/1, which I’ve been using in any of its multiple variants, for years and years). I hope you’ve noticed the sentence I’ve taken as title of this post is a more encompassing version of the one originally penned by him seen in the photograph (which you can buy nicely emblazoned on a T-shirt or a hoodie in his web site, btw). Mr. Wendler probably refers mainly to the habits of training and eating peddled by the so-called “fitness industry”, which are oriented mainly towards the enrichment of the trainers and the peddlers, and not so much to the overall health and well-being (and even less to the strength and general “awesomeness”) of the unsuspecting consumers of their pabulum.

But the concept could very well be applied to the whole cultural industry, which in turn is but the conveyor belt that society uses to transmit the ideas, values and opinions that the majority needs to embrace to keep it in working condition. I’ve contended a number of times that most of those ideas, values and opinions are not just false, but noxious. They do indeed keep the society working and reproducing itself, but at what a price! At the price of making its members miserable, of pushing them to live lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation. Lives that are literally not worth living (and people, consciously or unconsciously recognize such worthlessness, and react the only way left to them: by voting with their gonads not to reproduce such insanity, not to keep the system going for a single generation more).

Not a nice state of affairs. And the fight against it starts with denouncing the lies we collectively tell ourselves to keep it going, with exposing them and invalidating them and pointing their inconsistencies, showing how they seem plausible only because they are repeated so many times. But their plausibility does not derive from being so relentlessly drilled, but rather from benefitting some few at the expense of the majority (one of the many funny aspects of a dominant reason is that those few benefited by them are not even aware of the untruth on which their worldview rests; they do not even have to actively and consciously push the falsities on which their dominance depends).

So let’s do our part today by reviewing a somewhat schematic and summarized list of the lies we are almost daily being told:

Lie # 1: thanks to our social system (capitalism) we are growing richer every day

That one seems almost like a cinch, doesn’t it? If there is a stablished truth, almost written in stone, is how lucky we are to have inherited such a fantastic social system that has allowed us to enjoy more wealth than any previous generation in the whole history of the human race.
For example, here is what one of the most widely used textbooks on economics (Samuelson & Nordhaus) present us with right in the first page of their treatise:

Pretty impressive, uh? Focusing just on the last 45 years (since 1970) the national product has grown from about six times what we produced at the beginning of the XX century to an astounding thirty times, a more than fivefold increase. If you are interested in the raw data, the US of A went from collectively exchanging goods and services valued at about 1.076 trillion of 2015 dollars in 1970 to 18.037 trillion of equivalent dollars in (you guessed it) 2015.

Part of that improvement was caused by the raw increase in population (more people producing goods and providing services), that grew from roughly 200 million souls in 1970 to 321 million in 2015. However, the image of average  GDP growth is similarly impressive, from roughly 5,500 dollars/year (again, in 2015 dollars) in 1970 to a tad above 56,000 dollars/ year today:

So is it a closed case? Can we accept that, after a (relatively minor, seen in perspective) bump after the 2008 recession, the system is indeed creating untold amounts of wealth for everybody? Should we rest contented being the luckiest humans being that have ever lived? Nope, unless you have  very warped understanding of who “we” are (or you are damn lucky), as if we look not at how average per capita GDP has grown, but at how median income has, the picture looks quite different:

So what is it? How is it possible that the average GDP per capita has grown 1,000 % (is ten times bigger what it was in 1970) but median income has barely budged (has grown a paltry 12%, from around 50,000 USD to 56,000 USD)? What kind of statistical trickery is this?
Let’s explain it with an easy-to-understand slide (which has taken quite a few hours to prepare, btw), assuming a simplified economy where all income is in the form of cooked chickens, which allows us to compare how we are faring today with how we fared almost half a century ago:

So in 1970 I (I’m standing here for the whole 20% of the population with a higher income, or 80% quintile) the average income was 1 chicken per person, I did a bit better (earning one chicken and a half), you did about as well as the people around you (your brother in law and that annoying neighbor that kept throwing noisy stoner parties, all of which stood in the three central quintiles), which in turn did significantly better than the lower quintile.

But fast forward 45 years, and see what has happened: the lower quintile has improved substantially, so they now earn practically as much as yourself. You are still earning what you did back then, as is your in-law and the annoying neighbor (that somehow has survived through all his drug use). But the average income has skyrocketed to an astounding ten chickens per person! How come? Simply put, me and the likes of me have hoarded almost all the gains, and now make a whooping 45 chickens.

At a global level, the phenomenon was recently identified by Branko Milanovic (which has an excellent blog I recently added to the right side of my own) in a much commented and discussed graph charting the changing fortunes of different income groups aggregated for the whole world (thus going beyond the national analyses we were used to):
So it’s not surprising all of you are pretty pissed off! Of course you are voting for Trump, Brexit, against Italy’s constitutional reform, for the Law& Order party or the Front National! Not only have you not reaped any benefit at all from globalization, the supposed economic growth and whatnot, but you are seeing some people (me) making it royally, and the meager consolation you had (there are those “other people” that are in much worse shape than you) is slowly disappearing. Not that it was a strongly defensible (from a moral point of view) consolation but hey! You take what you can and try to make the most from the hand you’ve been given.

In summary, we can safely dispel with the myth that the system works because the economy grows and we are in a Paretian paradise where everybody is either better of or as well off as they were, and nobody is worse off. Because the bunch that has seen no significant improvement in almost fifty years is indeed considerably worse off. Worse off because they see the distance between themselves and the top quintile increasing beyond any limit. Worse off because to maintain the lifestyle they were accustomed to (the one their fathers enjoyed) they have to work significantly more hours (thanks to the incorporation of women to the labor market, as let’s not forget their forebears enjoyed a very similar income level with almost half of the paid effort, as typically only the husband worked outside the home). Worse off because their parents, in addition to amass almost the same amount of wealth than them also managed to reproduce and put in place a generation to pay for their retirement, something the current generation is failing to do…

I already identified as one of the sources of the current malaise the realization by a growing number of workers than they are indeed not living any better than their parents did, a realization recently shared by none other than my very admired newspaper of record (The American dream seems pretty moribund):

So a system built on the premise (and the promise) of never ending material improvement is showing itself to be more and more incapable to fulfill such expectation… expect people to be more and more angry as they realize what they would get in exchange for hard work and endless sacrifice is a life of never improving drudgery.

Lie # 2: thanks to the spread of innovations, technology will solve all of our problems

Nope again, not only innovations are more and more circumscribed to a somewhat collateral domain (software development, which creates programs of less and less impact on people lives), but even in that restricted domain they are slowing down

Lie # 3: thanks to our superior knowledge, we are healthier and will soon live over a thousand years

Nope, doesn’t matter if you put your hopes on knowing more how genes work, knowing more how aging works, or knowing more how nanomachines could interact with every single cell of our bodies, you will still die (irreversibly, finally, ultimately, in a “that’s all folks”-y way) before your 100th birthday.

OK, obviously I’m running late and didn’t have the time to properly develop the last two lies, probably will make it in subsequent posts. An awful way to stop for today, but remember nobody’s payin’ me for this

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The shortcomings of Economics II (interlude)

In my last post I argued basically that Economics (the discipline shaped and practiced by university professors, students, uncountable employees and executives distributed in tens of thousands of private and public enterprises along the world, as well as in government positions and as consultants and accountants and occasional entrepreneurs) is a sham. A con job. An ideological construct (in the old Marxist sense) without an atom of empirically verifiable truth within it.  

At the core of such accusation was the idea that economics offers only the skeleton of a theory in the form of equations that are not really equations. So in any Econ101 text you will find that demand (number of units demanded) is a function of the price: D = f(p), and is a monotonically decreasing function at that (so its derivate must be negative): df/dp < 0. Similarly we are told that supply (amount of units supplied) is a function of price, and labor (total number of hours offered by employees) is a function of wages (which is but another name for the price of hours worked in exchange for a salary), etc.

Which sounds “mathematicky” and “scienty”, but is really either a tautology (a statement that, being always true, tells us nothing new about the world) or empty verbiage with very little explanatory power. Putting seemingly common sense ideas (“the law of diminishing returns”, “the equalization of marginal costs and marginal utilities”) in a mathematical formalism apparently allows to understand them better and explore better their implications. It’s called “building a model”, it is understood that the “equations” are not really tools for providing testable predictions of how the real world works, but simplified representations that can indeed help us, in practice… predict how the world works.

According to this line of defense, the shadow of an equation is the second best thing (I guess after a “real” equation) to understand the infinitely complex realities of economic interactions, and not that different from what we encounter in physics or chemistry. When we read that the gravitational attraction between two bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance (F = G x m1 x m2 / d2) that is also an approximation (we can only know G, the gravitational constant, up to a certain level of exactitude, which could mask that the formula is not as precise as it sounds, but an approximation that masks the contribution of additional factors, not to mention that it is valid, even approximately valid, for non-relativistic conditions -when both bodies are relatively stationary or move at speeds much below that of light). Although the engineering part of me feels strongly tempted to dismiss such argument as ludicrous, wooly-headed and downright idiotic, I’m going to give it some unmerited credit and expose its tomfoolery by devoting the remainder of today’s post to highlight the difference between what the knowledge of “economic laws” allow us to predict of how the world behaves and what the knowledge of good ol’ plain physical laws allow by imagining a world where the later are as well known as the former.

Thus, let’s imagine a world where all we know about how the natural world behaves is that it follows “pseudo-equations” of whose real content we know nothing at all. We don’t know what variables underlie the exhibited properties of any system, and what the variation of those variables may cause in the observed output we may choose to measure. All we know is there are “relationships”, and we may have some (not very reliable) inklings about the monotonicity of such relationships. To make it more understandable, I’ll illustrate such a world by the interaction between two characters, a Young Engineer called YE that has just started to work in an engineering company, and an old hand (unimaginatively called OH) that has to teach him the tricks of the trade:

YE: Good morning, Mr. Oh, I was told to ask you for some help in my new assignment

OH: Well, good morning, kid. Pleased to meet you. You’ve come to the right place, yes you have, as I am well known in our company for being not only very knowledgeable, but also kind and patient with young guns wanting to prove their mettle and find their way around. What is it that you have to do?

YE: Well, I have to calculate the diameter and the thickness of the pipes that go into the boiler of a new combined cycle power plant that we are designing.

OH: Now that’s a honorable and exciting task, isn’t it? And a serious one to boot! Make the pipes too big and thick and they will be too expensive, and difficult to support for the metallic structure that is being designed at the same time. Make ‘em too small or thin and they may crack or, even worse, blow up when their valves are closed, and seriously damage the plant. What input data have they given you?

YE: I know the height of the boiler intakes, and the water flow it needs (in gallons per minute) under different operational modes. I also have the performance curve for the pumps that have been selected to be at the base of the boiler and that will push the water

OH: Good, good, so the first thing you have to know is that the pressure loss the pumps will need to overcome is a function of the diameter of the pipes, and of the total flow that goes through them: TDH = f(D,F)

YE (smugly): Yep, I already know that, they teach that to us in engineering school

OH: Oh, that’s great, isn’t it? You’ve got a lot of  the bases covered, then. The other thing you need to know is that the loss of pressure grows with the flow of water, and decreases with the diameter of the pipe: df/dD < 0 and df/dF > 0

YE (a whiff of impatience starts showing in his voice): yep, I also knew that already

OH: well, my boy, then this is the final thing you have to know: WE DON’T HAVE THE DARNEDEST IDEA OF ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT WHAT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TDH, D AND F IS.

YE: What?

OH: You heard me right. Just no clue.

YE: What do you mean no clue?

OH: what you just heard. There are lots of theories, of course. A bunch of people call themselves “pipe neokeynesians” and maintain that after reaching some maximum the pressure loss may start increasing with an increase in the diameter of the pipe. Another lot (“pipe monetarists”) say that when the flow diminishes beyond certain point (“zero boundary”) it doesn’t matter what you do any more because the pressure loss remains constant. Nobody has been able to prove one or the other, and of course they don’t know either what those conditions may be beyond which the behavior of the water in the pipe changes

YE: But, but… couldn’t this things be, I don’t know, like, be tested? Couldn’t some experiments be run and so those “equations” be a bit more fleshed out, so for example we could determine the coefficients and the relationships between the variables. To arrive at something of the form, I don’t know, v x v/2+ gz + p/d = K (and then determine the value of K for different fluids and different materials of the pipe)???? So I could know the pressure of the fluid, and then see how that pressure affected the section of the pipe at each point?

OH: No, no, nonononononono… that’s a rookie’s mistake, thinking that such relationships can be teased out. You have to realize that nature is really complex, and that this field of research is the most complicated you can imagine. You really would have to take many, many more things into account than the fluid and condition of the inner surface of the pipe: what about the fluid temperature? How viscous it is because of impurities? The air temperature? The possible vibrations due to wind? The noise of the turbine nearby? Lingering effects of past earthquakes? The position of the moon and the stars? Any attempt to try to define anything more precise than TDH = f(D,F) is doomed to fail once and again, to be thoroughly disproved, to throw the whole field of hydrodynamics into disrepute and to reveal more exceptions than rules and to sow more confusion than clarity

YE: But… again, even if we can’t find a detailed relationship to define the pressure within the pipe, and the diameter to limit the internal speed of the fluid, and matrix of forces at each point of the pipe (depending on the thickness), can’t we at least plot the main variables and thus go to such graphic and find the values I need so I can solve the problem I’ve been given

OH: Well, we could do some nice graphs, sure, but they could not have any units on them, so they wouldn0t be of much use

YE: Why is that?

OH: At the beginning of time that method was attempted, and essentially found wanting. Depending on who drew the graphs the units were different, but for some unknown reason the shape was always the same. Thus they lost all credibility. Furthermore, used by different people they predicted wildly different values: where one engineer understood that a 25 inch stainless steel pipe two inches thick was needed, another concluded that a 2 inch PVC pipe 2/16 inches thick would be more than enough, and there was no way on Earth to make them agree. If you asked for the opinion of a third engineer with more experience, he would proffer a third combination, and the ensuing discussion could last for months, so no projects could ever be completed. So the profession decided it was best not even to attempt to reach numerically precise values

YE: So, how should I answer my supervisor? How can a respond to her request for a numerically precise value?

OH (speaking very, very softly): well, kid, this is the dirty little secret of our trade I’m about to tell you. Do as we all end up doing: go to the archive, find a previous project we have already design, take whatever number we used there, and use those

YE: But what if she asks me to justify those numbers?

OH: Again, do as we all do. Invent any contorted justification, make it as confusing and difficult to follow as possible, and the defend it so vehemently that nobody can reasonably judge it may conceivably be worth the effort to contradict you

If nothing better could be said, I’m pretty sure Ye would leave somewhat dejected and disappointed, but would in the end follow Oh’s advice, and in the end being as self-assured and confident in his engineering abilities as you could dream of.

Of course, in such a world power plants would be either outrageously expensive (but as in our world, that would greatly depend on what you compared them with…not that they would have a labor theory of value to explain in crystal clear terms why things cost what they cost) or dramatically unreliable. Just to be clear, that’s NOT the world we live in. We are clueless about what effect a raise in the interest rate may have. We are clueless about what may happen if the minimum wage is raised (heck, it is not as clear as I thought it was that the overall level of employment will fall, as that happens ceteris paribus… but all the rest never stays the same). But we do know pretty well how big and thick the pipes going into the boilers should be. And how much fuel (or gas, or coal) those boilers should burn to send a certain amount of steam to the turbine. And how many megawatts the turbine will in turn allow the generator attached to its shaft to pour in the electrical grid.

Now for how those megawatts should be priced, that is an entirely different story…