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Review: “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” by Jane Jacobs

2017 August 23
by Ian Welsh

Jane Jacobs came to prominence with the publication of the “Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which examined what made cities succeed and fail in such minute detail as how pedestrians walk on sidewalks and what makes parks safe.  It’s a brilliant book, and reshaped urban planning, but I’ve always found her economic duology, “The Economy of Cities” and this book more useful to my interests.

“Cities and the Wealth of Nations” was published in 1984, and starts with the observation, and case, that the economy of much of the world seemed to have gone off track in a semi-permanent fashion: something had changed from the post-WWII economy, something which downshifted the economy.

When I first read this book, around 1990, I didn’t think much of that, but I now know it’s true: between 1968 and 1980 a vast variety of economic and social metrics all shifted to new tracks; bad tracks.  From inequality to wage growth to productivity to growth in the third world, it all went bad.

Jacobs thinks that the way we analyze economies is wrong from the bottom up. Nations, to Jacobs, make no sense as economic units. Canada and Singapore and Britain have almost nothing in common except the fact that they are sovereign units.

To Jacobs, as one would expect, cities are the fundamental economic unit. It is in cities that new work; new industries, are created. It is cities which generate economic forces, forces which affect non-city regions unevenly.

When you lump cities together with non city regions, economics gets ugly.  Part of this is feedback: because cities are the fundamental economic units, when they grow they should receive the feedback of imported items growing cheaper; and when they are stagnant or shrinking, imported items should become more expensive.

Put simply, cities should have their own currencies, but don’t. They are lumped together with other cities and with non city regions, and the import/export effects of those regions swamp what each city needs.

In sovereign areas with multiple economically active cities, this tends to crush all cities but one: you can see this most clearly in England, which used to have many economically active cities and which as of Jacobs writing was down to two: Birmingham and London.

London, basically, drove the value of the pound, which was inappropriate to the needs of other cities and strangled them, turning them economically inert: cities only in the sense of population, but not economically viable cities where large amounts of new work is still generated.

Large hinterland regions do the same thing: if you have a lot of agriculture or a lot of mineral resources or anything else from your hinterlands, the exchange rate will tend to be propped higher than the city(s) need, again strangling growth.

Workarounds on this are always inefficient. You can do what America did in the 19th century and have tariffs, but that hurts agricultural and resource regions: they simply aren’t receiving what they should from their labour, and the multiple cities problem is still in play.

So, ideally, cities should have their own currencies, and so should non city regions, so that everyone is getting the feedback they require (and steps must also be taken so that currency rates are driven almost entirely by export/import, and not by speculation or by central bank/government manipulation.)

This is hard to do in the real world, for obvious reasons, but I agree with Jacobs that it is what we should find a way to do.

Jacobs also spend a lot of time detailing how cities influence non-city regions: almost always in ways that deform the non city regions, and often harmfully.

The first of these are supply regions, which produce something cities want. In the modern era, the foremost of these might be Saudi Arabia: rich, because it has oil, but with almost nothing else, and doomed to poverty once oil is no longer important.  Economically productive cities want the oil, and want nothing else Saudi Arabia produces and when those cities stop wanting that oil (or enough of it), doom will fall. (Jacob uses the example of Uruguay, which was once very prosperous, but never had economically active cities.)

The second are regions workers abandon: where everyone leaves to go to cities, because there is no work in the region. Examples are distressingly common, and all the screams in America about immigrants are essentially about such regions in Mexico and further south: places where people can’t make a living, and have to leave.

A variation on this is clearances. New technology displaces workers out of regions. The classic case was peasants forced off their land in Britain, so landowners could enclose the land and grow crops or tend sheep for more money. But this happens all the time in the third world, where subsistence workers are forced off the land for plantations, and is a regular occurance today in China, so that suburbs or mines or whatnot can be built.

The next type is capital for regions without cities. Jacobs uses the example of the Volta dam in Ghana. A huge hydroelectric power supply, and no real value to it, because there is no industry to take advantage, while the dam itself destroys local agriculture, hunting and fishing.  Large amounts of money also often go into picturesque regions used for vacations, driving out most of the people who were there before the money arrived, and distorting their economy.

Then there are places that were once cities; economically productive, which lose that. Jacobs gives ancient Egypt as an example: the heart of a technologically sophisticated civilization, eventually reduced to mostly subsistence agriculture and no longer one of the beating hearts of the ancient world. A better example, I think, is Europe in the Dark Ages. When the Arabs cut off trade, Europe swiftly became a backwater hole, losing almost all of its advanced cities and spending centuries sinking into poverty before it started growing and advancing again the Middle Ages.

Economically active cities, in short, are powerful, and they often do nasty things to regions that are not cities. Even when what they do seems good, as with demand for oil, or Uruguay’s produce and minerals, it is a gift that can leave at any time.

Jacobs points out one other thing of note: which is that backwards cities are best off trading with each other, rather than with the most advanced cities. This was, by the way, more the pattern in the post-war period before neo-liberalism, and in that period growth was faster. The argument is simple enough: advanced cities often don’t need the goods produced by backwards cities; other backwards cities do.

Overall this is an important book. One of the most important I ever read. The point about broken feedback and economic units not making sense is absolutely fundamental and explains a simple fact: city states which can manage to survive the political-military environment, almost always do very well.  The ideal economic circumstance is a world of city states, but we don’t have that for military political reasons (they can’t defend themselves).

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t figure out a way to get the results of city states while allowing for defense.

To me, then, a must-read book, and perhaps Jacobs most important.

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Trump Commits To Afghanistan

2017 August 22
by Ian Welsh

Well, this directly violates a core promise and is stupid besides being a betrayal. But I see various pundits going on about how Presidential he is to “admit” he was wrong to want to leave and to decide to kill lots of people in an unwinnable war. Trump needs and wants approval, and killing foreigners is essentially the only way he gets it from the media these days.

I imagine Putin and various other Russian leaders laugh themselves sick about this regularly, given what happened to the USSR in Afghanistan.

The Mongols conquered Afghanistan without too much difficulty, but short of truly genocidal strategy (which, no, shouldn’t be done), no one’s winning this war, and everyone’s losing it.

At least he stopped the CIA program supporting Jihadis (er, I mean moderates) in Syria, but this is still a black mark and a tragedy.

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Book Review: The Spirit Level

2017 August 21
by Ian Welsh

Given all the controversy around inequality, this is a must read book.

About three-quarters of it is what I call “proving the obvious”: that inequality is in fact bad in every way imaginable.

Inequality correlates to almost every bad social metric you can imagine. Health, lifespan, performance, violence, happiness and so on. The more unequal a society, holding other stuff even, the worse the society is to live in.

It really is that simple, and The Spirit Level goes to ludicrous lengths to provide the evidence, because in our society the ludicrously obvious is disputed by people with a lot of money.

But the Spirit Level also has some non-intuitive information to share, of which the most interesting to me was that high inequality is bad for the people at the top.  People in, say, the top 1% in a more equal society are better off than those in the top 1% in a more unequal society even though those in the latter would have more money.

You’d think having more money would mean that you “win”, but in fact you live less long, you are more unhealthy and you are more unhappy than those in the same relative position in a more equal society.

Another interesting fact is the performance effect of being unequal: simply being told you are lesser destroys people’s performance. This is quite robust. You can test them, then tell them they’re unequal, test them again and see it happen.

The causes of inequality’s other effects are hard to tease out, but the most likely reason is stress: being unequal is stressful. It’s more stressful for people on the bottom, constantly worried and being ordered around, but it’s stressful even for those on top. The more unequal the society, the more people below you are stressed and angry and the more you have to do to defend your situation.

And, of course, unhappy people just aren’t nice to be around, and if your society systematically makes people less happy, that’s going to feed back into you, because you live in the society.

I really do think everyone should read this book. It’s not that it’s earth-shattering, it’s that it makes you one hundred percent confident that yes, inequality is just bad, whether or not the people at the bottom have a TV.

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Bannon Out

2017 August 18
by Ian Welsh

Steve Bannon

So, this is Steve Bannon’s last day at the White House.

I wrote that this would be a courtier’s White House, with a lot of knife fights, and who won them determining a lot of policy.

Bannon’s a white nationalist, and scum, of course, but he’s also the only senior advisor who wants to, say, raise taxes and do various other actually populist things. He hates Wall Street and wanted real checks on bankers power, etc…

Again, clearly a bad man, but someone who wanted some good things which will no longer be represented by anyone with the President’s ear. (Also, the popular things.)

It looks like Breitbart is very angry about this.

Bear in mind that two-thirds of Republicans approved of Trump’s speech on Charlottesville, with its equivalence between Nazis and and people protesting Nazis.  Trump is impeachment proof as long as the people who make up the majority of the primary base in the Republican party continue to support him.

But Breitbart has quite a bit of influence with such people.

From a pragmatic Trumpian point of view, firing Bannon feels like a mistake. He should have been sidelined and given a nice desk and office and mostly inconsequential work. He will be far more of a problem to Trump outside than inside.

(Er, also, Bannon was against military intervention.)

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Oppressive Precedents Used Against Nazis Will Be Used Against the Left

2017 August 17
by Ian Welsh

All right, so the Daily Stormer got kicked off go-Daddy, went to a new hosting company, and then got kicked off that one. Victory? Even the guy who did it isn’t happy he did it.

I am reminded of when PayPal, Visa and Mastercard all decided to stop accepting payments for Wikileaks, after they published Collateral Murder. (I know many on the left now hate Wikileaks, but at the time this was considered left wing, since it hit a Republican war, Iraq.)

There’s no question that the Daily Stormer amount to Nazis, I’m not even going to say “neo”, but if you think this won’t be used against the left, well…

NY Governor Cuomo isn’t a Nazi, but he is one the biggest assholes around, having conspired to make sure that Democrats didn’t take control of the NY State legislature, for example, among many other moves.

Yeah.  Look, historically, censorship laws and so on have always hit the left harder than the right. Any law which can be used against the left will be.

Protecting the rights of people you hate is the price of protecting your own rights. If you take rights from Nazis, you will be taking them from yourself. At the very least, be sure they are specifically targeted at Nazis, similar to Germany’s laws. If they aren’t, they will be used against you.

As for private power: concentration of power into a few oligopolies has made private actors able to effectively censor as well as government. When Google decided to hit “fake news” somehow that meant that the World Social Website got hit hard.

Concentrated private power is almost as bad as governments which censor. In some ways it is worse, because we pretend that places like Facebook and Google and Twitter are not commons, but private, and thus grant them immunity from things like the first amendment, even though they control most of what people see.

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Lies, Damned Monopolies, and Sex Difference Statistics (UPDATED)

2017 August 15
by Mandos


(POST BY MANDOS – was posted early quite by accident, postscripts below basically with how I planned to conclude)

L’affaire Damore

The whole kerfuffle about the Damore manifesto at Google and James Damore’s subsequent firing led to the dredging up of old debates about the sources of underrepresentation particularly in technological professions such as software engineering. The basic idea is quite old: Merely, that the current structure of society, as reflected in by group access to well-paying professional positions (substitute for historical versions: land, money), is obviously the outcome of the “natural,” “biological” difference between those population groups, in this case, gender.

Biological sex has been viewed as one of the intractable differences in terms of career representation in technical fields for some time now, holding especially for programming. The negative reaction to the Damore manifesto (including his firing), which consisted primarily of polite, “geekified” versions of old internet arguments defending sexism, is viewed as denial of the underlying facts that drive the apparent intractability of this difference.

The logic behind the claim is an enormous act of begging the question. Social change is slow and difficult — even the legal architecture that prevented women from living independent lives took a long time to change. Diversity advocates’ underlying claim has always been that rectifying differences in the economic success of identity groups requires change greater than that of mere legal emancipation, but instead deeper changes in employment practices and cultural representation. To claim that women are underrepresented in technology because of biological differences is to dismiss the idea that culture matters: It is using the outcome as the evidence, a fallacy.

Instead, the evidence to justify tech employment differences in biological terms is a red herring, and l’affaire Damore is simply a reflection of the fact that Big Tech is little more than a series of entrenched, possibly natural monopolies.

The reality of programming jobs

Let’s start with the brass tacks. Even in Big Tech like Google, most programming jobs do not really require either very high intelligence, particularly as expressed in mathematical ability as is the implicit argument, or even most of the curriculum of university four-year computer science undergraduate programs to be successful. Competent programming in itself is not a high-intelligence skill. The basic skills can be learned by a committed but average person in the way that singing in a community choir can be learned by a committed but average person. Indeed, the analogy stretches farther: For most large scale projects, beyond basic programming skills, one typically requires good organization, collaboration, architecture, standards, respect for requirements and so on to succeed. A full SATB choir is much the same, it requires some skill, but more importantly, it requires the ability of the signers to integrate the content of different musical scores into a single melody. A singer who is too “primadonna” and does not have the social cognition to fit her voice into the choir can make a near-professional school or community choir sound like beginners. It is no accident that even in the open source/free software community, a great deal of emphasis is placed on version control and design process in order to produce the fairly sophisticated software on your typical Linux desktop.

There are certainly technology jobs that require the higher “puzzle-solving” mathematical ability that people associate with success in IQ-testing frameworks. Areas such as advanced cryptography, compression, and parallel processing sometimes require this kind of reasoning, as well as even the content of graduate-level university algorithms classes. Suffice it to say that these form a small minority of tech employment at companies like Google.  Even advanced computer security work only occasionally involves a small amount of this kind of thinking: What matters far more is the ability to understand and study the human factors and fallibility associated with security regimes.  If gender disparities in programming jobs had been confined to those limited fields, a biological explanation would have held more water.

Many of these kinds of the skills required by the majority of programming jobs are quite easy to associate with stereotypical female characteristics. Many of us may have been raised by a mother who knits. If you have, you may realize that she had been forming fairly complex abstract patterns with her hands even as her attention may be focused elsewhere. Indeed, women have been writing knitting patterns that produce complex structures in an abstract “assembly language” for quite a long time. Numerous other stereotypes pertaining to female creative styles and diligence serve perfectly well to “justify” extensive female employment in software engineering. So the question remains: Why are they not employed in software engineering? Either female ability and inclination really is, in the majority, unsuited to technology jobs, because they are indeed mostly of the category that requires the intelligence that men have marginally more of, or the story I’ve told you so far is probably true, but some other factor intervenes, one that diversity attempts in the tech industry do not address.

The red herring of sex difference in intelligence

Pretty much everyone seriously discussing this topic acknowledges that all human characteristics stem from a combination of factors, including genetic. A starved child with the same genes as a well-nourished child is simply going to look different, although they will also look similar. However, the line between a “genetically-inherited” characteristic and “socially-determined” developmental factor is anything but clear. It’s increasingly clear that some characteristics can be set by the social conditions under which your mother was an unfertilized egg. Which happens when your grandmother was an embryo, the time when ovaries are stocked. Which means that your great-grandmother‘s social conditions may have some (still to be determined) inherited effect on your life today. And there are other potential variations of this situation.

Nevertheless, we know that some characteristics are inherited, and some are sex-linked. A male and female child raised in exactly the same conditions with the same genetics (other than sex-chromosomes) most probably will develop grossly different visible physical characteristics above and beyond the primary sexual characteristics of genitalia. No one questions this — except, of course, that even the categories of male and female are actually more fraught and complicated and ambiguous than previously considered, because biology is almost never “cut and dried.”

So where does this difference come from? Some biological differences are indeed incidental (rare is the gene that affects strictly one characteristic), but the high degree of physical sexual dimorphism is too systematic to deny the effect of selection pressure, particularly sexual selection. A “just-so” story in which male physical strength is connected to the differential ability of getting female reproductive attention is relatively plausible and seen throughout the animal kingdom even in the present day. Naturally, it applies the other way, and the characteristics that suggest female reproductive fitness are, yes, emphasized in females. You would therefore not be entirely remiss to imagine that this would apply to cognitive characteristics, particularly intelligence.

I will not do a rundown of the evidence on this topic, but instead refer you to, yes, Wikipedia, which has a discussion with references to both sides of this debate. What I will instead emphasize is that while some studies show statistically significant differences between the sexes, the effect sizes tend to be small and apply to (as mentioned many times in this debate) the margins. Furthermore, many of the effects seem to disappear depending on how you account for confounding factors. This is how you should understand situations like this: When, over the course of a number of studies, it becomes apparent that quibbles over confounds are deciding factors in the statistical significances of competing results, you should be skeptical of attempts to apply such results to other areas — they are almost certainly small contributors to the overall effect under discussion, such as women’s employment in technological fields. The area of biggest difference between the sexes seems to be in spatial inference, but as I mention above, the applicability of this to software engineering ability is questionable, and it’s independence from social factors also potentially doubtful, a criticism that applies to quite a lot of intelligence research overall, even if one accepts the existence of “classically” genetically heritable factors of general intelligence.

Postscript I – inclination

It seems remarkable that despite the degree of “gross physical” sexual dimorphism among humans, the evidence does not really show up anywhere nearly as strongly in the characteristic of intelligence, despite its obvious importance to human survival.  I can only suggest that the sex-differentiating pressure of sexual selection fails to apply to intelligence for reasons that have an easy “just-so” story: both males and females for most of human history had much less day-to-day differentiation in “survival labour” as they do in the very recent industrialized society, and they had no way of performing any sort of fine-grained intelligence test on mates, at least for the intelligence that relates to very abstract mathematical abilities.

But if general intelligence and even specific ability fails to explain the magnitude of the gap in software engineering employment, one could still argue, as Damore and his antecedents do, that there is some other tendency away from technological careers for women, and some tendency towards them by men.  Many of this type of claim involves attributing to women personality traits like “neuroticism” and “gregariousness”, which are very old accusations indeed.  However, the same considerations apply as they do to that of intelligence: how much of this gap can be explained by an evolutionary “just-so” story, and how much of an alleged personality gap can be explained instead by, well, the conditions of patriarchy.  Feminists have argued for a long time that the greater presence in women of seemingly self-defeating personality traits is actually the result of very immediate psychological self-defense mechanisms from overt and subtle ills deeply embedded into patriarchal culture — among them, the need to pre-emptively appease a potential oppressor, a kind of psychological insurance policy created by immediate conditions rather than a genetically entrained cognitive difference. The arguments of Damore and his ilk usually fail to take into account these types of explanation for a sex-based personality gap — in fact, feminist arguments about “female” personality are disregarded to an extent that arguments for the social construction of intelligence differences are not.

And precisely how a biological personality or intelligence gap can be used as an explanation for employment and pay gaps in one particular type of industry when other high-status jobs (e.g., like it or not, the aggressively-competitive financial services industry) show greater increases in female employment is rather hard to discern.  It requires that one attribute characteristics such as “status-seeking” as particularly necessary in software engineering employment in a way that is not necessary in other professions, something that really runs counter to the collaborative nature of successful software projects. Instead, feminists have long documented how girls are discouraged from even considering technology careers at a point well before the diversity efforts of large corporations actually take hold.  Instead of engaging with these details, Damore and his antecedents fail even to mention them and the history of work on this type of topic, but yet demand respect for “conservative opinions”.

Postscript II – monopoly

As I said at the beginning of this post, a part of the instigation for Damore’s essay is justified in that the efforts of Big Tech to encourage diversity, including women’s representation, appear to have had little effect particularly on employment in companies like Google. The truth is, companies like Google have a large incentive for the appearance of encouraging diversity, but little for the actual practice of diversity, even if such would help them avoid debacles such as the failure of Google+, which was in many ways the result of a culture that failed to understand the human factors that apply to populations that are different from those who work at Google. (For example, early on, Google+ attempted to use “true names” filtering that expelled people whose real names look “fake” to someone who works at Google because of cultural difference — it’s very difficult to rectify this kind of error post hoc for a nascent social media entrant competing with an incumbent like Facebook.)

Why would this be so?  Because these companies don’t really exist in competitive markets.  Google’s attempt to “muscle in” on Facebook’s turf with Google+ was never really, despite the hype, about rectifying a gap in social media offerings that really threatened the survival of the company.  Google has an entrenched near-monopoly in key aspects of internet architecture that is very hard to displace.  Consequently, it can leave the potential gains from social diversity on the table without appearing to suffer overmuch.  In the short-to-medium term, even for a company like Google, it is costlier to attempt rebuild internal culture, at the risk of alienating the incumbent constituency whose voice Damore made impolitely audible, than to spend a measly few hundred million on cosmetic diversity placebos.   In reality, the material merits of improving the inclusion of underrepresented groups in “technological power” will only be seen when the vicious cycle that actively keeps them underrepresented is broken through broader cultural change, imposed somehow from without — and over and above the immediate economic incentives afforded to monopolies.

And that is not surprising — whoever imagined that a monopoly- or oligopoly-dominated society would lead to the optimal outcome for the most people?

Nazis Are Not Socialists

2017 August 14
by Ian Welsh

Th above idea, because they were called National Socialists, tends not to die.

The Nazis reduced wages and shattered unions. Being a socialist got you sent to a camp.

Under the Nazis, corporate profits and the percentage of national income going to high income people increased.

And the Nazis also privatized a great deal, in fact their privatization regime was very similiar to how neoliberals have run the economy.

Nazis were right-wingers, who believed in poor workers and rich capitalists and that the state should mostly be involved in military and police. They were not socialists, by any definition of the word socialist of which I am aware.

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On Charlottesville: Why the Center Is Okay with Nazis but Hates the Left

2017 August 13
by Ian Welsh

Look, the Charlottsville march of Nazis (they had the swastika and the salute, they’re not alt-right) showed very clearly the difference between how Nazis and left-wingers are treated. Left-wingers march, and the riot police are in their faces. Nazis march, and the police don’t even intervene while they are beating up counter-protestors.

Then, of course, we have the Nazi who drove his car into the crowd, and much of the media calling it a “clash with counteprotestors” (no) and saying things like “amid violence” rather than “in an act of terrorism.”

The center, which includes what is laughably called the “center left,” may condemn Nazis, but they certainly prefer them to left-wingers. They can do business with Nazis. The people they hate are those they call the “alt-left” in an attempt to pretend that wanting universal healthcare and cops to not kill blacks is the same thing as being a Nazi.

But the reason is simple enough: Centrists make a lot of money from prisons and for-profit healthcare.

The left–people who want single payer healthcare and less people in prison–are a direct threat to the center.

A lot of people get confused about Nazis: When Hitler got in power, he broke the unions, and the socialists, and lowered wages. “National socialism” is not socialism. Corporate profits went up and wages went down; it was good times for business.

So the center, including the center left, is essentially okay with Nazis. If they have to choose between Nazis and the sort of scum who want everyone to have healthcare at the cost of corporate profits, or to reduce profits on prisoners, well, they side with their self interest.

It has always been thus, and it will always be thus.

(Update: Do I need to say that people who blame Russia for this are tendentious morons? Sadly, I think I do.)

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