The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: October 2015 Page 1 of 2

When Does Technological Advancement Actually Lead to Prosperity?

When is a society prosperous? The general understanding seems to be it’s when everyone has an abundance of goods. But is this a useful definition? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but no time to enjoy them? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you’re sick? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you live in an oppressive society? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods but are desperately unhappy and feel you’ve wasted your life?

You can argue to keep it simple: Prosperity means everyone has access to a lot of goods and services. But I think this falls flat; we can all understand that more goods don’t necessarily make us better off, nor more services. More foods that make us sick aren’t better. More health care doesn’t mean we’re healthier, it often means we’re sicker. More prisons mean our society is producing more criminals and more crime.

Just increasing economic activity doesn’t make people better off, doesn’t increase prosperity.

The prototypical example of this is the move to agriculture. It would seem self-evident that learning how to grow more food has made us better off. More food is better, right? In fact, however, the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture led to lives which were worse, for the vast majority of the population. People were shorter in most agricultural societies, which indicates worse nutrition. There was far more disease and far more chronic health conditions. People also generally had less free time and they lived fewer years than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.

Nor was this a short term decline, it lasted for thousands of years. Height is a good measure of nutrition, and we are still not as tall as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Pelvic depth, which measures how easily women give birth has also never recovered. Median lifespan was not higher for around 6,000 years. And it declined for hundreds of years during that period in certain areas of the world. Members of the Hellenic world, from 300 BC to 120 AD, had longer lives than westerners before the 20th century.(1) Our lives can get worse, and stay worse, for hundreds or thousands of years, despite having more ability to create goods.

Are societies with more food and goods better if the people are sicker, live shorter lives, and have more difficulty reproducing? If that’s prosperity, do we want it?

Instead of more goods, more “stuff,” we should want the right goods and/or the right stuff. Stuff that makes us healthier, happier, smarter, more able to do great works, and to live well. Instead of more work, we should want right work, enough work to make the right stuff, but not so much work we have no time for our loved ones, friends, and doing the activities we love, whatever those might be. And, as much as possible we should want health instead of medicine and low crime rather than prisons.

All other things being equal, yes, more productive capacity is better. The more stuff we can make, in theory, the better off we’ll be. But in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

Again, part of this is about the right stuff, or the wrong stuff. In our own society we are seeing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes due to our diet, for example. Part of that problem lay with modern hierarchies and inequality. Inequality is undeniably bad for us, as a whole. The more unequal your society is, the lower the median lifespan. The more unequal the society, the sicker, in general. More heart attacks, much more stress. The more unequal, the more crime. These links are robust.

The links run two ways. On the one hand, humans find inequality stressful. The human body, if subject to long term stress, becomes unhealthy and far more likely to be sick. People who feel unequal act less capable than those who feel equal. This is true for the rich and powerful in unequal societies and the poor. Everyone suffers. Though the poor and weak do suffer more, even the rich and powerful would be healthier and live longer in equal societies, most likely simply due to the stress effect.(2)

The second part is distribution, or rather, the question of who gets to control distribution. The more unequal a society, the less stuff the poor and middle class have, comparatively. Some technologies tend to lead to more inequality, some tend to lead to more equality. In most hunter-gatherer societies, there isn’t enough surplus to support a class of rich, powerful people and their servitors–in particular their servitors who enforce the status quo through ideology or violence. With little surplus, there is equality. This doesn’t mean hunter-gatherers live badly, most of them seem to have spent a lot less time producing what they needed than we do, they certainly didn’t work 40 hour weeks, or 60 hour weeks, closer to 20. (3) The rest of the time they could dance, create art, make love, socialize, make music, or whatever else they enjoyed.

Agriculture didn’t lead immediately to inequality, the original agricultural societies appear to have been quite equal, probably even more so than the late hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. But increasing surpluses and the need for coordination which arose, especially in hydraulic civiliations (civilizations based around irrigation which is labor intensive and requires specialists) led to the rise of inequality. The pharoahs created great monuments, but their subjects did not live nearly as well as hunter-gatherers.

The organization of violence, and the technology behind it, is also a factor. It is not an accident that classical Greece had democracy in many cities, nor that it extended only to males who could fight and not women or non-fighting males. It is not an accident that Rome had citizenship classes based on what equipment soldiers could afford: the Equestrian class was named that because they could take a horse to war. It is not accident that the Swiss Cantons, where men fought in pike formation, were democratic for their time. Nor is it an accident that universal sufferage arose in the age of mass conscription and that women gained the vote as societies moved to mass mobilization.

When Rome moved away from citizen conscription to a professional army it soon lost its liberty. As we move away from mass armies it is notable that, while we haven’t lost the vote formally, the vote seems to matter less and less as politicians increasingly just do what they want, no matter what the electorate might have indicated.

Power matters for prosperity. The more evenly power is spread, the more likely a society is to be prosperous, for no small factions can engage in policies which are helpful to them, but broadly harmful to everyone else. Likewise, widespread demand, absent supply bottlenecks, leads to widespread prosperity as well.

In the current era, we have seen a massive increase in CEO and executive pay. This is due to the fact that they have taken power over the primary productive organizations in our society: Corporations. The owners of most corporations, if they are not also the managers, are largely powerless against the management. It is not that management is more competent than it was 40 years ago, at least at their ostensible job of enriching shareholders, it is that they are more powerful than they were 40 years ago, compared to shareholders and compared to government.

Because increases in the amount we can create do not automatically translate into either creating what is good for us, or into relatively even distribution of what we create, increases in the amount we can create do not always lead to prosperity. Likewise, it certainly does not naturally lead to widespread affluence. Productivity in America rose 80.4 percent from 1973 to 2011, but median real wages rose only 10.2 percent and median male wages rose 0.1 percent. (4) This was not the case from 1948 to 1973, when wages rose as fast as productivity did.

Increases in productivity, in our ability to make more stuff, only lead to prosperity and affluence if we are making the right stuff, and we are actually distributing that stuff widely. If a small group of individuals are able to skim off most of the surplus, prosperity does not result and if a society which is prosperous allows an oligarchy, nobility, or aristocracy to form, even if such an aristocracy (like our own) pretends it does not exist, society will find its prosperity fading.

Creating goods that hurt people is not prosperity either. Currently, about 40 percent of all deaths are caused by pollution or malnutrition.(5) If someone you love has died, there is a good chance they died because we make stuff in ways that pollute the environment, or because the stuff we make, like most of our food, is very bad for us. Being fat is not healthy, and we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Even when we do not immediately die, we suffer from chronic diseases at a rate that would astonish our ancestors. As of the year 2000, for example, approximately 45 percent of the US population suffered from a chronic disease. 21 percent had multiple conditions.(6) Some of this is just due to living longer, but much of it is due to the food we eat, the stress our jobs inflict upon us, and the pollution we spew into the air, land, and water.

We should always remember this. Increases in productive capacity and technological advancement do not always lead to welfare and when they do, they do not automatically do so immediately. The industrial revolution certainly did lead to increased human welfare, but if you were of the generations thrown off the land and made to work in the early factories, often 6 1/2 days a week, in horrible conditions, you would not have thought so. You were, in virtually every way, worse off than you were before by being thrown off the land, and so were your children. A few industrialists and the people around them certainly did very well, but that is not prosperity, nor is it affluence.

And a gain of affluence which lasts less than two centuries and ends in ecological disaster which kills billions, well, our descendents may not call that a success, or nor may they think it was worth it.

Prosperity, in the end, is as much about power and politics as it is about technology and productive ability. The ability to make more things does not ensure we are making the right things, or that the people who need them, get them. Productive capacity which is not shared is not prosperity.

  1. pg 23, Spencer Wells, Pandora’s seed
  2. Inequality book
  3. going from memory on this one
  6. Anderson G, Horvath J The growing burden of chronic disease in America. Public Health Rep. 2004;119:263-70.

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Heat Too Hot to Survive

Refugee Crisis?

You have yet to see a real refugee crisis.

Rising global temperatures could push the sun-baked cities of the Persian Gulf across a threshold unknown since the start of civilization: the first to experience temperatures that are literally too hot for human survival.

It will be WORSE in many parts of the tropics. Humidity increases effective heat.

Habitats, or refugees.

Really, both.

This is the level of stupid we have engaged in.

People rag on about how bad Communism was, how many deaths it caused, but they never properly add up capitalism’s deaths.  The deaths resulting from the environmental crisis, however, will make capitalism anathema to our children. They will consider us insane, and worse than insane: They will consider us psychopaths who knew what we were doing when we condemned a billion or more people to death, billions of others to impoverishment, and did it anyway, for little more than greed.

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Eurocrat Coup in Portugal

Oh. My. God.

Portuguese FlagPortugal has entered dangerous political waters. For the first time since the creation of Europe’s monetary union, a member state has taken the explicit step of forbidding eurosceptic parties from taking office on the grounds of national interest.

Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s constitutional president, has refused to appoint a Left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF Troika.

Those who make peaceful change impossible…. well, you know the rest.

I am incredulous.

It’s now quite clear that the European Union is anti-democratic to its core. It needs to be radically changed or abandoned. It was already very difficult to be simultaneously pro-democracy and pro-EU, given the “Euro treaties cannot be changed by elections” stance of the Eurocrats (and given how far out of their way they went to make sure that the treaties were not subject to referenda), but this is beyond the pale.

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Why Registering Drones with the Government Matters

DroneSo, drones must now be registered with the Department of Transportation in the US.

Drones are a big part of the future of war. They are cheap, easy to make, and drones will be a chosen weapon of the weak and relatively poor. They are also going to become more and more effective. A drone whistling by at 45 miles an hour is very hard to hit by a person with a gun.

A lot of people focus on an “armed population,” but future wars will be fought more and more with robots: autonomous or guided (which is what a drone is).  These robots will eventually be more effective than human soldiers and can already do things humans can’t.

And they are cheap.

This is being done by the Department of Transport, presumably for safety reasons, but those who worry about the tracking and confiscation of guns, if they were really smart, would worry about the tracking and confiscation of drones.

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What Type of Electoral “Reform” Might Canada’s Liberal Party Enact?

Liberal party logo

Liberal party logo

Simple enough. Preferential balloting, where you rank your choices.

The Liberal Party, occupying the center, is the second choice of a lot of Canadians.

For example, in the 1997 federal election, the Liberals won 38 percent of the vote but captured 51 percent of the seats. The phoniest majority government in Canadian history. A study of voter preferences in that election projected that the Liberals would have gained 57 percent of the seats with the same level of support had AV been used.

In addition, ranked ballots tend to exacerbate regional strongholds, leaving those who support other parties even more unrepresented.

Canadian elections are often very close, and come down to a few percentage points, magnified massively by first-past-the-post.  Ranked ballots would magnify that even more, but do so in a way that favors the Liberal party.

Trudeau promised electoral reform. This is the most likely “reform.” As usual, reform will mean “giving more to those who don’t need it.”

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What Is the Cost of NDP Losing Canada?

Canadian Flag

The Maple Leaf

Many voters were in “Anyone but Harper” mode, but an NDP victory would have restructured Canadian politics for a generation, and very likely more. The NDP collapse to third place was a disaster for the majority of Canadians.

Canada has been ruled by either the Conservatives (in different incarnations) or the Liberals, since Confederation. The Liberals ran the lion’s share of that, but the Conservatives had their runs, as well.

The Liberal party would campaign left and “govern center,” which, since the 90s, meant embracing the neoliberal consensus.

In every election, the NDP would show worse numbers than those of its natural support base because of strategic voting; left-wingers would run to the Liberal Party to “Stop the Conservatives.” Often, this wasn’t even necessary. In many ridings, the competition was between a Liberal and a NDPer.

As a result of this dynamic, Canada has been run as a much more conservative-centrist country than is justified by the beliefs of the population.

Additionally, the First Past the Post electoral systems reward a geographic clustering of the vote, leading to parties being rewarded for serving regional interests and inflaming regional prejudices. A clustered body of support (as with the Conservatives in Alberta and the West in general, or the Bloc Quebecois) would reap a disproportionate number of MPs.

In this election, what was at stake was a chance to change this dynamic.

The “run to the party which can beat the Conservatives” dynamic could have been transferred to the NDP–and almost was (remember, they had the lead going in to the campaign). Once that had been the case for a few elections, it would be as natural to people as the old “run to the Liberals” dynamic.

But transferring that dynamic is not what the NDP wanted. What they wanted was electoral reform so that people didn’t need to vote strategically to stop the Conservatives.

Just one elected NDP government managing to implement electoral reform would change the entire nature of Canadian politics. These would make another Harper impossible for a generation or two. They would mean that most governments would be coalition governments, with the natural coalition being Liberal-NDP, and with Conservative coalitions being much milder because they must rule with a more left-wing party on their flank.

Canada’s population is center-left. Sixty percent of the voting population would never vote Conservative. Electoral change would help Canada’s governments to reflect that, rather than being about the committed plurality, leaving us with eight to ten years of Conservative rule every 25 years or so.

This is what was at stake in the last election. It was a Big Deal.

The worry now is that we’re back to status quo. The Liberals and Conservatives swap being in government, the Liberals run to the left and govern to the center and Canada continues its nasty rightward trend (of which the Liberal governments of the 90s and 00s were a part) with some jogs leftward, primarily on social issues (which are important, but don’t trump the damage of neoliberal economics).

This election mattered, and it should have been about much more than “Get Harper Out.” Conservatives were not destroyed by this election. They did fine, they just took a normal loss. The party that was devastated was the NDP.

The price of that is likely to be severe, and this is true even if Justin Trudeau keeps the majority of his promises.

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Consequences of the Canadian Liberal Majority

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a majority government. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stepped down as Conservative party leader. As of this writing, Thomas Mulcair has not stepped down as NDP leader.

The election started with the NDP in the lead, primarily due to the Liberal Party having voted for the police state bill C51. The NDP ran to the center, the Liberals ran (somewhat) to the left. NDP’s lead narrowed, then they were neck and neck until the Conservative party and Bloc Quebecois used the Niqab as a wedge issue. You can read a summary of the campaign here.

So what does this mean going forward?

A great deal will depend on how Trudeau rules. (A majority Canadian PM is essentially an elected dictator).

Trudeau has promised to repeal C51 and reintroduce a similar bill, minus the worst bits of C51. Note that Trudeau has repeatedly stated he voted for C51 as a matter of principle, so some of the nasty will remain.

Pipelines are a go. TPP is a go (though the NDP was not great on either of those issues, they were better than the Liberals).

National Pharmacare and Daycare will not happen.

Certain regressive tax changes, like income splitting, are gone. Expect another tax cut for the “middle class,” which it doesn’t particularly need.

Expect the muzzling of scientists to end, and the long-form census form to return. (Conservatives got rid of the longer census form and made the census non-mandatory, turning its data, essentially, to meaningless crap.)

Moving away from the First Past the Post-electoral system: The NDP and Liberals had both said they intended to do something along these lines. But with a Liberal majority government in power, this is very much in question. I will be pleasantly surprised if Trudeau doesn’t bury this in a committee.

The Economy

The brutal truth about the Canadian economy is that it is unlikely to recover significantly, though the recession will end.

I’ve written about the Canadian mixed economy in the past, but the bottom line is that Harper doubled down on resource extraction–especially oil. Manufacturing was gutted during the period of high oil prices and a strong Canadian dollar and will not recover naturally during a weak dollar period. This is because those who took advantage the last time were burned so badly most of them went out of business.

Canada’s housing bubble is significantly worse than the US housing bubble in 2007. This bubble is government guaranteed.

So, at this point, Canada is a resource extraction economy with artificially high asset prices. It is a petro-state.

Trudeau is onside with this. Mulcair repeatedly talked about the mixed economy and how to return to it, and was a staunch and principled environmentalist. Trudeau has pandered repeatedly to the oil sector.

Given this, there are only two questions about the Canadian economy that matter:

  • Will the housing bubble endure?
  • Will oil prices rise, preferably above about $80US a barrel, which is the break-even price for much of the oil sands?

If you think the housing bubble will burst, you expect a financial crisis. If you think the answer to number two is no, then you think that the Canadian economy will not significantly improve under Trudeau.

Trudeau’s economic performance, in other words, is linked almost entirely to how China’s economy performs and the world price of oil–things over which he has no control.

The Next Election

The economy may get a lot better, but that doesn’t mean it may not bumble along sufficiently well for the Liberals to be re-elected. Contrary to Democratic party talking points, Obama never fixed the US economy. The percentage of people employed in the US never recovered and wages stagnated, but Obama was re-elected (the Democrats didn’t do as well in the House, but the House in America is gerrymandered).

Still, the NDP and Conservatives will likely have an opening in the next election. Whether they will be able to capitalize on it is unclear and, again, much depends on Trudeau’s performance. Right now, he is a blank slate upon whom many hopes have been written. But in four years, he will have a track record.

I don’t know if Mulcair will stay on as NDP leader. He was a strong and effective opposition leader, but he was neither on the campaign trail, and must shoulder responsibility for turning a first place start into a third place finish. He has lost all the gains made by the previous NDP leader, Jack Layton. (I believe Layton would have won this election. The cost of his death rises and rises.)

As for the Conservatives, expect one of the Ford brothers to run, among others. It will be a zoo. But the Conservatives held their prairie base and a good chunk of Ontario and BC. They were not wiped out, they just lost. They will remain a viable threat–especially if the electoral system remains the same.

Justin Trudeau is going to feel good, for a while, compared to Harper. He will be better. He will repeal some of Harper’s worst policies. He will also not be an offensive creep, and that matters.

But he is, at the end of the day, a believer in the neo-liberal consensus. He will run a kinder neoliberalism, but it will still be neoliberalism. He is not particularly committed to civil liberties, he had no principled opposition to Harper’s worst excesses (that was Mulcair), and there is no particular reason to believe he will make any sort of radical break from Conservative policies; he voted for a great many of them.

The bottom line is this: Justin showed his character when he supported C51. Mulcair showed his character when he went hard against it, even as polls showed a majority of Canadians were in favor of it (they later changed their mind, but he did what he did when it was unpopular).

I cannot find any great confidence in Trudeau, either as an ethical man, or as an economic leader.

Finally, despite the spin in the global and domestic press, this election is no great repudiation of Harper, or a collapse of the Conservative party, which maintained most of its voters. There has been no collapse, like what happened to the Progressive Conservatives after Mulroney. After nine years in power, it is normal for a party to lose power, and majority governments are the historical norm in Canada. This is a status quo flip between Canada’s two ruling parties.

Harper changed the nature of Canada’s government and economy, and created a unified Conservative Party. Trudeau will not undo most of Harper’s fundamental changes. Harper will go down as an important Prime Minister.

Stay tuned.

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Canadian Election Today, Monday, October 19th

At the beginning of the election, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) was leading, Conservatives were in second, and the Liberal Party was in third.

Now that we’re going into the election, the Liberals are polling first, Conservatives second, and the NDP is third.

What happened? As I’ve been distracted this election, I asked one of the savviest Canadian observers I know for his thoughts.

For much of the election, the NDP and Liberals were polling even. Then Harper started demonizing Niqabs.

Unfortunately, this strategy played well in the province of Quebec and because the NDP was not on board with it, their numbers in that province crashed.

This dropped NDP’s numbers below the Liberal party.

Next, the “Anyone But Harper” dynamic kicked in. With dropping numbers in Quebec, the NDP’s national numbers began to look bad. At that point, those on the left who wanted Harper out more than they cared about who would replace him flocked to the Liberals as the party which could displace Harper.

We’ll see how the actual election runs. Polls have been unreliable in a number of elections lately. Still, it doesn’t look good for the NDP.

The Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, have voted for most of Harper’s signature bills, including C51 (which gutted civil liberties.) If the Liberals get into office, they will be 90 percent as neo-liberal as the Conservatives, but less obnoxious about it.

The best chance now for a decent government is if the Liberals get a minority and make a deal with the NDP for support.

This is disappointing, but at the end of the day, Canadians will get the government they deserve. Mulcair has spent years opposing Harper while Trudeau has supported him. Any Canadian paying one iota of attention should know this.

And if making it so Muslim women can’t wear the Niqab is more important to Quebec than voting for an actual left-wing government, well, yes, sorry, “deserve” is the right word.

Still, we’ll see. Fingers crossed.

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