Book Club: Code Economy: Finale on the Blockchain

From All you need to know about blockchain

Welcome to our final discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy. Today we will be finishing the text, chapters 13-15. Please feel free to jump in even if you haven’t read the book.

After a hopefully entertaining digression about Peruvian Poutine and Netflix’s algorithms*, we progress to the discussion of Bitcoin and the Blockchain. Now, I don’t know anything about Bitcoin other than the vague ideas I have picked up by virtue of being a person on the internet, but it was an interesting discussion nonetheless.

Auerswald likens blockchain to an old-fashioned accountant’s ledger; the “blocks” are the rectangles in which a business’s earnings and expenses are recorded. If there is any question about a company’s profits, you can look back at the information recorded in the chain of blocks.

The problem with this system is that there is only one ledger. If the accountant has made a mistake (or worse, a theft,) there is nothing else to compare it to in order to determine the mistake.

In the modern, distributed version, there are many copies of the blockchain. If on most of these copies of the chain, block 22 says -$400, and on one copy it says +$400, we conclude that the one that disagrees is most likely in error. Like the works of Shakespeare, there are so many copies out there that a discrepancy a single copy cannot be claimed to be authoritative; it is the collective body of work that matters.

“Blockchain” is probably going to get used here as a metaphor for “distributed systems of confirming authority” a lot. For example, “Democracy is a blockchain for deciding who gets to rule a country.” Or “science is a blockchain.”

In Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” he recounts the process by which something becomes accepted as “true” (or reasonably likely to be true,) in the scientific community. Let’s suppose scientist M is the foremost authority in his field–perhaps organic LEDs. Scientists L and N are doing work that overlaps M’s, and can therefore basically evaluate M’s work and vouch for whether they think it is sound or not. Scientists J, K, O, and P do work that overlaps a lot with L and N and a little with M; they can evaluate M’s work a little and vouch for whether they think L and N are trustworthy. The chain continues down to little cats scientists A and Z, who can’t really evaluate scientist M, but can tell you whether or not they think B and Y’s results are trustworthy.

This community of science has both good and bad. In general, the structure of science has been extremely successful at inventing things like computers, atomic bombs, and penicillin; at times it creates resistance to new ideas just because they are so far outside of the mainstream of what other scientists are doing. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician, discovered that he could reduce maternal deaths at his hospital from around 10-18% to 2% simply by insisting that obstetricians wash their hands between dissecting cadavers and delivering babies. Unfortunately, the rest of the medical establishment had not yet accepted the Germ Theory of disease and believed that disease was caused by imbalanced humors. Semmelweis’s idea that invisible corpse particles were somehow transferring corpse-ness from dead people to live people seemed absurd, and further, blamed the doctors themselves for the deaths of their patients. Semmelweis’s tragic tail ends with him being stomped to death in an insane asylum. (His mental ill-health was probably induced by a combination of the stress of being rejected by his profession; and syphilis, contracted via charity work delivering babies for destitute prostitutes.)

Luckily for mothers everywhere, medical science eventually caught up with Semmelweis and puerperal fever is no longer a major concern for laboring women. Science, it seems, can correct itself. (We may want to be cautious about being too eager to reject new ideas–especially in cases where there is clearly a lot of room for improvement, like an 18% death rate.)

But back to the blockchain. In India:

Niti Aayog is working with Apollo Hospitals and information technology major Oracle on applying blockchain (decentralised) technology in pharmaceutical supply chain management to detect spurious drugs, Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant said here today.

Addressing a gathering through video-conferencing at the inaugural session of International Blockchain Congress 2018 for which Niti Aayog was a co-host, Kant said the organisation was working on applying the blockchain technology to pressing problems of the country in areas such as land registry, health records and fertiliser subsidy distribution m among others.

Further:

Blockchain technology can enable India to find solutions to huge logjams in courts …

With two-thirds of all civil cases pertaining to registration of property or land, the country’s policy think-tank is working with judiciary to find disruptive ways to expedite registrations, mutations and enable a system of smart transactions that is free of corruption and middlemen.

… There are three crore cases currently pending in Indian courts, including 42.5 lakh cases in high courts and 2.6 crore* cases in lower courts. Even if 100 cases are disposed off every hour without sleeping and eating, it would take more than 35 years to catch up, he said. …

On transforming the land registry system using blockchain, Niti Aayog is in advanced stage of implementing proof of concept pilot in Chandigarh to assess its potential to solve the problem of India’s land-based registry system. …

“It’s powerful because it allows multiple parties to collaborate and come to consensus without any need of third party,” he said.

*A crore is an Indian unit equivalent to 10 million.

I probably do not need to review Auerswald’s summary of Bitcoin’s history, as you are probably already well aware of it, but the question of “is Bitcoin real money?” is interesting. In 1875, Jevons, “cofounder of the neoclassical school in economics,” wrote that a material used as money should have the following traits:

“1 Utility and value

2 Portability

3 Indestructibility

4 Homogeneity

5 Divisibility

6 Stability of value

7 Cognizability.”

I am not sure about all of the items on this list; cigarettes and ramen noodles, for example, are used as currency in prisons, even though they are very easy to destroy. It seems like using a currency that you are going to eat would be problematic, yet the pattern recurs over and over in prisons (where perhaps people cannot get their hands on non-consumable goods, or perhaps people simply have no desire for non-consumable ornaments like gold.)

Gold–the “gold standard” of currencies–is a big odd to me, because it has very few practical uses. You can’t eat it. You can’t plant with it, cure parasites with it, or build with it. Lots of people talk about how you’d want a hard currency like gold in the case of societal collapse in which people stop accepting fiat currency, but if zombies were invading, the gas stations had run out of gasoline, and the grocery stores were out of food, I can’t imagine that I’d trade what few precious commodities I had left for a pile of rocks.

People argue that fiat currency is “just paper,” but gold is “just rocks,” and unless you’re a jeweler, the value of either is dependent entirely on your expectation that other people will accept them as currency.

Auerswald writes:

For the past 40 years the world’s currencies have been untethered from gold or any other metal. National “fiat” currencies are nothing more or less than tradeable trust, whose function as currency is based entirely on government-enforced scarcity an verifiability not tethered to its intrinsic usefulness.

I think Auerswald overlooks the role of force in backing fiat currencies. We don’t use Federal Reserve Notes because we trust the government like it’s our best friend from the army who pulled us out of a burning foxhole that one time. We use Federal Reserve Notes because the US government has a lot of guns and bombs to back up its claim that this is real money.

Which means the power of a dollar is dependent on the US government’s ability to enforce that value.

As for Bitcoin:

Bitcoin… satisfies all the criteria for being “money” that William Stanley Jevon set forth… with on exception intrinsic utility and value. That does not mean that Bitcoin will grow in significance as a means of exchange, much less achieve any position of dominance. But with digital transactions via mobile phones–Apple Pay and the like–becoming ever more command the concept of a digital currency not backed by any government gaining rapid acceptance, the prospect of one or another digital currency competing successfully with fiat currencies is not nearly as far-fetched today as it was even three years ago.

The biggest problems I see for digital currencies:

  1. Keeping value–if people decide they won’t accept DogeCoin, then what do you do with all of your DogeCoins?
  2. Ease of entry into the market makes it difficult for any one Coin to retain value
  3. Most people are happy using currencies not associated with illegal activity
You mean you can just make more of these things? Mugabe is brilliant!

The upside to digital currencies is they may be a real blessing for people caught in countries where local fiat currencies are being manipulated all to hell.

Anyway, Auerswald envisions a world in which blockchains (with coins or not) enable a world of peer-to-peer authentication and transactions:

By their very structure, Peer-to-peer platforms start out being distributed. The challenge is how to organize all of the energy contained in such networks so that people are rewarded fairly for their contributions. …Blockchain-based systems for governing peer0to0eer networks hold the promise–so far unrealized–of incorporating the best features of markets when it comes to rewarding contribution and of organizations when it comes to keeping track of reputations.

In other words, in areas where economies are held back because the local governments do a bad job of enforcing contracts and securing property rights, “blockchain”-like algorithms may be able to step into the gap and provided an accepted, distributed, alternative system of enforcement and authentication.

(This is the point where I start ranting to anyone within earshot about communists not recognizing the necessity of secure property rights so that people can turn their property into capital in order to start businesses. Without that seed money to start a business, you can’t get started. Even something simple, like driving for Uber, requires a car to start with, and cars cost money. If you can’t depend on having money tomorrow because all of your property just got confiscated, or you can’t depend on having a car tomorrow because private property is for bourgeois scum, then you can’t get a job driving for Uber. If no one can convert property to capital and thus to businesses, then you don’t get business and you have no economy and people suffer.

Communists see that some people have property that they can convert to capital and other people don’t have said capital, and their solution is to just take everybody’s stuff away and declare the problem fixed, when what they really want is for everyone to have enough basic property and capital to be able to start their own business.]

But back to Auerswald:

Earlier… I alluded to the significant advance in democracy, science, and financial systems that occurred simultaneously during …the Age of Enlightenment. That systems of governance, inquiry, and economics should have advanced all at the same time… is no coincidence at all. Each of these foundational developments in human social evolution is, at its core, an algorithm for authentication and verification. …

It is only because of the disciplinary fragmentation of inquiry that has occurred in the past century that we do not immediately perceive in the evolved historical record the patterns connecting systems of authentication and verification in politics, science, and economics as they have jointly evolved. … Illuminating those patterns has been the point of this book.

Chapter 14 begins with a history of Burning Man, which the author defends thus:

Still, it makes for an interesting case study in the building of cities (and why laws get enacted): Like everything about Black Rock City, the layout is the product of both planning and evolution. Cities are what physicists refer to as dissipative structures: highly complex organisms worse existence depend on a constant throughput of energy. If you were to close down all bridges and tunnels into New your City … grocery stores would have only a three-day supply of food. The same is generally true of a city’s other energy requirements. All cities are temporary, and they survive only because we feed them. …

The evolution of Black Rock is for urbanists what a real-life Jurassic Park would be for a Paleontologist. We really have no idea what the experience of living in humanity’s first cities might have been–whether Uruk in Mesopotamia or Catalhoyuk in Anatolia. And yet all cities also have elements of planning. Where Black Rock City has its Larry Harvey, London had its Robert Hooke and Washington, D.C., had its Pierre L’Enfant.  Each had a notion of how to bound a space, build symmetry and flow, and in so doing provide a platform where the human experience can unfold.

I have a somewhat dim view of “Burning Man” as a communist utopia that’s only open to rich people, filled with environmentalist hippies leaving an enormous carbon footprint in order to get high with a close-knit community of 70,000 other people, but maybe my sight is obscured from the outside.

The question remains, though: will code be a blessing, or a curse? What happens to employment as “traditional” jobs disappear? Will blockchain and other new platforms and technologies make us freer, or simply find new ways to control us?

The advance of code reduces individual power and autonomy while it increases individual capabilities and freedom.

So far, Auerswald points out, there has been good reason to be optimistic:

In 1990, a staggeringly high 43 percent of people in the “developing world,” approximately 1.9 billion people, lived in extreme poverty. By 2010, that number had fallen to 21 percent. …

For the past two centuries, the vehicle for that progress has been the continual capacity of economies to generate more and better jobs. … “Gallup has discovered that having a good job is now the great global dream … ‘A good job’ is now more important than having a family, more compelling than democracy and freedom, religion, peace and so on… Stimulating job growth is the new currency of all leaders because if you don’t deliver on it you will experience instability, brain drain, sometimes revolution…

There is something concerning about this, though. “Jobs creation” is now widely agreed to be in the hands of national leaders, not individuals. Ordinary people are no longer seen as drivers of innovation. People can start businesses, of course, but whether those businesses survive or fail depends on the government; for the average person, jobs are no longer created by human ingenuity but awarded by an opaque power structure.

Thus the liberal claim that “structural racism” (rather than “individual racism”) is the real cause of continued black impoverishment and high unemployment rates. In a world where employment is granted or withheld by the powerful based on whether or not they like you, not based on your own innate ability to make your own economic contribution to the world, then it is imperative to make sure that the powerful see it as important to employ people like you.

It is, in sum, an admission of the powerlessness of the individual.

Still, Auerswald is hopeful that with the rise of the Peer-to-Peer economy and end of traditional factory work, not only will work be more interesting (as boring, repetitive jobs are most easily automated,) but also that people will no longer be dependent on the whims of a small set of powerful people for access to jobs.

I think he underestimates how useful it is to have steady, long-term employment and how difficult it is for individuals to compete against established corporations that have much larger economies of scale and access to far more relevant data than they do. Take, for example, YouTube vs. Netflix. Netflix can use its troves of data to determine which kinds of shows customers would like to watch more of, then hire people to make those shows. This is pretty nice work if you can get it. YouTube, of course, just lets pretty much anyone put up any video they want, and most of the videos are probably pretty dull, but a few YouTubers put up quality material and an even smaller few actually make a decent amount of money. YouTuber PewDiePie, for example, holds the record at 61+ million subscribers, which has earned him $124 million. But most people who try to become YouTube stars do not become PewDiePie; most earn very little. And why should they, when most of them are amateurs low-budget amateurs with no data on what audiences are interested in going up against other TV options like Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, and yes, PewDs himself?

I have a friend who is a very talented amateur clothing designer and dressmaker. I have encouraged her to open a shop on Etsy and try sell some of her creations, but can she really compete with Walmart, The Gap, or Nordstrom? Big Clothing has a massive lead in terms of factories mass-producing clothes for sale. (Her only hope would be to extremely upscale–wedding dresses, movie costumes, etc.)

So what does the future hold?

In the next round of digital disruption, tasks that can be automated (the “high-volume, low-price” option resulting from ongoing code-driven bifurcations…) will yield only small dividends for most people. The exception is the relatively small number of people who will maintain the platforms on which such tasks are performed…

The promising pathway for inclusive well-being is humanized work (the “low-volume, high-price” pathway resulting from ongoing code-driven bifurcations…) this pathway includes everything about value creation that is differentiated, personal, and human.

In his Conclusion, Auerswald writes:

To be human is to think critically. To collaborate, to Communicate. To be creative. What we call “the economy’ is one extension of these activities. It is the domain in which we develop and advance code.

From Ray Kurzweil

But the singularity approaches:

We are not at the center of our cognitive universe. Our own creations are eclipsing us.

For each of us, redefining work requires nothing less than redefining identity. This is because production is not something human beings do just to consume. In fact, the opposite is true. We are living beings. We consume in order to produce.

Well, that’s the end of the book. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. What do you think the future holds? Where do you think code is taking the economy? What are the best–and worst–opportunities for growth? And what (if anything) should we read next?

 

 

*An Aside On Netflix and the use of algorithms to produce movies/TV:

…consider the fate of two films that premiered the same night at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. … One of these films, What Happened, Miss Simone? was a documentary about singer and civil rights icon Nina Simone. That film was funded by Netflix, whose corporate decision to back the film was based in part on insights algorithmically gleaned from the vast trove of data it has collected on users of its streaming video and movie rental services. The second film was a comedy titled The Bronze, which featured television star Melissa Rauch as a vulgar gymnast. The Bronze was produced by Duplass Brothers production and privately financed by “a few wealthy individual” whose decision to back the film was presumably not based on complex impersonal algorithms but rather, as has been the Hollywood norm, on business intuition.

I’ve often wondered why so many terrible movies get made.

A documentary about a Civil Rights leader might not be everyone’s cup of tea (people like to say they watch intellectual movies more than they actually do,) but plenty of people will at least abstractly like it. By contrast, a “vulgar gymnast” is not an interesting premise for a movie. Vulgarity can be funny when it is contrasted with something typically not vulgar–eg, “A vulgar mobster and a pious nun team up to save an orphanage,” or even “A vulgar nun and pious mobster…” The humor lies in the contrast between purity and vulgarity. But gymnasts aren’t known for being particularly pure or vulgar–they’re neutral–so there’s no contrast in this scenario. A vulgar gymnast doesn’t sound funny, it sounds rude and unpleasant. And this is the one sentences summary chosen to represent the movie? Not a good sign.

As you might have guessed already, What Happened, Miss Simone, did very well, and The Bronze was a bomb. It has terrible reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. As folks have put it, it’s just not funny.

Davidowitz notes in Everybody Lies that the industries most ripe for “big data”fication are the ones where the current data is not very good. Industries where people work more on intuition than analysis. For example, the choice of horses in horse racing, until recently, was based on pedigree and intuition–what experienced horse people thought seemed promising in a foal. There was a lot of room in horse racing for quantification and analysis–and the guy who started using mobile x-ray machines to measure horse’s heart and lung sizes was able to make significantly better predictions than people who just looked at the horses’s outsides. By contrast, hedge funds have already put significant effort into quantifying what the prices of different stocks are going to do, and so it is very hard to do better data analysis than they already are.

The selection of movies and TV pilots to fund fall more into the “racing horses picked by intuition” category than the “extremely quantified hedge funds” category, which means there’s lots of room for improvement for anyone who can get good data on the subject.

Incidentally, “In 2015… Netflix accounted for almost 37 percent of all downstream internet traffic in North America during peak evening hours.”

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Book Club: The Code Economy, Chapter 11: Education and Death

Welcome back to EvX’s book club. Today we’re reading Chapter 11 of The Code Economy, Education.

…since the 1970s, the economically fortunate among us have been those who made the “go to college” choice. This group has seen its income row rapidly and its share of the aggregate wealth increase sharply. Those without a college education have watched their income stagnate and their share of the aggregate wealth decline. …

Middle-age white men without a college degree have been beset by sharply rising death rates–a phenomenon that contrasts starkly with middle-age Latino and African American men, and with trends in nearly every other country in the world.

It turns out that I have a lot of graphs on this subject. There’s a strong correlation between “white death” and “Trump support.”

White vs. non-white Americans

American whites vs. other first world nations

source

But “white men” doesn’t tell the complete story, as death rates for women have been increasing at about the same rate. The Great White Death seems to be as much a female phenomenon as a male one–men just started out with higher death rates in the first place.

Many of these are deaths of despair–suicide, directly or through simply giving up on living. Many involve drugs or alcohol. And many are due to diseases, like cancer and diabetes, that used to hit later in life.

We might at first think the change is just an artifact of more people going to college–perhaps there was always a sub-set of people who died young, but in the days before most people went to college, nothing distinguished them particularly from their peers. Today, with more people going to college, perhaps the destined-to-die are disproportionately concentrated among folks who didn’t make it to college. However, if this were true, we’d expect death rates to hold steady for whites overall–and they have not.

Whatever is affecting lower-class whites, it’s real.

Auerswald then discusses the “Permanent income hypothesis”, developed by Milton Friedman: Children and young adults devote their time to education, (even going into debt,) which allows us to get a better job in mid-life. When we get a job, we stop going to school and start saving for retirement. Then we retire.

The permanent income hypothesis is built into the very structure of our society, from Public Schools that serve students between the ages of 5 and 18, to Pell Grants for college students, to Social Security benefits that kick in at 65. The assumption, more or less, is that a one-time investment in education early in life will pay off for the rest of one’s life–a payout of such returns to scale that it is even sensible for students and parents to take out tremendous debt to pay for that education.

But this is dependent on that education actually paying off–and that is dependent on the skills people learn during their educations being in demand and sufficient for their jobs for the next 40 years.

The system falls apart if technology advances and thus job requirements change faster than once every 40 years. We are now looking at a world where people’s investments in education can be obsolete by the time they graduate, much less by the time they retire.

Right now, people are trying to make up for the decreasing returns to education (a highschool degree does not get you the same job today as it did in 1950) by investing more money and time into the single-use system–encouraging toddlers to go to school on the one end and poor students to take out more debt for college on the other.

This is probably a mistake, given the time-dependent nature of the problem.

The obvious solution is to change how we think of education and work. Instead of a single, one-time investment, education will have to continue after people begin working, probably in bursts. Companies will continually need to re-train workers in new technology and innovations. Education cannot be just a single investment, but a life-long process.

But that is hard to do if people are already in debt from all of the college they just paid for.

Auerswald then discusses some fascinating work by Bessen on how the industrial revolution affected incomes and production among textile workers:

… while a handloom weaver in 1800 required nearly forty minutes to weave a yard of coarse cloth using a single loom, a weaver in 1902 could do the same work operating eighteen Nothrop looms in less than a minute, on average. This striking point relates to the relative importance of the accumulation of capital to the advance of code: “Of the roughly thirty-nine-minute reduction in labor time per yard, capital accumulation due to the changing cost of capital relative to wages accounted for just 2 percent of the reduction; invention accounted for 73 percent of the reduction; and 25 percent of the time saving came from greater skill and effort of the weavers.” … “the role of capital accumulation was minimal, counter to the conventional wisdom.”

Then Auerswald proclaims:

What was the role of formal education in this process? Essentially nonexistent.

Boom.

New technologies are simply too new for anyone to learn about them in school. Flexible thinkers who learn fast (generalists) thus benefit from new technologies and are crucial for their early development. Once a technology matures, however, it becomes codified into platforms and standards that can be taught, at which point demand for generalists declines and demand for workers with educational training in the specific field rises.

For Bessen, formal education and basic research are not the keys to the development of economies that they are often represented a being. What drives the development of economies is learning by doing and the advance of code–processes that are driven at least as much by non-expert tinkering as by formal research and instruction.

Make sure to read the endnotes to this chapter; several of them are very interesting. For example, #3 begins:

“Typically, new technologies demand that a large number of variables be properly controlled. Henry Bessemer’s simple principle of refining molten iron with a blast of oxygen work properly only at the right temperatures, in the right size vessel, with the right sort of vessel refractory lining, the right volume and temperature of air, and the right ores…” Furthermore, the products of these factories were really one that, in the United States, previously had been created at home, not by craftsmen…

#8 states:

“Early-stage technologies–those with relatively little standardized knowledge–tend to be used at a smaller scale; activity is localized; personal training and direct knowledge sharing are important, and labor markets do not compensate workers for their new skills. Mature technologies–with greater standardized knowledge–operate at large scale and globally, market permitting; formalized training and knowledge are more common; and robust labor markets encourage workers to develop their own skills.” … The intensity of of interactions that occur in cities is also important in this phase: “During the early stages, when formalized instruction is limited, person-to-person exchange is especially important for spreading knowledge.”

This reminds me of a post on Bruce Charlton’s blog about “Head Girl Syndrome“:

The ideal Head Girl is an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, Captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.

The Head Girl will probably be a big success in life…

But the Head Girl is not, cannot be, a creative genius.

*

Modern society is run by Head Girls, of both sexes, hence there is no place for the creative genius.

Modern Colleges aim at recruiting Head Girls, so do universities, so does science, so do the arts, so does the mass media, so does the legal profession, so does medicine, so does the military…

And in doing so, they filter-out and exclude creative genius.

Creative geniuses invent new technologies; head girls oversee the implementation and running of code. Systems that run on code can run very smoothly and do many things well, but they are bad at handling creative geniuses, as many a genius will inform you of their public school experience.

How different stages in the adoption of new technology and its codification into platforms translates into wages over time is a subject I’d like to see more of.

Auerswald then turns to the perennial problem of what happens when not only do the jobs change, they entirely disappear due to increasing robotification:

Indeed, many of the frontier business models shaping the economy today are based on enabling a sharp reduction in the number of people required to perform existing tasks.

One possibility Auerswald envisions is a kind of return to the personalized markets of yesteryear, when before massive industrial giants like Walmart sprang up. Via internet-based platforms like Uber or AirBNB, individuals can connect directly with people who’d like to buy their goods or services.

Since services make up more than 84% of the US economy and an increasingly comparable percentage in coutnries elsewhere, this is a big deal.

It’s easy to imagine this future in which we are all like some sort of digital Amish, continually networked via our phones to engage in small transactions like sewing a pair of trousers for a neighbor, mowing a lawn, selling a few dozen tacos, or driving people to the airport during a few spare hours on a Friday afternoon. It’s also easy to imagine how Walmart might still have massive economies of scale over individuals and the whole system might fail miserably.

However, if we take the entrepreneurial perspective, such enterprises are intriguing. Uber and Airbnb work by essentially “unlocking” latent assets–time when people’s cars or homes were sitting around unused. Anyone who can find other, similar latent assets and figure out how to unlock them could become similarly successful.

I’ve got an underutilized asset: rural poor. People in cities are easy to hire and easy to direct toward educational opportunities. Kids growing up in rural areas are often out of the communications loop (the internet doesn’t work terribly well in many rural areas) and have to drive a long way to job interviews.

In general, it’s tough to network large rural areas in the same ways that cities get networked.

On the matter of why peer-to-peer networks have emerged in certain industries, Auerswald makes a claim that I feel compelled to contradict:

The peer-to-peer business models in local transportation, hospitality, food service, and the rental of consumer goods were the first to emerge, not because they are the most important for the economy but because these are industries with relatively low regulatory complexity.

No no no!

Food trucks emerged because heavy regulations on restaurants (eg, fire code, disability access, landscaping,) have cut significantly into profits for restaurants housed in actual buildings.

Uber emerged because the cost of a cab medallion–that is, a license to drive a cab–hit 1.3 MILLION DOLLARS in NYC. It’s a lucrative industry that people were being kept out of.

In contrast, there has been little peer-to-peer business innovation in healthcare, energy, and education–three industries that comprise more than a quarter of the US GDP–where regulatory complexity is relatively high.

Again, no.

There is a ton of competition in healthcare; just look up naturopaths and chiropractors. Sure, most of them are quacks, but they’re definitely out there, competing with regular doctors for patients. (Midwives appear to be actually pretty effective at what they do and significantly cheaper than standard ob-gyns.)

The difficulty with peer-to-peer healthcare isn’t regulation but knowledge and equipment. Most Americans own a car and know how to drive, and therefore can join Uber. Most Americans do not know how to do heart surgery and do not have the proper equipment to do it with. With training I might be able to set a bone, but I don’t own an x-ray machine. And you definitely don’t want me manufacturing my own medications. I’m not even good at making soup.

Education has tons of peer-to-peer innovation. I homeschool my children. Sometimes grandma and grandpa teach the children. Many homeschoolers join consortia that offer group classes, often taught by a knowledgeable parent or hired tutor. Even people who aren’t homeschooling their kids often hire tutors, through organizations like Wyzant or afterschool test-prep centers like Kumon. One of my acquaintances makes her living primarily by skype-tutoring Koreans in English.

And that’s not even counting private schools.

Yes, if you want to set up a formal “school,” you will encounter a lot of regulation. But if you just want to teach stuff, there’s nothing stopping you except your ability to find students who’ll pay you to learn it.

Now, energy is interesting. Here Auerswsald might be correct. I have trouble imagining people setting up their own hydroelectric dams without getting into trouble with the EPA (not to mention everyone downstream.)

But what if I set up my own windmill in my backyard? Can I connect it to the electric grid and sell energy to my neighbors on a windy day? A quick search brings up WindExchange, which says, very directly:

Owners of wind turbines interconnected directly to the transmission or distribution grid, or that produce more power than the host consumes, can sell wind power as well as other generation attributes.

So, maybe you can’t set up your own nuclear reactor, and maybe the EPA has a thing about not disturbing fish, but it looks like you can sell wind and solar energy back to the grid.

I find this a rather exciting thought.

Ultimately, while Auerswald does return to and address the need to radically change how we think about education and the education-job-retirement lifepath, he doesn’t return to the increasing white death rate. Why are white death rates increasing faster than other death rates, and will transition to the “gig economy” further accelerate this trend? Or was the past simply anomalous for having low white death rates, or could these death rates be driven by something independent of the economy itself?

Now, it’s getting late, so that’s enough for tonight, but what are your thoughts? How do you think this new economy–and educational landscape–will play out?

Book Club: Code Economy: Economics as Information Theory

If the suggestion… that the economy is “alive” seems fanciful or far-fetched, it is much less so if we consider the alternative: that it is dead.

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy: a Forty-Thousand-Year History. Today we are discussing Chapter 9: Platforms, but feel free to jump into the discussion even if you haven’t read the book.

I loved this chapter.

We can safely answer that the economy–or the sum total of human provisioning, consumptive, productive and social activities–is neither “alive” nor, exactly, “non-living.”

The economy has a structure, yes. (So does a crystal.) It requires energy, like a plant, sponge, or macaque. It creates waste. But like a beehive, it is not “conscious;” voters struggle to make any kind of coherent policies.

Can economies reproduce themselves, like a beehive sending out swarms to found new hives? Yes, though it is difficult in a world where most of the sensible human niches have already been filled.

Auerswald notes that his use of the word “code” throughout the book is not (just) because of its modern sense in the coding of computer programs, but because of its use in the structure of DNA–we are literally built from the instructions in our genetic “code,” and society is, on top of that, layers and layers of more code, for everything from “how to raise vegetables” to “how to build an iPhone” to, yes, Angry Birds.

Indeed, as I have insisted throughout, this is more than an analogy: the introduction of production recipes into economics is… exactly what the introduction of DNA i to molecular biology. it is the essential first step toward a transformation of economics into a branch of information theory.

I don’t have much to say about information theory because I haven’t studied information theory, beyond once reading a problem about a couple of people named Alice and Bob who were trying to send messages to each other, but I did read Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and, Kenneth Cukier‘s Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t rise to the level of “OMG this was great you must read it,” but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good introduction and pairs nicely with The Code Economy, as many of the developments in “big data” are relevant to recent developments in code. It’s also helpful in understanding why on earth anyone sees anything of value in companies like Facebook and LinkedIn, which will be coming up soon.

You know, we know that bees live in a hive, but do bees know? (No, not for any meaningful definition of “knowing.”) But imagine being a bee, and slowly working out that you live in a hive, and that the hive “behaves” in certain ways that you can model, just like you can model the behavior of an individual bee…

Anyway:

Economics has a lot to say about how to optimize the level of inputs to get output, but what about the actual process of tuning inputs into outputs? … In the Wonderful World of Widgets that i standard economic, ingredients combine to make a final product, but the recipe by which the ingredients actually become the product is nowhere explicitly represented.

After some papers on the NK model and th shift in organizational demands from pre-industrial economic production to post-industrial large-scale production by mega firms, (or in the case of communism, by whole states,) Auerswald concludes that

…the economy manages increasing complexity by “hard-wiring” solution into standards, which in turn define platforms.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse

This is an important insight. Electricity was once a new technology, whose mathematical rules were explored by cutting-edge scientists. Electrical appliances and the grid to deliver the electricity they run on were developed by folks like Edison and Tesla.

But today, the electrical grid reaches nearly every house in America. You don’t have to understand electricity at all to plug in your toaster. You don’t have to be Thomas Edison to lay electrical lines. You just have to follow instructions.

Electricity + electrical appliances replaced many jobs people used to do, like candle making or pony express delivery man, but electricity has not resulted in an overall loss of jobs. Rather, far more jobs now exist that depend on the electrical grid (or “platform”) than were eliminated.

(However, one of the difficulties or problems with codifying things into platforms is then, systems have difficulty handling other, perfectly valid methods of doing things. Early codification may lock-in certain ways of doing things that are actually suboptimal, like how our computer keyboard layout is intentionally difficult to use not because of anything to do with computers, but because typewriters in the 1800s jammed if people typed on them too quickly. Today, we would be better off with a more sensible keyboard layout, but the old one persists because too many systems use it.)

The Industrial Revolution was a time of first technological development, and then encoding into platforms of many varieties–transportation networks of water and rail; electrical, sewer, and fresh water grids; the large-scale production of antibiotics and vaccines; and even the codification of governments.

The English, a nation of a couple thousand years or so, are governed under a system known as “Common Law,” which is just all of the legal precedents and traditions built up over that time that have come into customary use.

When America was founded, it didn’t have a thousand years of experience to draw on because, well, it had just been founded, but it did have a thousand years of cultural memory of England’s government. English Common Law was codified as the base of the American legal system.

The Articles of Confederation, famous only for not working very well, were the fledgling country’s first attempt at codifying how the government should operate. They are typically described as failing because they allocated insufficient power to the federal government, but I propose a more nuanced take: the Articles laid out insufficient code for dealing with nation-level problems. The Constitution solved these problems and instituted the basic “platform” on which the rest of the government is built. Today, whether we want to ratify a treaty or change the speed limit on i-405, we don’t have to re-derive the entire decisions-making structure from scratch; legitimacy (for better or for worse) is already built into the system.

Since the days of the American and French revolutions, new countries have typically had “constitutions,” not because Common Law is bad, but because there is no need to re-derive from scratch successful governing platforms–they can just be copied from other countries, just as one firm can copy another firms organizational structure.

Continuing with Auerswald and the march of time:

Ask yourself what the greatest inventions were over the past 150 years: Penicillin? The transistor? Electrical power? Each of these has been transformative, but equally compelling candidates include universal time, container shipping, the TCP/IP protocols underlying the Internet, and the GSM and CDMA standards that underlie mobile telephony. These are the technologies that make global trade possible by making code developed in one place interoperable with code developed in another. Standards reduce barriers among people…

Auerswald, as a code enthusiast, doesn’t devote much space to the downsides of code. Clearly, code can make life easier, by reducing the number of cognitive tasks required to get a job done. Let’s take the matter of household management. If a husband and wife both adhere to “traditional gender norms,” such as an expectation that the wife will take care of internal household chores like cooking and vacuuming, and the husband will take care of external chores, like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, and pumping gas, neither spouse has to ever discuss “who is going to do this job” or wonder “hey, did that job get done?”

Following an established code thus aids efficiency and appears to decrease marital stress (there are studies on this,) but this does not mean that the code itself is optimal. Perhaps men make better dish-washers than women. Or for a couple with a disabled partner, perhaps all of the jobs would be better performed by reversing the roles.

Technological change also encourages code change:

The replacement of manual push-mowers with gas-powered mowers makes mowing the lawn easier for women, so perhaps this task would be better performed by housewives. (Even the Amish have adopted milking machines on the grounds that by pumping the milk away from the cow for you, the machines enable women to participate equally in the milking–a task that previously involved picking up and carrying around 90 lb milkjugs.)

But re-writing the entire code is work and involves a learning curve as both parties sort out and get used to new expectations. (See my previous thread on “emotional labor” and its relation to gender norms.) So even if you think the old code isn’t fair or optimal, it still might be easier than trying to make a new code–and this extends to far more human relations than just marriage.

And then you get cases where the new technology is incompatible with the old code. Take, for example, the relationship between transportation, weights and measures, and the French Revolution.

A country in which there is no efficient way to get from Point A to Point B has no need for a standardized set of weights and measures, as people in Community A will never encounter or contend with whatever system they are using over in Community B. Even if a king wanted to create a standard system, he would have difficulty enforcing it. Instead, each community tends to evolve a system that works well for its own needs. A community that grows bananas, for example, will come up with measures suitable to bananas, like the “bunch,” a community that deals in grain will invent the “bushel,” and a community that enumerates no goods, like the Piraha, will not bother with large quantities quantities.

(Diamonds are measured in “carats,” which have nothing to do with the orange vegetable, but instead are derived from the seeds of the carob tree, which apparently are small enough to be weighed against small stones.)

Since the French paid taxes, there was some demand for standardized weights and measures within each province–if your taxes are “one bushel of grain,” you want to make sure “bushel” is well defined so the local lord doesn’t suddenly define this year’s bushel as twice as big as last year’s bushel–and likewise, the lord doesn’t want this year’s bushel to be defined as half the size as last year’s.

But as roads improved and trade increased, people became concerned with making sure that a bushel of grain sold in Paris was the same as a bushel purchased in Nice, or that 5 carats of diamonds in Bordeaux was still 5 carats when you reached Cognac.

But the established local power of the local nobility made it very hard to change whatever measures people were using in each individual place. That is, the existing code made it hard to change to a more efficient code, probably because local lords were concerned the new measures would result in fewer taxes, and the local peasants concerned it would result in higher taxes.

Thus it was only with the decapitation of the Ancien Regime and wiping away of the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility that Revolutionary France established, as one of its few lasting reforms, a universal system of weights and measures that has come down to us today as the metric or SI system.

Now, speaking as an American who has been trained in both Metric and Imperial units, using multiple systems can be annoying, but is rarely deadly. On the scale of sub-optimal ideas, humans have invented far worse.

Quoting Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Russian Troops waiting for death

On the Eastern Front, the Death Machine was defeated by the Russian Revolution, as the canon fodder decided it didn’t want to be turned into corpses anymore.

I find World War I more interesting than WWII because it makes far less sense. The combatants in WWII had something resembling sensible goals, some chance of achieving their goals, and attempted to protect the lives of their own people. WWI, by contrast, has no such underlying logic, yet it happened anyway–proof that seemingly logical people can engage in the ultimate illogic, even as it reduces whole countries to nothing but death machines.

Why did some countries revolt against the cruel code of war, and others not? Perhaps an important factor is the perceived legitimacy of the government itself (though regular food shipments are probably just as critical.) Getting back to information theory, democracy itself is a kind of blockchain for establishing political legitimacy, (more on this in a couple of chapters) which may account for why some countries perceived their leadership as more legitimate, and other countries suddenly discovered, as information about other people’s opinions became easier to obtain, that the government enjoyed very little legitimacy.

But I am speculating, and have gotten totally off-topic (Auerswald was just discussing the establishment of TCP/IP protocols and other similar standards that aid international trade, not WWI!)

Returning to Auerswald, he cites a brilliant quote from Alfred North Whitehead

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

As we were saying, while sub-optimal (or suicidal) code can and does destroy human societies, good code can substantially increase human well-being.

The discovery and refinement of new inventions, technologies, production recipes, etc., involves a steep learning curve as people first figure out how to make the thing work and to source and put together all of the parts necessary to build it, (eg, the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s and early 1900s,) but once the technology spreads, it simply becomes part of the expected infrastructure of everyday life (eg, the building of interstate highways and gas stations, allowing people to drive cars all around the US,) a “platform” on which other, future innovations build. Post-1950, most automobile-driven innovation was located not in refinements to the engines or brakes, but in things you can do with vehicles, like long-distance shipping.

Interesting things happen to income as code becomes platforms, but I haven’t worked out all of the details.

Continuing with Auerswald:

Note that, in code economics, a given country’s level of “development” is not sensibly measured by the total monetary value of all goods and services it produces…. Rather, the development of a country consists of … it capacity to execute more complex code. …

Less-developed countries that lack the code to produce complex products will import them, and they will export simpler intermediate products and raw materials in order to pay for the required imports.

By creating and adhering to widely-observed “standards,” increasing numbers of countries (and people) are able to share inventions, code, and development.

Of the drivers of beneficial trade, international standards are at once among the most important and the least appreciated. … From the invention of bills of exchange in the Middle Ages … to the creation of twenty-first-century communications protocols, innovations in standards have lowered the cost and enhanced the value of exchange across distance. …

For entrepreneurs in developing countries, demonstrated conformity with international standards… is a universally recognized mark of organizational capacity that substantially eases entry into global production and distribution networks.

In other words, you are more likely to order steel from a foreign factory if you have some confidence that you will actually receive the variety you ordered, and the factory can signal that it knows what it is doing and will actually deliver the specified steel by adhering to international standards.

On the other hand, I think this can degenerate into a reliance on the appearance of doing things properly, which partially explains the Elizabeth Holmes affair. Holmes sounded like she knew what she was doing–she knew how to sound like she was running a successful startup because she’d been raised in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Meanwhile, the people investing in Holmes’s business didn’t know anything about blood testing (Holmes’s supposed invention tested blood)–they could only judge whether the company sounded like it was a real business.

Auerswald then has a fascinating section comparing each subsequent “platform” that builds on the previous “platform” to trophic levels in the environment. The development of each level allows for the development of another, more complex level above it–the top platform becomes the space where newest code is developed.

If goods and services are built on platforms, one atop the other, then it follows that learning at higher levels of the system should be faster than learning at lower levels, for the simple reason that leaning at higher levels benefits from incremental learning all the way down.

There are two “layers” of learning. Raw material extraction shows high volatility around a a gradually increasing trend, aka slow learning. By contrast, the delivery of services over existing infrastructure, like roads or wireless networks, show exponential growth, aka fast learning.

In other words, the more levels of code you already have established and standardized into platforms, the faster learning goes–the basic idea behind the singularity.

 

That’s all for today. See you next week!

Book Club: The Code Economy, Chs. 6-7: Learning Curves

Welcome back to EvX’s Book Club: The Code Economy, by Philip Auerswald. Today’s entry is going to be quick, because summer has started and I don’t have much time. Ch 6 is titled Information, and can perhaps be best summarized:

The challenge is to build a reliable economy with less reliable people. In this way, the economy is an information processing organism. …

When I assert that economics must properly be understood as a branch of information theory, I am reffing to the centrality of the communication problem that exists whenever one person attempts to share know-how with another. I am referring, in other words, to the centrality of code.

Auerswald goes on to sketch some relevant background on “code” as a branch of economics:

The economics taught in undergraduate courses is a great example of history being written by the victors. Because the methodologies of neoclassical economics experienced numerous triumphs in the middle of the twentieth century, the study of the distribution of resources within the economy–choice rather than code and, to a lesser extent, consumption rather than  production–came to be taught as the totality of economics. However, the reality is that choice and code have always coexisted, not only in the economy itself but in the history of economic thought.

And, an aside, but interesting:

Indeed, from 1807 to the time Jevons was born, the volume of shipping flowing through the port of Liverpool more than doubled.

However:

And yet, while both the city’s population and worker’s wages increased steadily, a severe economic rift occurred that separated the haves from the have-nots. As wealthy Liverpudlians moved away from the docks to newly fashionable districts on the edges of the city, those left behind in the center of town faced miserable conditions.From 1830 through 1850, life expectancy actually decreased in Liverpool proper from an already miserable 32 years to a shocking 25 years.

(You should see what happened to life expectancies in Ireland around that time.)

A reliable economy built with less reliable people is one in which individuals have very little autonomy, because autonomy means unreliable people messing things up.

Thereafter, a series of economists, Herbert Simon foremost among them, put the challenges of gathering, sharing, and processing economically relevant information at the center of their work.

Taken together and combined with foundational insights from other fields–notably evolutionary biology and molecular biology–the contributions of these economists constitute a distinct domain of inquiry within economics. These contributions have focused on people as producers and on the algorithms that drive the development of the economy.

This domain of inquiry is Code Economics.

I am rather in love with taking the evolutionary model and applying it to other fields, like the spread of ideas (memes) or the growth of cities, companies, economies, or whole countries. That is kind of what we do, here at EvolutionistX.

Chapter 7 is titled Learning: The Dividend of Doing. It begins with an amusing tale about Julia Child, who did not even learn to cook until her mid to late thirties, and then became a rather famous chef/cookbook writer. (Cooking recipes are one of Auerswald’s favored examples of “code” in action.)

Next Auerswald discusses Francis Walker, first president of the American Economic Association. Walker disagreed with the “wage fund theory” and with Jevons’s simplifying assumption that firms can be modeled as simply hiring workers until it cannot make any more money by hiring more workers than by investing in more capital.

Jevons’s formulation pushes production algorithms–how businesses are actually being run–into the background and tradeoffs between labor and capital to the foreground. But as Walker notes:

“We have the phenomenon in every community and in every trade, in whatever state of the market,” Walker observes, “of some employers realizing no profits at all, while other are making fair profits; others, again, large profits; others, still, colossal profits. Side by side, in the same business, with equal command of capital, with equal opportunities, one man is gradually sinking a fortune, while another is doubling or trebling his accumulations.”

The relevant economic data, when it finally became available, confirmed Walker’s belief about the distribution of profits, yet the difference between the high-profit and low-profit firms does not appear to hinge primarily on the question of how much labor should be substituted for capital and vice versa.

Walker argued that more profitable entrepreneurs are that way because they are able to solve a difficult problem more effectively than other entrepreneurs. … three core mechanisms for the advance of code: learning, evolution, and the layering of complexity though the development of platforms.

Moreover:

…in the empirical economics of production, few discoveries have been more universal or significant than that of the firm-level learning curve. As economist James Bessen notes, “Developing the knowledge and skills needed to implement new technologies on a large scale is a difficult social problem that takes a long time to resolve… A new technology typically requires more than an invention in order to be designed, built, installed, operated, and maintained. Initially, much of this new technical knowledge develops slowly because it is learned through experience, not in the classroom.”

Those of you who are familiar with business economics probably find learning curves and firm growth curves boring and old-hat, but they’re new and quite fascinating to me. Auerswald has an interesting story about the development of airplanes and a challenge to develop cheaper, two-seat planes during the Depression–could a plane be built for under a $1,000? $700?

(Make sure to read the footnote on the speed of production of “Liberty Ships.”)

The rest of the chapter discusses the importance of proper firm management for maximizing efficiency and profits. Now, I have an instinctual aversion to managers, due to my perception that they tend to be parasitic on their workers or at least in competition with them for resources/effort, but I can admit that a well-run company is likely more profitable than a badly run one. Whether it is more pleasant for the workers is another matter, as the folks working in Amazon’s warehouses can tell you.

So why are some countries rich and others poor?

Whereas dominant variants of the neoclassical production model emphasize categories such as public knowledge and organization, which can be copied and implemented at zero cost, code economics suggests that such categories are unlikely to be significantly relevant in the practical work of creating the business entities that drive the progress of human society. This is because code at the level of a single company–what I term a “production algorithm”–includes firm-specific components. Producers far from dominant production clusters must learn to produce through a costly process of trial and error. Market-driven advances in production recipes, from which venture with proprietary value can be created, require a tenacious will to experiment, to learn, and to document carefully the results of that learning. Heterogeneity among managers… is thus central to understanding observed differences between regions and nations. …

Management and the development of technical standards combined to enable not just machines but organizations to be interoperable and collaborative. Companies thus could become far bigger and supply chains far more complex than every before.

As someone who actually likes shopping at Ikea, I guess I should thank a manager somewhere.

Auerswald points out that if communication of production algorithms and company methods were perfect and costless, then learning curves wouldn’t exist:

All of these examples underscore the following point, core to code economics: The imperfection of communication is not a theory. It is a ubiquitous and inescapable physical reality.

That’s all for now, but how are you enjoying the book? Do you have any thoughts on these chapters? I enjoyed them quite a bit–especially the part about Intel and the graphs of the distribution of management scores by country. What do you think of France and the UK’s rather lower “management” scores than the US and Germany?

Join us next week for Ch. 8: Evolution–should be exciting!

Book Club: The Industrial Revolution and its Discontents, Code Economy, ch. 5

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries. –Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future

The quest to find and keep a “job for life”–stable, predictable work that pays enough to live on, is reachable by available transportation, and lends a sense of meaning to their daily lives–runs though every interview transcript, from those who are unemployed to those who have “made it” to steady jobs like firefighting or nursing. Traditional blue-collar work–whether as a factory worker or a police officer–has become increasingly scarce and competitive, destroyed by a technologically advanced and global capitalism that prioritizes labor market “flexibility”… Consequently, the post-industrial generation is forced to continuously grapple with flux and contingency, bending and adapting to the demands of they labor market until they feel that they are about to break. –Silva, Coming up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

The historical record confirms that the realities of the ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization, as noted early on by Lord Byron, were very different from the picture adherents to the wage fund theory held in their heads. While the long-term impact of the Industrial revolution had on the health and well-being of the English population was strongly positive, the first half of the nineteenth century was indeed a time of exceptional hardship for English workers. In a study covering the years 1770-1815, Stephen Nicholas and Richard Steckel report “falling heights of urban-and rural-born males after 1780 and a delayed growth spurt for 13- to 23-year old boys,” as well as a fall in the English workers’ height relative to that of Irish convicts. By the 1830s, the life expectancy of anyone born in Liverpool and Manchester was less than 30 years–as low as had been experienced in England since the Black Death of 1348. –Auerswald, The Code Economy

On the other hand:

Chapter 5 of The Code Economy, Substitution, explores the development of economic theories about the effects of industrialization and general attempts at improving the lives of the working poor.

… John Barton, a Quaker, published a pamphlet in 1817 titled, Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Condition of the Laboring Classes of Society. … Barton began by targeting the Malthusian assumption that population grows in response to increasing wages. … He began by noting that there was no a priori reason to believe that labor and capital were perfect complements, as classical economists implicitly assumed. The more sensible assumption was that, as wages increased, manufacturers and farmers alike would tend to substitute animals or machines for human labor. Rather than increasing the birth rate, the higher wages brought on by the introduction of new machinery would increase intergenerational differences in income and thus delay child-bearing. Contrary to the Malthusian line of argument, this is exactly what happened.

There’s an end note that expands on this (you do read the end notes, right?) Quoting Barton, 1817:

A rise of wages then does not always increase population… For every rise of wages tends to decrease the effectual demand for labor… Suppose that by a general agreement among farmers the rate of agricultural wage were raised from 12 shillings to 24 shillings per week–I cannot imagine any circumstance calculated more effectually to discourage marriage. For it would immediately become a a most important object to cultivate with as few hands as possible; wherever the use of machinery, or employment of horses could be substituted for manual labor, it would be done; and a considerable portion of existing laborers would be out of work.

This is the “raising the minimum wage will put people out of work” theory. Barton also points out that when people do manage to get these higher-paid jobs, they will tend to be older, more experienced laborers rather than young folks looking to marry and start a family.

A quick perusal of minimum wage vs. unemployment rate graphs reveals some that are good evidence against minimum wages, and some that are good evidence in favor of them. Here’s a link to a study that found no effects of minimum wage differences on employment. The American minimum wage data is confounded by things like “DC is a shithole.” DC has the highest minimum wage in the country and the highest unemployment rate, but Hawaii also has a very high minimum wage and the lowest unemployment rate. In general, local minimum wages probably reflect local cost of living/cost of living reflects wages. If we adjust for inflation, minimum wage in the US peaked around 1968 and was generally high throughout the 60s and 70s, but has fallen since then. Based on conversations with my parents, I gather the 60s and 70s were a good time to be a worker, when unskilled labor could pretty easily get a job and support a family; unemployment rates do not seem to have fallen markedly since then, despite lower real wages. A quick glance at a map of minimum wages by country reveals that countries with higher minimum wage tend to be nicer countries that people actually want to live in, but the relationship is not absolute.

We might say that this contradicts Barton, but why have American wages stagnated or gone down since the 60s?

1. Automation

2. Emergence of other economic competitors as Europe and Japan recovered from WWII

3. Related: Outsourcing to cheaper workers in China

4. Labor market growth due to entry of women, immigrants, and Boomers generally

Except for 2, that sounds a lot like what Barton said would happen. Wages go up => people move where the good jobs are => labor market expands => wages go down. If labor cannot move, then capitalists can either move the businesses to the labor or invest in machines to replace the labor.

On the other hand, the standard of living is clearly higher today than it was in 1900, even if wages, like molecules diffusing through the air, tend to even out over time. Why?

First, obviously, we learned to extract more energy from sources like oil, coal, and nuclei. A loom hooked up (via the electrical grid) to an electric turbine can make a lot more cloth per hour than a mere human working with shuttles and thread.

Second, we have gotten better at using the energy we extract–Auerswald would call this “code.”

Standards of living may thus have more to do with available resources (including energy) and our ability to use those resources (both the ‘code” we have developed and our own inherent ability to interact with and use that code,) than with the head-scratching entropy of minimum wages.

Auerswald discusses the evolution of David Ricardo’s economic ideas:

By incorporating the potential for substitution between capital and labor, Ricardo led the field of economics in rejecting the wage fund theory, along with its Dickensian implications for policy. He accepted the notion the introduction of new machinery would result in the displacement of workers. The upshot was that the workers were still assumed to be doomed, but the reason was now substitution of machines for labor, not scarcity of a Malthusian variety.

Enter Henry George, with a radically different perspective:

“Like a flash it came over me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.” …

George asserted that increasing population density, (not, as Malthus claimed, population decline) was the source of increased prosperity in human societies: “Wealth is greatest where population is densest… the production of wealth to a given amount of labor increases as population increases.”  The frequent interactions among people in densely populated cities accelerates the emergence and evolution of code. However, while population growth and increased density naturally bring increased prosperity, they also, just as naturally, bring increasing inequality and poverty. Why? Because the fruits of labor are inevitably gathered by the owners of land.

In other words, increasing wages => increasing rents and the workers are right back where they started while the landlords are sitting pretty.

In sharp contrast with Karl Marx, … George stated that “the antagonism of interest is not between labor and capital… but is in reality between labor and capital on the one side and the land ownership on the other.” The implication of his analysis was as simple as it was powerful: to avoid concentrating wealth in the hands of the few, it was the government’s responsibility to eliminate all taxes on capital and laborers, the productive elements of the economy, and to replace those taxes with a single tax on land.

Note: not a flat tax on land, but a tax relative to the land’s sale value.

I was glad to see Henry George in the book because I enjoy George’s theories and they are under-discussed, especially relative to Marxism. You will find massive online communities of Marxists despite the absolute evidence that Marxism is a death machine, but relatively few enthusiastic Georgists. One of the things I rather appreciate about Georgism is its simplicity; the complication of the tax code is its own, additional burden on capitalists and workers alike. Almost any simplified tax code, no matter how “unfair,” would probably improve maters a great deal.

But there’s more, because this is a dense chapter. Auerswald notes that the increasing complexity of code (ie, productivity) has lead to steadily increasing standards of living over the past two centuries, at least after the Industrial Revolution’s initial cataclysm.

Quoting economist Paul Douglas, some years later:

“The increased use of mechanical appliances in offices has tended to lower the skill required. An old-fashioned bookkeeper, for instance, had to write a good hand, he had to be able to multiply and divide with absolute accuracy. Today his place is taken by a girl who  operates a book-keeping machine, and it has taken her a few weeks at mot to become a skilled bookkeeper.” In other words, the introduction of machinery displaced skilled workers for the very same reason it enhanced human capabilities: it allowed a worker with relatively rudimentary training to perform tasks that previously required a skilled worker.

…”Another way of looking at it, is this: Where formerly the skill used in bookkeeping was exercised by the bookkeeper, today that skill is exercised by the factory employees who utilize it to manufacture a machine which can do the job of keeping books, when operated by someone of skill far below that of the former bookkeeper. And because of this transfer of skill form the office to the factory, the rewards of skill are likewise transferred to the wage-earner at the plant.”

This is a vitally important pint… The essence of this insight is that introducing more powerful machines into the workplace does more than simply encode  into the machine the skills or capabilities that previously resided only in humans; it also shifts the burden of skill from one domain of work to another. … A comparable shift in recent decades has been from the skill of manufacturing computing machines (think IBM or Dell in their heydays) to that of creating improved instructions for computing machines’ the result has been a relative growth in programmers’ wages. The underlying process is the same. Improvements in technology will predictably reduce demand for the skills held by some workers, but they also will enhance the capabilities of other workers and shift the requirements of skill from one domain of work to the other.”

The problem with this is that the average person puts in 15-20 years of schooling (plus $$$) in order to become skilled at a job, only to suddenly have that job disappear due to accelerating technological change/improvement, and then some asshole one comes and tells them they should just “learn to code” spend another two to four years unemployed and paying for the privilege of learning another job and don’t see how fucking dispiriting this is to the already struggling.

The struggle for society is recognizing that even as standards of living may be generally rising, some people may absolutely be struggling with an economic system that offers much less certainty and stability than our ancestors enjoyed.

A final word from Auerswald:

… work divides or “bifurcates” as code advances in a predictable and repeatable way. The bifurcation of work in a critical mechanism by which the advance of code yields improvements in human well-being at the same time as it increases human reliance on code.

Book Club: The Code Economy ch. 1

Greetings! Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. Tea is also good. Today we’re diving into chapter one of Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, “Jobs: Divide and Coordinate.”

I wish this chapter had been much longer; we speed through almost 2.5 million years of cognitive evolution in a couple of pages.

The earliest hominins had about the same short-term memory as a modern-day chimpanzee, which is to say they could keep track of only two operations at a time. … Our methods for creating tools gradually became more sophisticated, until we were using the tools we created to produce other tools in a repetitive and predictable manner. These processes for creating stone tools were among humanity’s first production algorithms-that is, the earliest code. They appeared almost simultaneously in human communities in most part of the world around 40,000 BC.

Footnote:

…[E.O.] Wilson refers to this phenomenon more broadly as the discovery of eusocial behavior… Wilson situates the date far earlier in human history than I do here. I chose 50,000 years [ago] because my focus is on the economy. it is clear that an epochal change in society occurred roughly 10,000 years BCE, when humans invented agriculture in six parts of the world simultaneously. The fact of this simultaneity directly suggests the advance of code represented by the invention of agriculture was part of a forward movement of code that started much earlier.

What do you think? Does the simultaneous advent of behavioral modernity–or eusociality–in far-flung human groups roughly 50,000 years ago, followed by the simultaneous advent of agriculture in several far-flung groups about 10,000 years ago speak to the existence of some universal, underlying process? Why did so many different groups of people develop similar patterns of life and technology around the same time, despite some of them being highly isolated? Was society simply inevitable?

The caption on the photo is similarly interesting:

Demand on Short-Term Working Memory in the Production of an Obsidian Axe [from Read and van der Leeuw, 2015] … We can relate the concepts invoked in the prodcution of stone tools to the number of dimensions involved and thereby to the size of short-term workign memory (STWM) required for the prodction of the kind of stone tools that exemplify each stage in hominin evolution. …

Just hitting the end of a pebble once to create one edge, as in the simplest tools, they calculate requires holding three items in the working memory. Removing several flakes to create a longer edge (a line), takes STWM 4; working an entire side takes STWM 5; and working both sides of the stone in preparation for knapping flakes from the third requires both an ability to think about the pebble’s shape in three dimensions and STWM 7.

(The Wikipedia article on Lithic Reduction has a lovely animation of the technique.)

It took about 2 million years to proceed from the simplest tools (working memory: 3) to the most complex (working memory: 7.) Since the Neolithic, our working memory hasn’t improved–most of us are still limited to a mere 7 items in our working memory, just enough to remember a phone number if you already know the area code.

All of our advances since the Neolithic, Auerswald argues, haven’t been due to an increase in STWM, but our ability to build complexity externally: through code. And it was this invention of code that really made society take off.

By about 10,000 BCE, humans had formed the first villages… Villages were the precursors of modern-day business firms in that they were durable association built around routines. … the advance of code at the village level through the creation of new technological combinations set into motion the evolution from simplicity to complexity that has resulted in the modern economy.

It was in the village, then, that code began to evolve.

What do you think? Are Read and van der Leeuw just retroactively fitting numbers 3-7 to the tools, or do they really show an advance in working memory? Is the village really the source of most code evolution? And who do you think is more correct, Herbert Spencer or Thomas Malthus?

Auerswald then forward to 1557, with the first use of the word “job” (spelled “jobbe,” most likely from “gobbe,” or lump.)

The advent of the “jobbe” a a lump of work was to the evolution of modern society something like what the first single-celled organism was to the evolution of life.

!

The “jobbe” contrasted with the obligation to perform labor continuously and without clearly defined roles–slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, or even apprenticeship–as had been the norm throughout human history.

Did the Black Death help create the modern “job market” by inspiring Parliament to pass the Statute of Laborers?

I am reminded here of a passage from Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, (published in 1903):

The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes.

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away.

We still identify ourselves with our profession–“I am a doctor” or “I am a paleontologist”–but much less so than in the days when “Smith” wasn’t a name.

Auerswald progresses to the modern day:

In the past two hundred years, the complexity of human economic organization has  increased by orders of magnitude. Death rates began to fall rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century, due to a combination of increased agricultural output, improved hygiene, and the beginning of better medical practices–all different dimensions of the advance of code…. Greater numbers of people living in greater density than ever before accelerated the advance of code.

Sounds great, but:

By the twentieth century, the continued advance of code necessitated the creation of government bureaucracies and large corporations that employed vast numbers of people. These organizations executed code of sufficient complexity that it was beyond the capacity of any single individual to master.

I’ve often wondered if the explosion of communist disasters at the beginning of the 20th century occurred because we could imagine a kind of nation-wide code for production and consumption and we had the power to implement it, but we didn’t actually have the capabilities and tools necessary to make it work.

We can imagine Utopia, but we cannot reach it.

Auerswald delineates two broad categories of “epochal change” as a result of the code-explosion of the past two centuries: First, our capabilities grew. Second:

“we have, to an increasing degree, ceded to other people–and to code itself–authority and autonomy, which for millennia we had kept unto ourselves and our immediate tribal groups as uncodified cultural norms.”

Before the “job”, before even the “trade,” people lived and worked far more at their own discretion. Hoeing fields or gathering yams might be long and tedious work, but at least you didn’t have to pee in a bottle because Amazon didn’t give you time for bathroom breaks.

Every time voters demand that politicians “bring back the jobs” or politicians promise to create them, we are implicitly stating that the vast majority of people are no longer capable of making their own jobs. (At least, not jobs that afford a modern lifestyle.) The Appalachians lived in utter poverty (the vast majority of people before 1900 lived in what we would now call utter poverty), but they did not depend on anyone else to create “jobs” for them; they cleared their own land, planted their own corn, hunted their own hogs, and provided for their own needs.

Today’s humans are (probably not less intelligent nor innately capable than the average Appalachian of 1900, but the economy (and our standards of living) are much more complex. The average person no longer has the capacity to drive job growth in such a complicated system, but the solution isn’t necessarily for everyone to become smarter. After all, large, complicated organizations need hundreds of employees who are not out founding their own companies.

But this, in turn, means all of those employees–and even the companies themselves–are dependent on forces far outside their control, like Chinese monetary policy or the American electoral cycle. And this, in turn, raises demand for some kind of centralized, planned system to protect the workers from economic hardship and ensure that everyone enjoys a minimum standard of living.

Microstates suggest themselves as a way to speed the evolution of economic code by increasing the total number of organisms in the ecosystem.

With eusociality, man already became a political (that is, polis) animal around 10,000 or 40,000 or perhaps 100,000 years ago, largely unable to subsist on his own, absent the tribe. We do not seem to regret this ill-remembered transition very much, but what about the current one? Is the job-man somehow less human, less complete than the tradesman? Do we feel that something essential to the human spirit has been lost in defining and routinizing our daily tasks down to the minute, forcing men to bend to the timetables of factories and international corporations? Or have we, through the benefits of civilization (mostly health improvements) gained something far richer?

Book Club: The Code [Robot] Economy (pt. 2)

Welcome to EvX’s book club. Today we’re discussing Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, Introduction.

I’ve been discussing the robot economy for years (though not necessarily via the blog.) What happens when robots take over most of the productive jobs? Most humans were once involved in directly producing the necessities of human life–food, clothing, and shelter, but mostly food. Today, machines have eliminated most food and garment production jobs. One tractor easily plows many more acres in a day than a horse or mule team did in the 1800s, allowing one man to produce as much food as dozens (or hundreds) once did.

What happened to those ex-farmers? Most of us are employed in new professions that didn’t exist (eg, computer specialist) or barely existed (health care), but there are always those who can’t find employment–and unemployment isn’t evenly distributed.

Black unemployment rate

Since 1948, the overall employment rate has rarely exceeded 7.5%; the rate for whites has been slightly lower. By contrast, the black unemployment rate has rarely dipped below 10% (since 1972, the best data I have.) The black unemployment rate has only gone below 7.5 three times–for one month in 1999, one month in 2000, and since mid-2017. 6.6% in April, 2018 is the all-time low for black unemployment. (The white record, 3.0%, was set in the ’60s.)

(As Auerswald points out, “unemployment” was a virtually unknown concept in the Medieval economy, where social station automatically dictated most people’s jobs for life.)

Now I know the books are cooked and “unemployment” figures are kept artificially low by shunting many of the unemployed into the ranks of the officially “disabled,” who aren’t counted in the statistics, but no matter how you count the numbers, blacks struggle to find jobs at the same rates as whites–a problem they didn’t face in the pre-industrial, agricultural economy (though that economy caused suffering in its own way.)

A quick glance at measures of black and white educational attainment explains most of the employment gap–blacks graduate from school at lower rates, are less likely to earn a college degree, and overall have worse SAT/ACT scores. In an increasingly “post-industrial,” knowledge-based economy where most unskilled labor can be performed by robots, what happens to unskilled humans?

What happens when all of the McDonald’s employees have been replaced by robots and computers? When even the advice given by lawyers and accountants can be more cheaply delivered by an app on your smartphone? What if society, eventually, doesn’t need humans to perform most jobs?

Will most people simply be unemployed, ruled over by the robot-owning elite and the lucky few who program the robots? Will new forms of work we haven’t even begun to dream of emerge? Will we adopt some form of universal basic income, or descend into neo-feudalism? Will we have a permanent underclass of people with no hope of success in the current economy, either despairing at their inability to live successful lives or living slothfully off the efforts of others?

Here lies the crux of Auerswald’s thesis. He provides four possible arguments for how the “advance of code” (ie, the accumulation of technological knowledge and innovation,) could turn out for humans.

The Rifkin View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
  2. Code nearly perfectly substitutes for human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate.

If so, we should be deeply worried.

The Kurzweil View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate.
  2. Code nearly perfectly complements human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (absolute) power of human capabilities is growing at an exponential rate.

If so, we may look forward to the cyborg singularity

The Auerswald View:

  1. The power of code is growing at an exponential rate [at least we all agree on something.]
  2. Code only partially substitutes for human capabilities.
  3. Therefore the (relative) power of human capabilities is shrinking at an exponential rate in those categories of work that can be performed by computers, but not in others.

Auerswald notes:

In other words, where Kurzweil talks about an impeding code-induced Singularity, the reality looks much more like one code-induced bifurcation–the division of labor between humans and machines–after another.

The answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple: humans are better at being human.

Further:

1. Creating and improving code is a key part of what we human beings do. It’s how we invent the future by building on the past.

2. The evolution of the economy is driven by the advance of code. Understanding this advance is therefore fundamental to economics, and to much of human history.

3. When we create and advance code we don’t just invent new toys, we produce new forms of meaning, new experiences, and new ways of making our way in the world.

What do you think?

Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

Some of you have asked  for my opinions on Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s recently published an article, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened):

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:

The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.

  1. What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?

It’s a myth. Mostly.

While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.

For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.

Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)

Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.

I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)

In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.”

The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.

I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.

The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.

However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:

According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.

Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.

Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)

Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.

The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.

There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)

In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.

  • 2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.

This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economies here, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.

The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.

Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.

It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.

Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)

Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.

Where the article goes wrong:

  1. Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”

Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.

The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.

  • 2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities

The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds.  They cite, for example:

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.

Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.

Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.

(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)

The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the Plains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.

We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.

  • 3. Production of material wealth

Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.

A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.

By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.

This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.

The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.

It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)

In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.

Time to Invest in Polish Real Estate?

DISCLAIMER: I am probably the last person you should listen to for advice about major investments. Please do lots and lots of your own research before buying anything big. Please take this post in the entertaining thought experiment style it is intended.

I’d like to start with an interesting story about Poland’s most famous daughter, Marie Curie, and her family:

1927 Solvay Conference. Marie is in the first row, between M. Planck and H. A. Lorentz

Marie was born in 1867 in what was then the Russian part of partitioned Poland. (Russia, Prussia, and Austria had carved up Poland into pieces back in the 1700s.) Her mother, father and grandfather were teachers–unsurprisingly, her father taught math and science. When the Russians decided to shut down science laboratories in Polish highschools, her father simply brought all of his equipment home and taught his kids how to use it instead.

Because of the Russian occupation and interference in the local schools, the Poles began operating their own, underground university known as the Flying University (there’s a name for you). As a woman, Marie couldn’t attend the official colleges in Warsaw, but was accepted to Flying U.

Marie’s sister wanted to study medicine in Paris, but unfortunately their parents and grandparents had lost all their money supporting Polish nationalist uprisings, and the girls were left to support themselves. So Marie and her sister had an agreement: Marie would work and send money to Paris while her sister studied, and then her sister would work and send Marie money while she finished her education.

Marie went to work as a governess for some distant relatives, and fell in love with one of the young men of the family, Kazimierz Żorawski, future mathematician. Unfortunately for the starry-eyed couple, his parents rejected the match on the grounds that Marie was penniless.

Żorawski went on to become a professor of mathematics at Krakow University and later Warsaw Polytecnic. Marie went to Paris, married Pierre Curie, won two Nobel prizes, and founded the Radium Institute at Warsaw Polytecnic. A statue of Marie was erected here, and as an old man, Żorawski would come and sit before the image of his young love.

You didn't seriously think we'd make it through this post without a polandball comic, did you?Poland has had a rough couple of centuries. According to Wikipedia:

An unsuccessful attempt at defending Poland’s sovereignty took place in 1794 during the Kościuszko Uprising, where a popular and distinguished general Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had several years earlier served under Washington in the American Revolutionary War, led Polish insurrectionists against numerically superior Russian forces. Despite the victory at the Battle of Racławice, his ultimate defeat ended Poland’s independent existence for 123 years.[57]

Poland was unfortunately situated for both WWI and WWII, losing 1/5th of its population in the latter. The aftermath–occupation by the Soviets–wasn’t much better, as Ian Frazier recounts in his book, Travels in Siberia:

As Russia retook Poland, many Poles once again wound up in the gulag. Some who had lived through the Nazi occupation said Hitler was nothing compared to this, and they now wished they had fought on Hitler’s side. A prisoner who had survived Dachau hanged himself when he was shipped to Kolyma. Gulag prisoners who knew the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin regretted that fate had put them in thsi time and place, and not in slavery in the American South, a hundred years before. As Negro slaves, they reasoned, at least they would have lived someplace warm, and would have been whipped and branded but not worked to death outright. In 1945, news reached the camps that the United States now possessed the atomic bomb. According to Solzhenitsyn, this unexpected development gave hope to many prisoners, who began to pray for atomic war.

But despite all of these troubles, Poland remains one of the world’s better countries–it’s ranked 36th out of 188 nations on the Human Development Index, and has an average IQ of 99, the same as its neighbors, Germany and Finland.

Despite this, Poland is ranked only 68th in per capita GDP ($27,700, lower than Puerto Rico, which isn’t even a country,) and has had a net negative migration rate (that is, more people have left than arrived) for most of the past 60 years. (Poland lost a net of almost 74,000 in 2015, most of them to other EU countries.)

In sum, Poland is a country with high human capital whose economy was probably artificially depressed by Communism, but has been steadily improving since 1990.

Net immigration increases the number of people in a country*, putting pressure on the local housing market and raising land prices. Net emigration decreases pressure on housing, leading to lower prices.

*Assuming, of course, that fertility rates are not collapsing. Poland’s fertility rate is slightly lower than Japan’s.

Poles have emigrated to countries like Germany and the UK because of their stronger economies, but if Poland’s economy continues to improve relative to the rest of Europe, Brexit goes forward, etc., Poland may become a more attractive employment destination, attracting back its migrant diaspora.

All of which leads me to suspect that Polish land is probably undervalued relative to places with similar long-term potential.

 

The Activation Energy of Economic Activity

Both Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Bario and Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front discuss legal difficulties faced by small-scale entrepreneurs (albeit in very different situations.)

One of the crack dealers in Bourgois’s ethnography has amassed a small fortune (for the ghetto, at least,) and wants to “go honest.” So he uses his money to open a convenience store, but gets shut down by the authorities (state or local, I don’t recall which,) because his bathroom isn’t disabled-accessible. So he went back to selling crack.

Salatin also complains about ADA compliance, particularly in the matter of parking lots (if he pours a few concrete spaces in his yard so customers can park at his farm and buy a few chickens, does he need to make a handicapped spot?) and bathrooms.

Now that I think of it, back at one of my former jobs, we had a changing room that was officially a “supply closet” because it wasn’t large enough to meet ADA standards. (Obviously I was not in charge of this business and had no control over the closet.)

Salatin’s principle complains, though, focused on food-regulation laws–What counts as organic? What is an approved butchering facility? What if you are only butchering five chickens and want to sell them to your neighbors? What, exactly, is “organic”?

The amount of paperwork and legal compliance required to add a few organic potatoes or locally slaughtered chickens to such an operation are enormous.

According to Wikipedia:

In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius to describe the minimum energy which must be available to a chemical system with potential reactants to result in a chemical reaction.[1] Activation energy may also be defined as the minimum energy required to start a chemical reaction.

360px-activation_energy-svgSome chemical reactions basically happen instantly, like if you throw sodium into water (NOTE: Don’t throw sodium into water. It will explode.) Others, like starting a fire in your fireplace, require the input of some amount of energy to get the reaction going. (Typically we supply this energy by hand, by striking matches, rubbing sticks together, or striking flint on steel.)

We can also think of activation energy in economic terms as the inputs necessary to start a business. Beyond the obvious physical requirements–if you want to produce shoes, you will need material for making shoes–we also have legal requirements. You cannot simply bake a bunch of cookies at home, walk outside, and start selling them. There are some serious food safety laws on the subject.

Now to be clear, I value clean water, food, and medicines. I appreciate that my doctors are skilled. I don’t want to end up with brain-damage just because a local entrepreneur decided it was a good idea to dump old batteries into the drinking water, and I understand that disabled people need to pee just as much as everyone else.

But at the same time, we need to make sure we are not putting in so much regulation that small-scale entrepreneurs are effectively shut out of the market, because the costs of compliance either make the economic activity completely unprofitable, or are just too high for someone trying to start a business to bear.

(Large, already-established corporations, by contrast, tend to be less impacted by such regulations both because they hire armies of lobbyists to ensure that regulatory legislation favors them and also because their profits are high enough that they have money to spare for compliance. Still, they, too, are probably impacted in significant ways.)