Further thoughts on spiteful mutants

I’ve had two requests recently, one for opinions about the spiteful mutant hypothesis, the other about Kaczynski’s work. These are related concepts, of course, in that they both deal with the structure of society.

It took me a little while to realize that the “spiteful mutant” hypothesis has to do with bioleninism, not just studies about mice (clearly I haven’t been reading the right things). Bioleninism is the idea that elites may prefer to hire/promote unqualified people because these people will then be more loyal to the regime because they know they couldn’t get as good a job elsewhere.

The problem with this theory is that the “unqualified” people being hired by the elites are not grateful or loyal at all. If anything, they are resentful, malicious, petty, and greedy, ready to tear down everyone who “gave them a chance,” especially if they think they can promote themselves at the same time.

The difficulty with the mouse models is that they deal with autistic-model mice and their effects on the social structure of a normal mouse colony, but in real life, the people throwing wrenches into society are not autistic–if anything, they are hyper-social. (Or as Ted would say, they are oversocialized.)

Humans, obviously, are not mice. Humans build things. (Mice build things, too, but much less than humans.) We build lots of things, especially those of us in the modern, industrialized world.

I’m sure I’ve harped this over and over, but I still find the modern, industrial world amazing (and slightly disconcerting). I am amazed that our homeless are fat, that ordinary people have toilets, that infant mortality is below 1%. On the scale of human history, we as a species have changed almost everything about our lives in the blink of an eye, and we have yet to see how all of this works out for us. Certainly we are not adapted to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

Building our modern world has required the development of new mental skills that our ancestors didn’t possess, like reading, writing, and arithmetic. 10,000 years ago, before the invention of the alphabet, these skills didn’t exist; today almost everyone has mastered them.

Language, both oral and written, requires the ability to generalize. Take something as simple as the letter “A”. It comes in three standard forms, A, a, and the little a used in handwriting. It also comes in many different fonts, in sloppy and neat handwriting, in cursive and smudged ink. You can read the letter “a” even when part of the letter is missing.

Even worse than the variability in the mere shape of the letter, “A” does not consistently refer to a particular sound. It sounds like it is supposed to in “apple,” but sounds like a U in “was.”

Now multiply by the whole alphabet and all of the different voices and accents, noisy rooms and distorted audio, and it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all, much less read sentences like, “Rpie rsapebrreis are delciiuous in the smmuertmie,” and “Gosts luv cookies b_t candy iz b_ttr.”

Our understanding of language relies on a lot of processing to fill in the gaps between what we hear/see and what was meant. A similar effect is at play with optical illusions.

Both of these faces, for example, are red. Your brain takes the raw data from your eyes, does some processing and color-correction to account for the other colors in the image, and ends up concluding that one screamer is actually orange.

Our brains do this because real life has shifting patterns of color and shade, and our brains are trying to figure out the “real” color if you remove those effects.

One of the interesting things about autistic people is that they are less likely to “see” optical illusions. This might turn out to be one of those amusing psychological findings that doesn’t replicate, but assuming it’s sound, it seems to be because their brains do less processing of the raw data the receive. This means they see the world more as it actually is and less as they think it should be.

The advantage to seeing the world as it actually is and not as you want it to be obviously lies in professions that autists or semi-aspie people excel in, like math and engineering. Unlike reading, you can’t just go filling in missing data in mathematical equations. Lewis Carol could write poems by stringing together things that sound like words, but you can’t build a circuit by wiring together a bunch of capacitors into something that looks generally like the idea of a circuit. An equation that is missing a digit isn’t solvable, a measurement with a misplaced decimal is useless (and potentially deadly), and a misplaced image tag in a post’s code once completely messed up my blog’s layout.

If reading and talking require being good at adding information until you get the general gist of what is meant, math and engineering require carefully not adding information. Humans aren’t very good at this, because it’s a very new skill.

Modern industrial civilization is only possible because of precision engineering. You cannot fit a billion transistors on a microchip without precision. You cannot send communication and navigation satellites into space without building complicated rockets that have to not explode on the launchpad (a surprisingly difficult task) and then precisely calculating their trajectories (otherwise they will veer off disastrously. These computations are complex enough that they tax the limits of human abilities–as Drozdov et al wrote in Fundamentals of Computer Technology in 1964:

Assume that we are to determine the trajectory of a guided space rocket. For this purpose we must calculate the points of the trajectory lying far ahead in the direction of motion of the rocket; only in that case can we estimate the deviation of the rocket from the prescribed direction and apply the necessary midcourse corrections. Such a calculation can be made only by an electronic computer, since workers would require tens of days or several months to calculate a single trajectory, while a rocket takes only three days to reach the moon. The computer will calculate the trajectory in minutes or tens of minutes.

Computers allow us to be more precise, much faster.)

Back in the 1700s, sailors faced a daunting problem: they had no reliable way to measure longitude while at sea. In 1707, inability to determine their position led to four British warships crashing and sinking, causing the deaths of over a thousand sailors. The British Parliament subsequently offered a reward of 20,000 pounds (that would be about 3 million pounds today,) to anyone who could solve the problem.

Early attempts focused on old fashioned methods of finding one’s way and telling time: the heavens. The board awarded 3,000 pounds, for example, to the widow of Tobias Mayer for his lunar tables. Just as the shadows cast by the sun or the height of the north star could be used to determine one’s latitude, so, they hoped, could the moon assist with longitude. Unfortuantely, this method is clunky, difficult, and relies too much on being able to see the moon.

The clockwork in Harrison’s H4 watch

John Harrison came up with a radically new solution: a watch. So long as your watch shows Greenwich time, you can compare it to the local time (observable via the sun or stars,) and the difference shows your longitude. Unfortunately, clocks that kept time precisely enough to accurately determine one’s latitude far from land didn’t exist in Harrison’s day: he had to build them himself. The resulting clocks are masterpieces, incredibly accurate for their day:

Harrison began working on his second ‘sea watch’ (H5) while testing was conducted on the first, which Harrison felt was being held hostage by the Board. After three years he had had enough; Harrison felt “extremely ill used by the gentlemen who I might have expected better treatment from” and decided to enlist the aid of King George III. He obtained an audience with the King, who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the watch No.2 (H5) himself at the palace and after ten weeks of daily observations between May and July in 1772, found it to be accurate to within one third of one second per day. King George then advised Harrison to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone). He was to survive for just three more years. …

Captain James Cook used K1, a copy of H4, on his second and third voyages, having used the lunar distance method on his first voyage.[22] K1 was made by Larcum Kendall, who had been apprenticed to John Jefferys. Cook’s log is full of praise for the watch and the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made with its use were remarkably accurate.

Okay, so that was a bit of an aside, but it’s a great story.

Societies with primitive technology have much less need for precision. It is difficult to imagine what a John Harrison would have dedicated his life to in a tribe of nomadic goat herders: they would have no need for second-level time-keeping precision. Primitive people didn’t even need fancy numbers like “12;” our lovely base-10 number system is a recent invention. Primitive people generally got by with tally marks; many had number systems that essentially stopped at 3: 1, 2, 3, lots.

We discussed this back in my review of Numbers and the Making of Us; the author spent much of his childhood among the Piraha of the Amazon, who have almost no words for numbers and no sense of number bigger than three (the first three are instinctual; many animals can count to three).

The author’s parents (missionaries) have actually tried to teach the Piraha to count, but after many years of training they still struggled to grasp concepts like “7” and 1-to-1 correspondence (that is, if I set up a line of 7 cans, can you set up a matching line that also contains 7 cans?)

In short, the advance of technology over the past 200 years has required the development of much higher levels of mental precision than our ancestors used.

Most people, of course, want to be precise sometimes and generalize at other times, and our brains naturally switch between the two modes depending on what we’re doing, but there is obviously a trade-off between being exceptionally good at either variety. (Smart people may have enough brains to do both well, but the rest of us have to pick one side or the other.)

In the “spiteful mutants” experiment, mouse society is inherently social, and the mutants who disrupt it are “autistic” (or what passes for autism in mice). In real life, much of our modern world was built by thing-obsessed people like John Harrison or Bill Gates. Our society isn’t “autistic” by any means, but there is a place for them that wouldn’t exist in other societies. By contrast, the “spiteful mutants” in our society are oversocialized folks like this guy:

No one who was busy trying to get the tolerances on their widget-producing machines down to less than a tenth of a millimetre ever had time to worry about the “liminal space” in which anyone’s identity is made.

In short, these people are trying to make us more social, more hierarchical, more like the original mouse community with all of the mice focused on reading social cues from each other and less like the “mutant” community with its focus on social cues and things.

As for where Ted fits into all of this, well, I suppose blowing people up is pretty spiteful, but he might not have in the first place if people had just left his woods alone.

The Death of all Cultures 

 

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credit WrathOfGnon

Modernity was named “Westernization” in honor of the first cultures it devoured.

There were once more than 400 languages spoken in Europe. Today there are only 250–and some of these have fewer than a hundred speakers. Ume Saami has only 10 speakers. Manx has a robust 50 speakers–none of them native. 90% of Europe’s languages are endangered, soon to be replaced by the languages of commerce.

Westernization has absorbed traits from the cultures it devoured, not the cultures themselves. English is the language of Westernization, but Westernization doesn’t make you English. It doesn’t give you a love of tea and crumpets, double-decker buses and Queen Elizabeth, Rudyard Kipling or William Shakespeare. England was just one of the first countries devoured.

As it spreads, it morphs, but one thing remains constant: the old culture dies. My culture, your culture, every culture.

Is modernity evil?

Probably not. Agriculture destroyed hunter-gathering. It also fed far more people.

Culture contains the collective wisdom of a people, their solutions for dealing with the problems they encounter in their daily lives. Agricultural peoples develop harvest festivals. People who must constantly defend their territory develop war dances.

Modernity changes not just the means of production. It changes how we communicate, how we get our news, the stories we consume and the food we eat. It changes how we spend our leisure and interact with our families. It changes how we move, sleep, and sit, creating physical problems.

When people have the choice, most chose modernity, for modernity produces a great deal of food and rather little material hardship. But it strips their culture and leaves them adrift, for modernity has had very little time to accumulate solutions to the new problems people face. The result is “degeneracy“:

The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.

Akhivae on Twitter reflects:

“Woke” minorities, especially East, South, & Southeast Asian ones, have a misguided attitude towards undoing colonialism. In most cases, they’ve totally internalized Western values and are often hostile to traditional ones, only seeking to guard things like food and music.

Bring up traditional Indian attitudes towards family and hierarchy and the desi intersectionalists are against it. They are backward values with no redeeming qualities, who cares if they’ve guided Indian civilization for thousands of years? But if a white girl wears a sari…

Because if the White people are doing it too, then who are we? This is also why people back in Asia and Asian immigrants (the parents of these activists) have no problem with cultural appropriation as their cultural identity is based on core values and not garments and recipes.

It’s an important insight, but who’s correct? The elders, who value the old ways? Or the youngsters, who’ve absorbed modernity but are clinging to the form of kebabs and saris? Are modernity and the old ways compatible, or will young Indians–Desi or not–have to forge something new?

I am reminded here of a joke that I can’t find anywhere on the internet:

A Sami man once lived far in the north of Norway, herding reindeer. He had three sons. The first son was very smart and became the first person in his family to go to college. After many years, he became a doctor. The second son was very hard working, went off to college, and after many years became a successful lawyer in Oslo. Then the third son grew up.

“What would you like to be?” asked his father? “A doctor? A lawyer? An engineer? An astronaut?”

“Well,” said the son. “I would like to stay here, and herd reindeer.”

“Finally,” said his father, “A son I can be proud of!”

Most cultures will not simply morph or adapt to modernity; they will die. Cornwall was once a distinct culture with its own language; today it is just part of Britain. Native American hunter-gatherers now struggle with drug use and depression as their entire lifestyle has been rendered moot by mass-production factory farming. The core of life in Inuit and Eskimo communities has been gutted and replaced with canned food and cinderblock housing.

Today, people all around the world eat at McDonald’s, shop at Ikea, and play Nintendo games. Clothes and electronics are mass produced in China and calories in Kansas. Everyone gets absorbed into mega cultural zones; the future will look a lot more like China than Tibet.

How and to what degree any culture will survive the transition to modernity remains to be seen. China went through multiple shattering cataclysms in the 20th century, but seems to be entering the 21st strong. Japan appears to have integrated its cultural values and modernity with only one attempted world-conquering hiccup. The rest of the world, I’m not so sure about.

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The biggest issue modernizing countries face is cratering birth rates. The causes are many, but may be chiefly reduced to the existence of birth control, the need for extended schooling into the breeding years, requirements that families set themselves up independently before reproducing, increased living standards, and distractions like TV and the internet.

Fertility_rate_world_map_2
Total Fertility Rate by Country

Every “modernized” country–except Israel–has a fertility rate below replacement, and the higher tech the country, the lower the fertility rate. The US has a TFR of 1.8 children per woman (replacement is just north of 2, since some children die.) Japan has 1.4. Singapore has 1.2. Iceland has 1.8.  South Korea: 1.17. Poland: 1.3. Canada: 1.6.

(This is a problem when your Social Security and pension benefits are calculated based on the assumption of an expanding workforce.)

800px-National_IQ_per_country_-_estimates_by_Lynn_and_Vanhanen_2006
Meanwhile, in IQ by country

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has a TFR of 4.6 children per woman. Niger: 7.2. Mali: 6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: 6.1.

(Interestingly, Iran fell from 6.5 children per woman in 1982 to 2 per woman in 2002. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but Iran is a more modern country than people realize. A few thousand years of Persian Civilization weren’t for nothing.)

tfr-us-by-lib-cons-44-551
Fertility by political ideology

Since most modernizing countries also go through a massive population boom as infant mortality declines, this wouldn’t be a problem if the fertility shift were distributed equally among all parts of society. It’s not.

On top of that, fertility isn’t distributed equally through all groups on the planet, and groups with high fertility now face increasing resource pressures at home and therefore find moving to areas with lower fertility attractive. As long as these two groups keep up their fertility differences, the net result will be the continued growth of one group while the other shrinks–eventually, one group will disappear or be absorbed entirely.

iq
Source: Audacious Epigone

Modernity itself is a recent invention, dependent on the “smart fraction” of society–those with IQs above 120 or so and therefore capable of understanding things like “electrical power grids” or “why society works better if you cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Modernity works a lot worse if you get more folks in the 80-85 IQ criminal sweet spot–just smart enough to plan and execute crimes, not smart enough to care about the consequences.

The transition to modernity will ultimately work itself out–perhaps over several centuries–if smart moderns can have enough children to keep it going. It will collapse like the Roman Empire if less-modernized people move in, out-reproduce you, and eat your seed corn. (And as the third world continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure for countries with low TFRs to let in migrants from those with high.) It will collapse if your own less competent people out-reproduce your more competent, and it might also collapse if people get the idea that some of the other folks in society are conspiring against them to keep their numbers down.

If modernity collapses, first will come hunger, then war, then epidemics, then famine. Death rides a pale horse; maybe that Fermi Paradox is onto something.

But modernity need not collapse if countries can prevent childlessness or delayed childbearing from becoming high-status markers and ride out the wave of those who aren’t very interested in reproducing removing themselves from the gene pool without panicking. (Note an unfortunate trend: European leaders Macron, Theresa May, Merkel, and Lofven all have no children at all.)

Whatever the future holds, it will be different.

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.

Angola and Atomization

Quick excerpt from God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison:

Before the rodeo [Terry Hawkins] had graduated out of the fields to the position of fry cook. It was better than being A.D.H.D. (A Dude with a Hoe and a Ditch)–after stirring fried rice or flipping hotcakes on a sove ten feet long, he could grill hamburgers, bag them, and stuff them down his pants to sell in the dorm. Sometimes he snuck out with fried chicken under his shirt and cuts of cheese in his socks. Payment came in cigarettes, the prison’s currency. Later he would stand outside the canteen, and trade a few packs for shampoo or soap or deoderant, or “zoo-zos”–snacks of candy bars or sardines. He knew which guards would allow the stealing, the selling. He made sure to send them plates of fried chicken.

While reading this I thought, “This man has, at least, something to offer his neighbors. He can sell them food, something they’re grateful for. The guy with cheese in his socks and hamburgers in his pants is probably a respected member of his community.”

What do I have to offer my neighbors? I have skills, but they’re only of interest to a corporate employer, my boss. I don’t make anything for sale. I can’t raise a barn or train a horse, and even if I could, my neighbors don’t need these services. Even if I had milk for sale from my personal cow, my neighbors would still prefer to buy their milk at the grocery store.

All of these needs that we used to fill by interacting with our neighbors are now routed through multinational corporations that build their products in immense sweatshops in foreign countries.

I don’t even have to go to the store to buy things if I don’t want to–I can order things online, even groceries.

Beyond the economic, modern prosperity has also eliminated many of the ways (and places) people used to interact. As Lewis Mumford recounts (H/T Wrath of Gnon):

The Bible would have been different without public wells

To sum up the medieval dwelling house, one may say that it was characterized by lack of differentiated space and differentiated function. In the cities, however, this lack of internal differentiation was offset by a completer development of domestic functions in public institutions. Though the house might lack a private bake-oven, there was a public one at the baker’s or the cook-shop. Though it might lack a private bathroom, there was a municipal bath-house. Thought it might lack facilities for isolating and nursing a diseased member, there were numerous public hospitals. … As long as the conditions were rude–when people lived in the open, pissed freely in the garden or the street, bought and sold outdoors, opened their shutters and let in full sunlight–the defects of the house were far less serious than they were under a more refined regime.

Without all of the little, daily things that naturally brought people into contact with each other and knit them into communities, we simply have far fewer reasons to talk. We might think that people could simply make up for these changes by inventing new, leisure-oriented reasons to interact with each other, but so far, they’re struggling:

Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of “ Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” …

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t trust most people, and most people have given me no reason to trust them.

Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt. 3/3)

Communism works so well, soldiers had to push Fidel Castro's hearse because the Cuban government couldn't find a working truck
Communism works so well, soldiers had to push Fidel Castro’s hearse because the Cuban government couldn’t find a working truck

This is Part Three of a series on how incentives affect the distribution of energy/resources throughout a society and the destructive effects of social systems like communism. (Part One and Part Two are here)

But before we criticize these programs too much, let’s understand where they came from:

The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1760 in Britain, created mass economic and social dislocation as millions of workers were forced off their farms and flooded into the cities.

Communism: the world's single biggest source of murder in the 20th century
Communism: the world’s single biggest source of murder in the 20th century

The booms and busts of the unregulated (and regulated) industrial economy caused sudden, unpredictable unemployment and, without a social safety net of some kind, starvation. This suffering unleashed Marxism, which soon transformed into an anti-capitalist, anti-Western ideology and tore across the planet, demolishing regimes and killing millions of people.

Reason.com attributes 94 million deaths to communism. The Black Book of Communism places the total between 85 and 100 million people. Historian on the Warpath totals almost 150 million people killed or murdered by communist governments, not including war deaths. (Wikipedia estimates that WWII killed, between battle deaths in Europe and the Pacific, disease, starvation, and genocide, 50-80 million people–and there were communists involved in WWII, also.)

cdchqnbumaaj5sjThe US and Europe, while not explicitly communist, have adopted many of socialism’s suggestions: Social Security, Welfare, Medicaid, etc., many in direct response to the Great Depression.

These solutions are, at best, a stop-gap measures to deal with the massive changes new technologies are still causing. Remember, humans were hunter-gatherers for 190,000 years. We had a long time to get used to being hunter gatherers. 10,000 years ago, a few of us started farming, and developed whole new cultures. A mere 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution began spreading through Europe. Today, the “post industrial information economy” (or “robot economy,” as I call it,) is upon us, and we have barely even begun to adapt.

We are in an age that is–out of our 200,000 years of existence–entirely novel and the speed of change is increasing. We have not yet figured out how to cope, how to structure society for the long-term so that we don’t accidentally break it.

We have gotten very good, however, at creative accounting to make it look like we are producing more than we are.

ceumwjhviaiaquiBy the mid-1950s, the Industrial Revolution had brought levels of prosperity never before seen in human history to the US (and soon to Europe, Japan, Korea, etc.) But since the ’70s, things seem to have gone off-track.

People fault outsourcing and trade for the death of the great American job market, but technical progress and automation also deserve much of the blame. As the Daily Caller reports:

McDonald’s has announced plans to roll out automated kiosks and mobile pay options at all of its U.S. locations, raising questions about the future of its 1.5 million employees in the country and around the globe.

Roughly 500 restaurants in Florida, New York and California now have the automated ordering stations, and restaurants in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., will be outfitted in 2017, according to CNNMoney.

The locations that are seeing the first automated kiosks closely correlate with the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a new $15 minimum wage for New York state in 2016, and the University of California has proposed to pay its low-wage employees $15.

There is an obvious trade-off between robots and employees: where wages are low enough, there is little incentive to invest capital in developing and purchasing robots. Where wages are high, there is more incentive to build robots.

labor_forceThe Robot Economy will continue to replace low-skilled, low-wage jobs blue collar workers and young people used to do. No longer will teenagers get summer jobs at McDonald’s. Many if not most of these workers are simply extraneous in the modern economy and cannot be “retrained” to do more information-dependent work. The expansion of the Welfare State, education (also paid for with tax dollars,) and make-work administrative positions can keep these displaced workers fed and maybe even “employed” for the foreseeable future, but they are not a long-term solution, and it is obvious that people in such degraded positions, unable to work, often lose the will to keep going.

picture-30But people do not appreciate the recommendation that they should just fuck off and die already. That’s how you get communist revolutions in the first place.

Mass immigration of unskilled labor into a market already shrinking due to automation / technological progress is a terrible idea. This is Basic Econ 101: Supply and Demand. If the supply of labor keeps increasing while the demand for labor keeps decreasing, the cost of labor (wages) will plummet. Likewise, corporations quite explicitly state that they want immigrants–including illegal ones–because they can pay them less.

In an economy with more demand than supply for labor, labor can organize (unions) and advocate in behalf of its common interests, demanding a higher share of profits, health insurance, pensions, cigarette breaks, etc. When the supply of labor outstrips demand, labor cannot advocate on its own behalf, because any uppity worker can simply be replaced by some desperate, unemployed person willing to work for less and not make a fuss.

gr2009012802033Note two professions in the US that are essentially protected by union-like organizations: doctors and lawyers. Both professions require years of expensive training at exclusive schools and high scores on difficult tests. Lawyers must also be members of their local Bar Associations, and doctors must endure residency. These requirements keep out the majority of people who would like to join these professions, and ensure high salaries for most who do.

While Residency sounds abjectly awful, the situation for doctors in Britain and Ireland sounds much worse. Slate Star Codex goes into great detail about the problems:

Many of the junior doctors I worked with in Ireland were working a hundred hours a week. It’s hard to describe what working 100 hours a week is like. Saying “it means you work from 7 AM to 9 PM every day including weekends” doesn’t really cut it. Imagine the hobbies you enjoy and the people you love. Now imagine you can’t spend time on any of them, because you are being yelled at as people die all around you for fourteen hours a day, and when you get home you have just enough time to eat dinner, brush your teeth, possibly pay a bill or two, and curl up in a ball before you have to go do it all again, and your next day off is in two weeks.

And this is the best case scenario, where everything is spaced out nice and even. The junior doctors I knew frequently worked thirty-six hour shifts at a time (the European Court of Human Rights has since declined to fine Ireland for this illegal practice). …

The psychological consequences are predictable: after one year, 55% of junior doctors describe themselves as burned out, 30% meet criteria for moderate depression, and 12% report considering suicide.

A lot of American junior doctors are able to bear this by reminding themselves that it’s only temporary. The worst part, internship, is only one year; junior doctorness as a whole only lasts three or four. After that you become a full doctor and a free agent – probably still pretty stressed, but at least making a lot of money and enjoying a modicum of control over your life.

In Britain, this consolation is denied most junior doctors. Everyone works for the government, and the government has a strict hierarchy of ranks, only the top of which – “consultant” – has anything like the freedom and salary that most American doctors enjoy. It can take ten to twenty years for junior doctors in Britain to become consultants, and some never do.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want my doctor to be suicidal.

Now, you may notice that Scott doesn’t live in Ireland anymore, and similarly, many British doctors to take their credentials and move abroad as quickly as possible. The British medical system would be forced to reform if not for the influx of foreign doctors willing to put up with hell in exchange for not living in the third world.

From the outside, many of these systems, from underfunded pensions to British medicine, look just fine. Indeed, an underfunded pension will operate just fine until the day it runs out of money. Until that day, everyone who clams the pension is in deep trouble looks like Chicken Little, running around claiming that the sky is falling.

There’s a saying in finance: The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

BTW, the entire state of California is in deep trouble, from budget problems to insane property tax laws. They already consume far more water than they receive, (and are set for massive forest fires,) but vote for increased population via immigration with Mexico. California’s economy is being propped up by–among other things–masses of cash flowing into Silicon Valley. This is Dot.Com Bubble 2.0, and like the first, it will pop–the only question is when. As Reuters reported last February:

LinkedIn Corp’s (LNKD.N) shares closed down 43.6 percent on Friday, wiping out nearly $11 billion of market value, after the social network for professionals shocked Wall Street with a revenue forecast that fell far short of expectations. …

As of Thursday, LinkedIn shares were trading at 50 times forward 12-month earnings, making it one of the most expensive stocks in the tech sector.

Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) trades at 29.5 times forward earnings, Facebook Inc (FB.O) at 33.8 times and Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) at 20.9 times.

Even after the selloff, LinkedIn’s shares may still be overvalued, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.

LinkedIn should be trading at $71.79, a 30 percent discount to the stock’s Friday’s low, according to StarMine’s Intrinsic Valuation model, which takes analysts’ five-year estimates and models the growth trajectory over a longer period.

Linked in has since been bought out by Microsoft for $26 billion. As Fortune notes, this is absolutely insane, as there is no way Microsoft can make back that much money off of LinkedIn:

Source Fortune http://fortune.com/2016/06/13/microsoft-linkedin-overpaid/
Source Fortune

“Ebitda” stands for Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation. There is absolutely no way that LinkedIn, a social network that barely turns a profit, is worth more than Sun, EMC, Compaq, and Time Warner.

Shares normally trade around 20x a company’s previous year’s earnings, though right now the S & P’s P/E ratio is around 25. In 2016, LinkedIn’s P/E ratio has been around 180. (Even crazier, their ratio in 2015 was -1,220, because they lost money.)

Ever wonder where all of that money from QE is going? It’s turning into Ferraris cruising around San Francisco, and LinkedIn is not the only offender.

But these companies will not maintain fantasy valuations forever.

(While we’re at it: Why the AOL-Time Warner Merger Went so Wrong:

When the deal was announced on Jan. 10, 2000, Stephen M. Case, a co-founder of AOL, said, “This is a historic moment in which new media has truly come of age.” His counterpart at Time Warner, the philosopher chief executive Gerald M. Levin, who was fond of quoting the Bible and Camus, said the Internet had begun to “create unprecedented and instantaneous access to every form of media and to unleash immense possibilities for economic growth, human understanding and creative expression.”

The trail of despair in subsequent years included countless job losses, the decimation of retirement accounts, investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department, and countless executive upheavals. Today, the combined values of the companies, which have been separated, is about one-seventh of their worth on the day of the merger.)

So, that was a bit of a long diversion into the sheer artificiality of much of our economy, and how sooner or later, the Piper must be paid.

picture-5bWhen I try to talk to liberal friends about the problems of increasing automation and immigration on the incomes of the American working class, their response is that “We just need more regulation.”

In this cheerful fantasy, we can help my friend who cannot afford health insurance by requiring his employer to provide health insurance–when in reality, my friend now cannot find a job that lasts for more than a month because employers just fire him before the health insurance requirement kicks in. In fantasy land, you can protect poor people by making it harder for landlords to evict them, but in the real world, this makes it even harder for the poorest to get long-term housing because no landlord wants to take the chance of getting stuck with them. In fantasy land, immigration doesn’t hurt wages because you can just legislate a higher minimum wage, but the idea that you can legislate a wage that the market does not support is an absurdity worthy only of the USSR. In the real world, your job gets replaced with a robot.

picture-4bThis is not to say that we can’t have some form of welfare or social safety net to deal with the dislocations and difficulties of our new economy. Indeed, some form of social welfare may, in the long run, make the economic system more robust by allowing people to change jobs or weather temporary unemployment without dying. Nor does it mean that any inefficiency is going to break the system. But long-term, using legislation to create a problem and then using more legislation to prevent the market from correcting it increases inefficiency, and you are now spending resources to enforce both laws.

Just like Enron’s “creative accounting,” you cannot keep hiding losses indefinitely.

You can have open-borders capitalism with minimal welfare, in which the most skilled thrive and survive and the least skilled die out. This is more-or-less the system in Singapore (see here for a discussion of how they use personal savings accounts instead of most welfare; a discussion of poverty in Singapore; and Singapore’s migration policies.)

Or you can have a Japanese or Swedish-style welfare state, but no open borders, (because the system will collapse if you let in just anyone who wants free money [hint: everyone.])

But you cannot just smash two different systems together, heap more laws on top of them to try to prevent the market from responding, and expect it to carry on indefinitely producing the same levels of wealth and well-being as it always has.

The laws of thermodynamics are against you.

(Return to Part One and Part Two.)

Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 1)

340px-dna_structurekeylabelled-pn_nobb

(This is Part 1. Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

All living things are basically just homeostatic entropy reduction machines. The most basic cell, floating in the ocean, uses energy from sunlight to order its individual molecules, creating, repairing, and building copies of itself, which continue the cycle. As Jeremy England of MIT demonstrates:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England … has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. …

This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. …

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating.

usenergy2009Energy isn’t just important to plants, animals, and mitochondria. Everything from molecules to sand dunes, cities and even countries absorb and dissipate energy. And like living things, cities and countries use energy to grow, construct buildings, roads, water systems, and even sewers to dispose of waste. Just as finding food and not being eaten are an animal’s first priority, so are energy policy and not being conquered are vital to a nation’s well-being.

Hunter-gatherer societies are, in most environments, the most energy-efficient–hunter gatherers expend relatively little energy to obtain food and build almost no infrastructure, resulting in a fair amount of time left over for leisure activities like singing, dancing, and visiting with friends.

But as the number of people in a group increases, hunter-gathering cannot scale. Putting in more hours hunting or gathering can only increase the food supply so much before you simply run out.

energyvsorganizationHorticulture and animal herding require more energy inputs–hoeing the soil, planting, harvesting, building fences, managing large animals–but create enough food output to support more people per square mile than hunter-gathering.

Agriculture requires still more energy, and modern industrial agriculture more energy still, but support billions of people. Agricultural societies produced history’s first cities–civilizations–and (as far as I know) its first major collapses. Where the land is over-fished, over-farmed, or otherwise over-extracted, it stops producing and complex systems dependent on that production collapse.

Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C
Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C

I’ve made a graph to illustrate the relationship between energy input (work put into food production) and energy output (food, which of course translates into more people.) Note how changes in energy sources have driven our major “revolutions”–the first, not in the graph, was the taming and use of fire to cook our food, releasing more nutrients than mere chewing ever could. Switching from jaw power to fire power unlocked the calories necessary to fund the jump in brain size that differentiates humans from our primate cousins, chimps and gorillas.

That said, hunter gatherers (and horticulturalists) still rely primarily on their own power–foot power–to obtain their food.

Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.
Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism. Note the use of falling water to perform the work, rather than human muscles.

The Agricultural Revolution harnessed the power of animals–mainly horses and oxen–to drag plows and grind grain. The Industrial Revolution created engines and machines that released the power of falling water, wind, steam, coal, and oil, replacing draft animals with grist mills, tractors, combines, and trains.

Modern industrial societies have achieved their amazing energy outputs–allowing us to put a man on the moon and light up highways at night–via a massive infusion of energy, principally fossil fuels, vital to the production of synthetic fertilizers:

Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia (NH3), which is sometimes injected into the ground directly. The ammonia is produced by the Haber-Bosch process.[5] In this energy-intensive process, natural gas (CH4) supplies the hydrogen, and the nitrogen (N2) is derived from the air. …

Deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) (Chilean saltpeter) are also found in the Atacama desert in Chile and was one of the original (1830) nitrogen-rich fertilizers used.[12] It is still mined for fertilizer.[13]

Actual mountain of corn
Actual mountain of corn, because industrial agriculture is just that awesome

Other fertilizers are made of stone, mined from the earth, shipped, and spread on fields, all courtesy of modern industrial equipment, run on gasoline.

Without the constant application of fertilizer, we wouldn’t have these amazing crop yields:

In 2014, average yield in the United States was 171 bushels per acre. (And the world record is an astonishing 503 bushels, set by a farmer in Valdosta, Ga.) Each bushel weighs 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre. (Again, I’m talking about field corn, a.k.a. dent corn, which is dried before processing. Sweet corn and popcorn are different varieties, grown for much more limited uses, and have lower yields.)

per-capita-world-energy-by-sourceAs anyone who has grown corn will tell you, corn is a nutrient hog; all of those calories aren’t free. Corn must be heavily fertilized or the soil will run out and your farm will be worthless.

We currently have enough energy sources that the specific source–fossil fuels, hydroelectric, wind, solar, even animal–is not particularly important, at least for this discussion. Much more important is how society uses and distributes its resources. For, like all living things, a society that misuses its resources will collapse.

To be continued…Go on to Part 2 and Part 3.