Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL, pt. 2

Note: today we have a guest post, courtesy of Monsieur le Baron. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome back. I’m happy to be here with another guest post.

Last time, we discussed the strange creature known as the Bobo. But not all SWPLs are rich. Many are, in fact, quite poor. What of these… SWProles? Today, we’ll be covering the Theory of the Aspirational Class, walking through some musings, and making some conclusions.

First, to explain terms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s analysis. They have a tendency to lump both Bobo and SWProle together into one homogeneous SWPL group, which they call “elite” or the Aspirational Class. I don’t think this is necessarily a valid leap – while it does capture some essential cultural similarities, the defining aspect of the SWProle WITH RELATION TO their more affluent brethren is their total lack of power or money – their lack of eliteness. Nor is “Aspirational Class” really totally valid for the whole class. I am the most aspirational of my cohort, but this is not held up as a virtue – I’m a dirty “striver” (although I must fall upon a phrase oft shared with my Russian friends: “A shark swims or it suffocates.”). And even this striving is not nearly at the scale of the SWProles. I want for very little, mostly some more money so I can sustain a lifestyle of truly excessive and vulgar spending, and obviously power and a spot in the upper class. I dream of one day exclusively shopping at Whole Foods while beginning every morning with avocado toast.

From the Theory of the Aspirational Class:

Today’s aspirational class lacks such self-consciousness, and many members lack bobos’ financial means. The aspirational class is motivated by self-confident values and is actively choosing its way of life through an extensive process of information gathering and forming opinions and values, some of which involve money but many of which rest on cultural capital instead.”

Yes, money! A lot of goddamn money. A friend of mine trawls Dave Ramsay and other finance story places, and one couple, who made only about $150,000 a year, managed to get half a million dollars in debt financing their dissolute Whole Foods eating crunchy lifestyle. Unbelievable. An asparagus water here, a sushi roll there, and now you’re talking about real money. We live in a society obsessed with luxury and flash.

Which brings me to my second disagreement. The good doctor divides spending into conspicuous, inconspicuous, and other. But what she calls “inconspicuous” spending is not meant to be inconspicuous at all, but is merely a new form of status signaling. Instead, they could be called “Traditional” and “Modern”, or, even more aptly, “Tasteless” and “Stuff White People Like”.

But I still find it admirable for an academic to gather so much data. Most analyses are equally flawed and rely wholly on anecdote. This one has data. Lots of data. And the gathering of data is an inherently worthy goal. Without further ado, let’s begin.

To my chagrin, I often encounter the belief that rich people love to buy what one might call “expensive bullshit”. I call this a sort of “reality TV” or “Wolf of Wall Street” syndrome. It’s like Instagram reality, but for money. Many people spread this bullshit while few have an interest in debunking it. It allows buyers of dumb branded clothing to think they’re impressing others with a genuine status symbol. Makers of said dumb branded clothing obviously benefit. And the real upper castes benefit by obfuscating true class markers. But still, people should be able to figure this out. And especially those who keep abreast of these things.

Here’s a chart.

Screenshot_20181208-161200_Amazon Kindle

The short answer to the question of traditional (aka garish) status signaling and elites is “no”. The long answer is “nooooooooo”.

Screenshot_20181208-161247_Amazon Kindle

The more educated you are, the more you buy SWPL things. Also, the more you have to status signal in general. This is significant and we’ll return to it later.

Screenshot_20181208-161307_Amazon Kindle

The bigger the metro, the showier people get. People are least showy in that old stronghold of status, the Northeast. This means something too.

Screenshot_20181208-161217_Amazon Kindle

The older people get, the less they signal.

We’re getting there.

Let’s draw a graph.

In one corner, you have your classic prole. They have no culture and they have no elite competence or power. You know them! You love them! They’re classic proles. On the other end, we have people with lots of sociocultural status and power. They’re Bobos. They’re the reigning heavyweights of USG and the FEDGOV empire. They’ve got the aristocratic traditions, the power, the money, the institutions, the everything that matters.

But wait, this leaves two empty sectors. Ah, exactly. This is the explanation for Schrodinger’s SWPL, the fine fellow on stuffwhitepeoplelike which flips between self-confident, affluent elite, and nervous, anxious faker who only pretends to like classical music and can only speak English by the entry. Viewed solely through culture, as stuffwhitepeoplelike does and as Theory of the Aspirational Class does, one cannot properly distinguish the two. That’s because the difference between a mere aspirant and a true blue aristocrat is actual power.

So what is the SWProle doing then? The act of performing elite class culture is an act of self-affirmation, of belonging. By performing elite culture, they are making a symbolic claim to being elite. Of course, this claim is frequently challenged by a hostile society – I call this challenge of reality. In reality, they are not elite in any real sense of the word, and, indeed, can barely afford coffee without spiraling into debt. Only through constant and continuous signaling can they distinguish themselves from the proles they basically are. And how does one signal? Luxuries. Lots and lots of luxuries. Why do millennials spend so much of their income on luxury goods? Because so many millennials are educated, education is participation in a literal surviving organ of the Ancien Regime, and therefore it invites the young graduate to buy lots of luxuries to assert their new elite status (and, as seen in a previous chart, many take this invitation).

What happens when something threatens to pop this comfortable delusion bubble?

The rage of the almost elite

Who rages the most against the proles?

“Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen.  And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people.   I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.”

Familiarity breeds contempt. This is why I have so much of it against my fellow aristocrats.

The lot of the SWProle is a cold and miserable one.

And, I think, a fundamental error in approach.

Let’s discuss the right way to become elite, then. Let’s discuss our final sector.

I divide the upper middle class into a few different kinds. You have the noblesse de robe, the noblesse d’epee, the haute bourgeois, socialites, and the clergy. Let’s narrow our focus to a peacetime society midway through its development. This means our primary drivers of elite formation will be the haute bourgeois and the noblesse de robe.

Some neoreactionaries identify the aristocracy with top tier businessmen, and while I don’t think that’s totally true, I think there are grains of truth to it. They sense, rightly, there is something reactionary about the corporate structure. Similarly, I usually identify the aristocracy nigh totally with the noblesse de robe, which is a distortion on my part. To state things more accurately, I would say that different institutions inherited different segments of the aristocratic idea after the shattering of the Ancien Regime. The customs and practices of the royal court were carried away and eventually planted in fertile soil, and this little seed grew up into the idea of Big Business. And the universities and academies of the Ancien Regime which trained so many generations of bluebloods dissociated from the idea of aristocracy, at least explicitly, and so became today’s Ivory Towers.

What SWProles are essentially trying to do is to get into the elite via socialization. But this is flawed. First of all, it’s flawed because their act is too perfect. I discuss this in my post about sartorial correctness , but it’s basically like the differences between an educated foreigner and a native speaker. The latter makes certain classes of mistakes that make the language more fluid and natural. Second of all, it’s flawed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of upper caste socialization. Proles like to imagine upper caste socialization as extremely smooth and elegant. And it is, in a sense. But it’s only elegant because the upper castes define what “elegant” is. It’s not true grace in the normie sense, it’s self-assuredness. An aristocrat is a creature that thinks hugging their kids is weird, but keeping a ferret in your breasts to eat lamb shanks is perfectly normal. They’re weird. Wealthier people have a higher incidence of autistic children.

It’s not normie social interaction but smoother. What are aristocrats actually doing? Who are the residents of our missing quadrant?

They’re doing nerdtalk and powertalk.

Boom.

The chart is complete.

SWProles are almost certainly doomed to failure because they’re trying to socialize normally with people who are doing nerdtalk and powertalk. They just don’t get it. Even if they memorize all the quirks, their failure is the failure to grok the category of conversation.

By contrast, the main difference between nerds/boors and true Bobos is self-assuredness or the lack thereof.

What is powertalk? Powertalk is a concept taken from Ribbonfarm’s Gervais Principle, and it’s basically the naked discussion of gains and losses. Go read it if you haven’t, though I disagree with his characterization of the inner life of psychopaths. In powertalk, you’re always talking real shit. Successful businessmen do this really well. But, unfortunately, the normal world frowns on them. People from normal backgrounds who try to do well in business and FIRE are pulled down by their peers. People resent the wealthy. People resent early retirees. They’re surrounded by crabs in a bucket. The only choice is to hide. But when you hide, you become less self-assured. And the subject varies somewhat. Money remains a concern, but powertalk past a certain level of social status must also focus on the original burrito: Power. So they must learn a new subject matter.

Similarly, what do nerds do? Nerds talk and argue about the minutia of nerd cultural works like sci-fi and comics, and they discuss the fine technical details of various technologies. What do aristocrats do? They talk about and argue the minutia of art and music, and they discuss the fine details of various Important Ideas and Historical Events and Other Humanities. Don’t these look similar? In fact, they’re the same thing. Art criticism is just nerds geeking out about comic trivia except over something socially acceptable, and it’s socially acceptable because aristocrats decided it was. Again, the difference is not in category, but merely in subject matter. And the mildly autistic often wish socialization was more explicit and rule-based.

Good news! Aristocrats already had a highly rule-based way of socialization. They called it good manners and it involved signaling what the purpose of your conversation would be by folding a specific corner of a greeting card and many other arcane, bizarre rules. In Ancien Regime France, it was impolite to be the last to thank someone. Unfortunately, this rule has to be broken by someone. Needless to say, there were a lot of dangerously polite people, including one fellow who jumped out of a window to pounce upon someone and properly bid them farewell and thanks. It’s not that they’re not following a weird set of social rules, unlike normies who do things by instinct, it’s that nerds have the wrong rules.

ETA:

“Eccentricity was central to the aristocracy’s mystique. It was inventive, often disconcerting and entirely natural to a self-confident caste which knew that it was different. Aristocrats were free to indulge their whims.”

“…anyone who lived by his wits could call himself a gentleman and have their presumption endorsed by a herald… The aristocracy have always been an open elite.” 

This quadrant of the chart is the quadrant of eliteogenesis. Every so often, a mutant is born in Appalachia or some other backwater province. These mutants don’t fit in. Their environments abuse them and they lose their self-assuredness, being marked as abnormal. But through a creaming mechanism of the day, ambition, and their own thirst to find like-minded people, they are drawn inexorably towards the capital. And if they are able to find a mate and produce offspring, they will make people just as weird as them.

The difference is that their children will be self-assured, totally convinced that their weird little world is normal.

A noble house is born.

So if eliteogenesis is a knowable process, surely we can measure it? Yes, yes, we can. And someone did.

Enter our final idea: Secular Cycles.

Turchin has many interesting ideas, but we’re going to focus on the idea of elite overproduction.

You have two forces, creation and extinction.

If we take the measured peacetime extinction rate of noble houses and do some math, we arrive at EXACTLY the same imputed mobility rates as given by Professor Clark’s equations in The Son Also Rises. And these mathematical rates match up with historical data about the lifespans of noble families across the world. About half of the modern corporate workers in Japan are samurai descendants. 42% of European high nobility descendants have PhDs. The median lifespan of a Chinese gentry family is about 250 years. In short, everything maths out extremely nicely and cleanly. Convenient, eh?

The other half of elite numbers is production. We have the mechanism of parvenus, by which nerds and boors become founders of new noble houses. But what happens if there’s not enough room? Society can only absorb so many people in the professions. A potential elite instead goes into a pool of prospective elites. A nerd is not hired by a major tech firm, but instead sits at home and makes a nuisance of himself writing exploits.

In the early stages of the secular cycle, there is an abundance of room and resources to grow. The peasants (primary producers) flood in to exploit these resources, resulting in widespread commoner prosperity. The elites begin a secular cycle impoverished and therefore do real work. Many advances are made across all sorts of indices. However, all the excess value created by the peasants results in spectacular potential surpluses for the elites, which begin to increase in number. This causes a shift into the stagflation phase. How do elites sustain themselves? In the long run, elite professions push the societal production frontier. Engineers produce new technologies that result in long-run efficiency gains, doctors increase societal lifespan resulting in more working years, priests produce new cultural memes which structure life, scientists deepen our understanding of the universe, and bankers allocate capital more efficiently to push growth. In short run, elites must feed themselves by transferring value into their own mouths. So the commoners produce all this value, but an increasing amount of elites consumes it all, resulting in stagnant incomes for the common man. The stagflation phases of this secular cycle and the last one both saw massive flowerings of Western science and technology, as the vast number of elites accomplish all sorts of brain work. The decades since 1970 have seen all sorts of transformations in our way of life. The Information Age really is a revolution.

But all their value transference takes a toll on the average worker. Inequality begins to rapidly increase, as elite incomes surge far past commoner incomes. These decades since 1970 have also seen massive gains in the income of the 1%. This greatly increases the incentive to become elite, so more and more people aspire to it. However, more people aspiring to be elite combined with a saturation of the societally allowable professionals drives all sorts of further dynamics. Since there’s so much competition, elites become more nervous and anxious. That causes them to trust their fellow elites (now competition instead of collaborators) less, reducing societal cohesion. Leftism, the extension of a society’s principles towards their inevitable (but disastrously idealistic) conclusions, reaches a fever pitch, as elites try to shore up their social position. And their need to shore up their financial position means they demand even higher and higher incomes and hoard even more cash, further driving up inequality. Their fear, hatred, and resentment of elite aspirants drives a new class war on the middle class. Their anxieties lead them to pass all sorts of bizarre and increasingly paranoid policy. The frustrated aspirants and rejected parvenus form new counterelites ready to launch revolutions. The weight of all these excess elite aspirants and the negative dynamics associated with them eventually prove to be too much, and society begins to decline. The oversupply of potential elite labor crushes the income of service elites, which has the additional nasty side effect of making rentierism the only game in town. That means elites now have to get their value transference through pure rent-seeking and exploitation of state mechanisms, which means that political jockeying overtakes brainwork. Social cohesion collapses. Society descends into civil war as counterelites battle elites for state spoils. Revolution shakes the core of the state. Elites are culled left and right. But those elites, as corrupt as they are in the late stage, still fill a valuable role. Society sees a rapid increase in complexity in the integrative half of the secular cycle, but as we all know from our Incerto, complexity implies fragility. And this fragility becomes a dire foe in the disintegrative part of the secular cycle. If you kill half the doctors in a hospital arbitrarily, does it run half as well or less than half as well? Globalization is abruptly deglobalized and complex systems of trade and knowledge collapse. Infrastructure is lost. Land is abandoned. Factories go silent. Occasionally there is peace, but until the elite oversupply is resolved, the state remains unstable and cannot permanently reform.

Finally, the elite numbers have been pruned. Adversity brings out the hidden strength in the remaining elites. Without extra elites to pick up the slack, and with all the wealth of the nation destroyed, the elites return to doing useful work. All the fallow land and abandoned infrastructure provides plenty of room for peasant expansion. A new secular cycle begins.

Below is the Secular Cycle chart. Our current situation matches the Stagflation phase pretty well, and we may be headed into the Crisis phase soon (or now).

Sunrise, sunset.

I would like to thank EvolutionistX for this opportunity.

Please support academics by buying their books. For more of my thoughts and ravings, visit my blog.

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Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 2)

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

Complex systems, because they must be homeostatic to exist at all, can absorb and disguise the symptoms of a great deal of internal stress.

The collapse of the Soviet Union remains one of the great mysteries of Political Science, not because it happened (that is easy enough to understand,) but because Political Scientists did not predict it.

The big problem with planned economies is that their incentive structures make self-correction almost impossible. For example, when the law allowed Soviet officials to confiscate unlimited quantities of grain in 1932, about 7 million people died. The people who could see the famine happening were not the ones with the power to change tax laws nor the incentives pressuring officials to confiscate so much grain in the first place. As Wikipedia relates:

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor
Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

From the 1932 harvest, Soviet authorities were able to procure only 4.3 million tons as compared with 7.2 million tons obtained from the 1931 harvest.[49] Rations in town were drastically cut back, and in the winter of 1932–33 and spring of 1933 people in many urban areas were starved.[50] The urban workers were supplied by a rationing system (and therefore could occasionally assist their starving relatives of the countryside), but rations were gradually cut; and by the spring of 1933, the urban residents also faced starvation. At the same time, workers were shown agitprop movies, where all peasants were portrayed as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving.[51]

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Excuse me. I need a moment.

Say what you will for libertarianism, it has at least the basic ingredients for a self-correcting system. A farmer, left to his own devices, will not sell so much of his own grain that he starves. A factory owner will not order incorrect parts for his own factory because his profits would suffer. But in a planned economy, the person doing the ordering or deciding how much grain to sell does not personally benefit (or suffer) from these transactions, and so has no interest in their efficiency. Their incentives are totally different–they have a boss higher up in the party to please; they are required to increase the efficiency of Sector G; they are supposed to hire more people people from underrepresented groups; etc.

As Wikipedia notes:

Most information in the Soviet economy flowed from the top down. There were several mechanisms in place for producers and consumers to provide input and information that would help in the drafting of economic plans (as detailed below), but the political climate was such that few people ever provided negative input or criticism of the plan. Thus, Soviet planners had very little reliable feedback that they could use to determine the success of their plans. This meant that economic planning was often done based on faulty or outdated information, particularly in sectors with large numbers of consumers. As a result, some goods tended to be underproduced, leading to shortages, while other goods were overproduced and accumulated in storage. Low-level managers often did not report such problems to their superiors, relying instead on each other for support. Some factories developed a system of barter and either exchanged or shared raw materials and parts without the knowledge of the authorities and outside the parameters of the economic plan. …

The cumbersome procedures for bureaucratic administration foreclosed the free communication and flexible response required at the enterprise level for dealing with worker alienation, innovation, customers, and suppliers. During 1975–85, corruption and data fiddling became common practice among bureaucracy to report satisfied targets and quotas thus entrenching the crisis.

cw3bumxusaavkjbCastellano writes in Causes of the Soviet Collapse:

Around 1975, the Soviet Union entered a period of economic stagnation from which it would never emerge. Increasingly, the USSR looked to Europe, primarily West Germany, to provide hard currency financing through massive loans, while the U.S. became a major supplier of grain.[1] Despite moments of anti-Communist grandstanding, the Americans and Western Europeans maintained trade relations with the cash-strapped Soviet Union, which dipped into its Stalin-era gold reserves to increase availability of consumer goods.

Foreign trade and mild economic reforms were not enough to overcome the inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy, which remained technologically backward and full of corruption. Economic planners were frequently unable to diagnose and remedy problems, since they were given false reports by officials who only pretended to be productive. Soviet living standards remained poor by Western standards. By 1980, only 9 percent of Soviets had automobiles, which was actually a vast improvement under Brezhnev.

Back to Wikipedia:

One of the greatest strengths of Soviet economy was its vast supplies of oil and gas; world oil prices quadrupled in the 1973-74, and rose again in 1979-1981, making the energy sector the chief driver of the Soviet economy, and was used to cover multiple weaknesses. During this period, USSR had the lowest per-capita incomes among the other socialist countries.[49] At one point, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin told the head of oil and gas production, “things are bad with bread. Give me 3 million tons [of oil] over the plan.” [50] Former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, an economist looking back three decades, in 2007 wrote:

The hard currency from oil exports stopped the growing food supply crisis, increased the import of equipment and consumer goods, ensured a financial base for the arms race and the achievement of nuclear parity with the United States, and permitted the realization of such risky foreign-policy actions as the war in Afghanistan.[51]

Awareness of the growing crisis arose initially within the KGB which with its extensive network of informants in every region and institution had its finger on the pulse of the nation. Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB, created a secret department during the 1970s within the KGB devoted to economic analysis, and when he succeeded Brezhnev in 1982 sounded the alarm forcefully to the Soviet leadership. Andropov’s remedy of increased discipline, however, proved ineffective. It was only when Andropov’s protege Gorbachev assumed power that a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, assault on the economic crisis was undertaken.[52]

And back to Castellano:

 By 1988, private ownership was permitted in certain manufacturing industries. Ironically, these reforms actually caused the Soviet economy to deteriorate further, as unprofitable private enterprises were now subsidized by the state, and the lack of state oversight of supply lines resulted in shortages of food and clothing, which were unknown even under Brezhnev.[8]

By the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact satellites had ceased to be an economic asset to the Soviet Union, and in fact Gorbachev’s withdrawal had been motivated in part by economic considerations. There was no longer a real danger of war with Western Europe, so the bloc had lost its strategic significance as well.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.
People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.

You know how this story ends. The Wall comes down, communism crumbles in all but Cuba and North Korea, and Russia is further assaulted by “shock therapy,” which it is in no position to cope with.

And yet, even in the months just before the Wall fell, no one predicted that it was about to happen. It was very easy to see, from an economic position, that the USSR couldn’t just keep limping on–even the KGB knew that. But “Communism is broken” is information we’d had for six decades already, and the USSR looked like it was in no hurry to finally go ahead and kick the bucket.

Socialism fails because it prevents economic feedback from directing the flow of resources to the places where they’re needed, but even a terrible system like the USSR’s can keep limping along like it’s going to last forever right until the day it falls.

There are reports now coming out of socialist Venezuela of people eating pets, rats, and worse, each other (I am not quoting the cannibalism article, you can read it yourself. This is from the one about eating cats, dogs, and garbage):

Ramón Muchacho, Mayor of Chacao in Caracas, said the streets of the capital of Venezuela are filled with people killing animals for food.

Through Twitter, Muchacho reported that in Venezuela, it is a “painful reality” that people “hunt cats, dogs and pigeons” to ease their hunger. … People are also reportedly gathering vegetables from the ground and trash to eat as well. … The week before, various regions of the country saw widespread looting of shopping malls, pharmacies, supermarkets and food trucks, all while people chanted “we are hungry.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s currency has become so worthless, shopkeepers are weighing piles of notes instead of counting them.

Command economies just don’t work very well.

cw1htkluuaatpa7We Americans have our own reasons why we should be concerned, from the death of manufacturing to the increasing national debt. The Federal Budget is about 20% of total GDP. The government periodically threatens to default on its debts while funding wars against non-enemies like Iraq. Obligations like pensions and Social Security are often ridiculously under-funded (to the tune of billions of dollars that investments simply haven’t produced) or depend on infinite population growth–which, of course, no nation can ever maintain. As CNBC reports:

Weak investment performance and insufficient contributions will cause total unfunded liabilities for U.S. state public pensions to balloon by 40 percent to $1.75 trillion through fiscal 2017, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report on Thursday. …

It has been a tough year for the funds, which earned a median 0.52 percent on investments in fiscal 2016 versus their average assumed return rate of 7.5 percent, Moody’s said.

Assumptions. The sheer gall of it is flabbergasting.

Steve Bannon gave this rather insightful speech about our deteriorating economic situation several years ago:

(But you know, underwear is racist so let’s ignore the economy…)

To be continued: Return to  Part 1 or continue to Part 3.)

Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 1)

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(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.

 

Tesla vs. Edison

... and fight! 220px-Thomas_Edison2

It has become popular of late, especially on the left, to love Tesla and hate Edison. (Warning: that is a link to the Oatmeal, which is very funny and will suck up large quantities of your time if you let it, but if you aren’t familiar with the leftists hate of Edison and valorization of Tesla, it’s a necessary read.)

Edison, (1847 – 1931) was an American-born (son of a Canadian war refugee of Dutch descent) auto-didact, inventor, and businessman who was awarded over a thousand patents. His most important inventions (or inventions produced by his lab,) include the first actually useful lightbulb, the phonograph, the first movie camera and a device to view the movies on, the electrical grid necessary to power the lightbulb, the movie studio necessary to make the films for people to watch, and the scientific research lab.

He was friends with Henry Ford, a community volunteer, deaf, and a general humanitarian who abhorred violence and prided himself on having never invented an offensive weapon.

His worst mistake appears to have been not realizing what business he was in during the “War of the Currents;” Edison thought he was in the lightbulb-selling business, and since he had invented a lightbulb that ran on DC, he wanted everyone to use DC. He also seems to have been genuinely concerned about the high voltages used by AC, but DC just drops off too quickly to be used in non-urban areas; to get the country electrified required DC. Edison not only lost the Currents War, but also got kicked out of the company he’d founded by his stock holders. The company’s name was later changed to General Electric.

His political views were fairly common for his day–he advocated the populist position on abolishing the gold standard, tax reform, and making loans interest free to help farmers. Religiously, he was basically a GNON-believing deist. He preferred silent films over “talkies” due to being deaf, and had six children, three of whom went into science/inventing, one with a degree from Yale and one from MIT.

The idea that Edison was “merely” a businessman or CEO is completely bollocks. He was not only a brilliant inventor, but also understood how his inventions would be used and created the systems–both human and mechanical–necessary to bring them to full fruition.

Edison's lab in Menlo Park
Edison’s lab in Menlo Park

 

Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serb born in Croatia back when Croatia was part of the Austrian empire. By all accounts, he was exceedingly brilliant. His father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest, but he received a scholarship to the Austrian Polytechnic University, where he burned like a meteor for his first year, earning the highest grades possible in 9 subjects (almost twice the required course load.) In his second year, he became addicted to gambling, then gambled away his tuition money in year three and forgot to study for his finals. He flunked out and ran away.

A couple of years later, his family raised money to send him to university again, which was another fiasco, since Tesla didn’t have training in two of the required subjects and so couldn’t actually attend.

Nevertheless, Tesla managed to get work at a telegraph company and was eventually invited to the US to work under Edison. Here he did excellent work, but quit over a rather stupid sounding misunderstanding about pay, wherein Tesla expected to be paid far more for an invention than Edison had in funds to pay anyone. Edison offered a raise instead, but Tesla decided to strike out on his own.

Tesla attempted to start a business, which ended badly (it sounds like it went south because he wasn’t focusing on the stated goals of the company,) and left him a penniless ditch-digger.

He then hit on a series of successes, including the polyphase induction motor, which ended with him quite handsomely employed by one of Edison’s competitors, Westinghouse, but even here he had difficulties getting along with his co-workers. Eventually it seems he established his own lab and convinced investors to give him $100,000, which he promptly spent on more lab equipment instead of the new lighting system he’d promised. His lab was later sold and torn down to pay off debts.

Tesla received yet another major investment, $150,000 to build a wireless telegraph facility, but appears to have blown the money on stock market speculation. He did manage to finish the project, though without any more funds from his now very jaded investors, but eventually he had to sell the building, and it was demolished.

Many of Tesla’s inventions were clearly brilliant and far ahead of their time. Others are delusions, like his mechanical oscillator. Tesla claimed it nearly brought down the building; Mythbusters built one themselves, and it did no such thing.

There is a kind of brilliance that slides easily into madness, and Tesla’s was clearly of this sort. He was too adept at pattern matching (he could do calculus in his head) to sort out real patterns from ones he’d dreamed up. He never married, but once fell in love with a pigeon at the park, feeding it daily and spending over $2000 dollars on it when its wing was injured.

In his personal life, he was extremely rigid–working and eating at the exact same times every day, eating a very restricted diet, and wearing a fastidiously neat and regimented wardrobe. He was extremely thin and slept very little–perhaps only 2 hours a day. (There are a vanishingly few people in the world who actually do function like this.) He was critical and harsh toward people who didn’t meet his standards, like fat people or secretaries whose clothes he thought were insufficiently attractive. Despite not having any children of his own, he believed the unfit should be sterilized and the rest of the population coerced into a selective breeding program. He also said some unflattering things about Edison upon the man’s death, which is kind of rude.

To prevent him from sinking further into poverty, his former employer, Westinghouse, took pity on him and started paying his hotel bills, (Tesla seems to have not thought of living in a house.) Tesla spent much of his final years claiming to have built a “Death Ray” and claiming that various thieves had broken into his hotel room to steal it.

Upon his death in 1943, the government seized all of his belongings just in case there were actual Death Rays or other such inventions in there that the Nazis might try to steal. The box with Tesla’s Death Ray turned out to have nothing more than an old battery inside. The investigator concluded:

“[Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

To be frank, I’ve talked to homeless schizophrenics who sound a lot like Tesla; the line between correct pattern matching and incorrect pattern matching is, at times, easily crossed.

 

The modern habit of shitting on Edison and glorifying Tesla stems from the tendency to see Edison as a stereotypically American businessman who wickedly and cunningly stole ideas from from smarter people to build up his own wealth and reputation. It feeds into the notion that Americans (white Americans, especially,) have built nothing of their own, but stolen all of their wealth and a great many of their ideas from others. Here Tesla–attractive, urbane, brilliant, and most of all, not tainted by the blight of having been born in America–gets to stand in for the usual victimized classes.

Ironically, Edison’s political beliefs line up with the Progressives of his day–that is, socialists/liberals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Tesla, at least as far as the Wikipedia describes any of his beliefs, favored Nazi-style forced sterilization and eugenics. In daily life, Tesla may have been a nicer person than Edison (it is rather difficult to tell from Wikipedia articles what people were like personally,) but I question a left that denigrates one of their own Progressives while upholding a man whose political beliefs are, at best, anathema to their own.

Regardless, Tesla’s failures were not Edison’s fault. Edison may have screwed him on pay, but he didn’t gamble away Tesla’s tuition money, make him fail his classes, nor convince him not to marry. Edison didn’t make him blow his investment money on the stock market or wander around NYC at all hours of the night, feeding pigeons.

Edison, deaf since childhood, didn’t have half the advantages handed to him as Tesla. He had all of three months of schooling; no one ever sent him to university or gave him a scholarship to waste. He may not have been as smart as Tesla, but he was still an intensely intelligent man and adeptly capable of carrying out the business side of the operation, without which no research could get done. Without funding, you don’t have a lab; no lab, no research. Humans do not live in isolation; someone has to do the inglorious work of coordinate things so that other people can reap the benefits of a system set up for them to work in.

Ultimately, Tesla was a brilliant man who should not have been allowed to run his affairs. He needed the structure of a boss, a wife, parents, family, etc., to keep him on track and stop him from doing idiotic things like gambling away his tuition money.

Familial supervision during college could have ensured that he graduated and gotten him on the path toward a tenured position. Perhaps he would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Curie at the Solvay Conference. A boss would have ensured that the strategic, business ends of things–the ends Tesla had no great talent for–got done, leaving Tesla to do the things he did best, to reach far more of his full potential. (In this regard, Edison had advantages Tesla lacked–a wife, family, and a country he had grown up in.) But Tesla was too rigid to submit to someone of inferior intellect (real or perceived), and his family back in Europe was too far away to help him. Loneliness is madness, for humans are social animals, and so brilliant Tesla died alone, poor, and in love with a pigeon.

Tesla's wireless telegraph tower, 1904
Tesla’s wireless telegraph tower, 1904

Just imagine what Edison and Tesla could have created had they put their animosity aside and worked together.

Part 2 coming soon.