Our Final Hour

The subject line is the title of the book by Sir Martin Rees who was also the President of the Royal Society, UK from 2005 to 2010.  I don’t regret spending time on it. With my limited science knowledge and reading, I hadn’t come across scientists who openly admit to the limitations, uncertainties and dangers of their research. Yes, after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombs, there was a push against further nuclear tests and development of bombs. Robert Oppenheimer himself felt a lot of emotions after the bombs were actually dropped and they could see the devastation they caused. The Pugwash Conference happened some fifteen years too late, perhaps. The first conference was held in 1957.

So, it was good to find a scientist who was calling for restraint, for a rigorous evaluation of costs and benefits of science, etc. I found it difficult to concentrate only with the last four to five chapters. Not that they were uninteresting but they did not fit into the overall theme of the first six to seven chapters. At least, that is what I thought.

But, he is going to be 76 soon (end of this week) and I found his overall views on the places of science and religion quite healthy, clear and level-headed. You can read an article here and an interview here. His comment on Stephen Hawking’s comment on God is worth noting:

He is equally scathing about Hawking’s more recent comments about there being no need for God in order to explain creation. “Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic,” he said. [Link]

This is what he had to say about scientific research:

The views of scientists should not have special weight in deciding questions that involve ethics or risks: indeed, such judgements are best left to broader and more dispassionate groups.

Scientific research, and our motives for pursuing it, cannot be separated from the social context in which such research is carried out.

For example, he cites Cass Sunstein here to talk about a ‘networked’ or connected world leads to more polarisation:

In his book republic.com , Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago , suggests that the Internet is allowing all of us to “filter” our input , so that each person reads a “Daily Me” customised to individual tastes and ( more insidiously ) purged of material that may challenge prejudices. Rather than sharing experience with those whose attitudes and tastes are different, many will in future “live in echo chambers of their own design” and “need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Sunstein discusses “group polarization,” whereby those who interact only with the likeminded have their prejudices and obsessions reinforced, and shift towards more extreme positions.

Another example: mood-altering drugs:

In Our Post-human Future Francis Fukuyama argues that habitual and universal use of mood – altering medications would narrow and impoverish the range of human character. He cites the use of Prozac to counter depression, and of Ritalin to damp down hyperactivity in high – spirited but otherwise healthy children: these practices are already constricting the range of personality types that are considered normal and acceptable. Fukuyama foresees a further narrowing, when other drugs are developed, that could threaten what he regards as the essence of our humanity.

I found that rather thoughtful of Francis Fukuyama.

However, the caveat:

The difficulty with a dirigiste policy in science is that the epochal advances are unpredictable.

Our (humans’) inability to predict the future is so well captured in this paragraph. In a way, it reminds us that we cannot be sure of what the future holds, when we unleash something:

In 1937, the US National Academy of Sciences organised a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs; its report makes salutary reading for technological forecasters today. It came up with some wise assessments about agriculture, about synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber. But, what is more remarkable is the things it missed. No nuclear energy, no antibiotics (though this was eight years after Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin), no jet aircraft, no rocketry nor any use of space, no computers; certainly no transistors. The committee overlooked the technologies that actually dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Still less could they predict the social and political transformations that occurred during that time.

Bill Joy’s ‘Why the future does not need us’

I must be grateful to Sir Martin Rees for one important reference that I had not come across before. He mentioned about Bill Joy’s article, ‘Why the future does not need us?’ published in the ‘Wired’ magazine in April 2000. I read it this morning and I liked it immensely. The original is here. There are so many quotable quotes from that article. I think, if you had not read it before, you must read it. I am doing a separate post on Bill Joy’s article.

His idea of how the world could support 10 billion people by 2050:

A population as high as ten billion would be fully sustainable if everyone lived in tiny apartments, perhaps like the “capsule hotels” that already exist in Tokyo, subsisting on a rice – based vegetarian diet, electronically networked, travelling little, and finding recreation and fulfilment in virtual reality rather than the consumerism and incessant travel now favoured in the profligate West.

On extinction and its acceleration in the modern era:

Extinctions are, of course, intrinsic to evolution and natural selection: fewer than ten percent of all the species that ever swam, crawled, or flew are still on Earth today.

But human beings are perpetrating a “sixth extinction” on the same scale as earlier episodes. Species are now dying out at one hundred or even one thousand times the normal rate. Before Homo sapiens came on the scene, about one species in a million became extinct each year; the rate is now is closer to one species in a thousand.

There were vineyards in England and it was warmer in Northern Europe! So, climate keeps changing. But, the problem is the speed of change.

On Climate change:

Climatic change has, like extinction of species, characterised Earth throughout its history. But it has, like the extinction rate, been disquietingly speeded up by human actions.

It was warmer in Northern Europe a thousand years ago: there were agricultural settlements in Greenland where animals grazed on land that is now ice – covered; and vineyards flourished in England. But there have been prolonged cold periods too. The warm spell seems to have ended by the fifteenth century, to be succeeded by a “little ice age” that continued until the end of the eighteenth century.

Can we always count on this luck? Phew!

Paul Crutzen, one of the chemists who elucidated how CFCs actually acted in the upper atmosphere , has pointed out that it was a technological accident and quirk of chemistry that the commercial coolant adopted in the 1930s was based on chlorine . Had bromine been used instead, the atmospheric effects would have been more drastic and longer – lasting.

The final words:

In the twenty-first century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from misapplication of science.

AND

I think the odds are no better than fifty – fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.

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On ‘Bullshit’ jobs

Why are bullshit jobs created? The author of the book with the above title – David Graeber – offers this explanation:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them. [Link]

Somewhere here, he has a point:

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited….

….This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people.

He had written the above article in 2016 – little under two years ago. This is the cover of his new book.

His recent interviews are here and here. I get the impression that he has not figured out why bullshit jobs are created, even granting his pro-worker, ‘class revolution’ framework.

Clearly, he is focused on the possibilities of a working class revolution against capitalism of the day exept that he has not yet gone to the root cause.

This article in ‘The Economist’ in 2013 does better. The article talks about complexity of tasks being one of the factors for them to be broken up into ‘bullshit’ tasks. That is one step closer. But, how does complexity arise, in the first place? Is it only technology or is it something else? Rapacity has to be a factor.

The article goes on to predict a happy ending but the author is silent on how we would get there:

The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven’t grown shorter.

The development of large-scale technological unemployment or underemployment, however, would force rich societies to revisit a system that primarily allocates purchasing power via earned wages. And that, in turn, could allow households to get by or even thrive while working many fewer hours than is now typically the case—albeit through a pretty hefty level of income redistribution.

This is how I see it:

Capitalist societies seem to want to pay only as little as possible to those who are not directly contributing to its bottomline. They are employed by the public sector who are paid out of the taxes that the well-heeled pay. Hence, the lower their pay, the better. Their tax dollars travel the most, in  that case.

If they are not in the public sector, they are then employed by contractors who pay even worse.

But, those who are employed by the capitalists (solely) for the purpose of catering to and furthering their greed are paid better. David Graber gives some examples of such professions:  private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants.

It is mostly about greed and how modern capitalism is not satisfied. It is about ‘more is preferable to less’ and non-satiation being the building blocks of modern capitalism. That, to me, is the root cause of ‘bullshit’ jobs and that is what I had mentioned in my column last week.

Explicable silence

In this blog post, I had highlighted a forthcoming IMF working paper on global market power and its macroeconomic implications. That paper was flagged in a IMF blog post on the rise of the corporate giants. At the end of the blog post, there was a link to an enticing panel discussion at the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings of April 2018. The title of the session was ‘Digitalisation and the new gilded age’. I was pleasantly surprised that IMF had arranged a panel discussion on a hot and crucial topic for our times.

This was the blurb for the session:

Are technological advances leading to greater market concentration in firms such as Google and Facebook and, in turn, creating what could be described as a New Gilded Age? [Link]

The blurb names two companies. Try catching their names in the panel discussion. I listened to the panel discussion which lasted a little over 70 minutes. To say that I was ‘underwhelmed’ would be an understatement.

More than that, I am trying to wrap my head around what the panel moderator was trying to achieve. The moderator was none other than Christine Lagarde, the President of the IMF!

The session was neither about technology and its enabling role (or not) in market concentration nor was it about market concentration in the technology sector itself and how both of them or either of them were leading to the new gilded age or not.

I still do not know what the session was about. There were a couple of leading questions to the panelist from IBM as to how good a work they were doing in Kenya enabling credit for small borrowers through Big Data and how ‘Watson’, their super-intelligent computer was helping with oncological treatment in India.

The moderator wanted all the panelists to answer the following question:

What one change would make the world competitive, equitable, inclusive and innovative?

The question pops up at 1h 05m 10s. Here is the video link.

//players.brightcove.net/45228659001/rkPdEdoaW_default/index.html?videoId=5772879577001

Listen to the answers and decide whether you wish to laugh or cry, be angry, be worried or simply throw up your hands.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he said that this was not a surprise and that there was a deliberate ‘conpsiracy of silence’ in liberal establishments on the key questions, challenges of the day and their perpetrators.

In February, there was this wonderful long-form essay in ‘The New York Times’ magazine titled, ‘The case against google’. That could well have been the specific case -study discussion for this topic.

There was a simple and well-written blog post at the Bank of France website in February on whether monopolies were a danger to the United States. That could have been discussed. Of course, that blog post does not mention technology as a factor in creating monopolies or market concentration but the panelists could have been asked to challenge it or defend it.

Somewhat more provocatively but importantly, the @facebookbreakup movement could have been discussed. The movement took out a full-page advt. in MIT student paper’s commencement edition with quotes from former Facebook employees – some of the founding ones. The quotes are worth reading.

Importantly and interestingly, the blog post cites Luigi Zingales to make the point that even if large firms with their rising monopoly power are not cutting back on investment spending, it is important to understand that these investments are about:

… investment can be misused to create barriers to entry, by using these resources to finance lobbying for example. The fact that the most profitable firms invest relatively little may corroborate this theory. Buying emerging startups to reduce competition is another example of the misuse of productive investment to maintain monopoly rents. [Link]

There are two brief but very useful blog posts in aei.org. They provide references that are staple for discussion for this session. The blog posts are here and here.

For those interested in digging deeper, two OECD papers mentioned in these posts are available here and here.

Also mentioned in these posts is a paper written by Nicolas Bloom paper for HBR titled, ‘Corporations in the age of inequality’. I just saw his policy prescriptions in the end.  Have not read the paper in full. He advocates use of tax policy to support those left behind:

Boost low incomes through tax policy. Governments should also consider measures that put more money into people’s pockets, such as negative income taxes — meaning that citizens earning below a certain threshold receive money directly from the government. For example, the U.S. should consider expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is basically a negative income tax with a work requirement. Rather than constrain companies with more onerous rules around compensation, negative income taxes supplement the incomes for workers whose skills are in less demand while allowing economies to organize efficiently. [Link]

How will governments put more money into people’s pockets unless it takes money out of some people’s pockets?

Anyway, this blog post was supposed to be about the breathtaking obfuscation and dissembling that went on, in the name of discussing the new gilded age. Given that this is what liberal establishments and elites in poweful positions in such establishments do, we should not be surprised at all that populism is on the rise and that populists are popular and winning.

The important realisation for us, the ‘hoi polloi’ is that there is not much point in all of these discussions. They exist to keep up appearances. Power resides and rests with money. Those who have it want to have more and do not wish to part with it. They do so only reluctantly and only if there are no other options to avoid doing so. Democracy is a figleaf that pretends to give equal power to the ‘Have Nots’ as ‘Haves’. But, funding of candidates and political parties is in the hands of the money-ed. So, just a wee bit changes at the margin.

Those who are endowed start with an advantage and engage in expanding that advantage. They create systems that enable them to do so and hinder them only minimally, if at all.

The rest of us believe that we are working to make the world better. If we wake up from our denial, we will also wake up to realise that there is not much meaning left in our pursuits. Slumber is better.

The ‘new world order’ – not releasing anytime soon

This article in http://www.atimes.com is an interesting read. It is true that much of what is written there is not that widely reported in the Western media, if at all. Of course, the author does not hide his own bias. He wants the Western (or, US-led) order to be replaced. He gleefully cites Kishore Mahbhubani who sees the last 200-250 years of Western dominance as an aberration. Some others would see it as a regime shift that has lasted only 200-250 years as opposed to the 1800 years of Asian (China and India) dominance of global affairs. Which of these two world views will prevai is the question of and for the 21st century. It is not surprising that the comments below Escobar’s aticle too reflect this defining struggle of the 21st century.

To a large degree, the question of the balance between capital and labour is also bound up with the question of global dominance between the West and the East. Western dominance was built on the strength of capital, technology and scale. The Great Plague led to shortage of labour and excessive labour costs and hence, the West ended up with the steam engine and turbines and the industrial revolution, not to mention the rise of modern artillery, weapons and sea voyages with military and commercial goals. The Industrial Revolution facilitated much of that. Several other social changes followed too in its wake – the rise of women as key members of the labour force, smaller families, urbanisation and the demographic trends that we witness today.

In the previous eighteen centuries, labour-rich China and India dominated and technological development was not a necessity. The Great Plague did the trick for technology. Accidents of history shape history and society.

I am not sure – and I am just thinking aloud here – if the question of East or West and Capital or Labour can be resolved independently of each other.

That said, there is an interesting game afoot and it is evident in this open invitation from Russia to Europe to rise to the challenge of replacing the U.S. dollar:

Yet the clincher in terms of possible game-changing relations between Russia and Europe came from Finance Minister and first deputy Prime Minister Anton Siluanov: “As we see, restrictions imposed by the American partners are of an extraterritorial nature. The possibility of switching from the US dollar to the euro in settlements depends on Europe’s stance toward Washington’s position.”

So once again the EU was on the spot – on both crucial fronts, Iran and Russia. Siluanov left the door wide open: “If our European partners declare their position unequivocally, we could definitely see a way to use the European common currency for financial settlements, such as payments for goods and services, which today are often subject to restrictions.” [Link]

I am not sure if the Euro or the Eurozone is ready for this challenge. It has existential challenges. I do not have to remind you of that. Italy offers that reminder well enough. That said, the developments here need to be watched carefully, closely and continuously. The current unipolar position of the US dollar can be tenuous.

Equally, it is possible that Mr. Mahbhubani is guilty of hyping the end of the Western dominance. That is, he could be way too premature here. The East is not one monolithic bloc. Indeed, it may be a case of China vs. the Rest in Asia itself.

To see that, read this article that puts a different spin on the keynote speech of the Indian Prime Minister at the Annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. This is a pushback to Mr. Escobar’s thesis. Indeed, the author tries to pour cold water on the conclusion that the Indian PM Modi sided with China and cold-shouldered the United States in his speech at the Shangri-la dialogue.

By the way, in case you have some doubts as to which Mr. Escobar is taking in the West vs. East debate, you do not have to wait too long to have your doubts resolved. This article by him on India’s relationship with Iran should remove your doubts.

For me, I am a sceptic of the hypothesis that the West is done and over with; that the East is ready and that all that is required of the West is to roll over and play dead. There are far too many holes and one-sided assumptions in these multi-layered hyptheses.

Real thoughts on fake news

An exchange over WhatsApp with a friend on the purveyors of ‘fake news’ has resulted in this post.

In general, someone pithily described news as such:

Ordinary people in extraordinary situations and extraordinary people in ordinary situations.

Of course, that is only partial dimension. News often need not involve people.

Similarly, fake news can be defined as such, in my view:

  • Reporting news that did not happen
  • Not reporting news that happened.
  • Then, there is a third category of reporting that is not an outright lie but falls well short of being authentic. Incomplete, distorted and partial reporting that changes the understanding of the reader of the news from what was intended by the source. So, the medium inserts itself rather heavily in influencing the understanding of the reader or the purveyor (it could be visual). That too is fake news.

Whether it is weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whether it is the poisoning of Skripals, whether it is chemical weapons deployment (or not) by Assad, what is fake news and what is not? See this blog post, to get an idea of what I am saying.

What about selective leaking of information that was exchanged between two individuals or institutions in confidence with the formal or informal understanding that it would remain confidential?

Anything that seeks not to inform fully but to ‘manipulate’ the understanding of the receiver towards a conclusion that the originator wants them to reach, through deliberate concealment, withholding of releavnt information and/or its deliberate distortion or its incomplete conveyance is, in my view, fake news.

Viewed in this light, much of what passes for news these days is fake news. One needs to read multiple sources or try to go to the source data or speech or paper oneself to get the full picture or a better picture.

Finally, it is also true that we – almost all of us – are prone to attaching the label of ‘fake news’ to that convey a view that we do not agree with. We would rather consume more readily and more unquestioningly news that confirm our priors. Again, that is in our nature. Cannot single out anyone as guilty of this. But, we should be conscious of this inherent fallacy in us.

Stuff that happened

I was at the MINT Asia-HT Leadership Summit held in Singapore on Friday, 13th April. Found Chandrababu Naidu impressive in terms of presenting his views. Of course, he was selling too hard. Nitin Gadkari was disarming and had a smiling disposition. Wish the Indian Prime Minister copied some of that. Tony Blair delivered the keynote speech after lunch. He was impressive. Had a self-deprecating humour. He is partially responsible for the mess that Iraq still is. But, one has to admit that he did come across as a thoughtful guy.

He said that politicians enter office most popular and least capable and leave office least popular and most capable!

He also recalled how Bill Clinton deftly dodged a reporter’s question on whether he was speaking to the next British Prime Minister when he was meeting with Tony Blair, then the leader of the Opposition. Either a YES or a NO would have been bad answers. Clinton was facing his own re-election in 1996 in a few months when this incident happened. He deftly said that he hoped that Tony Blair was speaking to the next President of the United States! That is really on-the-feet thinking and diplomacy.

India’s former foreign secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar made some pertinent observations on the state of play between Asia and West. He said that if Asian nations favoured a multipolar world, they should work towards multipolarity in Asia, to begin with. Second, he said that it might be premature to write off the West. I quite agree with both.

That said, writing this on Saturday, after the ‘surprise’ America-led missile attack again on Syria, one year after the last attack and the last charge that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, I find myself nodding in appreciation that China has opposed the Western air strikes. As the British MP George Galloway told a reporter, there is no due process. In any case, how can the Western media that criticses Trump at every opportunity suddenly finds something to appove of? In their eyes, how does this one become right? The response of the journalist in this interview to the former British General is simply stunning.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News is worth watching in these two videos.

MarkGB, in his blog, has this explanation as to the real motivation behind the missile attack on Syria:

Of course your government would lie to you, they are lying to you right now. This has nothing to do with saving lives – bombing kills people. This is about preventing the Syrian government regaining total control of the country. It’s about what it’s always been about – breaking the country up, taking the oil, putting the Qatari pipeline through Syria to rival Russia’s dominance of the European oil market. It’s about keeping the region de-stabilsed so that the Apartheid regime in Tel-Aviv can take more of the energy resources in the Golan Heights…and sooner or later…take the water resources in southern Lebanon. [Link]

The post-WW II order

The Editor
New York Times

Dear Sirs or Madam,

This has reference to the article by Peter Goodman (‘The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It’, published online on March 26, 2018 – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/business/nato-european-union.html).

I first comment on some specific statements made by Mr. Goodman before offering general comments.

Naïve comment:

But American leaders have failed to deliver job training and other  programs that might have cushioned the blow for communities hurt by imports.

The scale of the dislocation and jobs displacement was so huge as not to be amenable to such romantically naïve prescriptions.

Faulty logic:

Mr. Trump’s trademarks — “Make America Great Again,” and “America First” — underscore his forsaking of his country’s traditional commitment to collective ideals.”

This is an example of ultimate finessing:

“But if the justice of the liberal order has been contentious, now its basic endurance appears in question.”

An order that is not just will not endure. Period. The cumulative injustice perpetrated by the order has now threatened its basic endurance. That is the way to frame the sentence and understand the developments.

Barking at the wrong tree:

He appears to subscribe to the notion that the United States, the largest economy on earth, must unabashedly pursue its self-interest, free of constraints like naïve reverence for the rules of the global trading system.”

This statement would have been authentic and correct had it been directed at China.

Let us rephrase it and that would make a lot more sense:

“Xi appears to subscribe to the notion that China, the second largest economy on earth, must unabashedly pursue its self-interest, free of constraints like naïve reverence for the rules of the global trading system.”

My comments:

Collectivist ideals were easy to forge in the bloddy aftermath of the WW II,e especially after the holocaust induced killings.

Rising prosperity – again, relatively easy, after the Great Depression and WW II – made it easy to commit to ‘collectivist ideals’.

Then, in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet entry into Afghanistan and the tantalising opening up of China to the West, it was easy to renew commitment to collectivist ideal. The common threat was clearly recognised and always a visible and identifiable enemy enables one to define oneself as ‘not the enemy and what it/he stands for’.

Then, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, optimism about the Western system of capitalism and the Grand Euro project cemented the collectivism.

In the new millennium, after 09/11, the threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ provided the glue.

But, while all these were going, we had countervailing forces that were chipping away at the collectivist glue – technology, outsourcing and offshoring – that concentrated profits in few hands.

Technological developments, on their part, weakened familial ties, glues and increased the atomisation of families and societies, leaving humans feeling lonely, vulnerable and stressed. The onward and relentless march of technology was another of the ‘Globalist’ projects.
All that they can offer in compensation for what they had and are still unleashing is ‘Universal Basic Income’ – arrogant and stupid at the same time.

Nothing much has changed in the world of finance either. The rise of finance that ruined economies has not been arrested. Even nine years after the crisis of 2008, average bonuses on Wall Street had returned to the levels of 2006!

Blame the ‘globalists’ for the failure of the ‘global project’. Not the populists and the nationalists. They are doing just the final rites on the corpse. The murder of the ‘global project’ was done by the so-called globalists.

Until the world gets it and until people like Goodman gets it, the populists are not going to be pushed back. They will be strengthened by these false framing of the issue and the narrative.

Thank you.
Sincerely,
Anantha Nageswaran