Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On The Edge

The Edge annual question 2008 is 'What have you changed your mind about?' and Sean over at CV summarized some of the answers for the average blogger's short attention span (try to recall the title of this post). I find it a tough question, given that I change my mind constantly about a lot of things. I also change my mind about whether I should consider this mental flexibility (better days), immaturity (worse days), or irrelevant (most days).

Either way, this reminded me that I promised previously to answer The Edge 2006 question 'What is your most dangerous idea?' (seems I missed out on 2007?). I said then I'd write this post when I'm in a particularly cynical mood, so therefore the parental advisory banner. There's no cursing here, and no discussion of my sexual preferences, just a pessimistic world view. Since I'm all for economic writing this is a read one get two, and I'll take care of '06 and '08 together: My most dangerous idea is that mankind is running into a downward spiral of reinforced constant unhappiness, and I've changed my mind about whether this is a realistic scenario or not. Though I've changed my mind back and forth about this a couple of times currently the status is back to disaster.

The point is simple. Intelligence is no longer an evolutionary advantage if the content of thought becomes increasingly abstract and theoretical. Our societies get more and more complex, and desperately need intellectuals, scientists, and thinkers to help them find their way in a world that's getting increasingly confusing every day. Yet, our societies don't listen to these voices, politics refutes any scientific method, leaders repeat mistakes, ignore warnings, and stick to believes that are scientifically wrong. It's a problem that has been around since thousands of years, but it is a problem that can be ignored for a long time - as long as trial an error works fast enough. Unfortunately though, the tolerance for mistakes gets smaller every year, and the consequences of mistakes larger.

The saddest example is maybe the present global warming discussion. All these political problems, the fact that capitalism alone fails to protect common goods, these have been discussed already decades ago. It is quite ironic to me, reading as news what we have been taught at school. May it be about the best way to provide incentives, saving energy, or reducing garbage. The climate change and energy shortening issue has been around since at least the Club of Rome report '72. It was the time of Greenpeace, remember that? Jute statt Plastik?

The energy problems I consider the much worse part because it will hit rather suddenly, yet despite all the hot air nobody actually does something about it. The obvious way out if oil gets short is power from nuclear fission. Face it - and think about that this will be a global problem. How many nations do you want to have in this world experimenting with their first nuclear fission reactors? We have, for better or worse, a global economy, but no global political system. It's a small wonder negotiations fail as long as the global marketplace has no balance in a political decision making process. And that's not a particularly new insight either. But hey, liberalism is still en vogue, lets wait some more decades.

I've been around in the blogosphere for long enough to realize that a significant fraction of our readers will now grind their teeth and say, girl stick to physics, you don't know nothing. Another part will think, gag, she shouldn't. And that brings me to the reason why I changed my mind about whether we will be able to resolve the present problems in a timely manner.

It seems I constantly hear people who don't know nothing about political systems, but are completely convinced their own is the best, and everything else is worse. I constantly hear people who don't know nothing about economical systems but are completely convinced their own is the best, and everything else is worse. And why so? Because they've been told so since the day they were born. And apparently that mode of thinking - which every serious scientist would immediately reject - is completely appropriate when it comes to political questions, never mind that a significant part of them can be addressed scientifically as well. And here we have it again, that gap between natural and social sciences, that gap between politics and our intellectual elite. A lack of communication, paired with increasing specialization, resulting in a society that doesn't listen to its thinkers. Hey, it's only a theory.

Can't hear you, sorry.And that is what worries me. Not that other people's opinions might differ from mine, but that they are neither willing nor able to ask whether what they've been told is true, or still true. And they live very well with their ignorance that unfortunately reflects in the management of our societies. It's the way discussions are lead, the absence of scientific argumentation, the emphasis on advertisement over reason, rethorics over content, our inability to learn, that's what worries me.

A society that doesn't listen to its thinkers in times like this is a society that is destined to fail.

Our evolutionary developed mechanisms to improve 'fitness' of the human race don't work when we don't experience the consequences of our doing, or in an environment that changes too rapidly, too globally, too detached from our senses. And it's us who we change our world too fast to actually adapt to it, too fast so we can't accurately rate and act on the consequences. We just can't rely on our intuition in many regards, because our brains were never meant to deal with such situations.

Who cares if company X exploits underaged workers on the other side of the world, if their products are cheap and look nice. If you want consumers to change their mind, tell them the story of H. (name changed), with plenty photos of malnourished and sick children. That's the way the human brain works, and that's the game we play today.

So, we have an obvious tension between the immediate short-term goals that our neurons award with gratification (a personal masseur? fame? cigarette break?) and the problems that are either spatially or temporarily distant and get neglected.

What we have done to make our societies function efficiently in such a rapidly changing environment is we implemented fast working feedback mechanisms quite similarly to evolution, call it the survival of the fittest company, or idea. This works quite well to direct a fairly complex system towards optimization, allows capital to be invested into further development which is to the benefit of everybody. But then we forget that it was us who set up these mechanisms in the first place, for our own well-being, and that we might have to readjust them from time to time, asking whether they still do what we want them to do.

Now, we are living in a society where making money has become a self-purposeful action, where it should instead be a feedback mechanism to direct the economy. I am not against capitalism - it works well in many regards, and as long as improving the circumstances of living is correlated with economical growth of some kind, it is a good tool. But this correlation has its limitation, and the more advanced societies have reached them. Do I really have to tell you that money doesn't equal happiness? How many people are there today selling stuff they know is crap? How many of the pills advertised to make you younger, slimmer, more attractive are just wasting your time and potentially your money? How many advertisements are just blatant lies, but 100% guaranteed?

How many people spend their day trying to find a smart way to rip you off...

... and they will actually argue they make our lives better because it's good for the economy? Never mind that energy and resources are wasted into producing crap if one just adds enough Tools are great, let's fix the ozon layer!psychologists for an irresistible advertisement. That's what I mean with reinforced unhappiness: The presently realized 'optimization' process blindly lead towards economical growth, on the possible expenses of the quality of humans living in that environment because not all factors are appropriately weighted by monetary value. Look at your leaders who talk about the economy, the economy, the economy all the time (unless they are busy talking about religion that is). What they should be talking about are their people first place. And then in the second place how the economy can be used to make our lives better (and they shouldn't be talking about religion at all). Capitalism, operation for profit, and market economy are tools. Useful tools, but as all tools they have a range where they can be applied, and others where they are inappropriate.

Sadly, nothing of what I've just said is new in any regard. If you want to measure the status of happiness in your society, look at the amount of people who need anti-depressants to get through their days because the quality of their living has so tremendously improved. It's a combination of feeling 'unfit' for the environment, amplified by the hopelessness that comes from believing they can't change anything about it - neither themselves, nor the external circumstances. We have changed our environment so much that we ourselves no longer 'fit', and are unable to resolve the mismatch.

You might notice the reasoning is similar to that of my earlier post on the Marketplace of Ideas, where I wrote about the gap between primary goals and secondary criteria. Secondary criteria are handy quantities to measure success, and optimizing them provides a sensible mechanism towards improvement possibly for a long time. The danger though is that fulfilling the secondary criteria becomes a self-purposeful action, and their optimization is pursued even though it is not the actual goal. Here it is making money (secondary criteria) that is confused with improving quality of living (primary goal). In the scientific community there's a bunch of criteria like number of publications, potential to obtain grants, being in fashion, connections in the community (secondary criteria) that are being confused with good research (primary goal).

Want more examples where people loose their primary goals out of sight for the immediate reward? Look at a couple of science blogs with advertisement banners. Meant to promote scientific knowledge, their websites also feature advertisements for crackpottery, intelligent design, the new quantum mechanics or other metaphysics. Sure I understand it's nice to make money. Know your priorities.

So to end with, why is this dangerous? Well, when I read the book 'What is your most dangerous idea?' I was wondering what actually is 'dangerous'. It crossed my mind that one could destroy the planet, or maybe the whole universe (yeah). But actually, I think suffering is worse than dying, so the most dangerous idea seemed to me that we can maneuver our society into a state of constant unhappiness because we're too stupid to correct our actions, and find the way out. Like the fly in your room that constantly bumps against the glass, yet is unable to learn from its mistakes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Actually, I think The Edge is one of the little efforts into the right direction, providing a forum for your societies' intellectuals to reach the public, as well as a possibility to bridge the communication gap that has developed between scientists of various disciplines. Let's hope enough people listen.

I just looked up the 2007 question. It was 'What are you optimistic about?' Ah well, I will come back to this when I have a better day.

107 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bee

Are you absolutely certain that European nations achieved a high standard of living by following a capitalist-the pure form- blueprint? I believe the opposite is true. Violation of free market principles seems to have been the norm(and still is.)

I can only comment from the perpsective of an American. I believe that Americans just aren't interested in thinking deeply about things.

People who aren't experiencing acute economic insecurity have no reason to challenge the status quo. Then there are the Americans who are experiencing various degrees od economic insecurity. What passess for a middle class in America these days lives only a few pay checks from the street. For these Americans space in the brain that should be taken up with thinking deply about the great issues of the day is devoted to constant worrying.

I saw on the science channel last that WE will have a near miss in 2029. If the meteor passess through the keyhole,with 100 percent certainty,in 2036, kiss our collective (fat)ass good-bye. Among other things, I'm worried about this. Mostof my neighbors strain brain neurons worrying about the NY Yankess. I hope WE are not a doomed species

Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Bee

Are you absolutely certain that European nations achieved a high standard of living by following a capitalist-the pure form- blueprint?


Certainly not, and I am perfectly sure I never said that.

Frank said...

Feynman: This unscientific age...

Rambling on:

But yeah, I think, when too much depressed by this, it helps to take a step back, we only emerged from superstition a few centuries ago, the great struggle of enlightenment is far from over, and we are a part of it.

The gloom will not come to pass, not because the thinkers will suddenly seize power and start to right things but because at crucial moments the thinkers ARE heard.

"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." - Albert Einstein

And yet the nuclear holocaust did not come to pass. Nor were the issues that enabled it resolved. We coped somehow in our very stupid human ways and wriggled through.

Above all we can not allow us the luxury of despair, we need to stay relentlessly positive.

England is different from the US, but the thing that bugs me the most here is the lack of anything resembling public discourse. Of a culture that values its intellectuals. The edge is great for science but undervalues the humanities IMO, and furthermore it is guilty of that very thing: accepting the culture of soundbites over deep thinking and contemplation and trying to reformat the results of deep thinking and contemplation into the form of soundbites instead of trying to create a better, wider, more human culture.

Still its a(nother) start.

We did not begin this, we are not going to finish this, but what we write, discuss and think today will be the foundation for what will be tomorrow, and thus we will have played our part. Which always was all that we could do...

Other said...

"A society that doesn't listen to its thinkers in times like this is a society that is destined to fail."

Well, frankly I think that society doesn't listen to its thinkers because it has come to believe that "thinkers" are just another pressure group who manipulate their "thinking" in order to further their own special interests. And the blame for this lies almost entirely with the "thinkers" themselves.

I agree that money doesn't buy happiness [though my new car does actually make me happier, maybe I am just not thinking hard enough.....]. This is however irrelevant. Money may not buy happiness, but poverty nearly always *does* buy unhappiness. Capitalism offers poor people a way out of poverty, and that is the source of its irresistible power. Whether we like it or not.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of what I've read yesterday, Leon Lederman answering The Edge's question:

We need to elect people who can think critically. A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect. We need a national movement to seek out scientists and engineers who have demonstrated the required management and communication skills. And we need a strong consensus of mentors that the need for wisdom and knowledge in the Congress must have a huge priority.

Let's hope there is a chance...

Bee said...

Hi Joshua:

Are you referring to Apophis? It is of course true that people who are not experiencing acute existential pressure have little reason to question the status quo. What I find worrisome though is that esp. in the USA even those who have this reason defend the status quo. You say For these Americans space in the brain that should be taken up with thinking deply about the great issues of the day is devoted to constant worrying. - that's what societies used to have their intellectuals for, to provide a voice, to show a direction for those who don't have the time to think about the issues besides noticing that it doesn't work the way it is.

I believe that Americans just aren't interested in thinking deeply about things.

I don't think Americans are so much different in this behalf from citizens of other nations. I don't expect everybody to constantly think about every aspect of our living - if that was the case our society would be pretty much dysfunctional. The problem I see is the trend to ignore those who take the time to do this thinking, instead of listening to them.

Hi Frank,

Above all we can not allow us the luxury of despair, we need to stay relentlessly positive.

There is a line between optimism and denial.

We coped somehow in our very stupid human ways and wriggled through.

There is no reason to rely on things working out somehow, just because they have so far always worked out somehow. There is a timescale we need to solve problems, and there is a time scale in which we create problems. The human brain hasn't changed all that much, the time to find smart solutions to our problems and to realize them is set by the capability of our mind, whereas we are creating more and more problems, that need to be solved faster. It is only a question of time until we won't be able to cope any longer, unless we slow things down.

I find the argument it will all work out nice and comforting, but it completely ignores the fact that times are changing. As I wrote above, we have altered our environment faster than we can adapt to it. If we don't redirect this trend, we will run against a wall.

I agree that the humanistics are underrepresented at the Edge, which is too bad.


Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Other,

I worded carefully "money doesn't equal happiness". I know a lot of people who would agree that more money would make them happier, and I too would say if I didn't have to worry about how I pay my flights to Europe and back, my life would be much nicer. What I meant to express is that this correlation which works in a certain range is not an equality, and one shouldn't forget what it is we actually strive for.

Well, frankly I think that society doesn't listen to its thinkers because it has come to believe that "thinkers" are just another pressure group who manipulate their "thinking" in order to further their own special interests. And the blame for this lies almost entirely with the "thinkers" themselves.

That might actually be true. The problem is that people have started believing everybody acts only to pursue his or her own interest, which is a very sad side effect of a society that values competition over solidarity, and promotes the story of you-can-do-it-if-you-only-try-hard-enough, and if you don't make it it's entirely your fault.

I wouldn't go so far as Plato to say the philosophers should be kings - in fact I've come to believe charismatic leadership is a necessary and useful device (something else that I've changed my mind about) - but definitely politicians prime interest shouldn't be their own, and I would really like to see some 'wisdom lovers' that could make it through the election process. It's those people that we should be looking for, not those who have sufficient money for an election campaign. But where is their place today?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

Yeah, one shouldn't give up on them. I guess the actual reason why I've changed my mind about the question of whether or not we'll be able to resolve our problems in a timely manner is moving to Canada. Because, well, these Americans they have a huge potential for rapid and extreme changes, and can make you believe they will be able to cope with every problem. Oh, sorry, it's a challenge, not a problem ;-) Either way, it all builds up on facing reality, so that would be a good starting point.

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Some people genuinely enjoy the sadistic pleasure of seeing other people suffer and fail. One moderate form of this is "schadenfreude". For many people, they like to feel superior over other people in a particular criteria.

Anonymous said...

Happiness likely has genetic components. A lot of work has gone into quantifying what exactly we mean with emotions in the last 10 years or so.

There was that recent work that implied the state of happiness was relatively fixed per individual. You could fluctuate over and under depending on circumstances, but invariably you fall back into your natural zone over time.

This also implied money, political systems and things like that shouldn't correlate too strongly with happiness.

~Haelfix

Frank said...

The point wasn't to be nice and comforting. I merely meant to point out how a realistic solution can look, IF we manage to find it.

If we manage to find it, it will have been because the thinkers pushed as hard as they could (and we've seen that over the last years, the message greenpeace and others have been pushing for, for decades has come through, action is still far away, but all of a sudden no one shrugs their shoulders at those crazy tree-huggers anymore).

So rather then be comforted, consider it me joining into your battle cry.

BTW, the rate at which problems appear is also set by our minds, isn't it?

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

We share many of the same concerns and ideas. I too am naturally a pessimist and at least once a week am grateful that I will likely not live long enough to see the horrors to come.

On the other hand, sitting here in India where there has been so much change in the last 20 years, I cannot but feel that somehow ideas get through.

One very (scary) case of ideas reaching fruition is the current neocon nightmare in the US - the political situation is a working out of the ideas that gained currency in the 80s and 90s. So I cannot help but feel that good ideas will work themselves out too.

Best,
-Arun

Anonymous said...

Bee

Yes Bee, Apophis.

Other said

Do you have any evidence that "capitalism offers poor people a way out of poverty" or is this a divine edict from Jeffrey "free market shock treatment "Sachs and Thomas Freidman?

warm regards
Josuah Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Hi Frank:

The point wasn't to be nice and comforting. I merely meant to point out how a realistic solution can look, IF we manage to find it.

I merely meant to point out people like to believe this reasoning because it is nice and comforting.

the message greenpeace and others have been pushing for, for decades has come through, action is still far away, but all of a sudden no one shrugs their shoulders at those crazy tree-huggers anymore

You must know that in Germany people have taken the treehuggers pretty serious already in the 80ies. But that was widely ignored in those countries where people didn't see trees dying first hand. The ignorance is what concerns me. It doesn't surprise me that people don't see the pressure but I'd think a political system should be set up such to incorporate sheer knowledge of facts.

I'd agree with you though that there has been some progress in the last years, and the fact that this change of mind has happened rather fast is indeed a reason for hope. Unfortunately though, it seems to me people are focusing on completely the wrong problems. I mean, it would be nice could they come to any conclusions about how to do what, sure. But the actual problem is that there is no good way to lead these negotiations and they can fail at any stage. And with the next problem we'll have the same decades of back and forth. Either way, the climate change was only an example anyhow. What is currently much more scary is the global economical instability. I am not much of an an economist, but even I sense there will be some major economical crisis rather soon, possibly even this year. If you need any indicators, take Bush talking about the 'fundamentals of the economy being strong'. The whole situation in the US is incredibly unstable. There is a large percentage of people living damned close by poverty level. If their situation gets only slightly worse, they will be pushed to fight for survival, not because they want to, but because they have no other way out. This will not exactly encourage people to believe in strong fundamentals.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: BTW, the rate at which problems appear is also set by our minds, isn't it?

I believe in external reality. What is set by our mind is the rate at which we admit there is a problem.

amaragraps said...

The energy problems I consider the much worse part because it will hit rather suddenly, yet despite all the hot air nobody actually does something about it.

Dear Bee, you might be interested in my writings on this topic here and here on Clifford's Wired Science blog. There _are_ people thinking and working seriously on the topic.

Rae Ann said...

Someone asked: "Do you have any evidence that "capitalism offers poor people a way out of poverty" ?

Well, it isn't scientifically quantifiable or whatever but my own personal life is a big evidence that capitalism offers poor people a way out of poverty. And we aren't the only ones. There are many examples of 'common' people who have worked their way out of poverty by capitalist methods that don't include exploiting underage workers or selling useless crap. There is another part of the world that the "intellectual elite" tends to dismiss, disparage, and/or flat-out ignore. Just because someone is highly intelligent in science does not mean that intelligence translates to common sense and awareness of reality.

Bee, I'm sorry if this doesn't come out right, and I don't mean it as any kind of insult. It seems to me that in many ways the "intellectual elite" tends to overestimate its importance in the world in general. On the one hand you mention the "gap between politics and our intellectual elite" but on the other you say "Intelligence is no longer an evolutionary advantage if the content of thought becomes increasingly abstract and theoretical..."

Part of the problem is that the "elite" are just as confused as the rest of us about many practical things and aren't usually any better at communicating their ideas. And if a survey of the scientific blogs is any indication of what kind of world those "intellectual elites" want, then no thanks, I'm not buying it.

Maybe I'm in a cynical mood too ;-).

Bee said...

Hi Rae Ann,

No need to apologize. That someone who made the remark wasn't me, and I do actually agree on what you wrote in reply. In addition I think it is in fact scientifically quantifiable. But whether or not, there is without doubt a reason why capitalism is so successful.

Regarding your concerns about the 'intellectual elite'. It is quite interesting that you seem to assume I am referring to a certain type of technical intelligence that is necessarily detached from reality. It seems you have reservations about the practical usefulness of those people, even though they might be in their community highly regarded. So have I. It is a big problem imho that esp. in the humanistics the 'intellectual elite' is more or less detached from practical applications. I am afraid the reason why there aren't more people from the humanistics at The Edge is simply that there aren't many who are willing and able to write a understandable book. And this problem is more than just cosmetics. A scientist who isn't able to communicate his or her research is essentially useless.

What I am trying to say is that politics the way it is done right now is a game of vanities, it's a media event, and it lacks any scientific method. The best indicator for intelligence is the ability to think ahead and to learn from mistakes. Our political systems should realize that.

On the one hand you mention the "gap between politics and our intellectual elite" but on the other you say "Intelligence is no longer an evolutionary advantage if the content of thought becomes increasingly abstract and theoretical..."

What I am saying is that one has to invest time and effort into understanding, and this is not necessarily a process that is a priori productive in the capitalistic sense. It is the same problem as with funding basic research. It's a seeking of knowledge that is essential for progress on the long run, but it is not appreciated any more in our society. The gap between the leaders and the thinkers, this gap is simply speaking fatal to progress. And, apologies on my behalf, it gets worse by people who like you are completely convinced 'thinkers' are useless. Look, I am a phenomenologist. A product of thinking that doesn't have an application and is well confirmed by evidence isn't interesting to me, I am not talking about fantasies when I refer to 'thinking'. You make progress that way in the natural sciences, and you can do that in the social sciences as well. Where the people doing that, but who listens to them - this is one of the most important aspects for the future of our civilizations, yet who supports that? You say "the "intellectual elite" tends to overestimate its importance in the world in general, whereas I think in fact they greatly underestimate their importance. All those smart people I meet, I sometimes want to shout at them: it's your world, you have the brains, go use them for something!

And if a survey of the scientific blogs is any indication of what kind of world those "intellectual elites" want, then no thanks, I'm not buying it.

In my writing you'll sense a certain amount of frustration about the scientific community itself. It isn't much of an intellectual elite actually. I think though we are arguing about the meaning of a word that you seem to find offensive because you connect to it people living in a dream world. Let me assure you I certainly wouldn't want to impose more useless rhetoric on anybody. Best,

B.

Uncle al said...

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/
(Toxic URL! Unsafe for children and most mammals)

If you want social influence, bounce a basketball. The world hates, fears, and loaths intelligence. Folks would rather burn to death huddled in a church than risk attacking their attackers.

This is vigorously exploited for political ends. 1984, Book One, Chapter 5: "Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." Church, State, charity, Enviro-whinerism, ethnic culture. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Bee said...

Dear Amara:

Thanks, I recall that you mentioned that before. The problem I am concerned about though isn't so much actually the energy source itself. I am pretty sure we can - in principle! - solve that problem. Though (as I wrote) I think it is the most likely people will fall back to the already available technology of nuclear fission. The problem I see is the the preparation in a timely manner. I see hundred millions of households heating with oil. Many of which in countries where one simply can't survive the winter without heating. What are these people supposed to do. The majority of households and companies in the western world relies on oil and gasoline - still. Sure, the reason is that people won't do anything until they are forced to. But then it might be too late. I am afraid that many people will suffer because we were not prepared in time. I am not saying it is impossible. It is good to see that people are asking the right questions, but how do they get their ideas become reality? That is where we are back to the problems I was writing about. Best,

B.

Geeky said...

Beee wrote:

It doesn't surprise me that people don't see the pressure but I'd think a political system should be set up such to incorporate sheer knowledge of facts.


I think the basic problem (which has mushroomed over the last 20 yrs or so -- though that may just reflect my coming of age) is society's inability to agree on the facts. Debates raging over, e.g., climate change and economics make it nigh impossible for most people to distinguish fact, interpretation, and fantasy. And it's not necessarily a function of an observer's education level.

The problem is the difficulty of interpretation -- and hence ease of manipulation, either malicious, ignorant, or otherwise -- of non-rigorous analyses.

For the purposes of discussion, I'm defining a rigorous analysis as one which allows for engineering applications: tangible results that people can see and appreciate, based upon principles that aren't as accessible. Economics clearly falls short of this. To state the obvious: two physicists may have wildly different political views, but they (ultimately) will agree on the physics. Not so in economics! What kind of "science" largely reflects a practitioner's political views? (Of course, there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here: some may have legitimately acquired their views as a result of analysis. But overall there seems little of the "let's see where the data take us" kind of thinking going on.) I mean, when was the last time a physicist was described in a Science Times article as "liberal"? But the tag "liberal economist" or "conservative economist" is almost required in any responsible article that non-economists would read.

Climate change analyses are, alas, also susceptible to this kind of manipulation (malicious, ignorant, or otherwise). It's just too hard a problem, with (until recently?) few clear demonstrable effects. And, of course, no engineering.

John G said...

Intellectually, people can certainly have different opinions. On global warming there is this for example:

http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jul/the-discover-interview-henrik-svensmark

The big problem is that world leadership (including the West) has a psychopathic agenda. Things are much worse behind the scenes than people think. They probably prefer to keep the intelligent masses busy argueing over all the little petty issues (and global warming is petty compared with the overall leadership problem).

Plato said...

How could I ignore your comment in regards to the Philosopher kings?

The term "king" might refer one to the "old system of governance" when it is something much more.

A philosopher King Plato defined a philosopher firstly as its eponymous occupation – wisdom-lover. He then distinguishes between one who loves true knowledge as opposed to simple sights or education by saying that a philosopher is the only man who has access to forms – the archetypal concept which lies behind all representations of the form (such as a table as opposed to any one particular table).

I keep this quote below for obvious reasons?:)

The Republic: "You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life."

Anonymous said...

Bee

You made the point I wanted to make -but didn't- about timing and the point of no return.

Which is worse Global Warming or fission technology? Global warming I would think. We may have to live with a certain number of Three mile Island Islands catastrophes. Can we live with that? We may have no choice. I don't like this state of affairs.

Maybe living with fission technology will scare the shit out of ordinary people into demanding that alternative energy technology be funded at the right levels. The horrifying spectacle of two headed infants-casualties of fission technology -might do this.

Back to Das Capital. Maybe we are talking past each other. My post was in the realm of macroeconomic policy. What is the evidence for sucessfull capitalist developement. You don't have to give an answer to this question at the present time. Just think about it. My own view is that there is no evidence for it.

Rae Ann

West Virgina coal miners have always fought and died to have protection against having pure free market principles applied to them.

It's always free marlet principles for the rest of us, parasites such as Bill Gates never have these principles applied to themsleves.

Try treating and raising your children according free market principles. If all families did this, civilization would collapse. The free market contains the most immoral code of ethics ever concieved.

warm regards
Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

John Baez said...

Bee wrote:


A society that doesn't listen to its thinkers in times like this is a society that is destined to fail.


For more on how these things go, I recommend Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He explains, for example, why Iceland lost almost all its trees, and half its soil.

Neil' said...

Good points, Bee. One of the scary things is this "peak oil" problem, which is easy to google for. As you might imagine, this is about oil demand outstripping supply, with disastrous consequences. If we had started on this problem earlier we could have gotten ahead of the tidal wave: with the sort of rational thought you suggest and not hampered by political hacks and egoist ideological cranks, corporatist disinformation, populations growth often fed by backward religious notions, and the inertia of the slumbering public who wanted to just cruise on with big cars, big consumption, etc.

One thing that would help scientists get their message of rational *practical* thought out: lay off religious concepts per se, with a misguided notion that you should be trying to disprove theism or the intuitively appealing implications of anthropic fine-tuning, etc. At the high metaphysical level it just turns people off and has no good practical purpose, not to be confused with when you have to disagree for known scientific reasons, like evolution, stem cells, etc.

Bee is not an offender at this, but so many like PZ and to some extent Sean at CV feel driven to pick on this unnecessarily.

Bee said...

Hi All:

Thanks so much for your interesting comments! It actually cheered me up a lot, reading your thoughts on the matter.

Un fortunately, I am currently stuck in the middle of a move, but will reply later in more detail. Wish me luck with the couch. I am halfways sure it mysteriously grew and won't fit through the door on the way out.

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

When all seems hopeless it is sometimes helpful to read some of the words of those who thought their world were also at the brink.


“And what of the philosophers and teachers, ‘the most disaster-stricken of people, who stand dishevelled in their classrooms, wasting away because of their labours, deafened by their students’ shouting,’ who wouldn’t last another day without their illusions of grand learning?”

From In Praise of Folly (1509) by Desiderius Erasmus

amaragraps said...

Hi Bee: Good luck with your move and mysteriously grown couch!

For my move, my household, upon arrival on the other side of the Atlantic in the third week of December, was separated from the other shipments and Xrayed (I keep thinking that the dogs sniffed my tea and spices), and was then put on a train across the mid-section of the US between Christmas and New Years. Tomorrow, my house-on-the-train will enter Colorado, and on Monday, I will receive my household. Finally. Two months after waving goodbye to it in Frascati. I'm sort of bored wearing the same two wool sweaters. I'll have news for you then, if the gremlins in my international-move-from-hell have left for good to the nether-regions.

Bee said...

Hi Neil,

The Hubbert peak is from the 50ies and has been under discussion since the 70ies at least. It keeps shifting due to new found oil reservoirs, but I don't think anybody doubts it exists, and we either have already reached it, or it is pretty close. As I said above, the sad thing is that nothing of this discussion is actually new, yet people have postponed addressing the problem, maybe for too long.

One thing that would help scientists get their message of rational *practical* thought out: lay off religious concepts per se,

I neither find this necessary nor doable. I see the question of religion among scientists as I see the questions of religion among politicians: What they do in their private life is their business, but it shouldn't interfere with their job. I don't elect somebody to tell me he asks God how to lead a country or solve a problem, I elect them because they have the skills and the brains (hopefully). Same in science. Science is a job, there is theory, there is experiment. Yes, some scientists might be driven or inspired by their faith, and some like to talk about it - I have no problem with that, but I don't want to see this biasing their research, therefore it should stay out of their professional work. I have no problem with bloggers discussing religion, or generally the question that are on their minds but not in their papers. It is without doubt that religion, faith more generally, and the hope for life after death, plays a major role in our societies, also for scientists. The problem I have with the anthropic principle is not that in some variations it has an obvious religious touch, but that the attention it gets does by far exceed its usefulness, which I consider a complete waste of time and resources.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Uncle:

In fact by writing the above post I repeatedly thought of 1984. What people need to be happy isn't actually wealth, they want progress. That's what the human mind is looking for, constant improvement. The feeling to be better than the neighbor. Or the neighboring country. Orwell describes a nation that gets constantly told things are getting better though they aren't. Makes people feel good. Don't look left, don't look right. Tell your citizens your state is the best worldwide, the best political system, and the most stable economy system there is. Have a grip on the media, and a thumb on education. Start a war if everything else fails. Sound familiar? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun:

I don't think of myself as a pessimist by nature. Mostly that's because I don't think mankind is that important, and maybe it wouldn't be all that bad if there were less of us on this planet. If I wouldn't believe there is hope we will be able to address our problems in a timely manner and avoid a significant amount of unnecessary suffering, then why would I write the above? I am writing because I want people to think about the matter, and I hope to increase awareness for the problems we are facing. I think the next some years will be very important to decide on what the future will bring. Globally. People who are suddenly faced with a difficult situation tend to misjudge matters. It is always better to be prepared, so we should start thinking - not today, but yesterday. Your blog always provides me with interesting details in this regard. What currently worries me the most is that I don't think the USA can keep up the living standard in this way for much longer. Maybe it is already declining. They don't take care of their own people, it's a disastrous side effect of a naive believe in the merits of capitalism. As I wrote in reply to Uncle above, it is a pretty much Orwellian tactic, pretending everything gets better though it doesn't, while bridges fall to pieces and people die in the streets. It's an illusion though that can't be kept up forever, especially not in a time where information crosses boundaries as unhindered as today. And there will be consequences. Technically seen, it still is a democracy. So there is a potential for a change. I hope they know how to use it, listen to the right people, and don't repeat mistakes. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi John,

Thanks, that book has been mentioned to me repeatedly, I will put it on my reading list... In case you don't know it, I can really recommend The Upside of Down. It is a very clear report of somebody who manages to bridge the gap between the natural sciences and the humanistics. Essentially the point is that there is little doubt we will be facing a crisis - sometime. Not now, maybe not next year, but a difficult time will come at some point. May it be our own mistake, or coincidence. The question is then, how well can we cope, how 'fit' is our civilization for survival. And presently it doesn't look good. The energy shortening is one of these points, I mentioned it above. It's been known for decades, yet we are still under prepared. I consider this a bug in our societies administration, and it is a bug that one can work around if one is aware of it. Science and reason helps. Empty words and talkshows don't. Representative democracy is a powerful tool, but it hasn't been expored to it's full potential. Economy has adapted to technological developments and globalization much faster, yet the political system is limping behind. Unnecessarily. This leads to an imbalance that causes lots of problems.
Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Joshua,

Yeah, maybe we are talking past each other, but then I have little experience in communicating with the deceased. Let me put it roughly like this: I think a free market is a good guide in many regards. It is flexible, and the interplay of supply and demand allows for a fast feedback - it works on a timescale much faster than any political process, and points towards economical growth.

This mechanism alone however doesn't cover all aspects important for a society, that's why one needs a political system to balance it. To begin with, somebody needs to assure the market is free and fair. But besides this, there are the social aspects, and there are the people's interest in work that is non-productive in the capitalistic sense, work that is supported by the government, i.e. funding is shared by all people. Societies who rate their progress on economical growth only fail to realize the mismatch to the actual quality of their living. However, for a long period economical growth is correlated with improvement of the circumstances of living. Better infrastructure, better medical supplies, better housing, clean water, electricity, phone, cars, highways, electrical gadgets, etc.

At some point however they will have to realize that economical growth correlates with better circumstances of living in a limited range, but isn't the same. That's when the political system becomes increasingly relevant. And those who have established it as a functioning counterweight in time have a big advantage then. Like Europe has now.

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

You are a devil. With the introduction of this subject and the sites you pointed out, I went into a reading blitz. One of the most profound articles that related directly to all this was that done by Martin Rees (the Astronomer Royal). I actually heard and saw Rees several years back when I was attending a convocation at U of T. He impressed me then with his insight and wit as he continues to do here as I read the article which he entitled “We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously” in which he covered much of what has been said and discussed here. The important difference is he also extends our responsibilities to the future not only to what we consider our current species yet what he calls the posthuman one. He opens his thoughts on this is saying:

“Public discourse on very long-term planning is riddled with inconsistencies. Mostly we discount the future very heavily — investment decisions are expected to pay off within a decade or two. But when we do look further ahead — in discussions of energy policy, global warming and so forth — we underestimate the possible pace of transformational change. In particular, we need to keep our minds open — or at least ajar — to the possibility that humans themselves could change drastically within a few centuries.”

He then continues as why this should be considered when he continues:

“Humanity will soon itself be malleable, to an extent that's qualitatively new in the history of our species. New drugs (and perhaps even implants into our brains) could change human character; the cyberworld has potential that is both exhilarating and frightening. We can't confidently guess lifestyles, attitudes, social structures, or population sizes a century hence. Indeed, it's not even clear for how long our descendants would remain distinctively 'human'. Darwin himself noted that "not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity". Our own species will surely change and diversify faster than any predecessor —— via human-induced modifications (whether intelligently-controlled or unintended), not by natural selection alone. Just how fast this could happen is disputed by experts, but the post-human era may be only centuries away.”

Rees finally sums up his whole take on this issue as is here discussed in concluding:

“It's real political progress that these long-term challenges are higher on the international agenda, and that planners seriously worry about what might happen more than a century hence. But in such planning, we need to be mindful that it may not be people like us who confront the consequences of our actions today. We are custodians of a 'posthuman' future — here on Earth and perhaps beyond — that can't just be left to writers of science fiction.”

Until I read this article I never imagined that this should also form part of our future considered actions as in the context of these far reaching and important consequences. It has been often said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. In the case of Martin Rees, I think it is the old dog that has some tricks to still teach.

Anonymous said...

One thing I find very irratating, is how few people listen to academic and proffessional economists.

By and large their advice tends to be ignored, on all sides of the political spectrum.

It would be nice if they could be a little more public in pointing out things that are quite literally *wrong*

(Incidentally, I don't agree with the premise that the world or US economy is in dire straits, nor would most economists. In fact its the best it ever has been viewed on historical timescales, despite the fact that we are on the tail end of a business cycle)

amused said...

Hi Bee,

A problem with calling on society to listen to its thinkers is that pretty much every position on every issue will have its advocates who will claim to have thought deeply about it and that their views deserve attention. How to determine which of the proclaimed thinkers we should really listen to? For example, it is amusing to see that everyone's favorite independent physicist is one of The Edge's invited contributors - is he now a deep thinker whose views we should all be paying attention to? Personally I am more inclined to listen to the views of Jacques Distler ;-) As with so many other things, the designation of people as deep thinkers is often based on them being loud or being hyped, and it's hard not to be a bit cynical about it.

In any case, imo the only times when it's reasonable to insist that society listen to its intellectual experts is when they reach a consensus view on something. And in those cases it seems society does listen eventually, and takes action, even when it goes against powerful economic interests, e.g. the tobacco industry. Now that a consensus seems to have been reached on global warming i expect that action will be taken on that as well, although i share your concern that it might not happen fast enough. But as for the polical issues of how to arrange society to maximize happiness, there is certainly no consensus on that and i doubt there ever will be.

Anonymous said...

If ordinary Americans are not paying attetion to academmic economists, I would consider that a very good sign. Maybe we will have future after all.

Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Anonymous said...

Science doesnt progress, nor is it done by majority rule. Its done by ascertaining the truth value of various statements either through experiment and by mathematical consistency/argumentation/logic.

If it was done by consensus, we'd have stalled hundreds of times over throughout our history. Indeed, one had but look at the field of astrophysics in the last hundred years to see just how far that sort of group notion can be *way* off the mark.

Anonymous said...

Bee

Oh you must try it more often-commucating with the deceased that is.

warm regards
Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Frank said...

Oh yes, even in Europe (which has so far resisted the idea of impoverishing the majority in order to increase the average more strongly) poverty is rising as the economies continue to grow.

It would be awesome if we could get a political system and an overall culture for our society which is capable of quickly accepting and absorbing such simple facts. Ideally one which would be quickly able to accept and absorb more complex scientific insights as well.

In a democratic society at least, the political culture does reflect the overall culture of society, and that's why I think the fight for this is part of the impetus of the Aufklärung and enlightenment.

The eternal (or at least long) struggle for reason over the comfort and madness of superstition.

Anonymous said...

Bee

You mentioned something about how one of the good things about the free market is that it gives rapid feedback-superluminal?-which suposedly brings about a change in the behavior of the economic agent.

Built into the free market economic model is the silly concept of perfect rationality. The idea of rapid market feedback is theoretically linked in a deep way with the concept of perect rationality and a few other assumptions. Econmetric models are based upon this-most of them. Clearly real human beings don't think and behave this way. I not claiming anything original here. Just wanted to point out that economist abstract from reality in a very peculiar way. I seriously doubt given the nature of the reward system in academic economic departments that these mathematical abstractions are not politically motivated.

One last point, a group of French economic students-several years back-revolted against the neo-classical model-the dominant model in academic economics-and started a serious critique of the neoclassical model that goes by the name "Autistic Economics". Their critique is not a trivial one.

I think the more important point/fact is that so many ordinary people around the world have revolted against the policy prescriptions that flow from the neoclassical economic model.

In one Indian state, hundreds of Indian farmer have expresed their displeasure with the policy prescriptions of the Neo-classical gurus-Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Friedman, all doing quite well finacially-by comitting suicide.

It would be intersting to work out the logical links from the neoclassical assumptions of perfect rationality and utility maximation through economic models through their econometric number crunching stage and on to the suicides of these Indian farmers and starving teenage American school girls in certain towns of Ohio that have been blessed by the implementation of these neoclassical policy prescriptions in trade and industrial policy.

Warm Regards
Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Hi Geeky:

I think the basic problem (which has mushroomed over the last 20 yrs or so -- though that may just reflect my coming of age) is society's inability to agree on the facts. Debates raging over, e.g., climate change and economics make it nigh impossible for most people to distinguish fact, interpretation, and fantasy. And it's not necessarily a function of an observer's education level.

I don't believe in grassroot democracy, it doesn't work for too large groups of people, and not in a time in which expert knowledge is as specified as today. That is why most modern civilizations have a representative democracy: to get a group of people who are paid to acquire the necessary knowledge and decide on them according to the voter's intention reflecting in their party's program. Besides, a society's ability to agree on facts crucially depends on reasonable reporting and valuable information they obtain, which is imho today esp. in the US very suboptimal. What is done instead is mostly opinion generating with polarized reporting on differing sides. This is an obvious danger to democracy, and a known one, yet another point that people seem to ignore.

Yes, there are cases where the scientific discussions are not settled, and no consensus has been reached, this happens. As for the climate change, I think there is little doubt global warming is real, the question is whether it is caused by humans. But whether or not, one should deal with the situation, and energy saving is presently necessary whether or not one believes global warming is caused by humans. Therefore I think it is a big mistake to scare people with catastrophe scenarios, and no, the goal does not always justify the way.

Either way, the point I am trying to make is that there is a lot of scientific research being done about political, social and economical developments that ought to be integrated in our administrational systems - every advanced nation should take into account scientific insights, also about their managing organs and decision making processes. I know that there is quite some effort (for not to say: money) into modeling economical trends, and maybe this does actually lead somewhere, but this isn't actually what I am primarily concerned with. See, the economy is an incredibly complex system, and if it's too sensitive or too chaotic to predict I don't want them to spend decades to simulate it on a computer much like the weather, I want them to come up with a mechanism to stabilize it without endangering its useful features, to make it more useful, and less dangerously mysterious - too many people depend on a stable economy to just sit and watch. Unlike the weather its us who we make it, it is our tool, so lets make it maximally useful.

What bothers me is that in politics today two things get mixed up: the one is the actual political opinion and the decision making on questions where we want our society to go. The other one is the question how we best get there. The latter can be approached much more scientifically than is currently the case, shouldn't be subject to believes that already have proved wrong decades ago, and shouldn't be confused with the first. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Joshua:

Oh you must try it more often-commucating with the deceased that is.

Yeah, you seem to be new around, so you probably don't know that I feature the idea that the commenters on this blog are just manifestations of my multiple personality disorder. I am presently trying to cope with the fact that not only do I host a lot people who are apparently more witty and intelligent than I am, but in addition some of them are already deceased. I find this somehow disconcerting.

Either way, thanks for mentioning the references, I will have a look at that. Yes, people do not always behave rationally, especially not on too short timescales, and this potential weakness should not affect the functionality of our marketplace. The stock market isn't a funny psychological game where one can loose or win money, it is supposed to be tool to guide investment of capital.

You mentioned something about how one of the good things about the free market is that it gives rapid feedback-superluminal?-which suposedly brings about a change in the behavior of the economic agent.

Well, as I said, as everything this has its limitations. Too rapid feedback isn't good either for exactly the reason you point out, basically the human brain needs time to value facts accordingly. I mentioned this just to explain roughly why a free marked has proved to be useful, more useful than planned economy that is. I like to picture it like an optimization process on a surface, where a maximum is to be found. If one tries around small steps in some directions, looks at the feedback and acts accordingly, one will find a way uphills. The problem is however that in this way one a) can reach a state that is very unstable b) it is difficult to leave a low local maximum towards a higher one c) money simple doesn't accurately reflect all relevant parameters for a society's well being - that's what I meant to indicate above. The economy alone doesn't allow variations into all possible directions, all feedback becomes one-dimensional. Again, this can work in certain circumstances, but one has to be aware of the limitations or one runs into trouble - it needs a political system to be completed and take into account all relevant parameters.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Amused:

A problem with calling on society to listen to its thinkers is that pretty much every position on every issue will have its advocates who will claim to have thought deeply about it and that their views deserve attention. How to determine which of the proclaimed thinkers we should really listen to?

What I was trying to say is that I'd like to see argumentations as reasonable and scientific as far as possible. It is my impression that indeed most scientists are seeking for the truth in the best meaning, and are willing to listen to each other's arguments. Sure there will be differing opinions, but look at the natural sciences. Yes, we are fighting on the fronts where evidence is missing and the value of insights is still discussed, and everybody claims to have the best 'thought. But we have a pretty solid basis of textbook knowledge, theories and models that are incredibly well confirmed in their range of applicability, that has lead to a lot of progress. Where is the corresponding process of insight and application in politics and sociology? Even though the administration of our society and the decision making processes becomes increasingly relevant we seem to be stuck in the last century - meanwhile the economical systems have adapted rapidly to globalization and technological developments, which only makes the imbalance worse. It's about time for politics to arrive in the 21st century.


But as for the polical issues of how to arrange society to maximize happiness, there is certainly no consensus on that and i doubt there ever will be.

So do I, neither do I think 'happiness' is a well defined concept to begin with. A priority should be the system to remain open for improvements. But there might simply be options that prove more useful than others. And this is a question which can be addressed much more scientifically than currently is the case.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi John G:

They probably prefer to keep the intelligent masses busy argueing over all the little petty issues (and global warming is petty compared with the overall leadership problem).

Yes. But that doesn't shed a good light on their 'intelligence' does it? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous:

One thing I find very irratating, is how few people listen to academic and proffessional economists.

By and large their advice tends to be ignored, on all sides of the political spectrum.

It would be nice if they could be a little more public in pointing out things that are quite literally *wrong*


Yes. I guess the reason though is the overall problem that the scientific side of the discussion gets severely neglected in the media.

(Incidentally, I don't agree with the premise that the world or US economy is in dire straits, nor would most economists. In fact its the best it ever has been viewed on historical timescales, despite the fact that we are on the tail end of a business cycle)

Well, I don't know much about economy, and I'd be happy to be wrong. I don't think there is actually trouble right now, it just seems to me people are getting nervous about the global political situation, the energy and oil problem. Meanwhile Europe and Asia both are likewise suspicious about the US, internal and external affairs, and are doing well enough to rely less on them. This feeling doesn't actually have anything to do with the economy, more with the political situation. It seems to me in this setting a small fluctuation can have a big impact. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Frank:

It would be awesome if we could get a political system and an overall culture for our society which is capable of quickly accepting and absorbing such simple facts. Ideally one which would be quickly able to accept and absorb more complex scientific insights as well.

There will be limits to this as well, but there is presently a huge unused potential for improvement. The political/tax systems that we have are centuries old. Given that they are the most important tool to direct our future one should think there was some more effort in updating them and optimizing their functionality in a rapidly changing time.

In a democratic society at least, the political culture does reflect the overall culture of society, and that's why I think the fight for this is part of the impetus of the Aufklärung and enlightenment.

The eternal (or at least long) struggle for reason over the comfort and madness of superstition.


In principle I agree, just that I don't think there is much comfort in the present situation either. In fact, it seems a significant amount of people have very little faith in the present political system and/or their politicians. They either think they are all corrupt, or all stupid and they themselves could make it better. The problem is though that in the circumstances you mention, a change can't come from either side. Neither from the society, nor from the politicians. That's why I believe it's about time the 'thinkers' make themselves heard, and point out the flaws, and ways to improvement. Best,

B.

John G said...

Leadership (government/industry/military) seems only intelligent if you define it in a short term, selfish (for the leaders not their people) way. Oil too could fit with this.

http://www.sott.net/articles/show/140568-Confessions+of+an+%22ex%22+Peak+Oil+Believer

Tony Smith said...

Have you seen the movie "A Crude Awakening" ?
Its website is

http://www.oilcrashmovie.com/dvd.html

If you get a chance, see it and maybe comment on it.

Tony Smith

Lafo said...

Bee and everyone else gloom-and-doom about energy: the oil bust will come neither soon nor will be a real bust. Read up on the meaning of "proven" reserves - those are reserves that are economically recoverable under present or near-future prices and technology. If you dig deep enough (no pun intended) in the information, you will also find that the proven reserves constitute on the order 10% of the total oil (and probably gas as well) in the ground. This means that as the easy oil starts running out, the prices will increase and (1) will make more oil "proven recoverable" and (2) will lower consumption and/or encourage development of alternatives. There will be no bust; the world will simply smoothly shift to alternative energy sources. Adjustment will certainly be necessary, but it will be much easier with future technology than it would be if the governments listened to you and decreed it right now.

Christine said...

Oil alternatives-- we have been using one of them for decades, eg

here

here

alcohol, derived from sugar cane. Renewable, non-pollutant, but you must have the right climate and large area for plantation... Brazil has all this, plenty. But environment impact due to large plantation are must be taken into account, I don't know how far this is being considered.

My car run by alcohol and I really like its performance.

Christine

amaragraps said...

That is why most modern civilizations have a representative democracy: to get a group of people who are paid to acquire the necessary knowledge and decide on them according to the voter's intention reflecting in their party's program.

For that topic, I suggest that the voting age be eliminated. From Children's Political Rights Bob Franklin says:

"I would suggest that the most persuasive solution to the problem of political inclusion can be provided by resurrecting a simple proposal made by John Holt, which is endorsed by the research literature on political learning and childhood political socialization. Holt's prescription is as appealing as it is simple. He doesn't wish to lower the voting age incrementally but seeks 'the right to vote for people of any age.' No one should be left out. Eligibility, on his account, is determined by awareness and interest in political affairs. Everyone should have the right to vote when their interest, knowledge and involvement in politics are sufficiently developed to motivate them so to do; as interest develops, so participation will increase. This does not mean that all children would vote, and it seems probable that very young children with only a marginal, if any, interest in politics would abstain. Holt considers that few six-year olds would exercise their vote but that ten-year olds would be different, since they seem to understand at least as much about the world and its problems as I or most of my friends did when we left college..."

And then he gives what I consider very persuasive arguments. More links on that topic: The Voting Age: Discrimination on Action and Youth Suffrage

On more economic-political reading material for thought.. Globalization. I have read the recommendations of some people who say that Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize winner and author of Globalization and its Discontents and Making Globalization Work) is a good reality check on Thomas Friedman ( The World is Flat), so I'm visiting a used bookstore this weekend to get Stiglitz's two last books.

Bee said...

Hi John G:

Leadership seems to me a useful and necessary device. Maybe it's an evolutionary trait that people need someone with charisma who they can put their hopes and faith in, rather than some 'system'. I don't think though the person communicating and representing needs to play a special role in the decision making process (i.e. I prefer the role of the President in the German system over that in the US). See also my version of group theory ;-).

Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Amara(and Bee)

Here is the ook you really want to read:Kickin away the ladder deveopment strategy in historical perspective by Ha-joon Chang.

Chang is a professor of economics at Cambridge Universiy. In this book Chang reanalyzes the econmetic data on protectionism. Neo-classical econimst such as Paul Krugman,Bradford Delong,Paul Romer and Brian Arthur claim that the case for free trade is economically trivial(obvious) and that the historical econmetric bears this out. Chang does a massive and thorough reanalyses of the historical econmetric data and comes to the opposite conclusion:the economic success of the West is a direct consequence of protectionis trade policies(violation of free market principles). Underdevelopment is a direct consequence of non-protectionist trade policies.

Of course if we are honest, human beings do not voluntary accept free market advice from the finacially well to do economist such as Jeffrey Sachs,Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman.
Human beings only "accept" this free market nonesense because of the very real threatof cruise missles,smart bombs and the threat of tactical nukes.

Ordinary people , always know what the real economic data is and the know from first hand experience. I give priority to the real wold experiences of ordinary people than to the theories and econoetic data of the Peul Krugman's of the world(Paul has very nice Mcmansion somewhere in NJ. Paul you have done quite $$$$$$$ for defending interests of FEW against the MANY.

Bono likes to hang out with economic war criminalandcelbrity professor of economics Jeffrey Sachs whose free market policy prescrptions for Russia has caused a population collapse in the Russian male population. Bono is a nauseating and despicable creature.

Paul Krugman,there is a Nobel prize waiting for you in the ear future.Way to go guy!!!

Warm Regards
Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Dear Amara:

That is an interesting thought. When I was working for a party back in Germany (maybe a decade ago) there was some discussion about a related idea, that being that children should have a vote, executed by their parents. I.e. people with children would have more influence on the future than those without. Didn't go anywhere as far as I know.

Either way, regarding children having votes, I don't particularly like it admittedly. Simply because there's the obvious problem that children will be heavily influenced by their parents, not having had the time and opportunity to get an opinion on their own. The first argument that I find on the website you link to is the one with senior citizens being denied a vote. The point here however has actually nothing to do with age whatsoever, but with cognitive abilities. I wouldn't mind just having a very basic test people need to pass to register to vote. It seems only consequential that one knows how the political system works to participate in it. I mean, one needs to pass a test to drive a car, but not to make decisions that direct the future of your country? This would be especially crucial in countries where political education is somewhat neglected. I.e. I am sometimes stunned how many people I meet who talk about the 'system' or the 'government' all the time, yet actually don't really know what it's good for or what a democracy is in the first place. I mean, to give you an example (which at some time really upset me) was a print on a Starbucks cup from their 'The Way I see It' series, where somebody (forgot) actually said the real democracy is that we go into a grocery store and decide where we put our money by buying certain producs and not others. This bullshit gets distributed on Starbucks cups. It makes me want to bang my head against the next wall. Among other things, that's what I tried to express in my post above. Believing that a democracy is 'good' without knowing what it's good for, or why it is good isn't better than believing that having a king is 'good' because you've been told so. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Bee

The deceased are just derivatives greater than the second derivative. No sweat, no big deal.

Joshua Cahmberlain(deceased)

stefan said...

Hi lafo,


yes, that's of course the reasoning behind the Alberta oil sand boom. Too expensive to explore a few years ago, but now, Canadian Newspapers are reporting nearly every day about something related to the bright future of Alberta...

German newspapers, on the other hand, write that the German economy can probably cope fairly well with the high oil price because the industry is much more fuel-efficient now than it has been ten years ago or so. There is only the problem that many people still rely on oil to heat their houses, and there, costs soar, of course.. But maybe there are also changes ahead. At least, usage of solar power seems to be quite advanced - the New Scientist was quite excited about this. On the other hand, as Bee has predicted, there is also talking about making more use of nuclear power...

As for the oil price, it seems to me that in some respects higher prizes could stop complely insane wastes of oil, for example not to "ship", but to fly in strawberries from South Africa or Computer parts from China to Germany.

Best, Stefan

island said...

Sir Richard Branson might say that deep thinkers gotta have a lot of loot to accomplish anything on a global scale, but I'm thinking that the survival of the species depends on the fact that our inherently flawed system makes it so that we can't runaway in any single idealistically pure direction, good-bad or otherwise.

Squirrels bury nuts, and they don't know why. People do too, but are more arrogant because they think that they can think.

Branson

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Braddon,

Descartes reminded us that we think so therefore we are. I submit then you are in error that capacity can quantitatively be called into play here. As for nature being allowed to take its course, despite what you may think, this is what most here insists needs to be accommodated. I would agree that as Darwin demonstrated that nature indeed has a mechanism to deal with its mistakes. What many are concerned about, in this respect, is that as a group we are not actually proved to be such by the evidence that we are corrected for accordingly.

island said...

Hi Phil,

I guess that I'm Braddon, since I don't find another one here, and I do agree that our intelligence enables us to avoid getting slapped back into line.

But your last point is only correct in context with the current notions due to stuff that I'm not going to get into, but if the following biologist is correct, and the environment is the dynamical feature that organizes the structure of genetic information, then, (and quite to the contrary of his cosmologically uneducated pronouncement), the very principle that he tries to deny, actually rules, and his own dogmatic reasoning is the reason why they can't add one and one to the complete detriment of science!

Environmental Coding

Obviously this addresses the same problem that Koonin goes after in this paper, but his proposed solution which is designed to avoid first principles is currently completely out of the realm of real science.

A far reach for such a grand scale cop-out on science:

http://arxiv.org/abs/q-bio/0701023

Bee said...

Hi Lafo:

At some point it will take more energy to explore new oil resources than the gain is. What I was referring to however wasn't the actual de facto oil shortening, but the point people face it is real. A few nations/companies will be early, but there will be some threshold effect when the necessity to change to other energy sources gains momentum, and who hasn't taken it into account looses confidence. This I believe will happen rather soon, and rather suddenly - humans like to move in herds. Nobody wants to invest unless absolutely necessary, but then they jump fast. The problem is that a lot of people might become unemployed, a lot of households might have to be set onto new technology, a lot of middle class companies might need support to cope or will die. All of this screams for governmental help and guidance, which should have started yesterday. Reluctance rests on the scare word of global competitiveness. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Island,

I most humbly and sincerely admit to making an error in relation to your name and must further confess to still being somewhat confused. Therefore I have chosen to use what I perceive to be your handle. I also apologize to the authors of this blog for having unwittingly and foolishly opened this discussion to yet another subject plagued by confusion which has proven to not simply instill, yet further to justify apathy. So despite my temptation to offer rebuttal, I choose to belatedly exercise some discretion and a little wisdom in respect to this forums purpose by declining to offer such.

Bee said...

Hi Island,

I'm thinking that the survival of the species depends on the fact that our inherently flawed system makes it so that we can't runaway in any single idealistically pure direction, good-bad or otherwise.

Why I've tried to express in my writing above is that a 'system' might maneuver itself into a dead end by outknocking its own healing abilities. See, if you put people into a system that 'runs away' into a 'single idealistically' direction that many of them dislike, it will cause a breakdown, a revolution, a restructuring of the system. We've had plenty of examples for this in our history. This process is disabled if people are convinced their system is the best and can not be improved, even though they are unhappy, and even though there is plenty of room for improvement. The human mind has weaknesses, and the irony is that our present system deliberately uses them to our DISadvantage. Evidently, election races and advertisements deliberately pushes psychological buttons. Who has a good PR agent has an advantage, not who has good arguments. You direct people's opinions with the information you give them, with the stories you tell them. What scares me is not that the present system - political and economical (globally, but also in most western civilizations) - isn't even close optimal (what is), but that people believe it is. If we are able to maneuver ourselves into a situation where people in the system are not able to recognize their situation and act on it, then it doesn't matter whether the system 'in principle' would allow it.

It doesn't matter to the fly banging against the glass that the next window is actually open, because it is too stupid to find the way out.

Best,

B.

island said...

I don't have a problem with what you call me. The linked name to Richard "Branson", was in today's Wall Street Journal in reference to major players in global policy making... of a little different color.

And there is no appropriate forum for the willful denial of the real plausibility of observationally self-evident science. But just somebody tell me how else am I supposed to resond to support my opinions, since I can't change how I understand the effect that this has on the current subject matter of the blog?

Maybe sombody will pass around a note to shut everybody up so that we don't have to deal with it... ;)

island said...

Bee, as usual... I like the way that you think... and thank you for your reply... :)

Tumbledried said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tumbledried said...

(prev post had a typo)

Hi Bee,

This comment (I do apologise) is quite long, but (I hope) you will/might find it constructive.

From what I have been able to gather from the discussion, I think that you believe there to be a number of fundamental problems with the way society is run:

(i) The wrong motivations/feedback mechanisms to reward politicians/leaders, resulting in suboptimal decision making, ie making decisions that are politically sound, ie, guaranteed to keep them in office, rather than decisions that are purely in the long term interest of society (this relates to your ongoing discussions of secondary vs primary criteria)

(ii) Thinkers not being listened to (possibly related to (i)), and the majority of those that are listened to only listened to because they are the loudest (according to being rewarded via other suboptimal criteria), and not necessarily the most useful,

(iii) Overemphasis on satisfying "the invisible hand"- the monster that is market forces- at the possible expense of the average standard of living.

Actually I think I might have repeated myself. But I think any real solution to the above would have to address (i) somehow. If I could add my two cents as to a possible way to make progress on this, the general idea is to relax constraints on the structure of a democracy. For instance, I believe one economist (forget his name) won a Nobel prize for establishing that by generalising the range of economic products available (like short options, taking negative positions on stock, buying securities on the condition that one would sell them if they crossed a certain threshold, or their volatility grew large enough, etc) would help optimise the economy.

For one idea, for instance, one could modify the political influence of a member of society as a function of how much in the way of taxes they paid. In current societies, this clearly can be seen to be quite extreme; one entrepreneur, with rather huge economic power, would have the same influence on politics and the way their country is run (via standard democratic process) as a janitor earning minimum wage. So one would think some sort of trade off might result in a better system. And this is just one very simple example, where I have just added one variable.

I think another key issue you mentioned, or rather a key question, is, how does a society decide where it wants to go? This is a more difficult question. Evidently a society would like to take the best path to optimising some metric of progress. So I might hazard a number of properties that I think such a metric should possess, as a function of increasing time-

(i) The standard of living of its citizens should be higher.

(ii) The health of its citizens should improve.

(iii) The amount of public disorder eg crime, unrest - should decrease.

(iv) Its citizens should become happier, not sadder, as time progresses.

(v) The overall long term stability of the society should improve (less (hopefully none) economic/resource busts - no environmental catastrophes, etc)

There are a number of ways that I believe some of these things can be achieved, which again I will hazard (note that I am getting increasing speculative at this point):

(i) Increased funding of education,

(ii) Appropriate emphasis on short term and long term research programs (to create short term improvements in the society, as well as developing, for instance, cleaner techs in the long term, while not overfinancing research to the detriment of short term prosperity/happiness - again another tradeoff here),

(iii) Encouragement of sports, better city planning, more parks, etc,

(iv) Appropriate spending on new and existing infrastructure, such as, for instance, installing cleaner power stations, upgrading roads, building more public hospitals, etc

(v) Careful management of scarce resources.

And, whereas it might have been "practical" to do so in the past, I think that, in modern times, the cost of war far outweighs its potential benefits, and prevents a country, for instance, being able to properly address the prior items.

Doubtless there are other equally valid points which I have missed...

Alain said...

Sabine,

Just a general comment about your blog : I started reading it recently (when I was trying to get some information about Garret Lisi's theory), and I am more and more enthusistic about the wide variety of subjects that are being discussed here.
Thanks a lot !

Alain

Bee said...

Hi Tumbledried:

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, which indeed is very useful and interesting. I do not think though that (i) is the cause of the problem, it is more an effect. You are right that this goes into the direction of my primary goals/secondary criteria reasoning, that didn't occur to me. Being a scientist, what I would like to see in a parliament's discussion is, well, `seeking for wisdom'. It's not a fight where a person wins or loses, and the goal is to convince others by whatever means. Its an argument where everybody should aim to find the best way, and where personal believes, opinions, fears and hopes (not to mention religious convictions) ought to stay out of the business.

The present election process puts way too much emphasis on persons, on their likability and PR skills, in contrast to their professional qualification and education. That is interesting, but not the reason why people should be elected to 'represent'. The people who often are much better suited are those standing behind the few in the frontline. Those who do the actual work. I am reasonably sure every highly dealt politician has a group of 'advisers'. A big share of the advises probably has nothing to do with actual content, but is about selling smartly whatever content, pleasing the right lobbies, making deals with the right people. But besides this, in every party one finds people who do the actual 'work' - the 'thinking' if you want. Those are the people that should be elected. You also find them on universities (politics, sociology, history, etc), occasionally I think some journalists would be better politicians. Either way, what I meant to say is it's not that these people don't exist, they just don't have as much influence as they should have. As I said above, I see the advantage in having charismatic leaders, but the trend seems to be to rate charisma over basic job qualifications.

See, there are tough questions on the table in politics, and arguments need to be weighted cautiously. In the scientific community there is luckily still the prevailing sense that arguments should not be affected by who presents them, or how smartly they are presented (or omitted). This can only work in a community where it is understood that everybody essentially has the same goal - seeking for understanding. Likewise, in politics, everybody has the same goal - improving the circumstances of our living. Yes, this means such discussions ought to stay impersonal. But it is those people's JOB - in science as well as in politics - to get an objective opinion, free from financial or peer pressure, or other irrelevant factors. The present political system protects this essential ingredient of unbiased opinion making very, very poorly. And unfortunately, instead of science being the last resort that should correct this trend, the same mistakes seems to swap over into the scientific community (and here we are back to the confusion of primary goals and secondary criteria).

Basically, what seems to be lacking is a good tradition of leading arguments (as I believe the Greek's had some thousand years ago). I wouldn't mind completing the parliament with a couple of psychologists, and mathematicians pointing out the most basic logical fallacies and people's problems in obtaining objective opinions. We have certainly learned a lot out of history, and our understanding of sociology and psychology likewise has tremendously increased. We should use this to our advantage. Not to our disadvantage by letting these people design advertisements with no other goal than to fool us into something we neither need nor want.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Tumbledried:

You write

for instance, one could modify the political influence of a member of society as a function of how much in the way of taxes they paid. In current societies, this clearly can be seen to be quite extreme; one entrepreneur, with rather huge economic power, would have the same influence on politics and the way their country is run (via standard democratic process) as a janitor earning minimum wage. So one would think some sort of trade off might result in a better system. And this is just one very simple example, where I have just added one variable.

I am about to vehemently disagree, but maybe I am misunderstanding, so would you clarify? I would say that in the present system (esp. in the USA) the de facto influence that people have is weighted by their income (people listen to those who have the money for a media campaign, or to simply buy people). This should not be the case, and is a very bad trend. The whole point of democracy is that people's voices should not be weighted by social status. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

James Simmons has lot more influence in the American political system than any individual ordinary working slob American does. I remember seeing Bill Clinton riding around on a golf cart with Bill Gates. Never saw him riding around in a golf cart with American Southern Female textile worker.

Democracy is mch more than voting. In America, voting is a about ratification..ratifying Jim Simmons or Bill Gates favorite candidate and policies. This is why a find discussions about voting boring. So much is left out.

Maybe the first step is to take on the hedge fund wheeler dealers.

Should any human being be allowed to accumulate a billion dollars. with this wealth comes enormous power and control over millions of ordinary human beings.
Is there a great crime behind every great fortune?

Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Hi Joshua,

Democracy is mch more than voting.

Yes. Democracy is also more than free speech. It doesn't matter if everybody is allowed to 'speak' freely when there is a huge inequality in who can make themselves heard. If you get people (politicians!) to pay attention to your opinion by using your money and influence, how 'democratic' is that? I guess in principle a big part of that is illegal, but who cares? It seems to me the damage on our democratic systems caused by this is significantly underestimated.

Best,

B.

Christine said...

"Our societies get more and more complex(...)"

"If you want to measure the status of happiness in your society, look at the amount of people who need anti-depressants to get through their days because the quality of their living has so tremendously improved."

Bee,

Reading again your post made me realize what made me uneasy about at first. I agree with you on several points, but... You are really talking about a small fraction of the human race when you say "our society". Of course you know this, but it's always a nice thing to remind us that...

- Half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollars a day.

- The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world’s countries) is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined.

- Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.

- Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.

- 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).

[source: http://www.globalissues.org/]


Here is the reality, eg, in my (democratic) country (I've seen scenes like that several times):

Children eating garbage, etc:

here

here

here

here

There is so much to do... (in a very, very basic sense...). You are certainly concerned with important issues, which, as I mentioned, I generally agree. But... what about the "rest" (which in fact is the "rule")? There is an abyss in the world between the very rich (minority) and the very poor (majority). And of course, in general, the richer get richer and the poorer get poorer... the reasons for that are not to difficult to trace.

How these people can make a voice? It is distressing.

Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine:

You are really talking about a small fraction of the human race when you say "our society".

Yes. I have in several places explicitly referred to North America and/or Europe. The reason is simply that I know about nothing about South America/South Africa/Asia, and I am mostly concerned with those nations where the most essential needs for survival can (in principle) be met easily. I am sorry if that use of 'our' did not come out clearly. Also, I have mentioned repeatedly that the factors people regard important for improving the circumstances of their living differ greatly with the circumstances they presently live in, and there is a correlation between economical growth and improvement (see also my reply to Rae Ann above). In many nations, there is definitely a large need and potential for improvement.

However, the gap between the rich and the poor getting larger instead of smaller is imo a consequence of a global economy without a global political system. Some centuries ago, princedoms joint forces to states, states joint forces to unions. That's not easy, and it is always difficult to find a common denominator. There is always the problem that those who are above average don't want to share with those below average, and I actually think a too rapid equilibration indeed causes too many turbulences and therefore has to be approached with caution. But one has to start somewhere, sometime. I think there is no way around a sensible global political system if we want to solve global problems. The economy can't do that for us. It causes a lot of friction there being nations who feel ignored with their concerns, and powerless, and see no other way than violence to make themselves heard. Best,

B.

Christine said...

the gap between the rich and the poor getting larger instead of smaller is imo a consequence of a global economy without a global political system.

Perhaps. But I see it as -- how to keep the status quo. See:

colonialism -- net transfer of wealth from the colonised to the coloniser

Dependency theory


etc, etc, etc

Best,
Christine

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting debate between economists Herman Daly and Jagdish Bagwati in Scientific American a a decade ago about "free" trade. Take a look a it and the follow up excahnges.

Christine

I am not bothered by Bee's provincial view of the situation. I'm actually very provincial in orientation. In fact, most huamn beings are very provincial.

Being provincial is a necessary defense mechanism against dangerous forms of globalism. I beleive it is possible to be provincial and at the same time express deep concern for the Brazillian underclass.

The people who I view as being very dangerous are placeless people such Bono and Jeffrey Sachs. They provide the trendy liberal cover for some very serious crimes against humanity.

Joshua Cahmberlain(deceased)

Tumbledried said...

Hi Bee,

I am about to vehemently disagree, but maybe I am misunderstanding, so would you clarify? I would say that in the present system (esp. in the USA) the de facto influence that people have is weighted by their income (people listen to those who have the money for a media campaign, or to simply buy people).

I do agree with your points here. However let me try to argue the devil's advocate in this case.

I would argue that in the current system only the most cynical and dangerous political animals go to the trouble of trying to influence people by buying votes. ie only the loudest and not necessarily the wealthiest. In a system where all people had a say that was a trade off between "1 person, 1 vote", and "1 tax dollar, 1 vote", so that their say was proportional to the degree that they were contributing to the society, maybe more rational decisions would be made about how the taxes ought to be spent. Perhaps there would be less noise too caused by the loud and cynical.

And, in the current status quo, there are also organisations of the less economically successful that also wield great political influence, and also launch propaganda campaigns to attempt to influence people. I am talking of course of lobbies and unions.

Maybe the current system is the best, but maybe it isn't? I'm sure that you will agree that in your experience as a physicist that by adding to the number of degrees of freedom a system can take the system will become more efficient.

Cheers,
Tumbled

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

I have always contended that guilt has never served well as a motivator, as it relates to the stick. I have however proposed that empathy, which is the evolved state of such a notion, serves to motivate much better, for it relates to the carrot.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Sorry, I don't get what you are trying to tell me. Doesn't the link you provide support what I am saying? That the 'free market' of global economy alone does *not* necessarily lead to an improvement of the situation? (Besides the point that that a market isn't fair and free by itself).

Hi Joshua:

I think it is pretty natural that people primarily are concerned with what they have to face every day. I never claimed I know very much about global politics. What I am saying is basically if one doesn't know how to do X, then one should hire somebody who does X, and possibly hire the best. I want to see politicians in charge who have the best skills and knowledge to make decisions that are getting increasingly involved and complicated. I don't see that the present system selects these people very well.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Tumbledried:

Without doubt, wealth is very supportive if you want to be loud. Your suggestion does not make any sense. You could basically bully people out of your society by declaring them tax free while simultaneously taking away all of their rights - and they couldn't do anything about it because they have no vote. You'd create a society where a small group pays a lot of taxes and gets them back in form of governmental support. The problem with the taxes is certainly not solved by giving more influence to people who pay a lot. Taxes are a tool to re-distribute money where profit itself is not applicable. You use it to pay people in public service, social help, and for common goods, i.e. public transport.

The problem I see with the taxes is that there is about no connection between cause and effect. I.e. taxes are raised on X, just to fill a hole elsewhere. Obviously, people don't see how this is justified and feel ripped of, because it IS not justified.


Maybe the current system is the best, but maybe it isn't? I'm sure that you will agree that in your experience as a physicist that by adding to the number of degrees of freedom a system can take the system will become more efficient.

Yes, maybe. Though I am reasonably sure there is a large potential for improvement and we can do much better than is currently the case. However, it seems you did not quite get my critizism with the variation of a system. What you propose does not actually add new degrees of freedom in the variation. You still have only one, and it is money. What you change is just the correlation between money and the direction of variation. That *might* improve the situation, if along this new curve a maximum can be reached that previously wasn't reachable, but maybe this wont work either - it's poking around in the dark.

What I instead am trying to say is that money is only parameter in a multi-parameter space. One can try to improve the present system by using a more sophisticated curve that is not purely economical growth, but e.g. provides incentives to support regions with weak infrastructure, or rewards environmentally conscious behavior, etc. that is nice. But still, the variation stays on a one-parameter curve. If you are lucky you have picked wisely. What I am saying is recall the market is only a tool, and use all parameters.

Best,

B.

Tumbledried said...

Hi Bee,

You could basically bully people out of your society by declaring them tax free while simultaneously taking away all of their rights - and they couldn't do anything about it because they have no vote.

You are right, that makes a very strong argument against my idea. Nonetheless I will persevere and try to continue to defend it.

The key difficulty is to somehow build a system that gives you the good without the bad. My intuition on the matter that by perhaps making it so that if x is the amount of tax paid, then f(x) is a function that starts at 1 for x = 0 and then decays at a certain rate as x goes to infinity, depending on properties of the distribution of taxes paid by members of society, eg If the standard deviation of the distribution was large, f would decay more rapidly; in the extreme case that most people were contributing zero and a small group were contributing a great deal f would decay extremely rapidly; the system would approach a standard democracy.

All I am saying is that, if one was careful, it should be possible to incorporate feedback loops into such a system at, maybe, a constitutional level to prevent the sort of exploitation you have mentioned.

Please understand that I am not really trying to be difficult here but to implement a constructive dialogue.

What I instead am trying to say is that money is only parameter in a multi-parameter space. One can try to improve the present system by using a more sophisticated curve that is not purely economical growth, but e.g. provides incentives to support regions with weak infrastructure, or rewards environmentally conscious behavior, etc. that is nice. But still, the variation stays on a one-parameter curve. If you are lucky you have picked wisely. What I am saying is recall the market is only a tool, and use all parameters.

I would be quite interested to hear what these other parameters would be. Currency is great in that it allows people to put a value on something that could be very abstract or very nonabstract. However I am not sure what the alternatives you are suggesting to currency might be. Perhaps some notion of "generalised currency"? Or something else?

Cheers,
Tumbled

Tumbledried said...

By the function "f(x)" I of course meant the voting return density function. Ie the total voting power is $\int_{x = 0}^{\infty}f(x)dx$.

Tumbledried said...

Hi Bee,

Many apologies, for I appear to have missed your first response to my first comment. Let me respond here with my thoughts on the relevant material:

A few soundbites from your response:

Being a scientist, what I would like to see in a parliament's discussion is, well, `seeking for wisdom'.

The present election process puts way too much emphasis on persons, on their likability and PR skills, in contrast to their professional qualification and education. That is interesting, but not the reason why people should be elected to 'represent'. The people who often are much better suited are those standing behind the few in the frontline. Those who do the actual work.

...the trend seems to be to rate charisma over basic job qualifications.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on these points. So I suppose the key is to somehow design the system so that these people working behind the scenes get elected instead of, or at least have some more measure of influence, than those who are more charismatic.

I do not really have much in the way of a clear idea to proceed here, but let me hazard a few ways as to how something like this could be done, which is a summary of your ideas and a few of mine:

(i) Modifying the structure of a democracy by weighting political influence/voting power (with feedback loops, of the type I have mentioned) by factors ranging from amount of taxes paid to general level of education, level of physical health , general level of intelligence (via some sort of testing) or even (though with the danger of a GATAGA scenario) according to genetic expression of individuals. The general motivation for this is if such systems were in place perhaps better people would be elected to office without having to pander to the uneducated, those who contribute tiddlywinks to society, those who are suffering from mental illness, those who are old and whose faculties are not as sharp on matters that require objective decisions and insight as they once were, those who are old enough to vote but too young to have the wisdom to make good decisions etc. This relates of course to (and possibly motivated) our ongoing discussion? argument? which I sense has slightly derailed us from looking at the bigger picture.

(ii) Raising awareness for the need of expertise and wisdom in governance, rather than mere likability (this is undoubtedly a job for the PR guys).

(iii) Restructuring parliament so as to make it compulsory for certain people with certain qualifications (like, as you say, trained mathematicians or psychologists) to be elected to positions of responsibility as, eg ministers etc.

Doubtless other things could be done as well, but I'm afraid I'm out of ideas on this matter.

I will end my response with another quotation from your comment, which I thought cut right to the point.

...in politics, everybody has the same goal - improving the circumstances of our living. Yes, this means such discussions ought to stay impersonal. But it is those people's JOB - in science as well as in politics - to get an objective opinion, free from financial or peer pressure, or other irrelevant factors. The present political system protects this essential ingredient of unbiased opinion making very, very poorly.

Cheers,
Tumbled

Bee said...

Hi Tumbledried,

I very much like your idea to improve the feedback process in the political system, and I share your sense that this is doable and useful. However, your suggestion to weigh votes according to paid taxes is flawed in that it intrinsically violates the very idea of democracy. In a democracy, every citizen has the same influence through his or her vote. Whether a man, or a women, black or white, rich or poor. That is the core of democracy. It does not matter in which way you suggest to deform it, if you do so, you violate this basic principle that I happen to believe is right. I could equally well argue people's votes should be weighted by their IQ - this too would violate that basic principle.

You are right, that makes a very strong argument against my idea. Nonetheless I will persevere and try to continue to defend it.

"Ouch", said the fly when it banged against the wall. "But I will persevere and try to continue and defend this approach". ;-)

I would be quite interested to hear what these other parameters would be. Currency is great in that it allows people to put a value on something that could be very abstract or very nonabstract.

Yes, currency is a very useful tool. However, I tend to think that it is a big constraint for people to think one-dimensionally, as life is much more complex, and attaching a monetary value to everything reflects this multi faceted aspects inappropriately, no matter what. You are asking what the other parameters are? Well, think about what is important in your live, and what decisions are made in politics. What is the moneraty value of a safe neighborhood? What is the montary value of peace of mind, of health, of knowing your children have the best education, of knowing they have the same chances as your neighbors children, no matter who your neighbor is or what he does? Is a war worth the suffering - that of our and that of other citizens? What do we rate more relevant for our future, education or religion? Health or guilty pleasure? What ranks higher, protection of the environment or industrial growth? You might answer all of these questions, but could you align all of them in one line? Education or gulity pleasure? War or protection of the environment?

These are all questions that are important to the quality of our living, yet they can not simply be cast into one number, and ranked according to monetary value - simply because monetary value doesn't reflect all aspects.

An analogy is maybe a university ranking. If somebody tries to decide which university to pick, there are lots of criteria that are important. The location, the quality of teaching, the available support in professional and personal regards, the amount of 'highly regarded researchers' in your field (not to be confused with the quality of their teaching), the laboratory equipment, etc etc etc. If you'd break that down into one number, you get a handy ranking, but one that for the student trying to make a decision is mostly useless. It's like making a projection to one axis in a multi-dimensional space: you throw away a lot of essential information that is just lost.

What I have tried to express somewhere above is that our political systems - the possibility to vote on very different aspects (in contrast to just investing money) - is the already available device to allow variations into all these directions (war over basic research?). The taxes are one device to execute these decisions. Not the only one though, you can also direct explicitly with laws, or educational means. The point is that in political decisions people are asked for their opinion. Whether and how this can be best realized is a priory a different question, and one that should be left to the experts (that should be the politicians). Asking people to always think in terms of money is inappropriate because the distribution of money itself is subject of decision (i.e. the way you project depends on the system at hand. It would e.g. be different in yours.)

I hope this somehow clarifies what I meant. The problem I see however - and this I think comes close to your approach - is that the political feedback has an incredibly large inertia that is a huge disadvantage, and renders it almost dysfunctional. Especially when it comes to assigning taxes, I do not see why this has to be so arbitrary. Btw, thanks for your interesting comments.

Best,

B.

stefan said...

Dear Christine, Bee,

in general, the richer get richer and the poorer get poorer...

That seems to be the natural course of things if the "free market" is at play?

Sorry, I do not know too much about Brazil and how it comes that despite (?) being a democracy and in principle potential for welfare it has such huge inequalities - is that because of the colonial past?

Anyway, it has reminded me that the other day I've read in a German newspaper about "Brasilianisation" as a possible near future for German/European societies, meaning that the gap between the rich and all others will widen enormously and the now still dominating middle class will perish - not actually something what one would like to happen.

By coincidence, the Globe and Mail has this weekend an opinion piece about inequality of income in Canada, The curious absence of class struggle, musing about the fact that while between 1982 and 2004 Canadian economy has grown by more than half, the median income has actually dropped.


Best, Stefan

Christine said...

Sorry, I do not know too much about Brazil and how it comes that despite (?) being a democracy and in principle potential for welfare it has such huge inequalities - is that because of the colonial past?

There is so much to say about this. I don't know if I'm willing to do it, and I believe it would divert from the main post. There are historical reasons, there are political reasons (eg, corruption), external reasons, etc. But I'll take the following from Bee to make a point:

In a democracy, every citizen has the same influence through his or her vote. Whether a man, or a women, black or white, rich or poor. That is the core of democracy. It does not matter in which way you suggest to deform it, if you do so, you violate this basic principle that I happen to believe is right.

In Brazil we have democracy and voting is compulsory. But here you have a problem: the majority of the population lacks knowledge or awareness in general, most are uneducated people, or have a very poor education -- but being the majority they will decide the election. Democracy works very well in an educated population. I'm not saying here that democracy is not good for Brazil. I'm saying that it should not be compulsory. But there is a reason it is compulsory. The present situation comes from a recent (a few decades) past, in which Brazil went through a military dictatorship. It was a difficult process, but Brazil overcame it. The problem is that polititians do not make the necessary investments in basic education, etc. It's good for them to keep control of the situation if the population is ignorant. It's difficult to break the cycle. But I believe that when voting becomes not compulsory, things will improve dramatically.

And concerning my previous points, I'd summarize that wealthy nations do have a responsability with what is happening in Africa, South America, Asia, etc. Some people do get rich because they work hard, yes, but it is obvious that richness doesn't come only from hard work. It also comes from the expense of the "weak" -- from their natural or human resources. A simple historical analysis is enough, hence some of the links I have provided. But there is so much to say about this... I'm not willing to do it... But the overall discussion here is very interesting for several reasons. Thanks.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine:

I would agree that democracy is necessary but not sufficient. The gap between the rich and the poor getting larger on national (US/Canada/Europe) as well as on global levels is one of the biggest sources of my frustration. This trend is known since at least 20 years. It is known that the dynamics on the free marked alone do *not* decrease this gap, yet neoliberalists still run around and pretend so. This is why I've tried to say this is not a matter of political 'decision', and a somewhat more scientific approach would be helpful (theory falsified, full stop, end of discussion). The real discussion behind all that fog is whether the 'wealthy' nations/people actually *want* the not so wealthy ones to become richer. That is the decision to be made - democratically. Then find the best way to realize it (scientifically, which model is the best), don't repeat mistakes, no fog producing, include self-correcting feedback. Yet what is done today is either pretenses against better knowledge, or simply lack of knowledge. Neither of which is a status I want to see our political systems in. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Bee

Moving forward-reducing economic inequality and increasing real democracy-doesn't require grand unified theoreies of economics expressed in mathematical models. This doesn't mean there isn't an important role for experts with specialized analytical skills.

There is nothing wrong with having a strong attachment to place of birth,ones culture and herititage. This is quite normal.

What is abnormal, are "experts" who advocate policies that result in a destruction of place,local histories,in general an attack on the concept of locally entrenched communities of ordinary people.

Neoliberal economics is the mortal enemy of place,community and local histories. I view every US presidential canidate as the enemy of ordinary Americans. Their idea of progress is the promotion of an economic system that globalizes domestic labor markets on behalf of the economic interests of very wealthy Americans. This has the effect of wrecking and uprooting Ameicans who have an attachment to their communities. At the core, it is driven by the greed and megalamania of a very small percentage of the American population.

Don't worship politicians as if they are rock stars. They utter nonesense and lies. It takes the mind of a child to beleive the nonesense that comes out of the mouths of Hilarly Clinton, Barack Obama, George W Bush,Mike Hukerbee and Rudolph Giulliani.

They would have ordinary American believe that their motivation for wanting to be president is because they want to dedicate themselves, unselfishly, to helping and serving the American people. You would think these candidates were mother Theressa's clone(I have a cousin who is one of mother Theressa's nuns). It is utter bilge. The presidential campaign is basically a glorified toothpaste commercial.

A very strong argument can be made that the current crop of presidential candidates represents the worst in humanity.:megalamania and greedy. Nothing new about this.

Half the American population will not vote. I view this as a healthy sign. A large percentage of the ones who will vote, have a very primitive mindset. The president to them is a kind of Totemic king to be worshipped who will make them safe at night. I fnd this quite scary. Very primitive and infantile.

To summarize:not voting in the presidential elections,holding Hilarly Clinton, Barack Obama,Rudi Giulliani and Mike Huckerbee in contempt and viewing neoclassical economists as cockroaches who are nothing but hired guns for the corporation...now this would be real progress. And it would provide a breathing space for Brazillians so they can try different economic experiments.

Warm Regards
Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Bee said...

Hi Joshua:

Well, I generally think it's a good idea if people vote if only to remind themselves it's a democracy they live in. But either way, there are limits in how far one can change a system from within the system.

Regarding globalization, not sure if you heard of this particularly absurd idea of outsourcing: a news station in Pasadena decided they'd hire their 'local' news reporters in India. I think this is a totally great development, and generally, the USA should outsource all news reporting to India, where they can make up stories for less salary. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Bee

It's starting to become comical. Thanks for the news item. I'll pass it along. I have a long lst of this kind of nonesense.

However, I would be very happy to see outsourcing applied to corporate lawyers and Wall street traders. From what I'm told, this has already started. There is some justice in this world.HE HE Ha HA!!!! Can't wait for the day that academic neoclassical economists have their jobs outsourced. I hear that part time work at Starbucks provides health insurance.

Christine

Here is something that I can say with 100 percent certainty: If elected, Barack Obama will do his best to let the LULA goverment and the Brazillian people understand -in no uncertain terms-that...deviation from the Standard Model-Neoliberal economic policies- will not be tolerated by "kind and caring" Barack. Take that Sean Carroll.

Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

Christine said...

The real discussion behind all that fog is whether the 'wealthy' nations/people actually *want* the not so wealthy ones to become richer. That is the decision to be made - democratically.

???

Sorry, Bee, I really do not understand it. Or pehaps I do, but I'm not sure, it's a funny way you put it.

What I'm talking about here is a *very basic* necessity -- every day many children die because they don't have what to eat (decently) or access to basic health care, etc, that is, minimum conditions to live.

I would imagine that any normal person would not want that to happen to others. By default, in the name of mankind, there is no decision to be made-- it is already made: no one wants that to happen! Period.

Right, that is not the way it is. :)

Why does a large part of mankind has to suffer with the lack of those basic necessities, when there is another (smaller) much richer fraction -- worried about their petty problems (living the illusions that result from their really shallow lives -- unhappiness with the lack of some futile comfortableness that their wealthy lives eventually call for, in their petty minds)... And now it is time for them to decide whether other poorer countries should get richer??

Given that historically their wealthy countries have benefited from the exploration of those "poorer" countries, this is really all funny (not to say tragic), but... makes sense.

What do we want for mankind as a whole? And for our planet? These are questions to make, and when we have the clear, intelligent, answer, we will -- democratically -- know what to do with the poorer countries. But for the moment, these are not the questions that are being made. At least, not by those who really have the power (money) to start the changes. And I think this will never happen; people want to keep what they have got and improve from that, whatever the cost. It's the human trait. We are an aggressive species. It will need a great internal change for people think globally, and not for their own immediate advantages.

Sorry if I sound a little harsh; I've been through those types of discussions many times... and with age we tend to get... tired.

Best,
Christine

Christine said...

I wrote:

Given that historically their wealthy countries have benefited

Let me add: and still do.

Christine said...

Bee,

Another link:

Poverty and associated health, nutrition, and social factors prevent at least 200 million children in developing countries from attaining their developmental potential.


"These disadvantaged children are likely to do poorly in school and subsequently have low incomes, high fertility and provide poor care for their children, thus contributing to the intergenerational transmission of poverty."

It's incredible that such a thing exists at all. Very little is needed to solve such a problem (a tiny fraction of what is spent in wars or diverted by corruption). Yet, this is the reality (for those children who "make it", ie, do not die before 5).

But now I diverted too much from your post. I'll stop here.

Best,

Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine:

Sorry, Bee, I really do not understand it. Or pehaps I do, but I'm not sure, it's a funny way you put it.

You do understand correctly, and it's not a funny way to put it. Think about it: You and I believe a majority would consciously agree "that any normal person would not want that to happen to others.". Yet this is exactly what happens. And how come? Because there is a minority producing a lot of fog defending their advantage by pretending it will achieve what the majority wants, even though it is clear - since decades - that it doesn't work. And people are willing to believe these lies. Why? Because they can tell themselves and others we only want their best, if we get our best instead, it's not our fault, it's just the market. That's why I say disentangle the 'what' (we want) from the 'how' (do we achieve it).

By default, in the name of mankind, there is no decision to be made-- it is already made: no one wants that to happen! Period.

I actually wouldn't be so sure about that. People are all for helping the poor, esp. if a camera is pointing at them, but not if it is to their own disadvantage. Esp. in those nations where competition is in the blood stream.

Besides this, I think we are talking past each other. You are talking about the problems in your country - this is very interesting, but I have already said that I know nothing about it, and therefore don't want to comment. Whereas I am talking about the global situation, where there is no democratic system alltogether. I believe that this is to the superficial advantage of the more wealthy nations. I say superficial because the obvious drawback is (as I said somewhere above) that it fosters terroristic acts, because nations feel overrun by 'improvement' they don't want and didn't ask for, yet have no way to voice their opinion other than hijacking people, and posting videos with threatening messages on YouTube. Best,

B.

Christine said...

By default, in the name of mankind, there is no decision to be made-- it is already made: no one wants that to happen! Period.

>>I actually wouldn't be so sure about that.

Hi Bee,

read my next sentence to the one above; actually I was trying to be ironic.

>>You are talking about the problems in your country - this is very interesting, but I have already said that I know nothing about it, and therefore don't want to comment. Whereas I am talking about the global situation,

Yes, I understand you, but see that if you want to talk about the global situation, you will have to take into account unsolved problems in Africa, Asia, etc... Yes, I was talking a little about my country, but what I had in mind had to do with any "poor" country. (Actually, Brazil is the world's 10 largest economy and is not *that* poor... Full of natural resources, etc, but in which social difference among classes is too much pronounced, that is the main problem).

As I mentioned before, I agree I have been diverting, so I'll get back lurking here.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Sorry for the misunderstanding. I should have noticed it was meant sarcastic. My reply however wasn't a mockery, I have met sufficient people who seriously believed what you meant as a joke. I guess you've met your share of them too.

Sorry if I sound a little harsh; I've been through those types of discussions many times... and with age we tend to get... tired.

I actually still don't quite get what you are arguing about. You are preaching to the choir. I agree that democracy alone isn't sufficient, a agree that huge social differences are a problem. I agree that there a lots of problems in Africa, Asia, South America (Europe, North America) that can't be addressed with what I've said. Yes, I am focusing on one particular problem that is hanging directly in front of my face. Likely you find other problems more pressing, I understand that. Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: Btw, I didn't say Brazil is poor, neither did I mean to say so. My mentioning of poverty was referring to the picture you created in my head "Children eating garbage" etc. In fact, I do regard Brazil as one of the nations with the presently largest potential whose role will likely spark in importance, similarly with Southern Africa.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

I don't think we have any misunderstandings here. Actually we do agree overall. Just perhaps the limitations of writing. Perhaps I should elaborate on what I wrote, but I'll not do it right now. I'll leave it the way it is. I'll just add the following brief summary/explanations.

Concerning Brazil, I said it first it was "poor" and gave an example of children eating garbage to show that there were very basic problems to solve, like many other countries, and those basic problems would have to be taken into account in any global analysis that aims at understanding and improving the human condition in the present world. I also mentioned the fact that wealthy countries, in part, historically explored "poor" countries, and by other means, still do. So this should also be taken into account.

But what is really a poor country? Depending on the sense you give, Brazil is not that poor at all. This is what I added later. The problem in Brazil is social difference. From the link I have given previoulsy you will learn that the bottom 50% of the population earns only about 14% of the total income while the richest 10% of the population earns about 45% of the total national income (data from 2005). This feature is quite pronounced in Brazil, but such inequatlity is certainly present globally in the world at a different rate. Such differences must diminish, specially because we are talking about very basic necessities: like eating and having a health care, etc.

I also mentioned that democracy works better in an educated population in which they have their basic needs met. Otherwise, you have adults which will be unable to evaluate their candidates (actually, they will be easily manipulated), and this is specially a problem if voting is compulsory, as in Brazil.

So, I'm certain we all agree overall. I'm sorry if I made you think otherwise.

Best,
Christine

DSC said...

I think that this thinking of "the class disparity has to diminish" is often get wrong in this context. The disparity itself is not much of a problem, poverty is what really is. The fact that there are those who are not poor (another point of view on the unequality) should not be seen as the problem, but actually as that poverty is not something impossible to overcome. Many, perhaps most of the rich people (or, at least, of the middle class who can make a decent living) were not created rich "ex nihilo".

The difference could be diminished "just by making the rich somewhat less richer", but that does not help anyone. Akin to saying that there are a huge gap like, most of the people are illiterate, but a high-class minority is all of PhDs and such. Just hindering the access to higher education to the few that can afford it would "close the gap" but does not help at all.

Even by transfering the resources from the rich to the poor, that wouldn't be necessarily a good thing in itself.

This is somewhat obvious, but it's always interesting make such comment since there is always a tendence to demonize the higher classes somewhat as if they were the ones to blame for the disparity rather than just being luck (or even not that luck except on succeeding with their efforts in some of many attempts), even though in many cases they provide the means through others make their livings as well, rather than just wearing a top hat and smoking those long thin cigarretes, lighting them with one hundred dollar notes, while laughing at the misery of others.

Not that it was necessarily the idea here, anyway. Not that all rich people are saints highly concerned with the social problems either.

Christine said...

I think that this thinking of "the class disparity has to diminish" is often get wrong in this context.

Well, I don't think so...

I believe your experience is different from mine. Where are you from? In Brazil the disparity is too great to be acceptable by any logical reasoning. Perhaps in your country the idea that disparity has to diminish makes not much sense. Note that the notion of the poverty line is significantly higher in developed nations than in developing countries.

Just to clarify: I never mean to entirely blame the rich for that situation. It is clear that many rich people are rich for their own hard work, and it is a nice thing if they can offer jobs for poor people. But I stand in my opinion that wealthy nations did (do) explore poorer nations and this is something that bothers me.

Another point that I have made was to give some examples about the fact that a large fraction of mankind live under poor conditions; millions of people can't even have a decent food and that is quite damaging specially under 5 years old --- as a consequence lack of nutrition impairs their full development as adults. I think this is unnaceptable and should be considered in any global analysis about how to improve the lives of the societies -- all societies should be included, otherwise we are not talking about mankind, but only certain people.

How to solve this is a complex question, although what is needed for the basic needs is not too much. I'll not attempt to offer solutions here, though.

Best,
Christine

Anonymous said...

But is a fact that wealth is being transfered away from the poor and what passess for a middle class in America these days to the very wealthy. And it is being done through the globalization of domestic labor markets attacks on unions and other anti-labor policies

So there are policies that can be put in place that would cause the transfering of wealth away the rich back to the rest of us.

When Jim Simons makes millions off trading coca contracts it is done on the backs of children slaves who haul the coca.

The very wealthy really do steal the wealth of ordinary people.Kind of obvious. They get richer and the many get poorer.

Joshua Chamberlain(deceased)

DSC said...

Christine,

I'm actually in Brazil too. I don't deny that there's much inequality, but I'll maintain that the real problem is poverty, not inequality. The diminishing of inequality would be better only if it means that the poorer are getting really better of, earning more; not only relativelly less poor than the richer, which became less richer. So I think that inequality simply is not the best focus, at the same time it tends to subtly, even if unintendedly, paint the rich as villains and the poor as their victims, which is a nice picture for populist politicians in a poor country.

(By the way, I've heard recently in the radio that our president, in the last days of the past year - just in time to avoid the illegality of doing the same thing in the election's year - raised the welfare for families with kids within the age of facultative voting. I ask myself why kids with 16 and 17 (legal working age) years need more money to be given to them than kids with 14 or 15, or even very young children in the earlier stages of development, where, as you've pointed out, are in a crucial period where malnutrition could have more lasting effects. This dubious act will, nevertheless, reduce the social unequalities to some degree, and can be nicely framed as such)

The whole situation is quite complex and I don't really have the situation nor claim to have the best, more accurate point of view. I'm just a bit worry of catchy cliches that may be misleading, driving away attention from real causes and solutions.

An example somewhat related with the things you mentioned: even though is commonly said that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", apparently it's not quite precise in some senses. The poor of the past were much poorer than the present's poor as the prices of many basic and not so basic things dramatically dropt with industry and so on. At the same time, even if the rich got also even richer, that does not mean that the poor is any worse of even if the inequality is much bigger; the richest have 150'' plasma tvs and things like that, but the poor will more often than the poor of earlier days have electricity and cheaper television. (I think I heard about it in the bloggingheads.tv, interesting debates/chats about science and politics, you might want to check)

About exploration of poor countries by rich ones, I would also pick somewhat on that. Not that it is not defensable at all, but take for instance the example of the economic aids to Africa. There are a whole debate about whether it does more harm than good as it hinders African countries to develop economic self-sustainability. There's a debate about that in the NPR, which I haven't watched yet but I will; there's also an interesting interview on Spiegel with the Kenian economist James Shikwati, where he argues about that.

I don't believe that the answer would be to cut all sorts of aid, as if an industry would emerge from there even if those people were in a extreme calamitous situation, but in the other hand the point that local industry and commerce cannot compete with the distribution of free food, clothes and other items can't be belittled.

So, what could be seen as well intentioned help may be unintendedly bad. And, inversely, things usually seem as bad, exploitation, such as outsourcing to countries like China and India, getting cheap semi-slave workforce, may not be a totally bad thing. Of course would be much better if these workers had better conditions and salaries, comparable to the workers of the countries which hire them, but I bet that they prefer what they have than to not have the job at all, in a similar manner that an unemployed in USA may prefer to work as a janitor in order to make a living than to be unemployed untill the dream job opportunity appears. Actually, even it does not look very nice when we compare with the ideal conception of work condition standards, this is a decrease in the world's unequality, of the good kind: the poor are getting richer, or at least enough to make a living where they live. And, at the same time, the ones to blame more, I think, aren't the enterprises who outsource them, but actually the countries which don't have a nicer legislation in defense of the worker's rights. But I'm worried about the possibilities of these laws just driving the outsourcing to somewhere else, making the people lose their jobs. That's not a simple issue, definitely.

I'm not "against" worker's rights, as it may sound somewhat like, I just think that perhaps it's something we could reasonably expect to "evolve" at different paces all around the world, rather than expect the same degree of development despite of different history and actual economic development of each actual place. If every nation were to rise their worker rights standards of developed countries, it would be more likely that the developed countries wouldn't outsource anymore, as would be probably cheaper or to produce locally, and at the same time we cannot expect that the enterprises in the less development countries would already have the money and resources to provide such salary raises and better conditions all of a sudden, as if they were just keeping tons of money for themselves. We'd either have a vast substitution of formal jobs to informal ones, or, if the law would be literally followed at a surreal level, most of the business would simply broke, and most of the people would be unemployed, as nobody would be able to pay for the work.

I think it's pretty much that. I don't know how to solve the world's problems, but I think that sometimes what we might be looking at the wrong things as problems to solve, appearences can be deceitful, sometimes dishonestly used to manipulate, and we should be aware. But perhaps I'm just stating the obvious most of the time, I do admit I'm somewhat paranoid/picky with the way people phrase things. And things are disturbingly complicated.

Tumbledried said...

Dear Bee,

I've been thinking a bit more about the aspects of this post that I originally had an exchange with you about earlier this year (in the above comments). It seems to me that there is no real easy fix here, but I do have some ideas as to how to make progress.

For instance, the area of cybernetics, in the old sense of the word - that is, the study of complex systems, and control theory - or, roughly speaking, the area of social science - is absolutely essential to be understood at an appropriate level of depth. One should and must be able to create at least toy models of social systems and structures in a concrete fashion in such a way as to be able to make definition-theorem-proof sequences of statements. This of course is an extremely difficult problem, but I think the payoff could potentially be enormous if one is able to get it right.

However it might not be necessary to actually investigate any of these models for oneself. For instance, various corporations and companies are adopting experimental forms of self-governance (one in particular that caught my eye today was the idea of a Sociocracy, a form of "evolved democracy" (see wikipedia)). Then all one needs do is look to the companies that are most successful after this fashion, in order to get some crude idea of what works and what doesn't.

A couple of other thoughts-

(i) Democracy is not always the best system to use. As Christine mentioned above so many months ago, it seems retrospectively clear that a democratic system only works if the bulk of the population is reasonably well educated (eg literate and numerate). It follows from this observation that different choices of political system are more favourable at different phases in the development of a civilisation, to ensure optimal development, stability, and civil happiness/fulfilment at a given time t.

(ii) Education is extremely, extremely important, and is a prerequisite for more evolved forms of governance that have the potential for greater stability/happiness, but only if the prerequisites are met. However I suspect I am oversimplifying here.

Anyway, to summarise, and avoid reading the wall of text above:

(i) To make progress on social systems theory, I believe that one must first express the problem concretely, ie, in terms of some idea of what a society is trying to optimise. (not an entirely easy task to achieve)

(ii) Given this statement of the problem, one needs to reduce/approximate goals and social structures by appropriately general mathematical objects, the study of which then would yield greater understanding of cybernetic theory in practice.

(iii) Sociocracy is cool!

(iv) Education is important. (duh!) Societies cannot achieve greater fulfilment and stability without an appropriate amount of education.

(v) Companies are organisms. The organisms with the best internal structure will on average survive the darwinian winnowing of the economic process. Hence they are useful laboratories to test ideas about socioeconomic theory against.

Cheers,
Tumbledried

Bee said...

Dear Tumbledried,

Thanks for your comment. I admittedly don't really know what is so new about sociocracy. Except for the consensus requirement which I think works only in adequately small groups it looks pretty much like the democratic systems most of our societies have. We have exactly these layers (circles) of representatives. It is new possibly to use it in companies. (I will keep it in mind for my institute ;-) ).

I am very skeptic about saying democracy only works with sufficient education, as you basically deny an opinion for those who don't have the education. I wouldn't say it's a matter of education, it's a matter of available information. If you have enough education to understand what a democracy is that should be sufficient. If you don't, you shouldn't be among the voters to begin with. The problem is that those who don't know enough need to realize they don't. But this is exactly the idea behind a representative democracy. If you don't understand the details you let yourself be represented by somebody who knows, who understands, and who has that education.

I am also sceptic about (ii). It sounds to me too much like trying to make a prediction. Problem is that the goals themselves are moving targets, and values change over time. I therefore think one should aim to set up a governing system such that it can self-optimize towards whatever the goal is.

Best,

B.

Tumbledried said...

Dear Bee,

Many thanks for your reply. As I said, these were only a few ideas I had, and I wanted to bounce them off you to see what you thought.

"I therefore think one should aim to set up a governing system such that it can self-optimize towards whatever the goal is."

You have hit the nail on the head here, I think. This seems to me to be the best possible outcome from the viewpoint of a culture if it can be arranged. And, on reflection, you are probably right that a representative democracy, although not perfect, comes closer than practically all other known comparable systems towards achieving this goal.

By the way, great blog. I enjoy reading your trivia as much as your more serious articles.

Cheers,
Tumbledried

Bee said...

Hi Tumbledried,

Thanks for the nice words. Well, I too use this blog mainly to bounce off ideas, so it's always good if readers bounce back :-) I will probably have more on the topic at some point. Best,

B.