Does Capitalism always Give us More from Less?

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less.  The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books.  Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope.  While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.

For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here.  I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments.  I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern.  Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use.  With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate.  The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works.  I’ll go into details in a moment.  I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA.  He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force.  Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater.  I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism.  I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.

Image result for turing computerThe technological save for mankind her argues is the computer.  This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand.  After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process.  We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before.   McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste.  Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used.  One example was the aluminum can.  If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now.  Cans today still function perfectly but use less material.  Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies.  Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials.  Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.

His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty.  Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access.  Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people.  Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.

Image result for world population by year

For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same.  We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy.  He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage.  What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.

So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need.  Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us?  Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.

The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years.  Is this prosperity?  Is this a good way to measure prosperity?  The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.  It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources.   Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society?  Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet?  Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was?  It’s not obvious to me that this is the case.  It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population.  If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population.  And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.

Image result for does the end justify the means

Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question:  Does the end justify the means?  Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time.  If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?  Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system.  And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism.  For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems.  There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc.  If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now.  I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values.  If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.

McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that.  I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details.  There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.

He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world.  He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly.  It’s a fair point.  But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue.  And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.

Overall it was a thought provoking interview.  I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now.  On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.

Has Justice Been Served?

For those of you that have been following the story, Amber Guyger was just found guilty of murder in her trial.  You can read about the incident here.  I’ve been trying to find out some hidden facts about this case, but unable to find anything that convinces me that the jury came to the wrong conclusion.  I guess witnesses get to speak today before the actual sentencing, but Ms. Guyger faces up to life in prison for the killing of Botham Jean.

If you didn’t read the article, the basics of the incident is that Ms. Guyger, for whatever reason went into what she thought was her apartment, but it belonged to Mr. Jean.  She thought there was an intruder, and feared for her life and ended up shooting Mr. Jean dead.  The prosecution rightly proved that Ms. Guyger had other choices available to her that she could have taken, including backing out and taking cover while she called for back up.  The prosecution also showed that she didn’t do enough in medical aid after the incident in trying to save the victim’s life.  She clearly wasn’t thinking very clearly when she walked into the wrong apartment or in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  All this I grant and she made a horrible mistake that cost an innocent person their life.

But is it murder?  There was no motive, and it’s clear that Ms. Guyger is feeling great remorse for what happened.  To the point where she wishes she had been the one killed and not the other way around.  I guess I’m just wondering how putting her away for life in prison is going to make any of this tragedy better?  From the evidence presented from the 911 call, she clearly believed that she was in her apartment, and while she didn’t act like a well-trained cop in the moment, as we’ve seen there are very few cops who might have been cool in that situation.  Ms. Guyger clearly feels a great deal of remorse and pain for the what she has done, is she a danger to society?  I don’t think so. Is she a racist?  Well there was evidence that she definitely saw black people differently.  If she didn’t have this implicit bias would things have gone differently?  Perhaps.  I don’t think she is the poster child for an exemplary police officer, but I also don’t see her as being so racist that she was simply looking for an opportunity to gun down a black person.  I don’t see how this terrible incident is made less terrible by putting her in jail for murder.  It seems clear that many people are only excited by the verdict because a cop is finally being sentenced to murder for killing an unarmed black person.  There have been many of those cases where I’ve been outraged at the police being acquitted by a grand jury.  I don’t think this is case to make up for all those other cases that should have been ruled differently?  I don’t think the law should work like that.  I feel like we aren’t setting a precedent for cops being charged with crimes for killing unarmed people, I feel like we are saying that the verdict for one person’s crime should make up for past injustices.

Ms. Guyger made some bad decisions, but I don’t feel she’s a murderer.  I hope that testimony today will convince the judge that she doesn’t deserve life in prison.  In the end and innocent man was killed, and that is the greater tragedy, I’m just not convinced that the verdict render changes anything other than adding more tragedy.  Maybe Ms. Guyger could do more good to make up for what she’s done instead of just sitting in a cell.

I am also willing to be talked out of this position with some good arguments.  Perhaps my thinking is narrow here.  I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Discussion: Privacy – Government vs. Social Media

I was listening to a podcast interview with Nick Bostrom who was talking about his paper The Vulnerable World Hypothesis which looks at how we might avoid certain existential risks that might collapse civilization as we discover new technologies.  It’s an interesting read, but not directly related to what I want to discuss in this post.  He talks about one of the solutions to dealing with such risks is increases surveillance of people.  I am sure that we are all uncomfortable with that, but I think he makes a pretty good argument about why it might be necessary given the possibility of inventing some technology that is easy to use by individuals and could easily lead to widespread destruction.

It was this uncomfortability that I was thinking about and I started to think about the reaction to the scandal that was exposed a number of years ago when it was found out that the NSA was collecting all this information on U.S. Citizens.  I personally didn’t get concerned myself.  I thought about the volume of data they are collecting and it seemed pretty clear to me that the man hours it would take to actually listen or read everyone’s private communications, while solving unemployment, would be an enormous task.  It seems people actually feared that an NSA agent might show up at the door and tell their wife that the husband was having an affair or something.  I don’t know.  We definitely don’t like the idea of the government having our private information, and maybe that’s for good reason.

But enter social media.  We have these platforms that we enter all sorts of personal information into.  We talk about what we like and don’t like.  We post pictures of where we are and where we’ve been.  These companies collect all this information.  We know that they have algorithms that influence what we read, who comes up on our feeds, and try to feed into our political views as opposed to presenting us with opposing arguments.  We know that these platforms have been used by hackers and others entities to directly manipulate people.  100s of millions of people all over the world hand over all this information willingly.

My question is, is our government anti-trust disproportional to our trust of corporations?  Is it even fair to compare the two, or is their an asymmetry here that I am missing?  I mean arguably NSA surveillance could be uncovering terrorist plots that prevent loss of lives, does social media have benefits that outweigh its costs?  Are we being hypocritical about the importance of privacy?  Is it a difference of consent of information vs. non-consent of information?  I mean I might argue that I am consenting by getting a Facebook account and posting things about myself, but they are certainly using my information in many ways I don’t expect or aren’t aware of.

Your thoughts?

Divided We Fall

Recently I had an experience on twitter where I saw somebody posting a link for an article that criticized presidential hopeful Kamala Harris and blamed Bernie Sanders for this criticism.  The thread was full of people with nothing but vitriol for Bernie Sanders going so far to call him both a racist and a misogynist.  My wife has noticed to that criticism of certain democratic candidates erupts into divisive attacks against Bernie Sanders supporters.  When I asked for evidence of any connection to Bernie Sanders and a critique of Kamala Harris I was given none.  This twitter account had 31K followers and had a lot of posts implying dark money and nefarious works of Bernie Sanders to attack the democratic establishment.  The account belongs to Tom Watson and his credentials seem reputable, but for one who claims to be a journalist, he seemed to present no evidence of many of his claims.

But perhaps people like these are a dime a dozen on the internet, but it does make me extremely worried about this future election.  What we need is at least some unity, preferably with people who voted for Trump, but if we can’t get that we have to at least be striving for some unity in the left.  Identity politics seems to be winning the day, and the left has been described some as divided into all sorts of small groups.  The tribalism that we characterize the right with in terms of racism and xenophobia seems to me just as rampant across many groups on the left.  It may not be some of the more obvious ones like skin color, religion, or nationalism, but it’s still there and what’s most worrying is that it seems to be based on very  minor differences in overall worldview.  It seems to me the more that liberals are at each others throats this just increases the odds that when it comes to general election time more people will stay home if their horse didn’t win the primary, or might actually go across the aisle because they are so bitter after all the in fighting.  There is no reason that Bernie Sanders fans should not support Kamala Harris at this point and vice-versa, but more importantly we have to get our heads on straight about why we are voting for a particular candidate.  This isn’t sports and who ever puts on the jersey we like we have to root for.  Government’s goal is to enact the best ideas about how to govern, and this should determine who we vote for.

After the last election I, and I know many of my friends did a lot of research and reflection of how we got to where we were.  As incredulous as Trump’s win was, to suggest that it is the fault of anybody who tried to run for the job who had generally good ideas and who represented more compassion and benevolence than Trump.  Nor should we be accusing each other because we supported who we thought was going to be the best liberally minded candidate.  As a Bernie supporter I was certainly disappointed, but it was clear to me that Hillary was better than Trump and I supported.  Bernie fans who voted for Trump, I think were misguided, but I don’t think this should start casting blame on inspirational politicians who challenge the establishment.  If your vote for a candidate is solely based on gender, or racial identity, or the party they belong to, you are just as guilty of the same behavior as somebody who didn’t vote for someone based on their gender or racial identity.  If you are liberal what you should be for is fighting for a future in which the content of the individual running for office is the reason to vote for them.  And while I think there is enormous value to new generations to grow up in a time with female president and/or ethnic minority president, there is also enormous value in having them grow up with leaders who intelligent and empathetic, and who have good ideas that are going to help people have better lives.

It’s also worth remembering that the Russian interference in the election is very real, and one of the ways it worked is by exploiting division.  I recently listened to this podcast interview on Sam Harris podcast with Renee DiRiesta who has done a lot of research into how Russians used social media to exploit divisions between people.  Not only getting more support for Trump, but trying hard to suppress democratic voters from going to the polls.  It did make a difference.  They are still doing it.  The same tactics have been used by terrorist organizations to recruit, and it can it it also being done within our country as well.  We must resist the temptation to be divided, and while I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t take a stand on certain issues, if you are spending a lot of time arguing with people on social media you are simply wasting your time.  Twitter and Facebook can take all the steps reasonably allowed to try and prevent fake accounts, but people intent on manipulation on a mass scale through social media will find away around us and it is up to use to be aware and responsible users in the end.

The anti-establishment writing is on the wall, and it was for the last election, but the DNC refused to recognize it.  Trump was no anti-establishment answer but it what many people were looking for.  Likely that sentiment is going to be there again and it is going to be a source of contention on the left.  For those of you who followed Bernie his goal was never to actually win, but to shift the conversation.  To stay focused on issues and to address the anger that many Americans were feeling towards an economic elite that were bleeding the country dry.  Not all of his ideas were great, and whoever you end up supporting will probably not have all the best ideas either.   I suggest:

  • If you want to discuss politics, discuss the issues.  Avoid name calling and personal attacks.
  • Stay away from social media for your information and to keep your emotional health in check during this election season.  It’s a ridiculously long cycle in the U.S. and it’s easy to let your boredom lead you down the path of social media, but it is not your friend, and there are entities on there aiming to continue to divide people.  Don’t let it work.  Not only do you share many similar concerns with your fellow democrat, but probably also your fellow Republican.
  • Consider supporting a few newspapers monetarily.  These platform that are free and run on advertising are prone to attention getting not truth finding.  Good information and journalism costs money.  Do some research on what papers have good investigative research and get an on-line subscription
  • Promote empathy by sticking with politicians who demonstrate it, and also be giving it to your fellow human.

Peace out!

Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.

Discussion: The Decay of an Empire

As some of you may remember I am a big Isaac Asimov fan.  There was a passage in his book “Prelude to Foundation” that struck me as similar to what we might be facing here in the U.S.  I have found Asimov’s observations about society very astute.  Keep in mind this is in the future and in relation to a galactic empire.

Seldon:  Surely people don’t sit around and say “We’re decaying.  Let’s let the Expressways fall apart.”

Hummin:  No they don’t.  It’s not a purposeful thing.  Bad spots are patched, decrepit coaches refurbished, magnets replaced.  However, it’s done in a more slapdash fashion, more carelessly, and at greater intervals.  There just aren’t enough credits available.

Seldon:  Where have the credits gone?

Hummin:  Into other things.  We’ve had centuries of unrest.  The navy is larger and many times more expensive than it once was.  The armed forces are much better-paid, in order to keep them quiet.  Unrest, revolts and minor blazes of civil war all take their toll.

Seldon: But it’s been quiet under Cleon.  And we’ve had 50 years of peace.

Hummin:  Yes, but soldiers who are well-paid would resent having that pay reduced just because there is peace.  Admirals resist mothballing ships and having themselves reduced in rank simply because there is less for them to do.  So the credits still go – unproductively – to the armed forces and vital areas of the social good are allowed to deteriorate.  That’s what I call decay.  Don’t you?

It struck me that this is, at least in part, what we are seeing here in the U.S.  Of course it’s not the whole story, but it made me think about how institutions, not just the military can grow fat.  Once we build up an institution in a time of need, we rarely shrink it back down.  In fact what usually happens is that the government just works to justify the bloat.  I think this phenomenon might even be true for private industry as well.  The blog I re-posted on my blog last week is kind of along these lines.  Capitalism has its benefits, but as corporations (sort of representation of a bloated private entity) grow they begin to have to justify their continued existence and work to convince people that they need whatever they are selling.

We hear phrases like “too big to fail” and maybe it’s all true.  Maybe there is nothing to be done about it, and maybe that’s why empires are bound to fail.  But I tend to lean towards the idea that a lot of it is based on the conceit an empire has in itself, but maybe that too is inevitable.  I mean how can one easily learn humility when they’ve been on top for so long?  Doing so would require an admission of mistakes, and empires are terrible at admitting those.

Thoughts?

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As an aside –  to give you an idea of why I like Asimov so much, I wanted to share the Afterword he wrote for his novel “Currents of Space”:

The Currents of Space was written in 1951 and was first published in 1952.  At that time, comparatively little was known of the astrophysics of nova formation and my speculation concerning “carbon currents” was legitimate.  Astronomers know much more now and it seems quite certain the nature of the currents of space have nothing to do with nova formation (though, as it happens, the analysis of interstellar clouds of dust and gas has become far more interesting now than ever I imagined in 1951).  This is too bad, for my speculations concerning the currents of space were so clever (in my opinion) that I feel they should have been true. Still the Universe goes its own way and won’t bend merely to pay homage to my cleverness, so I can only ask you to suspend your disbelief in respect to nova-formation and enjoy the book (assuming you do) on its own terms).

The beginning of the sentence starting with “Still…” is my own emphasis in bold.  Wouldn’t it be nice if more people thought like this?

Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral?

To finish up my discussion of greed I want to talk about the moral implications.  In the first part I quantified the disparity, but is disparity the most important aspect?  I mean if I could live a life that gave me a good education, lots of opportunities, health care, feed my family…should I care whether or not some billionaire exists on there?  If perhaps the lowest economic status was as I described, maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine this to ever be the case.  Wealth is only acquired because of other people.  And the value of what is made, what is labored for is decided by people.  It’s a zero sum game, and while it’s possible to spread the wealth more equitably, it’s also possible to siphon the wealth away from the bottom and funnel it towards the top.  Please don’t lose track of the fact upwards of $21 trillion sits in off-shore tax havens.  If we have wealth beyond our basic needs, what is such a person’s moral responsibility in a world fraught with people who are without homes, without basic access to education, health care, or even enough food on a daily basis?

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Philosopher Peter Singer argues that our moral responsibility to save lives is not relegated only to situations where we see someone suffering.  For instance if you passed by someone who was drowning you would immediately act to do something about it.  But what about the knowledge that someone is in peril on the other side of the world?  Do we not have an equal moral obligation to help our fellow human?  I psychologically understand why the two situations are different, but from a moral point of view I can find no flaw in Singer’s argument.  We do have a responsibility to help those we can help.  I am not saying that I am absolved of this responsibility due to me making less than 10 million a year or anything.  There are people like philosopher William McCaskill (by the way he’s single ladies…or maybe guys…who am I to make heteronormative assumptions) who has stated that any money he makes over £40,000 a year he will give away.  Few of us have that kind of commitment I imagine, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.   The fact still remains that there are people in this world who make more money that they could ever use and could do far more to help people than I could ever do in my lifetime.  Would putting all the wealth towards people who need it solve all their problems?  Probably not.  But this shouldn’t be the goal.  For any action we do to help others, we are under no illusion that the problem will go away everywhere, but we help when we can.  I mean if a friend asked me to help them move, do I say “I’m sorry I can’t help you because there are a lot of people who need help moving and since I can’t help them all, helping you doesn’t really make much of a difference”.  This would be a laughable argument at best, but more likely callous.   When I see the level of wealth inequality in the world, I personally find it morally reprehensible that so much wealth exists in the hands of so few while so many suffer.

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Now we can argue that hoarding wealth is a mental illness, or that their years of economic power have eroded empathy, and that such people can essentially do nothing but continue to hoard their wealth. These are likely valid arguments, but if our goal is a more equitable do such people have a right to such excess wealth?  Please keep in mind that I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any income inequality, but rather there becomes a certain threshold of inequality where society becomes unsustainable or at the very least has more suffering than it needs to.  But then what is the solution if people with unimaginable wealth are mentally unable to part with it?  In an argument I had with a conservative about this subject he argued that the only reason so much money exists in tax shelters is because they don’t want corrupt governments to get their hands on it.  And it’s true that money corrupts government officials as much as heads of corporations.  But I think we can agree that this does not excuse those with so much wealth from just using it themselves them to do good as a matter of moral responsibility.  Especially since so much of that wealth ultimately comes from investors, consumers, laborers, etc.

What then should we do?  If the movement of large sums of cash are going to corrupt people along the way, what is the answer?  Some have suggested that instead of a minimum wage we should have a maximum wage, or raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  All of these are prone to the corruption argument. Universal Basic Income is another suggestion, but this is something that only helps in already wealthy nations.  The best answer I can come up with is what we shouldn’t do, and that’s nothing.  In the election last night San Francisco passed a proposition which introduces a small tax to companies making more than $50 million a year to combat homelessness.  This is expected to bring in $300 million in income to the city to deal with the homeless problem there both in terms of getting those people shelter but getting them mental and medical help.  Of course there were billionaires against the proposition, but some were for it, and that’s heartening.  The arguments against were again largely of the nature of oversight, and I get that this should be a concern.  But given the spirit of the bill, then shouldn’t you be working to make sure that process works better and smarter, rather than just saying “strike it down…it’s not perfect”.  No bill is going to be perfect when it is trying to help lots of people, but if the goal is worthy, like ending homelessness (in one of the richest cities in the U.S.) then shouldn’t those high tech billionaires be asking “How can I help?” instead?  One wonders if the expertise of themselves and their employees in technology would be useful in helping to implement a policy that would help homeless people.  It is too often the quest for the perfect solution leads to excuses for inaction.  Solving this problem is complicated, perfection is unlikely to occur, but at least some people will be helped if we try.

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Now you may argue that income inequality has gotten a bit better, and that those at the very bottom are doing better than they were 50 years ago.  And this may be true, but just because the ultra-rich are willing to keep more people at a basic level of subsistence, doesn’t necessarily lead to a better situation.  What many people face who are barely getting by is a feeling of hopelessness.  They can live paycheck to paycheck, but they have little opportunities to save, emergencies (like a blown furnace, medical emergencies or car repairs) wipe what little savings they have, and most importantly they work in jobs that have little opportunity for advancement, or chance to save to go back to school to be retrained for a better job.  Perhaps all the greedy are doing is to find a “sweet spot” where people aren’t desperate enough to revolt but still poor enough to be compliant.  In a consumer driven society, if people don’t have enough capital to buy goods well you don’t have consumers and so I am sure that the raising of the bottom of the poverty charts isn’t entirely out of the goodness of the billionaire’s heart.  Not surprisingly people don’t want to toil at a dead end job their entire lives.  People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

I’ve tried hard to objectively look at greed as well.  Is there a time when greed is good?  Is there a benefit to it in this world?  Sometimes even bad things have good consequences even if unintended.  The only positive argument I’ve been able to find is that people with large amount of resources are able to invest heavily and develop quickly technologies which might take far longer to develop otherwise.  Technologies that might even save lives. But such things are hard to quantify and must also be measured in against the suffering that greed costs.  It also assumes that technological advancement should be a priority over other things.  I wonder sometimes that even if some discovery save lives, does that mean we are actually learning to value life?  If I’ve made the world better, but only did so for more profit, is the world actually better? Or do the intentions matter for building a better future?

Image result for greed quoteIn this conversation I have not talked about economic systems much.  I don’t consider socialism vs. capitalism a battle of moral systems.  I think if our morals were in place both systems can be very effective.  Greed is the corruptor of both.  My personal feelings are that a dose of each is the best, although I’m still working out the proportions.  Fundamentally, to my understanding of capitalism it’s focus is the acquisition of wealth.  Socialism makes more statements about how society should have a stake in the wealth it produces.  For me, I will personally lean more towards socialism because it is the only system that demands that we think about how we allocate resources in a fair manner.  I realize this is a point of contention upon many, and I am not going to make a strong evidence case for my views here in this post as the focus is on greed. Suffice to say I am acutely aware of the positive things that capitalism has done.  I’m also aware of the many negatives.  Here is just one expressed by a fellow blogger and one of the most well read people I know.

I also want to be clear that  while I have spent a lot of time chastising those who have the upper echelon of wealth, the fact remains that most of not all the people who will read this post are in the top 1% globally (including myself), and thus we could all be probably doing more than we are.  We certainly can’t use a greater degree of greed as an excuse to not try to do what we can.  I am not immune to the comforts that having a decent living wage provides.  Perhaps the best way to prevent greed from destroying our society is for all us to adopt a philosophy that prevents it from taking a deeper hold in our own lives.

End Note

Please check out more about Will MacAskill in the link I provided above.  His projects towards effective altruism are truly wonderful visions and I think it’s a project we can all get on board with.