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Posts Tagged ‘capitalism

“What goes up must come down”*…

 

population

 

For most of human history, the world’s population grew so slowly that for most people alive, it would have felt static. Between the year 1 and 1700, the human population went from about 200 million to about 600 million; by 1800, it had barely hit one billion. Then, the population exploded, first in the United Kingdom and the United States, next in much of the rest of Europe, and eventually in Asia. By the late 1920s, it had hit two billion. It reached three billion around 1960 and then four billion around 1975. It has nearly doubled since then. There are now some 7.6 billion people living on the planet.

Just as much of the world has come to see rapid population growth as normal and expected, the trends are shifting again, this time into reverse. Most parts of the world are witnessing sharp and sudden contractions in either birthrates or absolute population. The only thing preventing the population in many countries from shrinking more quickly is that death rates are also falling, because people everywhere are living longer. These oscillations are not easy for any society to manage…

Demographic decline– the end of capitalism as we know it?  “The Population Bust.”

See also: “UN world population report predicts slowing growth rate, 10.9 billion peak by 2100” (source of the image above) and The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in a Post-Crisis World, by Ruchir Sharma.

* Isaac Newton

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As we ponder population, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that the first issue of Scientific American was published.  Founded as a weekly by painter and inventor Rufus M. Porter, as a four-page weekly newspaper, its early emphasis was on a broad range of inventions ranging from perpetual motion machines, through an 1860 device for buoying vessels (created by Abraham Lincoln), to the universal joint which now can be found in nearly every automobile manufactured.  It became the somewhat more substantial monthly publication that we know and love when,in 1948, three partners (publisher Gerard Piel, editor Dennis Flanagan, and general manager Donald H. Miller, Jr) who were planning on starting a new popular science magazine, to be called The Sciences, purchased the assets of the then century-old Scientific American instead and put its name on the designs they had created for their new magazine.

Scientific_American_-_Series_1_-_Volume_001_-_Issue_01.pdf

The first issue of Scientific American

 

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America”*…

 

history-of-capital-ai

The evolution of capitalism (“the capital AI machine”) as a series of levels that were unlocked by new “learning” APIs to humans

 

Consider capitalism as a highly efficient objective function (or “AI”) with its parameters optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests.

Paranoia about runaway feedback loops – in consumer capitalism, artificial intelligence, mass media, ‘Wrestlemania politics,’ etc – ultimately stems from the inscrutability of the emergent behavior of these complex systems to the individual actors and observers operating within them.

Rather than responding with Luddite / anarchist nihilism, we should remember that technological and social systems like these have dramatically reduced our exposure to the unpredictability of the natural world and greatly improved living conditions on a number of dimensions over the past few centuries.

At the same time, we should not ignore warning signs of a dystopian future, nor should we hope that a ‘personnel change’ of institutional leaders will solve our problems.

Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward…

Andrew Kortina explains modern capitalism as a system– one that, for all of its all-too-manifest faults, should be saved; then he starts the conversation about how to do that salvaging: “History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.”  Mildly geeky, but richly provocative– which is to say, useful, whether one buys his suggested solutions or not– it’s eminently worthy of a read.

* “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.  – Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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As we wonder about the water in which we swim, we might recall that it  was on this date in 1933 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act came into force.  A central piece of New Deal legislation, the AAA aimed to aid farmers devastated by reduced demand for their crops by creating price supports via a series of government purchases (of crops and livestock) and subsidies (essentially payments not to plant/grow).

The program was controversial in its time– it made previously independent farmers dependent on the government– but it worked; average farm income rose 50% from 1932 to 1935.  It’s elements– government purchase and subsidy– survive to this day, evolved into (many of) the provisions of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress every five years or so… even though the constituency of small farmers the Act was intended to serve has largely given way to an agricultural landscape dominated by a handful of gigantic corporate players.

farmer

A Roosevelt County New Mexico farmer and a County Agricultural Conservation Committee representative review the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program to determine how it can best be applied on that particular acreage

source

 

“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves”*…

 

management slavery

Caitlin C, Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

As fascinating as her findings were, Rosenthal had some misgivings about their implications. She didn’t want to be perceived as saying something positive about slavery. On the contrary, she sees her research as a critique of capitalism—one that could broaden the understanding of today’s business practices…

The balance of this review of Rosenthal’s book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, at Forbes (and here— the source of the image above– and here).

Slavery was, this essay suggests, baked into laissez-faire economics from the start; it was central to the thinking of the French thinkers who shaped Adam Smith’s theories.

By way of further American context, this essay from Rebecca Solnit: “The American civil war didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate president.”

And more globally, lest one think that slavery– overt bondage– is something in humankind’s past, consider the plight of the 40 million enslaved today (and the ways that our regular patterns of consumption support their exploiters); follow The Global Slavery Index.

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we face history, we might celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day marked in his honor.  The holiday was established in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating this federal holiday.  Reagan had opposed the holiday, citing its cost, joining southern Republicans like Jesse Helms, who were more naked in their reasoning; but the enabling legislation had passed by a veto-proof margin.

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Written by LW

January 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves”*…

 

… or at least that’s the idea.  Here, another of our occasional looks at the intellectual history of the cultural moment that we’re in:  how a concern with Commies in California’s universities led to “Cold War philosophy”– the yoking of rational choice theory to the scientific method– and how it embedded the free-market mindset in US society:

Cold War philosophy also influences US society through its ethics. Its main ethical implication is somewhat hidden, because Cold War philosophy inherits from rational choice theory a proclamation of ethical neutrality: a person’s preferences and goals are not subjected to moral evaluation. As far as rational choice theory is concerned, it doesn’t matter if I want to end world hunger, pass the bar, or buy myself a nice private jet; I make my choices the same way. Similarly for Cold War philosophy – but it also has an ethical imperative that concerns not ends but means. However laudable or nefarious my goals might be, I will be better able to achieve them if I have two things: wealth and power. We therefore derive an ‘ethical’ imperative: whatever else you want to do, increase your wealth and power!

Results of this are easily seen in today’s universities. Academic units that enable individuals to become wealthy and powerful (business schools, law schools) or stay that way (medical schools) are extravagantly funded; units that do not (humanities departments) are on tight rations. Also on tight rations nationwide are facilities that help individuals become wealthy and powerful but do not convey competitive advantage on them because they are open to all or most: highways, bridges, dams, airports, and so on.

Seventy years after the Cold War began, and almost 30 after it ended, Cold War philosophy also continues to affect US politics. The Right holds that if reason itself is rooted in market choice, then business skills must transfer smoothly into all other domains, including governance – an explicit principle of the Trump administration. On the Left, meritocracy rules: all three of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees attended law school at either Harvard (as Obama himself did) or Yale (as Hillary Clinton did). The view that choice solves all problems is evident in the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s presentation of the Republican vision for US health care, at his press briefing last March 23: “We’ve lost consumer choice … The idea is to instill choice back into the market.”…

How this happened and what it wrought– the remarkable (but true) tale in its entirety: “America’s hidden philosophy.”

* Richard Feynman

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As we question authority, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that Congress authorized “In God We Trust” as the U.S. national motto.

The phrase had appeared occasionally (as had variations on the theme) on coinage since Civil War times; regularly– despite Theodore Roosevelt’s conviction that it was sacrilegious– from 1908.   But it didn’t appear on bills until 1957…

 source

 

Written by LW

July 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

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