Mass death is actually a bad thing for the economy

This past week we had a serious, unironic “debate” about whether or not senicide is a reasonable “plan” for handling the coronavirus crisis. This under the pretense that the other course of action — following the advice of medical professionals and epidemiologists to stay home and socially distance ourselves to curb the spread of covid-19 — is tantamount to shutting down the economy, which is tantamount to killing more people than the virus will.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a $2 trillion relief package, one quarter of which will go to the billionaire class with precious little oversight as to how it can be spent — and still apparently no one seems to have the slightest bit of confidence that the world’s richest economy can possibly weather the storms of depressed consumer demand for even several weeks much less the potentially many months this pandemic will rage across the planet. Perhaps this reveals that The Economy simply isn’t as robust as we tell ourselves it is during better times.

Dead Men Pay No Taxes

The proposed Sophie’s Choice between weeks or months of physical separation and allowing many people to die all around us is a false frame.

Millions of people dying is bad for The Economy in a very similar way to how having ICE eject millions of people from the economy is bad for The Economy. Insofar as economies require a labor force, and insofar as governments require revenue from taxation to pay for the infrastructure upon which The Economy rests, having millions of people depart from them is not a pathway to improving the economy — it is the opposite.

However, perhaps The Economy itself has become a contested concept. There may be a class-based and/or ideologically-based difference of opinion on what this concept means. Perhaps there is now:

  • the economy: the traditionally-held view of economies as markets in which individuals labor and contribute value, and trade assets in mutually beneficial ways to allocate resources efficiently
  • The Economy: a sort of shell game played by the right-wing authoritarian cohort in which the Plebes are starved of infrastructure and resources to the point of being mired inside an Eternal Present — in which we lurch from crisis to crisis — that brokers no hope for the future and no actual policy being made, other than the “policies” which continue to print money from the Federal Treasury for the purposes of propping up the precariously fragile billionaire class whose claims of meritocratic supremacy are stretched thinner and thinner each time the shells are moved yet again

Starving the Beast kills it: Feature or bug?

On paper, “Starving the Beast” is passed off as deeply held ideological libertarianism regarding the fundamental goodness of small government. In practice, starving beasts tend to die of preventable causes — and if governments are to retain the kind of power needed to be a check and balance on a growing hypercapitalist economy, they must indeed grow as well.

But beyond the general case, our specific circumstances of global pandemic lead us to a reasonable question: if laissez-faire capitalism and the free hand of the market is supposedly both sufficient to solve all human problems and vastly superior than the socialist hand of government at doing these things, then why are we in such a pickle? Why hasn’t the Invisible Hand managed to come up with its own solution to the mass death we are currently experiencing?

Or is the answer we might hear one that is too grim to bear — having been provided a clue this week in the grumbling of sacrificing the old to save the young — that a certain part of the political spectrum believe this is the market working as intended. That mass death is an acceptable “negative externality” of laissez-faire capitalism and that we bleeding-heart liberals ought to suck it up and grow thicker skin, rather than demand that governments step in to prevent preventable human atrocity.

Not only am I afraid of the answer — I’m afraid we’ll never get a straight answer in the world of political ketman we seem to have blundered into. In this world, right-wing elites including numerous elected officials continue to give lip service to a democracy that has been systematically hollowed out since the redoubling of the conservative movement in the 1970s to present, to currently resemble a geopolitical reality closer to that of modern Russia than to anything James Madison or Alexander Hamilton would have recognized.

It is technically possible that psychologically speaking, they themselves are actually unaware of this seismic shift in ideological views from that of democratic power and Constitutional authority to one of authoritarian rule and total technocratic control — but I think it’s more likely they’re simply not saying it out loud.

Funny how you never see any Libertarians volunteering to…

fund or maintain civic necessities such as:

  • clean water delivery
  • sewage removal
  • electricity generation and delivery
  • garbage and recycling removal
  • public safety
    • police forces
    • fire protection
    • emergency response
    • flood control
  • a justice system
    • courts
    • jails
  • transportation
    • road planning and construction
    • bridge planning and construction
    • street lights
    • traffic lights
    • driver licensing
    • airports
    • railroads
    • subways
    • buses
    • parking
    • snow plowing
  • mail service
  • sidewalks
  • parks and recreation
  • schools
  • libraries
  • property and county records
  • land surveys
  • research and development
  • public health
    • hospitals
    • pollution control and remediation
    • food supply testing
  • legislation

Notes: Surveillance capitalism dystopia, with Zeynep Tufekci

speak, sistah!

see also: Shoshanna Zuboff (who wrote the seminal work on surveillance capitalism), Don Norman

Some takeaways:

  • surveillance won’t be obvious and overt like in Orwell’s 1984 — it’ll be covert and subtle (“more like a spider’s web”)
  • social networks use persuasion architecture — the same cloying design aesthetic that puts gum at the eye level of children in the grocery aisle

Example:

AI modeling of potential Las Vegas ticket buyers

The machine learning algorithms can classify people into two buckets, “likely to buy tickets to Vegas” and “unlikely to” based on exposure to lots and lots of data patterns. Problem being, it’s a black box and no one — not even the computer scientists — know how it works or what it’s doing exactly.

So the AI may have discovered that bipolar individuals just about to go into mania are more susceptible to buying tickets to Vegas — and that is the segment of the population they are targeting: a vulnerable set of people prone to overspending and gambling addictions. The ethical implications of unleashing this on the world — and routinely using and optimizing it relentlessly — are staggering.

Profiting from extremism

“You’re never hardcore enough for YouTube” — YouTube gives you content recommendations that are increasingly polarized and polarizing, because it turns out that preying on your reptilian brain makes you keep clicking around in the YouTube hamster wheel.

The amorality of AI — “algorithms don’t care if they’re selling shoes, or politics.” Our social, political, and cultural flows are being organized by these persuasion architectures — organized for profit; not for the collective good, not for public interests, not subject to our political will anymore. These powerful surveillance capitalism tools are running mostly unchecked, with little oversight and with few people minding the ethics of the stores of essentially a cadre of Silicon Valley billionaires.

Intent doesn’t matter — good intentions aren’t enough; it’s the structure and business models that matter. Facebook isn’t a half trillion dollar con: its value is in its highly effective persuasion power, which is highly troubling and concerning in a supposedly democratic society. Mark Zuckerberg may even ultimately mean well (…debatable), but it doesn’t excuse the railroading over numerous obviously negative externalities resulting from the unchecked power of Facebook in not only the U.S., but in countries around the world including highly volatile domains.

Extremism benefits demagogues — Oppressive regimes both come to power by and benefit from political extremism; from whipping up citizens into a frenzy, often against each other as much as against perceived external or internal enemies. Our data and attention are now for sale to the highest bidding authoritarians and demagogues around the world — enabling them to use AI against us in election after election and PR campaign after PR campaign. We gave foreign dictators even greater powers to influence and persuade us in ways that benefit them at the expense of our own self-interest.

Design guru Don Norman’s shortlist of everything wrong with the internet

When usability pioneers have All the Feels about the nature of our creeping technological dystopia, how we got here, and what we might need to do to right the ship, it’s wise to pay attention. Don Norman’s preaching resonated with my choir, and they’ve asked me to sing a summary song of our people in bulleted list format:

  • What seemed like a virtuous thing at the time — building the internet with an ethos of trust and openness — has led to a travesty via lack of security, because no one took bad actors into account.
  • Google, Facebook, et al didn’t have the advertising business model in mind a priori, but sort of stumbled into it and got carried away giving advertisers what they wanted — more information about users — without really taking into consideration the boundary violations of appropriating people’s information. (see Shoshana Zuboff’s definitive new book on Surveillance Capitalism for a lot more on this topic)
  • Tech companies have mined the psychological sciences for techniques that — especially at scale — border on mass manipulation of fundamental human drives to be informed and to belong. Beyond the creepy Orwellian slant of information appropriation and emotional manipulation, the loss of productivity and mental focus from years of constant interruptions takes a toll on society at large.
  • We sign an interminable series of EULAs, ToS’s and other lengthy legalese-ridden agreements just to access the now basic utilities that enable our lives. Experts refer to these as “contracts of adhesion” or “click-wrap,” as a way of connoting the “obvious lack of meaningful consent.” (Zuboff)
  • The “bubble effect” — the internet allows one to surround oneself completely with like-minded opinions and avoid ever being exposed to alternative points of view. This has existential implications for being able to inhabit a shared reality, as well as a deleterious effect on public discourse, civility, and the democratic process itself.
  • The extreme commercialization of almost all of our information sources is problematic, especially in the age of the “Milton Friedman-ification” of the economic world and the skewing of values away from communities and individuals, towards a myopic view of shareholder value and all the attendant perverse incentives that accompany this philosophical business shift over the past 50 years. He notes that the original public-spiritedness of new communication technologies has historically been co-opted by corporate lobbyists via regulatory capture — a subject Tim Wu explores in-depth in his excellent 2011 book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Is it all bleak, Don?! His answer is clear: “yes, maybe, no.” He demurs on positing a definitive answer to all of these issues, but he doesn’t really mince words about a “hunch” that it may in fact involve burning it all down and starting over again.

Pointing to evolution, Norman notes that we cannot eke radical innovation out of incremental changes — and that when radical change does happen it is often imposed unexpectedly from the outside in the form of catastrophic events. Perhaps if we can’t manage to Marie Kondo our way to a more joyful internet, we’ll have to pray for Armageddon soon…?! 😱

The New Deal –> Raw Deal

In the 1930s and 40s we had the New Deal. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting legal limits on the maximum number of hours worked and the minimum wages allowed.

Republicans fought it then, claiming it would be essentially socialist, and an economic enemy to business and growth. However, it was the very opposite of that — the war and post-ware years were ones of productivity and prosperity, widely and broadly. A strong middle class was formed, changing the life and culture of America forever.

In the mid-1970s this growth engine finally began to falter, and since the 80s, we’ve instead had the Raw Deal. An ever-escalating version of a Libertarian’s wet dream: deregulation of numerous industries including finance (leading to the housing crash of 2007-8) and energy (leading to Enron), a steadily less progressive tax system (down from a whopping 94% in 1944 down to 28% under Reagan), and endless waves of cuts to social programs designed to level the opportunity playing field.

The thing is, when people feel hopeful, they work harder.

When there is hopelessness, there is less urgency to work hard to maintain the conditions and systems that make one feel so hopeless. If you know the game is rigged, how futile does it seem to keep playing?

Libertarians lament about the size of the pie, which is as good a modern version of “let them eat cake” while the plebes swill McD’s and pay through the nose for health care as any.

Turn Republican short-sightedness into financial upside: invest in solar

As members of the white male oligarchy fall all over themselves to mock the Green New Deal in their prostrate subservience to special interest lobbyists and Wall Street, there’s an opportunity hanging out in the wind (…but mostly in the sun) for Main Street.

People who claim that solar power isn’t scalable are living like it’s 1999, or 1984, or maybe 1924. Solar power has been shown to so far follow the edicts of Moore’s Law, which describes the doubling of the number of transistors on the same size chip every 18 months to 2 years — leading to predictable cost reductions over time for technologies that exhibit this kind of growth curve.

Meanwhile, the substrates upon which solar photovoltaic cells can be deployed are getting smaller — ridiculously smaller. Thinner than a strand of human hair. Of course those solar implementations are still insanely expensive, but give Moore’s Law and markets some time to work and at some point (and probably in this lifetime, for some of us) we’ll be in a world where PV cells are everywhere — almost literally. We will pass out of the age of fossil fuel scarcity and into an age of true energy abundance, in which power can be harvested from almost any given surface.

So, get yourself a nice little solar ETF and plow some money into it, or squirrel away little bits over time — whatever you can afford. Eventually you’re liable to be laughing all the way to the bank as the dinosaurs cry themselves to sleep at night before the feverish petroleum-soaked nightmares set in.

Anger is the defining emotion of the internet

The internet is a rage machine.

It’s designed to whip you up into a frenzy in order to foment cheap pageviews. Its interest is in you becoming a histrionic attention whore, such that you suck in as much clandestinely stolen user data to your platform of choice as possible.

Anger is also notably the “loophole” emotion — it’s the invisible one men get to have, while claiming for generations upon generations that “women are too emotional to be entrusted” with leadership or anything meaningful, really. Meanwhile male anger and aggression have killed hundreds of millions and wreaked destruction upon the earth many times over, as fragile masculinity is repeatably and predictably triggered over any little old thing.

A neat trick.

A story.

A lie.

We must democratize computational skill

We need to bring the fire down from the mountain. We are not on that project — we are still on the opposite project: keeping the wizards behind the curtain.

Too many of the wizards are male, and are busying themselves in playing petty economic and status zero-sum power games instead of recognizing the context they are in — we are all in — as an infinite game in which the enlargement of the participant group to include and, not just reluctantly tolerate, but to avidly welcome women in to the club will massively benefit all the players. 

Then there are the white wizards who create pseudoscientific rationalizations for wasting time obsessing over 18th century racial animus as a massive distraction from having to do the work of creating anything useful or contributing any value to the world. They’ve taken their centuries of evolutionary advantage and painstakingly developed economic pie to split hairs over who ought to be denied a few of the crumbs, as a cheap method of papering over the deep well of collective insecurity and ego fragility precipitated by a lack of meaningful individuation and their failure to create anything useful or contribute any value to the world.

We could be playing this game together. Instead, we furtively dart about in Plato’s Cave imagining we are still living in a world of scarcity, rather than leveling ourselves up to behold the vision of the new world of abundance we have the capacity to create.

Not Ready Player One.

DIPTYCH: Equality vs. Supremacy

EqualitySupremacy
opportunitygatekeepers
democracyautocracy
diversitymonoculture
rule of lawfealty
entrepreneurshipfeudalism
accountabilitycorruption
Golden Rulepersecution
freedomoppression
fairnessarbitrariness
inclusivenessxenophobia
progressiveconservative
legal customsphysical force
creativerent-seeking
noveltystatus quo
favors challengersfavors incumbents
meritocracyaristocracy
holocracyhierarchy
consensusdictatorship
consenttyranny
diplomacyviolence
curiosityfear
toleranceintolerance
flexibilityrigidity
multi-facetedsingle-mindedness
organicbureaucratic
emergentcontrolling
radialtop-down
deliberaterash
carefulreckless
self-actualizedinsecure
logical reasoningmagical thinking
universaltribal
comprehensivedismissive
caretakingmilitaristic
communitygated community
independenceconformity

Power

Power is the crushing sensation delivered from somewhere vaguely Above.
It is obtuse; inscrutable.
Ever-shifting and mercurial.
Confounding.
Contradicting.
Nakedly self-interested.
Confident. Conscienceless.
Faceless. Meaningless.
A black hole sucking everything in.
A black boot in every face.
A blackness.
A contradiction; a cognitive dissonance.
The bitter taste on one's tongue.
The gnawing fear.
Capriciousness.
Corruption.
Hypocrisy.
Paranoia.
Bombastic grasping.
A slap in the face.
An endless arms race.
A shallow grave.
A cold stare.
A trap.

Unspoken Libertarian assumption

How do you prevent monopoly capitalism under a minimalist state?

The answer is: you don’t — which is “working as intended” to a libertarian. Both because their contempt for the government is so great they would sacrifice our very national treasures if it meant squeezing another cent out of the public coffers, and because they are fans of monopoly capitalism. Greed is good — so what if the invisible hand must be made to slap around the little guy? Money is a religion, and these people are True Believers.

Arguments for an open world

For friends of the Open Society who, like me, would prefer not to block the movement of people, ideas, and trade:

  • Trade agreements are net contributors to economic growth
  • Immigrants are net contributors to economic growth
  • Money spent on the security industrial complex economy has low ROI vs. education, infrastructure, and research spending
  • A diversity of ideas more likely leads to the best outcomes vs. a paucity of ideas
  • Companies with more women leaders are more profitable
  • The more the merrier!

Theory: Libertarians are the Narcissists of the Far-Right

I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and reminded of the quintessential liberal definition of the term:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
(emphasis mine)

It seems to me that Libertarian proponents tend to make a systematic error in portraying liberty as only commensurate with the first part of Mill’s description: essentially interpreting it as, “I should be able to do whatever I want, and have no constraints placed upon my person by the government whatsoever.”

This misses completely the essential boundary established by the second part: that doing what one wants has limits attached, and that those limits are a proscription on engaging in activities which either harm others, or deprive others of their own rights in pursuit of liberty.

Harm

Being fixated with avoiding taxation, the Libertarian will proclaim that the government is coercing him out of his hard-earned monies — but this fails to recognize the real harm being done to the lower classes by the deprivation of funds to support the basic level of public goods required to preserve life at a subsistence level as well as social mobility: the essence of the American dream.

In short, Libertarian dogma tends to be singularly focused on the self-interest of the upper classes without any attendant regard to the rights of others that may be trampled on by either class oppression or the capturing and consolidation of political power in the hands of the wealthy. It fails systematically to recognize the perspective of the “other side,” i.e. those who are harmed by the enactment of the Libertarian ideology — much as a narcissist lacks empathy — and with it, the capability of seeing others’ perspectives.

The Libertarian narcissist Venn diagram is practically a circle.

Capitalism vs. Democracy

Gather ’round, y’all — it’s the fight of our times…

How much decision-making should be privately made, vs. collectively? Arguably, decisions that affect most of us ought, in some way, to incorporate input from the public.

But as Elizabeth Warren 2020 (!!) notes — it’s getting harder and harder to do that, even as economic opportunities dry up and the wealthy capture more and more of the political class.

With Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all exploring bids too, it’s shaping up to be a very interesting 2020 indeed. With so many all-star Democrats in this mix, it’s hard to imagine we won’t come out of this with an interesting campaign season — beginning approximately now, with Warren’s semi-official entry into the arena and owning the airwaves as Trump comes unhinged at “Pocahontas.”

She dressed him down easily, gracefully, and quickly — before moving on into substantive economic issues most Americans are going to want to hear a lot more about. Trump cannot speak this way about the economy, which means his ruse on the Hillbilly Elegies of the world is about to come to an abrupt end, with many of their rude awakening.

For some it will never dawn on them that the man of the golden toilets (and golden showers!) who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars from his New York real estate mogul father before bankrupting himself 4 times in the casino business, in point of fact can in no way understand their experience living in a motor home or ramshackle apartment complex in some run-down suburb in the rust belt. But many may finally see that he’s just been pretending, like all the other rich people who still rule their damn lives despite all the promises to “drain the swamp” of corruption.

Let’s hope.

Here’s to 2020! 🥂