Monday, June 30, 2014

Automated Government

On several occasions I've mentioned that I think in the long run some sort of automated government should replace existing governments. This requires further explanation. The immediate goal in terms of the current geopolitical state of affairs would be to eliminate government domination by special interests and to minimize the detrimental effects of poor choices made by the voters in democracies. The idea would be to reduce government actions or inactions that increase inequality, waste or misdirect resources and damage the environment. What I have in mind would be something resembling communism, but far better managed than has historically been the case. Obviously there would be enormous obstacles in transitioning to such a system.

One difficulty would be convincing people that it would be in their best interest to switch to such a system. As long as capitalism exists in its current form, people are likely to believe that they must control their own destinies by competing in free markets. For this reason, capitalism might have to go first. Another problem would be gaining public acceptance of automating major processes with artificial intelligence. In order to gain that confidence, technology that is superior to what we have at present would be necessary, and the standard of living would probably have to be relatively high for nearly everyone in order to assuage their skepticism.

Extrapolating from the present to the future, which is guesswork at best, conditions could arise that would allow this to come about. Let's say capitalism continues to grow and becomes the universal ideology worldwide. Corporations continue to increase efficiency and provide goods and services that are in demand. Under this scenario, which corresponds with Thomas Piketty's views, the rich will get richer and the majority will tread water indefinitely. Over a long period, good jobs will not be available to most people. Sharing capitalist ideologies, nations may cooperate more than they did in the past and wars could become a rarity. If you take the positive view, it is possible that existing governments will gradually evolve towards more socialistic models in order to limit social unrest. Assuming that the technology exists, there may literally be no reason for most people to work, and governments may become their default source of support. It is certainly possible that at some point, barring major setbacks, computers and robots will be able to do everything.

On a cautionary note, it is also perfectly conceivable that a different sequence of events could occur. In a worst case scenario, the ultra-rich might abandon their fellow humans and use proprietary technology to dominate them unfairly. They might enhance themselves genetically and physically, essentially turning themselves into a superior species that takes no responsibility for us.

I began thinking about this topic when it became obvious to me that the U.S. government does not function in a manner that produces outcomes that are desirable for Americans, humanity in general or the planet as a whole. Because of the fundamental imbalances of power that are created by rampant capitalism, sooner or later most of us may be at the mercy of the ultra-rich, and we don't know for certain what course of action they might choose. My thinking is that some sort of hedge is needed against the possibility of world domination by a minority that is indifferent to the welfare of mankind. In this light, capitalism and democracy can be seen as dangerous, uncontrolled processes. On the one hand, capitalism provides a wealth advantage to a minority, and, on the other hand, democratic processes are diverted from their original intent through the influence of money. Who, if anyone, is addressing this problem?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Confirmation Bias

When I engage in activities such as this blog, because of my nature, I am usually conducting experiments in the back of my mind. One of those experiments relates to studying the Internet for its possibilities as a useful entity. Since I started the blog, I have been looking at websites that I hadn't seen before. I now believe that earlier I was inappropriately fixated on the NYRB and its blog, and that I had been laboring under some illusions regarding the NYRB's nature and intellectual integrity. Probably because it was one of the few places where one could find in-depth, well-written articles on a variety of topics, and because writers whom I respected such as Tony Judt and Freeman Dyson were contributors, I lulled myself into a false sense of its quality and openness. After examining a variety of websites, I now think that the NYRB is a limited organization that caters to a narrow group, and that most of the ideas that you find there are predictable, because they are the views that their readers want confirmed. There is nothing whatsoever about it that might be construed as cutting-edge.

Beyond the content of the articles in a publication, one gets a sense of its readership from its blog posts. The NYRB appeals to well-educated, relatively affluent liberals who like high quality and think of themselves as having broad interests, though they actually care mainly about hot-button liberal issues and some of the humanities, particularly from an academic viewpoint. They don't care much about science or empirical arguments. This flies in the face of the NYRB's image as a paragon of the open exchange of big ideas. Other less pretentious sites, particularly 3 Quarks Daily, have broader intellectual appeal.  The latter attracts people who are interested in the sciences and philosophy, but also leaves room for virtually all of the humanities. From the standpoint of blog commenting, 3 Quarks Daily is far more open, because it allows posters to post without moderation. Like all websites, it has limitations, but by drawing from many websites, being well-managed, and placing little emphasis on image control, it is much more appealing to me than the NYRB.

Confirmation bias is a topic that has been widely discussed in recent years. I came across it in the context of economics, which now has a branch called behavioral economics, a break from the past, when most economists assumed that people always acted in rational self-interest. They've finally realized that irrationality pervades human life, and they are now rethinking some of their earlier ideas. This research focuses mainly on investor behavior, where, for example, men tend to be unrealistically confident, and women tend to be unrealistically risk-averse. There is now an entire industry based on making money from your investment mistakes. On a broader scale, confirmation bias relates to many other human behaviors, but decision-making is its focus in economics.

In a speculative, anecdotal way, I have been trying determine what kind of person, if there is such a person, would be attracted to this blog. It is hard to obtain much data on this, because very few people look at it at all, and I have access to very little information about those people. Other than a handful of regular readers, I get new readers who click on a link to this site that shows up when I make posts on other blogs. I can't always tell much about where they are located other than their country, but often I can also determine their city. As you would expect, most of the pageviews are from the U.S., since most of the websites I comment on are in the U.S. and a very large chunk of English-language Internet activity is in the U.S. What surprises me is that I seem to be more likely to be viewed in Iceland, Ukraine, Russia or China than in the northeast U.S. where I live. This makes me ask what websites the people in the northeast go to.

The answer, which I can't prove, is probably that they are going to websites that are familiar to them and that present worldviews with which they are comfortable. That would not be unlike me when I regularly went to the NYRB website. I get the impression that the Internet is relatively ghettoized, and it seems to be dominated by commercial organizations like and Facebook that herd people into some sort of profit model by meeting their human needs. In the context of this post, one might say that they are drawn to sites that affirm their worldviews, don't challenge them much, and make them feel good about themselves: their biases are confirmed. In theory, American viewers are more satisfied with their lives and don't feel as much need to explore as the residents of Russia or China. Of course, there are other reasons why people in Russia or China might be interested in this blog, but I'm assuming for the moment that these pageviews are not from criminal organizations or government spies.

The working hypothesis that I've arrived at is that most Americans think they already know enough and don't need to know much more: they certainly don't need to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones. Thus, when commercial organizations such as the NYRB, the New Yorker, The New York Times, the Huffington Post, and so on, beckon them, whispering "Narcissism is OK," they happily indulge. That only leaves dissatisfied people in less privileged countries who stand outside and look in through the window out of curiosity. Here in the U.S., we are easily distracted from the underlying chaos of our existence by the Murti-Bing pills* freely dispensed by the government and corporations alike.

*From The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Two days ago I watched the documentary Muscle Shoals, which I recommend highly to anyone who is interested in American culture. I get the impression that many younger people today don't understand what the music scene was like in the U.S. from the early '60s to the early '70s. There is a lot that I can say about this documentary because it relates to many of my favorite topics.

Arguably that period produced the best art in American history, and it was characteristically American because it melded vernacular art with social movements and commerce and it flourished in small, entrepreneurial enclaves. Muscle Shoals is a little town on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. A poor sharecropper named Rick Hall decided that he wanted to be rich and famous, and he founded Fame Studios there in the late 1950's. Against all odds, Hall put together a small backup ensemble of local white high school kids who, along with his engineering and producing skills, became a draw to several big names, including Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, early in their careers. Southern rock took off from there when Duane Allman learned the slide guitar while hanging out in the studio. As Fame's reputation spread, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many others began to show up.

Although I am often critical of capitalism, when you look at it in this context, it seems more productive and human, and it reminds me of vegetable gardening. The small-scale entrepreneur is looking for a crop, and, to that end, ordinary business practices are of secondary importance to finding, nurturing and developing talent. Without the entrepreneurs, many of the popular artists of the period would never have seen the light of day. What makes this scenario interesting is the process in which raw talent seeks an outlet, and a good entrepreneur cultivates it like a good farmer. In these early stages, to continue the analogy, the garden is small, and agribusiness hasn't yet entered the picture. It is easy to forget that once upon a time this wasn't a corporate state.

Lacking the formal traditions of Europe, perhaps the U.S. is better at creative synthesis in the arts. Often this seems to be more about free expression than about art, and I'm not sure that Americans can tell the difference. Thus, if you write a one-paragraph essay, eliminate the punctuation and break it up into short lines, it's a poem. Formal shoddiness pervades America, while spontaneous expression often does better than elsewhere.

As Rick Hall's business grew, his backup group, The Swampers, jumped ship and formed their own company, which also did very well. The transition to long-haired groups was difficult for Hall, and he made a major mistake when he dumped Duane Allman just as he was taking off musically. In the aftermath, that innocence is probably gone, and my guess is that Muscle Shoals is now like a mini-Nashville.

Compared to the 1960's, the U.S. seems dull and decrepit these days. I haven't heard any good popular music in decades, and instead of marches on Washington we have the Tea Party and the Koch brothers. At least Vermont retains a certain 1960's aura, though New England has an anal-retentive quality, which, along with political correctness, does not provide fertile ground for the arts. Most of the best art in the U.S. seems to emanate from the South, which historically had more cultural diversity than other regions.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thomas Piketty IV

In conclusion, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an important and impressive book. Chief among its virtues is Piketty's commitment to a broad cross-disciplinary approach to his subject, economics, which he sees as a sub-discipline of the social sciences, along with history, sociology, anthropology and political science. Most people are fully justified in their lack of interest in economics, because it is usually presented as a narrow, technical field that doesn't relate directly to other subjects. In contrast, Piketty writes like an Enlightenment thinker who is concerned about important issues such as the future of mankind, not just little things such as U.S. GDP growth next year. In short, he is a big thinker, whereas Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and probably even Milton Friedman, comparatively speaking, are not.

Even so, I don't necessarily recommend that you read Capital unless you are particularly interested in policy discussions related to economics. It is a long, thorough and detailed book that touches on many topics, but the central message is quite simple. It is that the current state of the world is such that the wealthy are likely to become wealthier and the poor are likely to become poorer. As a believer in social justice and the responsibility of governments to maintain an acceptable level of equality, Piketty recommends that permanent new taxes on wealth be instituted globally. He also suggests that one-time taxes on wealth could be used to eliminate or reduce national debts. The latter would be preferable to decades of austerity, which has little effect on the wealthy but places a heavy burden on the poor.

Much of the book is devoted to showing how wealth inequality grew up until 1914, when it collapsed, and how it took off again during the recovery after 1945. His thesis, which he amply documents, is that the 1914-1945 period was a historical aberration. The wars and the Great Depression wiped out most of the prior wealth inequality, and the surge in economic growth after 1945 temporarily allowed the less-wealthy to advance economically. Now, Piketty argues, we have resumed the long-term trend in which the return on capital exceeds the return on labor. People who are wealthy now will become wealthier from their investments while the rest of society will languish indefinitely with little chance of making economic progress. Enormous wealth is accumulating in the top .1% of the population. The number of billionaires and multi-billionaires is growing, and even large private university endowments are growing faster than those of smaller universities. The largest endowments grow at the highest rates because the universities have the resources necessary for the best investment research. For example, Harvard, with an endowment of about $30 billion, spends about $100 million per year to manage its assets and gets a real return of about 10.2%, higher than that of all other universities except Yale and Princeton. In this environment, ordinary workers will never catch up with the wealthy and small, private universities will never catch up with Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

The parts of the book that I found most refreshing involved Piketty's critiques of the U.S. He debunks the idea of American exceptionalism, saying that current information suggests that social mobility is lower in the U.S. than in Europe. He attributes much of the wealth inequality in the U.S. to overpaid executives. He speculates that low top income tax rates have encouraged U.S. executives to bargain harder for higher compensation, since they can keep more of their earnings than they would otherwise. If higher top-level income tax rates were reinstituted, executives would have less incentive to demand higher pay and American wealth inequality would be reduced. Courageously, he goes on to say: hypocrisy is too great when economic and financial elites are obliged to defend their interests-and that includes economists, who currently occupy an enviable place in the US income hierarchy. Some economists have an unfortunate tendency to defend their private interest while implausibly claiming to champion the general interest. Although data on this are sparse, it also seems that US politicians of both parties are much wealthier than their European counterparts and in a totally different category from the average American, which might explain why they tend to confuse their own private interest with the general interest. Without a radical shock, it seems fairly likely that the current equilibrium will persist for some time. The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century's globalized economy.

In full disclosure, I must say that I have some sympathies with wealth inequality. Historically, extreme wealth has often led to good art as a result of attempts by the wealthy to differentiate themselves. When the Italians were wealthy we got Botticelli, Michelangelo and Titian. When the Dutch were wealthy we got Bruegel, Vermeer and Rembrandt. When the French were wealthy we got Flaubert, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Debussy and Proust. The arts tend to flourish when there are rich people throwing money around. On the other hand, I can't say that wealthy Americans have much to show for their artistic interests unless you include bad taste (The Queen of Versailles comes to mind). Secondarily, also on the positive side, although I'm not rich, I'm wealthy enough that the book affirms that if I manage my investments properly, not only am I unlikely to experience financial difficulties, but my wealth will probably increase during the remainder of my life, thanks to the backward political process here and the absence in the U.S. of useful public intellectuals like Piketty.

At the conceptual level, I consider Piketty to be the responsible adult that few Americans seem able to be. Why didn't an American economist write this book? As Piketty politely refrains from saying, this is a narrow-minded, materialistic culture all the way up through the intellectual ranks. The policies he recommends should already be under consideration, but whatever headway they make will meet tremendous opposition at each step. It is possible that by following Piketty's guide and publicly debating the issues discussed in his book the state of society could be improved significantly. To me, this is a more serious approach than what has been brought up by either liberals or conservatives in recent decades. I wish Piketty's ideas the best of luck, but still hold fast to the view that humans ultimately are not sufficiently rational to organize themselves in an equitable and sustainable fashion. As I have said earlier, I don't believe that either capitalism or democracy is essential to human life, and this book does not look that far into the future.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Noam Chomsky

When I was growing up, I had little cause to be political about anything. I was a white Anglo-Saxon male living in prosperous suburbs, and my parents and grandparents had never been persecuted. Though my great-grandparents on my mother's side were more or less forced out of Turkey because they were Armenian, that was never discussed at home. My mother spent her life pretending not to be Armenian and identified herself as Greek. We had never seen a black person in England, and when we moved to the U.S. in 1957 my mother explained to us that if we saw one we shouldn't call him a "nigger," which was the first time I heard that word.

During the 1960's, the antiwar and civil rights movements seemed legitimate to me. I agreed with them in principle, but thought that since they were obviously right there wasn't much to say about them. I did not feel any of the "white guilt" that many well-off white American liberals felt, because I wasn't well-off or American. The absurdity of guilt-stricken American liberals became apparent to me when I arrived at college in 1968.

I recently saw an amateur documentary made by a college acquaintance in 1969. It features several other college acquaintances as they plan and execute a confrontation with the college president about the small number of black students on campus. It is painful to watch. They are naive and ideological, the black students want nothing to do with them, and the president squirms under pressure to take actions that he probably can't. Later on, when the U.S. invaded Cambodia in 1970, two students burned down the R.O.T.C. building and were caught because they burnt themselves in the process and went to the local hospital for treatment. In this sort of environment it was hard for me to take campus activism seriously. Even so, by the time I was a senior I had begun to see the college as a corporate entity that stayed afloat by preying on students who aren't substantively different from ordinary consumers. This led me to small acts of terrorism, but I wouldn't call them political.

Over the years my political awareness has increased somewhat, but I still have difficulty voting, because politics, politicians and political activists seem stupid to me. However, along the lines of insidious corporate activity, I began to think more about political brainwashing during the Gulf War (1990-1991). I was then living in Dixon, Illinois, Ronald Reagan's hometown. Up to that point I had thought of the Dixon natives as relaxed, likable and slightly agrarian; they were poorly-educated and unimaginative, but reasonable and pacifistic. I was surprised to learn, through their enthusiastic support of the war, that underneath they were conservative Republican war hawks. Further investigation showed that pretty much the entire state of Illinois is like that once you get outside of Chicago and college towns.

I have never read any of Noam Chomsky's books, but because he is widely considered to be one of the leading public intellectuals in the world, I've watched documentaries about him and seen him on TV. What interests me at the moment is that even though I'm not political and don't follow this stuff closely, I've generally come to the exact same conclusions that Chomsky reached decades ago on my own: governments and corporations manipulate the public in order for private entities to enrich themselves or secure their positions, and democracy is ignored in the process. Frequently, as a result, populations at home and abroad are criminally abused. In particular, Chomsky is highly critical of the actions of American presidents: "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged." The funny thing is that he is not a fanatic and has ample facts and examples to back up everything he says.

One of the reasons why I'm discussing this is that it highlights points I've made earlier about conventional wisdom and conformity. Many important issues are swept under the rug by the media, and as a consequence few people think about them or react. Chomsky also makes criticisms of intellectuals similar to ones I've made. I am intrigued by the fact that he used to appear in the NYRB but no longer does. I wouldn't be surprised if he has been banned there because he calls out intellectual charlatans when he sees them: that is what they are at the NYRB. I might add that Chomsky is another classic "smart Jewish guy from Brooklyn," though he actually grew up in Philadelphia.

With the limited exposure I've had to Chomsky, there are only a couple of criticisms that I can think of. First, he is not an effective communicator. He is not concise, and therefore has little chance of winning over most people. He writes book after book and can talk for hour after hour on whatever topic he chooses, always in a low, unmodulated voice. Second, he identifies himself as a libertarian socialist or anarchist, neither of which I consider to be an adequate substitute for the current system of capitalism and nominal democracy. What kind of government can be against authority?

I'm not interested enough to explore Chomsky's political goals in detail, but from what I know they do not seem plausible. I suspect that he is an idealist regarding human nature, which is where I part company with him. The impression I have is that he thinks free speech and public awareness can create an environment in which authorities will be forced to work for the public good rather than for special interests. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that I am far less sanguine about human nature. That is why I advocate an authoritarian system of governance that is immune to attempts at manipulation by individuals or special interests. I don't think that, given the nature of our species, a functional democracy is possible. Individual freedoms must be impartially curtailed according to a rational program. My ideal political party might be called the Zookeepers. How popular do you think that would be?