Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Let Me Know When It's Over

Maybe it's my cheap seat or my general exhaustion, but the whole staged spectacle is beyond tiresome; I've had my fill.
Let me me know when it's over: yes, all of it: the impeachment, the trade dispute with China, U.S. involvement in Syria, the manic stock market rally and the 2020 election.
I'm not interested in following every twist and turn of the endless trauma-drama because none of it changes anything: Swapping Pence for Trump changes nothing, and then swapping Warren for Pence in 2020 doesn't change anything, either: the rot is too deep for any one person to do much beyond feel-good virtue-signaling and symbolic gestures (tax the billionaires, etc.)
The entire political process has devolved to staged battles in the Bread and Circuses Coliseum, entertainment that is highly profitable for the corporate media that whips the partisan mobs into a frenzy and highly useful for the status quo, as the sound and fury signifying nothing serves to distract the restive audience from the decline of everything of value: civil liberties, free expression, social mobility, free markets and so on.
The nation is in the deadly grip of cartels, monopolies and bureaucracies tasked with increasing and protecting the continuing concentration of wealth and power in financial and political elites.
We are eating our seed corn while borrowing profligately from the future to create an illusion of growth--an illusion that requires ever greater levels of intervention / manipulation and propaganda. Dissent must be buried or silenced, as the absurd disconnects from reality reach new extremes.
China is in the same boat, having borrowed $40 trillion into existence to fund a vast permanent construction project that has completed everything that is remotely useful and is now lumbering onward building ghost cities, stadiums, malls, highways across deserts, etc. because that worked so well for 30 years and policy makers don't have any sustainable alternatives. That malinvestment leads to default and bankruptcy is That Which Cannot Be Spoken, lest the entire financial house of cards collapses.
In other words, a trade agreement won't change anything: the world's major economies are careening toward a demographic / financial / energy cliff that can't be reversed with a trade deal or any other policy tweaks on the margins.
As for all our foreign entanglements--there's no ending them, no matter how disastrous because the Imperial Pretensions / Project has no intention of ceasing the multi-level interventions of postmodern imperialism, regardless of who's president.
Look, the clowns are harassing a chained bear--it's the Stock Market Circus, led by head clown Powellus Absurdus. The must-always-levitate-higher stock market is the comic relief for the dismal slaughter of innocents that makes up the rest of the entertainment. Ha-ha, what fun the clowns make of the enraged bear, until the bear break loose and then ha-ha, the clowns scatter.
The mood of the mob is fast becoming ugly; even the victors of the staged games are being booed. The attention span of the audience has dwindled to the point that few even wait for the outcome of the contest to scream for somebody's blood. The crowd is no longer satiated by gore or drama, and even the comedic interludes no longer mask the sense that the mob is one spark away from taking their rage and frustration out on each other--the vicarious thrills are no longer enough.
Maybe it's my cheap seat or my general exhaustion, but the whole staged spectacle is beyond tiresome; I've had my fill. So let me know when it's all over: the impeachment entertainment, the trade war drama, the stock market comedy, the election circus, all of it.
Until then, I'll look to the real world for amusement and distraction. The Bread and Circuses Coliseum is feeling increasingly deranged and dangerous.



My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Ultimate Heresy: Technology Can't Fix What's Broken

Technology can't fix what's broken, because what's broken is our entire system..
The ultimate heresy in today's world isn't religious or political: it's refusing to believe that technology can not only solve all our problems, it will do so painlessly and without any sacrifice. Anyone who dares to question this orthodoxy is instantly declared an anti-progress (gasp!) Luddite, i.e. a heretic in league with the Devil.
Even worse, if that's possible, is declaring that technology is making our lives worse rather than better. There's an entire industry devoted to cherry-picking data to support the One True Faith of Technology: a new miracle drug (never mind the side-effects or the fact that the drug only works on a relative handful of patients), a new energy source that will generate nearly free energy in near-infinite quantities (thorium reactors, though there is not yet a single one that's operational), and the marketing of convenience: this new marketing gimmick will change your life--you can try on clothing in virtual reality, no need to go to the mall! Wow! Borrow more, buy more, throw more into the landfill--isn't technology wonderful?
Meanwhile, back in reality, the previous "miracle drug," statins, turn out to be useless in reducing heart disease and actively reduce health via a vast array of negative side effects: Do statins really work? Who benefits? Who has the power to cover up the side effects? (europeanscientist.com)
Heavily promoted "miracle drugs" make billions of dollars for the corporate owners, whether they actually improve health in the long-term or not. But the tech-will-fix-everything cheerleaders never get around to examining the spectacular failures of Big Pharma, or the catastrophic consequences of smartphone addiction (see chart below), or the impossibility of scaling technology without consuming vast amounts of resources which are already scarce.
This excerpt from my new book explains the absurdity of the tech faithful's belief system: (The book is Will You Be Richer or Poorer? Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World.)
The belief in the ultimate goodness and inevitability of technological advances is often presented as a binary choice: one either believes that technology will eventually solve every human problem, or one is anti-technology and anti-progress.
Suggesting there are limits on technology is thus heretical: for believers, there are no limits.
Let's set aside the false binary choice and ask: are there intrinsic limits to technology, and if so, are we approaching any of these limits?
Technology cannot change the priorities and incentives of those who own it. Technology is only a tool, and people will use the tool to maximize their gain and optimize whatever incentives are embedded in the system. If chopping down irreplaceable tropical hardwood forests is optimized by the incentives to maximize profits, then that's how technology will be applied.
Technology cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics. Taking a pencil and extending the declining cost of solar panels to zero doesn't negate the physical costs of mining and smelting the ore, shipping the metal to a factory, fabricating the photovoltaic cells, assembling and testing the panels, transporting them to the installation site on vehicles that are expensive to manufacture and maintain, installing the panels, wiring them to inverters and other equipment, testing the system onsite, and returning to perform maintenance and possibly repairs. Since the expected life of the installed panels is 20 to 25 years, the entire expense must be repeated, plus the additional expense of removing and recycling the worn out panels.
The cost of manufacturing, installing, maintaining, repairing and replacing the panels will never be close to zero due to the intrinsic costs in mining, smelting, refining, milling, transporting, assembling, testing, installing, maintaining and repairing the panels--not to mention getting rid of the toxic components when the panels must be replaced.
Even if robots perform all the work, robots are themselves resource- and energy-intensive. Robots are less like a computer chip (with declining marginal costs), and more like a car, an immensely complex and costly assembly of intrinsically resource-intensive components, electronics, computer chips and millions of lines of software coding.
Autos cost more than they did a generation ago for all these reasons. As cheap-to-access resources such as metals and minerals are depleted, the remaining ores are more costly to extract; regulations require additional safety features, and extremely complex software is increasingly prone to unanticipated errors.
All of these realities apply to autos, robots and every other complex, resource-intensive machinery.
To become more capable, machines become more complex and therefore more expensive to manufacture, test, maintain and repair. In a very telling edit of reality, those extolling the idea that robots will perform all of humanity's work in the near future overlook these intrinsic costs, and overlook the expensive realities of fixing even simple machines when they fail or break down.
Consider the following example: a clothes dryer.
A clothes dryer is basically a metal box containing a heating element and a drum that spins. An electronic board with a digital display operates the machine''s cycles and controls. A dryer is thus far less complex than a robot, especially a robot that is capable of navigating the real world.
The dryer control board is relatively simple: a handful of low-cost commodity computer chips and a few circuit boards. Despite the relative simplicity, these boards fail with alarming regularity. This is also true of the electronics in ranges, washing machines and other appliances. The replacement board for the dryer is one-third the cost of a new dryer. Labor adds another third, so replacing the board is two-thirds the cost of a new dryer.
This reliance on cheap commodity electronic components results in the lifespan of modern appliances being measured in years rather than the decades of use formerly expected of purely mechanical appliances.
The ultimate cost of adding features (the functional value of which is often very much in question) is far higher than the sticker price of the new dryer. In the real world, technology has increased costs and consumed more resources for extremely marginal improvements (for example, ten choices of drying cycles rather than five).
Since advocates of robots claim robots will soon do all the work of humanity, consider the vast difference in cost between a robot that operates on a flat factory floor, repetitively attaching one part on a dryer assembly line, versus a robot that arrives onsite in the messy real world and is able to diagnose and repair a broken dryer.
The factory model operates on a flat floor; the repair robot has to navigate an irregular driveway and multiple changes in floor level. It also has to be powerful enough to lift the dryer off the washer (in a stacked configuration), move it to open ground, remove the top, perform the diagnostics, remove the defective board, retrieve the new board, install it correctly, re-assemble the case, test the repaired machine, then lift it back onto the washer.
To repair a dryer onsite, the robot will have to have the strength of a small forklift and a very high level of dexterity and precision motor control. The cost of adding each of these capabilities to a robot is extremely non-trivial, and it won't ever drop to near-zero. Rather, it will only increase in cost even if commodity sensors and chips decline in price. The points of potential failure will proliferate with each new capability and each new level of complexity.
Finally, note that the robot itself is prone to the same kinds of failures that it is designed to repair, but due to its much greater complexity, repairing the repair robot could cost an order of magnitude more than just having a knowledgeable human repair the dryer.
I've performed this exact repair on my own dryer (only a few years old), and other similar repairs on other appliances: a name-brand range that turned on the oven at random times due to a failed low-cost commodity electronic sensor (less than two years old), and an expensive name-brand heavy-duty washing machine, less than a year old, that also failed due to a low-cost electronic sensor.
Complex devices are only as reliable and durable as their lowest-quality component. This is as true of robots as it is for any other device.
Yet even with me performing the labor, the parts for all these appliance repairs were expensive. Many less-handy people would have paid multiples of this already-high cost just for labor, while others would have bought a new appliance and had the (still-functional other than the one failed component) appliance hauled to the landfill--a perfect example of our wasteful and expensive Landfill Economy.
Consider the hundreds of components in a so-called smart home designed to save energy and offer more convenience by networking sensors, cameras, appliances, locksets, servers, controllers, Wi-Fi chips and software.
The projected advances in security and convenience, many of which are questionable (e.g. just how much value is really added by a refrigerator that can order a quart of milk delivered once it detects a low level in the carton?) come at a very high cost in components, installation, service and repairs, because each of the hundreds of sensors, controllers, Wi-Fi chips are points of potential failure--not to mention the risk of unauthorized remote access.
How long will these components last? How long before they must be replaced to function with a new software system? How functional will the system be if even one controller fails?
Given the extraordinary expense of installing and maintain this complex system and the marginal returns in convenience and security, how is this not another system destined for the landfill?
I have yet to find a true believer in robots will do all the work of humanity who has ever performed even a single repair of a complex system or device caused by a failed board, chip, sensor or software bug - and done so not on a clean factory floor but in the unpredictable real world.
I've also never yet met an avid believer in robots will do all the work of humanity who has designed, prototyped, tested, manufactured, sold, maintained and repaired robots capable of climbing (or landing) on a roof, diagnosing the cause of a failed solar array, replacing the failed part and cleaning the panels, all for a total system cost that's less than the relatively modest cost of a human repair person.
Technology can't fix what's broken, because what's broken is our entire system. For more on this heresy, please check out the first section of my new book (free PDF)
If you have an appetite for more heresy: read at your own risk....
Vaclav Smil: 'Growth must end. Our economist friends don't seem to realise that': "The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense. The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don't manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone."
Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?: Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it's too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.
Technocracy, Luddism, and the Environmental Crisis: The green movement needs to think about social power just as much as about technology.I believe the roots of the environmental crisis lie as much in the technocratic attitude towards nature expressed in Western cultures and technologies as in the capitalist drive for profit, growth, and accumulation. The power of industrial-capitalism is that its technological, social, and economic values mutually reinforce one another.
The Net Energy Pincer: Prior investment and psychological attachment prevent us from starting again from scratch. Instead, we employ ever more complex (and expensive) work-arounds in an attempt to make systems, institutions and infrastructure achieve things that they were not designed to do (such as keeping people alive into their 90s or providing 24/7 electricity using solar panels).
Climate Change and Technology (via LaserLefty): The question that isn't being asked: what will the adverse consequences of these (alternative energy) technologies be? Climate change and mass extinction weren't even imagined as consequences of the technologies that produced them. And again, a central drawback of the technologies being developed to address climate change is that they will adversely impact species loss and mass extinction. If the 'solution' to climate change means a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, what is to be gained by implementing it?
To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution: Big tech claims AI and digitization will bring a better future. But putting computers everywhere is bad for people and the planet. We are often sold a similar bill of goods: big tech companies talk incessantly about how AI and digitization will bring a better future. In the present tense, however, putting computers everywhere is bad for most people. It enables advertisers, employers and cops to exercise more control over us รข€“ in addition to helping heat the planet.


My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

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Thursday, October 10, 2019

America 2019: Even the Wealthy Are Poorer in Everything That Matters

The price we're paying to keep our heads above water steepens while the pay-off is dropping off a cliff.
A good friend related a story that goes directly to the heart of what's broken in our way of life. My friend went to a reunion in Silicon Valley attended by the most successful cohort in America: super-smart, highly educated people in their mid-40s who have achieved the highest levels of professional accomplishment and built enormous financial wealth, with net worths not just in the millions but in many cases in the tens of millions of dollars.
These are people at the apex of the American economy and society, those who did everything right, worked hard and grasped the brass ring of conventional success.
Yet when the meeting broke into small groups and individuals were asked to speak briefly about their lives, more than a few people teared up and began weeping. My friend was struck by the disconnect between their tremendous success and their personal misery--of failed marriages, of being trapped in their jobs, in feeling their sacrifices weren't worth it and in sensing the shallowness of their success and the poverty of their inner lives.
Not every super-successful person was miserable, of course; some had shifted gears to lower-paid work they found more fulfilling and others still loved their careers. But what was near-universal was the desire to get the heck out of Silicon Valley and leave its pressure-cooker lifestyle in the dust.
It takes a great deal of honesty and inner strength to admit in public that conventional success hasn't delivered the glorious fulfillment and happiness we're scripted to expect.
Ours is a culture of forced optimism. The scripts of forced optimism are repeated daily in endless loops: the "fix" for misery is gratitude (hence everyone interviewed after a "win" must express gratitude and humility) and a menu of self-help tricks: mindfulness, better management of our productivity, etc., in a near-infinite profusion of "5 things you can do to improve your life" lists that gush out of America's prodigious self-help industry.
All of this is intended to obscure the reality that even the wealthy are poorer in everything that really matters. We measure "wealth" in financial terms, but as the super-successful and super-wealthy discover, financial wealth doesn't translate into well-being, fulfilling relationships, agency, health or the other forms of intangible capital that make up "real wealth."
I've just completed a book that explores these topics in depth: Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World.
The book also examines the constantly hyped faith that technology will inevitably make us all richer, the implicit premise being that every technological advance is automatically making our lives better in every way, every day.
A corollary of this forced technology optimism is that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will inevitably generate trillions of dollars in profits that will enable us all to 1) quit working because robots will do all our work and 2) draw a substantial monthly "dividend" from this endless gusher of tech-generated profits.
Nice, except every one of these assumptions is demonstrably baseless. AI might enrich the few who own the platforms and monopolies, but even that is unlikely, given that these technologies are rapidly being commoditized.
These are difficult dynamics to understand, but if we want to become wealthier in meaningful ways (including sustainable financial wealth), we have to understand these concepts at the deepest level. If it was possible to explain these complex realities in a 200-word list of 5 easy tips, I would, but alas, it took 38,000 words just to manage a modestly comprehensive overview.
As all the costs we don't even measure pile up, we're all getting poorer whether we are able to admit it or not. A society / economy that's fragmenting and failing is not making us all richer, despite the signaling device of a rising stock market and gamed statistics (unemployment at a 50-year low, etc.).
This book is also the result of my personal journey through burnout, a topic I discussed earlier this year in Burnout Nation. The price we're paying to keep our heads above water steepens while the pay-off is dropping off a cliff. While we're constantly told to focus on the rising value of our stocks and homes (if we have any meaningful equity in either one, which many do not), our well-being, health, social mobility, agency, trust in institutions, non-financial capital and security are all declining.
Burnout forces us to re-assess costs, sacrifices and pay-offs in a wrenching reckoning that can no longer be put off. The recession that is slowly but surely unfolding will increase the stress on many of us, and force all sorts of personal reckonings on people who have spent years avoiding just such a reckoning.
My goal in writing this book was to help everyone going through a personal reckoning understand the impoverishment meted out by our broken socio-economic system, an impoverishment that may be invisible even as we sense it weighing more heavily on us every day.
How do we turn around this decline in everything that matters? The first step is to recognize and measure all forms of capital, tangible and intangible alike, and make a personal balance sheet of all the forms of capital we own or have access to, and prioritize which ones are the most important to us.
There's much more in the book. Please take a look at the first section for free (PDF). There's a 15% discount on both the digital and print editions through the month of October.
A note of thanks to those who buy the book: As an independent writer, book sales are a substantial part of my livelihood. I receive no funding from any trust fund, university, philanthro-capitalist foundation, think-tank, shadowy C.I.A. front, media giant or government agency.


My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, John F. ($5/month), for your splendidly generous pledge to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 

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Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Will the Clintons Destroy the Democratic Party?

History is full of ironies, and perhaps it will suit the irony gods for The Donald to take down the Republican Party and the Clinton dynasty to destroy the Democratic Party.
Let's start by stipulating my bias: I would cheer the collapse of both self-serving, venal political parties, which have stood by for decades as the rich have become immeasurably richer and the politically powerful few have disempowered the many. The transparent "populist" bleatings of both parties--"we serve the people!"--sound increasingly like stale, pathetically disconnected from reality Soviet-era propaganda.
Let's say I'm a relatively disinterested observer other than my fervent wish that both corrupt, self-serving parties slide into the dustbin of history, the sooner the better.
The Republicans were hijacked by Donald Trump and given a binary choice: accept Trump as their candidate and have a chance of winning, or reject him and guarantee losing. After surveying the wreckage left by the Bush dynasty and Romney's loss, the Repubs swallowed their distrust and distaste for The Donald and chose winning over losing--the easily predictable choice for all politicos.
The Democrats chose to enact a Greek tragedy featuring off-the-charts hubris. Despite Hillary's private email server, the Clinton Foundation's shameless shakedowns for millions of dollars in "contributions" (the polite word for influence peddling), and her delight in mocking those who chose not to vote for her as "deplorables," the Democrats were supremely confident that the Clinton dynasty would sweep them to an easy and overwhelming victory.
As the Greek dramatists understood, hubris doesn't just invite disaster, it welcomes disaster. The Democrats were then handed a binary choice: either cast the Clintons adrift with a few provisions and a hearty cheer and move on, or set the course of the Party for the next four years to the Clintons' Ahab-like obsession: we wuz robbed, and the terrible error of history (Hillary losing the 2016 election) would have to be corrected regardless of the cost.
To aid their mono-maniacal campaign, the Democrats partnered with the most anti-Democratic and corrupting force in America, the alphabet agencies of Imperial Pretensions, the CIA et al., who are institutionally bound to view the citizenry's right to choose its government and its government's policies with utter disdain: we rule the Empire, and democracy is only acceptable as long as it rubber-stamps our rule.
This aligned perfectly with the Clinton dynasty's view, and so the unending campaign to unseat The Donald was launched.
For better or worse, this unholy alliance put the Democratic Party's legitimacy on the gambling table. The Democratic Party, whether it accepts or understands this reality or not, has devolved to an absurdist cable-channel devoted exclusively to unseating The Donald, regardless of the cost and regardless of the sacrifices required to pursue what is increasingly a quixotically misguided venture.
Wittingly or unwittingly, every institution allied with the Democrats has also put its legitimacy on the gaming table, the most important of which is the mainstream media, including the quasi-public Propaganda Broadcast Service (PBS). The corporate media and PBS have been reduced to late-night TV programming, selling the same flimsy gadgets with the same tired pitch: "But wait--there's more!"
All of which leads us to the question: will the Clintons destroy the Democratic Party, or perhaps even more saliently: have the Clintons already sealed the fate of the Democratic Party?
We won't know the voters' judgment until November 2020, but judging by campaign contributions, the delegitimizing ill-will being generated by the Party's transparent suppression of Tulsi Gabbard, its Ahab-like obsession with impeachment and its bad-karma reliance on the FBI and CIA's most treacherous operatives, the Party's leadership might not hold a winning hand.
History is full of ironies, and perhaps it will suit the irony gods for The Donald to take down the Republican Party and the Clinton dynasty to destroy the Democratic Party.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

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