Tuesday, October 18, 2016

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Except when there are.

I have been harping along for some time that the single greatest problem facing humanity today is the deliberate engineering of a population explosion by the rich, in order to drive wages down for the many and profits up for the few (although deliberate, it is also largely unconscious: the rich have mostly rationalized that what is good for them must be good for everyone and they are just advancing their own short-term interests.  They are also using their power and influence to stifle unwanted attention of their pro-natalist policy, again, largely unthinkingly as the rich naturally bestow their largess and connections to those who make them feel good about themselves.  But functionally, the same thing.  The population explosion has been deliberately created by the rich). 

Now I am open to rational counter-arguments, but these are sadly in short supply.  A typical counter-argument is ‘there you go again.’  Anyone who stoops to this argument has admitted that they have no intellectual ammunition.  Consider:

‘There you go again, always harping that 2 + 2 = 4.’

‘There you go again, always harping that water flows downhill.’

‘There you go again, always harping that the sun rises in the East.’

Continued repetition in the face of willful ignorance is not proof of error.

And of course there are the classic ripostes that I am ‘scapegoating immigrants’ or am ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘islamophobic’ – the hollowness of using such unsupported slander instead of rational argument, I leave to the reader to judge.

Let us consider yet another mindless jingoism: “There are no simple solutions to complicated problems.”   The claim would be that the world is so complicated that there is nothing to be done but wring our hands over the injustice of the world, mouth empty platitudes about wanting ‘social justice,’ and maybe – maybe – from time to time we can come up with a few pennies and put a bandaid on one of the more visible problems.  Anything else is utopian and impractical.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.

Consider what happens when a person is starving to death.  They become lethargic.  They become prone to infection.  They may have poor skin and thin hair.  They may have kidney problems, and multiple imbalances in electrolytes and blood chemistry.  They become sensitive to the cold.  They don't heal as well in the face of injury.  In short, the process of starvation is complicated and exhibits multiple manifestations.  So if I told you that the solution to someone starving to death, is to give them some food, would you just throw up your hands and say ‘there you go again, always proposing simple solutions for complex problems’?  That would be ridiculous.

Now I claim that many of the problem in the world are due to forced population growth.  Sustained high fertility rates can and do wipe out all progress (this is beyond economics: this is basic physics), leading to mass poverty, social unrest, a weakening of the central state, endemic corruption and nepotism, environmental despoliation, the spread of diseases, refugee crises…  You may disagree with me.  But you can’t rationally just chant ‘oh there are no simple solutions to complex problems,’ because many times a simple problem has multiple ramifications. But you really can fix it with one thing.

In the practice of medicine, there is no guarantee that a sick patient will have only one underlying problem (‘a patient can have as many diseases as he or she pleases.’)  And yet the standard practice of medicine is to first see if there is, perhaps, a single underlying pathology that is giving rise to all of the various symptoms.

This is the basic approach of science: to first look for simple underlying principles.

But there is no guarantee that a simple underlying principle will always exist.  Consider now old age.  That also presents as a complex set of symptom clusters, but as far as we know so far, there is not a single thing that causes the progressive failing of human health with age.  A thousand different chemical byproducts build up in a hundred different tissues, non-replaceable cells die, collagen cross-links and stiffens…  Perhaps someday someone really will find a single simple treatment that, even if it does not cure old age completely, will ameliorate a large fraction of the problems.  Just because we have not found such a thing, does not mean that it does not exist, or that we should stop looking.  But right now, old age really does look like a complex problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.

And here is the problem: determining whether or not a given complex-seeming problem does or does not have a single (or at least primary) underlying cause requires thought.  Which is hard.

Nevertheless, one thing should be clear.  When someone tries to attack an argument by non-specifically claiming that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

A similar trick is when a politician tries to push a given change in policy by claiming that ‘we must embrace change’ or ‘we must not be afraid of change.’  This is a transparent attempt to deflect criticism of the specific attributes of a change in policy by claiming that those opposed are irrationally opposed to change per se.  Any politician making such an unsupported statement should immediately be assumed to be acting with bad intent.

So far, so good.  We need to think clearly.  There is one little problem with that.

There are today so many people flooding the internet and the airwaves and bookstores etc. with so many crackpot theories, but we can’t critically evaluate them all.  We need the cognitive armor of routinely dismissing as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘crackpot’ all non-mainstream theories, or we would be overwhelmed.  The problem is Zionists, the problem is too tight a monetary policy, the problem is too loose a monetary problem, or too much free trade, or too little free trade, or too much democracy, or racism, or blacks are stupid, or the CIA is controlling our thoughts with radio waves… 

And so we have a simple and obvious explanation for much of what ails the world, but it is invisible.  It suffers the double-hit of being directly targeted for burial by the people with money and power, and also being relegated to the vast forest of (mostly) absurd utopian political and economic theories that we have made a (necessary) habit of denigrating without thought…

And no, I have no idea how to solve this issue either.  Only to do my best, and argue my case. 

I do point out that a stable or slowly growing population by itself will not create utopia, nor even paradise.  Too-rapid population growth will create poverty: but allowing populations to stabilize at a moderate level will not create wealth.  A stable or very slowly growing population creates nothing, but only means that people will have the chance to slowly accumulate per-capita real physical wealth.  And creating significant per-capita wealth, even if it’s not being wiped out by massive population growth, is indeed hard, and requires effort and persistence and intelligence.  That, at least, is complicated.

Nevertheless, the record is clear: when people have abundant resources and tools, and modest progress is not wiped out by ever more mouths to feed, they generally do pretty well.

We are probably doomed, but must only do our best.  Regardless, if there is one take-home message from this, it’s the following: do not accept any unsupported claims that XYZ is untenable because ‘there are no simple solutions to complex problems.’  Because yes Virginia, sometimes, there really are.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s Health is Irrelevant

As all too often, we continue to obsess over things that just don’t matter, while ignoring things that do.

Hillary Clinton’s health problems are much in the news lately.  Is she really sick, or just having a bad week?  Who cares.  Forget what you read in the Tom Clancy novels: the next US president is not going to fight Vladimir Putin in single combat, or challenge the Chinese premier in a contest on the TV trivia game-show Jeopardy. 

Presidents set broad policy.  They don’t need to be healthy.  They don’t need to know the middle name of the under-secretary of defense of Uzbekistan.  They have staff for that.

If Hillary Clinton dies in office, her hand-picked corporate lickspittle Tim Kaine will continue the same pro-donorist, pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-worker policy that she would have.  If Hillary Clinton becomes demented, her staff will similarly ensure that the policies of her wealthy donors are dutifully enacted, the national interest be damned.  So it doesn’t matter.

Oh, you say, but what about her lying about her health?  OK, maybe that is of some relevance, but when you consider Hillary’s lies on not supporting TPP, and not being joined at the hip to Wall Street, etc.etc., who cares.  Frankly, if a public official tries to tough out an illness and act like they are healthier than they are, well, that could almost be considered admirable (or it would be if she was not in every other way a supremely disgusting person).

Similarly, the upcoming presidential debate is irrelevant.  Hillary supporters will claim she won, Trump supporters will claim he won, and it won’t matter either way.  As well have a swimsuit competition.  I don’t care if Hillary comes off on TV as assured or as a bitch, I don’t care if Trump gets off a zinger or looks befuddled.  That’s TV. It doesn’t matter.

Let’s go back to the record.  Just consider Libya.  Libya was the most prosperous nation in Africa, it wasn’t paradise but it was mostly peaceful, people had jobs and money and health care, and the government was an ally in war on terror (maybe reluctantly, but an ally nonetheless) and maintaining stability in the region.  As Secretary of State Hillary pushed to have the United States ally with Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups (yes you heard me right we are now allied with Al Qaeda.  You know, the nutjobs that blew up the twin towers on 9/11?  And people still say that Hillary Clinton is ‘qualified’ to be president??), and then we attacked a nation that didn’t threaten us, and killed God only knows how many people, and immiserated and uprooted God only knows how many more, and turned Libya into a post-apocalyptic wasteland like in “Mad Max Fury Road” (great movie but I wouldn’t want to live there), and now there are refugees going everywhere and ISIS and related fanatics are doing unspeakable things etc.etc.  And Hillary is apparently proud of this, and is certain, if elected, to do even more of it!!!

For this real, actual, substantial, and relevant actions, Hillary Clinton is scum.  And the Libya thing is just one of many (using her office as Secretary of State as a personal ATM selling out the national interest for cash, supporting a TPP trade policy that gives foreign corporate lawyers meeting in secret supreme legislative power over our nation, etc).  I don’t care about her style in pantsuits, or if she has fainting spells, or is mean to her staff, or throws heavy objects at her husband (confession: I do find this last prospect cheering), or can maintain her composure on national TV in the face of Donald Trump’s needling.  Focus on what matters, people.

As far as Trump, he is a wildcard.  He says a lot of sane and responsible things, like, we shouldn’t blow up countries that don’t threaten us, we shouldn’t pick a fight with nuclear-armed Russia, etc.  Talk is however cheap, and what he would do as president remains to be seen.  But Hillary’s track record is crystal clear: the Queen of Chaos, the candidate of Wall Street and War, she’s a bona-fide monster.

And this would be true even if tomorrow she set the world record for fastest time running the marathon.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Capitalism is not the problem. Capitalism is not the solution.

Always we hear the endless debate: does capitalism (that is, a market-based economic system) inevitably create poverty and inequality?  Or does capitalism inevitably create prosperity?  Should we attempt to ban capitalism, and find another economic system?  Or should we let capitalism run free, and unleash it from the shackles of regulation?

This is all rot.  Capitalism is irrelevant, and the people arguing both sides of this laughable ‘debate’ are – wittingly or not – distracting us from the real problems that we face.

Imagine that a tall building is erected, and it shortly collapses with significant loss of life.  How should we react to this?  One school of thought says that the laws of physics are to blame, that physics inevitably causes buildings to collapse, and that we need new physical laws.  The other side says rubbish, and physics is the answer, physics naturally makes tall buildings stay up, and we simply need to believe hard in physics and stop trying to regulate it.

This is, of course, insane.  Physics neither guarantees that buildings will stand up nor that they fall down.  Physics cannot be denied.  We do not have the ability to change the laws of physics (and likely never will), we cannot break them, but neither does physics lock us into a prison.  Physics sets the rules of the game, but within these rules we have broad latitude. If buildings fall down it is because of specific things that were or were not done, not because of the laws of physics per se.  Physics is as happy with buildings that stand up as with buildings that fall down.

And so with ‘capitalism.’  Market forces cannot be denied.  Things that are scarce relative to the demand for them, will command high values.  Things that are in excess relative to the demand for them, will command low values.  And people respond to incentives.

Now when a population grows rapidly, once there is no longer an open frontier, there are more workers than resources, and wages for the many will fall and profits for the few will rise.  And when a population is stable or grows very slowly, then more often than not there will be more resources than workers, and wages for the many will rise and profits for the few will be limited.  Both situations are completely consistent with the workings of the market. 

The poverty of Bangladesh, the prosperity of Switzerland – both are capitalist economies, and the market is working equally well in both places.  The outcomes are different because of specific decisions the people living there made, not because the market inevitably causes anything.  Capitalism can as easily produce crushing misery as widespread prosperity, depending on how we work it.

Trying to outlaw capitalism by either total regulation (i.e., communism) or no regulation (i.e., neoliberalism) inevitably results in stagnation, because without market forces and incentives people don’t work hard and resources are not allocated efficiently.

Now you may say, wait a minute: how can no regulation result in the same stagnation as over-regulation?  Because they are the same thing!  A capitalist system can only exist with moderate regulation.  No regulation quickly leads to the same over-regulation as communism. 

In the long run, Laissez Faire is Stalinism. 

OK, suppose we get rid of all government regulations.  Now the rich are free to do whatever they want.  Including buying up the government (or creating a new one if the old one was totally wiped out), and bribing public officials, and buying up the news media and the courts etc.  And the first thing they will do is enact onerous, regressive, and complex regulations that will soon come to rival or even exceed the late unlamented Soviet Union, and to wipe out all vestiges of market discipline for the owners of capital.

In the United States there was a brief period of deregulation starting around 1970 (ish).  Laws against conflict of interest, or bribing public officials and university faculty, and forming monopolies, and so on, where either repealed or not enforced.  And the rich progressively began to take over the government.  So now we have trade agreements that are thousands of pages long that regulate virtually everything one might think of.  We have rich bankers now guaranteed bailouts with public funds if they make bad investments.  We have private student loan organizations that are guaranteed their profits by the government.  We have a for-profit health care system whose complex rules would make any Byzantine official’s head spin.  And so on.  Which means that these brave capitalists are no longer doing their capitalist duty of evaluating risk and steering resources towards productive investments.  They are becoming an oriental despotism, ruling over the population in arbitrary fashion, immune to any sort of market discipline.

Capitalism requires moderate regulation or it soon disappears.  Laissez Faire is logically impossible.  An unregulated privately-owned monopoly soon becomes indistinguishable from a state-run collective.

So what’s going on in the world?  Many things, but the failure or success of capitalism is not one of them.  A biggy is the elite-encouraged global population explosion, which is filling up the world and increasing competition for jobs and resources and making wages lower and profits and social power for the rich higher.  But that’s something specific.  Talking about that might result in specific actions being taken to reverse the situation.  And that would never do. 

And so we have these sterile, pointless debates about whether capitalism is intrinsically good or intrinsically evil.  Because these debates will never ever lead to doing anything specific and functional that could affect the real world.  Which is, obviously, the point.

Friday, September 9, 2016

It’s The Enemy You Don’t See That Kills You

Fighter pilots often have a maxim like this one.  The idea is that while engaging in a  dogfight with an enemy plane is dangerous, it’s when an enemy plane you didn’t know was there gets behind you and starts shooting that you are really in trouble.

Similarly, when dealing with a society as a whole, it’s the threats we don’t see – or more accurately, the threats that we do not allow ourselves to see – that will bring us down.

I have long argued that the main problem facing humanity today is the policy of the rich to deliberately create a population explosion, which is making a few people even richer and impoverishing the rest of us.  It might seem that I am a bit of a one-note singer here: how can so many of the problems in the world be due to this one thing?  Isn’t the world complicated, and don’t we face many problems?  Why focus on just this one thing?

Yes the world is complicated, but right now there is one big thing that overshadows all else, and that’s forced population growth.  We might get all of a dozen other problems addressed, but if we ignore this one thing, it will cancel all else out.  Why?

1. Exponential population growth can and will and always has cancelled out all other factors.  This is beyond mere economics: we are talking physics here.

2. There is an almost complete ban on mentioning the fact that exponential population growth causes poverty for the many, and an even more total ban on mentioning that this population growth is in very large part being deliberately created by the rich.  Forced population growth is the thing we can’t allow ourselves to see, and that’s always what brings you down.

There are many ways that people can die.  They can be shot or stabbed or get cancer or starve or drown or fall from a great height or burn to death in a fire etc.etc.  All of these possibilities are potentially 100% fatal: in that sense they are all equally powerful.  But it’s the one that you are actually facing right now that is important.  Getting all the others right but drown, and you are still 100% dead.

Suppose that the population of the world had been allowed to stabilize at a billion or two, and population growth was not an issue.  Suppose also that there was a total ban on mentioning the bad health effects of lead exposure, and cars all used leaded gasoline, and our water and food were heavily contaminated with lead, and people were getting sick en masse from lead poisoning.  In that case I, being a true iconoclast, would be railing about the dangers of lead and I would not be talking about population growth.  In that case it would be lead that would be at risk of taking civilization down.

But that’s not what happened.  A few rich people did benefit from putting lead into gasoline, and they did try to suppress the information about its harmful effects, but most rich people didn’t have a stake in leaded products, and a public debate was possible.  It took a while, but the harmful effects of lead were defined, and lead was slowly removed from gasoline and paint and water pipes etc.  Lead exposure is still a public health risk, of course, but it has been reduced to a relatively minor one.  Today lead exposure is simply not a major cause of human misery.  Because we could talk about it, and because we could talk about it, we could take action.

And this is true of so many things.  The HIV/AIDS virus was an especially nasty disease, at one time a virtual sentence of slow and painful death and spreading rapidly through the population.  It remains a serious problem, it has hardly been solved, but at least in the United States great progress has been made, and I would say that HIV/AIDS is not currently amongst the great challenges that we as a society face.

The list goes on.  In the 19th century train and other industrial accidents routinely caused disasters that killed and maimed many people.   There were some vested interests that didn’t want to spend the money investing in safer systems, but nevertheless there were public outcries, and safety standards slowly brought into being… and today the intrinsic safety of commercial air and rail transport are at levels so high that they seem almost superhuman to me.

But forced population growth is different.  That tends to benefit all the rich, as a class.  And so public discussion of this has been effectively banned.  My current favorite example is Syria.  The government criminalized birth control (not just abortion, but condoms and birth control pills), and propagandized that everyone had to breed like a rabbit for the greater glory of Syria.  The population doubled every 18 years, and it hit the current limits, and the place collapsed.  And yet, while Syria has been in the news almost every day for many years now, there is a total ban on any mention of the Syrian government’s policy of maximizing population growth.  I have never seen a single mainstream corporate press mention of this fact.  Oh the data are there if you know the right keywords, and in specialist sociological texts, but it is banned from the public space.  And so nothing is done, not just in Syria, but everywhere.  And it is too-rapid population growth, variously caused or encouraged or at least allowed to occur without discussion, that will slowly crush the bulk of us into poverty and turn the world back into a stagnant and corrupt dark age.

Because it’s the problem that you cannot allow yourself to see that kills you.