State of things to come, medium-term-ish edition mini-roundup

Two must reads:

"Trotskyite singularitarians for Monarchism! A political speculation" by Charlie Stross

"Automation, inequality and geopolitics" by Tyler Cowen


The world is polarized, drone edition

November 18, 2013 · Posted in Government, Politics, Science and technology · Comment 

 Now that we have insect-sized assassination drones and assassination marketplaces may exist for real, we're entering a world of incredible polarization (interesting that we're seeing the same thing happen with wealth.) We're hitting double edged swords on everything in the area of drones/weapons/security. Make snooping easy, you get surveillance states / make snooping hard, dangerous groups are able to coordinate easily. Give resistance movements access to social networks, easy to coordinate resistance to despots / give despots access to social networks, easy to get propaganda out and use surveillance to monitor movements. Individuals can now have outsize power if they have the right tools (Anonymous, network security savvy individuals, attacking infrastructure, small terrorist groups) while governments have massive datasets, great surveillance tools, many people focused on this area, and lots of guns. Everyone in the middle is potentially caught in this.

We're approaching a world where a lone individual can build a drone to kill a world leader, and a world leader can kill a lone individual with a drone. Just like it's hard to put checks and balances on a nuclear state, so too is it hard to put checks and balances on a determined person with poison needle drone fleet.

Finally, Schneier's latest Crypto-gram is a must-read:

We're all going to need personal protection bubbles.

The failure of political gridlock

September 18, 2013 · Posted in Government, Policy, Politics · Comment 

 Our system of divided government in the US is designed as a double-edged sword: things that are useful happen slowly, but things that are dangerous are slowed (or stopped.) That's the price we're supposed to pay. When dangerous things like the PATRIOT act can pass, but useful policies like working out the debt ceiling, or updating redistribution policies to reflect modern realities have no chance, it becomes clear that our system has failed. The doubled-sword is now a "Bident", with both prongs facing us.

Guaranteed basic income and automation super link roundup

July 11, 2013 · Posted in Economics, Government, Politics · Comment 

It's finally entered the mainstream. The guaranteed basic income will have to be our transitional policy until we reach post-scarcity (and that's a long way off), and there's just no way around it anymore:

Share Or Die as a survival horror manual

Perhaps it should be titled “how to survive in an early post-apocalyptic zombie-infested wasteland”, with chapters like “collaborative consumption” guiding the way to how to divvy up scarce provisions and “unprepared” showing the disconnectedness and naivete of a formerly sheltered set of people (and how quickly the naivete dissipates when said people are thrust headlong intro reality.) In many ways, the rise of disaster fiction dovetails nicely with the follies and problems of our age. Originally created as a critique of mindless consumer capitalism, zombie survival-horror as a genre perhaps is now more apt as both a warning for those who have yet to experience this new world first-hand, and set of training videos for surviving it. Both the resurgence of these genres and the creation of this book, in retrospect, now seem to have been inevitable.

The book deals with a many issues related to our “New New Economy” (and I recommend that everyone read the original “The New Job Security” book, which I read back in the early 2000s. It turned out to be prescient quite quickly.) “Share or Die” deserves a lot of credit for putting personal stories and names to things that have been studied and detailed in the broad strokes, via discussions of policies like deregulation, downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing, widespread automation, and upper-income-bracket tax cuts; ballooning student debt, and the associated peonage of its debtors, as well as the fact that degrees have gone from proof of competence to the most basic of HR filters; short-lived traditions like “jobs for life” gone, and at-will employment treated the way you’d expect based on the label; the shrinking or disappearance of health benefits, our lack of universal health care, or paid leave; the dog-eat-dog economy where the dogs are getting hungrier as the opportunities shrink with each passing day; and a landscape which differs from the rosy  ”you can do anything if you only try” meritocratic fairytales pushed by our institutions, policymakers, teachers, and many others who grew up in an era (post WWII to Reagan) where standards of living seemed like they’d rise forever and opportunity for everyone seemed ever-present, and never-ending.

The book offers many ideas for coping – a few of which are worth entertaining – but are mostly just the ideas of people grasping for something, anything that will deliver us from this predicament. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ideas will not serve most people very well, or for very long. In this way, the ineffectiveness, indifference, or complete absence of societal institutions present in virtually every piece of zombie (and related disaster genres) fiction look like extremely fitting metaphors for our government, corporations, and charities. From the false promises of the “governments” of “Survivors” and “Threads” to their complete absence in “The Walking Dead” or “28 days later“, these pieces of fiction illustrate quite well the plight of those under 40, and increasingly, those over it, today. Those genres also shows what happens as the supplies run out, the crazy ideas which seemed to have a hope of working (the book) stop doing so, and the nerves are well past the frayed stage.

Share Or Die is an excellent, ground-level snapshot of our new age. An age without useful answers (only the same answers that have failed us for a long time), and without the promise of prosperity returning anytime soon.  An age which, to someone transported here from only two or three decades ago, would seem like a radically futuristic place (and it many ways it is.) The powerful devices in our hands, the always-connectedness, the truly instant communications, self-driving cars, the nascent “cyborging” of humanity, the medical advances, and a great many other wonderful things. It also looks like those other futures – the ones with the walled fortresses, and black seas; poverty; despair; wealth concentration; a growing underclass; social unrest and outright rebellions; rising political divisions; and a widespread lack of trust of just about everything

Lastly, there appears to be another parallel in the book to those movies and shows. At some point a few of the characters come to a terrible realization: that no help is coming.

The state and future of the nation-state

February 14, 2012 · Posted in Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

A response to: The Nation-State Reborn

Eventually we will probably have a global government. One language, one currency, immigration/emigration policies at parity, universal respect of human rights/civil liberties, "near-instant" transport, one system of labor and environmental laws, the works. That day, however, is a ways off. The Internet may be breaking down barriers, but not quickly enough or broadly enough to make this a reality in the next few decades. It will take time to have a global culture and consciousness, a belief in a shared set of values that people /actually/ agree on, rather than just pay lip service to. The "loyalty to real estate" that the ethicists referred to in the post decry perhaps should be considered an unfortunate relic of our tribalist past (It's an argument I'm highly sympathetic to.) An unfortunate, artificial barrier separating human beings from each other. That doesn't mean, however, that we can simply skip it or pretend it's going to disappear tomorrow. In a way, we really *need* their disdain of it; it serves to push the intellectual margin, even if we don't move towards the "ideal end game" anytime soon. We still need people thinking about it and preparing for it.

Those that are part of the "globetrotters" club get to experience this reality to a degree now. When they travel to another country, they meet others like themselves. Many may have similar interests, values, shared experiences and backgrounds (even if they come from different countries - they get to absorb the "culture" of the institutions they have been a part of - whether that be Harvard, Yale, or the IMF.) On top of that, they get to live life in whatever country that happen to be residing in or visiting in a very similar way. Just look at the "special zones" in various theocratic Middle Eastern countries that the diplomats, international business people, etc. stay in. You get to dress in a way you're accustomed to, drink, and socialize without interference from the national government. Tiny states-within-states.

All this perhaps gives us a preview of what a nation state-less future will be like. Combine this with superabundance and ultra-fast travel and we'll be on to the next stage of human society. A global one. A fair one. A barrier-less one. One where stereotypes about and hate towards humans goes away. Where we do not divide ourselves up based on how we look, where we were born, our what haplogroups we belong to.

Until that day comes, however, the nation state is the best we've got. We should figure out how to reboot it, reconfigure it, remake it, or whatever is necessary to make it work until we are actually able to reach that next stage of human society. I personally look forward to that day.


Response to: We Need a Second Party

This article by Thomas Friedman makes a relatively new, but familiar-feeling argument. The Republican party needs to change. It's outmoded. It's conflicted. It's woefully inequiped to deal with today's realities. His criticisms couldn't be more correct. In our song A Graveyard of Elephants we offer some of the exact same arguments. He's correct as far as it goes.

Where his analysis begins to fall down is where he begins to argue that today's incarnations of Conservatisms can be salvaged. By and large, this is completely wrong. In today's America, which version of Conservatism is worth saving? Which one resonates? Which one are Americans moving toward? As Alan Wolfe so eloquently states "In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things--deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three--that most Americans were anxious to shed." This is more true than ever.

Religious or "traditional family structure" conservatism? Religion is on the wane (recent controversies notwithstanding - study after study backs this one up.) America is becoming more secular and more accepting of LGBT rights. Birth control is used regularly. Abortion, though a perennial topic, still has broad support, and will eventually be made obsolete by better methods of birth control (permanent and side-effect free.) More people are living alone or co-habiting than ever before. Single parenthood is hardly the shocking subject it once was. Staying single for life, open marriage, non-hetero marriage, polyamory, being childfree, and various other non-traditional family/non-family structures have entered the mainstream lexicon and, while not necessarily popular, are gaining acceptance.

Market Fundamentalism, a kind of "Conservatism" *(with built in contradictions), but in its current incarnation allows massive wealth concentration and poverty? Being rejected across the board - even large percentages of Republicans have rejected our current levels of wealth inequality. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, there's a rejection of this doctrine, even if some of the members of those movements don't always know it.

Other, lesser known Conservatisms will likely never be popular. Take Bioconservatism, for example. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace. We're replacing (and now growing!) limbs and organs and putting them on and inside people. How far are we from enhanced contact lenses (permanent, with AR overlays)? Implants which help us learn faster and remember more are likely to be as eagerly embraced as "smart drugs" are becoming in many circles.

So what's left for Conservatism? Only one thing really looks promising to defend: "Economic nationalism", which will mean putting America's economic growth and innovation first. This will of course mean shedding other kinds of Conservatism. Free Markets has money go wherever it's most likely to make a profit in the short term. If we're going to try to move to the next level, we'll need to take some of that "State Capitalist" medicine that China has been popping for a while. Technology investment, items with longer-term payoffs (or that may not turn a profit), 21st-century infrastructure/transportation development, initiatives for further city densification and all its attendant benefits (idea mixing, serendipity creation, etc.)

Friedman argues these things, but implies that we can do it by reinventing the Republican party - which may be true. Doing so, however, will mean jettisoning all of those Conservatisms in the process. It's Conservatism(s) against the world, and Conservatism which will need to be sacrificed.

We need big moves, big ideas, and an international, rather than domestic-focused competitive spirit. An ideology that puts American innovation at the forefront, and all the policies necessary to make that happen. That's the only kind of Conservatism left worth defending.

Our Restive Zeitgeist: song about protest movements around the world

November 16, 2011 · Posted in Announcements, Lyrics and Explanations, Music, Policy, Politics · Comment 

Listen to this song, Our Restive Zeitgeist, on Bandcamp.

As of this writing, it's been three years since the 2008 financial crisis ended. Over this time, many have wondered just what would happen we finally stopped reeling from the confusion, shock, and bewilderment at the scale of its effects. In 2011, we finally began to move from that previous state to one disappointment and despondency. Around the world, people have wondered just what, collectively, was next. Would we deal with corporate malfeasance; massive financial fraud; abysmal governance; the globalization of capital and faux-free trade that benefits a narrow minority at the expense of the many; growing wealth inequality; crumbling infrastructure; bailouts and corporate socialism; vanishing social mobility and increasing wealth and power concentration? In terms of reforms, it seems we've barely budged from those fateful days of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Much hand-wringing, and "what is to be done?" have occurred, but very little of actual consequence to fix, or even ameliorate our many ills has been accomplished, or in many cases, even attempted in the US or Europe. The social contract in these places has been broken, and no sign of imminent repair appears forthcoming.

The countries of the Middle East and North Africa have been different stories. Suffering for decades under tyrannical regimes, people in these countries have, one after another, been rising up and ousting their rulers. Much of this continues today, and the outcomes remain highly uncertain. Each country, of course, has its own set of unique historical circumstances and local grievances. One thing that has united them, is that in many of these places, a sort of social contract existed: trade your loyalty (and liberties) for guaranteed income streams, a sinecure, and fixed prices for staples. For a variety of reasons, this has broken down; we've been seeing the results.

Aside from the broken social contract, the one thing has united people in all these different regions and countries: disappearing opportunity. We've relied on governments and (mostly large) businesses to remedy our situation, but as has become abundantly clear, no help is coming. The latter was perceived to be reliable out of a mix of national interest-tinged self interest, the former because it is what we elect them to do. Instead, many of these large businesses have become untethered from their home country in this era of frictionless globalized capital, and easy access to low-cost (and in some cases, suffering under Mercantilist regimes) labor. Governments, on the other hand, have succumbed to Neoliberal, non-Ricardian-Free Trade ideology, internal division, pure incompetence, and myopia. Both, of course, have become parties to corruption, influence peddling, and the system of revolving door jobs. These last issues have become a central focus of many extant protest movements (and are the subject of our song "Mussolini's Revenge.")

Now, we've begun to reach a boiling point. Inchoate, at times unfocused, but rapidly coalescing around many of the issues above, this worldwide crisis has been decades in the making, and is the subject of this song. It's particularly focused on the crisis in the US and the attendant "Occupy" protest movement.

Lyrics start with a ">" and are italicized. Full lyrics without the explanation at the bottom.

Read more

Job automation roundup

October 29, 2011 · Posted in Business, Economics, Government, Policy, Politics · Comment 

 Many articles about technology replacing labor, the future of the human workforce, and the potential for mass unemployment (and what that means for the welfare state) have been making the rounds lately. I'm listing some of the best here (some are older, but still very important) so there's a single place for them - and because it is one of the most important issues in the world, and will only continue to get more important:

Why workers are losing the war against the machines

Will robots steal your job?

The jobless future

Krugman and Delong on automation

Structural problems in the US labor market

American workers race against the machine

A post of  my own on the subject:

The future of work, part 2

October 5, 2011 · Posted in Business, Culture, Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

Very interesting and important video. It starts getting especially interesting around 1:00:00 when Cowen and Ford start talking. A few things:

- The idea of "personal shoppers" being a growth area seems dubious. With recommendation and predictive desire systems getting better all the time, I think this is probably a no-go.

- Nannies might be a growth area for a few decades, but decent AI will likely obviate the need for these as well. I'd give this one 50-50 odds over the next 4-6 decades.

- Basically everyone on that panel endorsed the guaranteed income. The fact that people from so many different perspectives had their policy prescription converge to that is really striking.

- This also brings us back to the "how do we occupy the unemployed masses?" question yet again. Arts and leisure activities will likely not need much support from society, as they will just happen. Sports might (stadiums, etc.) Other things we'll probably be looking at will be extremely powerful, long-lasting, side-effect-free (or tolerable side effect having) drugs. That road of course leads to wireheading, but I think that denying that as a possibility now is extremely naive.

A cultural shift will be required, as several people in the video make clear. Having one's self worth (and respect of one's peers/society) be defined by a traditional support-one's-livelihood "job" is going to have to disappear. Demonization of those "lazy, ne'er do wells" is just not going to work in a future where much human labor is not needed.

Another thing this brings to mind is the effect on the labor market that does continue to function: a great deal less unemployment, at least for a long while. For those skills that are essentially not able to be automated any time soon (let's stay over, the next 50-100 years) those that stay in the labor market will not be doing much competing for open positions. It may in fact be an employee's market in those cases where someone is not simply their own business.

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