Tag Archives: politics

London 1897

1897 was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year; she had been reigning over her Queendom for 50 years, keeping Edward, her eldest son and thus heir, sidelined until he was by then in his late 50s. The current British monarch has of course done the same thing for even longer to her eldest son Charles, who is now 67.

Traffic outside the Bank of England, London, 1897
Traffic outside the Bank of England, London, 1897

Economic inequality was pervasive, glaring and much resented in Victoria’s England, fed by proceeds from the largest empire the world has ever known. (It occupied nearly a quarter of the earth’s total land mass.) Accurate data is hard to come by, but here’s how George Bernard Shaw came to describe the situation:

“It is in this phase of capitalistic development, attained in Great Britain in the 19th century, that Socialism arises as a revolt against a distribution of wealth that has lost all its moral plausibility. The inequalities [have] become monstrous.”

Such conditions gave rise to not only socialism (think Bernie Sanders), but communism, and Scotland Yard security forces kept a vigilant eye upon London’s Communist Working Men’s club, where various firebrands regularly called for overthrow of the existing government. Even more worrisome was the Epicerie Francaise, where international anarchists met and called for radical action of all sorts. French security forces had opened a Special Branch in London just to monitor the Epicerie.

In April of that year, a bomb exploded in the London underground, killing one and injuring more. The perpetrator was never identified, but most people blamed ‘foreigners,’ probably Italians. ‘Immigrants,’ we might call them today, probably Muslims.

In May, Guglielmo Marconi (a rich, well-connected Italian) sent the first ever wireless telecommunication over open sea when he transmitted, “Are you ready?” from the coast of Wales to Flat Holm Island, a distance of 6 kilometres. Unlike his scientific counterparts who favored the free exchange of knowledge (open source?), Marconi was the prototype of today’s successful start-up entrepreneur, brilliant, hardworking, but ever concerned that his competitors (and there were numerous) would steal his technology and exploit it commercially before he was able to.

Telegraphy was an established industry by this time, having been first introduced commercially in 1837. It had sped up the exchange of information unimaginably, from the top speed of a human or animal to virtually immediate, over vast distances. In freeing information from the movement of any physical object, telegraphy had revolutionized the global economy, as well as the media, that is journalism. Critics, however, complained that the telegram had resulted in the standardization of language, stripping it of its regional distinction and flair.

Marconi’s new wireless technology was disruptive and often begrudged. When he later succeeded in transmitting a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, he promised that he would undercut the cost of sending a telegram via ocean-bottom cable by 60%.

In the heyday of its popularity as a medium, the average telegram was about 12 words, or about 60 characters.

Electric cars made their first appearance in August of 1897, as London taxis. They disappeared from the roads two year later. Their biggest flaw was likely the excessive weight of their batteries.

Meanwhile, over in America, September saw the Sheriff and his men from Lucerne County, Pennsylvania fatally gun down 19 striking mineworkers, while injuring many others. The murdered men were immigrants, all were unarmed and all had been shot in the back; several had suffered multiple wounds. Protests ensued, sometimes violent, and the Sheriff and his deputies were eventually arrested, only to be later acquitted.

The French expression, ‘Plus ça change…’ is an abbreviated version of a maxim usually translated to English as, ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same.’ Indeed, some things change, (especially technology; the fastest motorcar in London in 1897 topped out at about 35 miles per hour), and some things don’t. One website defines the expression as the “resigned acknowledgment of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.” Touché.

So there it is for you. A little historical perspective on today’s turbulent times. Never a bad thing.

Immigration

I am in awe of an immigrant. This is someone who has severed ties, forever, with everyone who has ever supported them, and with everything that has served to define them. Friends, family, home, country, culture, familiarity in general; all that and more the immigrant has chosen to leave behind, with no intention of ever returning to stay.

Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my own middle-class background in one of the most peaceful and privileged countries on earth, but I can’t imagine making that choice. It seems an incomprehensibly difficult transition to complete, lonely, deeply unsettling, arduous in every practical way. And more than anything, for me, I can’t imagine permanently breaking the family tie, the ancestral line which, however inconsequential or little known, has brought me to where I was born and raised. Every immigrant must know, in their hearts, that their children will grow up to be fundamentally different from all the family members who have preceded them, that they will never enjoy the blood bonds that they would have had they lived in their country of origin. To immigrate is to accept that you must begin a whole new family history.

I have a friend who, in emigrating, gave up a career as a librarian to become a janitor. I once worked in a restaurant with a man who had been a lawyer in his home country, and who was now host at that restaurant, seating the customers. I know of couples who have not been able to manage the change together, where one or other of the two couldn’t make the leap, and so returned home, ending the marriage. And of course we all know of the people who literally risk their lives for a chance to emigrate. (To me, these people are by definition not immigrants, nor ‘economic migrants,’ but refugees.)

Sue Waters photo
Sue Waters photo

Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 These words are of course the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and they could hardly be more ironic at a time when Donald Trump leads the polls among Republicans running for President, while proposing that a wall be built along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The very idea that we can draw an imaginary line along some part of the earth, then say, ‘The land on this side is ours; you are not allowed to enter or stay,’ is basically bizarre. Sure, we collectively agree to a set of laws which lends force to this prohibition, but morally, can it be justified? If so, why? Because we got there first, then organized to keep others out? Seems pretty thin justification to me.

Years ago, I watched a short film by madcap artist Byron Black (sadly it doesn’t seem to exist online), in which Byron furtively approaches a small concrete pylon marking the Canada-U.S. border as it crosses Point Roberts, the western-most peninsula descending from Canada across the 49th parallel, making ‘The Point’ a tiny but separate part of the American empire. Byron steps carefully over the pylon, then waits apprehensively for the wrath of god and government to descend upon him. It doesn’t; no bolt of lightning, no megaphone voice telling him to lie face down on the ground, nothing. It goes on, but suffice it for me to say that the piece ends with Byron gleefully hopping back and forth across the border, maniacally celebrating his ability to flaunt the power of big government. For my money, the film surgically and hilariously impales the notion of ‘border.’

Recently, Gboko John Stewart, a young man from Liberia, applied for and was granted admission to Quest University in Squamish, BC. Initially the Canadian government denied him a visa for entry because of the Ebola outbreak in his home country. Reasonable enough, you might say. An international quarantine was in effect against this virulent disease. But once Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in May of 2015, Mr. Stewart applied again for a visa. And again he was refused; this time because some nameless bureaucrat was not satisfied that he would leave Canada at the conclusion of his time at Quest.

I have never met Mr. Stewart; know little about him. He works as a freelance journalist and radio host in Monrovia, and, from his writings, it’s clear he is skilled in the English language. He’s also an activist, deeply involved in an organization called HeForShe, which calls for men to support the equality of women. Mr. Stewart presumably never expressed an interest in staying in Canada permanently, but regardless, and despite my limited knowledge of him, I have to think he should be exactly the sort of person my country might be prepared to admit, temporarily or otherwise.

And, once again, I find myself struggling to understand the helplessness and frustration he must feel at the anonymous, arbitrary power that denies him a chance at his educational dreams.

When it comes to immigration, tragically, none of it seems to make any sense.

 

Discrepancies

Pete Muller photo
Pete Muller photo

This photograph was published in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was taken in a village in southern Guinea, during the recent Ebola outbreak which had its epicentre in that part of Africa.

The young girl sitting on the blanket looks distinctly uneasy. Before her, the caption tells us, a traditional “healer” is preparing to exorcise the “malign spirits” which may have caused the girl to contract the Ebola virus. We see the healer’s face encrusted in white; a bit of green vegetation is wrapped around one wrist; he carries a kind of sceptre, a decorated stick.

What’s most remarkable about the photo is to be seen in the background, among the small group of villagers who have gathered to watch the exorcism—two young men hold up their phones, videoing the process.

The elements of the discrepancy seem almost too much to set side by side, and yet, there they are. A rankly superstitious practice which tracks right back to a mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls (i.e. before Christianity), smack up against the latest in 21st century communications technology. How is this possible?

The fact is today’s world is rife with such discrepancies; it’s only that they’re usually further removed from one another. In whole villages in rural Afghanistan not one person may be able to read and write. In the city of Helsinki, with a population of almost one and a half million, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 15 who cannot read and write. (The literacy rate In Afghanistan is 28%, among females less than 13%; in Finland the rate is 100%.)

Carlos Slim, the Mexican business mogul, has a net worth of more than $77 billion U.S. The average hotel receptionist in Mexico brings home $4260 U.S. in pay over the course of one year.

In California, it is illegal for mental health providers to engage in “reparative therapy” for LGBT minors. In Uganda, you may be sent to jail for up to 14 years for failing to report a suspected homosexual.

More than half of new lawyers in Canada are women. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive a car, vote, or leave home except in the company of a male chaperone.

In all these cases, the divergence is just too great. And no one, anywhere, should attempt to justify these differences via the notion of ‘culture.’ They remain in place because it is to the advantage of the privileged group that they do so.

Does digital technology close these gaps, or drive them ever wider? The answer is complex. Certainly those phones held up by the two young men in Guinea offer them opportunities for information-gathering and commerce that are unprecedented historically, potentially meaning that their lives are ‘lifted’ economically, educationally, socially. But at the same time, the very persistence of superstition, illiteracy, and poverty means that, if those two young men rise up, the gap between them and those next to them who believe in the power of exorcism will grow.

The rising tide of digital technology most assuredly does not lift all boats, any more than the growing wealth of the economic elite trickles down, in any effective way, to those living at the bottom of the financial hill. Any time the separation between two sets of people grows too great, whether it be the Mayan priests ruling over Palenque in the 7th century, or Marie Antoinette and her husband ruling over France during the final years of the 18th century, it does not bode well for us.

In today’s global village, the discrepancies which exist internationally present problems on a scale not seen before, and I mean that quite literally, because we are more aware of these problems than we have ever been before. We no longer have to wait for an emissary to return to court, after a year-long mission, to know about the conditions of a far-off land and its people. But, at same time, today’s problems are of a distressingly familiar order.

Those at the peak of today’s societal pyramid are doing just fine, thanks. What’s called for are measures to assure that the pyramid does not get any higher, that it in fact flattens, delivering greater equality of rights, education, health care, and economic opportunity to all people everywhere.

I’m sounding frighteningly socialistic to some I know, but the lessons of history are there for all of us to observe, and we ignore them at our peril. It is in our own interests to help those being left out or behind, wherever they live, because the discrepancies of today’s world are a threat to us all.

Climate Change

The problem with climate change is that it sounds so innocuous. So the planet is going to warm by a few degrees. To plenty of people in Canada that sounds like a good thing. The oceans are going to rise. Surely we can deal with that. Look at Holland; isn’t about half the country below sea level? Is it really such a big deal?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, climate change is a very big deal, easily the greatest threat we collectively face today. And not only is it grave, it’s a complex problem, highly difficult to contend with. Here’s what Jeffrey Sachs, in the just-published The Age of Sustainable Development, has to say about the complexity of the climate change problem:

“There has never been a global economic problem as complicated as climate change. It is simply the toughest public policy problem that humanity has ever faced.”

Drought in Kenya 2004 Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo
Drought in Kenya 2004
Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo

What far too many of us don’t realize is that the biggest threat from climate change comes from the falling food production which will result. And that falling food production, as the result of higher temperatures, will come in some already unstable areas, like sub-Saharan Africa. (Also in the Mediterranean basin, southwestern United States, and parts of China.)

It’s not hard to imagine that the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, with record numbers of people fleeing North Africa for southern Europe, is but the smallest harbinger of what would ensue with crop yields dropping off by as much as 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, a scenario which is entirely possible, if current temperature trends continue.

A few salient facts, courtesy of Mr. Sach’s fact-packed book: Since the Industrial Revolution, the average temperature on the planet has risen by 0.9° C. If we were to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, because of the inertia built into the natural system absorbing and releasing carbon pollution, temperatures will continue to rise by another .6° C. That’s a total of 1.5 °C. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the air at current rates, the temperature rise will reach 4 – 7° C by the end of the century. An increase of 4° C is where the 50% drop off in food occurs.

It’s all a little unsettling, to say the least. The real resultant danger with climate change is mass hunger, mass migration, and ultimately of course, revolution and war. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman makes that linkage quite explicitly in his recent writings, pointing to the four-year drought which immediately preceded the appalling breakdown of Syrian society that we are now witnessing.

There are other severe consequences to climate change—the acidification and rising of the oceans chief among them—but again, the most dire threat comes with the prospect of wide-scale famine as food supplies drop with increased heat and aridity in already warm and dry areas, areas already historically subject to drought. Our global agriculture and fishing industries are maxed out now (and agriculture especially is contributing hugely to environmental degradation everywhere), so any prospect of growing food insecurity should be taken very seriously by world leaders. Unfortunately our world leaders have twice now agreed to do something about carbon pollution—in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1998—and both agreements have been miserable failures. Total greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing significantly in recent years, largely for two reasons: 1) the burgeoning Chinese economy, with its heavy industrial base driven by coal power, and 2) the political power of the oil and gas industries worldwide. One last interesting fact from Sachs’s book: seven of the ten largest companies in the world are in the traditional energy sector.

At the G7 summit in Germany this year, member countries finally agreed upon the need for a no-carbon economy, but not until the year 2100. It’s a significant step, but no one should feel too encouraged. It’s estimated that to remain within the 2° C ‘safe’ zone of rising global temperatures, current greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by more than 50% by 2050. Sound easy? I didn’t think so.

So the next time you hear the words climate change, don’t think, ‘Coupla degrees warmer. Not so bad.’ Think instead of these two words: food riots.

The Role of Government

It’s the statistic that got everyone’s attention. A recently released study by Oxfam, the international agency dedicated to combatting poverty and injustice, warns that the richest 1% of the planet’s citizens will soon possess more than the remaining 99%.

The nation's representatives? Michael Riffle photo
The nation’s representatives?
Michael Riffle photo

In an interesting related factoid, The Upshot (a ‘data-driven’ undertaking from The New York Times) reports that the richest 1% of Americans, on average and after excluding capital gains, have seen their incomes increase by $97,000 since 2009; the 99% have seen their average income fall by $100 in that time.

In Canada the situation is less dire, but the trend is in the same direction. In the 1980s, as reported by the Broadbent Institute, the top 1% of Canadians received 8% of all national income; that figure has now risen to 14%.

In that same article in The Upshot, writer Justin Wolfers, professor of economics at the University of Michigan, wonders why it is that “robust employment growth over recent years” has not generated more broadly based income growth in America.

Well, surely part of the answer has to be the structural changes wrought in the economy by the digital revolution. The London taxi drivers currently protesting the arrival of the Uber app are just the latest in a now long line of workers who have found themselves displaced by hi-tech changes in their industry. And those workers, once displaced, rarely find themselves able to land alternate employment at higher wages. As has been pointed out by authors like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the people not being displaced by computers—once we get past the coders themselves—tend to be folks like waiters, gardeners and daycare workers; not exactly the sorts pulling down the big bucks.

And the other major factor of course has to be the whole trickle-down, anti-regulatory economic wave that began to swell back in the days of Reagan/Thatcher, and which continues to roll over us today. The financial crash of 2008 is the most obvious example of what economic deregulation can mean to all of us, but, more generally, as times have toughened in the Western economies (that is as we have seen the onset of globalization), people have tended to increasingly resent the hand of government in their pockets. Neo-cons have encouraged this attitude at every turn, and so the back doors have been increasingly left open, allowing the rich to sneak into the kitchen, then scoop up ever larger portions of the economic pie.

The single greatest triumph of the Republican Party in America has been their ability to convince a great many white, working-class Americans that the Party has their backs, when very few propositions could be further from the truth.

We have seen, in recent decades, a steadily growing anti-government sentiment provide steadily growing opportunity for the rich to get ever richer. And let’s be very clear about one thing. The growing bank accounts of the mega-rich are not the best means for growing the economy, for easily apparent reasons. Those guys simply don’t have to spend their money the way us poorer people do, just to stay ahead of the monthly bills. Here’s a TD Bank study that makes this point.

Now no one should rightly go about saying more government is the answer to all our socio-economic woes. Anybody who has ever dealt with a government office in a time of acute need knows that these bureaucracies can be inefficient, self-serving and sometimes obnoxious, even vindictive. But greater government management of the current economy? Well, how much more evident could that need be?

Robert Reich's formula for government intervention.
Robert Reich’s formula for government intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It comes down to some fairly old-fashioned ideas like a guaranteed annual income, higher minimum wages, and a more progressive income tax regime. Scary stuff for a whole lot of people. But if you’re one of them, if you’re one of those people who finds the idea of more government anathema, an outrageous infringement upon your economic freedom, you should recognize that if your opinion prevails, then what you see now is what you will see later.

Only worse, if that can be imagined.

 

Where Have All the Dollars Gone

Sir Robert Borden addressing the troops, 1917 Biblioarchives
Sir Robert Borden addressing the troops, 1917
Biblioarchives

In March of this year, lawyers acting on behalf of the Canadian government asserted that the government has no special obligation to Afghan military veterans as a result of a pledge made by Prime Minister Robert Borden back in 1917, on the eve of The Battle of Vimy Ridge. Borden assured the soldiers then preparing for battle in France (more than 10,000 of them would be killed or wounded) that none of them would subsequently “have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”

The March court filing came about as a result of Canadian soldiers earlier suing over the government’s new “veterans charter,” which changes the pension-for-life settlements provided to soldiers from previous wars to a system where Afghan veterans receive lump sum payments for non-economic losses, such as losing limbs. It’s not difficult for any of us to understand that this change is all about our government saving money.

Also in March of this year, the Vancouver School Board announced a budget shortfall of $18.2 million. Reluctantly, the Board is considering an array of cutbacks, including school closures, ending music programs, and keeping schools closed for the entire week surrounding Remembrance Day. My kids have now moved on past public schools, but I clearly remember, for all the years they were enrolled in Vancouver schools, a steady and discouraging series of annual cutbacks; librarians disappearing, field trips becoming rare events indeed; at one point even the announcement that the temperature in schools would be turned down.

I lack the expertise to offer any detailed economic analysis as to why our governments are these days unable to meet obligations to veterans and school children that they were able to meet in the past, but here’s one bit of crude economic breakdown that causes even greater wonder. The Gross Domestic Product per capita in Canada in 1960 averaged $12,931 US; in 2012 it averaged $35,992 US, adjusted for inflation. In other words, the country is today producing three times as much in the way of goods and services per citizen as it was back in 1960, presumably enabling the government to collect far more in the way of taxes, per person, than it could four-plus decades ago. And yet we can no longer support veterans and school children in the way we did back then.

A large part of the explanation is of course that governments these days are addressing a whole lot of social concerns that they weren’t in 1960, never mind in 1917, everything from drug and alcohol treatment centres, to the parents of autistic children, to modern dance troupes. It may well be that this growing list of demands outstrips the three-times-bigger ratio of available government funds. It may even be enough for one to lament what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (an example of that rare beast, the genuinely thoughtful conservative pundit) calls “the ever-growing Leviathan state.” It may… or it may not.

One theory has it that, in the post-war decades, right up until the 70s, the Canadian economy was legitimately growing, more products, more services, more jobs. Since the 80s, any increase in or even maintaining of profit ratios (and thus disposable incomes) has come as the result of increased ‘efficiency,’ fewer people producing more goods and services through better technology and less waste. (More cutbacks anyone?) If that’s true, then things are only going to get worse, as these finite efficiencies produce ever-diminishing returns.

Whatever the final explanation, it’s not likely a simple one, and whatever the economic answer, it’s not likely to be easily achieved. Too often a current government has only to promise fewer taxes for voters to flock in their direction, regardless of known scandal, evident mean-spiritedness, or obvious cronyism. We tend to assume that the ensuing government cutbacks won’t arrive at our door. And so long as they don’t we remain generally unrepentant for our self-centeredness. The moment they do—the moment an alcoholic, or autistic child, or modern dancer appears inside our door—our attitudes tend to shift.

Thus, as we stand witnessing a time of waning of western economic domination (see DEP, from the archives of this blog), it seems we can be sure of only one thing: it’s a matter of priorities. If school-age children and wounded veterans are not our priority, then who is?

 

 

Income Inequality Is Increasing Everywhere… Except Latin America

Income inequality—wherein the rich get richer and poor poorer, relatively speaking—is increasing almost everywhere.  Even in the Asian ‘tiger’ economies of China and India, the gap is growing.

A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada confirms that the condition exists here as well.  The report notes that, after reaching a peak in the late 1990s, “even though higher commodity demand and prices helped Canada’s economy grow faster from 2000 to 2010 than most of its peers, including the United States, income inequality did not decline.”

3121469754_dfec4f184b
Les Chatfield photo

It seems the only general exceptions to this noxious trend are parts of southern Africa, and, interestingly, Latin America.  A 2012 study by the World Bank, as reported in the Guardian, offers some explanation: “For decades, Latin America was notorious for some of the widest income gaps in the world, but a combination of favourable economic conditions and interventionist policies by left-leaning governments in Brazil and other countries has brought it more closely in line with international norms.”

So as the income gap has been expanding in nearly all parts of the world, Central and South America have been tacking steadily into the winds of ‘free market forces’ which have been growing income disparity across the planet.

As usual, however, that’s not the end of the story.  Because while these two opposing trends have been underway, overall poverty in the world has been on the decrease.  Millions of people have in recent years been lifted up out of poverty, especially in countries like China and India.  In Brazil too, the last decade is reported to have seen 20 million people escape poverty.

And income inequality in many Latin American countries, including Brazil, is still high.  It’s just that it’s been getting better, whereas in the more ‘developed’ countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years.  Of the 16 countries which the Conference Board has designated as Canada’s peers, just five of them have seen income disparity shrink since the mid 90s.  If those 17 countries are ranked from lowest to highest growth in inequality, Canada comes 12th highest.  The U.S. ranks highest of all.  Between 1980 and 2007, the income of the richest 1% of Americans rose 197%.

In the States, there is of course heated debate as to why the gap has been growing so steadily.  In today’s world of what Al Gore calls “robosourcing,” where technology is displacing many low-skilled workers, the changes are often attributed to what have been traditionally—and fatalistically—labeled “market forces.”  Other, more progressive economists like Paul Klugman challenge that view, instead pointing to the decline of unions, stagnating minimum wage rates, deregulation, and government policies that favor the wealthy.

There is less debate as to why the gap has been expanding in India and China, where it’s generally recognized that the typical income level for those working in urban industries has been fast outpacing the average income of those who remain at work in rural, agricultural areas.

But if we consider the example of Latin America, where numerous decidedly “left leaning” governments have held power in recent times, the explanation as to growing North American income inequality coming from Klugman and his cohorts would seem to be more convincing.  Leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia and the late Hugo Chavez in Venzuela, whatever your view of them, have not been shy about enacting programs of genuine income redistribution.  And their policies would seem to be at least part of the reason why revenue disparity has been improving in Latin America, while deteriorating elsewhere.

So as I’ve commented on elsewhere in this blog, the problems of a jobless recovery from the great recession of 2008, along with stagnating median incomes seem crucial for countries everywhere these days.  While it flies in the face of free market, anti-government views which seem to have held so much sway for so many years in the U.S. and Canada, the evidence emanating from Latin America would suggest that maybe it’s time we recognized that a more, not less interventionist government role is what increased economic fairness may require.

 

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

“Technology will get to everybody eventually.”

Jarod Lanier said the above during an interview with a writer from Salon.com, the news and entertainment website; this during Lanier’s book tour for his latest publication: Who Owns the Future?  Lanier is the internet apostate I wrote about earlier this year who once championed open-source culture, but who now suggests that digital technology is economically undermining the entire middle-class.

He offers this startling example of as much in the ‘Prelude’ to his new book:

“At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people.”

images-1Lanier is suggesting that the musicians, video store clerks and journalists who have already seen their livelihoods erased or eroded by the internet are just the canaries in the coalmine, members of the first wave of economic casualties.  Soon the driverless Google cars will be taking down taxi drivers, caregivers will be replaced by robots, and all diagnoses of illness will be arrived at online.  The digital revolution is coming for us all, and it’s not a matter of if, but when.

The same chilling note is struck in a terrific article by Kevin Drum in the May/June 2013 issue of Mother Jones.  Drum points out that the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been steady but not spectacular since the invention of the first programmable computer in 1940.  That’s because the human brain is an amazingly complex processor, and even today, after more than seven decades of exponential increase in the power of computers, they are still operating at about one thousandth of the power of a human brain.

The thing is, exponential is the key word here.  Anyone who has ever looked at an exponential growth curve plotted on a graph knows that for a long time the line runs fairly flat, but with the doubling effect that comes with exponential growth, the curve eventually begins a very steep climb.  Many people believe that we’re now at the base of that sharp rise.  Henry Markram, a neuroscientist working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne thinks he will be able to successfully model the human brain by 2020.

He may or may not be right in that prediction, but again, if he is wrong, it won’t be about if, only when.  And when we combine that eventual reality with Lanier’s telling Kodak-to-Instagram employment factoid above, there appears to be grounds for genuine concern.  Finally, after many years of dire (or celebratory) predictions, labor may be about to go into real oversupply.  If these ideas are at all accurate, robots will soon be displacing human employment just about everywhere you look.  Accountants, teachers, architects, the last of the assembly-line workers, even writers; we’re all vulnerable.  As Drum sees it, capital, not labor will be the commodity in short supply in the near future, and that bodes well only for those folks who already have plenty of capital.

One of the conditions that follows from an oversupply of labor and an increased demand for capital is of course that wealth will flow from those earning salaries to those holding the capital.  The proverbial rich will get richer, the poor poorer.  And this condition is of course extant and growing, especially in the U.S.—an escalating income inequality between the 99 and 1 per cents.

History tells us that times of high unemployment are times dangerous to us all, often leading to unrest that in turn leads to illusory socio-economic solutions— communism, fascism, anti-immigration laws, etc.  What to do?  Well, anticipate the problem, first of all.  Our leaders need to make some contingency plans.

A tax on capital?  Not likely any time soon, certainly not in America.  But if indeed the coming economic reality is that more and more people will be without work, while a select few citizens will be ever more wealthy, the concept of ‘income redistribution’ needs to come into play, one way or another.  And orderly, democratic economic reform beats the hell out of rioting in the streets.

 

Referendum Politics

13716821-vote

An old friend once said to me that she thought voting should be a privilege, rather than a right.  She felt citizens should be educated on the issues before they would qualify to vote.  With that, presumably, would come the government requirement to take a course, complete a quiz, or somehow prove that you as potential voter were sufficiently informed to be eligible to step into the ballot box.

It’s a bit much for me, involving a bit too much faith in the benevolence of government, but, on the other hand, it’s not hard to empathize with the sentiment.  Anyone who has made any sort of sustained investigation into the illegality of soft drugs, for instance, will soon come to the conclusion that the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ is a colossal waste of police and legal resources, a policy which pitchforks money to organized crime, fills up jails with non-violent offenders, and delivers scant results in terms of decreased drug use.

And yet, until very recently—maybe—a majority of American voters favored retaining laws prohibiting marijuana use.  Why?  Well, two reasons I think.  First of all emotion, the historical residue of the hysteria generated by ridiculous government campaigns from out of the past touting the dangers of “reefer madness!”  Secondly, the simple fact that these people aren’t well informed about the issue.  They haven’t studied the facts.  They haven’t seen how much money is spent eradicating marijuana fields, taking down grow ops, busting teenagers, jailing small-time dealers.  They haven’t considered how much money flows to gangs, when it could be flowing in taxes to depleted government coffers.  They may be vaguely aware that the prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s didn’t work out that well, giving rise to the American Mafia, but they haven’t really had to examine the parallels between those events and the prohibition against marijuana.  Why have the majority of Americans viewed marijuana prohibition as a good thing?  They don’t know any better.

It’s just one example which raises the question of whether ‘direct democracy’ is a good thing.  The digital revolution is fast delivering us the means to hold a referendum on every issue, voting from our smart phones, tablets and laptops.  Should we go there?  If we do we could probably eliminate the need for those noxious politicians squabbling in cantankerous legislatures.  Then we could institute, just as my friend suggested, online courses which a prospective voter would be obligated to complete, before casting her vote on any particular proposed law.  Tempted?

The question can be more germanely asked, here and now, as whether an elected official is compelled to vote ‘the will of the people.’   Setting aside for a second the reality of a ‘party whip’ dictating to said official how he will vote, should our rep be free to vote according to his own personal assessment of the proposition, or should he be obliged to vote in line with what polls show is the view of the majority of his constituents?

Personally, I’m a believer in representative democracy, where we send our best and brightest to debate, study and confer on the issues of the day, and then vote according to their soundest judgment.  Referendums are a mug’s game.  If we are to see progressive change in our society, we’re better off avoiding them.  Why?  For one specific reason: voting ‘no’ empowers; voting yes does not.  We can frame the referendum question as carefully as we like, crafting it like obsessed ad men, but the fact is that the number of voters out there who feel at least mild resentment toward politicians dwarfs the number who may be uninformed about any particular issue.  These folks are generally not terribly happy with their lives, and the easiest place to direct the blame is toward the government.

Thus, when the opportunity arises to ‘stick one’ to the government, they’re going to take it; they’re going to vote no to change.  Voting no means that the power still resides with you—maybe I’ll vote yes next time, if you’re nicer to me in the meantime—but voting yes means you no longer hold any leverage.  The power has been passed on to people who may never care to seek your input again.

As I keep saying, change is constant; new problems will always arise, so we need change to contend with those problems—new solutions for new problems.  And referendums will always make that difficult.  They’re a political cop-out.  They amount to politicians dodging their responsibility.

 

 

 

The Singularity

It’s the ultimate sci-fi concept.  Those infernal machines keep getting steadily smarter and smarter until, one day, shazaam, they surpass human intelligence and we arrive at “the singularity”—a point in time beyond which, almost by definition, the future is unknowable.

The idea has been popularized by science-fiction writers like Vernor Vinge  and Ray Kurzweil, who rightly point out that such an event would be more than a little disruptive to existing social and economic conditions.  Certainly we’ve seen that kind of disruption already with the effects of the digital revolution on nearly every industry out there.  It may have begun with music, but can you think of any industry now which has not been at least bent out of its former shape, if not turned on its proverbial ear, by the advent of digital technology, whether it be publishing, journalism, travel, entertainment or war?

Scott McIntyre, the CEO of Douglas McIntyre Publishers, the largest independent Canadian publishing house, tried to put the pressure on his industry into perspective during an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 21 of 2012.  He repeated the publishing bromide which states that the first book Johannes Guttenberg published, after inventing the printing press, was The Bible.  The second book he published was “a screed on the death of the publishing industry.”  A little perspective on any problem is always a good thing.  Sadly however, proper perspective or not, Douglas McIntyre filed for bankruptcy on October 22 of 2012.

Kurzweil suggests, in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, a scenario of “accelerating returns” on computer technology, whereby computers progressively design new and better computers along an exponential growth curve.  Like humans, computers become self-replicating.  It’s an evolutionary path which, Kurzweil believes, is inevitable.

It all relates back to “Moore’s Law,” the oft-cited axiom which states that the processing power of computer chips doubles every two years.  Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore provided the basis for the Law back in 1965, and his prediction has proven to be almost supernaturally accurate to date.  It’s interesting to note, however, that Intel itself has predicted that the trajectory may finally end as soon as 2013.  Moore has added that, “It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”

Computers, I am told, are very near reaching the human brain’s capacity for language recognition.  Can we safely predict from there that, as many have suggested, a computer will nonetheless never be capable of writing, say, King Lear?  I recall a university professor of mine, back in the day, who cast withering aspersion on the prediction that, by the day he was speaking to us, the chess champion of the world would be a computer, reminding us that Boris Spassky currently occupied that seat.  As we all know, the good Professor would be in no position for such easy defamation today, as not only is a computer chess champion of the world, IBM’s ‘Watson’ triumphed over the very best players of the TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity is more than the ultimate sci-fi premise; it also represents the ultimate faith in technology.  Kurzweil believes that we will soon be able to achieve immortality via an upload of our bio-techno-enhanced consciousness, that we will be able to revive the dead, so long as we have stored enough information about them before they physically disappeared.  Optimistic seems an inadequate descriptor for this view.  Others have suggested that as computers exceed our intelligence and go on, at the same exponential rate, to become super beings far eclipsing our powers in every capacity, they will come to regard humans as utterly inconsequential, much the way we regard mosquitos—periodically irritating, but a problem easily remedied with a decisive swat.

1) Change is the only constant, and 2) prognosticators of the future are like baseball players at the plate: the very best of them get it right only about a third of the time.  These are the only two axioms that occur to me as reliable when it comes to considering the future.

The digital revolution has far more in common with the industrial than it does the Gutenberg revolution.  Like the industrial revolution, it has a profound upside, and a profound downside.  It remains for us to collectively attempt to benefit from its upside, and protect ourselves from its downside.  (The demise of independent Canadian publishing is no small loss.)  On an individual level, it’s the very same challenge.