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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

A Chalet in Davos

A Chalet in Davos

The World Economic Forum at Davos (where the planet’s richest and most powerful people meet to hobnob about the affairs of humankind) has come and gone.  Somehow Ferrebeekeeper’s invitation got lost in the mail–so I missed this year’s conference, but all of the talking heads from the media seem to agree that the event was notable for its extremely dramatic and noticeable LACK of new ideas.  Let’s take a page from upper management and “bulletpoint” the important structural analytics coming out of this year’s Davos Forum:  then we can see if we can take these broad trends and come up with some actual ideas to move humankind forward from the great recession and the vast economic hollowing out which followed.

Um...looks fun?

Um…looks fun?

OK, so according to “The Economist”, the watchwords of the conference were “economic inequality”.  The world economy as a whole actually seems to be growing quite nicely, but generally speaking, only the people in charge are realizing these gains while the vast majority of humankind is unemployed or stuck with stagnant wages.  It is ironic that the political and financial elites are worried about this, since they are the ones making it happen (and are reaping the direct benefits) but large scale changes are sometimes hard to perceive—and even harder to affect.   The answers as to why the world is splitting into a hyper-wealthy elite and a poor…um…everyone else seem to boil down to:

  • Computers and automation are becoming exponentially more powerful and useful
  • Technology is also becoming cheaper
  • A second wave of industrialization is seeing middle class jobs replaced by robots and software (working class manufacturing jobs are already largely gone and only the most servile “entry-level” jobs remain)
  • Capital is becoming even more important—labor is becoming even more irrelevant
  • People with capital own the newly efficient means of production with which they make even more capital. Repeat the cycle….

The elites at Davos noted these changes, but had only superficial answers (like slightly raising the minimum wage).  Privately, economists and bankers worried that regulatory backlash might threaten some of the gross economic gains, but since, the political elite are allied with the interests of the so-called 1% this is a limited problem.  That seems to be about as far as anyone got in analyzing the world’s economy.

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OK, we have summarized the conclusions coming out of Davos, what now?  Frankly, I tend to think the rich/powerful people are kidding themselves if they think they are immune to the true impact of these sweeping changes.  Assembling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and issuing inhuman orders are things which I am extremely, extremely bad at…so maybe I am in no position to talk…but it seems like computers would be even better than Russian oligarchs, government bureaucrats, or Wall Street titans at managing the world.  During the first wave of industrialization, the landed aristocracy looked down their lorgnettes at factories, joint-stock companies, and the changing social dynamic. Anyone watching Downton Abbey knows how this worked out (spoiler: only the very savviest and luckiest aristocrats could stay important and solvent for long during the tumultuous market and political changes).  Today Carlos Slim may own everyone in Mexico, but his great granddaughters might well be humble dental hygenists like everyone else.  Indeed, some people are already talking about creating computer software to run companies with true efficiency.  These deathless hyper-effective algorithms would initially serve the elite, but I suspect that we would all quickly become their servants (assuming that we are not already).

The Future?

The Future?

Some people believe that we will soon move toward a world where individual and obviously human-crafted objects will take on a new importance: the future will all be about personalized nannies and Etsy (a website where you can buy exquisitely hand-crafted objects).  I’m extremely good at making things, and I don’t think this will happen at all.  The majority of people are worse than ever at ascertaining what is beautiful and worthwhile (just look at the abominable derivative garbage which makes up the fine art market).  Plus do we really want supecomputers to run the world while we make quilts, fancy cakes, wooden gnomes, and lovely saltshakers for each other?  I don’t even want that and I can make amazing cakes, gnomes, and saltshakers….

The Future?

The Future?

My answer, as always, lies above.  Earth seems like everything to us, but it is microscopic in the vastness of space.  Only beyond our atmosphere can humankind find the necessary raw materials, the boundless wells of energy, and, well, the space to spread our wings (not to mention the fact that, if we stay here, we will kill ourselves with our collective appetite—assuming the bozos at Davos don’t kill us all off first).

The Future!

The Future!

In conclusion we should be working much harder at aerospace, nuclear engineering, materials, and bio-innovation. What our leaders and betters should be working on is a way to make the wealth of all the world useful for discovering effective new atomic energy sources, building new materials necessary for space elevators and space habitats (like my cherished Venus colony). New incentives and new regulations will be necessary.  It worries me that none of the talk from Davos centers on how technology can truly help humankind (instead it seemed like rich people were worried about the envy of the poor). Maybe somebody can help me write a computer algorithm about space pioneering?

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Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future.  In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people.   The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources.  The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism).  Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers.  The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.

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As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present.  We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent.  Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper.   Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies).  At first the growing utility of machines  was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers.  Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.

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Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution.  Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services.  It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm:  everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry.   Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important.   It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.

(Source: Forbes.com)

(Source: Forbes.com)

Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen.  If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well.  Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs.  Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).

Billionairebot from Futurama

Billionairebot from Futurama

Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology.  Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors.   Expensive machines do not have all the jobs:  it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits.   Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society.  Capital & equity will have meaning.  Labor and innovation will be worthless.

Of course maybe I am being paranoid.  Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends.  Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.

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Again, who knows?  We are talking about the future.  But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation.  As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock.  Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming.  In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress.  Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?

Our glorious mechanized future?

Our glorious mechanized future?

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