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In “The Asshole Theory of International Relations,” the Philosopher’s Beard helpfully names the nations that are the biggest stains on humanity and explains how we should deal with them. That’s right–I said them because the piece argues that America is only assholish but not full-on asshole. Hooray! Let’s celebrate by blowing stuff up. Maybe stuff in the Middle East.

An excerpt:

Some readers may be puzzled – or even outraged – that I have not yet referred to our global hegemon, America, self-appointed world policeman and serial invader and destroyer of Muslim countries. Of course you are welcome to apply my typology to America yourself and come to your own judgement. But, in case you were wondering, I don’t think America is a complete asshole nation. At least not at present. A strong case can be made that for the 4 years or so following 9/11, the unchallenged height of Bush’sEither you’re with us or you’re with the enemymoral unilateralism, America was a pathological asshole or something very close to it. (Provoking that moral blindness was Al Qaida’s greatest achievement.)

America certainly has significant asshole tendencies, as apparent in its attempts to dominate Latin America (over 150 years); its pouting rejection of international institutions that don’t let it have everything its own way – refusing to pay its membership dues to the United Nations, and rejecting international projects like the International Criminal Court or climate change mitigation treaties; and, not least, its personalisation of and ghastly failures in the war on terror. And this misbehaviour has a clear source in Americans’ popular belief in their country’s moral and civilisational exceptionalism.

But America also has significant anti-assholish tendencies, which usually predominate, and this is what differentiates it from countries like Russia. America’s exceptional power is generally exercised in the service of preserving the world order, as a self-appointed global policeman, rather than to get away with moral exceptionalism. In contrast to Russia, America often acts on the principles it espouses even when that isn’t convenient. They aren’t merely a rhetorical ploy to manage complaints and obfuscate what it is doing.

I think this understanding of America’s moral character is implicitly held by its critics. The reason America gets so much moral criticism from around the world is that criticism of America is not futile.•

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Online videos exploded because the Youtube founders didn’t wait for legislation to catch up to technology and just went ahead with their plans. That’s led to great things and bad things for content. Google similarly began testing driverless cars on public streets before laws were established governing them. It’s difficult to believe at this point that any auto (or auto-software) manufacturer, in Detroit or Silicon Valley, would risk flouting the growing legislation in regards to driverless. But other transportation innovations will arrive at a surprisingly brisk pace because laws haven’t yet anticipated them.

From “Tipping Point in Transit” by Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times:

Communication systems and sensors installed in streets and cars are creating the possibility of intelligent roads, while newer energy systems like solar power are altering the environmental costs of getting around. Technology is also creating new transportation options for short distances, like energy-efficient electric-powered bikes and scooters, or motorcycles that can’t tip over.

“Cars and transportation will change more in the next 20 years than they’ve changed in the last 75 years,” said M. Bart Herring, the head of product management at Mercedes-Benz USA. “What we were doing 10 years ago wasn’t that much different from what we were doing 50 years ago. The cars got more comfortable, but for the most part we were putting gas in the cars and going where we wanted to go. What’s going to happen in the next 20 years is the equivalent of the moon landing.”

Mr. Herring is one of many in the industry who say that we are on the verge of a tipping point in transportation. Soon, getting around may be cheaper and more convenient than it is today, and possibly safer and more environmentally friendly, too.

But the transportation system of the near future may also be more legally complex and, given the increasing use of private systems to get around, more socially unequal. And, as in much of the rest of the tech industry, the moves toward tomorrow’s transportation system may be occurring more rapidly than regulators and social norms can adjust to them.

“All the things that we think will happen tomorrow, like fully autonomous cars, may take a very long time,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies emerging transportation systems. “But it’s the things we don’t even expect that will happen really fast.”•

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The near-term future of automation isn’t dramatic like the new Channel 4-AMC show Humans. There’ll be no Uncanny Valley to disorient us, just a downward slope. No struggle for dominance–it’s been decided. Tomorrow won’t look unsettlingly sort of like you and me. It will look nothing like us at all.

An entire team of Australian dockworkers has been disappeared by machines in the last two months. From Jacob Saulwick at the Sydney Morning Herald:

At Sydney’s Port Botany, every hour of every day, the robots are dancing.

Well, they look like they are dancing – these 45 so-called AutoStrads, or automated straddles, machines that have taken on the work that until a couple of months ago was at least in part performed by dockworkers.

Almost 20 years ago, the Patrick container terminal at Botany played host to one of the most divisive industrial battles in Australian history, as the stevedoring company attempted to break the back of its union-dominated workforce.

In some respects that battle was won in April.

It was then that Patrick introduced, following a four-year investment program, a level of automation into its stevedoring operation that might be unsurpassed in the world.

“This is fully automated, there are no human beings, literally from the moment this truck driver stepped out of his cabin from then onwards this AutoStrad will take it right through the quay line without any humans interfacing at all,” Alistair Field, the managing director of Patrick Terminals and Logistics, a division of Asciano, said on Wednesday.•

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Hod Lipson loves robots, but love is complicated. 

The robotics engineer is among the growing chorus of those concerned about technological unemployment leading to social unrest, something Norbert Wiener warned of more than 60 years ago. Is it, at long last, in this Digital Age, happening?

In a long-form MIT Technology Review article, David Rotman wonders if the new technologies may be contributing to wealth inequality and could ultimately lead to an even a greater divide, while considering the work of analysts on both sides of automation issue, including Sir Tony Atkinson, Martin Ford, Andrew McAfee and David Autor. The opening:

The way Hod Lipson describes his Creative Machines Lab captures his ambitions: “We are interested in robots that create and are creative.” Lipson, an engineering professor at Cornell University (this July he’s moving his lab to Columbia University), is one of the world’s leading experts on artificial intelligence and robotics. His research projects provide a peek into the intriguing possibilities of machines and automation, from robots that “evolve” to ones that assemble themselves out of basic building blocks. (His Cornell colleagues are building robots that can serve as baristas and kitchen help.) A few years ago, Lipson demonstrated an algorithm that explained experimental data by formulating new scientific laws, which were consistent with ones known to be true. He had automated scientific discovery.

Lipson’s vision of the future is one in which machines and software possess abilities that were unthinkable until recently. But he has begun worrying about something else that would have been unimaginable to him a few years ago. Could the rapid advances in automation and digital technology provoke social upheaval by eliminating the livelihoods of many people, even as they produce great wealth for others?

“More and more computer-guided automation is creeping into everything from manufacturing to decision making,” says Lipson. In the last two years alone, he says, the development of so-called deep learning has triggered a revolution in artificial intelligence, and 3-D printing has begun to change industrial production processes. “For a long time the common understanding was that technology was destroying jobs but also creating new and better ones,” says Lipson. “Now the evidence is that technology is destroying jobs and indeed creating new and better ones but also fewer ones. It is something we as technologists need to start thinking about.”•

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The International Olympic Committee (new slogan: “At Least We’re Not FIFA!”) is currently led by Thomas Bach, who god knows, doesn’t have an easy job. The host country is essentially taking on a gigantic money pit, which has thinned the herd of interested parties, so much so that hosts can now hold some events in other countries to avoid the cost of building so many new facilities. The weak pool of applicants has left autocrats looking to purchase prestige in a good position to snare the Games.

In a smart Spiegel interview conducted by Lukas Eberle and Maik Großekathöfer, Bach speaks to the IOC’s position on political responsibility. An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Before the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the IOC emphasized that it was helping open China to the world.

Thomas Bach:

No, we don’t do that. The Games are a way for us to set an example of an open society that is free of discrimination. We want to create an atmosphere in the Olympic Village in which all athletes can meet in an unprejudiced environment. And if, in the process, this leads to contemplation in the host country, then that’s entirely a good thing. But we have to respect the laws of a sovereign country. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia recently made a measured effort towards the Olympic Games. My reaction was: As long as women cannot have the same access to sports as men do in Saudi Arabia, as long as women can’t even enter the stadium there, we won’t accept an application.

Spiegel:

You’re making it easy for yourself by taking up sports as an issue. Why don’t you just say: As long as bloggers are whipped in Saudi Arabia, the country will not receive the Games?

Thomas Bach:

Once more: The IOC is a sports organization. We cannot change what generations of diplomats and a series of UN resolutions have not been able to.

Spiegel:

Since 2014, paragraph six of the Olympic Charter also bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. For the 2022 Winter Games, there are two candidates: Almaty and Beijing. If you were serious about your charter, you would need to reject both cities.

Thomas Bach:

Why?

Spiegel:

In Kazakhstan, politicians have been pushing a Russian-style anti-gay law for years. And in China there are clinics in which gay men are tortured with electric shocks.

Thomas Bach:

The responsibilities of the IOC, as well as the opportunities, are tied to the Olympic Games and the processes that are directly related to them. We can only provide an inspiration for the development of societies and countries, not instructions.•

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A couple months ago, I posted some exchanges from a Reddit Ask Me Anything conducted by a nonagenarian from Stuttgart who came of age during the rise of Naziism and even briefly met Adolf Hitler. What struck me about her attitude is that she didn’t seem to embrace her own culpability as a worker for the Nazi cause, something I’ve noticed over the years with other German citizens who grew up on the wrong side of World War II. It’s like they never fully processed the horrors that occurred–they were completely brainwashed but only partially deprogrammed–and some even seem to still harbor a degree of admiration for Hitler. It’s just stunning.

An Associated Press piece by Frank Jordans reports on a new study that gives credence to the worst fears about Germans of that generation, revealing that those indoctrinated into Nazism during their wonder years retained feelings of anti-Semitism. The effect was most pronounced in areas where anti-Semitism had been exhibited before the Nazis solidified power.

The opening:

BERLIN (AP) — Anti-Semitic propaganda had a life-long effect on German children schooled during the Nazi period, leaving them far more likely to harbor negative views of Jews than those born earlier and later, according to a study published Monday.

The findings indicate that attempts to influence public attitudes are most effective when they target young people, particularly if the message confirms existing beliefs, the authors said.

Researchers from the United States and Switzerland examined surveys conducted in 1996 and 2006 that asked respondents about a range of issues, including their opinions of Jews. The polls, known as the German General Social Survey, reflected the views of 5,300 people from 264 towns and cities across Germany, allowing the researchers to examine differences according to age, gender and location.

By focusing on those respondents who expressed consistently negative views of Jews in a number of questions, the researchers found that those born in the 1930s held the most extreme anti-Semitic opinions – even fifty years after the end of Nazi rule.

“It’s not just that Nazi schooling worked, that if you subject people to a totalitarian regime during their formative years it will influence the way their mind works,” said Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich, one of the study’s authors. “The striking thing is that it doesn’t go away afterward.”•

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ISIS is Hollywood, but it’s also Silicon Valley, a digital caliphate marrying Middle Ages barbarism to social media, Medieval yet mobile. The next-level Al-Qaeda has upped the ante on terror despite the absence thus far of a 9/11 on American soil. It’s thrived on small acts of well-publicized brutality and by doing something that Osama bin-Laden never come close to accomplishing: establishing a nation of sorts, if a tentative one of shifting borders.

While my default assumption is that things are constantly collapsing within any terrorist organization, Malise Ruthven’s NYRB piece about Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book depicts the Islamic State as a disciplined machine. An excerpt:

Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.

One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.” …

The jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:

Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.•

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In a recent interview conducted by Wait But Why writer Tim Urban, Elon Musk discussed his misgivings about genetic engineering (e.g., the Nazi connection). But a hammer is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and modifying genes could cure or even end an assortment of horrible diseases, especially rare ones which never receive adeqaute funds to make a cure possible.

At her blog, biology of aging specialist Maria Konovalenko offers a riposte to Musk and other doubters. The opening:

When I hear that the conversation is about an ethical problem I anticipate that right now the people are going to put everything upside down and end with common sense. Appealing to ethics has always been the weapon of conservatism, the last resort of imbecility.

How does it work? At the beginning you have some ideas, but in the end it’s always a “no.” The person speaking on the behalf of ethics or bioethics is always against the progress, because he or she is being based on their own conjectures. What if the GMO foods will crawl out of the garden beds and eat us all? What if there will be inequality when some will use genetic engineering for their kids and some won’t? Let’s then close down the schools and universities – the main source of inequality. What if some will get the education and other won’t?

That’s exactly the position that ‪Elon Musk took by fearing the advances in genetic engineering. Well, first of all, there already is plenty of inequality. It is mediated by social system, limited resources and genetic diversity. First of all, why should we strive for total equality? More precisely, why does the plank of equality has to be based on a low intellectual level? How bad is a world where the majority of people are scientists? How bad is a world where people live thousands of years and explore deep space? It’s actually genetic engineering that gives us these chances. From the ‪#‎ethics‬ point of view things are visa versa. It’s refusing the very possibility of helping people is a terrible deed. Let’s not improve a person, because if we do what if this person becomes better than everybody else? Let’s not treat this person, because if we do he might live longer than everybody else? Isn’t this complete nonsense?•

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Another Jesus H. Christ! edition of Geraldo Rivera’s 1970s talk show, Good Night America, is this one from ’75 which focused on the FBI’s aggressive attempts to capture at-large Symbionese Liberation Army hostage/soldier Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress getting more ink than anyone in the country. What’s most interesting to me is that hippie-ish basketball player Bill Walton, then playing with the Portland Trail Blazers, was hassled by the Feds who believed he knew where “Tania” was hiding. He certainly would have if she had been lodged inside Jerry Garcia’s colon. The host taped an interview in San Francisco with the NBA star and speaks in studio to sportswriters Jack and Micki Scott and attorney William Kunstler.

Unrelated to the SLA madness, Rita Moreno visits the studio, there’s a report on male go-go dancers and the guest announcer is Don Imus, the rodeo clown who spent all morning looking for Hearst in a bowl of cocaine. Watch here.•

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Camels are mostly associated with other parts of the world, but they originated in what we today call the United States of America. In the 1850s, Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, thought the desert animals might be useful for military purposes, scouting expeditions and as beasts of burden transporting goods and water across the Southwest, so he ordered a couple shiploads of camels to be purchased abroad and delivered to Texas. An article in the October 17, 1920 recalled the effort, which ultimately failed for several reasons, including that little thing called the Civil War.

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At the London Review of Books, Chris Lehmann has written one of his customarily excellent pieces, this time about the elephantine field of GOP hopefuls, all of whom could be described as the embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth, a bunch of ragged Dicks. As bad as any might be nominal frontrunner Jeb Bush, who has thus far shown in public and private life that being the “brighter Bush brother” doesn’t suggest a significant difference in wattage.

Lehmann’s opening:

It is a cliché of American electioneering for candidates to advertise their humble beginnings and unstinting ascent in the face of adversity. Even George W. Bush, with his Andover and Skull-and-Bones East Coast Brahmin pedigree, offered up his own version of the log cabin myth, alluding to his drunken youth and subsequent soul-saving entry into the evangelical fold, and taking self-deprecating potshots at his tricky time as part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. The message was that these episodes were tests of the candidate’s resolve, temporary setbacks in the higher drama of his journey to the Texas governor’s mansion. (It didn’t matter that Bush’s gubernatorial track record was decidedly dismal, since the log cabin myth is about how you attain great office, not what you actually do when you get there.)

But the emerging field of Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election is something else altogether. Of the dozen or so people who have declared or are thought likely to declare, every one can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way. There is, for starters, George’s younger brother Jeb: not yet a formal candidate, but already on course to raise $1 billion in campaign funds. (He has deliberately delayed his official entry into the field in order to wring every dollar he can from big-money political action committees; once he becomes a runner, the rules forbid him from dealing directly with them.) Jeb has dined out for most of his career on his image as the clever Bush brother, but as his quasi-campaign heated up and the press started to ask questions about actual policies, he immediately undermined this unearned plaudit by saying he would have followed to the letter George’s catastrophic decision to invade and occupy Iraq. After realising that this was a position now seen as insane even by most Republicans, he tried to retreat from it with a series of flailing clarifications.

Jeb Bush’s own track record is terrible.•

 

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Among other things, Matt Novak’s Paleofuture dispatch from the DARPA Robotics Challenge explains why technology associated with the agency–the Internet, driverless cars–usually pans out even if it initially seems outré. That something to consider since it has more than a passing interest in robotic warfare. An excerpt:

If DARPA has an interest in any particular technology, there’s a reasonable chance that it’ll be a practical reality within your lifetime. DARPA specializes in “high risk, high reward” research and development, which means that it’s pushing the limits of what’s possible. But DARPA isn’t interested in dicking around with impractical nonsense. Or anything that doesn’t have applications that contribute to national defense. “Here at DARPA we don’t do science for science’s sake,” Steven Walker, deputy director of DARPA, says in a video at the expo. Walker goes on to explain that one of the reasons DARPA was created was to create “technological surprise.”

The agency was founded in 1958 (then known as ARPA) on the heels of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. It was a national embarrassment for the United States — especially the Cold Warriors who insisted that American style capitalism would produce the best goods, services, and technologies. So the Eisenhower administration decided that it wouldn’t be surprised again.

Just one of many technologies developed by DARPA is the driverless car. Americans have been waiting on the fully automated driverless car for decades. In fact, scifi visions of the driverless car are nearly as old as the automobile itself. And with each passing day, we inch closer and closer to driverless cars becoming a mainstream reality on America’s roads.

Today we associate companies like Google with driverless car development. But DARPA has been working on driverless cars since before Google even existed.•

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Private enterprise endeavoring to start a new Space Race isn’t merely about cashing in–it’s also about the survival of a variant of our species–but the rich asteroid belt near Mars has certainly caught the attention of billionaire explorers. We want to mine up there to build new colonies but perhaps they’ll be a little something left over so that our first trillionaire can be minted. It would be the least pleasing result of space exploration, but it’s undoubtedly a driving force.

Sometimes during a gold rush people lose their manners. It’s important then to begin thinking now about how we’ll treat our hosts, whether they be microbial or what have you. At Aeon, Lizzie Wade has written a smart essay about what could become a next-level land grab–Manifest Destiny meeting Space Odyssey. She suggests that perhaps the Antarctic Treaty System could be used as a template for curbing our worst impulses. An excerpt:

There are two forms the discovery of alien life could realistically take, neither of them a culture clash between civilisations. The first is finding a ‘biosignature’ of, say, oxygen, in the atmosphere of an expolanet, created by life on the exoplanet’s surface. This kind of long-distance discovery of alien life, which astronomers are already scanning for, is the most likely contact scenario, since it doesn’t require us going anywhere, or even sending a robot. But its consequences will be purely theoretical. At long last we’ll know we’re not alone, but that’s about it. We won’t be able to establish contact, much less meet our counterparts – for a very long time, if ever. We’d reboot scientific, philosophical and religious debates about how we fit into a biologically rich universe, and complicate our intellectual and moral stances in previously unimaginable ways. But any ethical questions would concern only us and our place in the Universe.

‘First contact’ will not be a back-and-forth between equals, but like the discovery of a natural resource
If, on the other hand, we discover microbial or otherwise non-sentient life within our own solar system – logistics will be on our side. We’d be able to visit within a reasonable period of time (as far as space travel goes), and I hope we’d want to. If the life we find resembles plants, their complexity will wow us. Most likely we’ll find simple single-celled microbes or maybe – maybe – something like sponges or tubeworms. In terms of encounter, we’d be making all the decisions about how to proceed.

None of this eliminates the possibility that alien life might discover us. But if NASA’s current timeline holds water, another civilisation has only a few more decades to get here before we claim the mantle of ‘discoverer’ rather than ‘discovered’. With every passing day, it grows more likely that ‘first contact’ will not take the form of an intellectual or moral back-and-forth between equals. It will be more like the discovery of a natural resource, and one we might be able to exploit. It won’t be an encounter, or even a conquest. It will be a gold rush.

This makes defining an ethics of contact necessary now, before we have to put it into practice.•

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It’s not easy for driverless cars to navigate tiny side streets that are barely mapped. Autos will have to communicate with one another, sharing information about unplanned detours and such. But that’s something corporate trucking need not worry about, its vehicles transporting via highways. As Scott Santens points out at Quartz, many of the nearly nine million workers in the sector could be unemployed as soon as it’s legally allowed. The technology is already there. An excerpt:

Any realistic time horizon for self-driving trucks needs to look at horizons for cars and shift those even further towards the present. Trucks only need to be self-driven on highways. They do not need warehouse-to-store autonomy to be disruptive. City-to-city is sufficient. At the same time, trucks are almost entirely corporate driven. There are market forces above and beyond private cars operating for trucks. If there are savings to be found in eliminating truckers from drivers seats—which there are—these savings will be sought. It’s actually really easy to find these savings right now.

Wirelessly linked truck platoons are as simple as having a human driver drive a truck, with multiple trucks without drivers following closely behind. This not only saves on gas money (7% for only two trucks together), but can immediately eliminate half of all truckers if, for example, two-truck convoys became the norm. There’s no real technical obstacles to this option. It’s a very simple use of present technology.

Basically, the only real barrier to the immediate adoption of self-driven trucks is purely legal in nature, not technical or economic. With self-driving vehicles currently only road legal in a few states, many more states need to follow suit unless autonomous vehicles are made legal at the national level. And Sergey Brin of Google has estimated this could happen as soon as 2017. Therefore…

The answer to the big question of “When?” for self-driving trucks is that they can essentially hit our economy at any time.•

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Transhumanist Party Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan wants to radically extend life with the aid of organ printing, brain implants, etc. But won’t that lead to a dangerously crowded planet? That was one question asked of the fledgling politician in a smart Q&A conducted by Sarah Fecht of Popular Science. The exchange:

Popular Science:

How can the planet support an immortal population?

Zoltan Istvan:

There’s a very strong chance that within 10 years, most of us will be using IVF techniques and designing our babies. We’ll still probably be using the uterus for another 10 years, but giving birth is something that’s medically dangerous. Eventually there will be artificial wombs. There won’t be such a natural family as we see it now. In 25 or 30 years, making a family will be very much something where you sit in front of a computer, and you decide how you want to do this, and then probably they’ll have something–an aquarium or something in your living room or at the hospital, similar to the Matrix. Again that might be 35 years out, and it’s all dependent upon whether this kind of technology is ethically passed. But I do believe the future of having children will change dramatically, and that will also impact the population levels. You’ll find that people won’t necessarily want to have children if they can spend 100 years in great health.•

 

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Deciding to become a woman is the first normal thing Bruce Jenner has done since the decathlon.

I do feel a bit the way I would if Sarah Palin had become the first female American President, back when that bullshit seemed possible: Well, great, but did it have to be her? Jenner has long been your typical ex-jock conservative who never spoke up once when his party consistently sold discrimination in the U.S. to achieve its political ends. But pioneers are pioneers, so good for Caitlyn on her transition. Much happiness to her.

Some un-bylined writer at the Economist has given voice to something that’s true of both parties in the U.S.: They can only move as far Left or Right as the moment will allow. Despite being the standard-bearer of the GOP, President Richard Nixon pursued universal heath care and guaranteed basic income because those things were in the air at the time. Similarly, when it comes to Jenner, even the sweater-vest wing of the GOP has had to be restrained in its comments because the conversation about LGBT issues has so seriously shifted. 

From the Economist:

“I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through,” offered Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina. “I hope he’s—I hope she has found peace.” Though Mr Graham affirmed that he is a “pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy”, he added that “If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be a Republican, she is welcome in my party.”

“If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” said Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator not known for his open-mindedness. “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticise people for who they are.” As an outspoken critic of gay relationships, Mr Santorum has long reserved the right to criticise people for what they do, but he refrained from knocking all that Ms Jenner has done to make herself womanly.

This combination of silence and accommodation has unsettled some conservative commentators. “A surgically damaged man appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the applause is mandatory,” writes David French of the National Review. He then argues that the “sexual selfishness and radical personal autonomy” of the transgender movement “shares the same logic as such cultural catastrophes as no-fault divorce and abortion on demand”, which are naturally to blame for “poverty, depression, and increasing inequality between two-parent families and the transient remainder”. Mr French contends that conservatives are being bullied into a dangerous silence by left-leaning cultural arbiters. “By refusing to speak,” he writes, “we contribute to the notion that even conservatives understand that something is wrong—something is shameful—about our own deepest beliefs.”

Steve Deace, a syndicated radio host based in Iowa, offered a similar but more practical warning: “If we’re not going to defend as a party basic principles of male and female, that life is sacred because it comes from God, then you’re going to lose the vast majority of people who’ve joined that party.” 

It is surprising that a warning like this needs to be issued at all. Until recently, Republican politicians have been brash culture warriors.•

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Martin Ford has written a New York Times op-ed explaining why “China could well turn out to be ground zero for the economic and social disruption brought on by the rise of the robots.” Outsourcing used to mean moving jobs out of country, but more and more it will mean shifting them out of species. And no matter what the official line is, better jobs don’t necessarily await the displaced. The opening:

OVER the last decade, China has become, in the eyes of much of the world, a job-eating monster, consuming entire industries with its seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers. But the reality is that China is now shifting its appetite to robots, a transition that will have significant consequences for China’s economy — and the world’s.

In 2014, Chinese factories accounted for about a quarter of the global ranks of industrial robots — a 54 percent increase over 2013. According to the International Federation of Robotics, it will have more installed manufacturing robots than any other country by 2017. 

Midea, a leading manufacturer of home appliances in the heavily industrialized province of Guangdong, plans to replace 6,000 workers in its residential air-conditioning division, about a fifth of the work force, with automation by the end of the year. Foxconn, which makes consumer electronics for Apple and other companies, plans to automate about 70 percent of factory work within three years, and already has a fully robotic factory in Chengdu.

Chinese factory jobs may thus be poised to evaporate at an even faster pace than has been the case in the United States and other developed countries. That may make it significantly more difficult for China to address one of its paramount economic challenges: the need to rebalance its economy so that domestic consumption plays a far more significant role than is currently the case.•

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Japan currently has a very low unemployment rate of 3.30%, but economist Noah Smith would like it to rise.

Well, that’s not exactly true. He thinks that number is illusory and the nation’s rife with bullshit jobs (in Graeber-ian terms) and redundancies, positions suited neither for humans nor robots. He argues that elevator operators or extraneous clerks will find something else to do and the economy will gain steam. Perhaps. But if all busywork is eliminated and many in these positions are only qualified for busywork, what would become of them? Even those qualified to do more may have to compete with white-collar automation going forward. What exists is a free-market safety net of sorts, and if you want to eliminate it, there probably should be a Plan B in place. Believing a political solution will necessarily come to pass if the market doesn’t provide seems optimistic.

From Smith at Bloomberg View:

There’s something even better than robots that could replace large numbers of Japan’s human jobs: nothing

Japan is a country famous for its low white-collar productivity; this is borne out by the statistics. Some of that comes from the reluctance by tradition-minded companies to adopt modern workplace technologies — there are still companies using fax machines or copying electronic documents onto paper. Some of it is from outdated management practices. Some of it is from employees staying at work for too many hours, long after their productivity has gone into free-fall. But some of it is certainly just a function of useless jobs. There are Japanese people being paid to do things that no one, not even a robot, should be paid to do. 

Any American who has lived in Japan has a long list of anecdotes about jobs that seem utterly pointless. There are security guards being paid to guard vacant lots. There are women standing in elevators pushing the button for you. There are crossing guards at intersections with functional traffic lights. 

Then there are the useful jobs for which Japanese companies simply hire too many personnel.•

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Wearables that track workers are, for now, mostly optional. Some employees get rewards for voluntarily attaching themselves to gadgets that provide real-time feedback to their bosses. But that trend toward quantification seems clear, especially in countries where unions are weak and good jobs may grow scarcer with increased automation. Even for that contingent job, you may need to surrender to the nudge of modern technology. It’s a further Uberization of the workforce.

From Sarah O’Connor at the Financial Times:

Technology has made it possible for employers to monitor employees more closely than ever, from GPS trackers for delivery drivers to software that tracks which websites office workers visit. Companies such as Profusion think wearable gadgets could open a new frontier in workplace analytics, albeit one that would further blur the lines between our work and private lives.

“I think there’s an inevitability that it will gain ground, and there’s a backlash risk that will follow if the data get abused,” says Mr Weston.

For employers, the simplest way to use wearable gadgets (and so far the most common) is to give them to staff and try to nudge them into healthier lifestyles — a financially worthwhile goal if the company is on the hook for their health insurance. BP, for example, gives Fitbits to workers in North America and offers them rewards if they meet activity targets. Indeed, one of Fitbit’s five strategic goals is to “further penetrate the corporate wellness market”, according to its IPO prospectus. Wearables could also be straightforward tools.

But the bigger prize is to use the data from such devices to make the workforce safer or more productive. Some warehouse workers already wear wristbands or headsets that measure their productivity and location in real-time.•

 

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As someone consumed by robotics, automation, the potential for technological unemployment and its societal and political implications, I read as many books as possible on the topic, and I feel certain that The Second Machine Age, the 2014 title coauthored by Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, is the best of the lot. If you’re just beginning to think about these issues, start right there.

In his Financial Times blog, McAfee, who believes this time is different and that the Second Machine Age won’t resemble the Industrial Age, has published a post about an NPR debate on the subject with MIT economist David Autor, who disagrees. An excerpt: 

Over the next 20-40 years, which was the timeframe I was looking at, I predicted that vehicles would be driving themselves; mines, factories, and farms would be largely automated; and that we’d have an extraordinarily abundance economy that didn’t have anything like the same bottomless thirst for labour that the Industrial Era did.

As expected, I found David’s comments in response to this line of argument illuminating. He said: “If we’d had this conversation 100 years ago I would not have predicted the software industry, the internet, or all the travel or all the experience goods … so I feel it would be rather arrogant of me to say I’ve looked at the future and people won’t come up with stuff … that the ideas are all used up.”

This is exactly right. We are going to see innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity that I can’t even begin to imagine (if I could, I’d be an entrepreneur or venture capitalist myself). But all the new industries and companies that spring up in the coming years will only use people to do the work if they’re better at it than machines are. And the number of areas where that is the case is shrinking — I believe rapidly.•

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Uber is good for consumer experience and the environment, but CEO Travis Kalanick is determined to convince the public the rideshare company is also beneficial to workers, and that’s a lie. When half your employees quit in the first year, you haven’t created good jobs. When your business model kills many more-stable positions, you’re not good for employment. When you publicly lust for that day you can be rid of all your employees, you aren’t a friend of Labor. Maybe all these things are necessarily collateral damage in the march of progress, but let’s be honest about it.

From Ellen Huet’s Forbes report about the company’s fifth-anniversary ceremony:

Uber is adding “hundreds of thousands” of drivers globally every month, Kalanick said, and has 26,000 active drivers in New York, 15,000 in London, 10,000 in  Paris and 22,000 in San Francisco, the company said. It has 20,000 active drivers (and 42,000 who have ever signed up) in Chengdu, China, a region where Uber’s two major rivals recently merged and control almost 99% of the market. Uber often signs up many more drivers than remain current active drivers: In a recent study of U.S. drivers, Uber found that that almost half of its drivers stop driving after a year.

Because Uber tends to experiment and explore many different verticals — courier service and food delivery, for example — it was surprising that Kalanick barely mentioned the company’s potential outside of its core ride-hailing service. He only made one allusion — “just imagine all the goods and services you could get delivered quickly and safely with just the touch of a button” — to Uber’s other services. He also made no mention of Uber’s advances in developing autonomous cars, which have involved poaching numerous engineers and researchers from Carnegie Mellon to staff up its own research center.

Instead, the address focused on Uber’s effects on cities, urban transportation and its driver workforce. An Uber driver who is also a military wife gave the introduction for Kalanick and spoke briefly, occasionally tearing up, about how Uber’s flexible schedule allowed her to volunteer at her son’s school.•

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It’s hard to imagine greater symbols of America living in the past than roasting pigs and gas-guzzling motorcycles, but an Iowa “Roast and Ride” is where GOP hopefuls just gathered to make a case that they should be the next President. In their speeches, the Perrys and Walkers of the world unironically promised to return America to greatness by wallowing in nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. According to an Economist report, there was one exception: Marco Rubio. An excerpt:

Mr Perry is 65 years old, while Mr Walker is 47. But the two governors sounded rather similar in their wistful recollections of modest childhoods marked by cheerful, hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps small town thrift. Mr Walker was the undoubted star of the day even before he arrived. His speech was well-received, but it was a disappointment. He talked of an American Dream led astray, and set up a straw man attack on Mr Obama and the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, saying that to listen to them, the measure of success in America was “how many people are dependent on government.” But in his own childhood in small town America, nobody said or wrote in their high school yearbooks that they wanted to grow up to be dependent on the government, Mr Walker said. The great thing about America, he went on, was that it offered equality of opportunity, even if outcomes were up to individuals. America is one of the few countries left in the world where it doesn’t matter what class you are born into, he declared, and many in the audience, notably the older voters with snowy hair, clapped enthusiastically.

But even in a political speech to activists, that was a riskily glib thing to say. The evidence is overwhelming that American social mobility has stalled in recent decades, and that accidents of birth have come to matter far too much. The great question of the age is how to fix that, and both thoughtful Republicans and Democrats have begun wrestling with competing solutions. Mr Walker simply sweeps that debate aside, and in doing so sounds like a spokesman for an imperfectly-remembered past when the American Dream came easily.

The contrast was startling when Senator Marco Rubio came to talk. The Cuban-American senator from Florida is only three years younger than Mr Walker, but he sounded as if he came from a different generation. The economy has changed in the past 20 years, he told the crowd. There is more global competition and machines can do many of the jobs that once paid good wages to middle class workers. We are living through a moment of transformation such as we have not seen since the Industrial Revolution, Mr Rubio said. Unfortunately, we have all of these leaders that are stuck in the past, he said. He was polite enough to add: “especially on the left”, but his rebuke to some of his Republican rivals was well made.

In part Mr Rubio is defending himself tactically from the charge that America is not ready to hand the White House to another young, eloquent senator (having tried that with a certain Senator Obama from Illinois). But he is right to challenge crowds such as the one in Boone. I like the 20th century, Mr Rubio joked. I was born in the 20th century. But it is time to build a new American century.•

I put up a post of Thomas Piketty’s NYRB take on Sir Tony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? Here’s a passage from an Economist piece about the same book, which compares Atkinson’s work to Piketty’s conversation-turning Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

In the event, Sir Anthony is more radical than Mr Piketty; he calls for robust taxation of the rich whom he reckons have got off easily over the last generation (see chart). But that’s not all. He believes government should meddle in markets in all sorts of ways to influence the distribution of economic rewards. Sir Anthony’s recommendations are a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, when trade unions were a dominant force in politics and the state was seen as a much-needed check on markets. Even the most egalitarian economists, such as Mr Piketty, are reluctant to recommend employment guarantees and wage controls. Sir Anthony is not. And if his arguments are not always wholly convincing, he may nonetheless succeed in shifting the debate.

Inequality begins with a clear statement of the harm done by rising income gaps: they unfairly punish those who suffer bad luck. They undermine economic growth and social cohesion. Perhaps most importantly, inequality in economic resources translates directly into inequality in personal opportunity. Wealth generates comfort even when it isn’t being spent; the rich enjoy the fact that they are insured against future hardship or could use their wealth in future to satisfy personal or professional goals.•

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I have a natural aversion to institutions that have run their course and entered into obsolescence. I felt it in churches and libraries I was dragged to as a child (though I loved reading), and I feel that way about post offices and polling places as an adult. It doesn’t work anymore, and I’m not a good enough sport to play along with the ruse. 

In his latest Financial Times column, Douglas Coupland wonders how the hanging chad still hangs around. An excerpt:

The most interesting lie I see in millennial bashing is that millennials aren’t political and that they don’t vote. I hear this, and inside my head I hear a loud screeching brake noise in my head and say, WTF?

Millennials are the most politically informed cohort ever. They know their rights. They know about power imbalances. They know about environmental degradation, they know about GMOs, Yellow 6, fuel rods, transgender politics and the near complete lobbyocracy of US politics. You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of most millennials. I think it’s because millennial political expression began with the stillborn Occupy events that they get branded as apathetic but the issue with millennials isn’t a perceived apathy on their part. I think it’s in large part the fact that they look at the mechanics of voting and compare it to the universe they inhabit and they collectively say, You have to be kidding: every four years I go into a plywood booth and use a graphite-based stylus to “fill in a box” corresponding to my decision for who’s best for the job? What century are we in? How is this still even happening?

And they have a point. The way voting works now is like taking everyone’s computers and devices away and telling them they have to instead use envelopes and stamps to communicate with each other. In the era of Airbnb, Netflix and Skype we have a political selection ritual straight out of the 19th century.•

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In a New York Review of Books pieceThomas Piketty, who has suggested his own remedies for wealth disparity (including aggressive investment in education), reviews British economist Anthony B. Atkinson’s progressive treatment of the problem in the UK, Inequality: What Can Be Done? which suggests, among other things, an endowment be paid to all citizens at the time of their eighteenth birthdays. An excerpt:

The idea of going back to a more progressive tax structure clearly has a major part in the plan of action that Atkinson sets forth. The British economist leaves no doubt about it: the spectacular lowering of top income tax rates has sharply contributed to the rise of inequality since the 1980s, without bringing adequate corresponding benefits to society at large. We must therefore waste no time discarding the taboo that says marginal tax rates must never rise above 50 percent. Atkinson proposes a far-reaching reformation of the British income tax, with top tax rates raised to 55 percent for annual income above £100,000 and 65 percent for annual income above £200,000, as well as a hike in the cap on contributions to national insurance.

All of which would make it possible to finance a significant expansion of the British social security and income redistribution system, notably with a sharp increase in family benefits (doubling and even quadrupling them in one of the variants proposed), as well as a rise in retirement and unemployment benefits for people with lower resources.* Atkinson presents a series of variants of these measures and scenarios for reform, while advocating those measures that make it possible to return to a policy of universal social safety nets (i.e., that would be open to everyone), as opposed to conditional transfers of resources.

If these proposals, statistically accounted for and fully financed from taxes, were to be adopted, there would be a significant drop in British levels of inequality and poverty. According to the simulations done by Atkinson and Sutherland, those levels would fall from their current quasi-American levels to the point where they would come close to European and OECDaverages. This is the central goal of Atkinson’s first set of proposals: you can’t expect everything from fiscal redistribution, but that nonetheless is where you have to begin.

Radical Reformism: A New Philosophy of Rights

But Atkinson’s plan of action hardly stops there. At the core of his program is a series of proposals that aim to transform the very operation of the markets for labor and capital, introducing new rights for those who now have the fewest rights. His proposals include guaranteed minimum-wage public jobs for the unemployed, new rights for organized labor, public regulation of technological change, and democratization of access to capital. This is only a sampling of the many reforms he recommends.•

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