Archive for July, 2016

The human body as the Ship of Theseus

July 9, 2016

Hat tip to kottke.org.

The Ship of Theseus was an ancient Greek paradox.  Over time, every plank and mast in the ship was replaced, yet it remained the same ship.  That is almost true of the human body.

Only one part of your body is as old as you are.  Watch the video to learn what it is.

10-year Treasury bond interest at a record low

July 8, 2016

I thought this chart was interesting.

Interest rates on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds fell to 1.34 percent on Tuesday, the lowest in 225 years.  They bounced back on Wednesday to only 1.37 percent.

Bond yields of other governments also are low, with the UK, Germany and Japan at record lows.  Ten-year rates in Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland are negative—that is, you get back less than you paid for the bond!  France offers 0.13 of a percent on 10-year bonds, Britain 0.91 of a percent.

What this means is that investors are fearful of future, and prefer the safety of government bonds, even at low, non-existent or even negative interest rates, than the risk of investing in the stock market.  Not a good omen!

LINKS

Why the 10-Year Treasury Yield Is at Record Lows by Steve Schaefer for Forbes.

Another Fed Fiasco: U.S. Bonds Fall to Record Lows by Mike Whitney [added 7/14/2016]

Why Interest Rates Are Lower Than Ever, and Why That’s Scary by Paul J. Lim for Money magazine.

10-Year Treasury yield hits record low by Adam Shell for USA Today.

Strong demand for UK gilts at record low yield by Elaine Moore for Financial Times.

Murray Bookchin: two images of technology

July 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).

chapter nine – two images of technology.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin examined the current disillusionment with the idea of technological progress.  This is something fairly new, he noted.  In the early 20th century, even radicals such as Woody Guthrie celebrated giant engineering feats such as Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There is a big difference, he wrote, between the ancient ideal of the good life and the modern ideal of the abundant life.

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle believed that the good life was an ethical and balanced life lived within limits and within community.  A skilled craftsman, according to Aristotle, had understood well not only how to do his work, but the reason and purpose for his work.

Modern industrial production is the opposite.  It defines efficiency in terms of quantity and cost.  Workers are not required to understand their work, only to follow instructions.  “Living well” is defined as consumption and material comfort apart from work.  Industrial workers, unlike laborers in preceding ages, do not sing work songs.

Bookchin said the modern industrial system is not a result of technology.  It is a result of peasants being uprooted from the land and their communities, and having no choice but to work for merchants and capitalists.  Originally this was done by piecework in the home, but “factors” insisted in assembling workers in common workplaces so that they could be better controlled.

Industrial technology developed to fit the already-existing factory system, Bookchin said.  Mindless labor is not a product of mechanization, he wrote; it is part of a process of subordination and control.

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The coming of the robots

July 8, 2016

This video from Boston Dynamics shows the capability of robots to do human labor—not that they would necessarily be in humanoid form as in the video.

In theory, the use of robots could enable human beings to live lives of voluntary, meaningful, higher-level activity.  In practice, the results probably would be more like Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel, Player Piano, with an elite of engineers and a mass of unemployed or under-employed former workers.

If robots do everything, there will be no high-wage, full-employment economy.  There would be no mass consumer market.  Economic activity would be mainly devoted to serving the needs of the owners of the robots and the engineers and technicians who keep the robots running.

A guaranteed annual income would not be a solution.  Human beings degenerate if they have nothing useful to do.

Maybe a new economy would arise—a robot economy serving the elite and a parallel human economy serving the majority of humanity.

Or maybe—in some way I can’t foresee—robotic technology would come under democratic control, and there would be a public debate as to how robotics could be used to benefit everyone and not just a few.

LINKS

New Rossum’s Universal Robots: Toward a Most Minimal Wage by Fred Reed for Fred on Everything.  Lots of interesting links.

Toyota in talks to acquire Boston Dynamics from Google by Danielle Muoio for Tech Insider.

When the Robots Rise by Lee Drutman and Yascha  Mounk for The National Interest [added 7/11/2016]

The global elite strikes back

July 7, 2016

The common people in Europe, the USA and other countries are starting to revolt against international institutions—the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund—that represent the interests of an international financial elite.

free-tradeThe financial elite is striking back by promoting international trade agreements—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement, the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the lesser-known Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) involving Canada and the European Union.

All these agreements would enact pro-business policies into international law, and would create tribunals with the power to fine governments for unjustly depriving businesses of expected profits.

Nationalists oppose these agreements because they undermine national sovereignty.   Progressives and liberals oppose these agreements because they are un-democratic.  On this issue, progressives and nationalists are on the same side because, at these moment in history, national governments are the highest level in which democracy exists.

President Obama hopes to get the Republican majority in the lame duck Congress following the November election to enact the TTP Agreement.   The Conservative Party in Britain favors the TTIP, which would subject the UK to a new pr0-business international authority.   CETA would accomplish the same goal for the remaining EU members.

If any of these agreements passes, they can be used to block legislation to protect workers, consumers or public health, or to bring banks and financial institutions under control.

Followers of Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and progressives in other subject countries, would be stymied until they could figure out a way to roll back the agreements.

None of these agreements is needed in order to have international trade.   Rather their goal is to remove controls on the operations of international corporations.

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Another reason I’m glad I’m not a Millennial

July 5, 2016

median-rent-and-income

Sharp increases in rents along with stagnant incomes over the past five years have helped create a dire situation for many of the country’s renters.  A new report shows how those trends have actually been playing out for more than five decades.

Inflation-adjusted rents have risen by 64% since 1960, but real household incomes only increased by 18% during that same time period, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data released by Apartment List, a rental listing website.

Renters fared the worst during the decade between 2000 and 2010, when inflation-adjusted household incomes fell by 9%, while rents rose by 18%, according to Apartment List.  That is likely because there were two recessions during that time and a housing bust in 2008 that drove millions of homeowners into renting.

The takeaway: The United States has grown much less affordable for renters for half a century and, barring a major change, is likely to continue doing so.

Source: Wall Street Journal.

These figures are national averages.   I shudder to think what it would be like to try to rent in places like San Francisco.

The radicalism of the Declaration

July 4, 2016

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

==In Congress: the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776

These words are among the most radical statements ever written.   It denies that government is established by divine right or ancient custom, and that subjects have no choice but to obey.   It affirms that people have the right to form a government by free decision, and proceeds to do just that.

It is a philosophy that is hard for many people to accept—including, as I have found through experience, many supposedly well-educated 21st century Americans.

Our Declaration.inddI have believed in the basic ideas of the Declaration’s since I was old enough to understand them.  My interpretation of American history is that it consists of (1) a series of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution and (2) a playing out of the consequences of those two actions.

Recently I read a book, OUR DECLARATION: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen which both reinforced and clarified my understanding of the Declaration.

What, Allen asked, does it mean to say “all men are created equal”?  Obviously people are not the same in virtue, or ability, or wealth and social standing.

As she pointed out, we are all equal in the desire to live, in the desire to live free of subjugation to someone else’s will and in the desire (this is more controversial) to define for ourselves what we need to make us happy.  If I demand these rights for myself, I have no standing to deny these rights to you.

The Declaration gives two possible sources of these rights – “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.”  The first reflects the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment; the second of radical Protestant Christianity.

All Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and are in some sense descended from Adam and Eve and then from Noah.  Protestants believe that human beings can have a direct relationship to God without the need for a priesthood to serve as intermediary.  Radical Protestants such as the Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers practiced democracy in their congregations, and in town meetings.

The rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment thought in the same manner, except without the Biblical scaffolding.  They held that all human beings, regardless of their other differences, had a moral sense.   They thought people should think of government as a social contract—a mutual agreement based on mutual benefit.

The social contract was only a theory for John Locke and other 18th century philosophers.  But social contracts were made by the American colonists—first in the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims as they voyaged to Plymouth Rock, then of various frontier communities, and finally the Constitution of the United States.

The most radical of the Declaration’s affirmations is the right of revolution.  The United States of America is founded not on a principle of authority or national unity, but on principles of freedom and equality to which the government itself must submit or risk dissolution.

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Cylinders or squares?

July 2, 2016

The video below explains the optical illusion.  Basically, round or square in this case depends on the angle you look at it.  I must confess I don’t really see it.

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Monopoly power and what to do about it

July 2, 2016

The trouble with the U.S. economy is monopoly power.

Concentrated business power means less consumer choice, less opportunity for entrepreneurs and greater concentration of wealth.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren described the problem very well in a speech on Wednesday.  If you care about this issue, I strongly recommend that you click on the first link below.

She noted that five banks have been designated as “too big to fail” by the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

But that situation is not limited to the banking industry.  Four airlines (down from nine in the past 10 years) control 80 percent of all airline seats.  If American, Delta, United or Southwest were to be in danger of ceasing operations, could there be any doubt that the government would want to keep them flying at all costs?

There’s another problem with concentration in the transportation industry, and that is the incentive to abandon small and remote communities and concentrate services in a few hubs.   The second article linked below describes how concentration in the airline, railroad and trucking industries has harmed small cities in the Heartland.  “Flyover country” wasn’t always flyover country.

Concentration means less consumer choice.  Warren pointed out that more than half of Americans who with Internet or cable television service use Comcast.  Yet, she said, a third of U.S. citizens who theoretically have access to high-speed Internet service can’t afford it.   Americans pay more than Europeans for Internet service and get worse service.

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Neoliberal US colleges prefer rich foreigners

July 1, 2016

I came across an article in the Washington Monthly from a few years back as to how many U.S. universities are recruiting rich Chinese and other foreigners who can pay high tuition that middle-class and working-class Americans cannot afford.

This fits the neoliberal philosophy, which measure merit in terms of revenue (in this case, tuition X enrollment) and profit.

LINKS

International Students: Separate But Profitable by Paul Stephens for the Washington Monthly (2013)

How Chinese Students Saved America’s Colleges by Justin Fox for Bloomberg News.