Friday, August 24, 2012

Who is worse? Those who think progress will be easy? Or those who deny progress at all?

== Grouches versus Pollyannas... spare us! ==

Economics-pundit Niall Ferguson has weighed in again.  This  time, in Don't Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype, he rails against the super-optimists -- those who believe that eternal rapid progress will be the natural, even teleologically ordained, result of ever-rising information technology and connectivity. 

That movement -- variously called transhumanist or singularitarian, extropian and so on -- has its world capital in Silicon Valley, home of Singularity University, where zealots claim the future can, must and automatically will be bright.  Reacting with a grouchiness that has political-wing predictability, Ferguson joins Francis Fukayama, Peter Thiel, Bill Joy, Nicholas Carr and others in disdaining the florid forecasts of those I call "techno-transcendentalists."

Much of what Ferguson says about this movement is true, as far as it goes, so go ahead and read his essay before coming back here. I'll wait...

Indeed, emotionally, many transhumanists differ little from millennia after millennia of priests and shamans, who promised to lead every generation of our ancestors toward bright horizons, shucking off the limits of this gritty, morbid, moribund reality. The chief difference nowadays is that our 21st Century transcendentalists have split into two factions.

An old fashioned variety are repelled by technology and continue to offer skyward redemption  via the standard methods.  Whether it's Old-Time religion or New Age mysticism, the underlying trait remains the same. Offer folks a doorway to a better world via non-physical, non-verifiable abstractions -- e.g. prayer, incantation or secret concoctions

The newer type of transcendentalist preachers seem to have the same basic personality and need to promise a better world, only with one crucial difference. Tech-educated and tech-confident, they veer away from belief in incantations toward faith in the unlimited transformative power of Moore's Law.

== In defense of dreamers ==

Whenever I'm around singularity guys, I become the grouch in the room, and not just because I am "contrary."  Only followers of Fox News seem to have less grasp of history than the singularity zealots, who proclaim that Marx-like technological teleology will glide us all into godhood, within a decade or two. Both groups ignore the many ways that freedom and creative markets and other enlightenment miracles were quashed, in 99% of human cultures.

Civilization1On the other hand, it rankles me to see them dissed by pundits whose depth of insight would not get your toes wet. Niall Ferguson, especially -- a glib lightweight who flounders in the shallow end of the idea pool -- is superficial to a degree that should win him a nice, cushy sinecure at Fox.

For example, Ferguson uses today's parochial social/economic concerns as proof of some grand, generalized, spenglerian decline-of-the-west, and this "demonstrates" that technology-propeled progress is not only a vain hope, but intrinsically impossible.

But while the middle class may have stagnated for a time in the U.S. -- (what do you expect, when a vast portion of their wealth is siphoned by a neo-feudal oligarchy?) -- Ferguson ignores far more significant news. The stunningly rapid rise of middle classes in developing nations.

news-positiveNeither the left nor the right has any interest in acknowledging good news -- and complicit mass media find even the possibility absolutely allergenic. So, we hardly ever hear about the rapid decline in violence, each decade since 1945, that Professor Steven Pinker documents in his  book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Nor the rate at which new generations are becoming more educated and technologically empowered in China, India and even Africa...

...a vast social leap that has been propelled largely by the American consumer and WalMart.  Probably the greatest phenomenon of the last 60 years, and the direct outcome of deliberate policies first put in place by George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, this process of uplift through trade is barely acknowledged anywhere, even by the brightest observers, like Paul Krugman.  It is the chief achievement of Pax Americana.  And future generations will call it miraculous.

True, this fantastically effective "aid program" could be better managed. For example, the US and the west should act more decisively to defend their crown jewels, the intellectual property and fruits of creativity that allow the western goose to continue laying Golden Eggs for the rest of the world. Corporate China, in particular, would seem eager to kill and eat the goose, proof they are not yet wise enough to replace the American Pax.

Still, the bigger picture is vast and fascinating and overwhelmingly positive, overall. The slight declines in America that Niall Ferguson cites -- and that were wrought almost completely by his side in culture war -- are still just surface blips in a trend whose epochal plus sides are beyond the comprehension of myopes like Ferguson.

HowAmericansSpentThemselvesLet me reiterate this point, since no one ever seems to grok it. A century from now, the way that U.S. consumers uplifted most of the planet will be viewed as one of the great accomplishments of our age.  (See: How Americans Spent themselves into ruin but saved the world.) Perhaps the greatest. Out of 1945's depth of despair, brilliant leaders like Marshall set up the world game so that its overall sum has become overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, any "economist" who ignores this yang side of the picture is simply a fool.

== Will it be a world for grouches?  Or Transcendentalists? ==

Neither.  In my new novel - EXISTENCE - I portray what is likely.  A grinding-ahead of progress that the wise investment seer John Mauldin calls "muddling through." We will accomplish a great deal of what the transhumanists envision, though it will be grittier and more complicated, with lots more irritations than we are assured. There will never be a point when we declare: "oh wow, we are gods now!"

In other words, it will be like the huge progress that we've achieved already.  And there will still be those of the so-called right and left and mystical fringe - dopes who deserve no credibility at any level, like Niall Ferguson - who deny that progress happened at all.

In fact, we may have a chance to create a fantastic new civilization on this planet, by returning to and enhancing the Enlightenment methods that brought us to this party.  

tools-enlightenmentMethods like transparency and reciprocal accountability and divided power and pragmatic negotiation that have nothing whatsoever to do with "left" or "right" but that are deeply threatened by one side in our current culture war.

If we restore our fervent, even militant fealty to those methods, then this pax will continue to generate vast, positive-sum miracles. But it won't be easy or fore-ordained.  If it were, the sky would already be filled with the alien starships from countless other civilizations who found it easy before us.  That empty sky tells us a lot.  It is gonna be hard.

We can reach for a bright horizon. But only if we ignore the grouches... then sigh and slog past the lovable dopes who say it will come as a gift, as natural as sunrise.


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Rob said...

World doesn't revolve around ya, MG. I think David is traveling this week.

White Whale said...

That's fine. I'm not writing for him anyway. He is very unimpressive as an intellect, at least here. He's just practice, and impetus to write a decent treatment of Demand Side Economics, which seemingly has to rerefuted every generation.

I would suggest as well that if you are hoping he will respond with something other than hyperventilation and naked assertion, you will disappointed.

In any event, I will proceed with these points as stated, and modify my responses as needed. It will likely be tomorrow before I am done.

High Arka said...

Ironically spoken, coming from me, Mountain Goat, but you'll notice that, in his closing remarks to this post, the great scientist and maker of inquiries encouraged his followers to "ignore the grouches."

It's ever been a hallmark of formal intellectuals that they ignore those who don't argue within a set of predefined boundaries. The cowards couldn't, and still can't, handle the wild.

But not because they're afraid, or wrong, mind--it's because they're so brilliant that they find disagreement boring. They've heard it before.

White Whale said...

The real question is this: are you seeking to build your understanding, or your ego? No doubt it feels good to determine once and for all what "reality tunnel" you find congenial, and spend the rest of your life there; but that can only be accomplished at the cost of shutting yourself off from the waters of an interesting intellectual life.

For my part, I constantly seek critics. I go to websites where I know I will be uniformly villified, in the hope of finding a worthy opponent. In all my years debating, I can only think of one person who at least tried to take me on head to head.

This is productive, though. In working out my treatment of Demand Side economics, all sorts of new ideas have occurred to me. It's at three pages already, but I expect it to grow to at least 6-8, with much of it new to me, and possibly even new outright (although I am often humbled to find some idea I thought original was better expressed by someone else a hundred years ago).

High Arka said...

I'll pick "understanding." David's justifications of state mass murder are cutting edge stuff, coming straight from the Tuesday afternoon meetings of whatever they call cointelpro now.

In the same way that you can listen to Limbaugh and figure out what the talking points are supposed to be for free-thinking conservative citizens for that day/month/year, you can read David and figure out what verbal patterns pragmatic centrist imperials will be using to justify the drone du jour.

White Whale said...

I was just scanning through some comments, and apparently missed some. No, in point of fact I was not reading them. I was quite sincere in saying they were uninteresting to me. I will deal substantively with all the silliness later, though, probably tomorrow.

For now, here is what is for me a short treatment of the topic of Anti-Keynesian, aka "Supply Side" Economics:

With regard to Social Security, I wrote this some time ago:

If by "pay for itself" one means that people get out of Social Security what they put in, it is has never paid for itself. It has been virtually since its inception an intergenerational wealth transfer mechanism which has reached the massive and ineluctable problem of a shrinking number of people paying for an expanding number of people.

The rest I will deal with later. We will debate until you run out of credible, defensible things to say. The only views I adopt are ones I have vetted thoroughly. I will continue that process here.

White Whale said...

1. Tax rates are at historic lows.

The simple fact is that the point in contention when conservatives gripe about the size of government is the size of government, as measured by how much tax it exacts from the private sector. Every one of those dollars is money that cannot be used to fund new startups, fund growth of existing business, and hire new employees. It also cannot be spent on iPods, and no net improvement accrues when the money is given to a Federal worker who then uses it to buy an iPod.

The fact is that historical tax receipts are near record highs (Bush collected more in several years, long after his tax cuts), and will absolutely be record highs for the foreseeable future. Here is the link:

The point is that our government is spending twice what it did just 30 years ago.

We see the argument that the government is somehow tied to the GDP? How does that argument make sense, other than as a convenient excuse to keep increasing spending? Do our national security needs somehow alter when we make more money? And should poverty not be going down as gross domestic product goes up? We have spent more on the so-called War on Poverty than we have on any war in American history, and made next to no dent in absolute poverty rates. The number is something on the order of $16 trillion.

The simple fact is that kids from two parent families tend to succeed, and those from single parent families do not. Logically, if you reduce the penalty for getting pregnant, you effectively incentivize failure.

No worse harm could ever have befallen the black community in America than trusting the Democrats. They trusted Obama. What did they get? Huge increases in unemployment rates, and little else.

This is one of the great tragedies of MLK Jr. getting shot. He was a lifelong Republican, and well understood the populist, demagogueist nature of the Democrats (who to the point never saw any reason to shun Robert Byrd, whose membership in the Klan would have doomed him in the GOP). Clinton lauded his accomplishments--which included stiff opposition to the Civil Rights Act--when he died.

White Whale said...

2. That decreases in relative tax rates for the upper income brackets do not generate increases in GDP and following increases in tax revenue.

I will be dealing with these as time permits. I will not do all at once.

The Reagan tax cuts happened, I believe--and I am open to correction on this--in 1981, and presumably applied in 1982. In 1982 we collected $1.2 trillion in taxes, which was a slight drop from 1981. For the next two years, receipts dropped. Then, from 1985 through 1990 they increased steadily, and never again fell to 1981 levels.

If we frame the argument as "it is possible to cut marginal tax rates and still increase net tax revenue", then quite obviously history is in favor of that proposition.

The mechanism is simple: leave more money in the private sector, particularly among those most likely to invest it in job-creating business start ups, the money gets invested, and boom you have new taxable corporations, and new income taxes from the employees of that corporation. You get a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The same math works in the Bush era. Again, my tax data is here:

You will note as well that I am dealing only with receipts. As we all know, the national debt increased substantially under both Presidents. This is because neither was a true conservative. We have not had an actual conservative in the White House since Calvin Coolidge.

A deficit is what you get when you spend more than you take in. If you increase tax receipts, but increase spending even more, you get what we got under Reagan and Bush.

White Whale said...

4. That the entirety of the national debt increase since 2001 can be attributed to Bush's tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which had the support of the Democrat Party.

This is easily addressed, again by looking at the tax tables linked in the last two posts. Prior to Obama, we had never spent $3 trillion. Spending is up, significantly, and if you consider that the shooting parts of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars happened prior to 2009 (other than Obama's decision to surge troops in Afghanistan) you can readily see that the increase in costs relates to neither war.

Consider that the Democrats, first in Congress as a whole, then as Harry Reid controlling the Senate, have refused to pass a budget in some 4 years, and that establishing a budget is one of the most basic elements of controlling money. It becomes obvious that the SPENDING is the principle problem, not an insufficiency of revenue.

I will note finally that Democrats voted to grant Bush the discretionary authority he used to start both wars, and will reiterate that, given the chance, Obama decided to increase the scope of the war in Afghanistan, when I and others felt he should draw down troops.

White Whale said...

5. This story constitutes an assault on the intellect:

I have seen this story in multiple news outlets, and see no substantive difference between Fox's coverage of it and that of other outlets. If you want to claim Fox is assaulting the national intellect, I will need an example.

White Whale said...

6. It is the duty and purpose for the Federal Government to improve the health of the nation, and in the period 2001-2007 Republicans failed to do so.

First off, I would suggest that the role of the Federal government, if anything, is to not make things worse, which it plainly did in the mid-80's (yes, under Reagan, who I have already said was not in my view an authentic conservative, even though he was far less confused than, say, Romney) when it made the false claim that dietary fat intake and obesity were related. They are not related, but one can trace national increases in rates of obesity from that period. In point of fact, increases in dietary carbohydrate--a necessary outcome when avoiding most meats, and most fats--leads to INCREASING obesity.

I of course see no change in rates of obesity increase under Obama, and predict that the only effect of idiotic abuses of the power of government like Bloomberg's ban on large sodas will be, if anything, net INCREASES in obesity, since people will just buy two of the smaller sodas, and in net increase their caloric consumption.

The health of the nation is best left to the discretion of individuals. It is not the job of government to do anything but not interfere with rational decision making.

The principle way in which government interferes is in allowing States to put barriers on the sale of insurance, both by limiting the number of insurance carriers that can operate in their State (a patent abuse of the sort the Commerce clause exists to regulate), and by allowing them to limit insurance sales only to employers.

These policies have the effect of making insurance premiums excessively high, and also of masking their true cost, since you never see the money your employer pays, which otherwise would have been paid you in cash to do with as you please.

People that have insurance with no perceived cost consume more healthcare. They do not take care of themselves as well as they otherwise might have.

Thus, our system actually works to facilitate, if not outright encourage, poor health. And self evidently, healthcare is for those who are sick. It is only needed for those who are sick. If you don't get sick, it really doesn't matter what sort of insurance you have.

White Whale said...

7. That offering nothing in terms of definitions constitutes a definition of progress.

I have often accused leftists of being post-rationalists. This is what one sees in the universities, where post-modernism might as well be termed post-relevant, or post-useful.

You are wanting to vaguely hint around at progress as less violence, or the ability to detect lies with high tech sunglasses, but not willing to offer something which might make a rational comparison of worldviews more simple.

This is simply a symptom of not being serious. You accuse Ferguson of being a lightweight, but offer nothing to vindicate yourself.

White Whale said...

8. That Medicare Part D is the most unfunded mandate in American history.

In 2008 the cost of this program was about $50 billion.

For Medicare as a whole, it was about $500 billion:

Both are paid for with tax money. It is hypocritical of you to condemn an increase in the size of the social welfare state of small magnitude, and ignore one ten times as large.

I support neither. I don't think the Federal government should be in this business, although I accept the right of individual States to do so, if they so choose.

In passing this, the Republicans were no doubt courting the ignorant half of America, which thinks that the government can grant something it does not first take.

Bush was not acting on behalf when he passed it, but to the point here, your argument is empty.

White Whale said...

Finally, with regard to Social Security, I have already addressed it. It is an intergenerational wealth transfer mechanism, and one which even now is paying out more than it is taking in in taxes. It is borrowing from general Federal tax revenue and borrowing to write its checks.

White Whale said...

Ian Gould,

With regard to the EPA, you are correct that the Court determined that the EPA should set standards. This was a HORRIFIC abuse of the power of the Supreme Court, and yet one more reason to hold those robed jackasses in deep contempt.

However, the point was that the EPA had to set standards, not what they were. This discussion began with my correct claim that the EPA under Obama has set standards that will cause many coal plants to close, increase energy costs substantially, and accomplish NOTHING.

Global Warming is not real. CO2 does not need to be regulated, and what you are in fact outlining for me is another example of the metastasis of government which is utterly unacceptable. You want examples? That is one.

White Whale said...

With regard to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you are correct that the net amount to date is about $150 billion. I had seen another number several years ago, which was apparently inaccurate.

Again, however, you have missed the big point. My contention is that government interference in the housing market is what precipitated the 2008 economic crisis. You have done nothing to refute that.

White Whale said...

"But how would an unregulated free mortgage & insurance market, one without the evil Fannie/Freddie, require banks to retain loans on their own books? How would it have made mortgage-backed securities correctly and transparently valued for risk?"

This is simple: if they don't have an idiot lined up to buy the loan, they won't make it. How is this even a little complicated? Have you ever run a business? I'm going to guess no.

White Whale said...

With regard to insurance, I have a large client in the insurance business, and can attest based on numerous conversations that the regulatory barriers are substantial. The argument the States make is that they want to be sure that the carriers are sufficiently capitalized, and are worried that if they compete, then perhaps they will discount too deeply and not be able to pay claims. This is ludicrous.

I don't oppose setting capital requirements, but any company that meets them should be able to sell anything anywhere.

I suspect there is a strong correlation between people being unable to buy insurance without a job (or being forced on the idiotic COBRA), and being uninsured. Between them, the poor (who are covered by Medicaid) and the young and healthy, that likely constitutes virtually all of our uninsured.

If I have missed anything, let me know. For my part, I am content that I have addressed all objections substantively, and of course do not expect to get $100 from Mr. Brin, who of course is sole judge and jury as to the validity of opinions he has rejected at the outset with nothing approaching serious consideration.

Oh, the tax cuts. Net receipts went up: that is the only point I am making. It is claimed they want down, which is simply not accurate. Clinton, for his part, no doubt benefited from having a Republican Congress for 6 of his 8 years, and his welfare reforms--enacted over the screaming opposition of the left--no doubt played a large role in balancing the budget, as did the end of the Cold War.

White Whale said...

I will note finally that there is no logical reason to tie government spending to GDP. The need for government does not increase pari pasu with wealth creation. In my view, the Federal Government should be roughly half the size it presently is, and we should end most of the Cabinet level agencies, retaining perhaps Defense, State, and Interior.

White Whale said...

I will assume Mr. Brin--DOCTOR Brin, perhaps? Did I see that?--will be traveling from now until forever. Nobody who thought that what he offered constituted serious arguments could possibly be in the position to offer up serious debate.

Ian, you made some good points, and forced some learning on me, but in the end the accurate claims you made were irrelevant to the larger discussion.

If you'd like to debate Global Warming, then I would be happy to do so. Please read my treatment of it first, though:

You can comment there. I have often sought and never found any substantive critiques of it. My case has only gotten stronger since actual evidence has emerged of data tampering.

I have elected to receive follow up comments in my email. I will otherwise not be checking this site again, since I think you all know that your arguments are empty, and will only damage your cause--which by definition here is necessarily expressed as an emotional attachment to an idea, and not to an outcome.

George Lakoff told his followers not to engage other people using their paradigms, which is sound advice, if the goal is the maintenance of an indefensible world view.

My paradigm is reason--the reconciliation of method and outcome--and it is in fact utterly antithetical to the fantastical and morally unanchored illusions of the Left.


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