Beyond Economics

The End of Growth and Time for a New Era

Category Archives: Issues

ANTHROPOCENE: A New Era of Human Civilization on Earth

From The Economist cover story of May 28, 2011:

“Humans have changed the way the world works.
Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

Human civilization evolved during a period of relatively stable climate over the last 10,000 years. With a rapidly developing and industrialized world, now at about 7 billion and headed for 9-10 billion, humans have become a significant driving force in changing the Earth. Here is an excerpt from the 5/28 cover story of The Economist magazine:

Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year…

The carbon cycle (and the global warming debate) is part of this change. So too is the nitrogen cycle, which converts pure nitrogen from the air into useful chemicals, and which mankind has helped speed up by over 150%. They and a host of other previously natural processes have been interrupted, refashioned and, most of all, accelerated…

Scientists are increasingly using a new name for this new period. Rather than placing us still in the Holocene, a peculiarly stable era that began only around 10,000 years ago, the geologists say we are already living in the Anthropocene: the age of man.

The Economist article (Briefing) concludes that there is no turning back and perhaps we will be best off embracing the future.

The growing availability of solar or nuclear energy over the coming centuries could mark the greatest new energy resource since the second of those planetary oxidations, 600m years ago—a change in the same class as the greatest the Earth system has ever seen. Dr Lenton (who is also one of the creators of the planetary-boundaries concept) and Dr Watson suggest that energy might be used to change the hydrologic cycle with massive desalination equipment, or to speed up the carbon cycle by drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide, or to drive new recycling systems devoted to tin and copper and the many other metals as vital to industrial life as carbon and nitrogen are to living tissue.

Better to embrace the Anthropocene’s potential as a revolution in the way the Earth system works, they argue, than to try to retreat onto a low-impact path that runs the risk of global immiseration.

A Brief History of Human Understanding of the World

The World is Flat

The Earth is the Center of the Universe

The Earth is a Planet (in a Solar system in a Galaxy in the Universe)

The Earth’s Future is in Our Hands

Just as the average person (and even the ruling elites) initially resisted the earlier paradigm shifts, many of us, from the urban poor in the slums of Mumbai to the wealthiest of hedge fund managers on Wall Street, are too caught up in economic survival and advancement to see or care about the bigger picture. I am afraid that, until a much larger share of us come to know the world in this new way, human civilization will be unable able to really transition to a sustainable future…not sure what that will take. We don’t have the luxury or time as in earlier eras.


Google vs. Facebook: Is this the right question?

While I do have a Facebook page and a few dozen “friends”, I don’t find it compelling enough to check in with more than a few times per week and have been wondering if I am missing the boat. Google, on the other hand, I can’t live without. For an information junkie, it’s nirvana. More importantly, how can you compare Facebook and its assorted little games and applets, as addictive as they are for many, to Google, which, in addition to Search and Android, has also created Maps, Earth, and now Books, among other things.

My bias, then, is to see Google continue to thrive and Facebook to become a passing fad. This article, and especially the comments that followed, recently caught my attention.

Facebook Will Thwart Google, Says Ex Googler

Does Google have any chance at all of competing with arch-rival Facebook? Not really, former Google bigwig Paul Buchheit says. Buchheit tells us his old company will probably find it easier to land on the moon…If Google can’t mount a viable challenge to Facebook, it will make the social network look all the more unstoppable to competitors and frustrated users alike.

Why doesn’t social mesh with where Google is strong, i.e. in basic engineering skills?

— Google’s strength is in building large scale computer systems like BigTable [definition], and they reflexively try to apply that to all problems (if all you have is a hammer…)
— Facebook is also very good at what they do (unlike MySpace)
— The network effects in social are very substantial

Would it be erroneous to detect a bit of pessimism on your part about some of Google’s big initiatives? Do you still think Google is innovating, on balance?

I’m actually rather optimistic about Google overall. The inevitable doom of ChromeOS is due in part to the huge success of Android. As for social, I expect that Google will find greater success with their self-driving car and moon landing initiatives.

As is often the case, I sometimes find  more incite in the comments section. Here are some of the choice excerpts:

…I’ll be damned if I’m going to use a e-mail address ever. Facebook isn’t taken seriously by professional adults, it’s taken for what it is: a tool to ‘socially network’, which in and of itself is still viewed as a bit of a joke. That being said, the kids using FB now will be the professional adults in a few decades, so stay tuned to this sexxxxy battle!

…I’m far more likely to click on a Google ad than a Facebook ad, and that will never change. Facebook ads tend to be stupid and inaccurate. I’ve yet to see them offer anything remotely in the vein of my interests when they have a LIST of my damn interests.

…I predict a massive switch to a new platform as the young adult/hipster crowd gets sick of friends requests from parents and bosses.

…with the advent of Facebook’s success, we have come full circle. People now log into a closed environment to start their day and access interesting points on the web…All of this potential on the web and people still want to hand over proprietary control for internet content to someone else.

…Facebook seems unbeatable right now, but there could easily emerge another Google on the horizon to take it down. (This ‘Google’ will probably not be the Google, much to the Google’s chagrin.)”

…If we’ve seen anything in social networking, it’s that services either begin with or develop biases toward the user bases that they serve. Right now, Facebook’s user base is very broad–which means that it doesn’t target any single demographic in a particularly exclusive way. This makes them, I think, quite vulnerable to more targeted services that can convince users they’re doing more cutting-edge things with social networking. To combat this, Facebook has chosen the “bloat” route. They’re trying to get into micro-blogging, e-mail, mobile apps, etc. To me, this reeks of a Yahoo!-style trajectory, typical of classic Silicon Valley business ventures.

…Landing on the moon may, or may not, be easier than beating Facebook at social networking, but landing on the moon is also far more interesting than Facebook.

“A Game-Changer” for the U.S. Auto Industry

One of every three Motor Trend magazine covers over the last year featured a Mustang. The last two issues showcased the Volt. The staff of Motor Trend are mostly muscle car guys but they were gaga over the Volt. Has the transition to the era of the electric car finally arrived? The Volt is technically classified as an extended-range EV (electric vehicle) in that it has a small gas engine to provide range beyond 35-50 miles, but it will be the first car that Americans will plug in.

“This is a fully developed vehicle with seamlessly integrated systems and software, a real car that provides a unique driving experience. And commuters may never need to buy gas!”

As one of the consultant judges on this year’s COTY panel, Chris brought the deep insight and professional skepticism you’d expect of someone who’s spent his entire working life making cars. But our 2011 Car of the Year, Chevrolet’s ground-breaking Volt, has blown him away. Like all of us on the staff at Motor Trend, Chris is an enthusiast, a man who’ll keep a thundering high-performance V-8 in his garage no matter how high gas prices go.

“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”

In the 61-year history of the Car of the Year award, there have been few contenders as hyped — or as controversial — as the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt started life an Old GM project, then arrived fully formed as a symbol of New GM, carrying all the emotional and political baggage of that profound and painful transition. As a result, a lot of the sound and fury that has surrounded the Volt’s launchhas tended to obscure a simple truth: This automobile is a game-changer.

Motor Trend: Car of the Year (feature story)

How the Volt Works (more technical)

Motor Trend vs. Rush Limbaugh
Why the right-wing can’t stand the Volt

For a truly revolutionary approach to our automotive future, see Shai Agassi’s TED presentation. More to come about this in a future post.

“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”Read more:

How Companies Bypass the U.S. Corporate Income-Tax Rate

Using Corn for Ethanol

Mazed and Confused, Economist, 8/10/09

From what I can gather the connection goes something like this (much simplified, of course):

All-important Iowa presidential caucus -> support for corn for ethanol -> U.S. soybean crop displaced -> Brazilian soy crop displaced -> arable grazing land for cattle (for hamburgers, etc.) displaced -> rain forest burned and seeded for cattle grazing -> global warming (burning + loss of trees) -> offsets benefits of using ethanol…not to mention the increased cost of corn for other uses (sweeteners, cattle feed, etc.)

The article points out other, better ways to produce ethanol (also see comment below).

This is a fairly balanced article that, together with the comments, shows how the truth is not clear cut and how both data and theory can be used to support one’s point of view or agenda. The article also points out that there are not just two opposing sides to the corn ethanol issue (e.g. big oil is not happy either).

Many public issues involve similar complexity, if not more (e.g. health care). If you read the article and then the comments (starting from the bottom), you will quickly see that much this is well beyond the average voter’s desire or ability to follow. So what is the Average Joe to do? He relies on media sound bites and the simple, black and white, us vs. them world view from his favorite trusted source, like Fox News or MSNBC. These sources may originally get selected based on a single issue over which he feels passionate. The chosen source or sources’ perspective then becomes his own on all other issues. The sources themselves need to maintain their perspective to keep their audience. A self-reinfocing, echo chamber results.

Health Care, Markets, and Government

Bob Searles’s post got me thinking about health care and the underlying issues. This post is partly a response, but it turned into more of a rant against those who worship at the alter of the free market. In the process, I admit to using some hyperbole to illustrate my points. I do not mean to lump Bob in with these faux free marketeers entirely as his perspective is much more thoughtful and authentic. What I am reacting to is a free market ideology that seems to assume that more government necessarily means less individual liberty and that “government run” by definition is inefficient and inferior to the market.

The motivation to define things as goods vs. rights
Obviously, many things like hamburgers and haircuts are clearly goods (or services). More generally, if something is a right, then government may be needed to protect it (e.g. free speech) or provide it (e.g. national defense). If something can be defined as a good, then perhaps the market can take care of it. Therefore, the more things we can define as goods the less government we will have. If you believe that government is inherently bad, then you would like to define health care as a good, lest we turn it over to government (making it bigger) and lose fundamental political and economic liberties.

Rights are those things which are fundamental, but what’s fundamental?
Which is more important to most people (and to society), the right to carry a gun and spout off their opinions or having health care for their families? I guess you could argue that the right to bare arms and the right to free speech are fundamental to protecting us from the tyranny of government. Tyranny can be evil. I guess you could argue that you would rather be dead (from lack of health care) than imprisoned in a concentration camp. But let’s step back. You don’t have to give up these rights to have universal health care, even single payer. My point is that individual freedoms may not be the be all and end all. Even if we moved to a system of complete socialized medicine and government gets bigger, why does that threaten individual political liberty? That’s just an assumption.

The real motivation of the faux capitalists
Oh, but there’s economic liberty…the right to get paid hundred’s of millions of dollars  to run Home Depot’s stock price into the ground over 10 years (while Lowe’s skyrocketed) and then get paid hundreds of millions more to go away. Just knowing that’s a possibility is so motivating, it’s my reason for living and the idea that, if I were to make that kind of money, the government might take away an extra 10-20% is just more than I can bare. Why that would just kill the economy and anyone’s incentive to work or invest and create jobs. And nobody would want to invent anything any more.

Choosing to make health care a fundamental right
So is health care an inalienable human right? One could argue more so than anything else. But even if it is not, societies can choose to make it make it a fundamental right. I want to live in a society that does. Rights, whether to health care, free speech, or to carry a hand gun are what we, collectively, decide them to be. If you don’t want to be affected by anyone else, go find yourself an island.

Then move to Canada
Oh, but I might have to wait for certain medical procedures that I don’t have to now. Full disclosure: I  have great health insurance provided by my employer and my job is secure. Actually, I am tired of that straw man. Limitations in some areas of the Canadian and British health care systems are cherry picked and constantly cited as examples of why “government run” health care would be so terrible. Even then, those are only two out of many, most of which work quite well. And their citizens are often quite happy with the size of their government and have plenty of personal freedom. Oh, but I forgot, they will never have the ability to throw a $70,000,000 wedding anniversary party.

But how much health care would be a right?
So if health care is a right, the question becomes: How much? What is basic health care? Does it include drugs for chronic diseases? What if it was my fault that I got the disease? Do I have the right to cancer treatments if I am 20 years old? How about if I am 90 years old? Do I have the right to a liver transplant? What if I wasn’t an alcoholic? What if I am willing to pay for it? Do I have the right to plastic surgery if I think I’m not good looking and it’s causing me mental distress? Where do we draw the line? Oh, it’s so complicated, I guess only the market can sort this out. Or perhaps the churches. But what if I am an atheist?

We can figure this out, but not in less time than it takes to choose a puppy
There will need to be lines drawn. We can’t prolong everyone’s life indefinitely with artificial or transplanted organs even if we redistributed all the wealth in the world. We do need a national/societal debate about this. There has to be rationing and lines drawn at various points. While we don’t need to stall, it certainly is going to take a lot longer than selecting a White House dog.

Arguably, there’s a pragmatic reason for universal health care
One could argue that even if health care is not a right, we should, as a society, provide it anyway because it would cost us less to do so when externalities are considered. If the child of an unwed mother does not get proper prenatal and child health care, how much do you suppose that child might cost society if it becomes delinquent or violent. How much will it cost to incarcerate that child as an adult for 5, 10, or 25 years, let alone the damage that child might have caused along the way?

Time to redefine economic scarcity
But even if it did cost us more to have universal health care, in the 21st century, what we think of as scarcity is a myth. There are plenty of resources in the world for everyone to live well with a lot left over for some to benefit from incentive systems that reward them for hard work and responsible behavior. Yes, we do have to be careful about handouts creating dependency. We can figure this out. But I don’t lose sleep about some people intentionally or unintentionally mooching off the rest of us. I am far more outraged by how much the best and brightest were paid billions in bonuses to trash our economy while so many go without anything.

Utopian myth of the free market
The utopia of a free market is a myth. As soon as anyone gets ahead,  they will begin to work with others to protect and expand their position.  A ruling elite will develop and take over the government (as they have in the U.S.). The ruling elite will convince the ignorant masses that the government is their enemy. Because they control the government, but really despise it, they will only use it to their advantage and run the rest of it poorly, proving their point. There will be the illusion that there are two opposing political parties, one promising to protect you from the government, the other promising to protect you from big business. But government and big business are in bed together.

Beware the one-size-fits-all ideologies
Both governments and markets are needed to manage human affairs and resources. There will always be a natural tension between individualism and collectivism, between government and free markets. We have seen what happens when the government completely runs the show (Soviet Union, etc.). Now we have seen what happens when individual economic actors and markets are essentially unregulated. Oh, but that doesn’t really count because we didn’t really have free markets. Well, that’s about as close as you are ever going to get. The problem is that any system is subject to corruption and subversion. If too much power is given to either governments or markets, one will capture the other. A healthy balance is needed. If both political  and economic power are not limited, you will get a ruling elite. It’s complicated and messy and requires periodic corrections when the pendulum swings too far in one direction or the other.