Basic Options for a Better Internet

This is a quick reaction to reading this post. More elaboration is needed about how to reliably execute this, but I decided to strike while the iron is hot.

Storage

The web needs an easy toggle button on all content to determine how long it persists:

Permanent Storage: Once chosen, the associated content is uploaded to a permanent cloud storage location and given a universal link that will never go away and will always persist. The storage system must be designed to enable this permanent retrieval and must have enough backups to guarantee permanent storage and always-on access.

Local Storage: Associated content is saved to the user’s device or other designated personal storage cloud. This latter personal cloud will only be on devices owned by the user, not owned by companies or the government. These devices could exist at remotely rented space, but they and their data would not be owned by the leasing company.

Forget: The data only exists as long as you are running the application/session. Once the session ends, the data is forgotten. For example, a text chat program with this option enabled would hold the chat history only as long as the participants are actively running the session window, then would lose the data as soon as the session ended. No chat record.

Timed Forget: The data exists for a certain period of time after the application/session ends and is then forgotten. Extra options for how to persist the data as remote vs. local could be chosen. Note that the remote option is NOT compatible with the permanent storage system.

Sharing

With these storage options come the sharing options. Inspired by Java’s scope declarations:

Public: The content is available to anyone and links to it may be generated by 3rd parties.

Protected: The content is only available to those who are sent the link directly. The link will not work beyond a single step—no one may forward or otherwise copy the link to a 3rd party.

Private: Content is only available to the originator.

True ID

This system would be greatly facilitated by some kind of universal ID system, where each citizen has one “true” ID account. Other pseudonymous, anonymous, or temporary accounts will still exist.

The success of the above options will rely crucially on interface design, which must connect a user’s choices to some understanding of consequences.  I can also imagine applications that would automatically apply policies to particular types of content based on a user’s presets, so as to avoid having to always go through these options.  Certain conventions and standards could be developed, for example that text chats are by default Forgotten, while corporate or government emails are by default Permanent Storage.  And so on.

Poverty and Accommodation

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Nature of Mass Poverty is the late 1970s with the intention to describe… well, pretty much what the title says. The book analyzes the dynamics of the large-scale, pervasive, mostly rural poverty that has been the lot of most of humankind since agricultural civilization was first established. At the same time, it calls out the economic and policy elites of the modern industrialized countries for losing sight of these dynamics and prescribing useless or harmful remedies for poor countries in the post-World War II era.

Galbraith first distinguishes between two types of poverty: That which afflicts the few in otherwise affluent societies, and that which afflicts all but a few in generally poor societies. His focus is on the latter.

To start, he lists the most common explanations for mass poverty cited by people in rich countries and provides quick counterpoints:

  • Lack natural resources.
    • Counterpoints: Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong, and more. Plenty of successful societies have grown in resource-poor areas. It might even be the case that lack of resources spurs groups to struggle, trade, and innovate to acquire them and could lead to expansion, economic development, and wealth.
  • Inferior choice of economic system. In the case of socialism/communism, there’s too much bureaucracy and no free markets. For capitalism, too much exploitation by predatory elites.
    • Here, Galbraith is mostly addressing the Cold War capitalist vs. communist debate, which was obviously still a going concern in the 1970s. Clearly “inferior economic system” has larger implications, but this is the particular context of the above phrasing.
    • Counterpoints: There is merit to each side’s critique, but they are not identifying the primary factors. While predators can hamper development, there are plenty of countries where the masses have done well while being heavily exploited by predators—the industrialization of Europe mostly took place under such conditions. What the predators do with their spoils probably matters more. Likewise, communism in Eastern Europe did little to change the wealth distribution within that area. Whether a given region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian or German Empires or neither prior to 1914 is a better predictor of affluence than the presence of communist or capitalist systems in the present (1979). The choice of capitalist vs. communist is not a primary factor.
  • Lack capital for development.
    • Counterpoint: True, but these countries lack a surplus to enable savings and capital development in the first place. This argument is a causative loop. Poor countries lack capital, and they lack capital because they are poor countries.
  • Lack educated, trained, and talented people.
    • Counterpoint: Again, there is a problem with causation. Lack of industry and capital means there is little demand for educated, trained, and talented people, few are produced, and the low supply further hampers capital formation and industry growth.
  • Corrupt or bad government.
    • Counterpoint: Causation trap yet again. Lack of wealth is also a cause of poorly functioning government. Poor private sector opportunities lead to public sector predation and corruption. Good government requires administrative talent, a resource which is in short supply in poor countries.
  • Racial and ethnic essentialism.
    • i.e. “group X is naturally industrious, group Y is naturally lazy and stupid.”
    • Counterpoint: These categories shift dramatically over just a few generations and have more to do with the history of a given cultural group and how they are perceived by outsiders. E.g. Swedish immigrants to the US were initially thought to be inherently stupid and lazy, but are now regarded as among the most industrious and intelligent. Similar patterns elsewhere.
  • Warmer climates, especially tropical and subtropical, prevent development due to higher disease burden, more easily available food/resources.
    • Counterpoint: There is a correlation here, but this is unlikely to be a primary driver keeping tropical areas poor. There are tropical areas that have successfully developed (e.g. Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). This will be returned to later.
  • European colonialism enforced backwardness and dependency and has prevented subsequent development.
    • Counterpoint: Colonialism did immense damage to many, many places and people, but this view doesn’t account for the range of its effects. English speaking colonies in the British Empire have done quite well, even those that did not rebel and go independent like the United States. Africa and Latin America were absolutely devastated and only some regions have partially recovered. China was heavily damaged but has since recovered and is on the way to owning the 21st century (this is my observation, not Galbraith’s). Many of the regions that were at the center of colonial administration have since done better than those that were further out or functioned as supply areas. The criticism is correct, but there’s more going on here.
  • Poor countries have bad terms of trade, creating cheap, labor intensive commodities with cheap labor and little incentive to improve or diversify. Rich countries can make more diverse, expensive, and sophisticated commodities, plus have oligopolistic market strengths that poor countries do not.
    • Counterpoint: This is a good description, though again there may be more going on here.

What Causes Poverty?

Galbraith contends that poverty is a strong and stable equilibrium state that cannot be broken by just pushing on a couple of variables. Simple excursions away from this equilibrium trigger restorative forces that push a society back into it. For instance, in a poor country where most people are farming at a subsistence level, an increase in agricultural productivity per acre, in the absence of any other major changes, will result in a population increase that eats up the surplus and restores the equilibrium to subsistence poverty, though at a higher efficiency.

How can poverty be described as efficient? Efficiency is only a simple measure of the effectiveness of a given system’s operation. It says nothing about the system’s end results, the desirability of its methods, or its long term sustainability. It’s one thing to advocate for an efficient court system, another thing entirely to ask for a just legal system. Likewise, no one wants to live in an efficient police state.

Due to a long history of adapting and improvising in the face of hardship, the rural poor are often very efficient in their poverty. Resources and knowledge are used to their limits, but these limits are tight and the equilibrating forces of poverty respond to expanded limits by doing more of the same until society is pushing right up against them again, with virtually no long-term improvement in living conditions.

I call this an efficiency trap. Generation upon generation optimizes and innovates ways to increase yield, to open up new land, or to build better craft pieces. At each point, the newly generated slack in the system goes not toward capital surplus but into increased consumption and increased population, which then uses up all the slack. The society eventually gets to a state where population and land use are maximized. There is no way to go forward, and they cannot go back without famine and catastrophe. They have pushed to the environmental limits of their technology and are now extremely vulnerable to disaster. Once the inevitable disaster happens, the cycle is likely to begin again.

It will be suggested that in nearly all communities there are some people with some surplus for saving. This is so, but the meagerness of capital supply remains a ruling fact. It will also be urged that improvements in technology are possible that require no appreciable investment. These could be less available than is commonly imagined. In October 1953, a young Cornell anthropologist, W. David Hopper, took up residence in the village of Senapur in northern India and for the next fifteen months studied its agricultural economy in intelligent detail. He concluded that, given the absence of investment resources, agricultural technology in the village was at or near the optimum. ‘An observer in Senapur cannot help but be impressed with the way the village uses its physical resources. The age-old techniques have been refined and sharpened by countless years of experience, and each generation seems to have had its experimenters who added a bit here and changed a practice there, and thus improved the community lore.’ p. 53-54

Technical change and social reorganization are not impossible, but they become very difficult. In particular, failure in a poor community carries a much higher risk since there is little or nothing to fall back on. Starvation and death are much more likely results of failed ventures here than in rich countries. Additionally, consumption is a much more pressing need than investment. Since the standard of living is so low and people are consuming near or at subsistence, any new surplus has a tendency to be diverted entirely into consumption and, accordingly, there are no or weak institutional structures to enforce saving and capital accumulation. This leads to quickly decreasing returns from population growth, whereas in rich countries with high levels of capital accumulation and institutional mechanisms to enforce investment (typically corporations or strong government), we find increasing returns to additional population.

Even drastic social changes can often have little effect on the equilibrium. In poor regions with too many people farming too little land, eliminating the landlords will have almost no effect if the surplus they extract per tenant farmer is very small. As Galbraith notes, even if a landlord extracts half the income of a peasant farmer, if that income is already very small and the removal of said landlord will double it, the peasant now has twice a very small income, which remains very small. The marginal utility to the peasant may be high, but the overall effect is still tiny. And if these gains are spread out across a large number of tenants, then the potential surplus is dissipated into marginal consumption gains and restorative forces push toward a slightly higher yet still impoverished equilibrium.

Galbraith speculates that this dynamic is probably more significant than military power in explaining why landlords and predatory classes persist in impoverished rural areas.  Long term benefits from their removal are often minimal, new ones usually pop up and take their place, and its easier to just habituate to the predators as long as they aren’t too harsh.

And this finally brings us to the overriding point of the book: The role of accommodation.

What the rich fail to realize is that both circumstance and motivation are different in poor countries. In rich countries, people are accustomed to increases in income and standard of living and those who try to get more stand some not-negligible chance of actually doing so. There is a realistic expectation of benefits and rewards from effort and an established history of improvement. In poor countries, there is no such tendency and no such history, or at least very little. Struggle with no hope of success is painful, so on average people avoid it and accommodate to their circumstances.

This is another causal loop—poverty destroys hope, and lack of hope secures continued poverty. It is the accommodation and habituation to poverty that is the key factor behind the persistence of poverty. The rural poor have no viable alternative and thus make a very rational choice to resign themselves to their conditions. Breaking this resignation and providing means for escape is the only way to break the equilibrium.

Unfortunately for the more egalitarian-minded such as myself, the means by which this is accomplished require the enrichment of those who are already relatively rich and motivated. Galbraith notes that the risk aversion and hopelessness of the great impoverished masses is such that they are usually the last to try something new. It is a major economic myth that everyone seeks to improve their lot. This is only conditionally true based on circumstances and individual character (and character is very heavily conditional on circumstances anyway). However, a wealthier and progressive minority that does not live at subsistence, can afford to take risks, and is more optimistic about improvement is the most likely to lead the charge in escaping the poverty cycle.

This means that, for tactical purposes, surplus resources should be allocated to an already successful minority. They should not be the perpetual beneficiaries, but are instead used to open and expand an exit point through which more and more of the population may flow into a different, typically industrial, equilibrium. They and the institutions they develop to handle the surplus become the means by which investment is enforced, capital is accumulated, and new things are tried.

Returning to the last few bullets in the list of causes above and reinterpreting through the lens of accommodation:

  • Racial and ethnic essentialism.
    • A long time in unbroken poverty leads to very strong accommodation. Less time, especially broken up with episodes of wealth, weakens accommodation. The “poor and lazy” from an impoverished accommodating area suddenly become “wealthy and industrious” within a generation when moved into a non-accommodating culture, provided said culture does not hold them back. We attribute to ethnic character what is in fact due to history and circumstance.
  • Warmer climates, especially tropical and subtropical, prevent development due to higher disease burden, more readily available food.
    • Hot, tropical areas probably allow for accommodation to a poverty equilibrium at lower levels of income. There is less need to (e.g.) prepare for a long winter through food storage, clothes, and strong shelters. Resources needed for basic subsistence are typically easier to acquire. And yes, disease burden is higher.
  • European colonialism enforced backwardness and dependency, has prevented subsequent development.
    • This misses some details in that colonialism broke accommodation in some of the areas that it touched. It did so in a very violent and terrible fashion that should be condemned and never repeated, but the fact remains that it had highly variable long term effects, some of which could be described as beneficial.
  • Poor countries have bad terms of trade, creating cheap, labor intensive commodities with cheap labor with little incentive to improve. Rich countries can make more diverse, expensive commodities that can be technologically improved, plus have oligopolistic strengths that poor countries do not.
    • This remains a good description, but more food for thought: Markets don’t work well in places trapped in a poverty equilibrium. The poor cannot afford to withdraw production when prices are low because doing so would cause disaster—they have nothing else to sell and no surplus to fall back on. They must accept whatever prices are available to avoid starvation and death. Market supply is therefore highly inelastic to price in such situations. The poor must take what they can get, and that is typically whatever the rich deign to give them.
    • Improving the terms of trade by raising export prices from poor countries would actually only help the producers of those same goods in the rich countries. The real problem is that the poor have so little to trade in the first place and cannot take advantage of technical advances and oligopolistic concentration of market power like the rich.
    • I would note that there are multiple types of markets and that Galbraith’s observation seems only applicable to the modern, state-constructed, quasi-competitive national markets that have come to typify present day industrial civilization. Traditional village/town markets or long-distance trading markets can still function in poverty and have likely done so since our ancestors first exchanged sea shells for fresh fish. Properly functioning “free” markets require a prosperous and reasonably egalitarian society. They can operate in conditions of general poverty, but are inherently exploitative in such situations and lose the “free” aspect.

Finally, Galbraith notes that rich countries with large migrant populations often become prosperous because they are full of people who rejected accommodation to circumstances and moved. These countries have self-selected for the most motivated, risk taking migrants. I believe this is especially true in the case of dangerous migration, such as the US/Mexico border or crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. This is not to say that migration should be dangerous, only that our conception of immigrants who make those crossings is so completely wrong-headed.

And poverty may be alleviated through migration. Given an efficiently poor and crowded rural area and an opportunity for migration to a richer and affluent region, the most motivated and anti-accommodation will leave. This obviously benefits them and the richer region. At the same time, it opens up land and resources in the poor region and creates the opportunity to accumulate surplus and try something new. Or not, as there’s no guarantee the opportunity will be seized.

It’s likely that migration out from Europe in the 18th through 20th centuries not only benefited the US and other parts of the world, but was probably a major factor in breaking the poverty equilibrium in Europe itself.

The Poor Response of the Rich

Galbraith has an entire chapter devoted to the ways in which the rich countries, especially since the close of World War II, have forgotten what it was like to be poor and have either vilified impoverished peoples or attempted solutions that were destined to fail from the start, many of which have made things worse. In particular, he notes that the entire foreign aid structure that arose between 1950 and 1965, and which we still largely live with today, is intellectually bankrupt and focused on fitting problems into solutions rather than the other, saner way around.

This happened because action to reconstruct devastated areas and to combat global poverty was simply deemed necessary and urgent after World War II. It was partly motivated by the domestic success of the New Deal, the spectacular accomplishments of the wartime full-mobilization economy, and the general progressive industrial outlook of the US at the time, but also partly by fear that if the poor countries were not helped by capitalists they would fall prey to communists. These two factors brought both liberals and conservatives to a general consensus that action should be taken to alleviate poverty everywhere for both humanitarian and strategic military reasons, but there was no clear understanding of the causes of poverty. In the absence of understanding, the intellectual establishments of the developed world looked at what actions they could (and wanted to) take and made the causes fit them. Certain causes, regardless of merit, could not be entertained for ideological reasons.  Capitalist nations couldn’t advocate the removal of predatory landlords and capitalists, even in cases where it would make sense.  And admitting that climate could be an important factor was close to admitting that nothing could be done. Something had to be done, even if it meant shoving square pegs into round holes.

Below is a list of what Galbraith claims (accurately, in my view) are the points of major agreement by orthodox economists on how rich countries improve. The list relies on the assumption that people naturally strive for success and improvement, but, as discussed above, that assumption is contingent on circumstance and is wrong for the majority of people living in mass poverty societies. These “pieces” therefore do not operate as in rich countries.

  • Savings over current consumption to purchase capital.
  • A progressive technology to embody or make use of the capital.
  • A political and social system that allows and encourages the individual to seek his or her own betterment.
  • A regulation of the whole process, in the main by the market.
  • Government intervention to maintain a level of aggregate demand that would employ all or nearly all of the available labor force and maintain pressure for a continuing expansion of plant capacity.

The “traditional” causes that the nascent development industry settled on were insufficient capital and backward technology, because these were resources that the rich countries could most easily provide. Push on these two variables and things would change. Except that poverty is an equilibrium, so there was natural resistance and restorative motion when these variables were moved. Many careers were made, lots of money was spent, yet little was accomplished, much energy was wasted, and the whole endeavor has been characterized by frustration and failure.  And it continues to fail today.

Finally, Galbraith notes that another criticism from the rich is that poor countries have focused too much on industrial development and employment when their “strengths” lie in agriculture. Industrialization is regarded as less wholesome and healthy for them. I think Galbraith’s reply is an appropriate response:

In the prescription for human betterment, there is no greater constant than the belief that poor people are better off if they remain very poor but in fresh air. p.98

Better Policy Ideas

Galbraith advocates that to combat poverty we must both enlarge the pool of non-accommodating people and facilitate escape.

To enlarge the pool, there are typically two methods: Trauma and education. Trauma has historically taken the form of eviction, land closures, genocide, pogroms, and war. It is inhumane and no civilized society should consider it as policy. Education, especially universal and compulsory education, is much better. It should focus on general intellectual development and not on training for narrow technical uses. The idea is to motivate some fraction of the population and equip them with useful intellectual talents to act on their motives, not to train them in narrow disciplinary methods. Exposure to media and travel outside their home area can also help motivate people.

Escape can be either out to another culture (migration, either foreign or to a domestic city) or within by freeing up land and resources in the countryside. Sometimes this just shifts poverty from the countryside to the cities, but Galbraith notes that urban poverty is “a less stable and intractable form of deprivation.” Cities at least have more opportunities and a different mode of life that makes it easier to pull people out of poverty than dispersed rural farmers.

Industrialization is also vital in facilitating escape, for it provides a city-based alternative activity to agricultural life. I’d also add that many industrial processes tend to feature positive returns to scale whereas most agriculture does not, and this further facilitates and accelerates escape.

Galbraith cautions that most poor countries seeking to escape poverty should avoid starting out as socialist, for socialism is a system most suited for the already wealthy and affluent. Socialism makes a very large claim on a very scarce resource in poor countries—administrative talent. Affluent countries have large reserves of administrative talent that can be used to correct and displace market mechanisms. Poor countries simply do not. The exception that proves the rule is China, which went communist while still a very poor agrarian country. However, China has a long history of sophisticated government administration and organization that continues through the present day, providing it with a talent pool not normally present in other poor countries. This is a major factor for its success and recent phenomenal growth, whereas nearly every other poor country that adopted socialism/communism at the outset of its conversion to industrial affluence has done poorly.

Instead, poor countries should look to markets and entrepreneurs to start them on the path to growth, not because they are good solutions but because they are usually the only functional solutions. They inflict much pain, are erratic, and are often morally indefensible, but their one advantage is that they are able to economize on scarce talent. Governments still play an important role however, and Galbraith enumerates their responsibilities as:

(1) There must be adequate security for people against physical threat to their property, against expropriation or predacious taxation. (2) There must be a basic and reliable system of roads, ports, electric power supply, and communications. (3) There must be a supply of capital—in practice, much of it under public auspices from outside the country—for investment by private and public borrowers, and an intelligent and honest organization for receiving and passing on loans. (4) There probably need to be some publicly sponsored industries—pilot-fish industries that, much argument to the contrary, have the peculiar merit of bringing others in their wake. p.115

Once it has produced a certain minimum level of wealth and, as a consequence, a certain minimum level of talent and administrative ability in the general population, a country can begin shifting some of its operations to more stable oligopolistic markets and socialist programs.

Additional Thoughts

Increasing returns. Galbraith notes that there is a difference between rich and poor areas in their relationship to increased population. The rich seem to gain increasing returns to population growth through enforced savings, while the poor have decreasing returns due to surpluses flowing to consumption. This compliments quite nicely the position advocated by Erik Reinert and The Other Canon. They focus on increasing returns activities, such as manufacturing, as the basis for leaving poverty. Galbraith reminds us that we shouldn’t forget the need for organizations that force investment of surplus and defer consumption. I’m pretty sure this is included in analyses by The Other Canon, but it’s worth remembering that organization to divert investment into increasing returns activities is needed, and that this converts population growth from a drain into a benefit provided that we’re not running into environmental limits. Note that institutions to enforce savings are pretty likely to be anti-democratic, especially in the early stages when surpluses are small and the marginal benefits to individuals from increased consumption are large.

An example of accommodation in the US. Jane Jacobs had a great example in one of her books that was used to illustrate how dark ages and “forgetting” occur, but which also works with the accommodation framework. I’m going purely off memory here, but the overall picture should be accurate: A group of immigrants from England came to the US and settled somewhere in the foothills of Appalachia in the late 1700s, then quickly lost contact with most major markets in the colonies/US. Occasional traders came through, but that was about it. Over the generations they had to make do with less and less, and trades and skills were slowly lost. They were re-contacted by the US Federal government during the New Deal as part of one of its rural poverty assistance programs. The villagers were discovered to be within one generation of forgetting how to make even such simple artifacts as candles and baskets (only two elderly people in town retained this knowledge). The villagers wanted to build a new church and one of the government representatives on site suggested that they use some large stones in a nearby creek to build a beautiful entry archway. The villagers insisted that you couldn’t use stones that large for construction, and that it was impossible to even make stone archways as the representative suggested. This, Jacobs pointed out, was coming from the descendants of some of the world’s pre-eminent stone cathedral and castle builders who had made archways and stone structures out of much larger and heavier materials for many centuries. Not only had the skill to construct in this manner been lost, but knowledge that it was even possible had been lost.

This is accommodation, not in the sense that an individual makes a conscious decision to resign himself to a particular way of life, but in the sense of a community collectively, over generations, habituating itself to doing without. If there is no opportunity to do something, and you’re facing grinding poverty without relief, the training to do it is first ceased. Then the knowledge is forgotten, for it has been useless for too long. Approaching this from a systems perspective, this narrows the community’s knowledge base and thereby reduces the possible aspirations of its members, which is another way of reducing the possibility of hope and struggle in the face of relentless poverty.

Accommodation levels and environmental limits. Galbraith notes that accommodation is stronger at lower levels because the risk from failure increases as you fall closer to subsistence. But accommodation can happen at any level if people (or whole societies) stop dynamic, wealth generating processes. And I’d guess that stopping at a high level may be inadvisable due to much greater problems with environmental sustainability, but this is a concern at any level, from ancient Easter Island to our currently extant industrial civilization. Environmental limits seem to be encountered when a society optimizes their existing system without either changing in such a way that old limits no longer apply or so that old limits are expanded out further. Constraints can be designed around, but if this is not done they will hit hard. Impoverished civilizations can hit limits just as readily as our current global industrial civilization. It can happen at any level, so we must continue to change or risk collapse.

Laissez-faire myopia. The error of libertarians and other laissez-faire advocates is to mistake the initial “bootstraps and market pain” phase of affluence generation for the entire process, when in fact it is only the first step. I would guess that failure to move past this results in, at best, a country of both great wealth and great poverty. The US has waffled back and forth between this vision and a more socialist/distributive vision, so it has variously exhibited the features of both. Today, with libertarian-style beliefs ascendant along with a high level of corporate wealth concentration, we find an increasingly divided class structure and high concentrations of wealth in corporate organizations owned by the elite. To paraphrase a quote that I cannot properly remember, “The US is the first third world country.”

Accommodation whiplash in the poor pockets of rich countries. If motivating people to reject accommodation without providing a means for escape simply causes needless frustration and despair, then those who are poor or otherwise blocked from progress in “aspirational” rich societies will suffer great psychological anguish, even if their relative level of material affluence is higher than subsistence farmers in an impoverished society. Given the recent stagnation and wealth disparity in the US, could this be a cause of rising depression and mental illness? This would be especially acute in the US since our culture has such strong “rags to riches” and “land of opportunity” myths yet does less for its poor than just about any other developed country. The effect on poor minorities trapped within the larger society (e.g. African Americans stuck in ghettos) must be horrendous. It may also be possible that these effects could feed into myths that more primitive agricultural/village life would make us less miserable, when in fact the problem is that we are systemically trapping people in relative poverty while hammering them on all sides with propaganda that tells them that they’re lazy, stupid, freeloading leeches because there’s no other way they could still be poor when so many are rich.  Compared to that, living in a poor village sounds nice, but I’d prefer instead that we make everyone affluent and stop abusing people.

Risk minimization in the poor versus the destitute. I can’t help but wonder if it’s not the absolute poorest who are the last to seek help, but only the poorest who still have something left to lose—those who are strongly enmeshed in the economic and social system that perpetuates poverty but still have ties to land, family, church, and some minimum local status. These are then the people who are most trapped, those who still have something to lose but who are so poor that they cannot risk change. But the landless, the homeless, the vagrants and wanderers have nothing but their lives and the lives of their families to lose (if they even have families). It seems like they would have an entirely different appraisal of risk, where going to work in degrading factories, joining the army, or emigrating overseas would look appealing if these simply provided food and shelter.

This puts the land clearances and other such actions during the European Industrial Revolution into a different light, namely that state violence inflicted trauma that kicked stable yet poor peasants out of their individual minimal risk equilibria and led to such deprivation that they were willing to accept much changed circumstances to continue living.  This provided a ready and cheap labor pool for early industrialization.

Marxism from an accommodation perspective. There are two of the commonly cited problems with Marxism: Requiring a vanguard of intellectuals to awaken the proletariat, and being ineffective in most non-industrial states. In the former, a minority of more affluent and educated individuals rejects accommodation to the existing order and forms the vanguard. They are used as a lever to break the accommodation of the urban poor who, as noted above, are more readily pliable than the dispersed rural poor (so the job is easier in urbanized, industrialized areas). This entire dynamic fits neatly into Galbraith’s thoughts on how to pull the impoverished masses out of their situation.

In agricultural societies, not only are the peasant farmers harder to “awaken,” but the vanguard is likely to be smaller due to the generally lower education and administrative talents of the population. The typical remedy of removing the landlords only works if the resulting surplus is diverted from consumption to investment. The latter is a difficult maneuver for an ostensibly populist, egalitarian re-distribution movement and is susceptible to Animal Farm-style results. Finally, lack of sufficient industrial centers means that there is nowhere for internal migrants to go and engage in non-poverty equilibrium activities. More agriculture doesn’t break the cycle. If foreign migration is cut off or not of sufficient volume to free up domestic surplus, then strategies of forced internal relocation and redistribution of ownership (historically under the guise of collectivization, gulags, and forcing people into cities) may be able to break the equilibrium. Sufficiently bad famines, such as that caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, could potentially contribute to emptying enough of the countryside. But these are all terrible.

The US illegal immigration debate is incoherent. Migration naturally selects for those who are most willing to take risks and reject their current circumstances. These are probably the most beneficial people to accept as immigrants, since they are quite motivated to change and have a better life. This puts US illegal immigration politics into a rather absurd light (which isn’t that hard to do, I suppose). The Republicans oppose immigration, want tighter border controls, and many want to send immigrants back home. On the one hand, their myth of political economy says we need a country of self-starters, entrepreneurs and diligent, hard workers who are motivated to make life better. On the other hand, their immigration stance says that people who are motivated to cross an extremely dangerous desert and leave their homes, family, and friends behind for a better life in a country that is increasingly hostile to their very existence are in fact not the kind of people they just said they want to make the country strong.

Application at different scales. A great deal of the above discussion that contrasts rich versus poor countries and their different motivations and circumstances seems to be applicable to rich and poor regions within a country, and some can be translated into differences in outlook between rich and poor individuals as well.

Innovating right into a brick wall. The quote about the Indian village of Senapur, where agricultural technology was being used at or near maximum efficiency, also dispels a common myth in the rich countries—namely, that poor agricultural regions are completely stagnant. In any given population, there are always going to be those who tinker, who observe and work to improve the tools and methods at their disposal. The problem that poor rural populations face is that this tinkering, while helpful, is stuck within the equilibrium of poverty.  There aren’t resources for major changes and, after many generations of optimization, cumulative improvements are likely to bring an entire society right up against its environmental limits. There is an obvious parallel here with out current industrial civilization running up against environmental limits, but we are at least out of the poverty equilibrium and have the tools to solve our problems. It’s just not clear that we intend to solve them.

Accommodation, the Marshall Plan, and Germany. Finally, I leave you with an extended quote from Galbraith regarding the reconstruction of West Germany after World War II. I include it because, having been raised and educated in the US, I was taught that the Marshall Plan had magnanimously and almost single-handedly lifted Europe out of post-war chaos and set it back on its feet. This may have been true in some areas, but Galbraith had a rather different perspective—and he was there:

In the summer and autumn of 1950, a joint American-German commission was constituted to study the problems of refugees in West Germany and to recommend amelioration. The commission was headed by the late Hans Christian Sonne, a liberal businessman and banker of wide-ranging public interests. I was appointed a member. We began meetings in Germany in the autumn of 1950 in the rather tense months following the outbreak of the Korean War.

In the aftermath of World War II, mostly in 1945 and 1946, upwards of 8 million person came to, or were left stranded in, West Germany. Included were those who had come from or failed to return to East Germany, those expelled from the areas transferred to Poland and the Soviet Union, those expelled from the Sudetenland and the other Volksdeutschen communities in Eastern Europe. All seemed committed to a life of despair in their new and often inhospitable land, which also had more than its own share of economic problems. It was this seemingly mass consignment to poverty that had led to the forming of the commission.

For solving the problem of the refugees and other displaced persons, the commission could not have been more acutely timed. The problem was on the point of solving itself. Their previous accommodation shattered, the refugees had set about reestablishing themselves with energy and resourcefulness—and with a clear image in mind of the mode of life to which they had previously accommodated. The special problem of housing apart, most were well on their way. Workers from Silesia were at work in the mills and mines of the Ruhr. The small business craftsmen from Czechoslovakia were again in business in Bavaria and were again living in accustomed fashion, or would be when homes were built. Similarly, farm hands and white-collar workers, as also members of the professions. The only large group that had not achieved its former living standard or seemed unlikely to do so were those whose living had derived from traditional or feudal landholdings, an advantage which could not easily be duplicated in West Germany. And even here there was some restorative action. Those men who had lost land were more likely than the average to know or find a landed widow whose husband had been lost in the slaughter.

One day at a hearing in the Ruhr, a German official, having spoken at length on the burden of the refugees on the West German economy, was being questioned by members of the commission. He was asked (it was my query) if it would not be a greater misfortune for Germany were the refugees to be sent home. He reflected and eventually agreed that great as was the disaster of their arrival, this would be worse. In the next years and with no visible effect from the work of our commission, the refugee problem in Germany dwindled to a not negligible concern for the old and those isolated in rural areas of Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen. In a few more years the word refugee ceased to be heard.

The German lesson affirmed that accommodation is a comprehensive thing. The new arrivals did not spare themselves until they had restored the living standards to which, previously, they had accommodated. Having reached that level, the great majority were, one may, I believe, assume, content.

The further lesson concerned their contribution to German recovery. The arrival, amidst its desolation, of millions of men and women determined to recover their previous way of life was a factor of unique power in German rehabilitation. What men of orthodox and sometimes simple mind attributed exclusively to currency reform, the Marshall Plan, the unique economic wisdom of Ludwig Erhard, must obviously be shared, in very generous measure, with this extraordinary human endowment, which so many at the time saw only as a burden. p.82 – 84

My take away from the above quote is that if we want people to be industrious and hard working, we must make them affluent, give them independence, and support their work. They will then work to maintain their standard of living. This posits that an upward ratcheting basic income with continual gains in material wealth, leisure time, and service provision is what will lead to bright, productive, and (hopefully) happier people. Our current societal plan is to “help” the poor by removing wealth, vilifying leisure, and reducing services to spur them toward self-improvement and independence. Instead, it accommodates the poor to lower and lower standards of living, which moves them further and further away from the ideal they are supposed to approach. If you want people to act and be affluent, you cannot do so by making them poor.

Incentives for Decline

Consider two worlds:

In World 1, the people who run companies have their annual pay tied heavily to their company’s stock price and there are low taxes on capital gains and low marginal taxes on high incomes.  The natural incentive is for an executive to come in, do whatever is needed to pump up the stock price in the short run, reap massive bonuses, pay dividends to shareholders to keep them happy and continue to keep the price up, and then bail out before anything bad happens.  This is like giving someone a golden ticket that says “do this for three years of your life and you’ll never have to work again, plus you’ll be a ‘made man’ in a circle of increasingly wealthy and powerful capital owners.”  Who cares if the company is still around in 10 years or if it still makes anything useful as long as you and your new friends have already made out?  Rinse and repeat for decades and you have an increasingly unhealthy private sector that must continually increase leverage, off-shore or de-unionize labor, and consolidate operations in order to squeeze more profit out of the next cycle.  These incentives lead to decline.

In World 2, the people who run companies receive a standard pay rate with little or no bonus and little or no stock exposure.  There are high taxes on capital gains and high marginal taxes on large incomes, plus executives will have to retire on the same plan as their employees–something like a fixed rate pension.  The natural incentive for these executives is to make sure that the company will still be around when they retire and that it will remain solvent throughout their retirement.  Without the golden ticket, they must plan for the long term.

It’s simple:  If you tell someone that they can be set for life with just a few years’ worth of work by engaging in systemically harmful and unethical behavior, many people will take the opportunity.  Especially if their peers are all doing it.  If you deny them this possibility and tie their future livelihood to that of the company and its workers below them, they will have to care about its continued survival and health.

We now live in World 1.  If we want some form of actually working capitalism, we have to go back to World 2.  Or forward to World 2–I’m not clear that we ever truly lived there before, though we may have been kind of close in the 1950s and 1960s.

The easiest route to fix things is to hike taxes on the rich and introduce tariffs to “on-shore” labor again.  Another way is to quietly devalue all that stock by supporting people from the bottom up through something like a basic income scheme–create a solid base layer to the economy that no longer needs to be subjected to the Game of Capitals and the whole thing might just deflate.  A basic income changes the dynamic from one where people must choose to either work or die to a regime where companies must either attract workers or die.

This post inspired by the article at this link.

A similar point about executive compensation has been made repeatedly over many years by Ian Welsh and others.

Title Change

“Intellectual Toolkit” sounded a bit pretentious, so I’ve changed the blog name.  I’ve changed the name of the computer game I’m developing about four times, so I suspect I just have trouble sticking with names…  Maybe this name will stick.  It’s at least honest and direct.

It’s also been about one year since I first started this blog and I haven’t written nearly as much as I had hoped.  I have about 30 or more draft essays sitting on my computer, ranging from “nearly complete and revised post” to “I had two ideas that I scribbled down real quick.”  If I ever have a sudden fit of inspiration, expect to see a lot of posts in rapid succession as I finish those up.

In the meantime, I’m currently having all my spare hours sucked away by a computer game and am feeling pretty lazy lately–but that’s a good thing compared to previously high levels of stress and anxiety.  Hopefully I’ll get writing and working on other projects by the start of May.

Yuppie Traps

We recently ate lunch in an area that I dubbed a “Yuppie Trap,” located on the West side of the intersection of Strawberry Lane and Gallows Road in Fairfax, VA.  The satellite image at that Google Maps link doesn’t really do it justice.  While sitting in the restaurant, looking out the window and people watching, I had a gut feeling that something was different here, something distinguished this location from a typical suburb or urban development.  My wife and I tried to tease out a more conscious explanation, so here goes.

The Yuppie Trap is an alien block of moderate to high density urban life set down in an otherwise low density sprawling suburb.  It’s designed to pull young urban professionals out of the city by replicating a patch of the city in the suburbs.  It’s a translation of Boomer-style suburban sprawl into the Millennial demographic.  I’m generally a fan of urban concentration for the environmental, social, and technological benefits that come with it, but I have to admit I had some misgivings about this Trap.

To explain them, we came up with this notion of a continuum to represent the patterns of settlement and power that much of the US population lives within.  On one side you find what could be called the traditional urban neighborhood, one where the residents, owners, and workers all tend to overlap.  This is the neighborhood of the family owned bookstore or restaurant, or the small production shop.  The capital tends to be local.

Past this you get the suburban sprawl model, where tracts of lower density housing are developed and more concentrated services (chains, big box stores, widely spread factories, etc.) are deployed for them, often in malls.  This model decouples ownership from the residents and has a tendency to also decouple labor as well, with this latter tendency being highly dependent on the wages paid at local jobs vs. the average cost of living in the neighborhood.  This model has flowed inwards to some city centers after having established itself on the periphery. But even in this model, the stores, services, factories, etc. tend to be positioned to take advantage of existing neighborhoods and communities.

The residents are still the demographic being served in the above types of development.  They are still the anchor.

As this model is developed further, it eventually passes a threshold where the community being serviced by development is no longer the households and residents but instead becomes the businesses.  The extreme case of such development is well documented and has historically been called a company town, where every business and every home is developed primarily in service to the needs of a company.  The whole town is built to generate profits for the company.

We decided that the Yuppie Trap we observed is somewhere past the above-mentioned threshold but not quite out at company town status.  The Trap had a variety of upper-middle end businesses:  Boutique shops, gourmet restaurants, cafes, a movie theater, and even a few big anchor stores to round things out.  But the apartments and condos were built to provide income for these stores.  The business proposition was not to build stores and service an existing community.  It was to build stores and import residents (and, more importantly, their incomes).  This model fully decouples owners, residents, and workers while maintaining a “free market” atmosphere that company towns cannot.  In an established urban setting, such a development would be called gentrification and would replace an existing community with a new one in the name of commercial profits.  The alien feeling that I had was probably because I’d never seen “green field” gentrification before.

In this Yuppie Trap, the people are now the imported products that drive the profitability of a consumer goods and service complex.

 

PS:  There is more complexity involved here.  I’ve left out the incentives local and city governments have to generate tax revenue through this process and have also completely avoided discussing home builders and developers themselves in favor of concentrating on the businesses that come to be established within and near their developments.  I’m not sure there’s much to explore on that which isn’t already widely known, but I’ll think on it for a while.

Book Report: Economics and World History, Myths and Paradoxes

I’m a little more than halfway through Paul Bairoch’s Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes. I wanted to organize his major findings on the history of industrialization into two sets and put them together to draw out some larger observations.

In the discussion below, “developed” = industrialized, as in Europe, Russia, US, Canada, Japan (at least from the late 1800s on), and Australia. “Third World” includes all other countries up until the late 20th century. By the end of the 20th, China, Brazil, India, South Korea, and Singapore all move out of this category to varying degrees.

Set one: The history of Western industrialization

  1. Britain was the first to industrialize and had a nearly 150 year head start on most of Continental Europe by the early 1800s.
  2. Nearly all industrializing countries developed under strong protectionist measures, though the level of protectionism varied over time and location. A few small nations filled free trade niches.
  3. A strategy to maximize gains from development is for the leading industrial power to switch from protectionism to free trade and encourage its less developed competitors to adopt free trade as well.
  4. Britain’s enormous head start led it to push for free trade in Europe by the 1800s. It succeeded for a brief window from 1860 – 1880, but other Continental powers eventually went back to more effective protectionism.
  5. This free trade period is coincident with an economic depression in Europe, though causation is not completely clear.
  6. The US consistently had very high tariffs on imports, generally the highest of all developed countries, right up until the end of WWII. It switched to free trade in the post-war era in order to maximize gains from its position as “leading industrial power,” much like Britain in the pre-war era.
  7. Historically, the US tended to grow fastest when it had higher tariffs and its competitors engaged in free trade.
  8. Industrialization among the Western developed countries was achieved largely with materials and energy from the developed countries. Some numbers are warranted:

“Therefore, on the eve of World War I when the developed world already had a volume of per capita manufacturing production some seven to nine times higher than that of the world in 1750, 98% of metal ores used by the developed countries came from the developed world; 80% of its textile fibers; and, as we have seen, over 100% of its energy [due to next exports to the Third World]. In terms of the volume of the rest of raw materials (such as those used in glass, cement, paper, and clay industries), the degree of local autonomy was over 99%.

…As a very approximate estimate of the self-sufficiency of the developed countries during the 1800 – 1913 period I would suggest 96 – 102% (the upper figure implying some room for export).”

  1. Enormous imports of raw materials from Third World countries into developed countries is a post-WWII phenomenon in all but a handful of cases.
  2. Europe was likely just as poor as the Third World when it began to industrialize. It had little or no inherent advantage in resources.
  3. Colonialism was made possible by the Industrial Revolution, not the other way around.
  4. Colonial empires tended to grow slower than other developed nations, probably because they diverted more resources to administration, the military, and trade with less developed areas.

Set two: Impacts on the Third World

  1. The Third World had free trade imposed on it by the developed world powers and was not allowed to protect its markets from imported goods. In a few cases (e.g. the Ottoman Empire), free markets were already-existing state policy, and these polities still tended to do poorly.
  2. Up until 1938, the total volume of production exported by developed countries to Third World markets was approximately 1.3 – 1.7% of total developed world production, with Britain as an extreme outlier at 4 – 6%. If measured as a fraction of total exports, the average was around 17%. Half of this (9%) was exports from Britain to its colonies, the remaining half was from all other developed nations combined.
  3. The effects of just a few percentage points of total production being exported to a forcibly non-protectionist Third World were devastating. A tiny portion of a vast market is capable of destroying a vast portion of a tiny market.
  4. Subsequent deindustrialization of the Third World resulted in a loss of roughly 70% of its total industrial capacity from 1750 to 1913. More remote regions, especially in China, “only” suffered about a 40% loss, while others lost upwards of 95%.
  5. Exportation of cash crops from the Third World to developed countries increased greatly while deindustrialization took place, leading to poorer land for food crops, export of profits (foreign-owned plantations backed by militaries), and loss of political rights as local and foreign elites sought to profit.
  6. Colonization brought immense population growth in some Third World areas, but concomitant industrialization to support this population was not allowed to happen.
  7. The combination of forcibly open markets, deindustrialization, intensified cash crop exports, and large population growth essentially destroyed the welfare of the Third World. Standards of living in these countries in 1950 were lower on average than in 1800. It is only in recent years, with the ascension of China, Brazil, South Korea, India, and others, that living standards have begun to catch up a little.

Observations

Bairoch himself notes that what happened to the Third World wasn’t necessary, not even on “greater good” utilitarian grounds. There was no greater good to the devastation. On the one hand, it is a relief that industrialization can occur without necessitating the exploitation of an enormous hinterland for resources. On the other, we see the horror of what can happen when more technologically advanced and organized societies exert just a small portion of their energies toward exploiting their weaker neighbors.

The Third World absorbed only a very minor portion of the developed world’s total output but was conquered and economically destroyed by it. It’s exposure to only a small fraction of developed world markets did this, and it was kept from adapting by the owners of those same markets. The developed world was mostly self-sufficient up until the two world wars. Forays into the Third World were for political aggrandizement, power politics, and the enrichment of a few countries (*cough* Britain *cough*) and a few well-connected sectors within those countries.

This provides some new perspective on the Native American genocide in North America as well. If I may borrow from Jared Diamond, in places without exposure to the germs of Europe and without the same level of urbanization to breed their own “supergerms,” plague was the first and major impact. This was then followed up by direct military confrontation and displacement of the weakened and reduced populations. It’s easier to justify the confiscation of an entire continent if there aren’t so many people living there to protest in the first place. Germs paved the way for aggressive military expansion and eventually complete replacement.

In parts of the globe that already had some contact with Europe and had a long tradition of dense settlements, plagues had a smaller effect but economic imperialism enforced by overwhelming military superiority carried the day. The destruction of these other regions still only required a small fraction of the developed world elite to want to turn Third World societies into their own private cash cows and playgrounds (e.g. the Belgian Congo). However, minus the biological warfare capability of Europe that presented itself in North America, the populations in these other regions largely survived even if the more sophisticated portions of their political economies were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Bairoch’s research shows that industrialization occurred thanks to protectionist policies in most countries, and that free trade is typically used by more industrialized countries to exploit less industrialized ones. More advanced countries typically produce more and better goods, so removing import barriers in other countries allows their superior products to beat local products and their superior numbers to flood the market. However, superior free trade countries are themselves making a trade-off, as once they “win” in some subset of foreign markets they end up with high profits but low motivation to improve. They can become complacent monopolists and slowly lose their edge over other countries that have not opened up to them and which have been actively catching up.

That is not to say that free trade must always used in this manner, as relatively equal countries could probably engage in it and not suffer. Countries such as the Netherlands did well under free trade regimes, but they are small and fill more of a niche role in the global economy. Even Britain, the champion of free trade in the 1800s, benefited from protectionist policies for well over a century prior. To borrow from Erik Reinert and The Other Canon, trading partners should be as equal as possible, and any trade between more advanced and less advanced areas must be performed very carefully or not at all.

I also can’t help but think that the Third World as portrayed by Bairoch has many parallels to Jane Jacobs’ observation about what happens when city capital, markets, etc. reach out into less developed supply regions unequally. Jacobs theorizes that there are a handful of economic forces that cities exert on their rural hinterlands. When in balance, this hinterland becomes absorbed into a larger “city region” and prospers. When unbalanced, when only a few of these forces function correctly or at the right time, the hinterland is impoverished, depopulated, or otherwise warped and the city simply expropriates from it rather than absorb it. While it wasn’t necessary for the developed countries to interact with the Third World as they did, they seem to have exhibited similar dynamics. Since cities are where manufacturing and technological development happens, one could recast the developed nations as alliances of cities under larger political banners, reaching out into the global hinterlands. But I suspect that much of this outreach was promoted not by the cities themselves but by the larger state political apparatus and high-level industrial elites, leading to forced and premature interactions characterized by exploitation and power-seeking rather than mutual trade, and ending in warped economies and societies around the world.

This book was written in 1993, and its curious to note that China hardly rates a mention in the present tense. It has, by page 111, thus far only been referenced in the colonial period and further back. This is a clear reminder that in only the last 20 years (roughly 1995 – 2015), China has gone from “economically depressed Third World country that might be on a bit of an upswing” to “second largest economy on the planet and rapidly gaining on the US.” The time to industrialize, even for a country of 1 billion people, has shrunk from centuries to a few decades. Industrialization is a self-reinforcing process—the more capacity to produce that is out there, the faster capacity to produce can be developed. It is a problem with a known solution set, though it does give rise to further problems that are remain unsolved.

Finally, the post WWII period saw an increase in the exploitation of resources in the Third World by the developed world, with some moderation starting in the 1980s. I don’t mean to downplay the tragedies and horrors of the colonial period from 1750 to 1950, but it appears that in terms of control and exploitation of foreign resources, the developed world must be worse today than it was at the height of imperialism. Perhaps WWII created a system of international bodies that replaced direct state/empire ownership and allowed the people of the developed regions to increase the use of corporate or indirect ownership and exploitation. This may be related to the trend, since the late 1960s in the US at least, of abrogating political power to distribute wealth to “the market” as a means to justify unpalatable policies via impersonal “market forces.” From the point of view of global elites, it’s more efficient for people to believe in the power of markets, that the world just works a certain way, instead of having them believe it’s forced on them by overt state power backed by wealthy and well-connected individuals.

In the final analysis, the post-WWII period has been dominated by a free-trade advocating, hugely militarized superpower that oversees an international system of extraction that exceeds the colonial period in volume if not in brutality. This superpower advocates freedom, democracy, human rights, and development, while perched atop a system that actively suppresses them.

The net loss to human developmental potential was bad enough from 1750 – 1950. Since then, it has been staggering.

Death Is a Disease

The one that takes us all in the end, and one which we remain strangely hesitant to actually cure.  There are so many other diseases that we all agree should be cured and prevented, such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and various afflictions of the circulatory, digestive, nervous systems and more.  The entire point of trying to cure these diseases is so that we can all live better and longer lives.

Why do we stop short of advocating a cure for death by old age?  The argument I often hear is that it’s not natural to do so, that we have evolved (or been granted by a higher power) the ability to live for a particular length of time on this Earth.  But by curing someone’s cancer, we enable them to live longer than they would have in the absence of treatment.  Why are those extra years valid, but extra years gained beyond the ceiling of about 90 are not?

I would have died at age 23 without chemotherapy drugs developed in the past half century.  Why are the years that I live from 24 to 90-ish (I hope!) acceptable, and why are the years that I could potentially live past that, using life extending technologies, not acceptable?  If I was born not in 1982 but in 1882, the cancer would have quickly killed me.  But now that treatments have been developed, we use them and we accept that as normal.  For all of human history and pre-history, up until the mid-20th century, aggressive cancer at 23 would mean death.  That’s a span of hundreds of thousands of years, and I am lucky enough to live in the 50 years (and counting) where I could be cured.  If we go by how things used to be in human societies or how they still happen among other species, then there is nothing natural about the entire field of modern medicine.  Everything from vaccines to antibiotics to laser eye correction goes out the window.

Whether it’s natural or not is a moot point.  We have developed certain capabilities that measurably improve and extend the lives of billions, and may continue to do so if we choose.

At this point, counterarguments go two possible ways.

First, it is immature to want to live forever.  I hope I’m not creating an easy strawman here, but I have actually come across this argument.  And it misses something important.

Immortality is only a utopian concept, something to aspire to that is probably not achievable.  Someone may be made capable of living forever, but they may only be able to do so inside a completely isolated environment, say, on a minor planetary body orbiting a red dwarf star outside of any major galaxies or superclusters.  Very isolated, you might stand a chance to see the heat death of the universe.  But accidents happen.  Intentional destruction happens.  Apathy and ennui happen.  The immortal will die.  Most people will probably just want to at some point, for a variety of reasons.

Immortality gives people the option to choose how long they live, or at minimum gives them the option to live more than their allotted cap of 120 years.  Immortality means opening up this range and giving us the choice to live longer.

It may indeed be immature to want to live forever, but it seems quite mature to decide how long you will live, and, barring accident or malicious acts, to choose the place and time of your death.  If someone thinks they want to live for one million years, I want them to have that option.

The second argument is that society could not survive the transition to immortality, that the cure would be worse than the disease.  I take this very seriously.  Any discussion about people living longer must touch on the topics of suicide, reproduction, and social order.

Life extension, especially to allow for immortality, requires a cultural shift.  Suicide is currently stigmatized as unnatural, it is restricted and illegal, even sinful.  On the other hand, having children is expected, natural, promoted, and given a relatively laissez faire treatment.  It’s up to parents to decide how many children they will have, and even giving them the option to choose to restrict this number is mired in controversy over birth control, abortion, and family planning.

A society containing immortals will have to moderate and in some ways gently reverse these positions.  If living forever is an option, then choosing not to do so must be one as well.  Suicide must be allowed as a valid choice that anyone may make, though with due accounting for the mental health and circumstances of the individual so choosing.  Depending on the circumstances, choosing to age until death could be considered a form of suicide.

Reproduction must become something which is rarer and much more controlled, with control exercised either via communal norms or more direct authoritative intervention.  The history of state intervention in reproductive choice is terrible, but this is territory we must revisit and correct if we’re to pursue life extension.  On a planet heading for nine billion people, we’d be insane not too.  The problem lies not with the very idea of regulating our numbers, but with the mechanisms for doing so and any abuses perpetrated through them.

This latter concern brings the conversation up to a higher institutional level.  If there are immortals, and if people do want to keep reproducing, we must provide room for the newer generations to live and experiment.  Death is the means by which time clears out the preceding generations and gives the young a chance to live and adapt, albeit constrained by the society that their forbearers created.  Eliminate death and you risk removing the freedom of the young and replacing it with the accumulation and possible stagnation of the immortals.  (An aside:  One perspective on human civilization is that it is the means by which the slow grind of Darwinian evolution is replaced by a much quicker technological Lamarckian process.  In this view, the idea of non-reproducing immortals does not halt evolution and change since that evolution now takes place via fundamentally different mechanisms than in the past.  Instead, the problem becomes one of cognitive stagnation and ideological lock-in.  People’s minds are flexible, but how flexible will they be after one million years of life?)

The general form of the solution is to trade time for space.  You can live forever but you can’t stay here.  Make room for the young, make room for the new, go out into space and live there.  Retain a small number of immortals to oversee the proper functioning of this system among the young.  Treat Earth and certain other locations as renewable resources of human lives and minds, as fresh injections into the larger immortal societal superstructure.  We may even be able to do this just on Earth if we choose to stay, with the immortal living in enclaves, arcologies, etc., though lack of physical distance is likely to increase the chances of breakdown.

Develop a system where the old and immortal only intervene in the affairs of the young and/or mortal to keep the whole arrangement viable.  Otherwise, let the young and mortal voluntarily choose to join the immortal and, once they join their ranks, be subject to restrictions on their actions.  Call it the “Heaven Model” of immortality.

I can see a few different paths this would take, and the system would need additional controls or else risk spiraling out of control as the ranks of the immortal swell over the eons.  But the point is that societies and cultures adapt and change and we can adapt to living much longer lives.  It will require planning, foresight, and compassion, all of which are in very short supply among those who lead our global civilization right now.

That will have to change too.