Sunday, June 30, 2013

We are all Luddites in waiting

For years I have been telling people that increasing technology means increasing the percentage of the workforce who are effectively unemployable in a for-profit task. Some policy wank on a news show had made the point that we could have 0% unemployment overnight by banning farm machinery, and the light went on for me.

And of course, as a SF author, I am pretty certain that technology will continue to grow. Which means that sooner or later, the technological bar of unemployment will be coming for you:
Even a quick scan of the report’s list suggests that some of the victims of disruption will be workers who are currently considered highly skilled, 
Of course, the Luddites already knew this:
So should workers simply be prepared to acquire new skills? The woolworkers of 18th-century Leeds addressed this issue back in 1786: “Who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake the arduous task” of learning a new trade? Also, they asked, what will happen if the new trade, in turn, gets devalued by further technological advance?
Yet I still get Libertarians/Republicans (is there actually a difference any more?) telling that people just need to get mad skillz.

Krugman goes on to make the same point I make: that redistribution is the only possible solution. And of course (as I pointed out earlier) consuming is a necessary job. Somebody has to consume all the stuff that producers produce; otherwise, that produce is worthless. If my stories go unread, they are of no value; and a box of Rolex watches that no one every buys is just as valueless. An entire box car of gold is worthless unless you have someone else who wants it.

The only thing that is valuable in this world is time; people's labor and attention. Writing books is an obvious form of labor; but reading them is a kind of labor, too. I am asking people to give me a part of their lives: to give me the one precious thing that can never be replaced, time. It is not just money I need to engage in my craft; I actually need consumers. And so does every producer, whether they know it or not. All of us owe a debt to the people who make our production possible, by consuming.

The Republibertarians see that mass of consumers as a horde of parasites, completely oblivious to their own symbiotic dependence on them. This is, of course, the primary problem with libertarianism: it simply fails to understand human nature as a collective artifact. The other problem, of course, is that surprisingly soon, that bar of technological unemployablity is going to be on top of them.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The poor are different from you and me; they have less money

Turns out helping really, really poor destitute people is really, really simple:

Give them money

Money with no strings attached not only directly raises the living standards of those who receive it, but it also increases hours worked and labor productivity, seemingly laying the groundwork for growth to come.

You don't need a PHD in economics from a fancy school to know that. In fact, pretty much the whole point of the degree process is to keep you from knowing that. Culture does not exist to teach morality; six-year-olds understand the Golden Rule. Culture exists to create exemptions to the basic idea of fairness we all come equipped with.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The evils of meritocracy

When I was younger I thought meritocracy was a great idea. Why shouldn't the smart and effective people make the decisions?

When I grew up I discovered that merit is relative. People who are good at one thing are not necessarily good at another. People who are good at something are not necessarily good at it in a different context. People don't stay good (or bad) at things.

For meritocracy to work, the definition of merit has to be fluid, redefined at every decision point.

Pretty obviously, this is impossible. What happens instead is that your merit rankings get codified and ossified, and pretty soon you just have plain old aristocracy.

The bright side of the coin is that evil is also relative; with the proper channeling, a useful social intervention or two, Hitler would have been a perfectly decent and productive member of society. His fate as monster of the world was not born with him.

We are, all of us, products not just of our own choices but of the choices of those around us, and sometimes merely of arbitrary fate. This, ultimately, is why I can never be a libertarian; because the libertarian ideal of self-hood simply does not acknowledge the biological reality that our personalities require and are therefore partly defined by the personalities of others. We are a social animal. Our brains are incomplete; they distribute processing to the brains of those around us (note the key to this experiment is that the basketball players pretend not to notice the gorilla).

In this context, the idea of meritocracy is rendered absurd; we are only as good as those around us let us be. The towering - and solitary - creative genius is a myth; Newton not only profited from the investigations, past and present, of others, but was also merely slightly ahead of Leibniz.

Admitting that we depend on others takes strength; ironically, more strength than going it alone. Admitting that we do not control our fates takes courage, more courage than facing mere death. Admitting that we cannot always reward merit requires the fortitude to admit that we cannot always punish evil.

I still have trouble with that very last bit, so I understand why conservatives balk so rigidly at the idea of redistribution: the idea that some undeserving might get something undeserved.sticks in their craw, and well it should. It sticks in mine.

But I have come to realize that undeserving is a much narrower term that it might appear. To the extent that those dull masses exist merely to buy Bill Gate's products, they enable his greatness. Does that not make them deserving? How much writing would I do if I had no readers? (Answer: not much). When I create a book, don't the people I created it for, whose enjoyment nourishes my creativity, deserve some of the credit too?

Redistribution - that blind leveling, cutting off the top of the mound and throwing it back to the ground - is the tool we use to reward the people whose contributions cannot be measured. Yes, some undeserving get rewarded too - Ayn Rand drew Social Security payments - but that is no justification to shortchange the rest.

And ultimately, it is necessary. The wheat thrown down seeds the next generation, provides something for the compulsively productive to accumulate again. No society (not even Rome) has ever collapsed because there were too many losers living on the dole; but plenty have sunk under the weight of winners who have forgotten how they got on top.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Something to bank on

Despite this: Bank employees told to lie, I can assure you that no bank managers will go to jail. Or even lose their jobs. And no Republican politician will even mention this affair, no matter how much they talk about the IRS.

I would say no Democratic politician, too, except Elizabeth Warren was probably already complaining about it last year.