Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago. Continue reading

H.U.D. not C.H.U.D.

In Las Vegas, they’ve gone underground.

Not in the “off-the-grid” sense, nor in any kind of futuristic post-apocalyptic-themed bunker casino (an idea that I have just now patented), but in an actual we’ve-lost-our-homes-and-live-in-a-tunnel way.

An entrance to the tunnels underneath Las Vegas, Nevada.

The population is estimated to be over 1,000. People who have lost their homes and their livelihoods have instead converted the tunnels – both flooded and dry – into their homes, milk crates to keep their things out of the water. The furniture all comes second-hand; they look for new things at night, to avoid unwanted attention – “it’s kind of embarrassing”.

Steven and Kathryn's 400 sq. ft. "bungalow," deep beneath Las Vegas.

There’s a shadow economy at work here, beyond the obvious gray market in housing. For one of the underground dwellers, his source of income is credit hustling for left behind slot chips and jackpots (he claims to have once found $997).  It’s scraps from above, the remnants of a once proud civilization, that sustain this particular mode of urban life. And all the while, one can’t help but channel Taibbi:

With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country-and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

It’s an unintentional hackerspace – a separation from everyday life borne of necessity, not desire – but nevertheless it achieves some sort of independence.

Can this be taken further? Can our underground and derelict spaces be reused for isolated groups and others who just want to be left alone? Are subterranean environments appropriate for sustained living? Let’s see how long these tunnel folks can go unmolested by the law first.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the “House of Contamination” art exhibit accidentally mocks this way of living.

An aerial shot of a room in the “House of Contamination” installation.

A “life-size maquette of a cultural centre that facilitates cross-fertilisation between the arts?” No, an all-too real representation of modern low living. Perhaps if “House of Contamination” was trying to make a larger socio-economic point. But it appears to just be ‘slumming it’. Read some damn Scalzi.

 

Kids’ Table No More

President Obama dropped a bombshell and a “guaranteed applause line” on his passage to India: he will back an Indian seat on the UN Security Council.  And quite frankly, it’s about time. The only two countries opposing it were China and the US, so while this doesn’t completely clear the path for Indian accession, it does smooth it.

The other question is how this will remake the Security Council as a whole. Tom Ricks has his own solution:

It also probably is time to kick out France and Britain and instead give the EU one seat, which would make the permanent members:

  • United States
  • Russia
  • China
  • India
  • Japan
  • EU

Japan makes sense, but adding/subtracting members is going to irritate virtually everyone no matter how it’s done (which explains why none of it has been done before).

I think we can agree right off the bat that losing members is a non-starter. No one will voluntarily give up a seat, and thanks to veto power, it’s hard to see France or Britain ruling themselves into irrelevance, no matter how much that might make sense. If they both stay then, why would Germany not deserve a seat? As the largest economy and most populous country in Europe, there’s little reasonable objection to their membership.

Then we get into regional representation. If Russia, India, and China all have a seat, why doesn’t Brazil get one? Or if we go the route of an EU seat, why not UNASUR? And/or the African Union? Will the Middle East get its own seat? Would Pakistan demand one?

It is an excruciating set of compromises that would have to be made in order to change the membership of the Security Council at all. Perhaps the largest barrier, though, is the scale of enlargement. The G8 didn’t evolve into a G10, and then a G12, and so forth – it went straight from G8 to G20. And if the Security Council is to add any of the up-and-coming powers, it will probably have to add them all.

Frenemies?

Two age-old adversaries finally joined forces in recognition of their weakened position today. Putting aside the divisions of the past and recalling times when they could reach across and work with each other in harmony, the two parties committed to a radical, unprecedented new arrangement.

No, Charlie Crist didn’t win, and Congress didn’t actually decide to start functioning. Instead, France and Good Britain signed a defense treaty. It’s pretty out there: provisions for a joint expeditionary task force and a timeshare arrangement of their aircraft carriers, which many had speculated on. At least now one will always be at sea, exorcising the specter of a naval aviation-less Great Britain. Also: joint nuclear research! Though not extending to actual issues of deployment, it seems to have supplanted the old Tube Alloys project between America and Britain as the new centerpiece of nuclear partnership.

Still, we have come a long way since the days of Viscount Gort and the BEF. Rule Britannia? Well, co-rule maybe.

Collapse

Thanks to Netflix finally appearing on my PS3, I’ve been able to watch all sorts of ridiculous National Geographic documentaries like Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence, and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Mixed in with those are some gems, though, like the Inside series (Inside Special Forces, Air Force One, Inside the US Secret Service, etc.).

I saw and decided to take a chance on Collapse: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire Book by Jared Diamond. I should admit that I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but the premise is clear enough. The major factors contributing to our hypothetical demise are a lack of water, food, and oil, all multiplied by the effects of global warming. The story of our collapse is told through the eyes of fictional scientists and researchers in the year 2210 combing the desertified ruins of the globe for evidence pointing to one factor or another (at one point, I think they even recycled five seconds of footage from I Am Legend). This is interspersed with historical reenactments of other collapsed civilizations, including Rome, the Mayans, and the Anasazi.

One-line review: it’s kind of like those Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero ‘documentaries’, but with more anthropology and more science. I mean that in a good way.

But anyways, I was left with two burning questions at the end of it.

The first was where and how did these scientists survive and come to be? Oral tradition alone should explain our downfall, but they have ridiculously advanced technology. Like iPads with the Minority Report interface. And where are they based? They’re exploring the American West and Southwest, along with the British Isles, Southern Europe, and the underwater ruins of Hong Kong. But where do they live? Did New York miraculously escape destruction?

The second has to do with our impending water crisis. I know that we’re on the brink of the first water wars, but for long-term considerations: what the hell are we doing with desalinization?

According to my research, the most intensive barriers to more widespread adoption are the cost of the technology itself and of the power needed to operate the plants. But in most of the Middle East, for example, virtually every new power plant is constructed with some sort of desalination capacity incorporated into it. Current desalinization, though, can start recycling some of its own energy, meaning with a viable renewable energy source – nuclear comes to mind – a plant can be self-sustainable and contribute energy back to the grid.

As is, the costs of desalinization are passed on to end-users to the tune of $3 per thousand gallons. That seems steep, but then again, we buy bottled water, don’t we? Bottled water runs about $7,945 per thousand gallons. Seriously, this seems like a proactive step we could take. Now. To secure our water reserves for a long time to come and maybe, just maybe preserve California’s Inland Empire as a viable place to live while recycling much-needed energy to the grid.

But forget Phoenix, humans seriously have no business living there whatsoever.

“The 15 minutes I spent imagining what I’d name it were perhaps the happiest 15 minutes of my life.”

If the Royal Navy really does decide to sell HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2020, who might buy it? And even more importantly, what would they name it? Robert Farley handicaps the race, giving odds and possible names to potential suitors:

China
Empress Dowager Cixi
Odds: 99-1

Russia
Imperitsiya Ekaterina Velikaya
Odds: 50-1

France
Carla Bruni
(R92)
Odds:  20-1

Canada
HMCS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 15-1

India
INS India Gandhi
Odds: 15-1

Japan
JDS Empress Michiko
Odds: 7-1

Australia
HMAS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 9-2

South Korea
ROKS Empress Myeongsong
Odds: 4-1

Brazil
NAe Empress Isabel
Odds: 3-1

If I were a gambling man…

Also, guess what the source of the title is. Then check your answer here.

Lesser Nobility of the Seas

Depressing developments out of Britain (new motto: “Good, not Great”), where David Cameron has announced the extent of massive budget cuts.  They’re not only targeted at the much-reviled ‘quangos’ and other sundry domestic spending, but significantly cut down on the size of the Royal Navy.

And I do mean significant. HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped immediately, and while the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will still be built, one will be commissioned pre-mothballed, while neither will be fully operational until 2036 (a rather expensive “jobs program“). One of the two helicopter carriers will be decommissioned. A total of 5,000 personnel cut. And the surface fleet reduced to 19 ships. As many have pointed out, that’s smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands.

Obviously, this represents a real threat to British power projection capabilities. But it’s worth asking to what extent they’re still needed. The Guardian, true to form, heralds the cuts as rendering Britain incapable of launching “military operations like Iraq.” Which may be well and good; after all, today’s generals prepare to fight yesterday’s wars, and hopefully there won’t be any more Iraqs or Afghanistans in the near future.

All the same, is this a force capable of defending Britain? Again, the question is what Britain needs defending from. It can’t be the French, with whom the Royal Navy has entered into a sort of timeshare arrangement for the use of aircraft carriers (though hopefully their deployments go better than that of Charles de Gaulle). If anything is to be secure for Britain, though, it must be the sealanes. Britain is an island, and as Patrick Porter reminds us, “for heavy importing island states like Britain, strategy puts food on the table.”

Either way, it’s a huge blow to British prestige both around the world and within NATO. The worst part is that this may be a sign of things to come. As David Betz at Kings of War says:

The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need.

Practical considerations aside – and they’re hugely important to consider – it’s almost akin to the death of the battleship, that great “monarch of the sea.” Once the British cuts are complete, the United States will be the only navy in the world operating more than one carrier. Last time the U.S. had to bail out her Anglophone cousin, the Royal Navy had been placed in a similar situation.

By 1939, Britain could not afford the navy that was necessary to ensure security across the globe. While the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty appeared to favor the United States and the United Kingdom, the scattered nature of the British Empire left it without overwhelming strength in any given theater, despite the superiority in absolute tonnage. In the early days of World War II – at least to protect Far East territories and India – the Royal Navy had to rely on the strength of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the South African coastal forces, and the British-controlled Royal Indian Navy.

We all know what happened next: Singapore and Malaya fell, the Japanese preponderance of carrier-based aviation left the entire Eastern Fleet sorely outgunned, and at the Battle of the Java Sea, the entire Allied fleet was wiped out in the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. Britain was stretched too thinly.

Obviously, the empire is no more and concerns closer to home are keeping the Ministry of Defence busy, but even so – there is a floor to the minimum amount of required naval force, even for a tiny island like Great Britain. With these cuts, I fear that the UK may have just crashed through it.

The Output Gap

It seems like good news always comes out when the weather’s bad, and bad news when it’s nice out. But when it’s a grey day to begin with and you look at this series of charts

What the gap between potential and actual production means for employment.

Basically, a recovery could take 10 more years. Or never materialize at all. Given the devastating effects of long-term unemployment on recent graduates, young adults, and the very fabric of society, we have got to do better. And the stimulus was too much?!

At this point, it doesn’t even matter. Make-work, nothingness – anything is better than the worst-case outcome here.

Freedom™: A Review

This author, with Suarez' duology at a London pub, May 2010.

After cruising through Daemon in about 2 days, Freedom™ was even quicker: I blew through it in about 24 hours (back in May). That’s no knock against it, though; rather, I just couldn’t put it down at all.

This review will be brief, even though it’s taken me almost three months to get around to finishing it. Basically, if Daemon was the end of the beginning, Freedom™ is the beginning of the end. Or at least of the next step. It lays out the climactic struggle much more succinctly, a titanic clash between people and business, corporate and individual. I found this particular passage most instructive:

You, sir, are walking on a privately owned Main Street—permission to trespass revocable at will. Read the plaque on the ground at the entrance if you don’t believe me. These people aren’t citizens of anything, Sergeant. America is just another brand purchased for its goodwill value. For that excellent fucking logo … No conspiracy necessary. It’s a process that’s been happening for thousands of years. Wealth aggregates and becomes political power. Simple as that. ‘Corporation’ is just the most recent name for it. In the Middle Ages it was the Catholic Church. They had a great logo, too. You might have seen it, and they had more branches than Starbucks. Go back before that, and it was Imperial Rome. It’s a natural process as old as humanity.

Of course, overreach leads to retreat and retrenchment, et cetera, et cetera. Even if the message seems a little obvious (and by no means subtly presented), it’s an important one, and it’s framed in an interesting new way. It’s that presentation that makes this not only legible, but well worth your time, if not just to see what the traditional cries of anticonsumerism and Adbusters-type activism look like in the digital age.

John Robb’s ‘holons‘ take some big strides here too; Suarez has done an excellent job of envisioning the resilient community concept, and doing so in a way that makes them seem not only possible, but inevitable. A blueprint for the future? Not necessarily. But at the least, a realistic portrayal of the kind of decentralized communities that we’ll hopefully be migrating to in the future. Thanks to Daniel Suarez, they’re more than just a concept.

So read Daemon and then read Freedom. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed. And even if you are, ignore the prose and focus on the message – it’s one we sorely need to listen to right now.

Buy Freedom™ at Amazon.com.