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

A War About Nothing

Seinfeld has already sparked books about nihilism, philosophy, bible study, and sociology, and a website on economics. And now, the ongoing narco-war violence in Mexico:

The Mexican narco-war may be the first real 21st-century war—a war that is, in the end, about nothing. Yes, there are regional and clan identities involved—loyalties of a sort to Tamaulipas, to Michoacan, to Sinaloa—but they are too fluid, too subject to betrayal, for the war to be defined as tribal. Yes, the Mexicans are torturing and killing one another over money and the smuggling routes that provide it, but much of the savagery, as noted, is over the smaller profits of the domestic market, the street corner, the sprawling colonia—savagery perpetrated for little real reward, and mainly for its own sake. Mexico’s war has no single propelling cause, no single objective, and certainly no grand ideology. It is a conflict of a post-political era. It belongs to an age of aggressive hyper-materialism. The drug lords are of course not alone in this. There are “legitimate” corporations all over the world whose only credo is greed and whose only iconic value is “the brand.”

In short, ‘why they fight‘ might be irrelevant. It might not even have a real answer, or a real reason – it is “a war of the digital age, fought as much on YouTube and mobile phones as it is in city streets and backroom torture chambers.” Even if it is a ‘narco-war’, drugs almost seem a byproduct, rather than a means or an end. They might just be another symptom. How do you even begin to combat such a phenomenon? Are there underlying root causes to be addressed?

Or is this just yet another sign of impending systemic breakdown? I’m leaning towards that. It’s sort of a ‘what’s the goddamn point?’ approach, which seems to explain more each day. Better stock up on your Toyota Hiluxes and your Gerber “hedge trimmer” machetes now.

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 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.

Treason Doesn’t Pay

…or so Vladimir Putin reminds us. As the ten accused Russian spies returned home, Putin said that their outing was a “betrayal,” and vowed that there would be “tough times for the traitors,” whose names the Kremlin is apparently well aware of. And he had a word of caution for those who would do the same:

Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts.

Take note, would-be Benedict Arnolds or Vidkun Quislings! If you commit treason, you might as well be heating up black tar heroin in a spoon.

Via Bostonist.

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.

Jumping to Conclusions

Well, um, whoops. Not so much the teabagging type, but rather “a Connecticut man, a naturalized United States citizen from Pakistan” named Faisal Shahzad.

So yes, mea culpa. Though the white guy in his 40s remains a ‘person of interest’, clearly he’s not the focus of the investigation, and for that I apologize. But I do think we’re overdue for a reckoning with the enemies of a domestic variety, as all the commentary spouted that subtly sympathizes with them might even serve to legitimize their cause. It certainly increases the likelihood of a right-wing Times Square bomber, though there probably aren’t enough government buildings there to hold their interest for long.

Michael Sheehan has a perfect analysis of this in the New York Times, as well as suggestions on how to stave off ‘lone wolf’ or ‘home grown’ terrorists:

Law enforcement has to focus on preventing sophisticated terrorist organizations from establishing a presence within the United States. The good news is that we know how to do this. The bad news is we aren’t doing it enough. No other American city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished.

[…]

For society as a whole, paying for a handful of detectives at the local level is far more efficient than spending billions inside the Beltway on bloated bureaucracies and large-scale defensive measures that will most likely have little practical effect. And while issues of civil liberties are important, they can be managed with close legal oversight of terrorism investigations.

Attacks won’t come from the center, but from the fringes. You can’t centralize national security, nor can you completely disperse it.

Until then, keep following. And keep following afterward. Remain vigilant.

Chinese Knifefight

China’s bizarre wave of elementary school knifings continued yesterday, with 28 children, two teachers, and a security guard all wounded by a deranged 47 year-old, and the next day five more were wounded by a 45 year-old with a hammer before he set fire to himself.

Sadly, these are surprisingly frequent events in China. And they’re just so odd – no connection to the victims, no clear motive, et cetera. So why are they lashing out?

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the first pangs of this severely male-heavy generation. by 2020, the male-female imbalance in China is expected to reach 24 million, thanks to the one-child policy and other social engineering measure of the Communist regime. This is one of the major destabilizing factors that Gordon Chang thinks will limit China in the twenty-first century. The Era of China, indeed.

But basically, we’re about to see a massive wave of angry, frustrated young men with little-to-no marriage prospects, traditionally one of the drivers of men beyond adolescence and into maturity. The best we can expect is an emotionally stunted class of mental dwarfs, but far more likely is a cohort coming to power and lashing out. Or the whole edifice crumbling around them.

Forgive the rambling; it just seems like a such a fundamental weakness in the character of a nation (and a more-than-likely explanation for the spate of knifings). It can only end poorly.

A Confluence of Hate

Hey, kids! Can you count the things wrong with this?

Hot on the heels of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “Rage on the Right” comes the mechanized embodiment of that hatred. The license plate represents a missed opportunity on the part of the Virginia DMV, though to be fair, the symbology is rather obscure to normal people (and those who haven’t seen The West Wing):

The DMV agreed that the plate contains a coded message: The number 88 stands for the eighth letter of the alphabet, H, doubled to signify “Heil Hitler,” said CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper. “CV” stands for “Confederate veteran” — the plate was a special model embossed with a Confederate flag, which Virginia makes available for a $10 fee to card-carrying members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And 14 is code for imprisoned white supremacist David Lane’s 14-word motto: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Obviously one license plate on one pickup truck in one state of the Union is hardly emblematic of a coming tide of hate-based violence, but the brazenness with which it’s displayed is probably cause for concern. Hate and militia groups are on the rise, but unlike the paranoid groups of the Clinton years, these ones are openly carrying arms and declaring themselves in opposition to the United States government. The recent terrorism committed by Joe Stack and John Patrick Bedell are only the most obvious manifestations of the movement.

The DMV has since revoked the plates, but as one commenter asks, were they really the most inflammatory part?

Via Isegoria.