Friday, July 31, 2015

Our sunny future IV (high tech, research, investment and education)

Wow, hectic week at work (as usual just before holidays), so not much time to develop this series. Also, there were a number of points I wanted to present that were not covered in my previous post (The economy of the future) and I’ve been having some difficulties finding a way to do so coherently. Rather than keep it simmering until I find the perfect theme to broach such disparate musings, I will comment on them in no particular order:

·        Savings and investment: In an economy like the one I envision 500 years from now the propensity of people to save would be severely undercut, as you would have your basics (food and shelter) covered for life, at whatever age, so one major reason (to prepare for the proverbial rainy day) would not be so salient. Also, due to minimal regulation there would be an almost infinitely elastic labor market, so there would always be some job available at the going wages. Which is a good thing, because given the reality of a fast falling population for most of the period (remember it would ideally stabilize around 2500 AD) the market for most goods (either consumption goods or means of production) would be shrinking and thus the need for investment in new capacity would be at a global level, nonexistent. The minimal investment required would be to repair the wear and tear of machinery and infrastructure, so minimal savings would be enough (and that would push the interest rate pretty low, although having been these many years close to the zero bound we probably do not find that particularly alien). A relatively low interest rate is a good thing, as it prevents capital from accumulating excessively (as it has been doing in most of the Western economies for the last forty years) and helps to prevent the appearance of a politically influential rentier class that can attempt to monopolize the political process.
·        Innovation and productivity: As I mentioned in an older post, the latter has stopped improving in part as a consequence of the deceleration of the former (Why technology has stopped improving), and the reason for such deceleration is the corporatist nature of our current stage of capitalism (big corporations and the state find it more convenient to erect barriers to entry in most areas of activity to protect current players, which then can extract monopoly rents from their respective turfs, leaving little energy or resources to pursue real innovation out of them). The kind of future I envision has little space for big corporations, and I explicitly avoided talking about patent systems or intellectual property rights. People will pursue their passions (in the arts or in science, more about that one later on) for the fun of it, not to gain some outsized chrematistic advantage (aka loads of money). Most digital goods will be freely shared, and writers, painters, musicians (philosophers, sociologists, economists, psychologists…) will be invited and celebrated, sought after and recognized in the digital realm, but not necessarily paid. Current capitalism maintains that such system of social recognition not accompanied by a system to guarantee creation produces a strong monetary reward for the creators would spell doom for creativity itself, but I am ultra skeptical of that claim. I can imagine much more innovation taking place not just in the humanities and artistic fields, but in more everyday, down to earth activities. A thousand small and middle sized factories manned by engaged workers decently paid are much better laboratories to imagine and refine new technologies than today’s few gigantic R&D centers ,where a few freaks (selected from an unimaginably vast talent pool, but strongly biased towards certain personality features that do not take into account things like empathy and practicality) devote their intellectual powers to the resolution of increasingly small and specific problems…
·        Education: another source of hope for the increased innovation of our descendant’s technical milieu is the very likely seismic change in the way they will educate their children. Let’s face it, our current educational system can only be understood as an offshoot of the corporatist, material-production-maximizing system I’ve been both describing and denouncing. We force kids to rote learning of the most inconsequential matters during 16-22 years just because it a) it helps to instill in the vast majority of them the discipline (read: tolerance for drudgery and soulless, repetitious work) we think will be required in most jobs; b) it sorts out the ones better adorned with the quality most indicative of the ability to do such works (general IQ, which does not include things like curiosity, kindness, empathy or even clarity of purpose, but does include the ability to manipulate abstract symbols, a retentive memory and a knack for numerical calculations)… but to weed out the better ones at that we could just force them to memorize Kuala Lumpur telephone listings (which are probably as relevant to their future jobs as 99% of what kids are taught today in school and college); and finally c) given how they behave after their academic formation is finished, it obviously transmits to them values like competitiveness, ability to interpret symbols of status and social hierarchy and envy/ jealousy complex we define under the umbrella term “keeping up with the Joneses”. I would expect the state of the future just to provide some general guidelines of what the kids should know at certain ages. Very basic skills like reading and writing (of course), elementary math (algebra and some geometry and trigonometry, calculus and topography are more advanced and optional), foundational mechanical skills (using a lathe, a mill, repairing and tuning a motor, a transformer and a valve), concepts of physiology (including sports) and hygiene, agriculture and husbandry (how to open a furrow, seed a field, harvest and thrash, feed cattle and skin a rabbit). Everybody should be bilingual, with one language common to all humanity (let’s face it, English is the obvious candidate, although only God knows how it will sound and look like 500 years hence). All the rest (history, literature, religion, even my beloved physics, chemistry, psychology, secondary language, politics, etc.) would be pursued only by choice. Now for the first basic elements of education I would expect some places where kids gather physically (specially when they are very young and can benefit with more frequent interaction with their peers) to be provided by the villages free of charge (either manned by paid staff or by the parents who volunteer their time to be present in some of the most magic moments in the development of their children). But at some point, it would be done in an unstructured way, just by playing, chatting, seeing others do it and just traveling the world in groups and learning from those with a recognized level of mastery in each subject. There would be one single exam in all their life, to be taken between 16 and 18 years, where they would show their dominion of the skills required to be productive citizens, after which they would gain the right to vote (or to attend the assembly where the major affairs of the village are decided, as regulated in the village charter) and would be eligible for the communal work in the 4% of their time allotted for it.
·        Technological advance/ big science: the organization of the society I’ve expounded may seem too agrarian, atomized in small villages unable individually to engage in the big projects required for the advancement of modern science, and thus condemned to scientific stagnation, and ultimately decline. This doesn’t necessarily follow, as those small villages are linked in two way: electronically (they all have ultra high bandwidth and can share information in much more fluid ways that we can not even dream of) and by the constant flow and interchange of people physically travelling the world for the sheer pleasure of it (remember I mentioned up to 30% of the time would be spent freely travelling, working in some places if needs be to pay for additional travel expenses in a world with one single universal language and one single universal currency –more on that later- which means in each village at any given time 30% of the population is made by people born outside of it, just passing by or temporarily settled there because they like it). Those two linkages would prevent animosity and competition between villages to arise, and would make infinitely easier for them to collaborate in the kind of projects each one separately may be too small to pursue. A lot of material production will be decentralized, not just at village level, but even at individual’s houses (thanks to 3D printing), but there are elements needed in a modern economy that can not be produced at small scale facilities (wind turbines or solar panel production facilities, for example). People of multiple villages would pool resources to build and maintain those facilities, and village federations would oversee where they are made to ensure they are evenly distributed. Now some facilities (the ones to carry truly fundamental research, think in  NASA’s JPL, Geneva’s CERN or Cadarache’s ITER) would still be too big for a village federation. The erection and maintenance of those would be decided by the world council (where the representatives of the different village federations meet), and they would be run as if they were independent administrative units, where all of their citizens are full time “employees” for as long as they want, which receive their victuals from the rest of the villages (so each one has to produce may be a 1-5% above what they need so they can jointly contribute to sustain those centers of development). Would that system work better than today somewhat anarchic, uncoordinated, unnecessarily competitive system? I very much think so, but recognize that it is difficult to say with any certainty.
·        Money, credit, currency, inflation: In an economy with a very low propensity towards savings and very low investment needs (as the market has been shrinking for five centuries, and is only beginning to stabilize) I don’t see much need to resort to credit by corporations, and I’d love to see the irrationality of stock exchanges that has gripped the imagination of humanity (starting in the West) for the past 400 years go away once and for all. There will be people who love gambling, of course, and I can imagine every sort of racetrack, casino, betting parlor or games of luck taking place to satisfy that desire without those temples of random distribution of imaginary wealth. I’m sure there will be banks, hopefully retail ones, to finance small and medium enterprises, startups, maybe some consumer credit for those merchants that want to pursue thoughtfully some commercial opportunity and certainly many kinds of insurance, but I expect no group of people to function (to “do business”) resorting only to credit and fictitious tokens they never expect to pay. I’ve mentioned commerce, as in the world of densely interconnected villages I dream of I would expect a lot of exchanges taking place, and it seems just reasonable there will be a universal unit of value, and hence a universal currency. I would expect that currency to be entirely electronic, and its value to be decoupled from any relationship with any physical  asset (so we finally overcome our reliance on what Keynes famously called a “barbarous relic”). Remember that in the future society I’ve been describing money is not needed to discharge your obligation towards the state (taxes are paid in time, working for the common good under the direction of freely chosen elders, not in money), and it is not needed to satisfy human’s most basic needs (enough food and a home are provided free of cost to everybody), which lowers the need to have money at all, and makes it possible to entirely forego having it (as has happened during most of human history). However, if for some reason any citizen wants to earn it there will be a robust market of non-essential goods, traded and paid in the universal currency, he can seek to contribute to and benefit from. And all the profits he can make in any commercial or productive endeavor he devotes himself to is his for the keeping, free of taxes.
So I think with that I’m done describing the society I would define as “ideal”. It would mean correcting the three main deviations from human’s millenary history, hatched in the West in the XVIth century, which have greatly hampered and blocked human flourishing:
1.       Work specialization, which has driven people to devote more and more of their time to lesser and lesser tasks. Yes, it has allowed societies that adopted it to produce incalculably bigger amounts of tchotchkes, but at the price of making the vast majority of the producers incalculably sadder, gloomier and stunted, their capacities unable to develop and the enjoyment of their time taken away from them (“them” being everybody, from the factory worker doing horribly repetitive work to the apparently successful executive pretending the decisions he takes make any difference other than tying him tighter to the hamster wheel of a life devoid of human relationships)
2.       Population explosion that has cheapened the experience of human life and forced an insane competition for ever dwindling resources, whilst taking a (most likely) irrecoverable toll on the natural environment
3.       A uni dimensional value system predicated on the recognition of a single measure of value: how many material goods you can claim exclusive control of (or how much money you have, money being the medium for the acquisition of those goods… although in the end even the goods could be done with, as just money for money’s sake was measure enough, regardless of having time or not for the enjoyment of the supposed things it was originally intended to acquire).
 Would that state of things be the peaceful, benign, true end of history, the dawn of an era of prosperity (not necessarily traduced in more material goods, but in more refined ways of living) and contentment that leverages our millennia of experience with (mostly) dreadful societies, in which humans will leave happily ever after? You can  bet it will not. We are a restless species, and things have a way of changing and evolving that tends to lay waste to the best thought plans (and I am not claiming this one is specially well thought). People will change, and adapt, and at some point become restless. Groups will develop differentially, mutations may happen, some violent strain in the form of a totalitarian alternative ideology may arise and become popular…
Every attempt at realizing a Utopia in this life has failed because few of them have contemplated seriously the unavoidability of change, and fell short for not building in their proposed ideal configurations of society mechanisms to adapt to the unexpected. But the unexpected, the unplanned is almost the only thing we know for certain we will have to face at one point or another.
Be it as it may, in my next post on this topic I’d like to reflect on the likely developments that may nudge our current, more imperfect social arrangement, towards a society of this kind, and what major events may happen in the next five centuries that may completely derail such evolution, and guide the world-system in entirely directions 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Integrating the non-lifting part of training

Time to update how training is going, as I finally overcame my inertia an started training outdoors regularly (so the public park right in front of my home has again the odd show of a guy who twice a week paints a circle in a corner and jumps inside it to propel an iron ball as far away as possible, jogs dutifully to recover it and starts all over again). I could measure (with a surveyor tape I was given as a gift last Xmas) what I’m putting, and was somewhat disappointed, as I thought I would be above 13 meters, and I’m slightly under 12, not goddamn awful, but not regional championship level, as I hoped. Well, it is what it is, and better to know where I really stand than to fantasize in la-la-land. The good news is that I know what to strive for and that I have a means to reliably measure progress.

Unfortunately, that progress will need to be much slower than what I originally planned, as my “bad” knee is giving me some hard times. Although I’ve been shot putting twice a week for some weeks now, slowly increasing volume (number of total puts) and intensity (I’ve gone from using a 14 pounds shot to the official 16 pounder) I’ve reached a point where the joint not only aches an awful lot for the following 24 hours (something I can live with), but it gets quite inflamed, to the point I can not bend it more than 60-70º, impeding me to squat (although I could both power snatch and power jerk, so may be I could also work around it). Come to think about it, the motions I have to go through when shot putting are not the gentler one when you lack a meniscus, as when you are right handed (as I am) it is precisely the left knee the one that receives the full weight of the body after the initial jump, and then has to turn while it propels the shot. So as the absence of the meniscus let the condyles of the femur rest directly above the head of the tibia, the turning probably grates them (and whatever synovial fluid is still inside the joint) causing the subsequent inflammation and pain. A little doodle may help clarify:

Paraphrasing an unforgettable Secretary of Defense of the USA, you go to put with the body you have, not with the one you would like to have, so I’ll have to make do with this, crappy knee and all. Only I’ll reduce the number of total puts per week (I was doing 5 standing and 15 gliding twice a week, I’ll emphasize more the standing ones, as the lack of previous jump puts less pressure on the knee) and look for additional ways of increasing explosiveness (jumps to a box, and more jump squats). I’m not overly concerned by the lack of technique training, as I’ve seen when I’ve videotaped myself that my technique hasn’t degraded that much (I was concerned that, having bulked up in the upper body, my center of mass may have shifted slightly upwards, but it seems that my leg size has also grown, enough at least to compensate and allow me for the exact same pattern of movement). I did a back of the envelope calculation the other day, and I´ve probably putted more than 15,000 times in my life, so I would expect the motor pathways to be grooved enough by now.

Now a last reflection I wanted to share, and this is what the title of the post refers to, has to do with the integration of a more or less traditional lifting program and a more sports-oriented one (in my case it is shot putting, but it could be any other sport that benefits from having greater strength and coordination –that is, any other sport). As Jim Wendler used to say, when you put something in your training, assuming you were serious about it, you need to take something out. What a huge truth that is! Before I started to regularly put I was doing a 3-days a week split, but the two first days were so demanding that I always ended up splitting them in two so I could keep the intensity high enough, so my 3 training session somehow ended up being 5 sessions, like this:

Day 1.1
Day 1.2
Day 2.1
Day 2.2
Day 3
High Bar Back Squat: 5x8,7,6 as heavy as possible
Power snatch:
Alternating 5x2 w 8-10x1, as heavy as possible
Front Squat: 6x5,4,3 as heavy as possible
Power clean: Alternating 5x3 w 6x2 w 1-2 top singles
Jump squats: 5x3 w 50 kg
Close Grip Bench Press:  6x6,5,4 as heavy as possible
Behind the neck snatch grip push press: 5x5,4,3 as heavy as possible
Alt paused presses w 90% of what I used on day 1.1 with pin presses w 110% (keeping close grip)
Push press: 5x5,4,3 as heavy as possible
Farmer’s walk: 3-4 30 yds walks w 71 kg (in each hand)

Pull ups: 6x4 supersetted w push presses

Chin ups: 6x5 supersetted w push presses
Suitcase carries: 6-8 30 yds walks w 71 kg (use straps if needed)

First thing I tried to do was just insert the throwing & sprinting days right after day 1.2 and 2.2, so I would do some physical activity every single day of the week (a recommendation of James Steel for old guys like me: train every day, shorter, more intense sessions). Sounded great, worked horribly. Even before the bad knee started killing me most major muscle groups and joints were bitterly complaining (to a point in which I could not sleep well because of all the aches). And there was no way I could train every single day (there is this little thing called job, plus frantic dissertation writing, plus wife and kids wanting to do things together). So, nice as it looked on paper, I switched to a true 3-days a week lifting routine (reducing sets and reps, and not going so heavy) with 2 days for putting and sprinting, something like:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
High Bar Back Squat: 3x6 at a RPE 8
Back overhead trhrow: 5
Behind the neck snatch grip push press: 4x3 at RPE 8
Back overhead trhrow: 5
Jump squats: 5x3 RPE 5
Close Grip Bench Press: 4x5 at RPE 8
Standing put: 5
Alt pull ups w chin ups, 5 sets, 5th to failure
Standing put: 10
Clean & Jerk:
6x2 at RPE 9
Power Snatch: 5x2 kinda heavy
Gliding put: 15
Front squat: 4x4 at a RPE 6
Gliding put: 10
Farmer’s walk: 6-8 30 yds walks, as heavy as possible

Hill sprints: 10
Alt paused bench press and pin press (closed grip) 4x4 at RPE 7
Hill sprints: 10

Which seemed to work fine, until the problem with the knee showed up. I hope to alleviate it reducing the total number of throws per week (may be increasing a bit the sprints in exchange, I’ve found I had lost a lot of running capacity, and some fast running is good for the body AND for the soul), but probably it will be a bit of trial and error until I find more precisely what my body can withstand. The key lesson I’ve taken is that “as heavy as possible” (or “as fast as possible”, or “as long as possible”) takes a toll on the organism, and at my age I can afford to do it only so frequently, not certainly every single day.

So at least until September I intend to increase the total reps per week judiciously without adding much in the way of additional plates, even fractional ones, whilst trying to keep the total time per session constant (or even reduce it a little). The variable I will be manipulating, then, is density, trying to fit more volume (through increased reps) in the same time. If I succeed, I have zero doubts I will have grown stronger and, with a minimal transition, I will be hitting big numbers in the main lifts in the fall (when I’ll decide if I go for the planned weightlifting specialization, and seek some lessons from an experienced coach, or move back to powerlifting). 

Finally, I’ve also started to change my eating patterns, from “I’ll gobble up whatever I find in my vicinity, lack of hunger and awful satiety be damned!” to a more sensible “I’ll only eat to the point of feeling moderately satisfied”. I’ve started loosing some weight, but at this point I’d rather take some kilograms off the knee than hope that the additional mass may help me send the shot farther. As I already knew, but had not acknowledged forthrightly, joints (knees and ankles, even hips in some unfortunate cases) are the weakest link when it comes to bearing increased loads, and there are some aspects of health (having functionally, mobile joints is one of them) it is not worth to sacrifice for a marginally improved strength. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Our sunny future III (economy)

Funny weekend, I went this last Sunday to pick my second son from summer camp, and was beyond happy to a) have him back home b) ascertain he had a wonderful time in what amounts to a XIXth century setting (no telephone, no TV, no internet –of course; just the countryside, hiking and playing sports and talking to friends), which speaks volumes of his resilience and promising fortitude and c) he read all of my (longish and probably a tad too philosophical) letters, and seemed to have understood them, mulled them and put them to good use, as he told me in what directions he wanted his character to develop in a way that almost made me burst with pride.  I couldn’t avoid thinking how that particular place in planet Earth (near Segovia, in Spain, where a village peopled by 500 souls is already considered big) would look like in 500 years. Probably not that different from now, may be with more trees (in Spain you still see traces of deforestation everywhere, making it difficult to believe Strabo’s assertion that in II BC a squirrel could cross the peninsula from the Bay of Biscay to the Straits of Gibraltar without putting his paws in the ground) if the country has not become a northern appendage of the Sahara due to climate change by then…

While I drove through the mostly deserted landscape I had ample time to reflect on how our descendants will need to organize their economy to be able to still enjoy a significant standard of living, harnessing the technological advances made by previous generations (which, given the demographic stagnation, they will most likely not be in a position to replicate, but more on that later), given the relatively low density of population that will be a significant part of their lot. As I’m pretty sure they will be much more intelligent than us (not a specially challenging mark), I’m confident they will find a better equilibrium between work time and leisure time (remember my prediction: they’ll work 20% of their waking time tops), and also a better balance between compulsion and freedom (the amount of working time that is socially mandated, vs what they themselves freely decide to undertake). Before I start to describe their economic model I’ll toss out a disclaimer: I’m pretty sure the dominant reason will not be desiderative any more (I realize I haven’t written that much about our dominant reason in this blog, but having devoted 430 pages to describe its genesis and likely demise in my dissertation I hope I’m pardoned for not belaboring that idea beyond what’s strictly necessary). What that means is that people won’t think that satisfying desires (more specifically, those desires that consist in having exclusive access to some material good that signals the rest of humanity how important one is) is the only valid purpose of life. Owning the most outrageously expensive goods will not be considered a sign of superiority, but just poor taste, so the vast majority of humans will not strive to have enormous amounts of money, but to have rich networks of relations with friends and family and to have rewarding experiences that are difficult (but not necessarily expensive) to acquire, like mastering some area of knowledge and being able to gracefully contribute to it, or acquiring an outstanding physical skill they can show to their peers to gain their admiration (requiring an unusual degree of strength, coordination or endurance… but not necessarily linked to a superior monetary reward), or travelling to some renowned place and knowing different people on the way. Simplifying things a bit, I hope that social position will again be linked to what people become (through exertion and dedication, and in ways that exclude pushing others down or cunningly winning in zero sum games), not to what they possess.

So although there will be money and private property, the accumulation of both will stop being a significant driver of behavior. But for that to be the case, the institutions that regulate what to produce and how to distribute it will need to be completely overhauled. I’ve already defended in a number of posts that the first step towards such a future is to ensure everybody enjoys some measure of economic safety, so each individual can devote the main thrust of his efforts towards what he deems important, rewarding and valuable, without fear of destitution and social rejection. Nowadays that can be achieved through a Universal Basic Income, and in the future I can imagine the State still will need to ensure that everybody has enough to eat, something to wear and somewhere to sleep regardless of occupational status, drive or interests. Today, these are the kind of rights that fail miserably because nobody has the equivalent duty of providing them. Compare them with the right to education, that is amply served because the state knows very well that it is its direct responsibility to ensure that every single citizen, rich or poor, hard working or lazy, virtuous or crooked, attains a minimally acceptable educational level ,and thus devotes enough resources to make it happen. In my previous post I already dealt with shelter: new citizens (born in the village or coming from outside with the declared intent of settling in it) are awarded a plot of land with a house in it, which they can reform or rebuild as they like. Regarding food, every village keeps a fraction of the land farmed directly under the elders’ supervision to ensure they keep communal stores well stocked (Not only to distribute free food daily, but to have enough in case of drought or crop failure to support the whole population for a whole season) with the basics: cereal, fruits and vegetables, poultry and meat, milk and cheese. Of course, the land and the cattle do not produce all those goods without human effort, so the question immediately arises where does that effort come from. The immediate response is: taxes. In the XXVth century taxes are not paid in money, but in time. Remember that I estimated the average guy to work 20% of his waking time (vs. 40% today). Well, I would expect the village to require him to spend a fifth of that time in communal duties (so it’s the 20% of a 20% , or a 4%, what we could call the “average tax rate” of the future, for comparison again if you add the highest bracket of marginal income tax, plus indirect taxes, your average Joe pays today between 40 and 60% of what he earns to the State). That adds to a total amount of 233 hours a year, or 29 working days of 8 hours each. I would like to think that around 2500 AD an 8 hour working day would be considered extravagant and somewhat revealing of a mental condition, so it will probably be common to discharge one’s duties towards the community with a bit under three months in all (58 working days, almost 12 weeks) working 4 hours a day. What would that work consist in? I am against excessive specialization, so I’d rather see the duties imposed by the community rotating between farming, cattle raising and manufacturing (with the help of 3D printers and highly automated factories, I think it will be the state who will build the tractors, harvesters, threshers, milkers, etc. that keep the required high productivity of the primary sector), as education should ensure that any citizen was capable of performing any of those jobs, and none of them would be deemed less respectable or glamorous than the rest.

Another way of seeing it, if we assume a “balanced” age pyramid (what is to be expected after the demographic transition is over, and with the simplification that everybody lives to 80 years old and then dies, there would be equal numbers of people of each age) and define a working age between 18 and 65 years of age, 61% of the population is available for working at any given time, and a 4% of that 61% is doing communal work, that means that a 10,000 strong village has a work force of 244 able men and women at its disposal to cultivate its fields (or the part of them required to ensure a minimum amount of food for everybody), raise and tend their cattle, do basic infrastructure repair and maintenance and direct their highly automated factories so they have enough fixed capital (motors, infrastructure and general purpose machinery) to maintain their required productivity. Doesn’t seem like a far stretch actually.

A problem we have to deal with is that of lack of incentives, that has bedeviled any collectivistic economy since they were first thought of. If people just has to work some time in those communal enterprises no matter what, and the rewards of that work are going to be the same (none) regardless of the level of exertion applied to the work, human nature being what it is we could expect them to do the barest minimum, to never reach any significant level of output and the whole thing to fail miserably (see the whole experience of communist countries in the XXth century), as the collectively produced food (and machinery) would not be enough to provide for the needs of everybody and the common infrastructure would be in the saddest state of disrepair. According to that view, it would be better to use a more traditional scheme and tax (i.e. have the State receive a percentage in money form) the rest of the economics activity of the population (what they choose to do with the rest of their time) and then give that money to the needy/ less fortunate so they can choose freely what to spend it into (food, clothes, whatever). This is something I have given a lot of thought to, and I don’t want to just accept the idea of maintaining a monetary economy as something essentially unavoidable because I’ve always seen the UBI as a first step towards the (theoretical possibility of) total elimination of money, and I have the hunch that if the right environment and system of incentives were put in place, at least some villages may forgo entirely the use of coin (at least within their domains, they may use it when traveling outside, of course), and just devote their time to other, non financially rewarded pursuits (studying, playing, practicing sports, meditating and whatnot). I also think that a really educated person should know when to sow and when to reap, how to use a lathe or a mill, how to rectify a piston or restore the flatness of a motor head, how to pave a road or build a ditch, how to milk a cow or cut it up in pieces, how to pick up the trash or repair a solar panel, and that the best way to keep those abilities honed is to be able to practice them occasionally. Also, the best way to avoid the potential stigma associated with some professions is to have everybody perform then (or have the possibility of ever having to perform them).

So for its salutary effects towards a more egalitarian society (and more conductive to the development of fully rounded human beings) I would keep the payment of taxes in time and not in money. Which presents us with the problem of how to ensure a reasonable level of productivity in the activities performed during that time. The best way I can think of is to define a target level for each kind of work (hectares harvested, streets cleaned, meters of road repaired, number of pistons manufactured…) and both penalize underachievement (the penalties would take the form of additional time to be worked above the base 4%) and incentivize overachievement (either by an equivalent reduction in the “taxed” time or by a monetary reward, if the activities require some coordination and the rest of the crew is not for speeding their work). Those targets should be periodically revised to reflect the technological level (although I’ve already stated that I do not expect a whole lot of technological breakthroughs in my steady state economy) and what is considered a “fair” level of effort. Note that I have assigned a number of tasks to communal enterprises, like the manufacturing of heavy machinery or the maintenance of roads (or the growing of food and the raising and slaughtering of cattle), that could be “outsourced” to private citizens willing to take them and able to perform them with greater efficiency (because, through specialization, they have people able to do them faster and with less effort, or because they have invested in more advanced machinery to do them in less time than what the state can afford). Wouldn’t everybody be better off if potentially ALL of the activities I assigned to the state were done by private companies, pursuing their private benefit, as long as it cost less total effort to the community? In that case, of course, we would be back at a fully functioning money economy exactly like today’s, where nobody does nothing for the common good except pay taxes (because the state needs some revenue to pay for all those services), and those private companies make ever increasing amounts of money by trying to milk the system providing as crappy a service as they can get away with, and flaunt it, and give everybody an incentive to make additional money too… you see where this is heading. So the answer to the previous question is a resounding NO. Nobody would be better off, because even though they may have more free time it would come at the expense of debasing that time, and putting a price on those services the whole community benefits from, and reintroducing a social arrangement where some players can make more money than they can spend, so they end up spending it in positional goods whose only benefit (to them or anybody else) is to make other people jealous (something we humans have proven to be very good at finding), and we are back at the rat race and the keeping up with the Joneses mentality.

We have settled, then, that each village keeps a minimum level of self sufficiency and keeps at any given time a 4% of the population working for the common good (which, between other things, should be enough to produce enough food to cover the basic needs of every inhabitant for free and keep common infrastructure in pristine condition). Now what do people do with the remaining 96% of their time? Pretty much what they want, including any additional activity to improve their material conditions. They can craft things for themselves, or for the market (I hope a discerning one). However, given the market would be stationary and the transportation costs high (very little aerial transport and no railroads, as there wouldn’t be the population densities to make it economically viable, so some limited shipping and trucking is all you can count on) there wouldn’t be much reason to invest in great manufacturing centers to mass produce anything for the thinly distributed potential consumers, specially given its fixed size (no population growth), their roughly similar income and their not being amenable to planned obsolescence (in flat countries I like to imagine bicycles passing from one generation to the next in equally mint condition as a most precious inheritance). Also I like to think in an egalitarian enough society, where everybody has similar skills and nobody is in need of sucking it up to anybody else, there wouldn’t be much scope for services as we know them (why would you want to ask an unknown fella to cut your hair in exchange for money? Much easier to cut it yourself, or ask somebody willing to do it for free in your immediate circle, maybe in exchange for some similarly informal favor, and the same logic applies to cleaning, doing the laundry, walking the dogs or gardening). Maybe to some this sounds like a communistic nightmare, the idea of renouncing to their personal servants too hard to stomach, but I think it would make for an infinitely more humane, more dignified society (I would rather not quote the arch famous passage by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit about the dialectic between master and servant, what I took from it is that the relationship degrades and diminishes both). Also, a society in which everybody consumes what they need, not what they are made to want by an insane system of artificial desires creation (aka advertising) there wouldn’t be any of that most annoying of figures, the salesman, pretending to offer solutions to problems of their own devising (never of their clients’). A double win.

However, anybody willing to devote some effort doing something that he expected would bring some economic gain would be absolutely free to pursue his dream. The state would rent for life the land required (my calculations have always taken into account having more than necessary both for extra private cultivation or for the setting of industries) for a modest fee (it would need that extra income for ends we will disclose later), and just watch that no pollution is generated (a strict policy of “zero footprint” and no externalities will be enforce; any economic activity has to clean their own mess and be able to devolve the land they’ve used in the same pristine condition in which they had received it). People would be absolutely free to do what they want in the land they are assigned: convince others to collaborate with them, pay them as they see fit (remember, anybody could leave at any moment without fearing for their subsistence or their families’), produce what their ingenuity dictated and distribute it as they fancy, asking in exchange whatever they think fair. No taxes attached to such activity, and no burdensome regulation (beyond the “zero footprint”). If they want to work 23 hours a day 7 days a week, it is entirely up to them, although I hope they are cleverer than that, and even if they are not, their neighbors contempt would probably wake them up to what is really important and considered valuable in their social milieu soon enough. If everybody is playing 14 hours a day, and learning and talking and traveling with little baggage and thinking and discussing and expanding their minds, somebody that chose to slave in some manufactory to single mindedly churn out more gadgets hoping they would allow him to have more money (to what end? So some day he could relax and play and learn and talk and travel, as in the old story? Well, he could do that right away without all the previous slaving) would be considered utterly insane, and just left alone, not admired and praised as we do today.

So that’s it in a nutshell: same private property (except land, which can only be temporarily alienated, but not bought in perpetuity), same money (although less necessary, to the point of being possible to live entirely without it) as today, so people have maximal freedom to pursue what they individually consider valuable. But taxes collected in time, instead of that money (so people are forced to acquire a wider set of skills, and no stigma is associated to certain occupations) and redistributed in a way that practically frees human from the need to work (outside of the meager 4% of their time the state requires), and gives an actual content to the right to a living sustenance.

There are a few details I have left out (the role of high tech industry, and how to ensure a baseline level of R&D to avoid regression) that I will come back to in my next post in this issue, as this is already long enough.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Our sunny future II (politics)

In my previous post I started presenting an Idyllic view of life on Earth in year 2500 AD, where a bunch of humans (well, there are still 500 millions of them, that’s 1,000 times more than the current number of elephants, more than 12,000 times the current number of all rhinos, and more than 5,000 times the current number of gorillas, just to compare with other large mammals with similar metabolic demands) live scattered in little villages surrounded by fertile fields they till and tend with the help of heavily automated machinery, which enables them to lead lives of leisure and health, with a substantial part of their time devoted to traveling and knowing the world. Today I want to focus on how they govern themselves, to ensure a maximum of safety and freedom. To that end, I’ll first need to review why we need a government in the first place, what it is essential for and what it has ended doing because of the very contingent vagaries of our chosen path of social development (and thus we should at least consider freeing it of those responsibilities). Why is there a group of people we are willing to surrender a fraction of our liberty to, then?

·        For clarification of the rules we give to ourselves. As the publicity, clarity and consistency of those rules is a precondition to live together in harmony, we want an independent body charged with proposing them, discussing them and giving those that are finally chosen a “seal of approval” that allows everybody to know since when they are enacted and thus can be enforced. This we will call “State as legislator” (aka the legislative branch). Today, we produce a most complex and protracted amount of legislation hierarchically organized, so there are some charters and rules for multinational bodies, then each country has a constitution and a myriad laws and regulations published by the parliament, the region, the city hall, the professional governing body, ad infinitum
·        For convenience, as they can provide us with services that it would be very difficult (read: impossible) to leave to private initiative because there is no “market” for them, as they a) can’t be priced fairly (their price elasticity is infinite) or b) imply a huge asymmetry of information or power between the provider and the receiver or c)  the good of ensuring universal access vastly outweights the lack of competition derived from providing them publicly. Under this category I have in other posts classed (basic) education, healthcare (up to a point), basic infrastructure (energy and telecommunications) and safety & security (police & army), but what is true of the XXIst century may not be of the XXVIth. This we will call the “State as big corporation that gives us things nobody else would” (aka the executive branch)
·        For arbitration, as an impartial 3rd party to adjudicate in the myriad disputes, big and small, that arise incessantly when living together. As each person is endowed by nature with an inordinate fondness for his own welfare and enjoyment and too little for those of his fellow humans, so every time there is a conflict between different parties its resolution can be greatly expedited if there is an external source of legitimate decision both parties can agree to submit to. This we will call “State as judge” (aka juridical branch)
·        For security and peace of mind, we want there to be a monopoly of violence, and that monopoly to be exercised by an institution that is as transparent as possible, as accountable to the majority as possible, and as restrained in its use as possible. I have listed that security previously as one of the services the State provided for convenience, but I think it belongs to a separate category, as the previous three would be meaningless if the State did not have the means to enforce the laws that it passed, to secure the monopolies it granted itself and to have its judicial decisions respected. Indeed, this is the most problematic of all the things we want to have performed, as history shows it is all too easy to allow for increasing levels of “mission creep” and ensuring the safety of the citizens ends up being the excuse for meddling in their lives, administering every little activity and communication they engage in and just bossing around for its own sake. This we will call “State as a night (or day) watchman” (aka security apparatus)  
So we are breaking no new ground here, people may disagree regarding the extent of the involvement of a collective apparatus (agencies of the State) in each of those areas, but a vast majority are for at least some limited involvement in each, if not for their complete collectivization (now, remember I am an anarcho traditionalist… the anarchistic part makes me oppose to that majority’s opinion in this, which will be abundantly clear when I describe what I consider the ideal society). I maintain that such approval derives from the irrational attachment we have to an outmoded social organization which was geared towards international competition through increased production of material goods, and is particularly ill suited to the kind of future that is starting to take shape already in the second decade of the XXIst century.

We will leave how we get from here to there for a later post, and start right away describing how each of those functions will evolve between now and 2500 AD. Given that the village (remember, about 10,000 people strong) is the main administrative unit, and that there will be about 50,000 of them, which would make their coordination pretty cumbersome for any project that required the collaboration of multiple villages, I see as necessary an intermediate level of “village federations”, of which there should be roughly around 500 (so each one encompasses 100 villages, and represents the interests of a million people).
·         Legislation consists of two documents: the “Charter of Humanity” and the “Village Charter”. The first lists the rights and duties of every human being (so it not only identifies what every person can legitimately expect to receive, but who has the direct duty to provide it to him/ her), and it shouldn’t be more than a page long (along the lines of the current UN declaration of the rights of man, but in stark contrast with it, it would be embedded in a society with the means to respect them). Two rights merit special attention, the right to means of subsistence (the State shall effectively provide enough food to any citizen, regardless of employment or status) and the right to move and settle where they see fit (people will be actively encouraged to travel to become familiar with how other villages order their affairs, and any village shall accept and provide for any traveler that declares his intention to settle in it)
The second defines (again, in no more than two, three pages) how each particular village is ruled. The universal template stipulates the appointment of a council of “village elders” (between five and ten in number) to act as board of directors of the collective facilities (we will describe what they consist in when we deal with the economic organization) and as judges. They may have great latitude to appoint auxiliary bodies to temporarily take care of the communal business (oversee some significant public work, investigate some new area of research, gather evidence in some complex case they have to decide about, etc.). Now each village may have their own rules on how those elders are chosen (democratically or by examination or by birth, for a short period or for life, etc.) and to what kind of restrictions they are bound (some villages may prefer that they devote their time exclusively to the community, and so declare it incompatible to pursue any individual business whilst in office, and some others may allow them to engage in both). The key here, again, is that people will have the freedom to move from one village to another and to settle wherever they want (remember indeed that a significant amount of time is spent travelling and communicating with people in other villages), so if one is very poorly managed it will just see its population dwindle and will thus have the greater incentive to reform.
The village elders send one representative (at least twice a year, although there is also latitude on how frequently they meet) to a council of the village federation where the issues between different villages are resolved (as villages never overlap, and have a fixed amount of land allotted to them, there should be almost very few of these, although some are conceivable, like pollution of a shared river by an upstream neighbor) and common initiatives (like the improvement and upgrade of the communication networks) are approved and monitored. Finally, the different federations send two representatives to the world council (which meets at least once a year), where the biggest projects humanity as a whole embarks upon are decided and steered.  Thus a minimalist framework of laws and institutions regulate the use of the commons, and everybody has a strictly equal representation. All the rest of day to day activities are regulated by “private” contracts or free agreements between the directly affected parts, as the citizenry is homogeneous enough regarding power, wealth and ability to influence each other as not to require infinitely complex norms to restore a semblance of balance and fairness.
·         There is just one monopoly in the hands of the state, and two additional services that it provides. It monopolizes land, and assigns it sequentially both for its residential use and for agriculture and industry (we will explain more about the latter when we talk about the economy). Every newborn and every foreigner that arrives with the stated intent of settling in the village is allotted a patch of land to build a dwelling in and (if such is his inclination) to cultivate. After the first generation all the available patches may have some housing already built in them, and once they are made available (after the death of the previous inhabitants) the new dwellers may choose to tear it down and build a new house from scratch, or to modify it as they see fit. Some villages may want to enforce some building regulations (to ensure a modicum of safety or of energy efficiency) and some not. Regarding services, the only ones provided by the state are physical means of communication (keeping roads in good state and, if by the sea, a functioning harbor) and telecommunications (having high bandwidth access universally available to any citizen within the area under the control of the village). Significantly, medicine is left in the hands of the citizenry because by then it will have stopped having infinite price elasticity. If a citizen is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he won’t be willing to pay a fortune (all that he has and more) to extend his life a few months, but he will instead bid farewell to his loved ones and get a modest dose of painkillers to die peacefully. Beyond that, normal medical services will be provided by those with the inclination and the ability to do so, offered in an open market subject to competition, which will determine that they set reasonable prices in exchange for the best service they can offer. I will have more to say regarding both education and security later on, so I do not have to belabor this point.
·         We already mentioned that the village elders would be the judges to which any case of disagreement is brought. They will not need to be trained in a whole monstrous discipline (law), as all the relevant laws will occupy all of four or five pages in plain language and understandable by everybody. In a society of equals (we will see when we talk of how economy works what mechanisms it will develop to limit inequality and ensure nobody becomes so wealthy as to exert an unduly influence on the common business) there is less risk of the judiciary being bought by particular interests, but in this case we would have the tempering effect of the freedom of movement. If the elders of a village were consistently unjust, and there were no legal ways of removing them from office, their village would witness an exodus that would force them (or their descendants) to change their ways. I do expect a very substantial reduction of crimes, specially against persons and properties (in an open societies where everybody is effectively –against just nominally, as in our own society- ensured of having enough to subsist it is to be expected that only pathological cases, with which we will deal in short order, may be compelled to threaten, maim or hurt their fellow citizens or their rightful belongings), but given the litigious nature of human beings I could imagine in certain zones and places a significant burden on the elders under the weight of countless demands of civil and commercial nature. Although nothing in my proposed organization would prevent them from appointing auxiliary courts for judging in particular areas, I’d rather prefer that they would provide guidelines for the writing of contract between individuals to better foresee and resolve in advance the potential differences in interpretation that may arise during their execution.
·         Finally, we come to the very delicate aspect of how will the community enforce the norms that it dictates to itself. Old school anarchists were violently opposed to the idea that a dedicated force to that end were even necessary, as in a perfect society, defined by its liberty, equality and fraternity (or any such set of republican virtues) people would naturally behave well and disinterestedly contribute to their countrymen’s well being to the full extent of their capabilities, never breaking a rule they would have given to themselves freely and voluntarily. Maybe, maybe not (as never in the history of our species has such society existed, or is likely to exist). I tend more towards Kant’s view of men, from whose crooked timber nothing good ever came. Even in my dreamed society of equals, where ambition is reconducted to “speaking great words and making great deeds” instead of “owning more shiny things than your neighbor” there will be unjustified violence (as long as there are young men full of testosterone and alcohol), petty crime and potentially more serious one (rape, sexual abuse, even murder). There will be lazy bums, maladapted whiners, miscreants, malingerers, communal job slackers (the equivalent of today’s tax evaders), remorseless over procreators, and more seriously, violent psychopaths, dangerous schizophrenics, pedophiles and wife beaters. The most benign cases may be talked out of their wayward ways and with some monitoring and supervision be made productive citizens again. Unfortunately, evil is very real and some people will be (as they are today) evil beyond redemption, so they will have to be identified (some are wily and skilled in dissimulation) and dealt with, humanely but firmly. For all that, a dedicated police force is unavoidable, and it is better if they are under the community’s control, in the form of the village elders, who decide on their size, eventual expansion or contraction, the guidelines of conduct of their members and their eventual dismissal.      
So essentially that is all the state I see in the XXVIth century: 5 officials per every 10,000 people, plus the police force they deem necessary (but which on average I think shouldn’t go beyond 10-15 well trained officers), a short set of universal rules and another, similarly short set of local rules, and open borders to ultimately vote with your feet in case or irresolvable disagreement with the latter (both with how they are written or how they are effectively implemented).

That minimal State will need very little surplus to be extracted from the population in the form or taxes (or rather, communal work) for its maintenance, but that leads us to how this future world will organize its production and distribution, something with which I will deal in my next post.