Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What happened after 2016 (the end of the world as we knew it)

I’ve been wanting to flesh out how the collapse of our civilization may play out for some time now, and the closing of America’s RNC has given me the perfect hook on which to hang most of my concerns about the exhaustion of our societal model and how the dominant reason that succeeds the current one may gain a foothold. To make it easier to understand to my readers, I’ll use the ages-old device of presenting it as it may be seen from the far future, let’s say the year 2116, when it has been fully played out. Let’s pretend, then, that what follows is extracted from a history textbook written for the 6th graders of any village of that year:

The beginning of the end (of the second wave of globalization) and the “time of troubles”

As we described in the last chapter, the first years of the XXIst century CE may be seen as the apex of the movement towards globalization and the imposition of a universal culture that started right after the destructive global wars of the previous century. Until the Great Recession of 2007 every year saw an increase in the amount of goods traded between countries, a lowering of tariffs and a gradual diminution of the barriers to the movement of people. The European Union reached its peak size after the accession of the ex-communist countries recently freed from the Soviet yoke. The Asian countries, led by China, vastly increased their wealth by exporting substantial amounts of mostly cheap goods (thanks to the advantages of ultra-cheap labor, lax intellectual property standards and little regulation, both environmental and regarding health & safety). A multinational organization devoted to easing trade (WTO) achieved consistent advances and every decade saw the appearance of a new trading bloc or free trading area.

However, the 2007 Recession, caused initially by an explosion in easy credit centered in the North American housing market (which caused the bankruptcy of a major financial institution, Lehman Brothers, and forced the State to bailout most of the major banks, along with substantial parts of the automotive industry) soon extended to the rest of the world and exposed deeper problems, more structural in nature, that the credit bubble had masked for decades. Already in the end of the XXth century the advanced economies (and those of Asia, most of the Middle East and Latin America) had reached a demographic tipping point that plunged their fertility rates below replacement levels. For some time, the effects of such lack of replacement was hidden by the fact that an improvement in sanitary conditions in the less developed economies (especially the collective abandonment of self-poisoning through tobacco “smoking”, a practice whose prevalence is now difficult to imagine), plus substantial immigration in the most advanced ones kept the total population numbers growing, a growth that in turn increased the aggregated demand and thus created economic opportunity for most of those willing to work, independent of their age.

The predictable effect of population decrease was compounded by the beginning of what is nowadays known as the Great Collapse. Due to a number of reasons whose relative influence is still hotly debated by scholars and historians specializing in that obscure period, almost all societies (with the exception of China) stopped investing in physical infrastructure and allowed their artificial environments to slowly but steadily degrade, producing energy in either more expensive ways (and with comparatively lesser yields) or through environmentally unsustainable practices (burning fossil fuels); travelling in slower, less convenient means, haphazardly maintained (as the growing number of accidents attested); building housing units and civil works using the same processes and materials developed around the middle of the previous century and making any activity more and more cumbersome by the accretion of endless rules and norms. In general, after the great advances in quality of life that took place roughly until 1970 (that went in parallel with similarly unprecedented advances in Total Factor Productivity), life in 2007 started looking suspiciously similar to what it looked like in 1990 (mobile telephony and the internet being the only appreciable changes), and even more so like what it would look like in 2057 (except, of course, in the political arena, as we will shortly see). As with technology, it is startling how little culture evolved in those times, as people in 2007 not only dressed very much like their immediate forebears, but kept hearing almost the same popular music (mostly minor developments of the styles and rhythms developed in the fifth and sixth decades of the previous century), reading the same books and watching new versions of the same movie franchises.

The lack of demographic growth plus the start of the long decline in Total Factor Productivity that came to the fore of public opinion after the 2007 crisis is identified by many as the underlying factor in the growing disenchantment with the traditional consensus of what a good society should look like, based broadly on the specifically Western trifecta of representative democracy in politics, minimally regulated free markets based on private property in economics and materialism and deference to the methods of natural science in culture. Absent economic development to provide the masses with the reasonable prospect of ever increasing wealth (based on the immediate precedent of the last two centuries, that had seen in the West roughly a doubling of the average income every generation) they came to see such consensus as an illegitimate construct to favor the elites and make them ever richer at the expense of the majority, who in the advanced economies hadn’t seen a significant increase in its average wealth since the 1980’s. It is unsurprising, seen in retrospect, that the whole system would start to unravel as soon as it was exposed as such, and the only question open to historians is why it took so long. The sequence of events is by now well known:

In the summer of 2016, more than 8 years into the Great Recession and after having barely recovered the level of economic output previous to it, the British public decided, by the slimmest majority, to leave the European Union, effectively giving the coup de grace to an institution that (as is now widely agreed) was ill-conceived from the start and had outlived its original purpose (prevent the bellicose Europeans from killing one another, as they had been doing enthusiastically and with ever growing proficiency for the last four hundred years… without realizing their bellicosity was the precondition of their inventiveness and their distinctive social evolution). In the summer of 2017 Italy had to be expelled when a banking crisis that had been festering for years (being widely acknowledged but without anybody in its surroundings doing anything to prevent it, in what came to be known as the EU standard operating procedure) finally hit and sent the interest payments on its debt soaring, making it impossible for her to comply with the deficit targets imposed by her partners. The Italian exit precipitated that of Greece (that had been on life support for almost five years under ever more demented austerity plans that were imposed for no reason at all, as none of them had the slightest chance of ever allowing her to get back on her feet), Portugal, Spain, Ireland and finally France (which clinged to her prized European membership until 2022, when Marine Le Pen won the presidential election on a platform that openly advocated breaking a relationship that a wide majority of the French saw as hopelessly subordinated to Germany). Unsurprisingly, in 2023 Germany decided to rename what was left of the European Union as RFGV (Reich der Freunde den Germanische Völker -they somehow thought that by making it an empire of friends and assuming those friends were of the Germanic and not of the German peoples the Scandinavians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Czechs and the like would feel more comfortable… as long as they could keep on using their old euros, promptly rechristened as Neue Reichmarken, they all declared to be satisfied enough), make German the official language (with the other languages spoken as co-official in their respective regions, under the supervision of a Gauleiter), disband the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (parliament and senate) and leave the Central Bank effectively run a mildly benevolent autocratic commonwealth where elections were conveniently forgotten, given the dangers of populism they could plainly see all around them. To this day they are busily growing richer and exporting to the rest of the world high quality products (built with a technology that hasn’t changed much in a century) but having to devote growing resources to the Reichswehr, the army, whose sole and only function is to guard the frontiers and avoid any kind of illegal immigration into the Reich.

The abandonment by the most successful European polity of any visage of democratic principle came as a relief for the Asian economies, that were by then a bit tired of being hectored and harangued by the meddling Western powers about the apparent shortcomings of their democratic practices, and could turn to more autocratic forms of government (which they understood as more congenial to their traditions), growingly demanded by their graying citizenry that were quickly becoming old before they had time to become wealthy. Now most of them languish placidly, managing their shrinking populations without much fuss under the aegis of the regional hegemon. China, obviously, rules them all, and extracts rents from most of them having put them under formal vassalage in the great raids held between 2028 and 2045, and today understood as the last attempt to provide an outlet for the millions of young men with no marriage prospects (by then the surplus of males over females was well above fifteen million) and with no potential occupation, after the dramatic shrinkage of its export market in the international turmoil of the 20’s and the failure to substitute a services-centered model for the export-centered that had been dominant until then. Soon afterwards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed its name to Chinese Perpetually Ruling Party (CPRP) and reinstated the imperial examination system based in the Confucian classics that had served the empire so well for most of its history, declared its intention to lead an (not very originally named) “Asian Sphere of Shared Prosperity” and demanded payment from the surrounding states in exchange for the security it would provide them (security in the first place from being invaded by China itself). Those that didn’t comply were raided until the changed their minds, creating a new equilibrium that has shown to be surprisingly stable, and allowed that part of the world to escape most of the problems that have besieged the rest.

Probably Africa is the continent that has seen a most dramatic change since the beginning of the last century (with one exception we will deal with shortly), as most states that were artificially created after the decolonization wave of the second half of the XXth century have withered away. Such withering came about, in what has been a welcome departure from the norm in that continent’s tortured history, in a mostly voluntary manner. It all started with the creation of the first charter cities, as originally postulated by the economist (who in 2016 become the World’s Bank chief economist) Paul Romer, that had been proposing them for years but couldn’t find an institution with enough authority (and enough money) to underwrite them until the sad events of 2017. That year saw the concession of the first special charter, for New Lagos, in what was back then called Nigeria, whose mildly corrupt (for the admittedly low standard of the continent) rulers saw the temporal renunciation to the sovereignty over a small and empty plot of land as an acceptable price to pay in order to better extract resources from their hapless subjects (or in this case, from the crazy foreigners willing to administer a portion of those subjects and provide them with the required amenities). In less than 10 years New Lagos was one of the most vibrant cities of the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants (that were thus diverted from attempting to reach the more foreboding shores of Europe) and providing a valuable market for the produce of the surrounding hinterland, all the while paying good royalties to the Nigerian leaders that soon realized the convenience of scaling the model with new concessions. Not only Nigeria, but Congo, South Africa, Guinea, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia… after 2060 even the North African countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria) were creating charter cities, and there was a growing movement towards them, where infrastructure was shiny and new, public order and safety were comparable to those in the first world (there were many reports of abuse from the draconian -and well paid- police forces trained in South Africa and Israel, but most people were willing to turn a blind eye on such details), to the extent that the old cities (literally now known with such prefix, as in “old Lagos”, “old Abuja”, “old Cairo”) were being abandoned, and only the villas of the ultra-wealthy original rulers remained, surrounded by empty shantytowns with nobody to directly rule (which suited them fine, as long as the royalties kept on coming). All in all, the move to charter cities proved to be the key masterstroke that broke the cycle of dependency of the continent and allowed most of its inhabitants to reach levels of development like those enjoyed by their Asian counterparts. As a side consequence, the explosive demographic growth that characterized the region for much of the XXth century was abruptly halted, as in their new urban life all girls had access to education and all women to contraceptives, substantially reducing the number of children they bore (the significant inflation on real state that accompanied the most successful cities acted as an additional brake to runaway fertility).

We hinted that only a continent has seen a more dramatic political change than Africa, and that is of course North America. Difficult as it may seem today to believe, at the beginning of last century the North American continent was occupied by only three countries: Mexico (encompassing modern day North Honduras, Deefelandia, Monterrey, Guerrero and Tamaulipas), Canada (in what today is Quebec and American Britain) and the USA. The latter was the first to divide, after the tumultuous election of 2016 (when it was still a single country), whose too-close-to-call outcome was hotly contested by both candidates (real estate mogul Donald Trump and career politician Hillary Clinton) and could never be adjudicated by a stalemated supreme court (which the Republican party had astutely refused to leave at less than full capacity). As the demonstrations on the streets in favor of one or the other candidate grew more rancorous and the accusations towards the “other side” became more outrageous the states back then known as “red” (mostly republican) seceded for the second time (they had already done so in  1861), this time there was no sitting president to order the army to subdue them (and the majority in that army was in favor of the republican candidate anyway, so it is highly dubious in what direction may their loyalty have laid) so the separation, presented to the rest of the world as a fait accompli and enthusiastically endorsed since the very beginning by Russia (whose president then, Vladimir Putin, had strong personal bonds with Trump’s team), was completed in a relatively bloodless way (with minor massacres of gays, blacks and latinos in the red states and openly religious old white males in the blue ones), creating the current FUSA (Free United States of America, encompassing the old South) and GUSA (Greater United States of America, in what was the old Union, plus California). An old joke of the age stated that the F in the former stood really for Fundamentalist, while the G of the latter was really for Godless.

Be it as it may, the evolution of the former hegemon (again, surprising as it may seem from our current vantage point, the old USA was by far the dominant power of the XXth century) has been in its Southern part (FUSA) a chaotic succession of urban violence (between a population armed with insane amounts of firearms which made the supposed monopoly of violence by a chronically weak and underfunded state a cruel mockery), prevalence of drugs and millenarian sects without a millennium, coups, revolutions and overall social devolution to a fragmented landscape of tribes and clans that few people from outside has the interest or the taste to comprehend. Things have not gone much better in GUSA, although it kept the more economically dynamic parts of the old country (the West Coast, the Northern half of the East Coast and the manufacturing hub around lake Michigan), as the aging of its population pushed the most talented individuals to emigrate to the moderately successful (by then) Mexican economy in search for a better climate in a stable country (the role Florida and the Sun Belt had played previously), which got overheated by the influx of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that soon grew impatient with the level of corruption and inefficiency of the Mexican state so essentially blew it up, buying it piecemeal and giving birth to the variety of countries we know today. Back in the North, the escape of the wealthiest individuals, the accelerated demographic implosion and the overall lack of economic dynamism created a “death spiral” of ever growing taxes to fund the extravagant liabilities the state had contracted with the multiple interest groups (with little solidarity between them) that stayed within its frontiers. Such taxes, however, proved unable to prevent the public debt from reaching 500% of the country’s GDP in 2045 (5 years later the scenario would play itself again in the European lands of the German empire, and 10 years before, in 2034, it had happened in the ramshackle nations of the South) and causing finally its bankruptcy, the formal renunciation to honor its debts and keep on paying the bonds and pensions it owed to 95% of the population. To prevent the riots and revolts that ensued the 5% that by then controlled 100% of the country’s productive resources resorted, like in South Europe before (and in Northern Europe afterwards), to a suspension of democracy and rule of law, enforced by mercenary armies that had slowly replaced the national military, and were loyal to their paymasters instead of the politicians supposedly appointed to oversee them.

Thus ended the age of democracy and representative government, with the horrors of mob rule, the periodic rise of demagogues and the manipulation of the masses by canny politicians, carrying them to pitch fever to more savagely accomplish their selfish purposes as shown in the countless wars, genocides and revolutions that took place in such period, and thus arose once again the order and predictability of stable government by those most able to provide it, as had been the case for most of human history. Now we look upon those turbulent years with horror and disgust, and we barely understand the kind of motives they gave themselves for acting so selfishly and so rudely. As the work of one of the less noted historians of that dark age reminds us, it is easy to take for granted the dominant reason of our own times and think that every alternative is inferior and indefensible, but we must overcome such temptation and empathetically put ourselves in their place, understanding how their own dominant reason came to be, if only to ensure we learn from their monstrous mistakes and ensure we never again repeat them”.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Jobs, machines, robots and civilizational collapse

My good friend Pedro Linares has been pointing lately a surprising number of good articles in the web to me, from this little piece in the New Yorker: Better kind of Happiness (it alleviates my guilt from reading that quintessentially elitist outfit that my friends also indulge in such habit), which prefigured many of the ideas I later reflected in my latest post on how to live (Live Kantianly!, or engage in long-term projects that are hard and keep you engaged, ‘cuz Kant already told you so, you moron!) to this other piece from Acemoglu and Restrepo Job race: machines vs. humans which he posted in his always commendable blog. The latter, even though full of logical flaws in reasoning that reveal the sad state of what passes today for advanced social science, got me thinking about the stated race between automating technologies (job killing) and the supposed creation of cognitively more complex tasks that it enables (job creating), and allowed me to reach a number of conclusions that I’ll share in this post, as they clarify the likely form that our civilization’s final demise may take in the next decade.

First, as I mentioned in my recent review of Robert Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth (3rd Industrial Revolution? fuggedaboudid!), in this area surprisingly the techno-optimists are driven to the gloomier predictions, as they (wrongly) believe the (inexistent) acceleration of innovations will speed up the pace of automation and drive countless (and ever growing) hordes of workers (starting with the less skilled ones, but soon affecting the ones engaged in more cognitively demanding jobs) out of work. On the contrary, according to Gordon there is not much innovation going on (as measured by the ability of new technology to produce increases in Total Factor Productivity, or TFP, which has been notoriously flat since a comparatively anemic spurt in the 90’s of last century), which means that the much-touted and much-ballyhooed automation that would condemn most of us and our descendants to technological unemployment is simply not happening (here you can find none other than Robert Gordon himself explaining it in Vox: The Master Speaks!).

Everything else being equal, the lack of technological progress (in Acemoglu and Restrepo’s model, the diminishing pressure of automation, even in an environment of “cheap capital” which would make substituting for human labor attractive) should ease the pressure on labor and thus contribute to a decrease in the rate of unemployment, an upward trend in salaries and a growing percentage of labor’s reward as a percentage of GDP (as opposed to capital, which would see a diminishing reward). As that doesn’t reflect at all what we see, we have to conclude that either the model is crap (my first option) or that everything else is not equal (also true). I should note that the model mentions the existence of automatic stabilizers that should prevent it from letting one of the competing tendencies get too much ahead the other one. According to the authors, in a situation of crazy technical progress, with automation getting seriously out of whack the downward pressure on salaries would make it more attractive for employers to hire humans to do cognitively more demanding tasks, thus creating new openings for positions that did not exist previously that in turn would increase the number of jobs (countervailing the downward pressure on salaries, as the new jobs would be better remunerated than the lost ones).

There is, of course, a more parsimonious explanation of why the progress of technology since the Industrial Revolution has not left all of us idle (Leontieff’s paradox, more about it later): as more people have lost their jobs salaries have indeed go down and capital’s bargaining position has improved, thus moving the supply curve for labor to the left (people “at the margin” were willing to work for less), thus intersecting the demand curve at a higher level of employment, even if such employment was worse paid for a total higher number of hours (on aggregate, although it may go either way for the average number of hours worked by each individual worker). As I showed in my post about fiscal policy, even one that dwarfed the content of a Keynesian wettest dreams would not do much to change that and get more people back to work (lots of supply and demand curves) but remember how I laid out in that post the way things have played out historically: the reason technology has not consistently depressed the total employment figure is because population has consistently added additional consumers to the market, thus increasing the aggregate demand more than what the aggregate supply could meet just by the technological improvements. Thus industry (and services) had to resort to adding more of just about any factor (more machinery, but also more workers) to meet it. But population has more or less stopped growing, except for a few remnants of African villages that have no resources whatsoever to become a source of additional consumers, and are busily trying to migrate to more promising (economic) climates, while the potential receiving locations are similarly busy trying to avoid them doing so.

So I think we are on the last ropes of Leontieff’s paradox. We have seen people finding work in the face of labor-reducing inventions because such inventions were not enough by themselves to supply the appetites (continuously whetted by a very successful dominant reason, y’all know that) of an ever growing demand. Now you may say that even if the number of people demanding additional thingies has stabilized, nothing prevents each one of them from wanting even more, so the aggregate demand could in theory keep on growing forever, even in the absence of population growth. That would be indeed the final goal of a sane economic policy: see how we can stimulate a perpetual improvement of people’s standard of living without a perpetual increase in their numbers, so they produce ever more for each individual without an ever increasing environmental footprint (for example, by providing each other ever more fulfilling services, which have typically a lower consumption of non-renewable resources  than thingies, as things have a tendency of requiring a whole dirty industry behind them to be manufactured and distributed). The “not increase the environmental footprint” is not an additional and extravagant condition that I’ve conjured out of thin air, but a “contour condition” that has to be taken into account if we don’t want to run very rapidly into nature’s limits and trigger all sort of perverse negative feedback effects that send the whole system crashing down (something we may be already doing, btw). Unfortunately, such goal is intrinsically unattainable.

To find out why we need to delve deeper in an aspect I touched only in passing in my post about the limits of fiscal policy: the subtle but consequential difference between the industrial (and agricultural and extractive) sectors and the service sector, a difference that will show why Acemoglu and Restrepo’s model (along with most techno-optimists set of assumptions) is an elegant amount of sheer bunk. Such difference is much obscured by the fact that both products (for which it may be more clear to use the old Marxist term “commodities”) and services are exchanged in the market, so both categories are offered by the best price they can fetch, and end up being paid for in the same currency (money), and thus it is easy to think that both  have an equivalent “value” that is in the end determined by the amount of labor that goes in its production, may be somewhat adjusted by the time that the person doing the labor had to devote to acquire the required skills to perform it. For this to be true Jamie Dimon (estimated salary 27 million $ in 2016, or 10,800 $/hour assuming he worked a quite taxing 2,500 hours that year) should have devoted about 1,000 hours of learning per hour, as to offset the difference with the 12 to 15 $/hour his lower salaried employees will perceive in Chase (and after a “generous” raise, as in 2015 they were making a paltry 10 $/hour), or, to explain a single year difference, he would need to have devoted 1,000 years more than his janitors of arduous study to prepare himself for the extraordinary skill of leading a major financial institution that, let’s not forget, was essentially bankrupt five years ago and had to be bailed out with taxpayers money (that unfortunately didn’t came with any clause regarding the acceptable compensation levels of its top executives). Well, that’s my circuitous way of saying that the labor theory of value is baloney (something I already did here: Value and Wages), but that doesn’t take us an inch closer to solving the problem at hand.

So back to the difference between offering services in the market and offering material products (commodities), the fact that both are given to whoever can pay the highest price for them obscures, as I said, a fundamental difference: commodities can be stored and loose value (understood as the price they can command, I don’t want to go all metaphysical here) very slowly if at all, while every hour a service provider is not providing the service is an hour lost forever, that he will never be able to recover. That makes the services market inherently more buyer dominated, and puts an additional pressure on the providers to find someone willing to pay for their time, as they can’t afford the luxury to keep the product of their labor sitting idle in a warehouse waiting for a better deal. I am aware that a famed neurosurgeon or a sought-after life coach have throngs of people willing to pay a premium for their services, but let’s be honest here: such figures constitute so tiny a percentage of the labor force that we can entirely ignore them in our analysis (although they are very useful to justify the status quo and convey the message that for everyone willing to put the time and devote the necessary effort there are great rewards to be reaped from the current system in any walk of life). We can confidently state that for the vast (90% or more) of people offering services in the market, such market is tough, they can not claim to have any substantial advantage over the other providers, there is fierce competition and they have little influence over the price they can command.

You may say such is life, the market, although a stern master, is still the best social mechanism for optimally assigning finite resources to the most socially desired ends and for distributing them, and that applies as much to services as to goods. Doesn’t really matter if those resources are small mud huts, Versailles-like 10,000 square feet mansions, little mopeds, scrumptious Ferraris, a 6$ haircut or a 1,000 $ massage in a luxurious spa. The best way to ensure everybody receives as close as possible what she wants, given means distributed by as close as possible to just dessert, is by the magical action of the free market. Market schmarket, I say, and anybody that believes that load of bunk has been either brainwashed or born without a wholly functioning brain. Back to my argument, I would say the services sector is morally tainted, and it not only doesn’t conduct to proper human flourishing, but seriously stunts the moral development of people trapped in it. And I say trapped with full understanding that the investment banker and the interior designer that earn gazillions fool themselves thinking they are making a killing and are most fortunate to have chosen such profitable line of activity to devote their life to. They are equally wrong, and should see themselves as not that different of the poor schmuck flipping burgers in a nondescript joint in the middle of nowhere.

Again, when most economists discuss the service economy, they tend to focus on its glitziest aspect: business consultants, web designers, designers of successful apps that rake in millions… although the reality is somewhat grimmer: poorly paid housemaids, janitors, waiters, repairmen from foreign countries without legal status, nail polishers, retail clerks, call center attendants on a Taylorist schedule, programmers on perpetual crunch time whose salary barely allows them to make ends meet, bank tellers, designers in advertising agencies working 20 hours a day for creative directors they will never replace… what they all have in common is that, regardless of how glamorous the title they are given sounds, their contribution is pretty easy to replace, so they are paid little, they can be fired on a whim and they have little prospect of professional advancement. You may counter that they should build a “differential set of skills” that made them stand out from the potential competition, and I would laugh you off the room. Build when? Using what resources? By definition, the majority of the population (in a services economy as in an agrarian, or an industrial one) can not have above average skills, or capabilities.

And that’s why the powerful, the clever, the wealthy and the well educated  find the whole arrangement so lovely and convenient. When all those features tend to coincide, and when such coincidence becomes, through assortative mating and high heritability mostly transferred from one generation to the next, you have all the ingredients for a class-based society of low intergenerational mobility where the elite becomes more and more detached from the concerns of the average “guy in the street”, where inequality grows and human’s natural selfishness, unbridled, allow public benefits to whither. Oooops, just the society we live in! And a society where only “services” grow and supposedly provide opportunity for all is a society where the slightest modicum of justice has become nearly impossible to achieve, as such services are the more or less fancy names given to the starkest servitude, to the centuries old exploitation of man (or woman) by man.

Think about it. I worked the first fifteen years of my career in a professional services firm, and the thing that never stopped to amaze me was precisely how servile, how debased even the most powerful partners (most already filthy rich, but you know what they say: you are never rich enough) were towards the clients that had in their hands their further professional advancement. In such firms, unsurprisingly, the best career is offered to those that can sell, because selling is the whole point of the enterprise, regardless of what the “mission” and the “vision” state about delivering value to the clients and putting their interest first and building a better world. Technical competence, being an inspiring leader towards your subordinates or being an efficient business operator were all nice qualities to have, but being able to convince a client (which usually required obscene amounts of brown-nosing and sycophancy) to hire our services was absolutely paramount, and dwarfed the importance of any other skill when it came to promotion. And what is the clue to such convincing? In the service world, doesn’t matter how much you want to beat around the bush, it is all about making your potential client believe you will serve him better. Strategic partnership, win-win situation, maximize the value of the relationship and not the transaction and unlock hidden value levers my foot, the one who wins the business in a competitive situation is the one who shows he will be a better server (more docile, more slavish, more pliant, more obeying, more unprepossessing; and less confrontational, less arrogant, less unruly, less independent-minded, less free-spirited). Not what management books teach, huh? I have this shocking piece of news for you, kids: management books lie (blatantly in most cases).

So service is mostly about debasing oneself to satisfy the ego of those hiring you (which many times means kicking the balls of their underlings so they don’t have to do it themselves) while (in the upper echelons of the profession) lying to yourself thinking that you are in control, you do it for your own good, you can choose when to quit, you are the one really taking the decisions and having a measurable impact in the companies for which you work… if it sounds like the rationalizations prostitutes use with themselves to justify why they are servicing the next John it is not a coincidence. But what is of more importance for our current argument is that in such branch of activity it is difficult both to reach real meaning and to grow productivity. Stroking your customers’ ego is awfully difficult to automate, as having a robot tell you how clever you are and how most of your subordinates are morons doesn’t give the same kick as having a Harvard graduate tell you the same thing. Seen from the other side of the table, having our best and brightest young minds spend most of their careers telling old white men in positions of power how they are so exactly right that their companies should do little but what they have already decided is not likely to produce breathtaking technological breakthroughs.

And there you have it in a nutshell: the growth of the service economy makes it trebly unlikely we will ever get out of the current stagnation, because:

a)       What people is paying for is not to have a physical need satisfied, but a “spiritual” need (feeling superior to someone) that requires another human being, and can not be fulfilled by a machine, it doesn’t matter how intelligent it is

b)      The kind of careers such economy promotes are antithetical to innovation and scientific development, as they channel the most ambitious, most disciplined and most gifted overall in activities that can only be described as “self-important brown-nosing”

c)       True scientific development is left mostly to second-rate intelligences (with some notable, highly laudable exceptions), and further hampered by a deluge of unnecessary regulations (and a layer of self-inflicted insanity in the form of the academic publication industry and its peer review creativity-stifling mechanism)

So you can sleep soundly, no robots are coming to take your jobs (as Gordon notes in the interview linked above, no robots are being developed for the tasks that occupy the vast majority of the population that still holds a job, from pushing wheelchairs along hospital corridors to replacing perishable goods in supermarkets’ shelves), and not much effort is being devoted to such development, because many of those jobs exist to allow even the people lowest on the social scale to boss over someone even lower, independently of cost, effort or economic rationality. We will see the number of people working drop more and more (although not necessarily find them in the unemployment roll, as they may just give up even trying to find some occupation, as the part of this interview with Erik Hurst dealing with time allocation of youngsters without a college degree highlights: "What are young men doing"), some robots in traditional manufacturing eating a bit of additional jobs at the margins, may be applications of AI changing the cognitive content of a bunch of others (but with no real substitution effect, for reasons I would explain in another post, other than the fact that the bosses of the substitutable employees want them to feel important, not because their automatable contribution is that important).

What will continue happening is that a higher percentage of the population will work providing “services”, and deriving less and less satisfaction from it, as the stark “needlessness” of their activities becomes more and more apparent. Until, of course, they revolt, bring down civilization as we know it, either because they overthrow the ruling elite that has been benefitting from their servility -sorry, from their services, or because they are crushed by the robot army that such elite has developed in the meantime… 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Go to bed being a better person – every single day

If you stop any unremarkable person in the street (and most remarkable ones) and ask them point blank: why are we here? You will most likely receive an amused look and not much in the way of an answer. Not that I am suggesting that you try your luck with random strangers, so you may rather want to get some answer from your loved ones, or from people you have some previous acquaintance with (thus significantly reducing the chance of them trying to have you institutionalized), be them sprightly kids or stately seniors with many years of experience under their belts.

Depending on how articulate they are (or their good mood and talkativeness on the day you question them) they may either dismiss the whole idea of us being here for some reason as irrelevant or attempt to give an answer along religious lines (some ultra-powerful and otherworldly intelligence put us here, which isn’t that much of an explanation either, come to think about it). There is a minuscule chance than if they are secular enlightened rationalists they may try to explain to you how evolution happened to shape us in such a way that causing other people’s happiness makes us feel good, and thus trying to make other people’s lives go better is the best answer we can give to “what are we here for” (without, in spite of the professed rationality, realizing that such argument is no answer at all to the original question, which is subtly different).

I won’t pretend to have the ultimate answer to such hefty matter, but for reasons that will become apparent towards the end (of the by now wholly expectable circuitous and somewhat contrived route) I want to devote today’s post to the next best thing to actually, firmly and doubtlessly knowing why we are on this Earth: how to behave as if we already knew the answer to such question (which presupposes that a) such an answer exists and b) it admits of us aligning our life with such ultimate source of purpose), and thus how to live a meaningful life.

Only half-jokingly I proposed in my dissertation defense the “deathbed scenario litmus test” to be applied to any overarching plan for our life, and I still think it is a good epistemic device to separate the wheat from the chaff and help us distinguish if the biggest principle we declare to be following is really important for us or is just pretense and grandstanding. It goes like this: first, formulate as clearly as possible the higher order principle that guides your life, the one you truly resort to when taking important decisions. Although “choose always the chick with the bigger boobs” may seem to some like a plausible life-guiding principle, I am thinking more about things along the lines of “try to maximize the happiness of everybody, giving every living person the same consideration” or “try to maximize my own enjoyment, without directly causing much suffering to others” or “follow to the fullest extent the dictates of such and such religious tradition, as codified in such and such sacred book” (you may notice that what invalidated the big boobs principle was the limited applicability of the decisions to be derived from it, as in many situations in life there are no big-boobed girls involved, although probably the argument could be reformulated to something like “take the course of action that maximizes the chances of chicks with big boobs choosing you as sexual partner”, which would make it applicable enough, but I obviously digress). Back to the test, after having clearly formulated your higher-level guiding principle, imagine yourself on your last day on Earth, somewhat frail but clear-minded. You probably want to think you are in a comfortable environment (your deathbed is still a bed, isn’t it?), surrounded by your loved ones (they don’t have to be your current loved ones, the insufferable auntie Millie who always criticizes your clothes and the second in-law that gloats so frequently about his car being more expensive than yours… just imagine the ideal loved ones you would enjoy having around to impart a final piece of wisdom). Now try to recreate, as faithfully as possible, how you would feel if you contemplated your soon to-be-ended life and confirmed that you had, indeed, been successful in following at all times your guiding principle.

If what truly comes to your mind is a certain sense of disappointment, of “is this all that there is to it?” I’m very sorry to inform you that the guiding principle you had chosen and that you profess to follow is just baloney, a convenient fiction you use to rationalize some of your behaviors, but without being truly committed to it. Because if you were really committed, if your heart were really into it, what you should feel as the culmination of such exercise is the calm contentment, the fulfilled satisfaction that should crown the final moments of a “life well lived”, which should be the goal of every sentient organism. We humans (I can not talk authoritatively of any other sentient being, so I’ll confine myself to our own species) strive for consistency, and our imaginative capabilities are wonderful guides to reveal to us if how we behave daily and what we say is the final reason for us behaving that way are truly aligned or not.

To be honest, I haven’t make anything approaching a scientifically valid test on a wide enough sample of people (and readers of this blog know that I do not believe such a “scientifically valid” survey could ever be performed), but my limited experience tells me that broad utilitarian principles tend to fare quite poorly in this scenario, as the people who nominally spouse them tend to doubt if they weighed every person’s “utility” (or happiness or potential for flourishing) properly and, specially, if they were not “taken in” and ended giving more than what they received, or giving to the wrong persons or causes and thus being accomplices in a suboptimal outcome (which always makes me wonder, suboptimal for whom? And why such optimization was important in the first place?).

Not that I’m claiming that such “deathbed test” is entirely original, as any reader of Hume’s hagiographers may quickly recognize how they were (may be unconsciously) applying it. There is no biography of Hume that doesn’t remark how cheerful and good-spirited he was in his final days, and how such high spirits were considered extraordinarily scandalous by the traditionalists of his age that expected him to be terrified by the prospect of dying and burning eternally in hell, being such a notorious unbeliever. All the biographers that I have read are utterly sympathetic to their subject and fully identified with his world-view (especially the atheistic part, which they all endorse quite uncritically in my humble opinion). They want to convey to us how right Hume was, and how his whole outlook (which happens to coincide millimetrically with the authors’) was validated and vindicated by his last days’ cheerfulness, which is the ultimate proof of that life well lived I was mentioning before.

[on a side note, there is an alternative version, ignored by all the “serious” biographers like Moser and Kemp Smith, according to which Hume only presented such tranquil and unconcerned façade to his friends, whilst being seriously distressed when left alone. The origin of such version is an account by his housekeeper, recorded by Robert Haldane who in turn learned it from a Mr. Abercromby of Tullibody, who had heard it directly from the housekeeper (likely Molly Irvine, if memory serves me well), and of course to find it you have to go to either very scholarly books, like Early responses to Hume’s life and reputation, or to Christian apologies like Haldane’s original Evidence and Authority of Divine Revelation. I confess I’m not sure how credible the alternative account is, but if the image of Hume I’ve built over all these years in my head is even half correct I have to conclude that it has an air of plausibility around it]

Not that the test has been used only to furnish the integrity and validity of Hume’s philosophy. Read any biography of Freud (I’ve done so with the ones penned by Jones, Gay and Roudinesco) and a prominent place is always given to his exemplary death, caused by a cancer in his palate that had been causing him terrible pains for years (well, the immediate cause was a massive dose of morphine administered by his physician more or less at his request, once they had given up hope that he could be kept alive much more). As Gay titled the chapter devoted to such somber episode, “the death of a stoic” (regardless of the fact that for all those years he complained, in a most non-stoic manner, of his unbearable discomfort to every single person he talked to or corresponded with…), and such wholesome demise is used as a final validation of the Viennese’s life work and of his shambolic theories.

Back to my main argument, then, you may remember (after this longish detour) that I introduced the deathbed test as a mental tool to help us take decisions that accumulate coherently and end up forming that “life well lived” we could fantasize with reviewing with joy in our last moments. And I mentioned that if we started with all-encompassing principles, the utilitarian one didn’t seem to fare too well. One possibility open to us, then, could be to dismiss the usefulness of such all-encompassing principles (that’s what Johnathan Dancy did in a very remarkable book, Ethics without principles). But I propose a better alternative: set it as your duty to perfect yourself, and strive for the happiness of those around you (not very original, I know, but I’ve always unashamedly proclaimed myself a Kantian). How much striving, and exactly for who between the many, many people that in this age of overpopulation are wont to surround us is a question I’ll leave for another day (note just that I’m not proposing to strive for a maximum happiness, just for a sensible dose of it).

Let’s turn our attention to the perfection part. I mentioned in another post (doing hard things is... well, hard) that our society teaches us to seek instant gratification, and to scorn any difficult pursuit (except if it can be monetized, as the only ultimate goal it understands and recognizes is to make more money so we can enjoy a higher social status). Devoting effort to become better flies in the face of such teaching, as to get better at anything, past the novice phase when improvement is easy, requires grit and dedication and determination, it specially requires renunciation to a number of things (consumption of the mass-marketed commodities and entertainments we have excelled at producing in ever increasing amounts) that society doesn’t want any of us to renounce to. What they want you to do is to eat junk food and watch reality TV. Spend most of your time on the couch being mindlessly indoctrinated in the latest fashion trend, which always reduces itself to buying something that is both unnecessary and expensive. Because that’s what life in the XXIst century reduces itself to: buy more, and spend all your time either buying things or working for money to have more things or being brainwashed to want the things in the first place.

I remember reading from Jim Wendler something along the lines of “I’d rather go to the gym, do one really tough, all-out set of squats setting a new PR and return home knowing I am a better man than I was before”. You may recoil at the idea of being able to move more weight on an iron bar in your back (that you have previously loaded, and you will leave in exactly the same place after completing the set) being equated with human excellence, but I do believe there is a profound truth in it. A definite aspect of excellence is having a functioning body, and not just a functioning one, but one capable of doing difficult things, the more difficult the better. And the way to maintain and even improve that capability is through training, and beyond certain point that training is going to demand renunciation of other, easier pursuits…

I’m not saying, of course, that physical excellence is the only pursuit that passes the deathbed test, but it gives us some clues about the common thread such pursuits may have: progress can be measured by others, they have a set of rules about them that you voluntarily submit to (so the aforementioned progress can be assessed), they draw from (and in turn they help develop) human capabilities that have been prized in all societies and all ages (I’m not only thinking in physical capabilities like speed, strength, coordination, agility, etc. but also in mental ones like eloquence, persuasiveness, numerical ability or abstract thought). That’s why great achievements in any of them cause admiration and esteem (or caused, according to my sometimes oversimplifying characterization of modern society the only recognized source of admiration and esteem is the possession of vast quantities of money).

Thus my injunction in the title of this post: do indeed strive to go to bed every day having devoted a substantial part of your day to become a better version of you, along the multiple dimensions that form our whole personality. I’ll share the ones I monitor more systematically:

·         Becoming a better professional: here it is not enough to take one good decision, or produce a certain deliverable with the right quality or complete a certain business transaction, but to acquire lasting capabilities (through consistent practice, active learning and continuous self-analysis and self-criticism) that can have a differential impact in the company we work for (or run). You know you have become a better professional when you reach a significant milestone (a deserved promotion, which should be but the official recognition of the betterment in this area), you substantially reorient the strategy of the division or area under your responsibility or you complete a major project (that required the coordination of multiple resources)

·         Becoming a better athlete: this one is pretty easy, as any athletic discipline has its own criteria of excellence. I personally endeavor to be a better powerlifter, weightlifter and shot putter and every single day I go to the gym I execute a well thought out routine to achieve precisely that

·         Becoming a better thinker: one the other hand, this one is pretty tricky, as it is damn difficult to judge for oneself how advanced a thinker one is. I do know that reading the thoughts of other people is essential (given the self-referential character of modern philosophy it is difficult to escape the impression that for many professional philosophers thinking has become only reading other people and talking about what they said, without having to add anything original or of their own), so I have an overall sense of how I’m progressing by my ability to understand more and more abstruse books of the issues I’m interested in

·         Becoming a better writer: tough again to measure, and it easily mixes with the previous ones, as more complex thoughts require more technical ability as a writer to be conveyed (but also tend to jumble and confuse the prose used to convey them, as this blog amply and extensively exemplifies)

·         Becoming a better husband/ father/ son/ brother/ friend: this one is obviously huge, and is the one that connects the two halves of my original injunction (perfect yourselves AND make those around you happy), as what you try to do developing your capabilities to love and nurture and support and inspire and empathize and comfort and cheer and amuse is precisely to be abler to foster that happiness. I’m not going to go all self-helpy here and rap about how important love is and how you should a) do more of it and b) work self-consciously to get better at it, but this is the BIG one. If you suck at every single other aspect of your life but excel at this you’ve hit the jackpot, and can indeed life a wonderful, rewarding, well-lived life. If on the other hand you are great at some of the others but suck at this… I’m sorry to tell you you have utterly failed as human being, even if you are Steve Jobs and there are hordes of sycophants heaping praises on you and proclaiming you are the better thing that happened to the human race since the invention of sliced bread

Of course progressing in all the dimensions at once is a tough balancing act, and sometimes you may feel like one of those Chinese acrobats that keep multiple plates spinning atop flimsy poles, so be selective with how many plates you put up in the air. But once there, what I encourage you to do is to actually ensure that every single day you take action to improve in some of them. You do not reach significant milestones in your job every day (and there are weekends and holidays, for God’s sake!) but you can train most days, read something explicitly aligned with what interest you more so you can think more deeply about it, you can practice your writing and put it out in the open for others to judge and to comment and to criticize (yes, it is called blogging)… and most especially, you can sit down to have a conversation (or a telephone call, or just an IM) with your wife/ son/ mother/ sister/ best friend just to nurture and grow and deepen and enrich the relationship, you can plan for joint activities, you can actively contribute to build together a shared life.

If you keep on doing it day after day, month after month, year after year you will discover that a) you actually become pretty good at some of those things and b) when the day of leaving this world finally arrives (and it will arrive, sorry to break the news to those that believe in “conquering death” through nanotechnology, genetic engineering or downloading your personality to an eternally functioning computer) you will look back at your life and confidently assert that you lived it well, that it was fully worth it, that you made every minute count and, regardless of how successful you were compared with other people, you ended up being the best version of you that you could be. I honestly don’t know if there is another life after this one, and if there being another one that makes this one more or less meaningful. What I do know is that if I come to my last day having that feeling my life will definitely have been meaningful for me. Which is what I stated at the beginning of this post I would do

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Can somebody please remind me what is the distal biceps tendon for?

It is not every day that you wake up feeling physically like shit and feel elated about it, but that is exactly what happened to me this morning, after six months of mostly “meh” sensations. My legs were so sore I could barely walk, most of my upper torso was stiff and achy and not much mobile, my butt protested loudly when I asked it to maintain an erect posture (another part of me seemed to be maintaining an erect posture all by itself without much of me asking, which is always a superb indicator of your body being in top notch condition, no matter how much the limbs without a brain of their own protest) and getting to the kitchen to fetch me some breakfast was a hideous chore. And I was ecstatic about it.

Not because I am especially fond of physical discomfort, which if given the chance in abstract I would avoid as much as the next bloke, but because of what had caused such level of achiness and stiffness: for the first time in more than six months I was at the other side of “the threshold”. What threshold? you may ask, and why is being at a certain side of it of such value if it comes with such price? I’ll explain in a moment, but for my readers to fully understand the significance of the achievement I’ll need to go on a lengthy detour (in this blog! Go figure!) of how my training life has been in these last six months, since I tore my left distal biceps tendon from the bone in December.

Basically, every movement that required some tension on the arms was off limits, even those that you would expect to load only the triceps, but not the biceps (like bench presses, or jerks). I guess the reason was that even when it doesn’t has to contract to move the weight, the biceps acts as agonist of the prime mover, and thus has to recruit some fibers to decelerate that prime mover, and even that partial, half-assed, somewhat limp recruitment resulted to be painful as hell. So if look back at my training log from those early days, while I visited different doctors and went through various diagnosing devices, I see essentially all I did was squatting and, surprisingly, deadlifting, as it was not painful at all (given I used a double overhand grip, which forced me to substantially lower the weights I could use). And man, did I squat: front squats, slow reverse squats, jump squats and tons of low bar back squats (as I didn’t want to risk inadvertently unloading the bar on the bent arms, I settled on high volume, many reps with comparatively low weights). If in normal training conditions I squatted between 4 and 6 tons a week I was soon squatting well above ten tons, even twelve tons per week (not much more than squatting every day), with some longish sets of deadlifts judiciously interspersed.

In the meantime, the consensus between the physicians I saw was that I should have the tendon chirurgically reattached, as there were no doubts that it was gone for good:

(Admittedly, there was one dissenting doctor that thought that the tendon was still there, but I have to confess I can’t make heads or tails of any sonogram… when my wife was pregnant and we looked at the supposed portraits of our future kid I couldn’t distinguish his arm from his dick either, so it may be some defect in my visual processing system…)
As sonograms are somewhat crude and they don’t discriminate so precisely between different soft tissues (and the inner elbow seems to be a quite messy hodgepodge of different interlocked fibers), I went through a fMRI just to be sure of what was going on:

Somehow that cleared any lingering doubts in the doctors’ minds, as they could see as clearly as fresh water that the tendon was broken and surgery was the most advisable option if I wanted to lead an active lifestyle, and continue doing that lifting thing I seemed to enjoy so much.

So I settled in a “zombie” routine of lower body, maintenance training, while I waited for the nurse to call me for an appointment as soon as an operating room became available (something that has taken a surprising amount of time, which makes you wonder about the supposed advantage of private medicine –I am fully covered by insurance- over public one). But a funny thing happened. I occasionally attempted to go back to bench presses, to somehow slow down a bit the atrophy that I could see was taking over my pectoralis major. And when I finally found that I could press the empty bar without pain I started increasing the amount of reps. And when I reached 60 reps I started increasing weight…

In the meantime, I could not avoid toying with the idea of using this slowdown to straighten up a bit my cleaning technique, so interspersed some power cleans, also with the empty bar, focusing on keeping the arms straight, propelling the bar up with the hips and not involving the biceps at all (as any attempt to “row” the bar up with the arms was pretty excruciating). You probably know where this is going, in a few weeks I had exhausted the increase in total number of reps and had started to slowly and tentatively increase weights.

Which takes me to a couple weeks ago, when I was feeling a bit frisky after finishing ten sets of bench press doubles with 102,5 kg (about 225 pounds), a semi respectable number that wouldn’t have looked too shabby even when I had a “healthy” arm. The previous session I had cleaned 90 kg (200 pounds) for a double (btw, with as nasty a technique as ever, bending the arms too soon and keeping the chest too far forward for most of the 1st pull, which makes for a super-shabby transition to the 2nd one) and I wondered if a pull up would be feasible, just to check. With this result:

 Well, that was shocking. You are not supposed to do pull ups without a biceps tendon. How are you supposed to flex the arm against the weight of your own body? Now the pull up is tricky, as it involves less of the biceps and more of the latissimus dorsi. A good test of the overall biceps functionality would be a pull up (w hands pronated), and an even better one would be a chin up (hands supinated). More so with some added weight. So I attempted this:

Not only could I chin with 15 additional kilos hanging from my waist, but I could launch the bar from my shoulders and stabilize it overhead (something I couldn’t even dream of soon after getting injured; believe me, I tried). Damn! What else was I capable of doing, and had (may be unnecessarily) avoided these last months, becoming pitifully weak in the process? Snatches? Behind the neck snatch grip push presses (aka Klokov presses)?:

Check and check. Double damn, so was there something I couldn’t do? How much strength had I lost? I knew pretty well where I was from a squatting perspective (above 150 any day of the week, and in 160-170 territory after a couple of weeks of tapering) but there is a purest test of brute force: how much could I deadlift? What about 180 no belt and with heeled weightlifting shoes?

Well, 180 in such conditions (and it wasn’t even a grinder, although the form was a bit off) means I can confidently pull 200 with minimal tapering. Pity I already missed Spain’s powerlifting cup, as it would have been as good an occasion as any to make my competition debut. Probably next year.

Now seeing that I can do any move I can think off without pain, with weights close to my personal bests ever, am I still thinking in letting a physician make a small incision in my inner elbow, drill through my radius bone, make multiple cuts in a bunch of tissue that he identifies as the remains of my tendon (so it attaches to the bone), pass it through the hole and nail it on the other side? Nope, I don’t have the slightest intention of doing that. Right now it is full speed ahead to recover the strength I’ve lost after half a year of almost non-existent upper body training (more noticeable in any overhead movement, which were entirely absent). Afterwards, we will see.