Thursday, December 22, 2016

We are being lied to! (oh, boy, are we!)

Let’s begin giving credit where credit is due, with the proverbial image that is worth a thousand words:

For those that arrived yesterday from an entirely different planet, too distant to ever have received the most cursory communication from Earth, the gentleman depicted above is Jim Wendler, the author of one of the finest methods for getting insanely strong ever devised by any human being (5/3/1, which I’ve been using in any of its multiple variants, for years and years). I hope you’ve noticed the sentence I’ve taken as title of this post is a more encompassing version of the one originally penned by him seen in the photograph (which you can buy nicely emblazoned on a T-shirt or a hoodie in his web site, btw). Mr. Wendler probably refers mainly to the habits of training and eating peddled by the so-called “fitness industry”, which are oriented mainly towards the enrichment of the trainers and the peddlers, and not so much to the overall health and well-being (and even less to the strength and general “awesomeness”) of the unsuspecting consumers of their pabulum.

But the concept could very well be applied to the whole cultural industry, which in turn is but the conveyor belt that society uses to transmit the ideas, values and opinions that the majority needs to embrace to keep it in working condition. I’ve contended a number of times that most of those ideas, values and opinions are not just false, but noxious. They do indeed keep the society working and reproducing itself, but at what a price! At the price of making its members miserable, of pushing them to live lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation. Lives that are literally not worth living (and people, consciously or unconsciously recognize such worthlessness, and react the only way left to them: by voting with their gonads not to reproduce such insanity, not to keep the system going for a single generation more).

Not a nice state of affairs. And the fight against it starts with denouncing the lies we collectively tell ourselves to keep it going, with exposing them and invalidating them and pointing their inconsistencies, showing how they seem plausible only because they are repeated so many times. But their plausibility does not derive from being so relentlessly drilled, but rather from benefitting some few at the expense of the majority (one of the many funny aspects of a dominant reason is that those few benefited by them are not even aware of the untruth on which their worldview rests; they do not even have to actively and consciously push the falsities on which their dominance depends).

So let’s do our part today by reviewing a somewhat schematic and summarized list of the lies we are almost daily being told:

Lie # 1: thanks to our social system (capitalism) we are growing richer every day

That one seems almost like a cinch, doesn’t it? If there is a stablished truth, almost written in stone, is how lucky we are to have inherited such a fantastic social system that has allowed us to enjoy more wealth than any previous generation in the whole history of the human race.
For example, here is what one of the most widely used textbooks on economics (Samuelson & Nordhaus) present us with right in the first page of their treatise:

Pretty impressive, uh? Focusing just on the last 45 years (since 1970) the national product has grown from about six times what we produced at the beginning of the XX century to an astounding thirty times, a more than fivefold increase. If you are interested in the raw data, the US of A went from collectively exchanging goods and services valued at about 1.076 trillion of 2015 dollars in 1970 to 18.037 trillion of equivalent dollars in (you guessed it) 2015.

Part of that improvement was caused by the raw increase in population (more people producing goods and providing services), that grew from roughly 200 million souls in 1970 to 321 million in 2015. However, the image of per capita  GDP growth is similarly impressive, from roughly 5,500 dollars/year (again, in 2015 dollars) in 1970 to a tad above 56,000 dollars/ year today:

So is it a closed case? Can we accept that, after a (relatively minor, seen in perspective) bump after the 2008 recession, the system is indeed creating untold amounts of wealth for everybody? Should we rest contented being the luckiest humans being that have ever lived? Nope, unless you have  very warped understanding of who “we” are (or you are damn lucky), as if we look not at how average per capita GDP has grown, but at how median income has, the picture looks quite different:

So what is it? How is it possible that the average GDP per capita has grown 1,000 % (is ten times bigger what it was in 1970) but median income has barely budged (has grown a paltry 12%, from around 50,000 USD to 56,000 USD)? What kind of statistical trickery is this?
Let’s explain it with an easy-to-understand slide (which has taken quite a few hours to prepare, btw), assuming a simplified economy where all income is in the form of cooked chickens, which allows us to compare how we are faring today with how we fared almost half a century ago:

So in 1970 I (I’m standing here for the whole 20% of the population with a higher income, or 80% quintile) the average income was 1 chicken per person, I did a bit better (earning one chicken and a half), you did about as well as the people around you (your brother in law and that annoying neighbor that kept throwing noisy stoner parties, all of which stood in the three central quintiles), which in turn did significantly better than the lower quintile.

But fast forward 45 years, and see what has happened: the lower quintile has improved substantially, so they now earn practically as much as yourself. You are still earning what you did back then, as is your in-law and the annoying neighbor (that somehow has survived through all his drug use). But the average income has skyrocketed to an astounding ten chickens per person! How come? Simply put, me and the likes of me have hoarded almost all the gains, and now make a whooping 45 chickens.

At a global level, the phenomenon was recently identified by Branko Milanovic (which has an excellent blog I recently added to the right side of my own) in a much commented and discussed graph charting the changing fortunes of different income groups aggregated for the whole world (thus going beyond the national analyses we were used to):
So it’s not surprising all of you are pretty pissed off! Of course you are voting for Trump, Brexit, against Italy’s constitutional reform, for the Law& Order party or the Front National! Not only have you not reaped any benefit at all from globalization, the supposed economic growth and whatnot, but you are seeing some people (me) making it royally, and the meager consolation you had (there are those “other people” that are in much worse shape than you) is slowly disappearing. Not that it was a strongly defensible (from a moral point of view) consolation but hey! You take what you can and try to make the most from the hand you’ve been given.

In summary, we can safely dispel with the myth that the system works because the economy grows and we are in a Paretian paradise where everybody is either better of or as well off as they were, and nobody is worse off. Because the bunch that has seen no significant improvement in almost fifty years is indeed considerably worse off. Worse off because they see the distance between themselves and the top quintile increasing beyond any limit. Worse off because to maintain the lifestyle they were accustomed to (the one their fathers enjoyed) they have to work significantly more hours (thanks to the incorporation of women to the labor market, as let’s not forget their forebears enjoyed a very similar income level with almost half of the paid effort, as typically only the husband worked outside the home). Worse off because their parents, in addition to amass almost the same amount of wealth than them also managed to reproduce and put in place a generation to pay for their retirement, something the current generation is failing to do…

I already identified as one of the sources of the current malaise the realization by a growing number of workers than they are indeed not living any better than their parents did, a realization recently shared by none other than my very admired newspaper of record (The American dream seems pretty moribund):

So a system built on the premise (and the promise) of never ending material improvement is showing itself to be more and more incapable to fulfill such expectation… expect people to be more and more angry as they realize what they would get in exchange for hard work and endless sacrifice is a life of never improving drudgery.

Lie # 2: thanks to the spread of innovations, technology will solve all of our problems

Nope again, not only innovations are more and more circumscribed to a somewhat collateral domain (software development, which creates programs of less and less impact on people lives), but even in that restricted domain they are slowing down

Lie # 3: thanks to our superior knowledge, we are healthier and will soon live over a thousand years

Nope, doesn’t matter if you put your hopes on knowing more how genes work, knowing more how aging works, or knowing more how nanomachines could interact with every single cell of our bodies, you will still die (irreversibly, finally, ultimately, in a “that’s all folks”-y way) before your 100th birthday.

OK, obviously I’m running late and didn’t have the time to properly develop the last two lies, probably will make it in subsequent posts. An awful way to stop for today, but remember nobody’s payin’ me for this

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