Monday, March 27, 2017

Deaths of Despair

In what is perhaps the least surprising story of the last 40+ years has gotten a bit of traction. Apparently, people object to being thrown on the social scrap heap so much that after awhile, they just give up and do things that lead to their premature deaths. Meanwhile the economics profession actually has the temerity to congratulate themselves on successfully managing the economy and churn out reams of phony, misleading, and ultimately irrelevant statistics to support their claims. That's pretty much their job, after all—to keep the unhappy peasants from hanging the financial classes from the lampposts.

So now we have rising death statistics to refute the claim that everything is just fine out there. So the new answer is to somehow trivialize these stark realities. The essay below from Business Insider has its moments but mostly its an attempt to cover death-inducing hopelessness with some psychobabble and some quotes from Emile Durkheim (please!)

As for me, I always revert to the Institutionalist response to terminal hopelessness—PUT THESE PEOPLE TO WORK at decent jobs that have meaning and purpose. You know, like rebuilding the infrastructure to meet the specifications of a fire-free future. I also believe in the Instinct of Workmanship as described by Veblen and am still swayed by my Lutheran upbringing that taught work was a form of devotion. Regular readers cannot be surprised by any of this.

'Deaths of Despair' are more than a sign of neoliberal incompetence, it demonstrates these fools are also heartless and cold-blooded killers. The ONLY way they can possibly sleep is to comfort themselves with the rationalization that the dying are mostly victims of their failure to 'learn' the principles and 'virtues' of Leisure Class uselessness.

We've known how to stop the 'Deaths of Despair' crisis gripping America's white working class for 120 years

Linette Lopez

It's only getting worse.

"Deaths of despair" — deaths related to suicide, drugs, and alcohol — continue to increase among middle-aged white working-class Americans without a high-school degree, according to research by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Their deaths are now outpacing those of minorities of the same class by a stunning margin.

Titled "Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century" and published by the Brookings Institution on Thursday, the findings are an update of Case and Deaton's 2015 work on death and illness among different demographic groups.

Based on Case and Deaton's work, we know that what started as a scourge in the Southwest in the early 2000s has spread to communities across the country. Geography isn't a dominant factor — this isn't a rural or urban problem exclusively. Instead, the problem is a class thing. It's an identity thing.

And this isn't the first time that social change has caused self-destructiveness on a mass scale. Indeed, 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote about similar problems in his time, and might refer to the plague of white middle-class mortality we see today as "a state of upheaval."

Of course, the lesson of the 2016 presidential election was that working- and middle-class whites are suffering. What Durkheim offers, though, is the argument for why the newly elected government in Washington — voted in by this very constituency — is getting the solution all wrong. The way to fix this problem is not through less government — but through more.

Durkheim's seminal work, the 1897 book "Suicide," remains one of the most in-depth examinations of why these situations occur in society, and it is as relevant as ever. Its lessons are an indication that as a country, we are moving swiftly, carelessly in the wrong direction.


The Americans we are talking about are white and middle class. They are aged 45-55. They are losing the battle against heart disease and cancer, and they are succumbing to drugs, alcohol and suicide at rates unseen in modern history or in other developed countries.

"The combined effect means that mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015," Case and Deaton wrote.

The easy thing to say is that these people are suffering from economic and social anxiety and leave it at that. What's harder to pinpoint is what exactly that means and how to fix it. Economic conditions for minorities in the same social class and in the same communities are as hard, if not harder, than they are for middle class whites. But death rates aren't increasing for them.

This is where Durkheim comes in. He wrote his work in the midst of another state of upheaval, as industrialization was taking over the world and old economic patterns were falling away. This was the beginning of modern life as we now know it. And it was killing people.

No one remembers your name

Durkheim found that the degree to which a person is integrated in society is inversely correlated to their likelihood to engage in life-threatening behaviors and suicide.

In his work, he identified three kids of suicide: altruistic, anomic, and egoistic.

Of the three, the most complicated is anomic suicide. Anomie essentially means the breakdown of social values and norms, and Durkheim closely associated anomic suicide with economic catastrophe.

Case and Deaton associate trends in modern American mortality with the "measurable deterioration in economic and social wellbeing" of white middle-class workers as manufacturing jobs have disappeared from the workforce since the 1970s.

One of the big factors, then, in the increase in substance abuse and suicide among the white middle class could be a decline in the social framework as a result of the rapid economic changes seen over the last few decades.

It is not a surprise, then, that Donald Trump won the presidency on promising to bring these jobs back. The appeal of a high-paying honest job that commands respect from one's peers is strong. As Durkheim wrote: The workman is not in harmony with his social position if he his not convinced that he has his deserts."

That last word, deserts, is important. Anomic suicide is associated with one's expectations for oneself in modern society. This could explain why white middle-class Americans are taking the decline in their economic fortunes harder than their minority cohorts: In the old economic order, it was more or less understood that members of the white working class could, through hard work, attain a good life with a stable, high-paying job.

You know, the American Dream.

It's obvious that white middle-class Americans have had their dream shattered. All the while, the market, and the rest of the country, has moved on with the normal "feverish impatience of men's lives," as Durkheim wrote.

Faces look ugly when you're alone

The other of Durkheim's three forms of suicide, egoistic suicide comes from a state of heightened individualism in which a person is untethered from society. This can happen at times of person or collective stress. It is an evaporation of feelings of community support or common identity. It is an intense feeling of loneliness.

It might occur when someone loses their job, abandons their church, their institutions, their family — things that make them feel like a part of something larger. These are all characteristics of (but certainly not limited to) individuals going through economic hardship, and so along with the broader breakdown of society we considered above, self-destructive behavior and suicide could be driven by more personal catastrophes resulting from the changes of our era.

"Excessive individualism not only results in favoring the action of suicidogenic causes, but it itself is such a cause. It not only frees man's inclination to do away with himself from a protective obstacle but creates this inclination out of whole cloth and thus gives birth to a special suicide that bears its mark," he wrote.

Fortunately, it's possible for a broader functional community to circumvent this disastrous form of suicide. This feeling of loneliness is a cruel end that government, a pillar of American identity, can step in and help prevent when individuals are hurting. And it should, because when individuals are hurting they're destructive to themselves and their communities.

This is what government is for, in large part, protecting the collective from the violence (physical or social) perpetrated by some individuals.

But what our current government is offering is the opposite. Donald Trump ran on leaving entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone, but that's not happening, as can be seen in cuts to the latter program in the Republicans' proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Poll after poll showed that Trump voters wanted more investment in education, but that's not happening either. They want their communities built up, but instead they're having their resources taken away — they're being broken apart.

Listen to Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, talk about school lunches not having any impact on performance, and you might forget that a school is not just a school — it's a community.

Listen to House Speaker Paul Ryan talk about Medicaid, and you may forget that its expansion is helping to fight the opioid epidemic ravaging the very communities we're discussing. This is nothing but cruelty.

Durkheim did some work on that kind of callousness among the rich and powerful too. We are a wealthy country — the wealthiest, actually — and that wealth can lead to folly.

He wrote, "Wealth ... by the power it bestows deceives us into believing that we depend on ourselves only. Reducing the resistance we encounter from objects, it suggests the possibility of unlimited success against them."

But success is never unlimited. The reality of life in America is that objects — in the form of social structures or physical disabilities — can defeat human beings.

Based on the way we talk about government we've clearly forgotten that. The people of Durkheim's time did too. Modern political structures, he wrote in "Suicide,' all work to "reduce government to the role of a more or less passive intermediary among the various social functions."

That role fails to acknowledge that objects — in this case the invisible forces of economic change and class structure — are in front of all of us, some of us more and some of us less. We are not born onto a level playing field of equal opportunity, and that field will not simply appear because we're American. We have to invest in it.

Opening up avenues of opportunity takes a powerful, concerted effort from the government, and when we fail to see that, we allow people in our society to be defeated. Trump, Ryan, and their ilk might tell you that the market can offer those opportunities naturally, but the market has never pretended to care for any of us, and the idea that a person can face it alone is beyond laughable.

You see, we're playing ourselves.
We are living in a delusion of our own power, and in the process — by undermining the utility of government for public good — casting aside the power of the collective. We are untethering ourselves from the very things that bind us together as a society.

As we stand, our "deaths of despair" rate is not getting better, and it's not going to. We are choosing to make it worse. more

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Moore's law for sustainables?

It's WAY past time to get serious about climate change. Any serious effort will have as its primary goal, the elimination of fire. It's more complicated than that, of course, but in theoretical terms, not much. The real complications will come from trying to implement that strategy.

The worst possible policymaking error was in play when drafting the Paris agreements of 2015. Problem ONE was setting the emission reduction targets for 2050. In most minds, a goal 35 years away says there is plenty of time to organize the project and do it right. This is nuts, of course. We took roughly 6-10,000 years to build and perfect the fire-based civilizations we live in and so we have less than 1/200th the time to replace global energy structure. NO! There is NOT a lot of time for goofing off.

In this piece from Deutsche Welle, a new policymaking framework is being proposed that if nothing else, would at least pump some urgency into the matter. As we know, arguing from analogy is usually a hazardous venture, but here we have some serious thinkers arguing that we should address this HUGE problem by trying to replicate Moore's "Law" with sustainable infrastructure. While this may sound a little pie-in-the-sky it actually makes a great deal of sense. After all, the same innovation path that gave us cheap flat-screen TVs is behind those incredibly cheap solar panels.

The folks who argue that the computer industry set the example for best practices when it comes to innovation certainly have a point.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trump as a Fascist?

Historical illiteracy is so common here in USA that it is usually a good idea to just react like the Animal House brothers who listened as Bluto ranted, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Otter turns to Boon and asks incredulously, "Germans?" Boon's response was, "Forget it, he's rolling." And mostly I can do just that. I usually only get wound up for two subjects—the misuse of the word Populism and any thoroughly ridiculous statement about WW II and the German role in making it happen.

Lately I have gotten increasingly upset by the careless comparisons lefties are drawing between Trump and Hitler. Now President Trump has a multitude of flaws but Hitler he most certainly is not. For example, from the time Hitler assumed power on 30 JAN 1933 and the opening of the Dachau concentration camp on 22 MAR 1933 was only 51 days. My guess is that the Donald will not have a full cabinet 51 days into his administration. The Nazis were highly organized and had a wide-ranging political philosophy. Where's Trump's Mein Kampf? Where is his political experience? Where is his war-hero record? Where are his willing-to-die followers?

Calling Trump the next Hitler is just plain idiotic. I wish folks would stop it because it is not at all helpful.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Limitations of Marginal Utility

Marginal Utility is an economic idea that unfortunately refuses to die—mostly because it does have some narrow applications where the theory works.

According to wikipedia, marginal utility is defined as:
In economics, utility is the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product, thus the marginal utility of a good or service is the change in the utility from increase or decrease in the consumption of that good or service. Economists sometimes speak of a law of diminishing marginal utility, meaning that the first unit of consumption of a good or service yields more utility than the second and subsequent units, with a continuing reduction for greater amounts. Therefore, the fall in marginal utility as consumption increases is known as diminishing marginal utility.
The problem isn't that marginal utility has no useful applications, it's that there are those who believe the concept of marginal utility can be applied to everything from labor relations to romantic decisions. The first of the economists who believed that was, arguably, an academic named John Bates Clark. He became a favorite of the Gilded Age rich for these teachings. In 1947, they began to award an economic prize named for him.
The John Bates Clark Medal is awarded by the American Economic Association to "that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge".[1] According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, it "is widely regarded as one of the field’s most prestigious awards, perhaps second only to the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences."[2] The award was made biennially until 2007, but is being awarded every year from 2009 because many deserving went unawarded.  Named after the American economist John Bates Clark (1847–1938), it is considered one of the two most prestigious awards in the field of economics, along with the Nobel Prize.
A glance at the list of winners shows that not surprisingly most of them were conservative / reactionary when they won. Clark himself was a known reactionary so why not? A couple, like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have now evolved into something a bit more progressive and interesting but were doctrinaire neoliberals when they won in 1979 and 1991.

But there was one student of Clark who was appalled with his blatant misuse of marginal utility—Thorstein Veblen. Clark taught Veblen economics at Carleton College—so of course, Veblen decided to spend a lot of his intellectual horsepower attacking the problem of Clark and his really absurd ideas about marginal utility. Below is his most famous effort.

Clark and Veblen were said to have professionally cordial interactions throughout life but as you can see, Veblen thought him completely wrong. And the reason this is interesting is that Veblen was right about this. Even more interesting, the touch of spectacular error seem to fall on those who are awarded the Clark Medal—something to keep in mind when it becomes obvious that while a Krugman can occasionally sound quite progressive, deep down he is the neoliberal swine the folks at Clark Medal so highly prized.

The Limitations of Marginal Utility

Thorstein Veblen
Journal of Political Economy, volume 17. 1909

The limitations of the marginal-utility economics are sharp and characteristic. It is from first to last a doctrine of value, and in point of form and method it is a theory of valuation. The whole system, therefore, lies within the theoretical field of distribution, and it has but a secondary bearing on any other economic phenomena than those of distribution -- the term being taken in its accepted sense of pecuniary distribution, or distribution in point of ownership. Now and again an attempt is made to extend the use of the principle of marginal utility beyond this range, so as to apply it to questions of production, but hitherto without sensible effect, and necessarily so. The most ingenious and the most promising of such attempts have been those of Mr. Clark, whose work marks the extreme range of endeavor and the extreme degree of success in so seeking to turn a postulate of distribution to account for a theory of production. But the outcome has been a doctrine of the production of values, and value, in Mr. Clark's as in other utility systems, is a matter of valuation; which throws the whole excursion back into the field of distribution. Similarly, as regards attempts to make use of this principle in an analysis of the phenomena of consumption, the best results arrived at are some formulation of the pecuniary distribution of consumption goods.

Within this limited range marginal utility theory is of a wholly statical character. It offers no theory of a movement of any kind, being occupied with the adjustment of values to a given situation. Of this, again, no more convincing illustration need be had than is afforded by the work of Mr. Clark, which is not excelled in point of earnestness, perseverance, or insight. For all their use of the term "dynamic", neither Mr. Clark nor any of his associates in this line of research have yet contributed anything at all appreciable to a theory of genesis, growth, sequence, change, process, or the like, in economic life. They have had something to say as to the bearing which given economic changes, accepted as premises, may have on economic valuation, and so on distribution; but as to the causes of change or the unfolding sequence of the phenomena of economic life they have had nothing to say hitherto; nor can they, since their theory is not drawn in causal terms but in terms of teleology.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Better than the Li-Ion Battery?

Recently I tried to write a small survival guide for finding the good stuff on the internet. I called it Epistemology in the age of "fake news." Considering I spent most of my adult life composing that little essay, that was a remarkably lame title—I tend to forget that epistemology is not everyone's pet idea and to combine that with a trendy notion like "fake news" means that I am open to any better suggestions.

But the idea of fact-bricks is sound and I just found a pretty good example of how they can be used to evaluate a news story like the one below. Essentially the news is that one of the co-inventors of the lithium-ion battery has discovered (invented) a major improvement. The new battery will replace the li-ion's liquid / gel electrolyte with glass—which would be a major improvement in safety. Lithium would be replaced with sodium which is almost infinitely cheaper and easier to access.

Cheaper? safer? Wait there's more! The new batteries supposedly will charge much faster and be three times as energy dense. This means a car with a 200 mile range with Li-ion would have a 600 mile range with a similar-sized pack of the new batteries. This last claim is the most significant and also the one that triggered my BS sensors.

Here are the relevant fact-bricks as I see them.
  1. Historically, batteries have gotten better in small steps. A 300% improvement is an enormous leap. Show me. The producer class is about demonstration.
  2. 94 year-old guys tend to be well past their significant accomplishments in life.
  3. What works in theory or even in a lab is difficult to translate into a mass-produced consumer device. And even those products that make the leap take significant time to work out the kinks—17 years for the fluorescent bulb, for example.
On the plus side.
  1. This is an example of evolutionary improvement. Basically the only kind there is.
  2. It IS possible that someone who has devoted his life-energy to a subject just might have a final creative burst in his chosen field—even at 94.
  3. Storage is the key to making solar energy useful. If the funding is there, commercialization of this technology could happen in a much shorter time-frame than usual.
My conclusion: I will withhold judgment on the validity of the basic idea but because the chemistry is possible I will continue to follow the story. I don't expect to see these batteries for sale at Costco or Home Depot in less than five years even if everything goes right.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mark Ames explains US / Russia relations

Around 1993, I met an interesting old codger who was living with his wife in a old converted one-room schoolhouse. Almost immediately he got on my good side by expressing his belief that the Vietnam War had been a vicious con on USA's young men. Not long after that, I discovered that in his younger days of employment, he had been a professor of Russian / USSR studies. Russian history is a favorite hobby but living in the middle of the North American continent, I don't meet many people who know anything about the subject. I was quite excited.

Soon the thrill of exchanging ideas was replaced by the disappointing realization that he thought USSR's conversion to "democracy" was going swimmingly, that Boris Yeltsin was a brave patriot who was doing everything in his power to prevent Russia from sliding back into Communism, and that reports of corruption could be easily dismissed as the growing pains of the new order. The fact that USA flew in 88 yo heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey to manage Yeltsin's heart treatment was simply a sign of our willingness to help. About this time someone told me not to be shocked because virtually all Russian Studies profs in USA have significant links to CIA. I have NO idea if this is true in this case but he was pretty steadfast in defending that party line. We lost touch shortly thereafter.

Of course, none of his beliefs about Russia were remotely true. The neoliberals from Harvard who landed the fat contract to re-engineer the USSR were so corrupt that eventually they lost the contract and some were charged with corruption by the Justice Department. Jeffrey Sachs, the w√ľnderkind who had caused major disasters in Bolivia and Poland led their charge. The most serious results of this economics of Predation was that average male life expectancy dropped from 64 to 57 between 1990 and 1994.

Mark Ames, who was living in Moscow during this chaos, relates the story of what happened in the video below. The numbers of those in the USA who know this story is essentially zero. And yet, since the outcome was the rise to power of Vladimir Putin—the current public enemy #1—this is NOT a trivial story. It is also a story that virtually every Russian knows in great detail.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Epistemology in the age of "fake news"

Being accused of peddling fake news by the New York Times or the Washington Post is like being called smelly by a hog.

I love the internet. Never before in human history has it been so easy to access accurate and helpful information. And when folks assure me that 99% of what is on the internet is pure BS, I can only smile and say "but the good news is that the remaining 1% is so vast and comprehensive it defies meaningful comprehension." Of course that leads to the BIG PROBLEM: How does one tell the difference between the 99% BS and the 1% good stuff?

Not long ago a bright young man asked me that very question with a look of panic on his face. What good is an infinity of information without an accurate way to tell which factoid will lead to a lifetime of confusion and wasted effort, and which will assist in finding answers that make life's journey more understandable, fulfilling, and productive?

Quite honestly, I was taken aback by his excellent question. Mostly it's because I almost never think about it anymore. My "rules" for separating the wheat from the chaff were formulated one summer night over 35 years ago while driving a sports car on some moonlit back roads at extralegal speeds. A college roommate who had gotten a philosophy degree was along for the ride and we were discussing the essential failures of philosophic thought. His take was that the big-name philosophers all tried to create a huge, all-encompassing world-view. The problem with this approach is that as humanity acquired more information, these newly discovered details tended to rip huge holes in some grandiose descriptions of how the world works. Poor Aristotle—his sweeping philosophy that acted as a lodestar for the last 2300 years has been filled so full of factual holes that nothing is left. Even his logic, which is still taught, has been made hopelessly obsolete. So the question becomes, "when you cannot even trust Aristotle, how exactly do you find your way?"

Like a lightening bolt it came to me. Instead of searching for the big answers, why not concentrate on those little answers that cannot be refuted. Think like a builder! Treat your irrefutable facts like bricks or timber. They may be plain and simple yet with enough of them, you can build a beautiful and mighty structure. Even better, if you are sure about the quality of the parts, the likelihood increases dramatically that the final edifice built from those parts will be sound. Moreover, if someone comes to you with an idea that contradicts one or more of your fact-bricks, you can be certain that the whole idea is nonsense and will fail.