Friday, October 31, 2008

Celebrities - so what?

Hard to find much to say about a couple of grubby boys on TV.

All celebrities remind me of the end of The Truman Show – although everyone’s completely enthralled while it’s on, the moment he walks away they just change channels and watch something else. That’s the difference between being a celebrity and someone who matters (such as my doctor, children’s teachers, even my dentist).

What worries me rather more us that there is a constant supply of celebrities to be enthralled by, though – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep a hold on real life.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nationalisation is a right-wing policy

Today the Financial Times reported that:

The overwhelming majority of Germans would welcome the nationalisation of large segments of the economy, including its energy, transport and financial infrastructure, according to a new opinion poll that underlines the strength of popular opposition to free-market liberalism in Europe’s largest economy.
Perhaps there will be unreconstructed lefties like me cheering at the news.

Well, not really ‘unreconstructed lefties like me’, given that nationalisation is a truly bogus leftwing policy. What does it achieve? Instead of organisations being directly in the hands of capitalists who prefer profit to people, they are put in the hands of the state. But in what sense is the state anymore leftwing than business? It is true that, under a leftwing government they may be put to socially progressive purposes, but when can we expect to see a leftwing government again? Who would be a candidate? The current German government? The current UK government? Any current government?

And once they pass into the hands of a rightwing government, what can we expect of them then? Only that they become instruments of a pro-capitalist economic and social policies, starting with starving them of resources and holding down state workers’ pay as a way of controlling private sector wages.

No, the leftwing solution is not nationalisation but socialisation – direct control over economic organisations by their workers and managers, based on unqualified legal title and unqualified democratic control.

Getting the sums right

The International Energy Agency – described by the Financial Times rather implausibly as the ‘oil watchdog’ – announces that if we don’t invest very heavily indeed in new exploration and production, world oil production can be expected to fall by 9.1% per annum from now on. Apparently meeting the demand from China, India and other developing countries’ demand will cost around $360bn each year until 2030. And even if we do make all that investment, it will fall by 6.4% anyway. So peak oil is well and truly here.

Curiously, this does not occur to the FT, who then add that the IEA has consequently revised its projections for oil consumption downwards from 116 mbd (million barrels a day) to 106 mbd - a little under 10% less. Yet we are currently producing only about 87 mbd. So according to the FT, if we start with 87 and subtract at least 6% a year, we will get to 106 in 2030…

Who says educational standards are falling? Evidently some of the best educated members of my own generation – the FT’s journalists – can’t add up either.

But the FT are hardly alone in this peculiar visual impairment. Governments everywhere seem to be totting up the figures for economic development – especially in the developing countries – and coming up with equally fantastic numbers for all sorts of things. Oil, gas – even coal looks a bit shaky now. Industrialisation will proceed apace, yet the supply of many of the most important inputs will peak soon. Nor do we have even an idea about substitutes for most of them. So prices will rise and rise, supplies will grow scarce and then fall to nothing – but industrialisation will proceed apace.

Population too – it will level off at around 9 billion sometime around 2050. Yet many of the basic ‘inputs’ for population growth – water for crops and drinking, fertile land, farming skills, people in the right places (i.e., not in giant slums) – are not only in hopelessly limited supply for such a number but we are actively reducing them by our current policies. We are currently producing less and less cereals per head each year, we spent most of the summer sorting out a global crisis in rice supply, we are responding to the melting of the glaciers on which a huge proportion of the world relies for basic drinking water by introducing crops that demand more water – but there will still be another 2,500,000,000 of us by 2050.

Why the double vision? Because a) we don’t want it to be true, b) most of the tools we have for analysing the problem simply don’t work when faced with problems like this, and c) we haven’t a clue what to do about it, not least because we have absolutely no faith in popular willingness to support radical change.

Take environmental economics – surely that can give us the answers? The clue’s in the name!

Not really. Like all other flavours of ‘modern’ economics, environmental economics assumes that most problems can be understood in marginalist terms - balancing claims on our resources to maximise marginal utility, optimise the distribution or substitution of resources, etc. But it has nothing to say about a situation in which resources fall below basic survival level and we haven’t any substitutes, or where the decision to be made about ‘utility’ is about who will die and who won’t. Not really a ‘marginal’ question, unless you are willing to regard the falling over the edge of a cliff as just another incremental step.

That doesn’t add up either. Perhaps it’s time for remedial maths classes for economists or politicians.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A summary of where I think we are now

The problems posed by the human impact on the environment are huge and extremely urgent and we have no previous experience in solving problems of this type or magnitude. The means at our disposal are not only essentially incapable of solving these problems but they are inherently inclined to make them worse. Yet there is no time to create new systems. Therefore the only realistic option is to learn to manage these systems far more radically and on a far larger scale than we do at present. But so radical are the necessary changes that they are likely to be heavily resisted, and resisted by some of the most powerful forces on the planet.

The problems posed by the human impact on the environment are huge and extremely urgent. We need to reduce the impact we are having on the environment radically. In the leading industrial countries we need to reduce our collective carbon footprint by 90% or more, or perhaps even shift to a carbon-negative economy, in which we compensate for past excesses by absorbing more carbon than we emit. We are starting to move, but even the most ambitious national and international targets commit us to probably failing to halt this process. Meanwhile, almost every worst-case scenario – Arctic melting, climate damage, habitat loss – is turning out to be the best case. At this rate, we may well be living in the last century – if not the last few decades - of industrial civilisation.

At the same time, many strategic materials on which our current economic system relies – not only oil and natural gas but many metals and minerals - will become scarce to the point that they will start to disrupt our current economic systems within the foreseeable future. A number of absolutely basic resources such as fresh water and fertile soil will also come under threat within the same timescale, affecting so many people (especially in developing countries) that their effects are imaginable only if you are prepared to imagine the very worst.

But we started to exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity about a quarter of a century ago, and we have already started to witness the consequences.

We have no previous experience in solving problems of this type or magnitude. Pundits like to compare the impending crisis with the Second World War. As the next couple of chapters will make clear, if we do not take vigorous actions quickly enough, the fall of the Roman Empire may well turn out to be a better comparison – if not the last Ice Age. We are already losing – in many cases, actively destroying - the means to solve our problems. Within a few decades the losses will trigger a sequence of environmental implosions in which the collapse of this or that area – the Amazon forests, the Siberian tundra, vast undersea methane hydrate reservoirs - will release enough additional carbon to change the question from ‘How do we manage this?’ to ‘How do we survive this?’

Other events will be equally devastating. The melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets alone will make some of the world’s most heavily populated areas uninhabitable and flood many of the world’s greatest cities. The droughts that inevitably follow the final melting of most of the world’s glaciers (which feed many of the most important rives) will turn many of the world’s most densely populated – and nuclear-armed – regions to scrublands capable of supporting only the most meagre of populations. In the same timescale we can expect some of the world’s most fertile and productive agricultural areas to fail, including the American Midwest and California’s Central Valley, several of China’s rice-growing regions$$ and the Ganges valley.

Taken together, these processes will combine to ignite civil and political conflicts on an unprecedented scale even while massively damaging the social and political systems we rely on to manage such conflicts.

Meanwhile, the means at our disposal to solve all these problems are not only essentially incapable of solving these problems but they are inherently inclined to make them worse. Faced with any global problem, our most important resource is our economy. It is this that produces the means to do anything else, especially create the new systems and technologies we will undoubtedly need to deploy to escape our predicament. More than three decades after the first credible warnings of what would happen if we continued with unabated industrial growth and almost two decades since global targets and agreements on climate change were first promulgated, we have failed to meet practically every target we have set ourselves.

The fundamental reason for this is, straightforward enough. A capitalist economy relies absolutely on the continual expansion of profits. Without continuing the cycle of profit, investment and profit, it has no rationale and will cease to function. With that, all the remainder of society that relies so entirely on capitalist relationships – employment, consumption, taxation, government – will also collapse. With such a large proportion of all capital tied up in industrial machinery, global transport systems, vast retail networks and an enormous advertising and marketing industry – not to mention an almost official post-ideology ideology of consumerism – not only is our current economic system not designed to help us cut back, but it positively demands endless expansion. Although industry as such is not a problem – any machine can be turned off – capitalist industry is an absolute catastrophe. Under a capitalist regime, turning off the machines would put an end not only to the profits but also to the only system we possess that is capable of creating the means to solve our current environmental problems. Even replacing them with more environmentally friendly alternatives before they had recouped their original investment would cripple businesses.

Yet there is no time to create a new economic system. The problem is Now, and every past transformation as radical as the replacement of capitalism has taken literally centuries. Therefore the only realistic option is to learn to manage these systems far more radically and on a far larger scale than we do at present. The famous ‘turning on a penny/dime’ at the start of the Second World War is encouraging, but the changes needed now are far more fundamental. We have longer to complete them, but there is scarcely an area of everyday life they will not touch, and unlike the changes wrought at the start of the Second World War, this is not a transient change to be made in the face of a clear and present danger. If we are to succeed, we must take far more radical steps than anything ever contemplated before, forcing an extraordinary level of change (and perhaps disruption).

But so radical are the necessary changes that they are likely to be heavily resisted, and resisted by some of the most powerful forces on the planet. The situation is essentially that the next century will be by any standards the most expensive century in human history. That is, we will be investing not so much in grow as in change – often accompanied by shrinkage. Faced with such a situation, most governments and practically all businesses will try to deal with this problem by either evading their responsibilities or making someone else pay for them. Given that at least a significant fraction of governments and businesses have demonstrated a willingness to obtain economic resources and avoid social obligations by a combination of force and fraud, this may well prove to be the most violent century in human history too.

Yet there is a great deal we can do. But only if we are prepared to face up the reality of the situation, and only if we are willing to take action. Now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tax the rich till they hardly notice!

Descending briefly from my City eyrie in search of a decent cup of coffee, I am accosted by Mansoor. He sidles up to me, looking mischievous and slightly guilty, and it is soon clear why. He works for Shelter, the housing charity, and after a while people like him realise what evil parasites they truly are.

For what does Mansoor want from me? He wants £5 a month to help a homeless family get back on their feet. And why should he feel bad about that? Because as far as most people seem to be concerned, he might as well be asking the earth. When we walk a little too swiftly past Mansoor, carefully avoiding eye-contact and pretending we are too busy/already gave/dum-dee-dum-dee-daa, we know what a bunch of liars and moral inadequates we are. And we feel bad. And it’s all Mansoor’s fault.

But I stop and talk. We talk about how the poor are rendered invisible. How we seem to hate (or at least despise) the poor. Well, that's what I say, and he doesn't seem to disagree, though I have found that when I say things like that to charity workers, they get a bit nervous. Perhaps they have been trained to get the punters on their side, to appeal to their better natures. Waste of time, I would say - the ones with a better nature do not need it appealing to, and the ones without have already walked right by. As a measure of just how effective the charities' approach is, Mansoor is absurdly grateful that anyone is willing to give him two minutes, let alone £5 a month.

So there Mansoor and I stand, right on the edge of the world’s greatest financial centre, surrounded by more money than anyone could even imagine, talking about £5 a month to give children a roof over their heads.

So how much money are we surrounded by? Just the other day I found out that, each year, the total value of all the transactions carried out around here runs into the quadrillions of pounds/dollars/euros. I don’t know how much that is (other than that one quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000), but I do know that we could solve all the world’s poor’s problems with a minute fraction of that much money.

And then I have a bright idea. Why not take a minute fraction of that much money? Straight off the top. How about taking just one millionth of the total value of every transaction that goes through London, New York, Hong Kong, Chicago – all the top 20 financial centres – and putting it into a fund whose sole purpose is to solve the problems of the world’s poor. Starting with their debts to the world’s richest, perhaps.

How about starting off by asking the London Stock Exchange to consider it as part of their corporate social responsibility? Ask them to give it all to environmental charities as part of their offsetting for the zillions of air flights their members make every year?

How much would that raise? I’ve no idea how much it would come to in total, but it would come to a billion out of every quadrillion pounds/dollars/euros worth of transactions. Would it harm our economies? I would guess not. Hard to see how raising a billion in a world that operates in quadrillions would come to more than their coffee money.

Good man, Mr Greenspan

Well at least someone's putting their hands up. From this morning's Financial Times:

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said on Thursday the credit crisis had exceeded anything he had imagined and admitted he was wrong to think that banks would protect themselves from financial market chaos.

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organisations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders,” he said.

Good man (though he does qualify his responsibility a little later in the story). Now maybe we'll see as much candour from the FT itself. (Though with panto season looming, I am tempting to add, 'Oh no we won't!')

Transition Romsey

In case you live in the Romsey, Hampshire area - they are thinking of starting a Transition Town initiative.

A meeting will be held on 30th October on Transition Towns at the Abbey United Reformed Church Hall, from 7.30 to start at 8 pm. Richard Barnett from New Forest Transition Community will be speaking at the meeting.

(See for more info on New Forest Transition Community.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pundit, heal thyself

An interesting article in the Financial Times this morning, from Michael Skapinker, entitled ‘Our sorry need for others to apologise’. It is about how the overpaid idiots who brought the financial system down around their heads and so will cause millions to suffer – lost jobs, lost pensions, lost futures – still can’t bring themselves to say they’re sorry. The reason, says Skapinker, is cognitive dissonance – which is to say, because saying they were sorry would mean they were not the wonders of nature they imagine themselves to be.

I suspect there is another, more serious problem – which is that they really don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

Be that as it may, I would like to apply Skapinker’s complaint to another group – the cheerleaders for deregulation. Step forward the Economist, the right-wing press – and the FT. As Skapinker himself puts it:

Then there are those of us – governments, regulators, ratings agencies and journalists – who never blew the whistle... It is worth asking why bankers find it hard to apologise. It is also worth wondering why the rest of us need their apologies so badly.

But that is a bit selective - what about all the others he mentions - the governments, regulators, ratings agencies and journalists? More specifically (and just to prove that I can be as selective as the author), when can we expect an apology from the FT, Mr Skapinker?

The answer is, of course, never. The stock in trade of journals like the Economist and the FT is that they know more than you and me - and, in their case, that they are cleverer than you and me too. Which is hard to stomach, especially at times like this, but it does make it difficult for them to admit that for more than two decades now they have been endangering society as a whole with their willfully ideological advice.

Not that I have any problem with ideology. In fact I have far more problems with people with no ideology. But they really should get theirs straight. If they must go for Adam Smith, they really should get the whole story. Smith refers to the shibboleth of FT-style economics, the 'hidden hand', only once in the whole of The Wealth of Nations - exactly as many times as he describes business people as -
an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who generally have an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

Even landlords, who are otherwise roundly criticised by Smith, are seen as being in greater harmony with society as a whole than capitalists, and he presents the condition of wage labourers - which has declined so badly relative to that of capitalists - as a sensitive barometer of the state of society in general.

I look forward to the FT and the Economist checking out their evidently untouched copies of The Wealth of Nations and apologising to the world for their ignorance and sophistry. We will try to forgive them. Maybe.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Strings, relations and dialectics

As I understand it (ha ha), one of the fundamentals of string theory is that it replaces the default assumption of pre-string models of matter. That view is that matter is composed of things. that is, in the classic image, billiard balls, or, in quantum terms, the zoo of structural particles - electrons, protons, and so on. Relationships between these particles are then created by the exchange of 'messenger' particles - gluons, gravitons, etc., and so on.

Instead, string theory assumes the reverse - that matter is undifferentiated, but that the highly differentiated structure is created by relationships between the basic components, which is to say, strings themselves. The 'zoo' is an illusion created by looking at the same things from different points of view or in different syntheses.

If this (or anything like it) is correct, can a true relational theory of matter be far behind, that allows a unified theory of complex matter to arise on the basis of relationships and relationships between relationships, up to and including not only physical but also chemical, biological and intelligent structures? And that, because it is based on a relationships rather than things, defines each new layer of matter (chemical, biological and intelligent) in terms of their abstraction from their predecessors rather than by the accumulation of forces and factors, and so permits the higher levels (not least intelligent structures such as logic and mathematics) to have an inherent relationship to the lowest, and so explains their otherwise quite unintelligible validity?

Or, beyond even that, a true dialectics of matter?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Carbon leakage

Something I don't quite understand. About three weeks ago a member of the UK government appeared on the BBC, proudly claiming that the UK were successfully meeting their carbon targets by exporting manufacturing to China.

Leaving aside the obvious loud Doh! this warrants (where do they get these clowns from?), it also raises the whole question of carbon leakage. Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that industrialists in the EU are threatening to move production to areas where carbon emissions are not yet regulated (India, China, USA, and so on) if they don't get some concessions about targets.

But how have we arrived at a situation where such a threat is possible, or was not foreseen? Can we not require companies registered in the EU to calculate the total carbon cost of their good and services, regardless of where the inputs come from and the outputs go? Presumably not, but if we don't, what hope do we have of controlling emissions.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Free will and determinism

A rather long theoretical speculation.

Free will and determinism are generally treated as polar opposites. Here is a hypothesis that starts from that position and concludes with them being identical.

Human free will is difficult to establish. The concept itself is extremely evasive and analysing consciousness and decision-making (which I take to be among the more intractable issues for free will) is fraught with contradictions and infinite regressions. In addition, many of the material determinants of human action and experience are clearly external to the human individual, either as social or as natural entities. As such most social and natural conditions would necessarily limit our material freedom, even if free will were in principle possible. Unlike writers for whom the conceptual analysis of free will and practical constraints on freedom are to be studied separately, I would argue that the reason why the concept of free will is too hard to pin down is the same as the reason we are not, in practice, free.

Essentially, we lack freedom either because of the relative immaturity of the subjective intelligence through which we exist in the world or because of the limitations (gaps, mistakes, conflicts and contradictions) of the objective systems and relationships by which our worlds are actually composed. That is, we are prevented from achieving what we set out to achieve because the structures on which our actions and experience are based stop us from succeeding. It is not simply a matter of weakness: defeat of one kind or another (including subversion, diversion, distraction, disablement and frustration as well as outright defeat) is often built into the very systems and processes through which we act.

For example, even within our world of formal social freedoms (citizenship, equality before the law, and so on), the contradictions that beset our relationships with bureaucracy, representative democracy, economic activity and the law are too well known to need elaborating here. And once again, these are contradictions, not just misfortunes: the problems are built in. Others, created by inhabiting a world made up increasingly of money, commodities and roles, are less obvious, though they are often yet more fatal.

Furthermore, because these structures are contradictory, they prevent us from experiencing the world (or even our own experience) in a coherent manner. This in turn stops us coming up with any way of fully or accurately describing or analysing that experience without working through a huge range of social and historical systems, and so of formulating our goals and intentions adequately in the first place. Furthermore, the vast scale and complex yet ambiguous structure of our social systems makes it unlikely that many people will have the necessary knowledge, or any idea of how to acquire it, or any idea that it is needed.

For example, a capitalist society creates a basic individualism that prevents us from seeing straight away that our problems are social and historical rather than psychological. For most people, the response to bureaucracy, injustice and the general malaise of everyday life is personal frustration, resignation and depression, not social analysis, organisation and action. We divide our efforts between work and consumption, and even these supremely social activities are experienced in terms of a narrow individualism or, at best, instrumental social groupings (office, shopping mall, public transport) to which we commit little of ourselves. This perverse structuring of action and experience both creates innumerable illusions about how the world really works and effectively undermines every attempt to do something about it.

For example, in work we are typically isolated as individuals and functional groupings, and the knowledge we have of the larger systems and relationships we need to do our jobs is generally very narrow. There are timetables, duties, targets, techniques, but little meaning outside the group or the even the task. And in consumerism, we exist solely as isolated individuals, in families and other small, specialised and isolated groups.

So by and large, the only knowledge we need to operate within society is at the level of simple, formally prescribed facts (a great deal of which is anything but correct at any profound level). The massive social and economic processes whereby we ended up there at the supermarket are treated as a combination of the trivially obvious, too dull and difficult for non-specialists to bother with, and none of our business.

At the same time, we are constantly bombarded by complacent and unimaginative politicians, newspaper editors and pundits, and endless other spokespeople for the status quo telling us that we are all already free – or, with one of those small, resigned twists in which modern ideology excels – we are as free as we should try to be.

Even for professionals who specialise in such questions, social life is not exactly training for solving problems of free will and determinism! In fact, the disciplines of history, philosophy and the social sciences seem to be almost as confounded by these assumptions about how our lives work (if that is the word) as everyone else. I doubt that one sociologist in a hundred could explain the idea of alienation.

The basics of the real processes through which all this takes place should be all too familiar to need explaining, though they certainly are not, even for those with a background in the social sciences. Or perhaps they should be anything but familiar. After all, why would any social system regard a theory that that system does not make sense as a tool for making sense of itself? It would be a confession of failure and futility and an invitation to do something about it.

On the other hand, if the ways we understand our relationships to the world and to one another and the systems and structures through which we actually live are so closely interconnected, creating a world of freedom and conceiving of free will properly ought to be mutually fruitful enterprises. If we could do something about these endemic contradictions that constantly frustrate freedom we would be able to grasp the concept of free will, and the more thoroughly we work through the conceptual contradictions (including their social and historical aspects), we more clearly we will know how to go about creating a world in which genuine liberty is the norm.

So what is the general model of freedom I am arguing for? In brief, freedom is lacking whenever the structures that determine either our intentions or the means to realise them are outside our control. If everything that controlled both how we grasped the world and what we wanted, expected, needed (and so on) was (in some sense) a part of ourselves, then we could say that the ways we conceived of our existence in the world and the structures that through which that existence was enacted were one and the same, both with one another and with ourselves. In other words, the structures that determined and realised our will would all be part of ourselves. It would thus be free will, yet wholly determined, yet subject to no material constraints or limitations from beyond itself. Conversely, if we could internalise within ourselves over all the structures needed to materialise those intentions and desires in the external world of practical reality, there would be no constraints on the exercise of our free will either. In other words, our free will would be exercised in freedom.

But what are the structures that need to be created to freedom to be achieved? And, given that the structures that impinge on the exercise of our will might be found anywhere in the entire universe, in what sense could they possibly be internalised? I have tried to describe in detail the historical and phenomenal processes through which truth and freedom (for truth and freedom come down to the same thing) can be reconciled with determinism in my The History of Human Reason. But in the most general terms, this argument entails that a) such a reconciliation is possible, and b) it is susceptible to scientific investigation in all its aspects, with no sneaky corners of irreducible indeterminacy.

Isn’t philosophy fun?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Which conflict of interest?

Another day, another patronising lecture from the FT.

Today it’s Jamie Whyte. He tells us, in the usual FT tone of pursed-lipped frustration with the foolishness of lesser mortals, that the problem with paying bankers is not that their incomes need putting under control but that the interests of bankers need aligning better with their employers. Then they would pursue the interests of their employers (the banks) with the same alacrity that they pursue their own. So banks would not crash about our ears.

No fooling?

But that is not the problem, of course. The problem is that the bankers always were pursuing the banks’ interests, because ramping up risk, mass mis-selling, bogus economics, self-importance and outright lies were not only consistent with what the banks were up to but were, in most case, actively propagated by both the banks and their spokespeople – the very bankers Whyte seems to think had another agenda.

In short, it was not the relationship between employer and employee that was broken but the relationship between both employer and employee and the society of which they were allegedly responsible members and on whose resources they battened with such enthusiasm.

But what ultimately is Whyte saying here? Quite simple - that there's nothing wrong with the system that a few tweaks cannot fix. Even though those tweaks look like costing us trillions of pounds/ euros/ dollars, not to mention the well-being of thousands who will pay with their jobs, well-being and social support.

I wonder how hard it would be to construct a handbook of excuses for those discovered causing a monumental cock-up? We certainly seem to have seen quite a few since Lehman’s went pear-shaped. Blame government. Blame the victims. Accuse those who predicted this mess years ago of 20-20 hindsight. Deny that there’s anything seriously wrong. Patronise those who are trying to clear up the mess.

I wonder how many we have yet to see? Considering how much effort and imagination this lot have dedicated to looking for (but not, it turns out, finding) loopholes in the basic laws of economics, quite a few.

Monday, October 13, 2008

BAU won’t work

A few words from Peter Mandelson on trade and climate change:

Trade is our basic means for spreading green technology. Carbon emissions
targets rely on the political and social will to change the way we do things.
But they also rely on the technologies that will enable us to change. Those
technologies are goods and services that are traded like any other.
So far, so conventional. In fact quite hard to argue with, in strictly economic terms. The obvious difficulty with Mandelson’s position is that it assumes that there is a match between need for environmental action and the money needed to take that action. But green technology goes to those who are willing to buy it, and they are not the same people as those who either want or can afford green technology. Trade is helpful in some respects – it greases certain kinds of economic wheel, and Mandelson may well be right to say that:
This is, in my opinion, the most important potential contribution of trade policy to the climate agenda. So we have to get it right.

But the problem we have with the environment is so much greater – much greater is size and scope and vastly more urgent – than anything trade alone could deal with that the very notion that trade might be even a major part of the overall solution - leaves one feeling slightly queasy.

Like almost everything else about the current climate debate at governmental level, this position assumes that ‘business as usual’ is a viable option. A bit more trade, some pretty substantial technical fixes, little more pump-priming investment, a little judicious regulation, and there we are.

Only we’re not, of course. The whole ‘business as usual’ approach is based on a single fatal assumption, namely that have time. Hence the extraordinary folly of senior government officials (starting with presidents and prime ministers) to the effect that ‘green’ and ‘growth’ are compatible. There is a formal economic sense in which that is perhaps true, but not in the sense that most governments seem to mean.

So what is the problem? Simple: the world’s economy ceased to be sustainable a quarter of a century ago. Sometime around 1980, we started to use the Earth’s resources more quickly than they could be replenished. Now, when the global economy is twice the size it was then, our collective ecological footprint is well over 1.25 times Earth’s entire carrying capacity.

So what would regulating or shaping trade on better ecological terms add? It would help us to make an awful situation get worse at a slightly reduced rate. Not much of an accomplishment.

What exactly is it that government’s don’t ‘get’ about our present predicament? In a word, that all their basic assumptions about a viable economy are simply false. Most of all, they don’t get it that the idea that economies can grow indefinitely is not only false in principle (you only have to be numerate to recognise that) but it is urgent, murderously, catastrophically false right now. We are already committed to serious environmental change even if we could stop growth this very instant, and every year we leave doing something about it, the more environmental change – and then damage, and then disaster – we are also committed to. But our governments are simply not taking this fact on board.

And there’s little point in Mandelson and other apologists for free trade asserting that:

Any strategy for addressing climate change that does not respect the right
of developing countries to a level of economic prosperity broadly equivalent to
ours simply will not fly in the developing world. An approach to climate change
that kicks away the ladder from the developing world simply won't work. So we
are going to have to break the link between economic growth and rising carbon
emissions through new power sources, more efficient energy use and new patterns
of behaviour, not by stifling economic growth.

This is complete nonsense. If we do not stop economic growth – at least in the sense of forms of economic activity that increase environmental damage – ASAP, it is the developing world that will suffer first and suffer worst. Equity in the current situation is a utopian dream – and I say that as a socialist for whom equity is the sine qua non of civilisation.

The fact is that there is no existing version of economic development for the developing world that is ecologically viable. There might be if the developed countries were willing to pay for it, but when has that ever happened? It is the developed countries far more than the developing that are committed to growth, who are causing much the most environmental damage per person and who will have the most trouble turning their economies around. But they also hold the whip hand when it comes to future development. If a country like China or India continues to develop industrially willy-nilly, it is they who will suffer from it. What would either of these countries do for water with the Himalaya glaciers gone? How will India and Pakistan or Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam look at each other when the Indus and Ganges, the Yangtze Kiang, the Huang Ho and the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Brahmaputra are all starting to run dry for a large part of the year?

No, these countries can afford the ecological consequences of climate change even less than wealthy western countries. And we have never shown any real interest in doing anything about it. What, short of a major ideological, political and economic upheaval will change that? Better trade agreements? I don’t think so.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A word from Francis Wheen

I don’t know a better summary of our ‘solution’ to the present economic crisis than the way it was explained by Francis Wheen on yesterday’s News Quiz on BBC 4:

The banks will be given £500,000,000,000 of our money and, in return, they are
going to lend some of it to us, and charge us interest on it.

I think that summarises very well exactly how rational our economic system really is.

Can we have globalisation part 2, please?

One of the most striking things about the current global meltdown is that the meltdown is global but the response is piecemeal. I have always been a fan of the idea of globalisation in general, but a complete sceptic about allowing it to happen at the behest of capitalist corporations and under the control of capitalist corporations and what can only be described as intellectually and politically supine national governments. To the extent that there is an effective global politics of any kind it seems to consist solely of organisations such as the WTO, whose role appears to be to further the interests of business.

In addition, the impact of this crisis are vastly more than financial. A the impact works its way through national economies, we can only expect the meltdown on Wall Street and in the City to mean suffering for many millions throughout the world. This crisis means difficulties for homeowners in Omaha and Frankfurt, but in the Third World it is going to kill people. A lot of people.

So what is the answer to the current global economic crisis? A global political response? As a temporary measure, yes – but also, now that global corporations have managed to demonstrate just how little they know how to manage the global economy, the time has surely come for a serious attempt to build a global political system. Without that it is hard to see either how economic globalisation can be made to work, even for those who run the corporations, or how the rest of us can be protected from its massive downside.

We won’t get it, of course. Our politicians have made sure of that. On the one hand they have abdicated responsibility for actively managing society to big business and on the other they have barred the doors to politics to everyone but the ‘professionals’ – i.e., people like George Bush, Gordon Brown, my MP and a thousand other talking heads with zero practical experience of running the world and zero insight into the real structure of global society.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Who's to blame? Not me, that's for sure

I love the Financial Times. Like every other player in the current global financial fiasco (do I mean fiasco? How about another word beginning with f, ending in -up?), they of course are not to blame. Some words from today's edition, from Gillian Tett, their capital markets editor:

For this package suggests that British mandarins have finally learnt to draw sensible lessons from the past...
How foolish of those silly 'mandarins' - to have listened to the FT for the last few decades, constantly telling these silly old bureaucrats how absurd they were to attempt to control the markets! I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone from Goldman Sachs or RBS telling us that it's my mother's fault next.

And no sooner do I write these word sand start reading the very next story in the FT - and I discover that yes, it was all our own fault! Apparently we should have seen through the mass hysteria drummed up by the financial services, the mass mis-selling, the outright lies, the bland reassurances that the bull market was forever, the obvious confidence our benighted governments showed in markets!

Well, all right I confess, I dunnit. And I would like 1973 crash, the 1987 crash and the Fall of the Roman Empire taken into account too.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A few days ago the journalist Stephen B. Gray emailed me with the following query:

I see from your web site that we have many viewpoints in common, and I have
enjoyed reading it. Maybe you can give me some help with the following

Christians sometimes use as an argument for God that advanced human
intelligence, the kind that lets us develop abstract mathematics and physics
(not to mention late Beethoven quartets, Mahler symphonies, Shakespeare plays,
etc.) would not develop on its own. One doesn’t need abstract thinking to make
better spearpoints. I assume a highly capable brain consumes even more energy
than a lesser one, so it would be evolved against unless it offered some
survival value over the long run. The question of course is why it did

I am writing an article refuting many Christian claims but as yet I
don’t have an answer about development of high intelligence. Is there anything
you can say or point me to?

Good question. I hope my answer was equally good:

Hello Steve

It is certainly a puzzle, to which I am by no means sure I have the answer. There is a technical answer, which I suggest below, but I have also suggested a non-technical argument I have made elsewhere, which your audience might find more accessible. It's at the bottom of this email, and basically says, even if intelligence and the universe as a whole were created, it doesn't tell us anything about whether religion is true. Nothing whatsoever.

The traditional evolutionary answer to this conundrum is that there is still a massive pressure to improve our intelligence, but it does not come from competing with other organisms. Rather, it comes from other people. Social competition drives the reproductive advantage of higher intelligence, even though it is the classic 'expensive tissue'.

The only problems with this problem are that a) there is little evidence of such competition, and b) the development of intelligence does not arise from evolutionary causes. Other than that, everything's hunky-dory!

a) There is little evidence of such competition

There is an eminent cognitive anthropologist name Christopher Hallpike (one of whose books I happen to have published) who argues that the effective distance between societies, the existence of effective social controls o competition (especially for mates) and the general lack of selective pressures between groups means that evolution doesn't affect cognitive capacity very much. I am inclined to agreed with him. However, even if he's wrong, there always...

b) The development of intelligence does not arise from evolutionary causes

I have written a very long (but still unpublished paper) on this, but the gist of of it is that evolution created the potential for intelligence, but that potential is only realised in the course of individual development. So no amount of evolutionary pressure will explain why we have developed higher and higher levels of intelligence, any more than it could explain why one stone rolls down a hill faster than another.

Real answer

There real answer lies elsewhere. In essence, you can only explain why we reach such a high level of intelligence by looking at the conditions in which intelligence develops in the individual. These conditions are partly biological but mainly social. Again put very briefly (the details are set out at enormous and very trying length in my History of Human Reason), as social system become more complex, so the forms of activity in which one must engage to live in that society become more and more complex. Thus life in a hunter-gatherer society is of quite limited complexity, while industrial capitalism forces us to live through elaborate systems of roles, money, commodities, employment, law, bureaucracy ... As a result, the mere conduct of social life in a complex social system causes one to live a more demanding life, which generates both the experience and the demand to develop to higher and higher cognitive levels. And that, I believe, is the real reason why human beings have such advanced intelligences.

All this assumes that intelligence has the capacity to develop that far, even though, in many conditions, it simply doesn't. That's a bit of a puzzle too. How come all that potential was there all the time? But again the answer lies in the fact that evolution throws up only a potential for intelligence. In the case of most adaptations, you tend to be limited to incremental improvements. But in the case of intelligence, you get this sudden transition to intelligence in all its glory. The reason this is possible is that intelligence is a quite different kind of structure from other aspects of life in general, and as such has a vast potential to fulfil that has nothing to do with the usual limits of biological change. After all, if the whole development of intelligence takes place within the individual, then the whole potential must be present in each individual. So unlike the potential of living organisms, most of which is only realised as evolution replaces one species with another, the whole potential of intelligence as such can arise in anyone, given the right conditions. Spooky stuff.

But this is also the inconvenient part of the answer from the standard scientific point of view, because the standard scientific point of view does not generally allow for the possibility that intelligence has superseded biology as fully as biology supersedes chemistry. Nature does not make leaps, goes the conventional wisdom. To which I can only reply, does that mean that life is only chemistry, only more so? Still, it's a bit of an embarrassment. It's only merits are that ) it does not support religion either, b) it's entirely scientific, and c) it's true.

So you may find it convenient not to raise this issue until directly pressed for an answer!

Alternative answer

But if you are looking for comment on religions using arguments from human intelligence, I think you'll find this blog entry of mine (see below for all my blogs) more helpful. Basically, every single step in the theological argument is a non sequitur.

Mandy's back? How desperate can Gordon be?

Yes, Peter Mandelson's back in the Cabinet - a place from which he has twice been ejected in disgrace. To appoint a man who is perhaps the only person in Britain more heartily despised than Tony Blair - this is the sort of thing pundits usually call 'brave', though perhaps only because being more forthright would result in an action for libel.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Is there no end to Microsoft's selfishness?

Good old Microsoft. Just when you might have thought people were starting to get the message about how environmentally damaging flying is, they offer air miles to anyone using their search engine:

Under the latest plan, known as Search Perks, Microsoft said that US
internet users would be able to earn a “ticket” each time they conducted a
search on its Live Search site, then redeem those for things such as ... regular air
miles. (Financial Times, October 1 2008)
Well done. Another generation addicted to flying. Still, it serves a higher purpose - bribing Google users to jump ship.

If you are a Google user, please don't accept the Microsoft bribe. And God knows the world would scarcely be a better place if Microsoft gain control of yet another area of computing!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Director of the LSE has an attack of attention deficit disorder

I suppose it had to start sometime around now - the excuses, the 'no one could have seen it coming' tosh from the bankers and their mates. Here is the learned opinion of Howard Davies. Sir Howard is Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and one-time Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the UK's financial regulator.

Some people saw it all coming, of course. The celebrated commentator Harry
Hindsight... has trenchantly argued that any fool could have seen that the credit expansion would end in tears, that regulators should have seen the trouble coming and headed it off at the pass. He would certainly have done so himself – though a diligent Google search has failed to unearth any warnings he personally gave.

I appreciate that a director of the London School of Economics is a busy man. According to his resume on the Morgan Stanley website,
Sir Howard J. Davies has been a director [of Morgan Stanley] since 2004. He has been Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science since September 2003. Sir Howard served as Chairman and Chief Executive of the U.K. Financial Services Authority (1997-2003), Deputy Governor of the Bank of England (1995-1997) and Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (1992-1995). From 1987 to 1992 he was Controller (CEO) of the U.K. Audit Commission.
So you think he'd have noticed. Nevertheless, Sir Howard really can't have been paying much attention over the last decade or so. Not only have the 'toxic assets' that are currently poisoning the world's financial systems been a routine topic of conversation for quite a few years now, but a number of related scams (this time wholly to the financial sector's benefit) have also been paraded across the public's screens. What about all those mis-selling scams? What about the Great Savings + Loan Scandal of the early 90s?

As for Sir Howard's tenure at Morgan Stanley, I can only assume he was brought in to help clear up the great stink of corruption that followed the enormous scam that surrounded the investment banks and cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to the clients they misled - Morgan Stanley included.

The fact is, this is only different because this time the financial sector have been so stupid (or irresponsible - or criminal) that they have collectively shot themselves in the foot - if not worse. Otherwise it's business as usual.

Why not send them to gaol?

Not too long back I posted my finding that most people I knew wanted Paris Hilton in gaol, but they didn’t think it mattered whether she had broken any laws. It was a matter of principle.

Likewise the leaders of the financial community who have led us into our current dire straits.

Today the Financial Times published an article by Martin Wolf bemoaning the irresponsibility of Congress for not coughing up $700,000,000,000 to save the financial system. The grounds were very reasonable –

We are watching the disintegration of the financial system. Finance is the web
of intermediation binding economic agents to one another, across both space and
time. Without it, no modern economy can survive. Yet that is now threatened,
with the ongoing collapse in trust and flight to safety. We can indeed run this
experiment. But why should we?
As far as the role of the financial system is concerned, I agree absolutely, and it would be insane not to fix the problems. And that’s coming from a devout socialist. (Strangely, in my experience socialists understand capitalism far better than capitalists.)

But this is one case where we could and should throw out the babies with the bathwater, or at least the throw out the bath attendants. They got us into this, and it is shocking that, if this measure goes through, they will still have their jobs – the very jobs they have proved they cannot do at the very pinnacle of the systems they have just proved are crucial to society as a whole. To tell you the truth, I’m quite shocked that, come the end of this process, they will still have their liberty. As I keep telling everyone I know (very nearly jokingly), the message should be that, once the negotiations about saving the system are over, they will all be off to gaol. We don’t really care what for – they just belong somewhere as dark and dingy as the misery to which they have sent so many other people.

A bit draconian? How about this then? The banks (etc.) get this financing on the absolute condition that they have completely replaced their leaderships within a year. After that, if we catch any of them running so much as a sweet shop, they go to gaol.

Still a bit draconian? I don't think so. What have these people done that deserves such bitter treatment? Just pushed the financial system Wolf rightly declares to be the hub of our economies over a cliff. They were give absolutely all the leeway to run their businesses they asked for. Nothing was too good for them as far as our brainless governments (who seem not to understand capitalism at all) were concerned. And what did they give us in return? The threat of the worst economic depression we have seen since the Thirties. The destruction of thousands – and if the more grim predictions are right, maybe millions – of jobs. Vast harm to millions of people. A crushing blow to the very economic foundations of society.

I’m sorry, but if I had deprived so many people of so much – money, safety, happiness, future - by such evident greed, indifference and stupidity, but done it in some other walk of life (bank robbery, perhaps), would I still to be loose on the streets, let alone being paid to carry on?