Economics and Climate

October 17, 2017

Its simple really.

If destroying the environment makes a profit and saving it has a potential cost, then saving the environment will not happen – especially under capitalism.

However, this point can be generalised.

If destroying the environment allows more tax payers’ money to be given to the established wealthy then that will happen especially under a ‘free market’ government

If destroying the environment conserves the power of the established elites, and saving it might challenge them, then saving it will not happen.

If it is easier to destroy the environment by continuing as we have done or persisting with the default position, and saving it takes effort and thought, it won’t happen.

That’s all the economics you need to know

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Trump as ‘Radical’

October 10, 2017

I recently asked a person why they thought Trump was working for the benefit of the American people.

Their reply mentioned the employment figures, ending the TPP, and peace in Syria.

I have to agree that the employment figures are nice but it seems that they simply continue the trend established under Obama. So far, I have not heard any evidence which supports the idea that Trump had anything to do with the continuation of this trend or had actually increased the trend. I’d be surprised if, without any large scale legislation, the first six month’s of any president’s office did not express the last six months of their predecessor.
What policies did he implement, or actions did he perform, that have changed things in that six months? without this data it could easily be that he is riding on the results of Obama’s policies?

I won’t object to abandoning the negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership. People on the left have been arguing against the TPP for ages, as being a surrender of national sovereignty to corporate power, especially given the secret courts which would have allowed corporations to challenge wage increases, health restrictions and environmental laws as impinging on ‘free trade’. There has been massive amounts of right wing screaming against these objections. So it was good that Trump has now almost made it an orthodox position. However Clinton argued similarly, and in either case the TPP was not in force, so it was probably not yet impacting, and having only having a minor effect on the economy.

I’m certainly not sure about ceasefire in Syria. The war still seems to be going on as far as I can tell and I’ve recently been reading reports about the Russians complaining about American backed rebels. Trump may have bombed an airport, but that seems to be it, everything else seemed to be giving Putin the free hand he wanted, although Trump denounced the Syrian government as a major enemy in his speech to the UN, implying something should be done, or that he might strike again.

The idea of the ‘deep state’ and the autonomous power of the military, is now recognized by some on the right, thanks to Trump’s rhetoric. But the question remains how much of this is mere rhetoric. The general idea of the “military-industrial complex” has been part of Left orthodoxy for years (I can’t think how long Chomsky has been going on about it), so its only recently that the right has taken it onboard, even if they tend to blame Clinton rather than Bush Jr. for the wars in the middle east. However, the point is that it is the collaboration of corporations and the military that seems to be the prime problem, whereas the usual impression I get from the right is that they think that giving the corporate sector more power and money will solve the problem, which it probably won’t. I don’t know of any evidence that private military contracting has declined under Trump, and his deep commitment to boosting military spending will only increase the deep state and the bonds between government subsidy of corporations and military power.

Trump is threatening Iran and sometimes China, tearing up treaties, and threating nuclear war again (he already threatened that for the middle east during the elections). Nuclear war probably poses a reasonable threat to the safety of the American people, and his threats could increase the possibility of anticipatory strikes. He also seems to oppose disarmament or attempts to contain the spread of nukes. As far as I can tell, by his own account he appears to be continuing the mess in Iraq caused by the Bush Jr Admin ignoring all the advice they received. In March this year he said “our soldiers are fighting like never before” in Iraq and doing really well.

We shall see what wars arise in future, as the idea of combat seems appealing to him.

Mr. Trump also appears to be proposing to continue the Republican project of tax cuts and tax holidays for the wealthy, while removing health care and increasing military spending beyond its current level of excess – usually if military spending increases, the products get used. The money to pay for this spending has to come from somewhere, as so far the Laffer curve has never appeared to kick in and provide those increased tax revenues. We can guess the money will not be taken from corporate subsidy, but there is always a possibility.

Mr. Trump has also continued the Republican project of making it easier for US corporations to pollute and poison people and has abandoned an enquiry into the health effects of coal, not just because we already know coal is bad for people, but because his policies imply he just doesn’t seem to care about people’s ill health if that bad health increases profit. That he won’t tackle the elites producing climate change is to be expected. He is following the old trickle down economics always popular with the wealthy elites, and which might just help him make more as well.

Health care is one of the things the supposed master deal maker cannot apparently negotiate a deal on, even when the Republicans have spent years arguing against the Affordable Health Care Act. Now given the opportunity Trump cannot persuade them to repeal it, let alone make it better as he continues to promise – let us hope he can improve it. He did however make a deal with the Democrats on another issue, perhaps they are less prone to elitism, and they might help improve health care, if that is what he wants.

I still do not understand why a group of billionaires, (some hereditary), high corporate figures and the billionaires who have been supporting them with their media is not an elite, and one not particularly shown to be sympathetic to the people. They even behave as an elite; Trump seems to be the most expensive president in history because he want to go to his elite clubs and resorts. From what I’ve seen Trump also does not appear treat his ordinary workers that well. That there is a war in the wealth elite does not imply that either side has an interest in really supporting the people.

Indeed one of Trump’s problems as one of the hereditary wealthy seems to be that he has always been the boss. He has been able to do what he wants and fire those who disagree or give alternate advice. He is renown for the catch phrase “your fired,” and genuinely seems to have enjoyed uttering it. He has no preparation for working in a field in which he is nominally first among equals – he is part of an elite used to obedience.

We also have the Russia problem. That is not yet proven. But if Clinton had won, and the Russians had supported her covertly, and members of her team had had contacts with them during the election, and Clinton had lied about her business interests in Moscow, then we know that Republicans and the media would be screaming for her impeachment. Trump would probably be demanding her execution for treason. I personally don’t hold it likely that Putin supported Trump because he thought Trump would help the American people, or make America great again… precisely the opposite.

Government as business?

October 7, 2017

One of the classic neoliberal arguments is that the country should be run like a business.

But why? The country is not a business. A country has to value things that do not make a profit, and sometimes has to do things which only have monetary cost and which business would not do – such as try and preserve the ecology for future generations and their survival. Likewise, a country should ideally not treat ‘big customers’ better than small customers because they pay more or use services more. Justice should apply equally, not by how much profit administering it makes. You should not only have free speech if you can afford to pay for it, or agree with the publisher, as is usually the case in business.

The only benefit of this neoliberal idea is that it gives the corporate sector more power and respectability, as they supposedly must know things about running a business and ideally should know how to run the country, or even be left to run the country. They are the ideal to which everyone should aspire and which should be emulated. The idea also allows a degree of pleasant abuse, of the form “those well intentioned left wingers are nice people but they don’t know how to run a business, so they are useless”. The idea also suggests that government should judge business actions by business morals: “do those actions make the business a profit?”, not whether they might harm people or the country or are a waste of government money. In this system, government should get out of the way of business, no matter what. It also justifies corruption, because it suggests all relationships are monetary, and if business wants to buy relationships with the government to give it advantages then why not? – that’s just competition? Similarly, if CEOs can get massive subsidies and special treatment, just for doing their job (even badly), then so should politicians, especially leaders, so it can be welcome to governments.

The idea promotes the lowering of government supervision of business and any efforts to prevent fraud, because clearly business knows best and the market will punish any real dishonesty or harmful behaviour – which it does not; the market may even reward such behaviour in the short term as the behaviour is profitable. The idea also suggests tax-payer subsidy of business, public private partnerships, commercial-in-confidence, because they are ‘clearly’ better than government by itself. All of these profitable relationships take responsibility away from government and distributes that responsibility where it can never be found – just as the corporate structure is intended to do (corporations are organisations designed to avoid personal responsibility). However, a government without visible responsibility for the arrangements they enter into is not even remotely democratic as that involves responsibility to the people and the whole of the people, not just the wealthy.

If we were to propose that military organization should be the model for government then we are suggesting that ‘the people’ should be fodder for the military. If we think that business is the model for government, then we are suggesting people should be fodder for business: people who consume what they have to choose whether it harms them or not; docile workers who are low paid and flexible at their boss’s request, who never think and never question business power or respectability, and who don’t have the support or information to do anything about it.

This idea can even permeate the union movement who sellout their members for business interests – after all the whole point is that business supposedly knows best, and business people are the best. So workers are perceived as merely an appendage, no longer the centre of what gets produced or gets done.

Where in life do we most heavily feel the unlistening hand of management? At work, which is usually in business, or governed like a business. Business models a form of authority which makes the state even more authoritarian and untouchable.

Capitalism vs Feudalism

October 5, 2017

Capitalism and Feudalism are not the same, but it is useful to make a comparison between them focusing on power and privilege – however much free market apologists do not want to talk about these issues.

In feudalism we basically have the following set up – a largely hereditary class system composed of:

  • 1) Aristocracy, Lords etc. with command of land, law and violence.
  • 2) Crafts people, restricting knowledge of their ‘mysteries’, organised in guilds. Some travel, some are stationary.
  • 3) Merchants and traders who convey goods between cities. Monetary wealth starts to concentrate here. Some cities manage to establish a degree of independence.
  • 4) Church: control of communications, more esoteric non-craft based knowledge, cosmology, salvation.
  • 5) The peasantry, largely bound to a Lord and an estate. Peasants are dependent on the Lords for their livelihood.
  • There is also division by gender. Aristocratic women have more power, privilege and opportunity than peasant women, but they can still lead a relatively constrained life, being bargaining chips for their fathers for alliances. There is some upwards mobility (the idea that people can move up from their parents’ position in life). Historians dispute how much, but there are examples of people being recognised for combat virtues, mercantile abilities and intellectual virtues and moving up the class system to a degree.

    The Church and the Lords have an uneasy truce, but in general the Church promotes the ideas that the Lords have the necessary inherent virtues to rule, and are put there by God, and revolt is bad.

    There is little resembling the present day state. Lords are tied together by ties of oath and kinship. The king is the supreme lord, but he only has a small administration and his own loyal troops. As Shakespeare said “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. A quick study of British feudal history will show kings being killed or displaced or disciplined with regularity. It was only with the end of the Wars of the Roses that we get the start of something approximating a modern State. Henry VIII takes over the church and builds a new aristocracy loyal to him through redistribution of its wealth. Elizabeth continues the trend with a secret police and more admin, but even she is so poor that she has to regularly travel the country with her court living on the beneficence of fellow aristocrats. Merchants get more and more control over the wealth. In the middle of the next century a mercantile and largely popular revolution kills Charles I, and sets up an independent government. The Merchants and Presbyterians crush the more democratic elements. Eventually the kings come back, but they are subordinate to Parliament and mercantile wealth for funding – James I and the Stuarts are thrown out. Capitalism develops.

    Out of this history the traditional power and class structure of capitalism appears and is something like this:

  • 1) State: control of law and violence.
  • 2) Capitalists and remaining aristocrats: owners and controllers of business, wealth and land.
  • 3) Professionals: control of knowledge (science) education and entrance to the professions.
  • 4) Media, distribution of knowledge.
  • 5) Unions, representative bodies of workers. Workers are generally dependent on capitalists for their livelihood.
  • 6) Churches.
  • However over the last 40 years, since the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal (talking about the freemarket) revolution, wealth has become the dominant source of power, purchasing, curtailing, taking over or destroying all the other bases of power. Wealth has the potential to be the ultimate source of power because it can take over anything.

    We now have a situation in which wealth controls State, law and violence though politicians and party funding; it controls knowledge through think tanks and corporatisation of universities; it largely controls media and the distribution of knowledge; and has largely destroyed or crippled unions.

    We live in a hierarchical capitalist plutocracy. This is perhaps the inevitable consequence of putting business and profit first. Business people become the only people worth talking to, or listening to, and their think tanks promote ‘free markets’ (ie the total dominance of business interests) as the only important part of society. They funded Hayek, Mises, Cato inst etc. to make a coherent justification for their unimpeded rule. We now know that the wealthy are wealthy because they “worked hard”, have “special talents”, are “innovative”, are “blessed by God or the market” etc. Revolt, or even objection, is bad.

    This is not to say that the corporate class is completely united. There are divisions which struggle against each other. For example a rough division occurs between those capitalists (and their hangers on) who have a relatively humanistic attitude to the rest of the world, think environments and people require some support or equalising of opportunity, and those who don’t, or who think all good and only good all arises through ‘the market’ or the actions of corporate capitalists.

    There are also gender divisions, relatively few women control wealth production, and the same is true of race/ethic divisions within the country. Everything I have read suggests that upwards mobility has declined over the same period. This implies that class has ossified the more free markets are valued.

    Basically in such a system, the “billionaire next door” can do whatever they like, unless they are opposed by another billionaire, and we see this happening all the time. All other controls on the power of wealth have largely evaporated. It is possible to see most right wing policies at aiming for the removal of any restrictions on wealthy individuals, or any possibility of poorer individuals curtailing the impact of these individuals on their own lives.

    It seems pretty obvious that has well as ‘totalising’ power into plutocracy and rendering it largely (if not completely) hereditary, capitalism likes to displace the costs of its activities on to others, through distribution of pollution, injury environmental destruction, subsidy and so on. So the rest of us end up subsidising their wealth. This increases profits and anyone who does not do it, is at risk in loosing investment, and of being destroyed by a less principled company….

    So one difference between capitalism and feudalism, is that there were more bases for power in feudalism and likely more freedom to exit the system, or to curtail excessive destruction of the system by one particular group. Another is that there was less material wealth. Most of the practical benefits of that wealth have arisen through better technology and medicine, whether the professional organisations could have done that in western feudal society is unknown, but it certainly started there.

    Markets and politics, to flog a dead horse

    October 4, 2017

    You may have heard or read that in the US and in Australia the right wing parties are campaigning to maintain coal and to over-regulate renewables. There are plenty of news items to this effect, especially after Rick Perry’s recent announcements – which may or may not become law, but reflect the general campaign.

    Some libertarians, or idealist capitalists, actually object to this, and express surprise that it is happening…

    For what its worth I think it is worth repeating that, historically, this is how capitalism always works.

    Politics and power can shape markets, therefore players in markets will compete to shape markets through politics to gain advantage in those markets. That seems to be an inevitable road that established businesses will take to defend both their establishment and profitability.

    In a situation in which capitalism is made the only good (as in neoliberalism or libertarianism), this is unpreventable. Politicians depend on business for campaign funds and support, so business ends up buying politics, and there is no surviving power base with which to reliably curtail business influence – because of business opposition to unions etc.

    As established businesses tend to be the wealthy well connected businesses, they tend to have an advantage, and this is called conservatism 🙂

    On Truth Part 1

    October 3, 2017

    Truth is a complicated process, which people often try to pretend is simple. And so this is a simple peice trying to pretend to be complicated.

    Firstly, I would try not to use the term ‘truth’ at all, because it is a noun which implies an existent. And people do talk about Truth as if it was an existing thing, which I think is inherently misleading. Truth may not be something you arrive at, but something you work towards….

    I would prefer to talk about the possibility (or likelihood) of making accurate or correct statements – assuming that we all roughly agree on the words employed and the intention behind the use of the words…. In other words we can ask whether a particular statement appears correct and to what extent it appears accurate. This process is not always immediately final.

    I suspect that the idea of Truth as such may tend towards promoting ego-inflation and grandiosity. Compare, for example, the statements. “I know the Truth about the world” and “I can make some correct statements about the world.” The abstract idea of Truth tends to spread; if you know something is True then knowing the Truth implies you know not just something, but the Whole Truth… This is probably harmful to both discussion and finding out what is correct.

    There may well be different types of correctness which it may also be worthwhile distinguishing.

  • Definitional: 1+1=2 seems correct by definition and by coherence with other definitions. We can talk about Goedel’s theorem later 🙂
  • Pragmatic/functional: The words we use in the statement “the dog sat down” are vaguer than in 1+1=2, but we can usually agree as to what we mean, and as to whether this statement was correct at a particular time or not if we have observed the event, or if we trust the witness. The statement is good enough for practical purposes – if we want more accuracy then we can perhaps improve the specificness of the terms (“Jane’s cocker spaniel called Fred, perched on his bottom with his front legs holding up his torso” – this refinement is possibly endless). Because the statement is “good enough”, or “not good enough” for the use we want to make of it, this comes close to being a pragmatist theory of correctness or accuracy.
  • Inter-subjective: The “trusting the witness” part in the last point, tends to imply that at least some of what we accept as correct will be inter-subjective and social. A lot of fake news seems to arise from trusting witnesses, or trusting stories which seem plausible for social (or pre-existing bias reasons). I suspect this kind of thing becomes particularly important in situations of what has been called ‘data smog’ or ‘information overload’.
  • Symbolic/poetic: Jung and Tillich (probably among others) have argued that it is impossible to talk about some important things with complete accuracy because of the complexity of the situation, or the inadequacy of human perceptual and cognitive functions etc., and hence human discourse and feeling often depends on symbols. We may always need to talk symbolically to some extent. In which case the ‘accuracy’ can be said to be ‘poetic’. Poetic accuracy seems really important (sometimes I think it is primary in any complex set of propositions, but that is another argument). Sometimes poetic accuracy can move into more ‘simply’ based accuracy (of the kind stated above) with work and testing. I suspect this happens in science a lot, as we move from fairly vague conceptions and categories to more precise, accurate and testable categories and propositions.
  • We might often still be making symbolic propositions anyway – and again if Jung is correct then this may have as much to do with human psycho-social functioning as reality. There may always be events which are distant from currently precise definition – the field may increase as we increase those areas we can define – I’m not sure, and don’t know how you could test such a proposition. (And I have a sneaking regard for the idea that most propositions we hold to be accurate should be testable in some way, or otherwise we are close to talking about things which automatically may not be correct)

    This hedging does not imply no correct statements can be made, but it does imply that it may be impossible to *only* make correct statements or false statements. In which case correctness is also a continuum or even a plane…

    Libertarian Fantasy….

    October 3, 2017

    I’ve just been reading an article by Australian Parliamentary libertarian David Leyonhjelm (ie a government man) which starts “Living in Australia sometimes feels like living in a bureaucrats’ version of a spaghetti western. The heroes are the brave and all-knowing public servants, while the villains are the naughty people who are too foolish to realise that government knows best.”

    I sometimes wonder what world the silly right live in. Where are these pages of news articles, or TV programmes, saying how wonderful public servants are?

    I’d be surprised if he could find more than a couple in the last ten or so years. The organised hue and cry against them is huge… and business people have their own section of the news in which we can constantly hear how heroic they are and how they fight against people being protected from them (unless, perhaps, some journalist has decided that the public should be informed of what seems like normal corruption.)

    Instead of bureaucrats hindering business, we have daily reports of businesses being allowed to ride over people, being given permission to injure or poison people for profit with full governmental support. Want to industrially fish in a national park? Go ahead. Want to destroy the climate, build pointless roads, or denude the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s some taxpayer money. Want to scrap regulations? Lower worker’s wages? Destroy the water table? Mine in people’s backyards? Here’s the legislation.

    “We are open for business” – not people.

    We live in a plutocracy in which “Business is not the solution, business is the problem” (see I can do slogans too…)

    The reason why things like AirBnB might needs *some* regulation is easy to find if you live in a block with a number of such units. All night parties, damage to surrounds and so on. Costs spread on the rest of the strata owners… just like most business loves to spread the cost of pollution and take the profits for itself.

    I guess the libertarian capitalist solution is just to let business get on with destroying people’s lives and for those who object to move somewhere else – where they will probably get done by another business…

    We can all cheer for that…

    Climate change and prosperity

    September 23, 2017

    People can argue that climate change will bring economic prosperity. This is supposed to arise because currently frozen areas will become less frozen, the northwest passage will open, and we can more easily obtain minerals and oil from currently inhospitable locations.

    So, let’s be clear – there may well be parts of the world which do appear to get a strategic or financial advantage from climate change. That is indeed possible. That does not mean the rest of the world will not suffer severely, nor that the melting ice will not mean that sea levels will almost certainly rise impacting many communities, that mountain glaciers will almost certainly shrink lessening water supplies, that deserts will probably expand, and that existing farming areas may become less productive. It is also possible that this could cause global warfare as people fight over access to water and arable land.

    Indeed, I might argue that one of our problems is that we live in an economic system in which fantasies of wealth are encouraged to take precedence over survival, or even over having a healthy eco-system. Wealth has become symbolically equivalent to life and happiness. However, there is no prosperity if a civilisation undermines the ecologies it needs to survive or flourish. With current trends of climate change, it would seem that there is only increased hardship for most people, whatever the new economic openings (at best – it is hard to predict what the worst could be).

    The fantasy of boom, also tends to be unreal because our economic system is problematic. Since the 1980s it certainly does not look like the proceeds from economic booms have been shared around. They have mostly gone to particular, and very small, groups of people, while the problems of economic busts have been shared around. So an economic boom arising because of the artic opening up, or tundras melting, is not likely to help that many people, or compensate the rest of us for the climate becoming tumultuous and hard.

    It is probably better to put the money and effort into stabilizing climate, before pursuing fantasies of gain.

    How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

    September 20, 2017

    Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

    Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

    You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

    The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

    We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

    Petrol and Plastics

    September 17, 2017

    A long time ago I remember hearing someone say something like “petrol is so useful that future generations will look back at us and say ‘they burnt it, who can believe that!'”

    One of the obvious uses of petrol is to make plastics, and even with a change to a renewable economy plastics can still be made – but we need to do something with the waste plastic. Hopefully plastic (or similar) can be made fully and speedily biodegradable as there will soon be something like more plastic in the sea than living plankton. This is not good for anyone. A recent article suggested that even sea salt is polluted with plastic.

    Plastic needs modification in the long run.

    see:
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/08/sea-salt-around-world-contaminated-by-plastic-studies

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals