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Posts Tagged ‘Capitalism’

Why do techies insist that things should be sped up, torqued, optimized?
There’s one obvious reason, of course:  They do it because of the dictates of the market.  Capitalism handsomely rewards anyone who can improve a process and squeeze some margin out.  But with software, there’s something else going on too.  For coders, efficiency is more than just a tool for business.  It’s an existential state, an emotional driver.
Coders might have different backgrounds and political opinions, but nearly every one I’ve ever met found deep, almost soulful pleasure in taking something inefficient — even just a little bit slow — and tightening it up a notch.  Removing the friction from a system is an aesthetic joy; coders’ eyes blaze when they talk about making something run faster or how they eliminated some bothersome human effort from a process.
   —    Clive Thompson
From his article:  “Efficiency Is Beautiful
In Wired Magazine, dtd: April 2019
Also online at:  https://www.wired.com/story/coders-efficiency-is-beautiful/
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Capitalism, however, has been here before.  One of its great historic strengths has been its ability to reform and change shape as social needs and democratic demands shift.  In the late 19th century, parties of the right in Europe brought in a wave of progressive reforms to suit the times, from expanded union rights to the social insurance that began the creation of the modern welfare state.  In these cases, there was a pragmatic and also a moral imperative at work to improve the lives of ordinary citizens.
Yet today, politicians and thinkers have largely stopped making the case for capitalism as a moral good.  What we have instead are abstract ideas about the supremacy of markets.  At the same time, the surges in inequality seen in country after country are corroding the moral principles that underpin capitalism.  The ethical basis for capitalism must be that it offers better life chances for a majority of citizens.  If it is failing to do that, what is the justification for its dominance as an economic system?  Little wonder that a Gallup poll found only 45% of U.S. young adults view capitalism positively, a 12-point decline in just two years.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to alter our lives to an even greater extent.  AI is best understood not as an upgrade of our existing structures but as a general-purpose technology (GPT), like electricity or the steam engine.  GPTs are transformative in their social and economic impacts, reaching into every aspect of life.  “Some people believe that it’s going to be on the scale of the Industrial Revolution,” says Demis Hassabis, the AI expert who co-founded the pioneering machine-learning company DeepMind.  “Other people believe it’s going to be the class of its own above that.”
The crucial factor for managing these changes is time.  In 1900, the proportion of the U.S. population who worked in agriculture was 38% and the proportion who worked in factories was 25%.  Today only 1.5% of the population works in agriculture and 7.9% in factories.  So there’s been a catastrophe of unemployment?  Absolutely not: the losses were more than made up for by growth in other sectors of the economy, which went from providing 24 million jobs in 1900 to some 150 million today.  Most of the new varieties of work simply didn’t exist at the dawn of the last century.  Given time, we know from experience that a society can manage this kind of transition.  The question is, do we have that time?
…Think about what the working life will be of a person who can expect to live for a full century.  What can we say about the likely span of her economic and political life?  The only absolute certainty is that it will involve change.  It will not be static.  It will not involve doing the same thing in the same place over and over again.  Unless we are all prepared for change, we are not prepared for the coming world of work.
At the individual level, the prescription for what we should do to prepare for this new landscape is relatively straightforward.  For a life of multiple careers and skills, people need an education that prepares them for a lifelong process of training and retraining.  They will need, more than anything else, to learn how to learn.  Flexibility and resilience will be crucial.  It won’t be easy, but at least we can see it clearly.  At the level of society it is harder.  Let’s be honest: this is a vision of insecurity, projected across a working life.  It is a clear principle of economic and political history—one we’re relearning today — that humans hate insecurity.
What we need is to rethink the relationship between the individual, the corporate sector and the state.  In recent decades, we have seen a “great risk shift” — to borrow the term of the Yale social scientist Jacob Hacker.  Individuals in temporary, insecure, giglike employment are taking on risks that used to belong to the corporate sector.  Not coincidentally, the share of GDP going to the corporate sector as profits has risen and the share accruing to labor as pay has gone down.
That trend, and that risk transfer, are not sustainable over time.  We need a social safety net focused on career support rather than just simple unemployment benefits.  Companies and individuals and the state must work together to build an enhanced and more flexible version of the welfare state that overlaps with lifelong training and education.
The architects of this new industrial revolution, by the way, agree with this proposition.  Yann LeCun, the chief AI scientist at Facebook and one of the pioneers of deep learning, said recently that every economist he has spoken to agrees that governments must take measures to compensate for rising inequality brought about by technology.  “All of them believe this has to do with fiscal policy in the form of taxing, and wealth and income distribution.”
We also need a functioning marketplace.  The collapse of U.S. government action in the area of antitrust and competition law has led to a damaging concentration across most industries — from cable TV to airlines, online advertising and farming.  While a new generation of robber barons controls huge sections of the U.S. economy, corporate profits surge, wages stagnate, and fewer ordinary workers have reason to believe in the capitalist system.
The final component of what we do next concerns not what we do but what they do — “they” meaning the elites who have profited most from the trends of recent decades.  Quite simply, those elites have to pay their taxes.  They have to stop using offshore havens and accounting tricks to hide their wealth from the societies in which they live and from which they make their profits. Instead of founding think tanks and gorging on discussions about improving distant lives, they have to attend to the lives around them in the places they actually live.
A new emphasis on the role of the nation-state; a new partnership between the state and the private sector and the individual; new action on lifelong learning and training; higher and fairer taxes; less security for big corporations: these things shouldn’t be unthinkable.  It is strange and sad that the least likely thing on my wish list is the idea that elites will change their behavior.
But elites may have to change if they don’t want change to be imposed on them.  This coming wave of technological transformation has the potential to be the most serious challenge modern capitalism has faced.  For people who don’t have the chance to change and adapt and re-skill, a pitiless world ruled by algorithms and machine learning, in which they have no utility, no relevant skills and no security, could look completely unlivable.  Facing that prospect, the populations of the developed world may do things that make the current populist moment look polite, low-key and lawful.
    —    John Lanchester
From his article in Time Magazine (dtd: Feb4/11, 2019): “Economy: Leveling The Playing Field
The article also appears online as: “The Next Industrial Revolution Is Coming.  Here’s How We Can Ensure Equality
The link to the entire online version is: http://time.com/collection/davos-2019/5502589/next-industrial-revolution/
[Please note: This article is extensively quoted without permission from the author or from Time Magazine.  I personally subscribe to the physical version of Time Magazine and have done so for almost 50 years now.  I make no claim to ownership of the article or its ideas.  I do NOT normally post so extensively from an article, but this was (to me) a powerful article about the future of civilization, so I have made an exception.  The ellipses indicate where I have edited out portions of the article.  I hope neither the author nor Time Magazine will object to my editing or use of the article.  Obviously, I encourage all of my readers to go to read the original.    —    KMAB]
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The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) — movie review
Today’s review is for the John Ford directed movie: “The Grapes Of Wrath” starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and John Carradine as Jim Casy.  The movie is based on the novel written by John Steinbeck which was published the year before the movie (1939).  The subject of the movie is the move by the Joad family from Oklahoma to California – what causes the move and what happens during the move.  This is the first time I’ve seen this movie and I never had to read the book while in high school and haven’t read it since.  Yes, I know it’s a “classic”.  Mea culpa, mea culpa.
It seems I’ve been watching a number of Henry Fonda movies lately, so I thought I’d do this review next (after “Once Upon A Time In The West“).  In OUATITW, Fonda plays a cold blooded killer named (only) Frank.  I was surprised to find he is also a killer in this movie.  At the start of the movie, Tom is released from prison (convicted of murder which he claims was in self-defense) and he makes his way to his family’s farm in Oklahoma.  He finds the farm abandoned, but is able to meet up with them at his uncle’s farm nearby.  Unfortunately, his uncle’s farm has also been repossessed, and the family is being forced off of it.
Repossessed is probably not an accurate description, because they don’t actually own the farm.  They are sharecroppers.  As long as the land was productive, they could scrape by enough to feed themselves and pay their rent.  But, when the world was hit by the Great Depression and most of the mid-west was hit by the “dust bowl” of the mid-1930’s, the land was unable to support the families let alone pay for the rents.  Many families were forced to move or starve.
Like many families, the Joad’s decide to move to California on the “promise” of well paying jobs.  The majority of the rest of the movie is about the difficulties of the trip and the eventual realization that “the promise” was merely a means for the owners of the land in Oklahoma to get the sharecroppers to voluntarily move off the land without the owners having to use force.  And, during the course of the movie, Fonda’s character kills again.  This time Tom kills a “deputy” who has just killed Fonda’s friend (Carradine / Casy) for no reason except that he (the deputy) can get away with it.
This movie is a powerful indictment of capitalism, fascism and authoritarianism in the United States during the 1930’s.  It has strong political (anti-communist) undertones which touch on both the “red scare” and anti-unionism as the wealthy, in California, try to take advantage of their fellow Americans who have been driven into poverty and into migrant worker status by weather and economic forces beyond their control.  The movie also uses two specific scenes to demonstrate that average Americans have charity in their hearts – in sharp contrast with those with economic power / wealth.
The movie is generally considered to be one of the greatest American movies of all time – and I agree it one of the most powerfully disturbing movies I’ve ever viewed.  According to Wikipedia: “this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” “
The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards (1941) and won two: Darwell for Best Actress and Ford for Best Director.  Fonda was nominated for Best Actor, but did not win.  He lost to James Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story“.
Final recommendation: very highly recommended!  Disturbing, yes!  Powerful, yes!  If there is ANY downside to the movie, I’d say the weak attempt at an optimistic ending detracted from the overall power of the movie.  Fonda’s “Joad as everyman” in the prior scene was barely believable.  Ma’s “we’re gonna get by cause that’s what we’ve always done” – far less so.  In any case, this is a great / classic movie and well worth viewing in our day due to its message about our own economic / political time.
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The Return of Depression Economics (and the Crisis of 2008)”  (2009©)  —  book review
This book is authored by Dr. Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008.  That’s kind of an easy way to validate that he knows what he’s talking about in terms of economics.  I actually completed this book earlier in the month, but have just been too lazy to get around to this review…
Basically, the good doctor is a progressive / liberal economist from the Keynes / Galbraith school of government “interference” in the free market to both stimulate the economy and restrict bad business practices (i.e. monopolies).  This means, when the inevitable market slow-down occurs, the author feels it is the government’s job to step in and provide demand for goods and services which will keep the economy ticking along.  The failure to do so, the author states, results in a stalled or failing economy, which starts a self-fulfilling prophecy / death spiral of recession or depression.  To prevent the excesses of capitalism, he proposes, a stricter regulation of banks and non-bank money (credit) generators.  In theory, this decreases the size of economic bubbles and the resulting “crashes” which follow the inevitable bubble burst.
The bottom line appears to be that markets are subject to “bubbles”.  Bubbles are periods of overconfidence which directly result in price increases to the point of frenzy.  However, when the frenzy pauses to catch its breath, everything tends to go to hell in a hand-basket unless the government is willing (and sometimes it isn’t) to step in and save everyone’s bacon.  The buying frenzy then becomes a selling panic and the free flow of funds / capital means individual national economies can end up in very deep do-do, very quickly.
Final recommendation: highly recommended.  I recognize I am also a progressive / liberal who is predisposed to agree with the author’s opinions and arguments, but I found the basic arguments to be in agreement with my own experiences over the last 50 years.  The book is written in standard English for the “off-the-street” (non-economist) person to understand.  It is relatively short at under 200 pages and I found it to be a fairly fast read.  Well worth your time to understand some of why the world is functioning the way it does.
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The domino theory was wrong because communism in its pure form has been unable to generate a sustaining economic model better than capitalism.  Democracy has actually had more trouble getting established than capitalism because enlightened communist states (which do not include North Korea) have been realizing they can hold on to political power if they loosen up on the economic reins.  By introducing modest economic freedom, they have been able to enjoy continued political domination — we see that on a huge scale in China and Russia, and now we see it here in Vietnam.  These regimes have learned that acknowledging and accommodating economic spirit is the only way to hold on to political power, and that as long as people have economic rights, they may not be so concerned about human rights.  America was founded on the opposite principle — that human and political rights must come first — but these states are turning that theory on its head with some surprising success.
   —    Mark J. Penn
From his book:  “Microtrends
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