Growth schmowth

The PhD continues to parasitise my brain/life/soul, but occasionally some other stuff accidentally burps out a random orifice, usually at planet3.org. So here's a comment on MT's reflections on Bill Gates' reflections on growth.

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MT: "Which means, presuming most of this activity is worthwhile, that wealth not only accumulates but that the accumulation always accelerates."

This is interesting: I don't think it's how most economists or users of national accounts would view it, but it's an important point that's probably usually overlooked. There is - AFAIK and I could be wrong - no direct connection made between that throughput and other concepts of persistent wealth. We talked a while back about e.g. Diane Coyle suggesting a move to measuring wealth rather than GDP, but the connection between the two is murky and perhaps not as straightforward as we'd like.

An obvious counter-example (if I'm understanding your main point correctly and I may well not be): a steady-state economy. Take just the food-production sector and assume two other things: renewable inputs/closed waste loops (that's two things!) and traditional econ101 Ricardian exchange. I make falafels and you make wine. We trade. Monies are exchanged, GDP is produced - but no additional wealth. Presuming the amount we make varies little, the goods are, literally in this case, consumed over time at a constant rate. Wealth remains static, goods and money flow.

Now, that's obviously not what our current civilisation is doing at the moment: one would *hope* we were creating some form of wealth given the environmental capital we're spending. But I just wanted to make clear that it's possible to have GDP with zero-change wealth. Which, for me, makes your geeky elaboration a bit brain-hurty - possibly again because I don't get it, but also because I think you blur wealth and economic throughput and those things need more clearly separating.

I think this is right: "Growth in the conventional sense is used as a proxy for the rate at which the rate at which wealth increases increases." (update: no I don't think that, I missed the nesting!) In the example I just gave, if we found some technology that could maintain our little steady state food production system but increase output harmlessly, we'd be better off. (Note, here's a use for the idea of utility: without it, you've actually got no way to know you got wealthier. Though you might want to argue a larger quantity of falafels and wine automatically implies an increase in wealth, I don't think that stands up to scrutiny when a larger group of people who don't care for them. But that's another story.)

"If there is any sense in which economic growth in the conventional definition can be maintained indefinitely, it must increasingly be focused on symbolic rather than substantive wealth. // Nature shows us that natural wealth gradually accumulates in such circumstances. Could economies function like that?"

I mostly agree, but as usual want to note that atoms can be re-arranged in ways that can provide more value. I don't think that in a steady-state economy, development will stop. I don't think it's quite possible to separate the symbolic from the substantive. Probably being a stuck record now but I'm always reminded of Read Montague:

All computations are not created equal. Some cost more to run, and some provide better long-term payoffs to the organism. For biological computations, efficient solutions have won the competition. How do we know? Because your brain is merely warm - you can safely touch your head - while the processor in your personal computer is so wastefully hot that it heats your office and you can’t touch it with a bare finger. Why is the brain so efficient? The why is obvious; life is hard and competition fierce, so biological computers could never afford to be grossly inefficient like our personal computers. But the question is, how do biological computers achieve such efficiency?

Development in a steady state economy (and consequently wealth creation) will perhaps be equally algorithmic - not entirely physical or symbolic but the development of the link between those substrates. Cities are the prime site for that kind of development.

Though that's all a bit stoned: I don't think we're anywhere near genuinely decoupling constant material throughput increase from development.

"The obvious and widely held idea among intelligent people that indefinite growth is either meaningless or impossible makes no inroads while being met with no rebuttal."

I've been reading Enough is enough which makes much the same point. Even gone to a meeting. I'm still sympathetic but extremely skeptical. The argument is being made by people with a constellation of views inimical to most of the planet's population. I struggle particularly with well-to-do liberal elites arguing that the problem is a culture of more. That is just so obviously a doomed political platform! And it only just occurs to me, it's kind of the mirror image of what the UK tories do when they accuse the poorest of having too much money (which they're doing A LOT). So there is a long way to go before the political problem is solved, even if the mathematical case is watertight.

On finance: I'm actually a bit annoyed I have to concede this point as in lots of ways I think the link between interest and growth is misrepresented, but here we are - "when interest rates are close to the rate of economic growth/ you can run a budget deficit forever as long as the primary deficit is balanced. The debt load as a share of the economy won't increase over time. And if interest rates are lower than the pace of growth — as they are now — the load will actually shrink while you run those smaller deficits."

Which is possibly fine for a period of, say, rebuilding your shiny new green infrastructure and works out OK: borrow to grow. But at some point, things have to balance out it would appear.

Lastly: I'm just reading Red Plenty. It's AMAZING so far, a must-read. Two things strike me from it. First, steady-state folks (as well as anyone arguing that the entire economic structure of the planet must change to save us - not an unreasonable thing to claim) must not forget what all the biggest political and physical battles have been about over the last hundred years. We are discussing massive economic and political transformation. When did that ever happen consensually and without bloodshed?

And relatedly, Red Plenty does an awesome job of showing how vital growth was to the cold war. Darn, haven't got it with me, there's a great quote... something like `economic growth is the main front in the war between the superpowers'. It's perhaps ironic that, as well as on purely material terms, that battle also ended up being played out through truly astonishing amounts of public spending on things like the space programme.

But all that underscores the point: we shouldn't underestimate the scale of the stakes. The twentieth century was defined by exactly this kind of battle. Relatedly, I think it was in John Lanchester's book, he suggests (no evidence, but it's a nice idea!) that the end of cold war led directly to the financial crisis: the West no longer needed to maintain the impression for its citizens that its economic model was self-evidently superior. The economic battle for our souls was over and that changed more than we realised at the time.

One line summary then: degrowth arguments that start with genteel profs pointing out how an exponential works can quickly end up full-on political revolution territory, with everything that entails. Many of those arguing for it are, as far as I've seen, insensitive to this point - though it's very early days for the idea as a political campaign, and those people I've seen working on it are consciously setting out to test their ideas in the realm of nuts and bolts politics, in the UK at least, so we'll see.
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Also: "Oh Jesus Christ, even by my standards, that was a ridiculously long comment! Sorry!"

Google Gargoyle

A Slashdot reader commenting on google glass nabs some apposite chunks from Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash (written in 1992 mind you!):

Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time. ...

Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter. wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they're talking to you, but they're actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead. For all he knows, Lagos is standing there measuring the length of Hiro's cock through his trousers while they pretend to make conversation. ...

"Where the hell are you, Hiro?"

"Walking down a street in L.A."

"How can you be goggled in if you're walking down a street?"

Then the terrible reality sinks in: "Oh, my God, you didn't turn into a gargoyle, did you?"

"Well," Hiro says. He is hesitant, embarrassed, like it hadn't occurred to him yet that this was what he was doing. "It's not exactly like being a gargoyle. Remember when you gave me shit about spending all my money on computer stuff?"

"Yeah."

"I decided I wasn't spending enough. So I got a beltpack machine. Smallest ever made, I'm walking down the street with this thing strapped to my belly. It's really cool."

"You're a gargoyle."

"Yeah, but it's not like having all this clunky shit strapped all over your body. . ."

"You're a gargoyle. ..."

"Actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid"

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." (Misattributed to Bismarck.) This Springs to mind every time I try and write recently, though with "research projects" replacing "laws". Equally, I'm not sure people would lose respect for their sausages if they saw them being made, so much as gain a gag reflex. We don't want that in research either.

But it would be nice to blog. More than nice: I think it's a very useful thing to do, for one's own research progress especially. There are many entirely sterile academic blogs that do little more than promote: how great and wonderful the project is and what fantastic impact and outputs result (though note this entertaining if rather undiplomatic post by a prof in my department... sterile, it is not.) Promotion is necessary, to be sure, but by itself both boring and a tragic waste of the potential of blogging.

Writing is thinking in action. There's a common misconception that it's a two-stage process: staring out into space until an idea arrives, then transcribing that Platonic idea down into word form. Not so. The writing process itself is is a form of thinking.

Anyone who keeps a field diary or a work journal does a lot of that privately, of course – but the process of writing blog entries offers a different kind of thinking. You are, after all, writing for an audience, even if no-one actually comes and reads. They might. You never know. That slight additional pressure enables a blog to help the researcher formulate what the hell it is they're really doing and thinking. That's incredibly useful: having a place that's not just a work journal but that also doesn't impose the kind of austere control required for assembling a full paper.

The problem with blogs is also its advantage, at least for me. I often want to write about stuff I'm trying to work out. It really helps. But that thinking-in-public is a little tricksy. What I'd like to do in the rest of this post is say why I think that's worth pursuing anyway. I'll do that with a couple of ideas. One: blogs are good places for "actively seeking out opportunities to feel stupid". Two: good shit happens in those murky stupid places where you're poking your nose into the darkness beyond the streetlight you're looking under.

Idea one: Martin Schwartz on the importance of stupidity in scientific research. He is talking specifically about the physical sciences, but it applies elsewhere. He tells the story of an incredibly intelligent friend of his who left research because 'it made them feel stupid'. Puzzling over this for a while, he realised:

Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling.

Huh. He explains his idea of 'productive stupidity': an 'immersion in the unknown' where it's impossible to know the outcome. As he says, 'if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying'. Schwartz is careful to contrast this with the idea of 'relative stupidity' that most people grow up with: learning in a system that ranks people on a scale and where it was always possible to be the least stupid in a group. Research is not like that; Schwartz's friend was too uncomfortable with it to stay.

Nicholas Harberd, in his excellent diary of a working plant scientist, captures what those moments feel like:

Of course science is always like this. There are peaks and troughs. I’ve experienced both. But the problem with being in a trough is that it is a place from which the view is limited. There is the feeling of being trapped with no way out. And always the question of how long the entrapment will last. A self-sustaining state: at the time when new vision is most needed, it is most unlikely to come. [p.6]

So this isn't really stupidity. It can make you feel stupid. That feeling (as Harberd hints at) isn't comfortable or easy. The trick that Schwartz learned – and his friend couldn't – was not to take it personally. This is a lesson that physical libraries can teach as well – something that's easy to forget when it seems like all knowledge is only a google away. Taking a walk through journal stacks instills this feeling in me. It's very easy to imagine being an ant crawling in a vast nest of knowledge, only a tiny sliver of which any single person could ever keep in their own skull – but little ants or not, it's our job to keep that corpus alive and evolving over time.

I'm not saying there aren't times when applying one's existing knowledge to problems isn't valid – of course it is. Geography has many planning- related applications. Planners, not unreasonably, want tried and tested methods, not voyages into darkness. But how are new ideas are discovered? Do we still value that?

Idea two: the streetlight effect. As Kirman explains, it:

corresponds to the behaviour of the person who, having dropped their keys in a dark place, chose to look for them under a streetlight since it was easier to see there (Kirman 1992 p.134).

This has a larger scope than simply "refusing to be stupid" and staying under one's streetlight. All researchers work within disciplines (or possibly Kuhnian paradigms) that shape how they see the world they're investigating. Economics is an instructive example: those outside the discipline often view it is the archetypal methodological utopia, creating "citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality" (Ball 2007 p.647). Many economists, however, openly acknowledge this without rejecting economics outright. Overman describes "the tendency to privilege particular economic forces purely because they are more amenable to the theoretical and empirical tools used by mainstream economists" (Overman 2004 p.504). Summers notes the result: "it is all too easy to confuse what is tractable with what is right" (Summers 1991 p.145). Krugman, as is often the case, puts it best and nicely ties back to the streetlight: "the methodology of economics creates blind spots. We just don’t see what we can’t formalise" (Krugman 2008).

These economists are self-aware; it gives them a humility and caution about the power of economic models (a humility entirely absent in much agent modelling; consider this recent example in the Economist - a topic for another time). But it doesn't actually alter the basic point: economics works under its own streetlight.

I've spent a lot of my time in the past few years asking: what happens to the landscape when costs change? Short answer: no-one exactly knows. There are no existing methods capable of answering the question fully – though of course there are many streetlights to look under. If someone from the transition movement tells you we need to relocalise to adapt to upcoming cost changes, how do you answer? Are they right? How do we know either way?

My current project has its specific goals but, for me, an equally important aim is to ask these questions openly. As the blog's intro post said this is all "good old fashioned location theory question, but 21st century challenges are breathing new life into it." This is true: there has never been a more relevant time for geography of all stripes.

This is important for another reason: the pickle we're in, globally. The kind of innovations we need will not come from being shy about our lack of knowledge or being closed to collaboration. In his 'stupidity' article, Schwartz says "science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals". This reality can turn collaboration and openness into little more than empty sentiment: something we'd like to do in theory but that goes too firmly against the grain of academic practice. Academic blogging, however, helps with that. For a start, it achieves that all-important job of staking out what your ideas are publicly. It can also act as a prototyping tool for ideas that may end up in more formal academic outlets.

There's a deeper point also. As Dougald Hine lays out so eloquently in his recent lecture, the world is changing around the university. The kind of knowledge-creating relationships we'll need to in the coming decades may not look like they did in the past.

Refs:

Schwartz, M.A., 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci 121, 1771–1771.
Harberd, N., 2006. Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants, First American Edition. ed. Bloomsbury USA.
Kirman, A.P., 1992. Whom or What Does the Representative Individual Represent? Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Economic Perspectives 6, 117–36.
Ball, P., 2007. Social science goes virtual. Nature 448, 647–648.
Overman, H., 2004. Can we learn anything from economic geography proper? Journal of Economic Geography 4, 501–516.
Summers, L.H., 1991. The Scientific Illusion in Empirical Macroeconomics. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 93, 129–148.
Krugman, P. (2008). ‘How I work’. URL: http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/howiwork.html

Small god rant

A facebook comment that got a little out of hand, responding to someone who does sterling work combatting religious idiocy but sometimes, for me, tips over into a kind of belicose anti-god stance that, for some reason I haven't quite managed to nail down yet, I find difficult to stomach.
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I've come across plenty of other people, like myself, who just can't get that hung up about the use of the term "god" and are quite happy living in a world where asking "does god exist" is just a nonsensical question. Is there a beardy skyman I should listen to on all important matters? No. Is there a role in human society for using such concepts to order our understanding of the universe? Maybe. Historically, definitely - including using these forms to actually organise resource management and social structures very effectively.

For me, it's the same mistake planners made in Bali when they screwed their rice production systems up. As Lansing puts it, the history of Western science has been the continuation of "a centuries-old battle against superstition. From this perspective, magic is the antithesis of rational thought."

Don't pay too much attention to word 'magic' there; maybe use "set of socially mediated principles for ordering reality". We have those, we just mostly can't see them because, well - we think it's reality. To an extent we've meshed our weltanschauung with our accretion of scientific knowledge, but that doesn't change our basic nature.

I'm not saying it's purely functional either. My sense of my place in the entire universe, whether I get that from staring at Hubble pictures or my own navel - if I want to call that a spiritual thing, I think I should be allowed without being accused of wanting BeardySkyMan to tell me what to do.

I'm never quite sure what I'm arguing against. It's not like I personally make much use of the "god" concept (or possibly any). But I can see how others might and I don't really see why anyone has a problem with that - so long as they don't go around saying "my god has told me you two men must stop kissing each other otherwise I'll have to stick a spike through your head". If that's the issue, work on stopping people being such intolerant twats. There are plenty of incredibly tolerant and brilliant religious/ spiritual people in the world. I'm unclear why anyone would e.g. want to undermine the stuff going on here.

The Enemies of Promise

Just when I thought Govey couldn't make me any more homicidal, here he is in the Daily Hate:

The new Enemies Of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.

Yes, of course! All those people got into education because they wanted to fuck up the lives of poor people!

Who is responsible for this failure? Who are the guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need? Who are the modern Enemies Of Promise? They are all academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses.

You would expect such people to value learning, revere knowledge and dedicate themselves to fighting ignorance. Sadly, they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.

There is nothing I can possibly say...

Targets for throwing people into penury

This is horrific. People are having their benefits stopped arbitrarily to meet targets. Jobcentre worker: "it's all about stopping people's money. I got put on a performance improvement plan because I don't sanction enough people. I was told I need to get x amount of sanctions by March, about 2 a week."

Check out the performance improvement plan doc at 3'40: written down targets for staff of 8.6 referrals a month (to remove to entire of people's benefits for up to 8 weeks I think).

Fun food facts for veggies

Here's some fun facts to consider for any veggie (like myself) being smug about horsemeat. (1) Vege sausages and burgers are expensive. (2) Cheapo meat sausages and burgers are not. (3) The gap between the two is potentially a space for squeezing in cheapo meat products that could make dodgy veggie products highly profitable. (4) Large sections of the food industry do not give a shit what they put in their products.

So... has anyone tested them, I wonder?

If we're going to be this stupid, let's do it intelligently

Another P3 comment related to this link about recent permafrost stories (arstechnica; New Scientist).
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Update: MT corrects me. "I was pleased that the Ars and New Scientist articles did not flog the tundra-carbon-feedback-bomb panic, which does not have much support among scientists. I am a bit chastened that you still read it in there. // We are being quite stupid indeed. But this particular aspect is a concern that is widespread in the public but not among scientists. It’s not quite as baseless as the “Gulf Stream shutdown” one was a few years back. But both concerns were extremely overdrawn and basically inaccurate."
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This really drives home a sinking realisation. While pretty much all our political and research structures continue to develop around a 2 degree target, the reality is turning out to be very different. As a researcher, I see the various UK funding councils fitting into that ‘how do we fix the climate problem’ way of thinking. This is leaving us with no systematic research agenda to address what are looking to be fairly likely outcomes, including a global permafrost hand-grenade thrown into the climate system.

Our research institutions have foresight enough to see the change in currents ahead but they’re ignoring the massive waterfall and the drop beyond.

That’s a huge generalisation, I’m sure there are many working on these kind of what-ifs. My point is, those what-ifs need a much more strategic, broad attack. We are managing to push ourselves towards territory that, really, not that many people bothered to consider in depth because no-one thought we’d be this stupid. We are this stupid. So we have mainly only vague statements like “may threaten the very fabric of civilisation” etc.

For anyone who thinks our civilisation has some value worth fighting for, we’re going to have to do a lot better than that. If we are going to be this stupid, can we at least do it intelligently?

Reassembling meat products

Fascinating breakdown of how cheap burgers are broken down and reassembled by Felicity Lawrence. They are "allowed to contain fat, collagen and connective tissue in the same proportion as they naturally occur in the cut being used" - but the actual source of those additives can and does come from anywhere: "a reconstruction of deconstructed parts, bought around the world from wherever is cheapest. Exchange rate fluctuations might affect where you want to buy your components from week to week."

Future crufts

My prediction for 100/200 year's time: google/facebook search will combine with already patented genetic matching techniques (example); AI will take over, with each ruling its own fiefdom based on some existing corporate entity; each will steer different social/genetic matching systems to breed us like crufts animals. At least one of those AIs will just have fun trying to make REALLY weird-shaped people. (We do the same with dogs, after all.)

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