The solution to the next 100 years where everybody wins

April 27th, 2014


I was listening to Elizabeth Warren (who is admirable) discuss the current failings of capitalism, to wit, trickle down doesn’t work and progressive taxation is a no-brainer, and I had just finished reading something about the economic boom that followed WW2, and I decided that the correct course for the future was not being sold sufficiently persuasively in the world’s largest economy – the US. If you only focus on regulation and taxation their right goes bat-shit insane and the whole discussion founders. Now eventually the crisis will become big enough that the noise of the far right will be drowned out but how much damage will have happened by then? What if more effort was put into persuading them now?

There are aspects of the necessary policy that can be phrased more palatably for the right. Cynically one could say that you just have to make clear that this is a huge opportunity for capitalists to keep their hands on the reins. Well, to some extent this is true. I think we are seeing the capitalists of the future right now. Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla is a perfect example of of the current acceptable face of capitalism.

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April 11th, 2011

On careful reflection, I think I’ve said everything I had to say … and a bit more.

Bumper Sticker

January 10th, 2011

Somewhat irritated about Extreme Outrage.

The Internet

December 22nd, 2010

A storm in a million teacups.

Insanely rich

November 5th, 2010

Money is a social construct. It is only worth what it is worth because society agrees that this is the case. A piece of ancient Chinese paper money is no longer worth anything as money because the society that attributed a value to it is gone.

In our society we have developed structures and systems that allow people to accumulate vast piles of this money. It is a mistake to forget that this wealth only exists as long as the society, which made its accumulation possible, allows it to exist. The followers of Ayn Rand idolise those who are able to accumulate wealth and abhor any restrictions placed upon them. Once personal wealth crosses a certain threshold though, the usual forces at work in human nature begin to fall away. Once you are so wealthy that you, and all those you care for, are housed, clothed and fed simply from the interest earned by your wealth if it were on fixed deposit, something other than the usual human motivation for effort is in operation.

This is a rumination on the implications of the existence of the super-rich. It does not follow that the super-rich, by their very existence, are either good or bad. The extent of their wealth though is only a reality as long as society allows it. As long as they employ their wealth for good instead of evil then there is no problem. The larger their wealth, the more critical this becomes because, with the accumulation of money comes the a cumulation of power over other people’s lives. There are two ways in which society usually interferes. Taxation and corporate break-ups. Both of these would have the followers of Rand outraged. Of the two, taxation is the more gentle.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are a useful test case. When Microsoft broke the law they were pursued by legal means and redress was determined. As it is not against the law to be successful or a monopoly then it would be manifestly unjust to take control of his company and break it up simply because it was large and has made him personally wealthy. Taxation is another matter. There is no logic to taxing the profits of the company beyond other companies. This would be unfair to the shareholders who have had the good sense to see success and back it. So the problem comes back to personal wealth. Bill Gates is worth about 50 billion dollars. That’s not normal.

Let’s make up some figures to get a feel for the numbers and what I mean by super-rich. Imagine you owned a house worth $10m, cars worth half a million, a boat worth $2m and had $10m on fixed deposit spread over half a dozen of the most dependable banks in the country. Your annual income from your investments would be something like $450,000 after tax. Enough to maintain a marvellous lifestyle and not have to work at all. Now imagine that you were also able to set up 20 of your loved ones and friends in a similar manner. To do all this you would need a fortune of $450m. There are thousands of folks that wealthy in the USA. So what’s the story with the wealth they possess in excess of $450m?

At the risk of repeating myself, it is critical to remember that the wealth accumulated is only real as long as society agrees that it is. It is in society’s interests to agree that it is, as long as the wealth is “working”.

On a related topic; the level of taxation that saps the will to work varies from person to person. Randians would have you believe that almost any level is too high. Pretty much everyone would agree with George Harrison and the Beatles that 95% taxation will bring suck the motivation out of you. This is human nature and a matter of opinion; for myself, once I am not getting the majority, resentment would begin to grow.

It was fascinating to find recently that most citizens of the USA have no idea how the wealth is distributed in their country. When asked to put figures on it they came up with a distribution that was much closer to Sweden’s than to the USA’s. Even the rich were oblivious to the extreme distortion in the distribution of wealth.

In short, tax the super-rich personally but not more than 50% of their annual surplus. No one should be able to inherit more than $450m either. That just extends the distortion for generations of people who never contributed to the creation of the wealth in the first place. Break the estate up into chunks of $450m and designate a list of beneficiaries. I am not exercised about people being rich, that is part of the natural ebb and flow, but insanely rich is another matter.

Wise up!

October 20th, 2010

I have said before that I don’t think that the all-pervasive incivility on the internet is helpful. I’m going to have to be a little careful here as I now intend to slight most of humanity. I will speak in sweeping generalities and you can rest assured that it doesn’t apply to you.

The massive improvement in global communications is a wonderful thing and will lead to major advances in civilisation. I have no doubt. One of the first great services it has provided is to highlight how dumb most of us are… Let me re-phrase that. It has highlighted how ill equipped most of us are to engage in well-informed discussion on a wide range of topics. We need education and lots of it. The top priority of every government on the planet should be education. Starting with the fundamentals but taking each student as far as they can go.

Pick any topic. Go to an internet site discussing that topic and read the discussions. Now read up on the topic yourself – if you aren’t already an expert. Now go back and read the discussions. They are choc-a-block with misinformation that would be easily corrected by a brief study of the subject. The only practical solution is more education. Far too many people are taking as factual the rantings of fools on blogs and those spouting opinions either for media outlets or in response to things they read there.

The ignorance is startling. Yesterday we had a person running for high political office in the US reveal that they had no idea that the first Amendment to the US Constitution specifically prevents the State from meddling in religion.

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Christine O’Donnell.
Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion.
O’Donnell asked: “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?”

I’m picking on one person there but this sort of thing goes on all the time. We need all 6.3 billion of us educated. The sooner the better.

Meat and veg

September 30th, 2010

Imagine it is a hundred years from now. Could be as little as thirty. Someone cooks you a perfect fillet steak and then tells you that it was produced by tissue culture. Is your attitude to the meal you just consumed changed by the knowledge?

Mine would be. I would be pleased that no animal had to be killed to satisfy my hunger. I would be pleased that there was now a way for me to be omnivorous without having to consider the welfare of the animals I am consuming. Until we have tissue culture, it will remain a priority for me to encourage suppliers to make the lives of the creatures I ingest as pleasant as possible right up until their lives are switched off as unexpectedly, for them, and as painlessly as possible. Um.. the creatures; not the suppliers. As an example of this sort of thing; I am pleased by the sudden rise in the popularity of free-range eggs. I look forward to this philosophy spreading to other animal products.

Our species is clearly supposed to be omnivorous and it takes a little effort for us to operate successfully as vegetarians. Our teeth are dead giveaway on this. Even the fact that our jaws have become smaller of the last million years or so supports the idea that we were eating more meat (and cooking it). There is a biological imperative at work here that exists independently of all human constructs – such as “rights”. However, as with many things, our mental capabilities have reached a point where we can consider more sophisticated implications of our actions, even if they are instinctive, and we can empathise with others, including the beasts of the fields.

It has always seemed clear to me that treating other things in a way that you would not wish to be treated yourself is bad for one’s self-esteem. I believe this is a profound thing that extends even to inanimate objects. For example, if we make robots that are more or less humanoid, I reckon that it would be a sign of mental weakness to maltreat such a machine. “Kicking the cat” is wrong. Kicking the robot would be wrong as well.

Producing all meat for consumption by tissue culture would have other implications. We would still needs large crops to produce the materials to feed the tissue culture machines. We wouldn’t need the huge herds any more though. We should also be able to trap and process the waste products of the tissue culture factories so as to reduce the environmental burden of producing the vast quantities of meat we consume.

We are very good at narrowing our worries down to what we feel we are capable of addressing. As I write this I do not contemplate the misery and death of the innocents in the Sudan. Likewise I do not consider the confusion and terror of the line of cattle trudging into the abattoir. But the problem is there. It lurks. I don’t like it. I try not to kid myself about how the world really works. One vote at a time, one purchase at a time, we need to work on solving these lurking problems. The sooner we can make large scale tissue culture viable the better. Until then we should treat our animals as well as practicable and not delude ourselves about the true nature of the world as it currently functions.

About Apple and hype

September 21st, 2010

I read a lot of stuff about Apple online. Many, many references are made to the hype that surrounds the company. It is taken for granted that Apple creates all this hype. While not quite denying that, I see it differently.

Exactly what Apple does is plain for all to see. Steve Jobs gives a keynote presentation where he presents the company’s products and then there are some adds in the media. That’s it. All companies do this so what’s the rest of the story?

Let’s start with the keynote. For example, Steve showed off the iPad and said it was “magical”. If I was an Apple shareholder or one of the engineers who designed the machine I would be very happy that he presented it in an enthusiastic manner. The alternatives make no sense. Oh! First I should say, surely no one thinks Steve was suggesting the thing was literally “magical”. Some of the flames on the web had me wondering on that point.

The first alternative would be deadpan – neutral. “Here we have the iPad. A team of engineers have worked hard on this for many months and the company has invested a lot of resources. We hope you like it. Next…” If I was a shareholder I would be downcast. Surely he’s allowed to say it’s nice to use. I have one. They are great to use! Which adjectives are allowed. If he says “It’s great”, is that hype? Or did it only become hype when he used the word “magical”? The second alternative would be to downplay it. “We have this new tablet… not sure whether it’s a laptop or just a bigger Touch. You decide. Next…”

This is madness. He didn’t hype it. He just showed off the machine proudly and said it was great – as you would expect.

Then there’s the ads. Same argument really. The ads say their stuff is great. Duh. If you check the advertising budgets of Apple and Microsoft I don’t think Apple’s comes up as huge.

So where does that leave us? Apple must be very happy about the hype that surrounds all their products but I reckon the bulk of it is created by the interesting physical and technical designs that they produce and the fact that they do not release details of these things before Steve’s keynotes. The rest is done by the folks in the community who are interested to discuss this stuff. This group definitely includes those who disagree with the design decisions made by Apple. Because their equipment often has bold design, the people who buy it become more bound to it then is the case with more “standard” equipment. They often become evangelical and so the buzz becomes even greater.

In short, a lot of the “hype” is not directly created by Apple, but indirectly. They earn any benefit that comes from it by the nature of their products.

Newsflash: Attitude to lawyers remains the same.

September 2nd, 2010

In the 1770 census report of the county clerk of Grafton County, New Hampshire, to King George III:

Your Royal Majesty, Grafton County, New Hampshire, consists of 1,212 square miles. It contains 6,489 souls, most of whom are engaged in agriculture, but included in that number are 69 wheelwrights, 8 doctors, 29 blacksmiths, 87 preachers, 20 slaves, and 90 students at the new college. There is not one lawyer, for which fact we take no personal credit but thank an Almighty and Merciful God.

Here! Have a banana.

August 24th, 2010

We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes.

Richard Dawkins

The implications of this are what I have tried to address from time to time. It underlies all our actions.