Archive for February, 2010

Howard Bloom, The Genius of the Beast

February 28, 2010

“Capitalism,” “corporations,” “consumerism,” “profits,” “advertising,” etc. – what feelings do all such words evoke? Sneeringly negative. (Just look at the comments on my 4/09 post, “The Business Ethic.”)

Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Howard Bloom’s book The Genius of the Beast. The “beast” is capitalism; Bloom argues that common ideas about it are all messed up, and provides a sort-of history of the world showcasing a better view.

This is a flawed book. A fair bit concerns how smart and successful Howard Bloom has been. And, when Bloom has an idea he thinks is cool, he likes to say it again. He likes to reiterate it. He likes to repeat it. He likes to hammer on it. And he likes to write in just that style. Done on practically every page, it becomes really annoying. The book’s organizational structure is a mystery. And it could have been far better at half its length.

Nevertheless, this book will repay putting up with. Bloom does present some important and uncommon ideas. In a nutshell, he holds that knee-jerk critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and so forth, fail to grasp what the market is all about. It runs on human emotion, and it feeds our emotions on such a deep level that we can’t even perceive it.

The essence of the market economy is exchange. John gives Mary something Mary values more, and in exchange Mary gives something John values more. It’s not a zero-sum situation with a winner and a loser; both gain. And it’s nonsense to think we are somehow manipulated into buying unnecessary things. The economy is grounded in deep psychological wants and needs that cannot be abolished. (All attempts at doing so, like Soviet Communism, proved catastrophically inhumane.)

One of those key needs is for identity — a huge part of “consumerism.” It comes down to an assertion of self-identity within one’s social milieu which, since we are the most social of animals, tends to be central to one’s life.

We also hunger for novelty. The mind of, say, a cat, is very simple; of a person, very much not. Without regular stimulation we go bonkers. (That’s why “solitary confinement” is so punishing; see also the preceding paragraph). So a further big part of consumerism is striving for novelty.

The sex drive is also very important, and lies behind a lot of human behavior. These are all just some elemental aspects of the human psyche; it’s who we are.

Now, you might consider these human traits embarrassments, and still sneer at what you deem our pathetic efforts to feed them. But here is the kicker, which Bloom also rams home: the effect of all this has been fantastic for humankind. Sometimes the most seemingly trivial and frivolous consumerist things turn out to have, down the road, enormous impacts on human life. Like soap. It’s precisely because we have those deep psychological drives, and the motivation to feed them, with market economics as the vehicle, that we have achieved long lives of comparative health and comfort and pleasure — whereas previously life was (as Hobbes put it) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Bloom recognizes that capitalism has its downsides, its atrocities; but that shouldn’t blind us to its overwhelmingly greater benefits. And yes, some lives today are still nasty, brutish, and short. Capitalism is often blamed. But in truth poverty is not the result of capitalism; it’s the result of insufficient free market capitalism. Bloom shows how capitalism is good for human values – especially for the world’s downtrodden.

Yet still we hear calls for ditching it in favor of some (unspecified) different system – as though we could make human beings something completely different. What foolishness. Again, the essence of the free market system is exchange. Does it make any kind of sense to talk of doing away with this? And the universal human drive for self-advancement renders unworkable all “sharing society” notions. Capitalism’s sanctimonious critics haven’t got a clue for an alternative that wouldn’t destroy everything we’ve achieved in the last 10,000 years and throw us all back to lives nasty, brutish, and short.

US Immigration Gestapo continues pattern of human rights abuse

February 19, 2010

Ivan Pavlenko came to the US from Ukraine in 2004. His mother had married an American and gained permanent resident status. Being under 21, Ivan applied for similar status under a special provision applicable to minor children of permanent residents. After years of failing to process that application, the Immigration Gestapo now says he is subject to being deported. Because – can you believe this? – he turned 21 before his application was approved. (See details at this link.)

What kind of [expletive deleted] Kafkaesque country do these Immigration pricks think this is?

Pavlenko’s is not an isolated case. In fact, for quite a few years, the U.S. Immigration Gestapo has pervasively treated immigrants in this absolutely abominable manner. Many upstanding and contributing members of our society have been thrown out of the country for stupidly indefensible reasons, causing great trauma to themselves and their (often American) families. This is one of our greatest national disgraces.

I had hoped that the new Obama administration might bring a more enlightened approach. It has not. The Homeland Security Gauleiter, Janet (“the system worked”) Napolitano, seems intent on continuing every misguided, misconceived and misbegotten policy in place when she took office, including all these immigration horrors.

One aspect is how hard we make it now for highly skilled people to come here to work in, say, science and engineering jobs; though we desperately need them; and while we do let people come here to study, when they’re done, do we try to keep them here with their skills? No, we throw them out! Suicidally insane.

And just yesterday, the local weekly Metroland featured a story (click here) about how the Immigration Gestapo recruits, as informers, immigrants with problematic status, promising in return to help them get proper green cards. Some have been a great help to the government, in catching criminals, often at great personal risk. And when the Gestapo is done with them, guess what? Deportation! The pair featured in Metroland, Emilio and Analia Maya, spent four years helping the Gestapo to bust a prostitution ring, human traffickers, and even worked in a factory hiring undocumented aliens to gather evidence. They have meanwhile been working very hard building a restaurant business in Saugerties, they are the kind of people we should very much want here, and the local community has been terrific in rallying to their support.

I am pleased, at least, to note that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recently ruled against the Immigration Gestapo in a case similar to Ivan Pavlenko’s, holding that the government’s position “violates basic principles of common sense and fairness.” And the Mayas’ case got enough attention that Congress has passed a “private bill” applicable to them only, helping them.

God bless America.


February 12, 2010

The recent PBS Frontline program “Flying Cheap” focused on the 2009 crash of a Continental/Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, NY, killing 51 — a terrible, preventable tragedy, apparently caused by an under-capable pilot doing something exceptionally dumb.

The show’s thrust was that this was an accident waiting to happen because (unlike big carriers) regional airlines are cutting corners on safety in order to raise profits. Accompanied by appropriate dark music, this was the typical kind of scaremonger show that makes you feel you don’t ever want to get on one of those death-trap planes.

“Flying Cheap” made it sound as though holding down costs to boost profits is some unique pathology of regional airlines. Of course, that’s untrue, cost control is essential to any business. If you can’t minimize costs, some competitor will do so, and you’ll no longer be providing service to the public. But while airlines do have this normal incentive to keep costs down, they also have a very powerful incentive to avoid crashes — which are extremely bad for business.

The show indicated that in the ’90s the big airlines changed their business model to include alliances with small regional carriers like Colgan. This was made to seem sinister. Actually, the airlines had to change something — because they were losing buckets of money. The big picture of the airline business is that, over its entire history, its cumulative profits have been approximately zero. That’s right, zero. In other words, the public has benefited from trillions of miles of air travel, but the providers of it have made no appreciable money on it. So much for greedy capitalist bloodsucking.

And episodes like the Buffalo crash are vastly outnumbered by tens of thousands of uneventful flights. While the show made it sound like safety is being seriously compromised, the whole system is still robustly engineered to avoid crashes. The planes can practically fly themselves, and seemingly miraculously defy the most turbulent weather. And the system is full of fail-safes. Pilots are backed up by copilots, both are backed up by air traffic controllers, and instruments can generally compensate for errors by all of them. So a lot of scary things may happen, but still crashes are extremely rare.

Yet, at one point in the show, the voice-over ominously stated: “The absence of accidents doesn’t mean flying is safe.

Excuse me?

What does safe mean? That there’s no possibility of an accident? Well then, of course flying isn’t safe. Nor is anything else in life. (My father recently died because he stumbled getting into a theater seat and hit his throat.) Frontline’s notion of safety is a misconceived fantasy. (And remember that, no matter how “safe” we think we are, the human mortality rate is still 100%.)

Frontline’s assumption seemed to be that even one crash killing 51 people is too many. It’s a noble sentiment, and undeniably true in a sense. But what would Frontline think of a transport system that has hundreds of thousands of crashes annually, killing over thirty thousand Americans? That, in fact, is car travel. (I feel hugely safer on a plane than in a car.)

But we accept the highway death toll because, with common sense, we recognize that safety is a relative concept, that there is no such thing as absolute safety, and there are always trade-offs among cost and convenience and safety. We could manufacture cars much safer, but they would cost a lot more, so fewer people could afford cars; and could also reduce crashes with speed limits of 10 mph. Most of us would not accept this, and we’d be right. Car travel represents a reasonable accommodation with risk.

Likewise, we could in theory make flying even safer than it is, and crashes would be even more rare. That would of course raise costs, and thus ticket prices. But the system is already only marginally profitable, at best. Higher prices would mean fewer trips would be affordable. An air transport system that is significantly safer would probably not be economically viable. Planes wouldn’t fly at all.

Well, that’s one way to prevent crashes.

Global warming (Alert: this won’t be boring)

February 3, 2010

Global warming is real; at least partly man-caused; and will be disruptive.

Some talk as though our putting carbon into the atmosphere, for all those years, and continuing to do it, has been stupid, even crazy, and we’ve got to stop. But if we hadn’t been doing it, the average human today would live in squalid poverty.

Amid all the chest-thumping about global warming, here’s what’s rarely said: 1) we can’t stop it. Even if we cut carbon emissions to zero today, temperatures would still rise; just a tiny bit more slowly. And, 2) Any such cutback would dramatically increase human poverty and suffering.

Bjorn Lomborg has calculated that the cost of cutting carbon emissions (in terms of human quality of life) would be FIFTY TIMES the costs (in terms of global warming effects) thereby averted.

Now that’s really stupid and crazy.

Global warming is not the biggest problem confronting humanity; not even close. Under a worst-case scenario the number of humans that would perish due to climate change would be dwarfed by the number who will die due to our familiar and boring old problems of poverty and disease. A dollar spent on those problems will produce greatly more human benefit than a dollar spent to hold down global temperature.

So why is the latter still being advocated? One cannot escape the feeling that many of these advocates want to scale back modern industrial society not so much because they fear global warming as because they just, well, hate modern industrial society. This is akin to a religion: seeing humanity as tainted by primordial sin (supposed environmental profligacy) which requires redemptive punishment.

So, what should we do instead?

Stop all this foolishness about direct reductions in carbon emissions. Our resources can be much more effectively spent on 1) ramping up research on alternative technologies that, ultimately, economically, and naturally, will supplant existing ones; and, 2) preparing to adapt to and cope with the effects of inevitable global warming. Both approaches would cost a small fraction of trying to moderate temperature rises by scaling back carbon emissions directly.

Meantime, there are actually some approaches that would cool the planet with vastly more economic efficiency than would carbon cutbacks. Levitt and Dubner’s recent book, Superfreakonomics discusses a few. One is Nathan Myhrvold’s well thought-out plan for diverting existing sulfur dioxide emissions from the lower to the upper atmosphere, thereby mimicking the global cooling effects of major volcanic eruptions (such as 1816’s “year without a summer”). This would be almost laughably cheap to implement.

Of course, it would lack the satisfying thwack of redemptive punishment for mankind’s “sins.” Maybe that’s why the global warming industry seems so uninterested.