Tuesday, December 16, 2014

More Utility from more people?

Economic philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed the concept of Utility, a quantity roughly commensurate with the human sense of pleasure or goodness, and diminished by pain or badness.

Modern economic theories posit that markets regulate human activity to maximize utility.  These theories are full of extremely flawed assumptions and are mostly wrong.  (See for example the excellent book, Debunking Economics by Steve Keen.)

Among economists and others there is a notion that more human beings on earth increases utility as well.  Since under almost all circumstances, humans would prefer life to death, each additional person increases the total number of humans that would experience positive utility (and hence there is more Utility) unless circumstances get very bad.

I believe this is wrong on many ways, and that a much smaller human population would be better.  How is "more Utility from more people" wrong?  Let me describe some ways:

1) Not Just Humans.  The earth includes many non-human species who also experience pleasure and pain and goodness and badness in other ways.  There is no universal reason why their Utility shouldn't count.  Increasing human population generally increases the human planetary footprint, reducing the land space, biodiversity, unpolluted water and air, and other things which are needed to support non-human wildlife populations and their Utility.  Sure, humans could organize their activities so that they have less impact.  But they've tended not to, and even if they did, a larger human population only makes it more difficult to minimize the human ecological footprint.

The unfortunate fact is that the increasing number of Humans has created what is already the 6th largest extinction event in Earth's history, and it is likely to get far far worse over the next few hundred years.

2) Limited Natural Resources and Sinks.

3) Overcrowding.

While additional humans means more possibilities to experience Utility, it may diminish the Utility available to others in the cases of limited resources and overcrowding.  At some point the latter decreases may be greater than the hoped-for increases.  This is obvious when you go from a situation where everyone can easily be fed to one where there isn't quite enough, but occurs in many other ways as well.

4) Wrong model of Utility?

The notion that Utility is nearly automatic to human life may be fundamentally wrong.  I describe this idea last because it is somewhat speculative and could be wrong.

My own idea is that humans do not automatically have a positive utility, but rather neutral utility, i.e. zero.  It is network effects related to the existence of other human beings, as well as resources and opportunities, that provide either positive or negative utilities.

Such a model of utility arising out of the natural and social networks makes utility highly unstable.  When things are good they can be very good, as when there is a Golden Age.  When things are bad they can turn very bad, as in world wars or societies based on terror.

This also makes Utility highly contingent, not the sort of thing that can just add up when you have more people.  Fundamentally, and not even referencing limited resources, more people can be either positive or negative.  It depends.

Where has the golden age gone?

Written in reply to this blog post.

It's easy to think of golden ages in the past primarily because we lack experiences there.  Interpersonal violence has actually been on a long decline for thousands of years, just that it used to be more one-on-one.  The golden democratic age of ancient Greece ended with Socrates and his pupils.  Socrates preached a society run by those who know best--elites.  And he got what he wanted through his pupils who destroyed Athenian democracy.  Which didn't work out very well because they didn't know as much as they thought they did.  Funny he has become a kind of secular god precisely because his anti-democratic idealism fit with the emperors we have lived with since.  So our current rot actually began with ancient Greece.

The golden age democracy of Greece was much more democratic because it was based on lottery, not the rigged elections we have in capitalist democracy.  With elections that money can rig, democracy simply becomes another way we are owned.  The main way elections are rigged is through the media-controlled primaries.  Individualism and individual choice is promoted incessantly, but power-to-the-people actually comes only through solidarity.  Solidarity means real political parties with stakeholders whose success depends on how much they actually deliver to the people, not how much advertising they can buy.  The smoke filled rooms we abolished were actually what made our system work better.  The last golden age was from FDR to Kennedy, and economic elites--especially fossil fuel and war barons--reasserted control starting with the assassination of Kennedy and the rise of movement conservatism.

There's still a chance the Neolithic Revolution will be a success, but it's looking more like the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Peace, Sister

I continue to believe that lesser evilism is the correct strategy in rigged games like voting in capitalist democracy.  Vote, and get on with it.  Don't bother with the campaign crap, except perhaps very selectively.  Put your effort into something else: reading, research, education, demonstrations.  Education is the big one, I always say.  And it starts with self-education.  And there are endless ways to do that.

However, YMMV.  If you have another vision, go for it.  3rd parties* are a perennial favorite among the most dedicated.  Less dedicated--perhaps--go for anti-voting.  IMO anti-voting doesn't have much positive effect in the historical record.  Believers might counter that when it (may) have an effect, it will turn the tables, unlike merely reordering the silverware.  It's not for me, but if you want to go for that, go for it!

(IMO, 3rd parties may be productive in some places, but in most of the USA almost all of the time, they are not.  Worked for Teddy Roosevelt, though, one of USA's best Presidents.)

As John Emerson at his Trollblog website says, movement conservatism has succeeded not because of following a single coherent "best" strategy, but by endless experimentation on the part of endless entrepreneurs.  Some lose big.  Fortunately, with all the money from plutocrats sloshing around, even the big losers can get nicely taken care of afterwards.  Perhaps better, even, to be a bigger looser.  So therefore big risks are taken, and sometimes pay off.  That's politics, not following the rules of one academic political scientist or another, as the Democrats do.  90% of all political science PhD's are Democrats, meanwhile one of the most successful political operatives ever--Karl Rove--took a political science course once.

Meanwhile, if you want me to vote 3rd party, show me the good bets first, that won't be what I would consider spoilers.  I'd even do more for a principled candidate (of the right kind, the only kind actually) than just vote, if they really, not in fantasy, had a decent chance of winning.  I do also support candidates, as I did the Kucinich presidency, largely for educational effects, though I denied that to myself at the time.  Kucinich, a primary challenger, never became a spoiler (to my knowledge, though he didn't sign the Texas Democratic Party loyalty oath).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The overarching desire to be obeyed

Roger Gathman follows me in saying the the least reform would be special prosecutors for police violence cases.  Also, he compares the shooting by Daniel Harmon-Wright to that of Darren Wilson.  In the former case the police officer's claim to self-defense was contradicted by eye witnesses, and those eye witnesses were believed.  Underlying both cases, RG believes, was the Officers desire to be obeyed:

The Ferguson case, which hinged on Wilson’s claim that he felt his life was endangered, can be paralleled by a case that was tried just last year of a Culpepper Virginia policeman who killed a sunday school teacher, Patricia Cook. The policeman, Daniel Harmon-Wright, claimed that when he reached in her car window to take her license, she rolled up the window and took off. Thus, he shot her – seven times – because otherwise he would have been dragged to death. This seems more life threatening that anything that happened to Wilson. The difference was that eye witnesses, in the Harmon-Wright case, were believed, and they asserted that Harmon-Wright’s hand was not trapped in that window, and that he simply unloaded when she took off in her car. She was “escaping” him, just as Michael Brown was escaping Wilson, and the automatic response was shoot to kill. In fact, with a special prosecutor, I think Wilson’s claim of being threatened would be broken down in court – and what would be left was the overwhelming desire to be obeyed. However, there are limits on how police can achieve that last goal.

The Rational State

Bruce Wilder makes some more great comments in the blog on Ferguson at Crooked Timber.

As several commenters have noted, racism has a history. Indeed, it does. Turning racism into a political taboo marks one of the great triumphs of political liberalism in its long fight for the dignity and autonomy of the individual and to transform the state into a rationally administered instrument for a shared, public good.
The series of historic triumphs for political liberalism over racial oppression marked out a series of historic defeats for reactionary and authoritarian conservatism if “conservatism” is the label we care to attach to whatever apology in whatever era has been offered for complacency and indifference, regarding conventional acceptance of cruelty and vicious, amoral selfishness.
It doesn’t seem to me that one can really argue effectively with cruelty and vicious, amoral selfishness; in democratic politics, we’re always arguing with complacency and indifference regarding moral conventions.
It’s a measure of that remarkable series of triumphs of liberal politics against racism that “racist” is a such a powerful pejorative in conventional moral terms.
I love the phrase, "transform the state into a rationally administered instrument for a shared, public good."

Make it so is what we must do, not, for the foreseeable future, imagine we can work positively toward eliminating the existence of states.

Even though the history of states is precisely the opposite, or a kind of Pareto opposite, primarily to maintain the private good of the most elite and powerful within the society, with some good trickling down to some others.  But many reforms, and especially the civil rights reforms of the 20th century, and social democratic reforms like the New Deal, have broadened the beneficiaries of state's existence somewhat.  That program, of broadening the public good, was basically working until it was dismantled in the 1970's by concerted effort of plutocrats and oligarchs.

Then Bruce takes a turn toward saying this should not be turned into partisan bumper stickers and t-shirts.  Well I agree in a limited sense.  But this brings up the area where, I believe, Bruce and I differ.

I believe in voting for Democrats not as our saviors, but as simply being the better choice.  So hold your nose and vote.  But then move on, and practice actual reform politics in other ways.  It's a pity the electoral system has not only not been made better, but has become even more money oriented in the past few decades.  That will need to be changed…but it cannot be changed by tiny numbers of people voting for purity parties.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Human Population and the Antropogenic Extinction Event

Regardless of things we don't fully know, such as wherever the tipping points in global temperature rise are, however fast global warming may occur...

AGW and numerous other resource/pollution/land-use/extraction-effect problems can be addressed addressed, generally speaking, by population reductions.  A general assumption: half as many people, half as many such problems.  But actually problems tend to rise at least exponentially because of network effects, additionally with basic limits, self-sustaining tipping points, and so on.  So we could be more than twice as worse off with twice as many people, and so on.

Anyway, in the great Crooked Timber blog on AGW (op was the China/USA agreement, preliminary thoughts) the point was well made that voluntary population reductions (by forgoing pregnancy, etc) cannot solve the impending AGW tipping point to global civilizational collapse problem (aka 3 degrees Celsius and above).  We need 97% reduction by 2050 to stay below 2 degrees (not exactly a balmy afternoon either, expect melting ice sheets and desertification, see the book on 3 degrees, and for all we know 2 degrees might be the aforementioned tipping point, and some would prefer to stay below 1 degree…aka the ultimate effect 350ppm when we are now already 400ppm).  Meanwhile, business as usual is headed straight to hell (aka 6 degrees) by 2100, which we hope isn't the end of human history.  And once we get to 6 degrees, who knows how much more will be induced by further tipping points.  A previous episode of 6 degree warming resulted in one of the largest extinction events ever.

The problem is, to stay below the comparatively-safe-but-who-knows 2 degrees, we need 97% reduction in human net CO2 by 2050, from 36GtC to 1GtC per year.

No voluntary reduction in population control through restriction of birthing is going to decrease population that much that fast.

But this misses two key points.  First, changes in climate from increased CO2 tend to have a lifetime of 100,000 years or more.  Meanwhile we do not want human history to end at 2050, 2100, or whatever.  And presuming it doesn't, and assuming no rapid die-offs or miraculous changes, the climate goes on. (As does the environment generally.)  If net carbon production is still going on at 2050 or even 2100, it will likely continue the next year, and so on.  Changes in human population through voluntary control are slow but could continue indefinitely, ultimately reducing human population to a level that has both advanced technology and sustainability.  There is limited research on what this might be, and of course nobody knows what ultimate population might be, nor the technological infrastructure that will be available to sustain it (unfortunately, we are not building enough sustainable infrastructure now, which would be 100% renewable systems).  (I have often guessed at about 1 billion humans with a highly eco-conscious society, and the benefit of a sustained-mass-command-effort to build sustainable energy and transportation that starts real soon now.  Sadly it could be lower, much lower if we don't build out the required systems or do so well, we could suffer a huge involuntary loss through collapse of civilization's ability to organize food and energy production, leaving only pockets of survivors--which looks pretty likely within a few hundred years, and that is not the ultimate worst case possible which is planetary Venusification at unknown but presumed very low risk.)

Second: CO2 isn't the only problem, by far.

So even if it won't solve the immediate problem, global population restriction through control of birthing will be necessary for long term sustainability and should begin now at the fastest politically acceptable rate.  I am fine with a one-child policy, enforced by post-birth sterilization and humane administrative means (i.e., no forced abortions, and no harm to children) for violators.  And the usual freely available education and opportunity for women, birth control, and abortion on a voluntary basis.

If we don't control population through reasonable controls on birthing, more extreme measures will be forced on us by necessity.

The environmental footprint of humans in the not-so-far-off future will have to be at current subsistence indigenous levels.  Meanwhile, industrial society cranks away, promising to industrialize globally and raise all the world to lucky wage-slave status of western society workers.  If in fact consumer society is replicated everywhere it will be the greatest disaster ever.

And meanwhile economists, even in the IPCC report, blithely project 4 times greater average human income in 2100, for which environmental loss can be calculated as some fraction.  Well that is because of the "income bias" of economists.  If instead you look at the well being of the global commons, of eviscerating wildlife, of decimating ocean life, melting ice sheets, deserts, rising sea level, greater storms, declining water levels and land productivity, you would see epochal catastrophe, from which sustaining mass human income is improbable and mass loss of human lives inevitable.  Some "4 times greater income per capita".  Markets are not somehow going to save the commons because the commons have only been the dumping grounds for markets.  Nor will commons-saving innovation be driven by markets, see above.  The only hope for humanity is collective solutions to preserving the commons and providing social insurance, and possibly much more.