Plus ca change?

I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.

I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:

I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John

First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.

The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.

And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.

I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.

I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.

This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:

The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!

7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.

Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.

And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.

If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.

But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.

But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.

The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.

A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.

But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.

Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo – it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…

The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.

Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.

Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.

Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…

So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.

How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.

And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.

My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!