Hi tech, the hyper-meritocracy and the rest

A lot of people think that investment in hi-tech will get the world out of the economic doldrums. Under the current system of distributing wealth I very much doubt it. Recently I read an April 2014 edition Prospect article by John McDermott titled You’re next. Will technology make professional jobs redundant? (behind a paywall) which reminded me that not only do I doubt it but I expect the opposite. It reminded me to leave myself a note here about the several things I’ve come across recently which point most persuasively and ominously in this direction.

From the aforementioned McDermott:

“Behind the voguish discussion about technology is perhaps a more important trend: the declining share of income going to labour than capital. And without a political response, the type of technological change discussed by [techno-optimists] Brynjolfsson and McAfee would only further such a divergence.”

McDermott speculates that “new machine age continues to regard capital at the expense of labour”. Because of what I’ll euphemistically call a distribution problem, that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few. For this reason he doubts that education can address the inequalities inherent in a hyper-meritocracy – even with the indignity of ‘venture-philanthropy’. I was reminded of the My Teacher is an App episode I wrote about recently – the Waldorf school in silicon valley where the Google and Yahoo employees send their kids to keep those creative little minds far, far away from the operation of a computer.

I often argue with one of my closest work colleagues. I think that, because of the way this society is organised, computers will take away jobs from more humans than they create jobs for. He is skeptical. Here is a concrete example of my being right. April 2nd was Autism Awareness Day. I’ve twice been thrown into the company of a student at work I’m almost certain is on the spectrum, and I’ve become quite interested in what I understand his challenges to be (and many others – autism is one-in-a-hundred), so I listened to an RSA recording titled Autism at Work: Releasing Talent and Harnessing Creativity. From it I discovered that people with autism tend to be punctual, like routine, are content to do the repetitive tasks their colleagues dislike – and, in passing, that they are losing precisely those jobs to computerised labour. Most people with autism would like to be employed but, squeezed out by machines and misunderstandings, most are not.

Certainly Luddites were right about the problem of machines. Why is technology so attractive to employers that they would prefer to render vast tracts of their potential custom without the disposable income to actually buy their product? Humans, as variable capital, are unreliable. When they go wrong, the employer pays twice – once for their sustenance as workers (their food, fuel, shelter i.e. their wage) and once for their replacement while they take their compassionate leave, maternity, sickness, industrial dispute, resignation or whatever. Machines only need maintenance and phased replacement. Philosopher of education David Blacker devotes quite a lot of the early part of his book The Falling Rate of Learning (sorry, it’s Zero Books – I received it as a gift otherwise I would have hesitated because of at least one of Zero’s authors) to this matter. Citing the economist Tyler Cowen (as does John McDermott above – she must be worth reading. Oh. He’s not a she.) Blacker doubts that hi-tech can sustain education beyond a basic level.

“The trouble is that once those initial large productivity gains have been reaped, the return on the human capital investment levels off – perhaps to the point of unfeasibility. Ironically, while technological development made human universal education possible, those same technological developments and subsequent productivity increases render further education for the masses mostly a waste.”

But surely workers are needed to actually make and run the machines? And here it gets very dark, but very plausible, and I will quote at length (pp47-47 of the 2014 Kindle Edition),

“As the machines get better, however, by definition even a smaller percentage of the machine-maintainers are ultimately needed. This level of expensive educational investment simply does not “pay” with regard to most people, because more and more of us are not exactly needed for much of anything. No longer needed as workers, the domestic masses are needed as open mouths into which to force feed as much consumption as possible, an irrational strategy that purchases short-term overconsumption at the price of long-term underconsumption (due to the inevitable ensuing debt overload) and hence is defeating of its very purpose. Domestically at least, neoliberalism really needs consumers and otherwise neutralized types (e.g. the incarcerated) rather than the industrial era of capitalism’s skilled and semi-skilled labor. For the dirty little secret of the high tech economy is that, despite incessant boosterism to the contrary, it does not need widespread technical competence; most jobs in the high tech environment demand stultifying activities that require nothing beyond basic literacy – if that. … For every “high tech, high wage” worker enjoying a cool workplace at google.com, there are many, many more who are “enjoying” the inverse proportion between high tech and their job demands: the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible (via outsourcing and/ or further automation).”

But even though so many of the biggest companies in the world are involved in peddling consumables (Google is primarily an advertising company, for example) nobody thinks a consumer economy is a good idea. In Blacker’s world very few people get paid sufficiently to consume, so his expectation is that they will be allowed to perish. Which reminds me of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which temporarily sobered up the establishment for a week or so.

In the book Blacker distinguishes between old kinds of capitalists – upstanding, patrician, enlightened sorts – and new, socially useless kinds who avoid paying tax and when faced with healthy competition, instead, blob-like, attempt to absorb their competitors. He mentions in passing that Henry Ford, one of the old kind, decided to pay his workers $5 per day to create a blue collar middle class which could afford to buy his cars. For the first time I thought of him fondly. Then a bum note crept in – could this even work in a profitable industry? Apparently not – I read a right-winger insisting that Ford paid over the going rate simply to retain a particularly skilled workforce which was very costly to replace at a time – 1913 – when demand for labour outstripped supply.

Not like now. Even if there is growth, it doesn’t have much of a chance to touch the majority of us.

Bonus links:

  • On BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, 29th March, Evan Davies interviews a panel of entrepreneurs who service the super-rich. I found them craven, venal, and generally revolting, and I had the impression that they even embarrassed their host.
  • And spitting in the eye of that, The Austerity Delusion, a May 2013 talk at the RSA by political economist Mark Blyth, who in answer to an audience question points out that, no, the world’s richest can’t buy enough services to flush a stagnant economy – (also available as audio only – but if you don’t really grasp Ivy League economics you may need his slides).

Update – see too:

  • Equity in the Age of the Robot – a Resolution Foundation event on 29th April 2014 with Diane Coyle, Izabella Kaminska, Alan Manning and Michael Osborne. Follow the Twitter hashtag #robotage.




Occupy London

Anti-austerity protesters are peacefully and unintentionally occupying St Pauls with the consent of Canon Giles Fraser (canon chancellor of St Pauls and former militant socialist) after the police headed them off from approaching the stock exchange.

The initial statement. It’s not bad, and it’s not good enough. But it’s good it exists.

On #3 of the statement, how do we refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis? Tax protests don’t work. Not paying taxes is for Tea Party types. Now Cantona’s proposal is coming of age with Move Your Money – closing bank accounts in irresponsible banks. But then again how much are we worth anyway? As a population aren’t we in debt to the eyeballs? And isn’t this our crisis as well as the banks’? And if it is, maybe there is no we because the young didn’t get themselves in debt to the eyeballs.

But if there is a we, there’s a lot that can be done through consumption and lifestyle. Buy as little as possible. Make a shared agreement to live as modestly as if we were materially equal. Set out our rations, live by them, and put our money into the Coop with a view to contributing it into a shared fund. We arrange to tax ourselves. We take over the Coop and make it a people’s bank. We work out what we can do to live in dignity and we set up a parallel system with a view to starving the old one out and wooing its functionaries over.

Accounts from Occupy London in The Guardian, the AWL (“It would be wrong to be snooty about a protest movement because all of its members are not fully worked-out Marxists”),

The government’s consultation on squatting contained a question which led SQUASH to surmise that they were going to take a broad view of illegal occupation which included stuff like this. Peaceful protest is a precious right, and it is a good thing to gather in the streets, spend the night, and trade ideas about what lies between where we are now and a world where everybody can be confident about their material future. I wonder if I can persuade anybody to stay there with me.

Hashtags #occupylsx (may be on borrowed time), #occupy (for global protests), and #occupylondon.

Aside, it’s really important to put something between your tent groundsheet and the concrete or you’ll wreck its lining at which stage it’s tempting to throw it away, contravening item #7 of the statement – the bit about caring for the planet. Second aside – they’re allowing booze. That may be a problem. Aggro, alcoholic dyspraxia, damage and mess are bad for protests.

Update: Norm has focus – he’s looking for proposals.

A donation page with a list of immediate needs to keep the protest going in the meantime.

A colleague who was down there yesterday at the general assembly said that the amplification was so bad that Twitter was the only way those at the peripheries could hear  and so cast their vote. Mustn’t rely on personal technologies though, smart phone batteries don’t last –  tapping street lights is very dangerous and more than a bit freeloadery. Electric pedals powering an amp would be better.

The Indymedia-hosted chat is compelling – a groping towards a purpose and plan peppered with requests for information about toilets.


This is one of those posts where by the time you get to the end you feel more ignorant than when you began.

Looking for a definition of when extremism becomes populism I came across this definition of right wing populism at progressive USA think tank Political Research Associates:

Producerism —the idea that the real Americans are hard–working people who create goods and wealth while fighting against parasites at the top and bottom of society who pick our pocket…sometimes promoting scapegoating and the blurring of issues of class and economic justice, and with a history of assuming proper citizenship is defined by White males;

Anti–elitism —a suspicion of politicians, powerful people, the wealthy, and high culture…sometimes leading to conspiracist allegations about control of the world by secret elites, especially the scapegoating of Jews as sinister and powerful manipulators of the economy or media;

Anti–intellectualism —a distrust of those pointy headed professors in their Ivory Towers…sometimes undercutting rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of following the emotional appeals of demagogues;

Majoritarianism —the notion that the will of the majority of people has absolute primacy in matters of governance… sacrificing rights for minorities, especially people of color;

Moralism —evangelical–style campaigns rooted in Protestant revivalism…sometimes leading to authoritarian and theocratic attempts to impose orthodoxy, especially relating to gender.

Americanism —a form of patriotic nationalism…often promoting ethnocentric, nativist, or xenophobic fears that immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our culture.

It appears to be quoted but isn’t well-referenced – probably the work of Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin.

I suppose three attributes – anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and simple majoritarianism – are necessary to populism of any persuasion, and the moralism and patriotic nationalism are distinctly right-wing.

The outstanding attribute is producerism. In its right wing expression, it views immigrants and bankers alike unfavourably as a leach on societal wealth from below and above. But can you have a popular movement other than a right wing one without some kind of producer ethic?

The Wikipedia definition says that producerism credits the middle class as adding surplus value, and therefore wealth. However, Kazin’s book The Populist Persuasion (p13 – see Google Books) calls it,

“…indeed an ethic, a moral conviction. It held that only those who created wealth in tangible, material ways (on and under the land, in workshops, and on the sea) could be trust to guard the nation’s piety and liberties.”

From elsewhere in the PRA collection this visualisation sheds some light.  It shows right wing populism directing anger above and below and exchanging supporters with the racist right as well as democratic reformers.  Interestingly, EDL supporters as a group have been observed to spend more energy berating the government (‘above’) than they spend openly attacking Muslims (‘below’), both of which groups are typified as unproductive. (Though having observed fairly unremitting antisemitism from certain quarters for the past 6 years, I’d adopt a subtler and sharper definition of racist language than that author did – one which included innuendo and stance relative to less veiled racism.)

The visualisation linked above doesn’t work for the British left since most of the organised anger (and they can only dream of it being popular) is directed upwards to perceived ‘elite parasites’ e.g. bankers, multi-national businesses, politicians, etc – and none that I can see is directed downwards at the unproductive – on the contrary, the left is defending – to name a few – immigrants and those who risk their benefits being withdrawn. Right wing producerism thinks that domestic capital is good capital, but financial capital – the international kind – is bad. The left rejects is sceptical of the first and hostile to the second.

Can’t see much sign of producerism on the left, then, which only directs anger upwards (I’d call New Labour centrist), though if there were it might look like Stalinism’s authoritarian ‘socialism in one country’, or the kind of trade unionism which was prepared to hold its fellow citizens to ransom – or perhaps a technophobic sort of Neo-Luddism (which might be a green-tinged variety).

But what can it mean when the the British TUC votes to ostracise fellow workers because they are Israeli?

Together we can turn the university into a factory / to do before the 9th December 2010

poster from Middlesex Philosophy campaign

The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance spin-off False Economy has launched just in time to document The Higher Education funding bill which proposes to uncap tuition fees and comes before Parliament on 9th December.

Between now and 9th:

“MPs will return from their constituencies on Monday. On Tuesday there will be another meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs to try and thrash out an agreement. On Wednesday, the students will again be demonstrating and thus pushing the story onto the front pages again, there will be Prime Minsters Questions and the Institute of Fiscal Studies will release its analysis of the government’s plans. In the evening, a Lib Dem will have to tackle Question Time on the BBC. On Thursday there will be more demonstrations and the vote.”

Two good letters on which to base yours, one in The Times and the other at the Campaign for the Public University, where there are many other good things.

As usual William Cullerne Bown is an excellent source of reading on this. He’s made a timeline in Dipity which indicates that if things go ahead the Charity Commission will be examining universities’ charity status the day after Boxing Day. And we may be contravening the Creative Commons terms of everything we use that was licenced as Non Commercial (I only just negotiated with my institution to make certain stuff I produce available to the HE community on the basis that it was licenced as Non Commercial.)

For arguments, follow Humanities and Social Sciences Matter and Defend the Arts and Humanities.

Anthony Barnett sums up very well what the government proposals entail and imply (as far as I know – I can’t find the text of the bill):

“On education my response is that I don’t think Clegg understands what is happening, or if he does he is a completely dishonourable cynic. He is obsessed with the issue of what the students are liable for, as well he might be for this is where he made his pledge. My point is that the very steep increase in fees and loans is combined with a withdrawal of state funding as well. I know one major London department that has lost the whole of its grant. Henceforth it has to fund itself entirely from its student income. It must therefore compete for student applications. It will be forced to drop specialist areas, that may well be the seed corn of the future, if this means employing staff who don’t attract lots of students, whatever the staff’s judgment about the international future of their field. This is the marketisation of higher education, turning what is taught into a commodity and forcing out the eccentric, the different, the original and the traditional but unpopular, all of which a university should strive to preserve for society because this is an essential part of what a university must try to be: a place of universal learning.

Second, still on universities, while withdrawing direct state funding, the government is recycling it through students in the form of large loans, which the banks will charge interest on but which the government will guarantee. Leaving aside the increase in government debt this will entail (ah ha), this ensures that private capital gets a slice of what remains a state sponsored policy. This is the second way in which higher education funding is being marketised.  My point is not that graduates should not pay a contribution (I’d prefer a graduate tax, but then, of course, the banks can’t charge interest). It is that the larger values of society and scholarship are also being amputated and they are a vital part of what defines us as a society. As we lose these limbs, the Coalition is in effect, whether Nick understands it or not, seeking to ensure that the market colonises our minds and, finally, our sense of what is possible.”

Lib Dem Greg Mulholland is urging a postponement of the vote on 9th pending a better-thought-out white paper on reform in 2011. The withdrawal of public funding then also needs to be postponed, and it should be.

On False Economy, they are gathering opposition to the cuts and some alternatives to the cuts. Though if the truth be told – and not unrelated to our predicament – they’re a little light on the alternatives.

The enormous collateral damage of the Digital Economy Bill

Dear [MP’s name]

As your constituent I would like to alert you to key problems with the Digital Economy Bill currently being debated in the Lords (1). Specifically I’ll address those parts which relate to combatting copyright infringement through file sharing. I do not defend breach of copyright, which I recognise as an infringement of civil law. However, I would like to point out that this bill is the product of intense lobbying funded by multinational rights companies who are prepared to compromise the civil rights of their entire customer base for the sake of a holding pattern for their obsolete business model.

I have three main concerns, which I’ll outline briefly below.

1. The need for proportionate punishment which avoids collateral damage.

Under the current terms, the account holder is held responsible for the actions of each person who uses their connection, and everybody who uses the connection is punished along with the transgressor. Moreover, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are subject to heavy fines if they refuse rights holders’ demand for the personal details of infringers. ISPs oppose this bill (2).

Society is dependent on internet to the extent that we can reasonably consider it a utility comparable to water, gas or electricity. We pay our bills, access services, and shop on it. We learn on it – I work in a higher education institution which, under current terms, could be disconnected from the internet, a devastating collective punishment. Universities oppose this bill (3).

My neighbours, two teachers, could be disconnected if one of their two school-age sons were to illicitly share files over the family internet connection. Disconnecting the many small businesses along Barkingside High Street which depend on internet access could be fatal. The Federation of Small Businesses opposes this bill (4).

2. Low standards of evidence and poor appeals process.

Currently the bill permits unspecified technical measures – most likely involving a period of disconnection from the Internet – to be levelled at individual accounts holders on the basis of three letters of accusation from a rights holder. Infringers take measures to mask their identity; frequently the account holder is not the infringer. Because the courts are bypassed, there is no recourse to legal aid in an appeal.

3. Poorly-defined measures and secondary law-making powers.

Currently, the bill entitles law-making on the fly independently of Parliament and the Lords. It is unreasonable to expect the public to accept this bill on the understanding that the Secretary of State will decide the law later by Statutory Instrument. We cannot leave UK law open in anticipation of future, hitherto uninvented forms of transgression; this is particularly absurd given that the bill singles out broadband users and ignores mobile phone connections and established forms of file sharing such as disc and USB drive. It is particularly strange that a sliding scale of fines is not under debate. A fine would limit the collateral damage, and the terms of payment could be negotiated according the the income of the account holder.

I’d like to make the following urgent requests prior to the Commons debate on this bill:

  • Read the Open Rights Group’s briefing for MPs (5)
  • Back EDM 1997
  • Campaign for proportionality in this bill, and for a fine rather than disconnection.
  • Call for legal safeguards for individual internet users, including a clear appeals process with access to legal aid, be written into the bill before it is passed.

I have left a message to arrange an appointment, and look forward to discussing this further with you.

Yours sincerely,

[My name and addresses]
(1) http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200910/ldbills/001/10001.i-ii.html
(2) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/7079982/TalkTalk-would-fight-Digital-Economy-Bill-in-court.html
(3) http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/~/media/Files/members/consultations/2010/DEB_response_Puttnam%20pdf.ashx
(4) http://www.fsb.org.uk/policy/trade_and_industry
(5) http://www.openrightsgroup.org/assets/files/pdfs/p2p-briefing-print.pdf

(N.b. this omits the privacy concerns – ISP’s being forced by OfCom to divulge personal details of account holders to rights holders; possible end to anonymous file sharing.)

“The ‘cockney expectation’ of eating with a spoon” and other stories

Over in Wanstead they have discovered pie and mash.

Via Weggis, a New Scientist piece on kettling – why crowds are best left to their own devices.

With Vestas in mind, a great account, by John Cunningham, of the conference between the NUM and environmentalists at Kingsnorth Climate camp last year with a view to making a go of things together – class, coal and climate change, which I came to via the RSA’s Arts and Ecology blog.

And cognisant both of the acute impact of 650 newly unemployed on a small island and the need to meet local energy needs (rather than the US market it has exclusively supplied until now) in sustainable ways – is it actually even the best option, environmentally speaking, to site a factory supplying British needs on the Isle of Wight? Surely you have to know that before you can decide.

George Monbiot and Ed Miliband (both of whom I like) lament (in something I can’t now find) that the silent majority who understand the importance of renewable energy had not been enlisted in support of wind turbines. Short and medium-term pessimism on planning law. More from Renewable Energy Focus.

The Bigger Picture is a festival of creative activities on interdependence designed in response to the economic, environmental, social and resource crises. It’s curated by the New Economics Foundation (nef), who (I’ve heard Andrew Simms) are really shining a light. The titles of their publications promise to propose specific actions to stave off a worsening of current crises.

Despite hopes of improvement with the Government currently working on new planning laws, there is pessimism in the short and medium term. In order to open new plants a turbine manufacturer needs to be confident that they could win around 1GW of orders each year for that plant, reckons the BWEA.

Goodbye to neo-liberal financial systems?

Gordon Brown, receiving a flea in his ear from John Humphries on the Today Programme today, intimated that by the time the FSA’s temporary ban on short selling was lifted in January (at the latest) there would be regulation in place to prevent us going bust in that particular way* again.

On Project Syndicate, Robert Skidelsky (peer, academic economist and biographer of Keynes) takes a long view, and predicts that big changes are on the way. He points out that crises have always triggered changes in the way we organise our economies:

“Each cycle of regulation and de-regulation is triggered by economic crisis. The last liberal cycle, associated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the economist John Maynard Keynes, was triggered by the Great Depression, though it took World War II’s massive government spending to get it properly going. During the three-decade-long Keynesian era, governments in the capitalist world managed and regulated their economies to maintain full employment and moderate business fluctuations.

The new conservative cycle was triggered by the inflation of the 1970’s, which seemed to be a product of Keynesian policies. The economic guru of that era, Milton Friedman, claimed that the deliberate pursuit of full employment was bound to fuel inflation. Governments should concentrate on keeping money “sound” and leave the economy to look after itself. The “new classical economics,” as it became known, taught that, in the absence of egregious government interference, economies would gravitate naturally to full employment, greater innovation, and higher growth rates.

The current crisis of the conservative cycle reflects the massive build-up of bad debt that became apparent with the sub-prime crisis, which started in June 2007 and has now spread to the whole credit market, sinking Lehman Brothers. “Think of an inverted pyramid,” writes investment banker Charles Morris. “The more claims are piled on top of real output, the more wobbly the pyramid becomes.”

When the pyramid starts crumbling, government – that is, taxpayers – must step in to refinance the banking system, revive mortgage markets, and prevent economic collapse. But once government intervenes on this scale, it usually stays for a long time.”

* I feel like I should, but I still don’t understand why short selling is a problem. As far as I can gather the problem isn’t short selling (which in itself can’t cause a dive in value because value is set by the price the buyer is willing to pay) but rather it’s the the incentive that short selling creates to start rumours calculated to send the value of a company’s stocks tumbling. It’s the rumours which constitute the feared manipulation of the markets rather than the short selling. And where are the share owners in all this? Why don’t they stipulate with the stock brokers that they don’t want their shares to be lent out for short positions?  Is it because they have borrowed to invest in the shares in the first place and are therefore tempted to exploit opportunities to profit from them any way they can? Laissez faire economics isn’t all its cracked up to be.