Saturday, November 6, 2010

Are we in decline, and what does biology say?

During discussion of the latest elections, David Brin -- who has written some the clearest, most uplifting and fun-to-read science fiction out there -- told a few of us about his upcoming novel on the theme of Decline of the West. Here is my take on it... including some new ideas... first my reply to him, and then an earlier email I alluded to in my reply... and a small little new thing at the end.

== 1. To him:

David’s mention of “decline of the West” (or the related question of decline of civilization in general) arouses
lots of diffuse anxiety and kneejerk reactions – but it is still a serious intellectual issue, connected to
the issue of extinction. The discussion has raised some interesting thoughts….

… To be coherent, I have to start from basics and build up… please forgive…

Keith has often talked about Evolutionary Psychology (EP) on this list. Some of that discussion also
went off to extremes… but EP grew out of sociobiology which, in my view, has a lot to tell us about
the larger situation we are in. E.O. Wilson’s classic book Sociobiology does miss a crucial point or two, but it’s not all that hard to revise the analysis to account for those points.

Before Wilson… a lot of the people trying to apply evolution to human society and human thought ended up sounding a bit like extreme macho nuts or even Nazis. The law of the jungle… kill or be killed… I kill you, you kill me…
like the mafia guy with a smoking gun who says “It’s just business, that’s what all life is..”

Wilson was the world’s leader in trying to really understand the evolutionary basis and nature of altruism. Nature is full of examples of organisms cooperating with other organisms, caring about other organisms, and so on. In many ways, the real core of his book was an effort to understand how and when that happens. And he noticed the obvious point
that human civilization is one important example of cooperation. He has something to say about civilization, about what makes it possible, and what could make it impossible in the future.

In a way, Wilson’s key point (which I’ll get to) is a restatement of the old Frederick Jackson Turner theory about The Frontier, which was one of the two major themes driving John Kennedy’s progressive ethos (and the mission to the moon). (The other being Teilhard de Chardin.) Back in school, I read an article “Frederick Jackson Turner and the Five Hundred Year Frontier.” In a way, the theme there was that it’s easy enough for people to cooperate when everyone is moving forwards. Having a new frontier creates a kind of cooperative game, which engenders many forms of cooperation, such as greater honesty, free speech, pioneering behavior, new ideas, democratic behavior, trust and so on. Lack of it tends to create a kind of “zerosum game” where what’s good for you is bad for me, so that all bad things end up being pushed by someone. Many of us in the 1960’s became strong supporters of the space program because that is the only real physical new frontier right there in front of us, the only one which gets beyond the finite carrying capacity of this planet.

Wilson basically found a cleaner expression of the underlying idea in mathematics. He distinguished between “k” and “r” environments. I don’t remember all the details… but I do remember some examples. In forests, there are events like forest fires and floods which simply take out x% of the plants every year. That clears new ground which works just like a new frontier. In that stable stochastic environment, we end up with a mix of pioneering species, like pine trees, and conservative competitive species which specialize more in defending their turf (like oaks?). The frontier encourages pioneers…

This raises the question: what are the chances for progress/pioneering, in the long term, on a finite earth, as we reach the limits of sustainable population (or, worse, after the dieback caused by overshoot)?

And: what can we learn from older human civilizations which reached the population limits allowed by the technology they had at the time, and then moved into a zerosum psychology, followed by the kind of events which Spengler and Toynbee described?

There is plenty of zerosum psychology to be found already on earth. Years ago, I naturally started thinking about the oldest continuous civilization on earth, that of India, to get some idea of where the rest of us might be heading.
It brings up the relevance of an earlier student of evolution, George Gaylord Simpson, who had really important insights into the nature of the human species and of earlier, similar “quantum breakthroughs” in evolution. When there is a major breakthrough in evolution – the invention by nature of a new kind of organizing principle for organisms, such as the human brain – it generally evolves in two stages. In the first stage, the breakthrough itself evolves fairly rapidly in some previously innocuous species; towards the end of this stage, when the new principle is powerful enough to confer a really strong advantage across a wide swath of ecological niches, that species basically
“takes over the whole world,” a wide variety of niches all over the earth. And then, in the second stage, that species
itself fractures and speciates and things start to look more like what they did before the breakthrough. The caste system in India shows many of the signs of such a speciation effect where, for example, “lower caste” people would not want to marry “higher caste” people, because issues like their sense of who they are are more powerful than the older, more homogeneous notions of “trying to do better.” And, before the British arrived, there was a kind of perpetual simmering warfare, and a death rate as high as the birth rate.

Here is what hit me immediately, many many years ago. What happens if you change a stable state of nonzerosum games (populated by a lot of human oak trees) by adding nuclear weapons as part of the game?
In a situation where what’s bad for one person is automatically good for someone else? What if, unlike oak trees, they have the means to travel and deliver those weapons elsewhere? In simple models, it is very easy to
work out the long-term equilibrium. Nobody lives.

Anyway… that’s an important but old story.

Since exponential growth in population would grossly violate any laws of physics I now see any evidence for…
the questions remain important: how could it be possible to maintain survival, on the one hand,
and some kind of progressive culture, on the other, in long-term equilibrium, with a finite population limit?

At times, I think I have heard Keith say: “That’s easy. For humans, it’s impossible, so let’s give up on humans. Let’s go to robots.” But even robots would be subject to evolution over time. They do allow other scenarios, but just as challenging. Worth further thought.

As we discuss some of the negative forces in the US economy, as in my previous email…
the ratio between people whose career plan is to be “bandits” versus people who plan to be “blacksmiths”…
that may be a way to get deeper and more real into the k/r kind of issue. Are we creating a society which breeds more bandits than blacksmiths? Is it avoidable? It certainly has a relation to decline not only of the west but of civilization in general.

In fact, it reminds me of a guy I spoke to from Beijing recently, who was complaining about the exciting new university programs in his area which were incredibly visionary and growing into a major force for fundamental intellectual progress… suddenly having problems because of people moving south to make money, doing useful things, but not sustaining fundamental advances… (For all the rhetoric, China is not nearly as old as India, but that’s a complex story for another time.)

This subject deserves a lot more thought and depth, but tis email is too long now…

Must move on to other things…

Best of luck to us all,



==2. The earlier email:


So this is the type of thing I was talking about the other day. OK, Solyndra’s production costs were unusually high, but I tend to believe the part about manufacturers in China offering hard-to-beat prices. If you were a graduate student in physics or engineering who’d come here from China to learn advanced design skills, your primary interest is in producing breakthrough renewable energy technologies and now you have to decide whether to go back, what would you do?

Hi, Mike!

There are many, many factors contributing to the overwhelming problem we have in this sector.
I wouldn't claim to be able to rank-order them in importance.

I am reminded at times of some thinking I did about economic history, back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard.
One of the obvious questions was -- why did economic growth go through such a phase shift circa 1600-1700?
(And the question obvious now: will we revert back?) Of course, competitive free markets had something to do with it...
and there has been a neat progression from Hanseatic League to Holland to England to US to China....
but Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism says important things too. If I ever get to
retire, I might read his entire main book on society, two volumes sitting on my priority bookshelf.

To capture more analytically the effect of markets... I once thought of designing a kind of educational game.
Under certain rules, the economic incentives favor being a bandit over being a blacksmith. This not only
channels a lot of the best talents into banditry and knighthood (not always distinguishable), but adds
local taxes and tolls, localizes markets, creates low perceived elasticity of demand to individual producers,
and reduces both PRESENT output AND future output (rate of growth). When I ask bright youth about their plans...
and look at a lot of trends in the US... I see a certain amount of backsliding on both of the variables which got
us out of the middle ages. And the growing dependence on land rent (controlling land which holds oil) has
similar effects. A triple whammy? And of course, there are other factors...

It is quite understandable why some Chinese-speaking people have decided to just go back to China, when they get better
offers there than here. There are many, many reasons why we are not so competitive any more. We waste a lot
of money on things which do not help us become more competitive -- the old stakeholder corporate welfare syndromes.
But at the same time... I recently got a call from an inventor who was about to work for the Chinese, who put his
foot down and shifted to the Germans when the new "jobs jobs jobs in China" program started to bite, and they wanted
people to start moving to China. Not everyone wants to do that. I suspect that many of the people who have recently moved would have preferred to stay here because of our past history of having more freedom -- but are pessimistic about the future prospects in this country.

All for now.

Best of luck,

3. A related funny story from another context
For entertainment... back to the engineering education issue... I can't help remembering how I actually met Bimal, years ago.
I was invited to give a plenary talk on intelligent systems at the big IES annual conference, many years ago. Bimal organized a magnificent special
session on power electronics and motor drives meeting the real world, with speakers from the people really designing ythings and making things work at the cutting edge in many major companies, from dishwashers to Honeywell, etc. The REAL challenges in energy conservation were discussed in real detail, the real challenges and opportunities. Towards the end, Bimal got up in front of the hundreds of folks in the room and asked
something like: "Many of us wonder...with all the exciting real-world opportunities to reduce energy use anwiimprove product quality,
with all the rhetoric and wasted money we see in Washington, why such a disconnect? Why is policy screiwng up so badly, and so many real opportunities wasted, despite the evident interest in energy conservation? Why the disconnect in communications? Well, I think I know one reason. Out of all the hundreds of folks in this room, in the lead conference at the cutting edge of this field, how many are US-born US citizens? If there is any one of you, could you please raise your hand?" I was the only one.

In the hallway, soon after, an Afro-American guy I never met before walked up to me, shook my hand with real energy, and said something like:
"hey, glad to meet you brother! It's always a great pleasure to meet another domestic minority here at these conferences..."

At the workshop this past Monday and Tuesday, they talked about how motor drives left the US long ago. Howcan we
make rational policy if none of us know anything? We can try to learn, especially from the rest of the world...
and learning from the rest of the world has been one of the keys to China's recent successes..


At my oral examination at Harvard, before beginning my thesis work, I
had to defend two possible thesis topics. The two I chose were --

1. The (evolutionary) psychology of human motivation, and how it helps
explain the rise and fall of human civilizations; and

2. The mathematics of human intelligence -- how to build it and how to understand it.

In the end, I chose the second, and folks with serious knowledge about neural networks know at least part of how that worked out. (See the "Mind" part of, and the many papers posted there.) But the faculty were much more excited about the first part, and started debating between themselves. I hardly got a word in after the first few sentences. I remember the world famous political scientist who said this was absurd, that evolution takes millions of years. And the world famous biologist, a collaborator of E.O. Wilson, who updated him on his biology...

It really is an important topic. But there are so many important untapped areas out there... so many things crucial to our survival and our future.. who don't more people push all the way to the bigger frontiers these days? Well, at least we have Lonnie Johnson for batteries, and Lennart Johansson for Stirling engines... too bad we can't even do justice to such basic and obvious things... let alone the bigger but trickier things..

Best of luck to us all

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Deficit and Jobs – It Could Get Worse

(Thoughts the morning after the election.)

In the elections yesterday, the voters sent a strong signal that they simply will not put up with the combination of 10 percent unemployment and huge budget deficits that we are seeing now. They want that one solved first, before we do anything else. That’s understandable. But – painful as it is, we need to first face up to reality. We need to understand that tinigs could easily become worse. If we get too angry and refuse to believe that we are stuck in a very difficult situation, and look for rescue from voodoo economics,
we could easily make things much worse.

That’s basically what actually happened to create the Great Depression. The initial recession was mild enough that even in 1931 the New Republic was asking “will there be a recession?” In order to “save the situation,” and get back to having more jobs, Congress passed the Smoot-Harley (sp?) tariffs, which set off a world competitive spiral, which resulted in unemployment much, much worse than what we have today. We could easily make the same kind of mistake all over again. In a way, some of China’s recent statements that they will not accept less than full employment in China, and will take international actions to assure that, could cause the same kind of thing. But even more serious, a lot of the perpetual motion ideas floating around in the US could do the same.

To address the issue in a serious way, we do need to begin by giving up gross illusions. One of the big, scary challenges is that a lot of key Republicans have committed themselves to the belief that we could make huge reductions in the deficit and in unemployment, both, immediately, by simply making deeper tax custs specifically for those who get more than $250,000 per year. It’s understandable why some folks find this to be a very convenient lie, but if they don’t pull off their dogs, and prevent the risk of depression, they won’t benefit in the end any more than the rest of us do. Careful reviews by professional financial economists, without any left-wing bias at all, like the Financial Times and the Economist, have spelled out in great detail why we can be certain that life is not so simple.

Back around January 2009, the story was pretty clear. The US Chamber of Commerce strongly supported the stimulus bill (and urged Senator Specter, for example, to vote for it), because they saw the numbers about the same way that the Financial Times and the Economist did. They saw a real prospect of 15% unemployment if we did nothing. They saw that the huge stimulus bill then under discussion would only be enough to cut the problem in half, to about 10%, when we really wanted to get back to 5%. There was quite a bit of discussion of what would be needed for “phase two,” but people wanted to get phase one finished first, to avoid the worst and postpone controversy.

So here we are, still stuck at around 10%, with deficits so high that many are very worried already. It’s a classic case of damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t. Some hope that monetary policy could improve things, even with no net increase in federal budget deficit, but reports from the front lines say very clearly that we are caught in a classic “liquidity trap.” We have basically reached the limits of what lending people money can do, to increase ecnomic demand in the US. And the world in general is also in a bind. (I could say a lot more about the EU, Germany and China, but let’s stay on the main theme for now.)
To reduce raise demand and reduce unemployment, there are three classic tools – government spending,
tax breaks for the rich, and tax breaks for the middle class. To minimize deficit cost per job created, it’s VERY clear from economic research that reliable long-term tax breaks for the middle class do the best job … but even they impose a high deficit cost. We don’t have a really clear and rigorous way to decide what the optimal balance is right now between deficits and jobs but we can be sure, with these conventional tools, that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And the public won’t put up with bigger deficits, except perhaps with bigger middle class tax breaks.

Can we do better?


About a month ago, I was thinking – the politics of doing better are probably just too hard. With voodoo thinking permeating the relations between both parties, and big donors and money controllers limiting what the sane folks can get away with, we can forget getting out of the hole we are in now. (After all, Japan had its own lost decade.) But we could PERHAPS get bipartisan action to prevent another kind of “second dip” that could make things a whole lot worse. Some people may feel that $1 trillion/year is small change, with no ability to change the grand world of jobs and deficits,… but I see the numbers differently. We do have a clear opportunity to prevent a return of world oil prices to $150/barrel or higher, and encourage some new investments and jobs while we are at it. (See This has traditionally been an area of bipartisan collaboration, and we could afford to say some nice things about George Bush as part of the deal. Whatever it takes. Avoiding a real depression is too important to neglect.

But in fact, we do not REALLY have to stay in the hole. The entire world is in this bind right now. It’s an example of what game theorists call a “Nash equilibrium.” On the one hand, there are ways we could get a lot more jobs per dollar of deficit right now than any of the three traditional fiscal tools offer. (Japan’s”Three Pillars of Ecofriendly Economy” program gives some clues.) On the other hand, since the whole world is in the same bind (even if half of it is in denial and half the nations think they are God’s chosen people one way or another), international coopertaion does in principle allow for a Pareto optimum or a Pareto improvement which gets us out of the risk/jobs dilemma.

These three approaches are pretty much the honest choices, not only for the US, but for the world as a whole. And, for all the bullshit and all the lip service, I don’t see one iota of real progress here in the US or in Europe yet. (The “Pickens Plan” bill would only make it all worse.)