Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Much Is Enough

Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Epicurus

I finished reading "How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life", by Robert and Edward Skidelsky (British, an economist and a philosopher), a couple of weeks ago. Their article "In Praise Of Leisure", which I cannot recommend highly enough, contains about 70% of the preface. I discussed and quoted that in my 3rd Economy of Plenty post.

The book is a quick read, 218 pages, and written in very common-sensical prose. I almost thought about rereading it before writing this post, but decided to proceed on the single reading. I will summarize the book's 7 chapters a chapter at a time.

Chapter 1, "Keynes's Mistake". This reviews Keynes article from the 1930s, which posited that once productivity had increased by a factor of 8 or so, how we would be living in a utopia for all. What happened instead? Almost all of the increased income from the increased productivity ended up in the pockets of the 1%. With many fine charts, facts, and figures. Keynes's error: to assume that material wants are naturally finite.

Chapter 2, "The Faustian Bargain". Reviews ideas of utopias. Hmm, I didn't know that the devil as "old Nick" was a reference to Nicholai Machiavelli. The history of how money-making as a goal got out of control. Never heard of Mandeville, who apparently was somewhat of a predecessor to Hegel and Marx. Marx thought capitalism had to end eventually because it was unjust -- but he never quite figured out how. "Greed is good" is a very new concept, throughout prior history, greed was bad and considered immoral. The Faustian pact: "the devils of avarice and usury were given free rein, on the understanding that, having lifted humanity out of poverty, they would quit the scene for good". Oops.

Chapter 3, "The Uses of Wealth". The good life, according to Aristotle, Pericles, Epicurus. "Use values" vs "exchange values". Acquiring money is a means to what ends, according to Western, Indian, and Chinese tradition? One thing I found out in this chapter is that I am not a liberal. "Liberal thinkers have insisted on public neutrality between rival concepts of the good." -- I am not a relativist, I believe there are absolutes. I judge a culture number one by how it treats its women, children and minorities. Apparently liberalism changed from emphasizing tolerance to emphasizing neutrality in the 1960's.

Chapter 4, "The Mirage of Happiness". The definition of happiness through history, and the economics of happiness. More fun charts. Is happiness aggregrative, i.e., a function of your entire life? Is it uni-dimensional or multi-dimensional? The conclusion is, happiness =/= The Good Life.

Chapter 5, "Limits to Growth: Natural or Moral?". They argue that global warming does not necessarily mean that we need to reduce growth, a pretty non-PC position. They compare deep environmentalists, "who value nature as an end in itself", and shallow environmentalists, "who value nature as an instrument of human purpose". Gaia is discussed. And they introduce a concept I really like: "harmony with nature", which is one of the components of The Good Life. Their best example of harmony with nature: gardening.
If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. -- Cicero
The pear tree near the house in our back yard is definitely coming down, I will have a vegetable garden next spring!

Chapter 6, "Elements of the Good Life". So we finally get our shopping list, and it is a good one. First tho, the attributes of what makes something a Basic Good are discussed. These are concluded to be:
  • it must be universal:  world-wide and world-view independent.
  • it must be final:  it is not a means to an end. It must be the end.
  • it must be sui generis (of its own kind/genus):  atomic and not part of some other good.
  • it must be indespensible:  "anyone who lacks it may be deemed to have suffered a serious loss or harm."
So here are their 7 Basic Goods, the elements of The Good Life:
  1. Health. "The full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal nature." Sounds like universal health care would help with making this available to all.
  2. Security. "An individual's justified expectation that is his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals." Of course, when I did computer security, I would always say, there is no such thing -- we should all become Buddhists. But I understand the principal here and agree with it as a Good.
  3. Respect. What Mitt Romney did not have for the 47%. Some relative level of equality, in all forms, is probably a prerequisite for respect. "Where the rich behave with lawless arrogance, the poor with impotent resentment and politicians with obeisance to money, inequality has exceeded the mark."
  4. Personality. "The ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one's taste, temperament and conception of the good." It would hard to conceive of any kind of Good Life that did not have rampant individuality, the more the better. It also implies the concept of private property.
  5. Harmony with Nature. As discussed above. I want my garden.
  6. Friendship. They include family in this Good. Plus they distinguish it from community, which does not imply a reciprocal relationship between the participants.
  7. Leisure. "That which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else". What floats your boat. What you love. What would do if money were no object? (This Allen Watts video has been floating around the web lately). Throughout history this has included participation in things like sports, art, crafts, music, and citizenship. Note we are talking participation rather than spectatorship.
So how do we achieve these? "The state's first duty is to create the material conditions of a good life for all." We realize that growth for is own sake is not part of The Good Life.

Chapter 7, "Exits from the Rat Race". "Darwinian capitalism", with its buddy "social Darwinism", must be reigned in. We must "reverse the onslaught of insatiability". Social Catholicism is examined. Hmmm, with the fall of the USSR in the 1980's, capitalism was declared the winner in the race of world ideologies -- which undoubtedly accelerated the growth of the out-of-control, rape/pillage/loot capitalism that we now have.

They also identify the fact that it is cheaper for employers to have fewer employees working more hours than more employees working fewer hours because that minimizes their overhead for benefits. This could be fixed by legislation to limit the work week. "The Dutch work fewer hours than the British yet enjoy a higher average income".

They propose (gasp, socialism alert), a basic income for all citizens. Lots of good arguments why this won't lead to generations of slackers worse than what we see amongst trust fund children.

In even more heresy against the 'Murrican Way, they discuss ways to "reduce the pressure to consume":
  • sumptuary laws, which, dating back to ancient Greece, forbade various forms of conspicuous consumption. LOL, is that foreign to modern thinking or what? Well, excessive conspicuous consumption was part of what led to the French Revolution. Man, if Romney had won the election, I was really afraid we were totally going that way. At least we have a little breathing room now to try to fix some of this.
  • consumption (or expenditure) taxes. We are used to sales tax, but these would be progressive, based on annual consumption or (highly priced) single items. So you pay a higher tax rate for consumption over $100K a year and/or for your Rolex. Hell, we all grew up playing Monopoly, which has a Luxury Tax square. Of course that dates back to the 1930's, when tax rates were actually much more equitable than they are now.
  • reduce advertising!!! Gawd, would we all love that!!! They point out that whereas some ads provide useful information about necessities, far more have as their purpose creating a desire for something that is not a necessity.
    My add-on thought was, how about a tax on every advertising transaction? Just like microtaxes on stock market transactions would probably quickly reign in the zero-value-add programatic trading on Wall Street, you wonder what a tax on all marketing transactions would do to all the Internet businesses for whom ads are their main source of revenue. It might make some of them have to come to grips with what their real value-add is.
I've missed a lot here, but hopefully you get a feel for it. I really do highly recommend this book, it is a quick, easy and very informative read. I finished it 3 days after I started, reading at most a few hours a day. I'm getting more interested in economics, it had a lot of good background information on economic history, as well as philosophical history.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Books

So last week finished "The Fractal Prince", by Hannu Rajaniemi. This is the 2nd book of a trilogy, following "The Quantum Thief", which I have already proclaimed to be the definitive sci-fi novel of the 2010's. There are so many neologisms in this book, it was really helpful for me to go to the handy glossary of terms for the first novel in wikipedia for a quick review.

That said, what a cool read. An "Arabian Nights" tribute, stories within stories within stories. At one point a story that includes one of its figures retelling the same story causes a person infected by the story to go into an infinite recursive loop, presenting to the outside world as catatonic. A great read. Looking foward to a year or so after the 3rd book comes out, reading the three of them end to end.

Just yesterday, I finished "2312", by Kim Stanley Robinson. The ultra-wealthy have mostly moved to Mars. Earth is mostly a still a mess 2 centuries after the oceans rise 11 meters. The rest of the inhabited solar system: Mercury, asteroids, Jovian and Saturnian moons; are mostly a coop based on the Mondragon Accord. They wind up being a post-scarcity, semi-anarchic utopia reminiscent of Iain M. Banks "Culture". A lot of implicit and explicit commentary on current politics, particularly climate change denialism. An excellent read.

Note, this was the 1st book I read using the Kobo reader. I linked to these books on the Kobo website. This is what Carmichael's, Louisville's oldest independent bookstore, is using to sell ebooks. The reader is a little buggy but not too bad. Better than the IndieRead reader.