Declining well-being of Americans

Professor Peter Turchin explains his observation that the well-being of Americans has been declining over the last four decades — a process called immiseration:

Last year I had an interesting conversation with someone I’ll call the Washington Insider. She asked me why my structural-demographic model predicted rising instability in the USA, probably peaking with a major outbreak of political violence in the 2020s. I started giving the explanation based on the three main forces: popular immiseration, intra-elite competition, and state fragility. But I didn’t get far because she asked me, what immiseration? What are you talking about? We’ve never lived better than today. Global poverty is declining, child mortality is declining, violence is declining. We have access to the level of technology that is miraculous compared to what previous generations had. Just look at the massive data gathered together by Max Rosen, or read Steven Pinker’s books to be impressed with how good things are.

There are three biases that help sustain this rosy view. First, the focus on global issues. But the decrease of poverty in China (which is what drives declining global poverty, because Chinese population is so huge), or the drop in child mortality in Africa, is irrelevant to the working America. People everywhere compare themselves not to some distant places, but to the standard of living they experienced in their parents home. And the majority of American population sees that in many important ways they are worse off than their parents (as we will see below).

Second, the Washington Insider talks to other members of the 1 percent, and to some in the top 10 percent. The top-income segments of the American population have done fabulously in the last decades, thank you very much.

Third, many economic statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. […]

So what has been happening with the well-being of common, non-elite Americans? In my work I use three broad measures of well-being: economic, biological (health), and social.

Briefly:

-Economic: Wages of non-elite workers show “rapid, almost linear growth to the late 1970s, stagnation and decline (especially for unskilled labor) thereafter”; the “relative wage” (the nominal wage divided by GDP per capita) drops sharply after 1960; labor participation has been trending downward regardless of education level since at least the late 1970s.

-Biological: Average height of native-born Americans stopped growing after the 1980s (and has declined for some demographic groups); life expectancy growth has lagged behind Western Europe and for some groups, life expectancy has declined in absolute terms; suicide rates are climbing for all ethnic groups.

-Social: Average age of marriage and percentage of people unmarried are on the rise.

Remember when the original Star Wars came out? That was around the historic peak of American economic, social and biological well-being. Hard times are coming, and for an increasing number of people, have already arrived.

Training

Every age has its rituals. In the Age of Google, we have the Ritual of the reCAPTCHA, a compulsory visual test that requires a carbon-based organism to prove its sentience to a computer by selecting squares that seem to contain grainy images of a specified object. The organism must do this correctly in order to demonstrate to the computer’s satisfaction that it (the organism) possesses the mental faculties of invariant recognition, segmentation, and parsing, in which attributes humans tend to excel over computers. If the organism passes the test, it is permitted to continue with its intended task on the website.

That problem is that many human beings who are more or less sentient find the average reCAPTCHA to be hard and frustrating, owing to the intentionally crappy quality of the images, poor visibility of the objects, as well as certain definitional problems that the average internet user is ill-equipped to deal with. For example, should the user, tasked with identifying “street signs,” click on a square that contains part of a sign post? Then there are questions of process. Does the user click Verify immediately after clicking all the relevant squares, or wait for new images to materialize in the squares that have been clicked? None of this is clear, none of it is explained. The user twists in a fog of doubt and confusion, and frequently fails the test.

Google reCAPTCHA evil

Choose wisely (Source)

The reCAPTCHA is the reductio ad absurdum of modern life, a grudging surrender of countless man-hours of labor (over 100 million reCAPTCHAs are displayed every day) to feed the ravenous maw of an emerging artificial superintelligence. Because, of course, by completing these image recognition tasks, the human user is training Google’s vast machine learning datasets. TechRadar thanks you for your service in helping develop self-driving cars.

But while we are training Google’s neural networks, the machines are simultaneously training us — teaching us to be more compliant, more deferential to the machines, and more conversant in machine logic… in short, remaking humanity in their own image. The future is a slouched hominid clicking on a fuzzy image of a taco shop — forever.

The brief but glorious career of Fake Warren Buffett

Novelist Steve Hely points our attention to a fake Warren Buffett account on Twitter that somehow managed to rack up more than a quarter of a million followers while dispensing such insipid pieces of advice as “read and write more” and “you are not your job.” In a series of ridiculous tweets that captivated the entire internet, Fake Buffett guides us through the vicissitudes of life, offering his thoughts on “what’s cool” (saying thank you and holding doors open are cool), and serving up specially tailored “advice for the all the young people” [sic]. The account was suspended for being fake after just a few days of tweeting, but not before garnering approving retweets and likes from some of the biggest personalities in the media and entertainment world.

Many of these people apparently thought the advice was coming from the real Buffett, but putting aside the issue of their gullibility, it’s rather amazing how huge of a market there is for platitudes that would look lame even on a motivational poster. Fake Buffett may have been short-lived, but his legacy will endure as a window into the tragic mental landscape of the modern American.

Daily links: Economic stresses mount

Debbie Downer

We apologize for this depressing post

The rate of seniors filing for bankruptcy has tripled since 1991. The elderly have little financial cushion in the event of catastrophic health problems, and of course medical costs are rising. And more people are entering retirement age with debt.

More people are living in their cars as homelessness rises in America. “The problem is ‘exploding’ in cities with expensive housing markets, including Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco, according to Governing magazine.”

Outstanding education debt in the US now exceeds $1.5 trillion (roughly the GDP of Australia), after tripling over the last decade, and more than one million student loan borrowers go into default each year.

The average American works longer hours than a medieval peasant: “Juliet Shore, economist, told the site that during periods of high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants worked no more than 150 days a year.”

Daily links: Fentanyl and state failure

China is the main source of the insanely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl in the US, which killed more than 27,000 people in the 12 months through November 2017. “The biggest difficulty China faces in opioid control is that such drugs are in enormous demand in the US,” an official of China’s equivalent of the DEA is quoted as saying. The Opium Wars in reverse?

The trade deficit has sliced $457.2 billion off the US economy’s cumulative inflation-adjusted growth, or 14.33%, from the start of the recovery in mid-2009 through the first quarter of 2018, according to last week’s revised GDP figures. But we are told that trade deficits don’t matter.

Britain is probably not going to run out of food in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that the British government cannot guarantee food security for its people, and seemingly expects the food industry to take all the responsibility for stockpiling goods. Meanwhile, the food industry has absolutely no plans to do this.

A simulation models the release and spread of a moderately lethal and moderately contagious virus. It kills off 150 million people over the course of 20 months, including 15 to 20 million people in the US.

Over 100,000 Russians marched last month in the city of Yekaterinburg to mark the centennial of the slaughter of the Romanov imperial family by rabid Communists.

Duterte publicly destroys more than A$8 million worth of contraband luxury cars in the Philippines:

The Event

Academic and author Douglas Rushkoff discovers what’s on the minds of a group of billionaires, and it’s… alarming:

Last year, I got invited to a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to deliver some insight on the subject of “the future of technology.” […]

After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.

They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

Or some combination of the above, presumably. It gets even better:

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

The rest of the article comes across as an elaborate attempt to avoid thinking seriously about the implications of that meeting.

When the titans of the financial industry are quietly paying for advice on how to control the people guarding their bunkers after the apocalypse, we normals should perhaps be concerned. Fortunately, after more than a dozen paragraphs of tedious moralizing directed at — for some reason — tech billionaires and assorted futurists and transhumanists, the author comes through with some trenchant advice for the rest of us:

Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

Thaaaaanks man.

Odds of the Apocalypse: 37%

Only somewhat more likely than your house getting flooded

A hydrologist walks us through the cold mathematics of revolution and chaos:

While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math. […]

Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage. [I.e. 26%]

It’s noticeably bigger.

And here’s a factoid that should give you pause for thought:

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there have been 465 sovereign nations which no longer exist, and that doesn’t even count colonies, secessionist states, or annexed countries. Even if we presume that half of these nation-state transitions were peaceful, which is probably a vast over-estimation, that’s still an average of one violent state transition every 2.43 years.

Maybe the Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood celebrities and politicians who are secretly building apocalypse bunkers have rational reasons for doing so and are not completely nuts.

Amtrak fail

What is going on with this?

The troubling string of Amtrak crashes

An Amtrak train en route to Miami from New York collided with a freight train early Sunday morning in South Carolina, killing two individuals and adding another tragic entry to the list of recent Amtrak derailments and crashes, per the AP.

The list, per the AP: […]

Summary: 12 accidents since 2011 (including last weekend’s), killing 23 and injuring hundreds.

There was much criticism of China’s lax safety standards and official opacity after a high-speed train collision in the city of Wenzhou killed 40 people in 2011. The fact that the US has suffered more than half that number of casualties in low-speed train accidents since 2011 should occasion a certain amount of concern.