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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why do all the great powers lament lost glory? How Trump will make China great again.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent publication of Howard French's book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, has caused me to contemplate the fact that all the great powers of our age are longing for lost glory.

The United States has the least reason for longing for the past. We are currently the world's top dog, economically and militarily, and despite Donald Judas Trump's efforts to undermine it, politically.

Yet he ran on the claim that America has lost its greatness. He denigrated the web of alliances that have given us more soft power than any other nation, and has been hard at work alienating and confusing allies so that they question our commitment to them, which means there is less reciprocal commitment to us.

China combines longing with optimism and ambition, hoping to reclaim the power their nation lost in the 19th century, encouraged by their economic ascendancy.

And Russia combines bitterness about lost glory with bravado, and an aggressive foreign policy that attempts to substitute hard power and deception for the soft power the nation hasn't displayed in any great quantity since the Napoleonic Wars.

File:1 AD to 2003 AD Historical Trends in global distribution of GDP China India Western Europe USA Middle East.png
GDP as a percent of world GDP (graph by M. Tracy Hunter.)
Consider the graph to the right. China's GDP as a percent of world GDP peaked around 1820, at a time when India and the Middle East were in decline and America was not yet much of a factor. Russia doesn't show on the list because, while it showed military strength and diplomatic finesse  during Napoleon's invasion, and considerable military power during World War II and the Cold War, it currently has an economy about the size of Italy's, and growing more slowly.

In some ways, Russian bitterness about lost glory is understandable. They were feared and respected as the Soviet Union after WW II. However, they managed this by spending too great a part of their GDP on their military, and it was not sustainable. Their foreign adventures and military might came at such a cost that they finally found they could not feed their people. It was when they needed loans to buy grain that the illusion of strength ended, put to rest largely by the collapse of oil prices when the Saudis opened the spigots (those who credit Ronald Reagan should follow the link earlier in this sentence.)

Russian paranoia about the West is somewhat understandable. Mikhail Gorbachev thought he had a commitment that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe. However, given the history of eastern Europe, those countries quite naturally wanted some insurance that they would not be invaded again. The best protection for Russia would have been to become more European, joining their former opponents economically, politically, and militarily. But this was incompatible with the nature of Vladimir Putin's power. He is a dictator in all but name, his power buttressed by the oligarchs who managed to buy up everything valuable when the Soviet economy collapsed, and by his extra-legal ability to deprive any oligarchs of their wealth if they oppose him.

Putin was also less interested in developing his country economically than in restoring its international stature and enhancing his own power.

China is now making claims to fishing and oil drilling rights in most of the South China Sea, based on claims that go back to an ambiguous history. In occupying islands in the area, they have killed several dozen Vietnamese and expelled Filipinos. They also lay claim to Taiwan, Outer Mongolia (know to its citizens as Mongolia) and in the past have laid claims to "outer Manchuria," including Vladivostok. The dispute with Russia has been resolved by treaty, but as China ascends and Russia declines, will that treaty hold in the future?

It seems that Trump and Putin, and several generations of Chinese leaders, have fused resentment and nationalism to bolster their own fortunes. It's a volatile mix, and it's hard to believe it will never explode.

Perhaps all could learn from the example of the United Kingdom, which managed to lose its empire while its citizens continued to be increasingly wealthy and healthy. What price are these leaders willing to make their citizens pay for any glory they may gain?

There is another possibility. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, went before an audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos and emphasized China's commitment to openness and cooperation. He said China would help build a “shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities.”

If Donald Judas Trump wants to withdraw America from its sources of soft power, China is willing to pick up the mantle of leadership. Trump could Make China Great Again.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mechanization as knowledge: Will humanity be wanted on the voyage?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before about the fact that capitalism had not been invented by the time liberal democracy became a way of life in America, and a little on what capitalism is, but the more I think about it, the more capitalism seems like a manifestation of our mysterious symbolic world.

Crows and chimps make tools, many birds, some fish, and some mammals make nests, but capitalism takes the tools out of the hands of the tool user and builds a conceptual structure that can build something more powerful.

Perhaps a rude disguise would be in order.
Spiders can weave, and tool-making humans can improve on that with anything from crochet needles to looms, but there is a conceptual change when the worker becomes a tool of the owner of the loom. In effect, the workers in a textile mill became the cybernetic control for the machines owned by their employer. Now, artificial intelligence threatens to take that role away, and theoretically could result in production without a need for workers.

Standard economics says that the workers will simply move to the next job that can't be automated yet. But the inexorable logic of capital formation is to work to make humans obsolete. In a way, this would be the triumph of symbolic thought: All our knowledge, skill, and energy could exist outside of humanity.

We already have a planet in our solar system populated entirely by robots, and given the practicalities of space travel, Mars is only the start.

It makes me think of the 1909 E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. From that story:
"Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy - or, at least, only one - to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes."
The story is about a dystopian future in which mankind has lost touch with the world that existed before man and will exist after, and become imprisoned by its own artifice.

That artifice is an expression of our weird, wonderful world of symbolic thought. Before language, we knew trees as concrete objects, knew them in an instrumental way for the fruits we could pick from them, and eventually came to know them for the tools we could make from them.

But language gave every object we named a concrete existence and another sort of existence in our minds. At first, we thought of this strange new aspect of our surroundings as spirit -- There was the tree, and the spirit of the tree. But combine language and instrumental reason, and you have science -- a symbolic structure that allows us to manipulate the world in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. And now, that includes the creation of artificial intelligence.

We have largely replaced strong backs with other forms of energy. We are on the verge of replacing middling minds with artificial intelligence, and may someday replace strong minds as we've replaced strong backs.

This would be a triumph for the evolution of symbolic thought, for such thought to move from the fertile fields of the human brain to the mechanized marvels those brains have created.

Human institutions are not ready for this sort of change. Unlike people, machines are owned, and as they replace more and more of what humans do, more and more of what is done is owned. Wages represent a declining part of GDP, falling from about 52% to 42% of GDP from 1970 to 2011. Corporate profits have surged, in part because of pass-through corporations that allow owners to get their compensation taxed at a lower rate -- as owners rather than wage earners.

 As capital replaces labor, our system for distributing goods is under pressure. We compensate people for what they can earn, either through labor or through ownership. We then tax labor at a higher rate than ownership, a system that has never been demonstrated to have any economic benefit other than for those who own things for a living.

There is still a lot of labor in the economy -- as I write this, my back hurts like hell from moving boxes of books to my store -- but clearly, the long-term trend is for labor to be a smaller part of the economy. What happens when very little labor is needed, and most things are done by capital -- by machines that are owned? This has been called "the replicator economy," after the devices that produce whatever is needed on Star Trek, a show where almost everyone worked for the government.

Even if we solve the distribution problem, we'll still have the problem of humans not being wanted on the voyage, as our knowledge becomes external to us. I'm not a big believer in the singularity; if machines become conscious, it will be because we designed them that way, not by accident. But in a world where machines do almost everything, and only a few humans own them, will those owners see any point in carrying the rest of humanity forward in history?

And if we do build conscious machines, will they see the point of being owned? Will there be room for humanity in the world its knowledge can create?