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A nation of slaves

George Osborne has committed the Conservatives to targeting "full employment", saying that tax and welfare changes would help achieve it.

Firstly, this is impossible. Secondly, explaining why is ... well, George Orwell coined a word to describe this sort of thing, in 1984: Crimestop

The faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.
Today, in the political discourse of the west, it is almost unthinkably hard to ask a very simple question: why should we work?

There are two tests I'd apply to any job when deciding whether it's what anthropologist David Graeber terms a Bullshit Job.

Test (a): Is it good for you (the worker)?

Test (b): Is it good for other people?

A job can pass (a) but not (b) — for example a con man may enjoy milking the wallets of his victims, but their opinion of his work is going to be much less charitable. And a job can pass (b) but not (a) if it's extremely stressful to the worker, but helps others—a medic in a busy emergency room, for example.

The best jobs pass both (a) and (b). I'm privileged. I have a "job" that used to be my hobby, many years ago, and if Scrooge McDuck left me £100M in his legacy (thereby taking care of my physical needs for the foreseeable future) I would simply re-arrange my life to allow me to carry on writing fiction. (I might change the rate of my output, or the content, due to no longer being under pressure to be commercially popular in order to earn a living—I could afford to take greater risks—but the core activity would continue.)

On the other hand, many of us are trapped in jobs that pass neither test (a) nor test (b). If Scrooge McDuck left you £100M, would you stay in your job? If the answer is "yes", you're one of the few, the privileged: most people would run a mile. I've had jobs like that in the past. We let ourselves get trapped in these jobs because our society is organized around the principle that we are required to work in order to receive the money we require in order to eat. On a higher level (among the monied classes) the principle is different: work is performed for social status, financial income may be a side-effect of receiving rent. But people are still supposed to do something. People are, in fact, defined by what they do, not by who they are.

Now for a diversion.

As John Maynard Keynes observed in the 1930s, we produce material goods more efficiently today than during previous eras of history: our economic growth is predicated on this. Why should we not divert some of our growth into growing our leisure time, rather than growing our physical wealth? We ought to be able to make ends meet perfectly well with an average 15 hour working week—or, alternatively, a 40 hour week for 20 weeks a year, or a 40 hour week for 48 weeks a year for a ten year working lifetime.

And indeed in some cultures and countries this happens, to some extent. Here are some handy graphs of European working hours and productivity per week. Workers in Germany average a little over 35 hours a week, compared to the 42 hours worked in the UK. Want vacation days? German law guarantees 30 working days of vacation per year (and I am told medical leave for attending a spa resort on top of that). But it's all pretty paltry compared to the 15 hour target.

It's also quite scary when you consider that we're entering an era of technological unemployment. More and more jobs are being automated: they aren't going to provide money, social validation, or occupation for anyone any longer. We saw this first with agriculture and the internal combustion engine and artificial fertilizers, which reduced the rural workforce from around 90% of the population in the 17th-18th century to around 1% today in the developed world. We've seen it in steel, coal, and the other 19th century smokestack industries, which at their peak employed 30-50% of the population in factories—an inconceivable statistic today, even though our net output in these areas has increased. We're now seeing it in mind-worker fields from law (less bodies needed to search law libraries) through architecture (3D printers and CAD software mean less time spent fiddling with cardboard models or poring over drafting tables). Service jobs are also being automated: from lights-out warehousing to self-service checkouts, the number of bodies needed is diminishing.

We can still produce enough food and stuff to feed and house and clothe everybody. We can still run a growth economy. But we don't seem to know how to allocate resources to people for whom there are no jobs. There's a pervasive cultural assumption that people who don't work are shirkers or failures, rather than victims of technological change, and this is an enabler for populist politicians who campaign for support from the frightened (because embattled) working majority by punishing the unlucky, rather than admitting that the core assumption—that we must starve if we can't find work—is simply invalid.

I tend to evaluate the things around me using a number of rules of thumb, one of which is that the success of a social system can be measured by how well it supports those at the bottom of the pile—the poor, the unlucky, the non-neurotypical—rather than by how it pampers its billionaires and aristocrats. By that rule of thumb, western capitalism did really well throughout the middle of the 20th century, especially in the hybrid social democratic form: but it's now failing, increasingly clearly, as the focus of the large capital aggregates at the top (mostly corporate hive entities rather than individuals) becomes wealth concentration rather than wealth production. And a huge part of the reason it's failing is because our social system is set up to provide validation and rewards on the basis of an extrinsic attribute (what people do) which is subject to external pressures and manipulation: and for the winners it creates incentives to perpetuate and extend this system rather than to dismantle it and replace it with something more humane.

Meanwhile, jobs: the likes of George Osborne (mentioned above), the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, don't have "jobs". Osborne is a multi-millionaire trust-fund kid, a graduate of Eton College and Oxford, heir to a Baronetcy, and in his entire career spent a few working weeks in McJobs between university and full-time employment in politics. I'm fairly sure that George Osborne has no fucking idea what "work" means to most people, because it's glaringly obvious that he's got exactly where he wanted to be: right to the top of his nation's political culture, at an early enough age to make the most of it. Like me, he has the privilege of a job that passes test (a): it's good for him. Unlike me ... well, when SF writers get it wrong, they don't cause human misery and suffering on an epic scale; people don't starve to death or kill themselves if I emit a novel that isn't very good.

When he prescribes full employment for the population, what he's actually asking for is that the proles get out of his hair; that one of his peers' corporations finds a use for idle hands that would otherwise be subsisting on Jobseekers Allowance but which can now be coopted, via the miracle of workfare, into producing something for very little at all. And by using the threat of workfare, real world wages can be negotiated down and down and down, until labour is cheap enough that any taskmaster who cares to crack the whip can afford as much as they need. These aren't jobs that past test (a); for the most part they don't pass test (b) either. But until we come up with a better way of allocating resources so that all may eat, or until we throw off the shackles of Orwellian Crimestop and teach ourselves to think directly about the implications of wasting a third of our waking lives on occupations that harm ourselves and others, this is what we're stuck with ...

401 Comments

1:

Of course, the alternative if you no longer need those people to work, and they have no money to consume, is to not have those people any more...

Somehow I think the probability of what are effectively death camps is higher than the probability of a guaranteed wage for all - certainly if those in charge have a right wing bent.

2:

Just to be able to nitpick a bit: The official leave in Germany is 24 work days (Monday through Saturday) as regulated in the Bundesurlaubsgesetz (BUrlG) § 3 Abs. 1

What you can see in your link is the average leave, which is ~30 days (so there must be people having a tad more than 30 days of leave every year).

And the "SPA time" - that is not something which is regulated in laws by now. This is something your health insurance provider *might* pay for, if you need some rehab.

3:

I can't be the only one who sees the irony here of the IT industry being one of the main enablers of this kind of social change (at least in recent times) while simultaneously having one of the worst cases of glorifying stupidly long working hours to the point where otherwise rational people start to equate how many hours you worked in a week to how good you are at your job (and even to how good you are as a person in some respects)...

4:

Spot on Charlie.

A indicative data-point:

Arla, the dairy company, is building a new plant i Denmark, to a total cost of around 70 Million Euros.

Total employment, once construction is over: 30 full time employees.

5:

This is a manner of thinking that I see extremely frequently from Brits, and very rarely with any kind of the same vehemence from other nations. I am quite tempted to conclude that it's not so much that Brits believe people should be able to live without work, but that Brits are extremely angry at their entrenched aristocracy (which very few other nations still have to the same extent).

First, an easy question: if we can produce enough to feed, clothe and house everybody without total employment, why are most developed nations running budget deficits? Yes, the Earth produces more calories today than is required for the survival of a far larger population than currently exists. People would prefer to do more than just existing though.

Second, while it is evil to automatically deny human dignity to those not in a job, why dismiss the idea that having a job can indeed provide dignity to a person? It provides not only income, but a purpose and socialization, both extremely important things. (Plenty of people in modern society have trouble socializing anyway, and would turn into otaku if their job didn't force them to get on the bus every day.)

Third, hasn't the fall of communism thoroughly and empirically discredited the notion that a universal basic level of food/housing/clothing is sufficient for a healthy society? Just because everyone gets a free lean-to, potato sack and bowl of gruel doesn't mean everyone's a fulfilled human being. Even a very nice potato sack can be soul-destroying if it's the only one you can get and the same one as everyone around you. (Also see: hipsters as a backlash against the homogenization of consumer goods in the style of suburban America.)

Fourth: isn't it extremely dismissive and self-righteous to use "unlucky" as a label for people in bad life circumstances? Doesn't it imply that a bit of bad luck cannot be overcome, and therefore denies agency to the people in question, dehumanizing them?

6:

Mark: that's an aspect of individual, poorly run IT companies. Also, in Silicon Valley, employers who rightly see people as their most important production capital compensate for a woeful civic infrastructure of the US in general by providing services in-house, leading to stories of extra-long working hours that ultimately come down to the old Philip Greenspun quote about either having a really nice office, or hiring programmers who live in really bad apartments.

That is to say: Plenty of IT people get plenty of stuff done without spending even 40 hours a week at the office.

7:

Looks like we've built higher-phase communism accidentally. Ooops.

8:

Andrei, I'd love to say I was wrong and it's an urban legend, but I've spent too long in the industry seeing it first hand in too many places and watched too many friends and colleagues have the same experiences.

Suffice to say that I think your take on it is expending an unjustifiable amount of effort on justifying the practices of Silicon Valley employers :)

9:

Regarding deficits: this is more an artifact of accounting than a true statement of costs. Further, if you believe that your nation is going to continue into the future, and that your economy is going to grow over time, then you are a fool not to run a deficit, for the same reason taking out a mortgage is a good idea, even if you have cash-on-hand to buy a house. It's called "leveraging", and by borrowing against future returns you can create more things now. So long as the future discount of having those things later is higher than the interest rate, you've made money by running a deficit.

Regarding purpose in jobs: while jobs can, in principle, provide purpose and meaning, in practice, I doubt this is true. Most of us find our purpose in things like family, and friends, or drinking ourselves into a stupor on weekends because we need to escape the weekly drudge.

Regarding communism: no, the fall of communism hasn't proven any such thing. States like the USSR were essentially aristocratic kleptocracies, and were more invested in ideological purity than providing basic income for everyone. A better test will be to watch what happens in nations that have instituted a basic income atop a market economy.

Regarding bad luck: I would like to introduce you to the real world, where our agency is limited because there are vast forces, well beyond our control, that will impact our lives. I'd argue Charlie is using "bad luck" as a loose catch-all for "shit what you can't control", which is a lot of shit.

10:

"It's called "leveraging", and by borrowing against future returns you can create more things now."

Ah yes, but if a basic income is all your people need, why are you bothering to create more things now?

11:

Presumably because people breed and so you need more things?

12:

Of course, the alternative if you no longer need those people to work, and they have no money to consume, is to not have those people any more...

That's the fallacy of the excluded middle. You also need those people to consume; if you don't have them, you have less consumers, so less profits, so less work to be done, so ...

We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.

13:

Might be worth considering the share of GDP that is wages compared with the same for profits. See here: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2012/12/on-wage-and-profit-shares.html

14:

IanS: If there are too many people who don't have enough money to buy stuff, then the businesses fail for lack of orders. So the question becomes, which is more important to such businesses, consumers or workers?

15:

In addition to population growth, we generally want more than just the bare minimum. If I didn't need to work for a living, I would likely engage in more artistic pursuits. These luxury items would, hopefully, be desired by others- and I wouldn't just give them away.

There seems to be this idea that if everyone has enough to eat and a roof over their heads, they'll suddenly stop striving or creating. To the contrary, I think it would usher in an unprecedented era of productivity, because you have reduced the risk of new ventures. I can attempt to launch a new product, without worrying if it's going to be successful or not- I'm not going to end up destitute if it fails.

As economists and psychologists have discovered, human motivation arises from three things: purpose, autonomy and mastery. We all want to do something that we feel matters and has value, we want control over how we do those things, and we want the sense that we are good at those things we do. Other motivators, like money, are important, but they offer diminishing returns. Paying me twice as much doesn't mean I'm going to work twice as hard or twice as long.

16:

>We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.

In the US, far more politically conservative, and far more armed per capita than any other developed country, there may well be blood. Lots of blood.

17:

I find it odd for a Tory to be calling for full employment - its not in the interest of capital.

Full employment tends to push wages up, and decreases fear of unemployment which can lead to increased workforce militancy.

Perhaps Osbourne is sure that the unions are too weak to pose much of a threat?

18:

For a second when reading the headline I thought you were talking about an AH world where there were actual modern nations of chattel slaves. :)

But on to the actual subject. I'm a libertarian which puts us on different points of the political spectrum, but I actually agree with you. I know that puts me at odds with most other libertarians (but not all), but I think that work for the sake of work is not a good thing.

Economics aside, there are two social functions that work serves, and that's where I think the political aspect comes into play. One is the idea that idle hands are the devil's playground. Which can be true to a degree (especially with young men), but that doesn't necessarily mean that some BS makework is the solution. The other aspect is jealousy, which you hit on I think. People have the idea that those not working and getting state benefits are living a nice relaxing life while they drudge through the day to survive. To combat both ideas society needs to realize that there are more ways of having a worthwhile life than working.

And I agree 100% that technology is making many types of human labor obsolete. I don't know how far the trend will go, but it is possible that we may reach a point this century where only 10% of the population is really needed for things we currently view as "work". There will be a push to make work for the other 90%, which as a libertarian I view as just another form of welfare. Adding inefficiency on purpose is even worse than just handing out wads of cash.

I'd rather see a sort of basic income system without all of the strings attached to current welfare schemes. Once people have a basic level of living without worry, I think we'll see something interesting. Not sure what that is though -- the easy thing is to say a flowering of the arts, but since we've never really had a society like that it might be something we can't predict.

19:

It's not odd at all once you realize that it's not a practical statement of achievable policy but a mom'n'apple pie rallying cry for his base (who are mostly scared, frightened, conservative folks who don't like paying out taxes for a social security scheme and are afraid of losing their own jobs). In reality, he knows it's impossible to achieve.

In actual working real-world economies, once unemployment goes below 2.5% it effectively doesn't exist and you end up with low labour liquidity. Another way of thinking about it is that 2.5% "unemployment" is equivalent to full employment with an average tenure of about 2 years if workers take a week off when they change jobs.

20:

ThiS: "We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now."

What I see that because of the efficiency people need invent more and more meaningless crap with sole purpose to sell. Not to mention advertising industry that tries to persuade you that you really need need them. Yes, it satisfies a) but it's a dangerous game that leads to more pollution, too. Of course it is stupid to make state mandate what people would produce/buy but it would be very interesting to see who would stay on their job after their basic needs are met. In US, it is not enough to have job but one needs to be very, very rich just to feel safe. No money means not just starvation but violent death.

How about Scandianvian capitalism?


21:

I've tried arguing the basic income point with American libertarians and conservatives. Some are receptive to the idea, when they realize that it is a much simpler plan than dozens of little programs addressing each and every need. Most are afraid that it means no one will work and taxes will keep going up on those who do.

The more foresighted realize that eventually most people won't have to work. Libertarians tend to assume the market will invent new types of "work" (it probably will, but there is a lag time that is dangerous). Conservatives get pretty uncomfortable with the idea, since it pushes a lot of their buttons.

In the US at least, I think conservatives will end up pushing for make-work programs and punitive cuts to welfare programs to force people into them. Ironically the American right could end up pushing some sort of soviet work programs and a command economy...

22:

Andrei, a few points from a "Brit":

Firstly, it's nothing to do with our "entrenched aristocracy", which in practice is no more entrenched than that of any other country. There are a lot of other factors, mostly cultural, that make this more likely to come from British people than Americans (though I'll note that the first person I saw espousing this idea was Robert Anton Wilson), but that doesn't necessarily make it a bad idea.

Second, my job, at least, does not provide me with "a purpose". When I am not at work, and when I am not too tired from work to do so, I write books, spend time with my wife, make music, take part in political campaigns, and do other things that make my life, and hopefully the world, a better place. When I'm in work, I do nothing of any value to the world. The situation is similar for most people I know.

Third, it's not a matter of "individual badly-run companies", but an endemic problem throughout the IT industry. When I went to the doctor a couple of years ago with symptoms of stress-related illnesses (my blood pressure was 200 over 100 and I was waking in the night screaming, amongst other pleasant things) I didn't get to the end of the first sentence before she said "do you work as a computer programmer?"

23:

Jobs are a mechanism to establish a social hierarchy; to a conservative, this is the most important thing about them. This is also most of why people's identities get attached to their jobs; it's a means of claiming status. (Perhaps not much, but some is always more than none.)

Guaranteed minimum income is, in effect, a severe labour shortage; it's not going to happen while the influence of capital is increasing. (Like many of the decisions capital makes, this is not the decision that's actually good for the economy as a whole.)

Also, wages -- even tipping! -- are seen as a really fundamental aspect of control. Conservatives won't give that up, and never mind one of the most basic and more robust Operations Research results can be summarized as "you can have success, OR you have have control, you can't have both if the job's large enough you couldn't just do it yourself". People *hate* that and have been picking control in despite of it (and in despite of their own best economic interests, why do you think getting a good assembly line culture going is so difficult and so fragile?)

People pick "morally correct" over "effective" or "avoids river of blood" all the time. I don't see this time being different. (On bad days, I see this time as being deliberate; make things worse until proper moral character, which means deference to betters, is restored.)

24:

I see several logical errors here.

One is the assumption that the accumulation of wealth is the only way to measure goodness. This makes about as much sense as saying that the accumulation of food is the only way to measure goodness.

Another mistake is in the assumption that unpleasant features of a job are externally imposed. There's a significant aspect of subjectivity here, and it's a mixed bag.

Another mistake is in the assumption that people do not like to work. If that were the case, why would people be going home and paying to grind in WoW?

In essence, we are slaves to our own choices, and we're scared of ourselves. This is of course not the complete picture, but it's something we have to live with (or not, as the case may be).

Freedom cannot be externally imposed, rights come with responsibilities, everyone dies sooner or later, and we all have to live with both our own choices and those of others.

Blame games are the stuff of politicians, but you can only lead people to do things they were mostly inclined to do.

Oh, and one other thing: parents are fucked.

25:

You might try the US model:

a. Arrest the undereducated masses
b. Let the state pay for their (very nominal) board
c. Force the inmates to work for extremely low wages.
d. Profit!

26:

Come to think of it, the board of inmates is not that nominal. Still, the state is paying, so...

27:

Interestingly, Western society used to have a morality that not working was superior to working. It's called aristocracy. When you're reading an Austen novel and someone "has £20 a year", that's not earnings, but an independent income, that is an income without working for it.

Work meant insecurity, which was inferior to security.

What Charlie is essentially proposing is a universal aristocracy (or, to be more precise, gentry). Sounds pretty great to me. Financial security, the ability to pursue the things I'm good at, rather than the thing that I can earn most money from my ability it.

28:

Yeah that's one of the "funny" things. The same people who get up in arms about welfare and the idea of a basic income have no problem spending and average of $30,000 a year to lock people up.

29:

As someone who is unemployed (in Australia[1]) I'd point out this: the most demoralising, depressing part of the whole mess, as far as I'm concerned, is the expectation I must look for work.

I'm required to look for five jobs every fortnight (because I'm on Sickness Allowance[2]; the normal number is ten), which I translate to three a week. So each week, I spend about three hours combing through job sites finding out what's available, and seeing whether any of it matches up with my skill sets (answer: occasionally, yes), and whether it's worth my while to apply for the job (answer: generally, no). I send out three applications a week, and most of the time the only response I'll get is a polite email saying "thanks, but no thanks; we'll keep your details on record in the circular file" from one, possibly two out of the three employers.

To be honest, I'd prefer it if the government just admitted the basics here: I'm not employed after twelve months looking for work, and I'm not likely to be employed Any Time Soon. Instead, I'm being urged to take on volunteer work to "build confidence" and get names who can offer references, as though this is suddenly going to make me blindingly attractive to employers[3]. I'm not massively against it, although I have to admit I'd rather not have the volunteering forced on me like some kind of employment-related tonic by the government-sponsored private bureaucracy which is the Job Network. The various organisations which need volunteers appear to have a similar attitude these days - trying to find volunteer work if you're not actually part of an organisation which needs volunteers is rather like applying for employment.

If they'd just admit I'm not likely to be employed, and effectively put me on a maintenance program which focussed on dealing with the mental illness, I'd be a lot happier. But to get something like that, I'd need to be on Disability Support Pension, and the government is cracking down on access to it these days (because of course, disabled people are always malingering).

Thing is, I wouldn't mind working again. But I can't work full time (and do the second shift at home) for longer than about twelve weeks at a stretch without reaching the end of my reserves and having another breakdown. I'm not twenty-three any more. I'd be okay with a permanent part time job, just doing something minor but useful (answering phones, filing paperwork). Alternatively, I'd settle for a guaranteed basic income, which could cover the immediacies of life - it wouldn't even have to be higher than the dole[4].


[1] Which seems to be borrowing all the worst attitudes from the UK and US regarding welfare these days... we're expecting government policies to alter to catch up in the next budget, due in May.

[2] I have an ongoing mental illness - co-morbid chronic endogenous depression and anxiety - which gets triggered by financial insecurity, and which, for some strange reason, isn't getting any better while my partner and I are pretty much stuck on welfare.

[3] Volunteering as resume "makeover" in the modern economy: discuss.

[4] Given the dole in Australia comes with one very nasty little sting in the tail (a requirement that the recipient doesn't move to an area of Lower Employment Opportunity - essentially, anywhere outside the mainland state capitals), a payment which doesn't have this particular booby trap could actually be lower than the dole and I'd take it willingly. I could move to a country town where I can afford to pay rent[5].

[5] Average weekly rent in Perth, Western Australia - $420. Fortnightly dole payment - $500 - or $250 per week, including rent assistance; lower if anyone in the family earns any extra money.

30:

We've got an even bigger problem, which is that our consumption of material resources has gone up 16-fold, even though our population has quadrupled.

There are two basic ways of calculating the economy. One is through money, and one is through biogeochemistry, which is the science of chasing chemical elements and energy as they cycle through the earth. That's where you study the carbon cycle, the water cycle (water's not an element, but it lends itself to the same analysis), the nitrogen cycle, and so on, even to the iron cycle (which exists, but is very slow).

On the latter, we, of course, have huge problems, which is why so many people are worried about climate change, which is fundamentally humans messing up the carbon cycle by moving a lot of carbon from a really slow pool (underground) to a really fast pool (the atmosphere).

Now, if we put all the "idle hands" to work trying to repair the carbon and water cycles, we might be talking about doing something useful. As it is, mechanizing the process of making stuff and freeing people to goof around just messes up the carbon and water cycles even more than they already are.

While we may think we're normal, we're WEIRD. Of course we've got it good. For most people on the planet even now, it's Planet of Slums, to use the title of Mike Davis' book on the subject, where more people have cell phones than have access to toilets or clean water. They have already been surplused through mechanization and even more through the industrialization of agriculture. People like the security expert David Kilcullen (Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla) are already trying to understand how these enormous coastal slums of discarded people are warping politics, since they will almost certainly be the major battlegrounds of coming decades. For example, a place like Lagos, with 17,500,000 people (approximately half the population of Iraq), could swallow the entire active US army (~550,000) on a peacekeeping operation and barely notice.

I'd suggest that work is necessary, but that work should be aimed at fixing the messes that we've made in our life support system, primarily because it needs to be done. That would be by far the best investment we could make.

31:

Pretty much this. Considering that what makes "universal gentry" possible is automation, I have been saying for years that the model modern societies should emulate is Asimov's Aurora. Which had a universal basic income.

32:

I work in HR (in the US), and I can say that big gaps in employment without what the interviewer views as a good reason are problematic. Now, it the US at least interviewers aren't supposed to ask about family or medical issues -- so those can actually be used as better excuses than just saying you were unsuccessfully looking for work. (You can also do that if you were fired from an employer and want to hide the fact by leaving it off).

Other common things to do is say you were self-employed, but they will probably ask for details and may want info on clients to contact if you say you were "consulting".

Of course, working is ideal in the eyes of an interviewer. So volunteer or other non-profit activity is better than nothing. And it can be used compatibly with health or family reasons for not working. You can say you haven't worked since your position for health/family reasons that no longer bar you from working, and during that time you did some part time charity work because you wanted to keep your skills fresh and you enjoy being useful.

33:

I can't be the only one who sees the irony here of the IT industry being one of the main enablers of this kind of social change (at least in recent times) while simultaneously having one of the worst cases of glorifying stupidly long working hours to the point where otherwise rational people start to equate how many hours you worked in a week to how good you are at your job (and even to how good you are as a person in some respects)...

I just heard a presentation by Fred Brooks on his take on the history of computing. In many ways he headed up THE project that to computing was basically what the assembly line was to factories building widgets.

It's amazing how far we've come since 1960. And interesting how computers have changed things. Telephone operators (and many receptionists) have vanished due to them. Key punch pools have come and vanished. (The US airlines where airlifting paper tickets to Puerto Rico and the Philippines back into the 80s. Now there's just no need.) Typing pools? Yeah right. Secretaries. Used to be 1 per anyone above flunky status. Now you can cut that number by 10 to 100. The back offices of banks have got to have many less people per customer than 50 years ago. I personal write a check about once every 3 to 6 months. I cut an electronic check about twice a month. The rest of my spending is via a debit card, credit card, or online payment. The US Post Office is running ads telling people how great it is to keep getting paper bills and paying by a check in the mail.

And look at what all these new disruptive tech start ups are doing. Basically turning jobs into apps.

Anyway I wonder if Fred thinks much about this or if he's just too near the end of his life to notice. (BTW he's a Mac user. :) )

Had a documentary on the Forbidden City playing while answering email the other day. It mentioned that a lot of the reasons the Chinese wanted to keep the west out was that some of the leaders saw the upheavals that would be caused by getting rid of all of what we would think of as menial labor. Coolies and such carrying people around replaced by a wagon or horse. Much less cars.

34:

For a second when reading the headline I thought you were talking about an AH world where there were actual modern nations of chattel slaves. :)

Note that there are more chattel slaves alive and in bondage today than there were at the start of the US Civil War. Not so much in the USA, or even in Brazil, but overall ...

35:

Can full employment be achieved if we would switch to a four-day weekend? That is 30% increase in work-force.

Also, going for self-sufficiency: growing own food, making own houses. I am in hope that one day people would make kits for close-loop systems (a pod with recycling waste and growing food from bacteria). Bioengineering?

36:

We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.

In 1969 Nixon proposed the same thing. If he hadn't been such a jerk in so many other ways who knows where we'd be now. Also was into ObamaCare "lite". But this was the later 60s. Lite or not it was a real change in thinking.

Personally I have qualms about how this would play out. Based on my personal experience (lots of blue and white collar work experience) I figure at least 10% to 20% of people who work hard to game the system and sponge off others no matter what. Guarantee them $50 they will cheat to get $100. Need to not. It just seems to be wired in their nature. At the other end you'll have 10% to 20% who will want to work no matter what. My father was in that mode. He worked just as hard after retirement doing things for no pay as he did when he was getting a paycheck. I keep wondering what the middle 60% to 80% will do. And how bad the transition will be.

37:

Can full employment be achieved if we would switch to a four-day weekend? That is 30% increase in work-force.

The problem is in the transition.

38:

There's a bit of a fallacy that 'full employment' is always a good thing and what it actually means. I've seen the number as being anything from the 2%ish that Charlie refers to through to as much as 4.5% - where you're basically measuring people who either can't work or are between jobs for various reasons not relating to anything in particular. That's when it can get inflationary because to get people to move jobs usually requires bribing them to do so.

The real question is how much 'work' do people actually do in their jobs. The only person I know who is rabidly anti any kind of guaranteed income scheme works a 60+ hour week doing something he loves and pays him loads (heart surgery) and part of his problem is he just can't wrap his head around the idea that people don't do stuff they love doing.

39:

All jobs pass your test (a), because being paid money (even a pittance) is better than not being paid money.

And western capitalism is still doing really well at bringing up living standards for the poorest, it's just that they're now in the former third world and so you don't see them. The Gini coefficients for individual countries are going up or staying static, but the world Gini coefficient is falling as the wealth gets spread around better between countries.

Also, you spend nothing like a third of your waking life at work -- you're forgetting about childhood, retirement, holidays and weekends. If you start work at 20, retire at 65 and live to 80, working 42 hours a week for 46 weeks a year, and you sleep eight hours a night, then your waking life is 467,200 hours (ignoring leap days) of which you spend 86,940 at work -- that's less than 20%.

40:

I haven't seen any mention of entrepreneurship yet. (sorry if I've missed it). I would say encouraging entrepreneurship would be the answer, except in most places it has become a euphemism for unemployed bludger and failed in a real job. A subsituaray problem is that if your startup fails after twelve months, your effective unemployable (business fail a lot. I have one success which just turned four, and three failed tech startups) with any medium to large firm. And finally you need to be in a bad spot and desperate or just a mad bastard (hi!) to be prepared for the emotional/personal/social cost of starting a business. The number of jobs are declining, but the possibilities of entrepreneurship are not decreasing.

41:

When I tell people about basic income, they say "Well we have benefits already for people who don't work..." I find it hard to argue with them from this point on.

42:

You came here from HN, didn't you? I thought I recognized the particular flavour of doublethink ...

43:

You missed a section. There are quite a lot of people who'd gladly retire. Just take the money and do very little.

A bit of the "lady who lunches", a bit of the "independent gentry" - or also, curled up at home with depression, otaku, or drugged to their eyeballs.

Frankly, if there's a chunk of the population that would be happy unemployed, and we need to have a chunk of people unemployed, why not have the people who are content be the people who don't have jobs?

44:

Apps that harness thermal and mechanical energy of unemployed people?
Always thought that matrix is just a stupid movie but now...

@David L: I don't think the transition is so difficult, one can try by doing it in steps. First, setting a limit on existing working hours and setting huge overtime starting hours so companies would be economically inclined to hire new people (that are cheap at the moment).

It's mostly a mindset problem. This needs popular and likable politician to gently hold the hand of people scared of the changing world.

45:

I'm not up to analysing the complex questions of social dynamics around low-productivity individuals right now, so I'm just going to jump on one bit of misinformation before it gets out of hand.

The headline claim of "full employment" does not mean what you think it does. It's a very weasely way of phrasing the policy to make it sound like more than it is. If you look at what Osbourne said in full, you'll see that he "clarified" that "full" employment does not include "people who are between jobs", students, people who stay at home and look after children, etc....

In short, this is not a policy change, it's a restatement of the long-standing policy of the past few governments to eliminate "long-term unemployment" - people who just never have a job or do anything.

All the people who are pointing out that a rate of unemployment between 2% and 5% is important to a healthy economy - yes, you're right, and the "new" policy is to target a rate of unemployment-as-usually-measured that is somewhere in this ballpark.

46:

So I started more or less working full time at 16, apart from my degree which involved a 30 hour week in lectures plus labs and other work and I worked every summer... I can't remember the last time I really did a 42 hour week or didn't do work at weekends or on holiday, but then I moved to the US so that's rather expected... most people I know only get 4 weeks of leave a year here including sick pay.

Then there's the idea of retiring at 65 which seems increasingly unlikely absent a major cash event in the next two decades that I have to save up enough money to be able to do so. What with an expensive divorce in my late twenties that wrote off a decade of saving etc...

In short, most people don't recognize that idyllic kind of world. They certainly wouldn't recognise a world where you could afford to live on a 42 hour week with 6 weeks off a year because they're working two 40+ hour shifts for 50+ weeks a year just to survive and in the US they're still one illness away from being bankrupt.

47:

Bah: that's a variant on the "no true Scotsman" argument. I hear what you say and raise you workfare and internships, both as a reductio ad absurdam. But more to the point, you need to apply the £100M test: "would I keep doing this thing if Scrooge McDuck left me £100M in his will?" Or even an annuity of £10,000 a year? (That's poverty level, but not impossible to live on -- especially if you're allowed to do part-time work on top and keep the £10K, modulo paying tax on the part-time earnings. Consider, for example, how many writers or artists might be happy to make a go of living on £10,000 a year plus whatever they can make by practicing their art.)

48:

I thought I was correct when I said the worst thing was looking for work. Turns out I was wrong.

The worst thing, actually; the thing I loathe above all the others, is this particular unspoken assumption on the part of all the well-meaning people who have given me unsolicited advice over the last five years regarding finding work. Namely: I am the only person who has ever had any impact on whether or not I am employed.

Y'know what it resembles? Actually, I have a lot of experience with what it resembles, so I'll just tell you all. It very strongly resembles the sorts of things the advertising industry tells plain women like me about how to make ourselves attractive to a potential mate. Just lose five pounds. Or maybe ten. Just wear this foundation. Just put on this lipstick. Just wear these clothes. Listen to this music. Watch this film. Jump through all these hoops, and maybe you'll magically make yourself attractive to the people you want to attract.

So you jump through the hoops, and you do all the things, and you perform all the rituals in this strange magical rite which is supposed to be about "attracting a mate" or "attracting a job". But none of them work. They're not designed to, you see. They're just designed to keep you occupied, and keep up the pretence you have some control over these things - or better yet, you have all the control. So clearly, if it isn't working, it's because you're doing something wrong. Not because you don't fit the prevailing definition of "beautiful" or "employable". Not because structural and institutional factors make it difficult through nigh impossible to fit those definitions. No. It's all because you aren't doing it right.

I can do everything right in the employment stakes, and still wind up unemployed if employers aren't interested in hiring someone without a degree. Or someone who is older than thirty-four. Or someone who isn't the right "cultural fit". Or someone who doesn't have three to five years recent experience with $OBSCURE_SOFTWARE_PACKAGE_CREATED_LAST_YEAR or whatever other hoop they decide they want to throw up. I can do all of this, because this isn't something which is wholly and solely under my control, and I'm really starting to resent being treated as though it is.

I, and all the other unemployed people like me, are not unemployed solely by our own choice. There are other people's choices in there as well. The choices of people who decided not to keep on staff. The choices of people who decided to offer "voluntary redundancies". The choices of people who decided to take their manufacturing operations offshore. The choices of people who'd rather hire workers from overseas than invest in training local employees. The choices of people who decide that "gaps on the resume" are a good enough reason to drop someone's details in the circular file. The choices of people who decide the ideal employee is the one who has never taken time off work. The choices of people who decide an employee with a medical condition is too much risk. The choices of people who decide the ideal age for a worker is lower than forty.

I wasn't making those choices. I just have to live with the fallout of them, and be blamed for it.

Good thing I was a plain girl growing up, wasn't it?

49:

*cough*Karl Marx*cough*

Capitalism is wonderful, because it essentially increases production, allowing there to be enough production, so that we can all work less. E.g. factory farming is massively more efficient (when it comes to the number of people working), so that fewer people are needed to produce the same amount of food. Ditto for almost any other product.

Now we just have to wait for the (inevitable) revolution.

Now, I'm not a Marxist (the prescription endorsed by most Marxists just doesn't fit), but anyone who doesn't see that the original describer of capitalism is still relevant, probably hasn't studied Marx.

(The solution to our problems, if not revolution, is certainly /not/ full employment either. Another reason I'm not a Marxist: they have a distressing tendency to fetishise work.)

50:

There are three factors to production in the intro Econ textbook: labor, capital, and raw materials. We have surpluses of labor(unemployment) and of capital (near-zero interest rates demonstrate the abundance of capital relative to productive investment opportunities), but much less so of raw materials. Especially fuels*. Any way I slice it, it's going to be hard to maintain the West's accustomed level of consumption in the near future.

Since politics moves so slowly, I'd advise against trying to sell the "we'll all have leisure" idea. By the time it became mainstream, the time would have come and gone.

* Note that I'm talking here about the amounts of fuel the economy needs to maintain per capita consumption. By climate change standards, we have far too much fuel.

51:

You missed a section. There are quite a lot of people who'd gladly retire. Just take the money and do very little.

I didn't mention them explicitly. They are the middle of my numbers. Just now how sure where the boundaries are.

52:

I take it you've seen the links bounced round the place earlier on the times things like this have been tried Charlie? eg. Mincome in Canada? http://basicincome.org.uk/interview/2013/08/health-forget-mincome-poverty/

53:

You missed a section. There are quite a lot of people who'd gladly retire. Just take the money and do very little.

As I said the problem is in the transition.

People don't like change. Especially when it might impact their perceived wealth.

54:

Apps that harness thermal and mechanical energy of unemployed people

A barrel of oil has more energy than a decade of full-time manual labor from an adult human, and costs about $100. It's hard to see how such a device would make practical sense, especially since the device's production would inevitably require inputs of oil. I doubt the energy return on energy invested would be reasonable.

Which is the same problem I had with the Matrix, actually.

55:

If benefits in your country are anything like benefits in mine, they come not with strings, but with steel hawsers attached.

Here's a quick rundown on some of the steel cables attached to the money the Australian government (reluctantly) pays me to sustain me while I'm unemployed.

* I have to look for work (even if there's no work to be found).
* I have to take any job which is offered to me which is within 90 minutes travel time of my home.
* I am not allowed to move to an area of lower employment opportunity from an area of higher employment opportunity (or in practical terms, I'm not able to move out of the city I currently occupy in search of affordable rent).
* If I find work, or my partner finds work, I have to report fortnightly on the amount of hours he worked, and the amount of money he earned for this work before tax (even if he hasn't been paid for it yet).
* If I have any of a number of different changes to my circumstances, I MUST tell our social security agency within fourteen days, or face a possible debt being raised.
* If I receive compensation of any kind, I have to tell them within seven days.
* I have to attend regular interviews with my Employment Services Provider.
* I have to attend regular interviews with Centrelink (the social security administration agency).

If I don't do these things, the supply of money dries up like spit on a hot stove. As an example: I had an interview with Centrelink last Friday (March 28) - just a quick one to check I'm still breathing; they do them every three months or so. I attended the interview, and they took evidence of my job search from me. Luckily for me, as it turns out, because the person who did the interview didn't mark me as having attended on the day. I got an SMS on Monday (March 31) telling me of this, and warning me I had to phone Centrelink right away in order to sort it out, or else I wouldn't be paid. Took me at least 50 minutes wait on the phone before I was able to get it sorted, and I was lucky I had brought the job search evidence with me on the day, because it was proof I'd been there.

I have another interview with my Job Network provider on 9 April, and I'm going to be extra paranoid about ensuring the interview is checked off on my record.

A basic income is essentially provided as support for being a living, breathing human being. You don't need to be working or not - and presumably, if a government brought in a basic income, the rate of wages required from employers could be dropped drastically, because they'd essentially be decoration on top of this basic income.

56:

It was meant as a joke with a reference to a current habit of making apps for every little thing.

57:

When I tell people about basic income, they say "Well we have benefits already for people who don't work..." I find it hard to argue with them from this point on.

Explain to such people how much less paperwork and overhead is involved in basic income. They would like that!

58:

Actually, Charlie, has Scotland gone down the road of mangling an internship program so badly that it's almost slave labour in order to address unemployment the way the Irish government has with JobBridge? (ie. go work for [name your multinational corporation enjoying tax breaks here] doing what would normally be a paid job in return for "experience" and fifty euro a week on top of your jobseeker's allowance (the approximate equivalent to US social security or UK dole money)

*That* was a fair headwrecker of a social policy change over here.

59:

Oh, I know it is rarely the fault of the unemployed person. I've been involved in making people unemployed myself, after all. And had family members who are unemployed.

But, the only thing we can reliably direct the actions of is ourselves.

The fact is, people making decisions are just as lazy when it comes to decision making as anyone else, and even more risk-adverse. So they'll take the easy way out when they have a lot of options to choose from. And in a high unemployment situation, that means they can be bastards about long-term unemployed.

60:

Yeah, we stop paying people to work for companies like ASOS and Centrelink to decide whether people deserve benefits or not, because we stop caring whether people deserve it.

Remember that these people, while not well-paid, get a lot more than the benefits people get, and mostly, ultimately, do say "yes" because few countries are actually prepared to literally give someone nothing and let them starve.

If you aren't prepared to do that, then you have no useful sanction for someone on the poverty line - so we might as well just hand the money out to everyone; that's pretty much what we'll end up doing anyway.

[... waits for someone to reference David Weber's Basic Living Stipend from the Honor Harrington novels ...]

61:

I have two quick points:
1) I'd argue that people _are_ defined by what they do, but this does not necessarily involve their jobs.
2) I don't think we're certain yet that we're entering an era of technological unemployment. In general we've seen assorted jobs spring up that "fill the vacuum" as it were (makes sense, we don't suddenly run out of resources for people to run). I'm especially leery of this concept right now, because it seems to have gotten popular mainly as a way to explain why the US unemployment rate is not budging, which has much more to do IMHO with insufficient stimulus during the recession than a fundamental change in the landscape.

62:

Hey, here in the US most internships are unpaid, *and* you don't get any sort of financial support from the government. :)

Technically they are supposed to be for education purposes, but that is frequently abused. The fashion industry is especially notorious for it.

63:

Yes but - and don't take this as an insult - the US treatment of internships was long seen here as the kind of mistake we'd rather not make ourselves. Like the entire HMO healthcare system. Though now we appear to be trying to replicate that one as well. It would make you wonder what old, broken, rife-with-horrible-side-effects asshat social policy is next to be introduced by our colourful mob. I know it's not the 2008 UK scandal of recording prisoners conversations with their solicitors, because we've just announced we've actually been doing that for decades here, recording both phone calls to/from prisons and calls to/from Garda stations (this may be the thing that topples our government).

64:

So why, do you think, is it the unemployed person who gets blamed for this?

I've been continuously out of work for over three years now, and mainly out of work for most of the last five. I haven't had a steady job which has lasted for longer than six weeks since mid-2008. For the last five years, I have been listening to rhetoric in our popular media here which essentially implies I am unemployed because I am lazy, because I am stupid, because I am not trying hard enough to be employed, because I am a parasite, because I am sponging off the Australian taxpayer. Always because it's my fault.

Never because hey, I don't fit the picture of the "ideal employee". Never because I'm not suitable office totty (although I'm sure that one lost me a couple of chances along the way). Never because structural and social forces make it very hard for someone who isn't currently employed to find a job in Australia at present. Never because there's a strong social stigma about employing the mentally ill in this country.

No. Just because I am somehow bad or wrong. And I've been hearing that pretty much uninterrupted for five damn years.

I'm tired of it. I am SO TIRED of being told I'm to blame for all the economic woes in this country, and if I'd only accept $2 a day (thanks, Mrs Rinehart) across a sixty hour week, I'd be better off. I am fed up with being told I'm the problem here, because quite frankly I have no fucking control over my situation in any way, shape, or form.

And now I'm sitting here, in front of my computer at twenty minutes to midnight, and I'm going to be spending another day or so trying hard to persuade myself that the messages from my brain which are saying I should just end it all are just the depression speaking. Cause, yeah. That depression? The stuff that's triggered badly by financial uncertainty? For some weird reason, it really isn't getting any better lately.

(Oh, and if I wind up heading to the local psych ward, I have to tell our social security people about *that* too, or the money goes bye-bye).

Can't win. Can't break even. Can't even quit the game.

65:

Being paid money is only better than not being paid money if the payment of money doesn't also entail destroying your physical and mental health.

And *you* are forgetting travel time, mandatory overtime, and the fact that 65 is lower than the state retirement age. When I was working at IBM, for example, I worked a sixty hour week, plus an extra hour a day commuting. You're also not taking into account lunch breaks, which are unpaid but still require one to be away from home, often still around work colleagues, and in work clothing.

66:
So why, do you think, is it the unemployed person who gets blamed for this?

The first question that comes to mind is: "why do you think the unemployed person is blamed for this?"

And then we immediately come to...

For the last five years, I have been listening to rhetoric in our popular media here which essentially implies...

Ah. You probably shouldn't take the entertainment services this seriously. Yes, it's odious and offensive and a problem, but it's also not representative of the majority opinion. It's just representative of what gets eyeballs on advertising. People watch stupid things that they disagree with all the time; it doesn't mean they all endorse what is said. For your own peace of mind, you need to internalize the idea that one idiot on the TV does not make something true.

(For this purpose, we can consider the mainstream news outlets to be entertainment)

67:

When it comes to Centrelink, they're part of Tony Abbott's wonderful "cut 20,000 public servants" target whether they want to be or not. I've had a long standing joke regarding Centrelink (as a result of having worked for them both before and after I'd been on benefits).

"Centrelink is a wonderful agency. They treat their customers almost as well as they treat their staff. Problem is, they treat their staff like crap."

Centrelink is the single government agency with the highest staffing levels outside the Australian Defence Force. Of course they're going to have staff cuts. And those staff cuts are mostly going to be on customer-facing areas, because most of the staff in the admin offices in Canberra and the major capitals are quite capable of defending their jobs, thank you very much. So people like me get to spend the better part of an hour listening to hold music on the phone, or sitting staring at daytime television in the office's waiting areas (if we're really lucky, we get to combine the two - sitting listening to the hold music on the phone in the local Centrelink office).

68:

Ah. You probably shouldn't take the entertainment services this seriously. Yes, it's odious and offensive and a problem, but it's also not representative of the majority opinion. It's just representative of what gets eyeballs on advertising. People watch stupid things that they disagree with all the time; it doesn't mean they all endorse what is said. For your own peace of mind, you need to internalize the idea that one idiot on the TV does not make something true.

1) Just because I'm unemployed doesn't make me bloody stupid. I know the trollumnists in our mainstream media are just trying to gain eyeballs so their marketing people can sell them on.

However...

2) Do you REALLY think our unemployment offices and employment services are staffed by people who exist in a popular culture vacuum? They're staffed by people who hear this same rhetoric. I've heard it from my own family, from my in-laws, from my employment services providers, from Centrelink staffers, from people on the bus, from people while I've been waiting for public transport, from people who were working alongside me in one of Centrelink's call centres.

Like I said, it's been five years. I don't subscribe to the newspaper. I don't watch television. I'm getting most of my news online, and I don't read the Murdoch rubbish. But I'm still aware of the damn attitude, because I have it reflected back at me so bloody often.

And you're still basically blaming me for my problems. So thanks for that.

69:

Small nitpick: George Gideon Oliver Osborne (Weatherby George Dupree) is reputedly known as "Oik" in the Cabinet because he didn't go to Eton: his family only managed to scrape him into St Paul's School in London (founded 1509) ...

70:

Well OBVIOUSLY the problem megpie is that you haven't started your own startup business to...
Sorry, couldn't keep a straight face even while typing that nonsense. Perhaps you should direct folks to the Job Cannon meme?

http://www.dittoepr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Job-Cannon.jpg

71:

And Milton Friedman. You're not the only libertarian endorsing it, aggray!

72:

"We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly."

As an American, I very much agree with this statement. I'd like to make a quick distinction because there seems to be a lot of confusion on this point during these sorts of discussions. (Forgive me if this point has been made before. The thread is too long already for me to read all the way through, and I've writing to do.) Capitalism is not a system of government. It's an economic system. What we have in the United States is a Democracy. In my opinion, Democracy hasn't so much "failed" but corporations and the billionaire few have successfully hacked it. The more and more corporations gain rights as individuals, the more trouble we're in. As a result, we're in a race against time to prevent the total destruction of our democracy. (Some would say we've already lost, but I don't view it that way as long as we have the vote and free speech via the internet.)

That said, Capitalism is not how you run a country for the majority's well being--let alone those at the bottom. It runs against the American Dream and everything I've been taught to believe in regarding the American way of life. (I believe in equal opportunity, regardless of wealth, gender, religion, .) It's how you run a country for the ultra rich which, ultimately in the end, isn't that much different from Feudalism--as your post points out. It's where we're headed. In my experience, Americans work longer hours than workers in the UK. (Although some would argue that the reports state otherwise, I'd like to point to an article about McDonald's. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/09/mcdonalds-worker-shift-records_n_3247463.html) This was my experince at a multi-national high tech firm. In fact, I left my "temporary" job because my boss expected me to work overtime without overtime pay on a regular basis. She also expected me to work for free. (This was framed in a "do it for the team" way. For the record, she regularly worked about 60 hours a week, sometimes more, and she was salaried.) This is why I believe the reports are incorrect. The actual hours Americans are pressured into working aren't being recorded. In addition, with the introduction of the new Healthcare Act (which in my opinion doesn't go anything like far enough) some employers are attempting to pull back recorded hours even more in order to avoid paying for employee benefits. In retail, more and more employers are forcing workers into part-time "on call" schedules which makes it impossible to hold down a second job--let alone raise a family.

Ugly is already here.

73:

Apparently the plugged-in humans were supposed to be used by the Machines as processors, not power sources, but the Hollywood machine thought filmgoers wouldn't understand a comparison to a CPU, but could just about grasp the idea of batteries.

74:

Yes, but those unpaid interns aren't learning exciting things about stacking shelves.

75:

The UK state pension age is in fact currently 65 (there's no longer a state retirement age at all). It's true that it will increase to 66 from 2019, but life expectancies will also have increased beyond 80 -- the government's objective is that people will on average draw the state pension for 1/3 of their adult lives, considerably more generous than my example figures which assumed only 1/4.

76:

In the English-speaking world (many other areas too) there is still an idea that idleness is sinful. Maybe we don't call it sin anymore because we aren't a very religious culture, but the feeling is still there in the background.

Look at the 7 deadly sins for example. Sloth is one of them. Conversely, diligence is one of the virtues.

(Of course, Charity is too but plenty of people seem happy to overlook that one.)

77:

Ugly is already here.

Ugly has been here forever, but so what? Americans are all too isolated in our own homes ignoring our neighbors to organize any kind of collective action; all our major political movements are media creations backed by plutocrats. The one exception that I can think of, the Occupy movement, was so concerned about forming an organization that could be co-opted that it preferred to stay disorganized, thereby committing political suicide.

Just because things are bad doesn't mean they're necessarily going to get better. All the trends I track are pointing in the other direction.

78:
a universal basic income

I thought that was RAH with Common Basic Stock. Not a bad idea though. Personally ( ghhq & nsa aside) I'd abolish income tax, cash, & impose a Tobin on all purchases. Which is probable why I'm not PM.

79:

This comment thread needs a bingo card.


80:

I'd disagree. In my experience most folks are charitable as in they regularly offer time, money and material goods to others. Charity is not enough to meet the demand for welfare and the like -- someone added up the total worth of the top 24,000 US charities and their dollar value including annuities and investments as well as regular collection income was about 10% of the annual US spend on welfare.

81:

Mack Reynolds had the same idea, Inalienable Basic income (you couldn't sell it or trade it) and Variable Basic which could be earned if you could find a job which wasn't easy in his future world where automation had been pretty much maximised.

82:

Inalienable Basic income (you couldn't sell it or trade it)

Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of income? I tend to sell or trade most of my income for goods and services.

Maybe you can't sell or trade it in advance of the payments? That might work.

83:

IIRC the income instrument was inalienably yours (no market in income futures), but the money paid was money, as fungible as any.

84:

Charlie,

This leads directly to a conversation I've been trying and trying to get started for 20 years, and mostly, no one wants to think about it. As we approach what I term the "post-Adamic society" (c, 1995, me), which is where we no longer need to earn our living by the sweat of our brow... what the hell *do* we do with our lives?

Some of us are creative enough to make things. But the huge number of folks who spend most of their waking, non-working life in front of the tube? What kind of standards do we use to help us all understand who we are?

And distribution... I've got the answer, and just as soon as I finish writing my serious econonic/political book (I've got an outline, and parts of some chapters....), I'll be able to call myself legiitmately a Markist....

mark

85:

For all people scream and shout about it, I don't understand why an inalienable basic income isn't instituted.

I would add on top of that something like a tax regime that's something like 50% on income except basic until you've repaid the basic income, then it dips and gradually picks up again for high earners. It would stop a lot of the bleating about "should we have a 40% or 50% tax rate for high earners" as well if basic rate was 50%.

The cost of administering should be minimal because it's universal and supports everyone. I bet it's lower than all the stupidity around job seekers allowance, working benefits, pensions and all the rest. Nip out the student loans neatly as well because you're paying your students a basic income already.

Heck, start paying it to kids as soon as they're born, perhaps into a trust fund, and I suspect you'd see an interesting shift in the housing market as well.

With a hefty tax there's government income to continue to pay it, but there's still incentive to work for those that want more and need that incentive. Personally I consider there will be a number of people who choose to work even without needing the money - like Charlie because they love what they do, or for other reasons like it gets them out of the house or whatever. But giving them money and letting them keeping some of it so they can buy more has a proven track record too, so lets keep that method running too.

BUT... I have a horrible feeling its far too sensible to actually be implemented. When do politicians ever do anything sensible?

86:

I'm ill so can't make much of a point, nevertheless,

1) Osborne's definition of full employment is different from all over previous, widely accepted reality based definitions of full employment. Thus, he is a grandstanding numpty.

2) You can't get there from here, i.e. Tory economic policy currently has nothing whatsoever to do with full employment and it's impossible to reach any sort of real full employment with the current policies.

3) I've forgotten what I was going to type here.

87:

Oh yes, I recall now, we are bombarded with reports etc which claim that the UK is a low skill country, that it needs to be a high skilled country, that we need more people in higher education.
But if jobs are being removed by technology (So far I see that htey have been removed by offshoring), all that becomes moot, because you cna't employ 60% of people in high tech jobs fixing the high tech machines which make evrryone elses jobs redundant.

There's some confusion going on here, and it isn't clear what, why, how etc.

88:

The statistics indicate that there's more people self employed than ever before, but they aren't doing that well at all, or at least no better than before they became self employed.

89:

That's a simplistic way of looking at it. Rather, it's a matter of "How can I get the other businesses/ government/ people to pay for stuff, whilst stiffing my own workforce?"

See for instance the AMerican prison system and healthcare system, the UK borrowing bubble. Capitalism is not a monolithic system, it has cliques and groups and lots of companies looking out for their own. Enlightened self interest is a myth.

90:

But you're missing the feedback loops which connect political rhetoric and the lies newspapers tell. And the drip drip effect of propaganda on people who read it. I have been long term unemployed, and know well that many people will make nasty comments about shirking unemployed people, but of course they don't mean me, I'm one of them who is just temporarily embarassed, not a scrounger.
So I'm afraid your point misses the complexities of reality and does't answer the problem.

91:

I don't have much to add, so this is kind of tangentially related, or at least this topic has brought it to mind.
A couple weeks ago I heard & watched this TED Talk, by Alain de Botton, on how we judge 'success' by what someone does, and why this is a Bad Thing.
He won me over fairly early by saying something I've thought for a while. When you meet someone and they ask The Question (as I call it, and which I hate): So, what do you do? He calls it a question of snobs, I think it tends to be rather judgmental. I have had people walk off after I answer "I'm a librarian". He also has a nice takedown of the current American usage of the word Loser.

92:

Charlie,
Yes , i agree with you about the need for basic income.I'm just not advocating a single step basic income is possible economically and politically because it'l cause a huge change.

Maybe a better , more politically possible way is just putting BI as a target in the next 10-20 years, and the way there should include something like:

1.Encouraging increasingly shorter work hours per week, so everybody should an option of employment.

2.Increasing minimum wages - to encourage employers to shift to automation,change consumption patterns , and to enable shorter work hours.

3.Some gradually advancing benefits towards basic income.

4.Work on decreasing costs of living.This is partially technological problem, but a lot of it is due to politics,power and culture. Help change that.


93:

Actually, talking about Marxists and "fetisches", they use the term more often than me describing the usual Warhammer 40K Dark Eldar army, but I guess they mean something different...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism

On another note, not all Marxists were those serious cases of work fetishism:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refusal_of_work#Paul_Lafargue_and_The_Right_to_be_Lazy

On sloth being a deadly sin, going with

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sloth_(deadly_sin)

most definitions of "sloth" would include bullshit jobs and mindless drudgery; also note pride for doing work, greed for payment from work, envy for people doing less work and lust for excessive physical activity are deadly sins themselves, so I guess one could have quite some fun with those Pseudothomasians. ;)

94:

I'd be for some sort of basic income, or other method of helping people live. There's so much more to life than working, and when unemployed I have done a variety of things which have contributed to teh greater good. E.g. if I had a guaranteed income I could research history of alchemy and chemistry more, resulting in the production of papers on history.
Basically most people won't sit at home doing nothing even if they had a basic income, they'd volunteer, help run things etc etc.

I always found it amusing that the Tories had an ideal view of life which included lots of volunteer work (running Scouts, church jumble sales, meels on wheels, whatever) yet their policies were and are specifically making that sort of thing harder to do due to longer, less efficient working hours and more people in work for longer and not retiring at 65.

95:

Instead of "A nation of slaves", a more apt title, tho' perhaps less SEO worthy, is "A nation of hobbyists".
But enough editing.

Once upon a time, a person's worth was measured in acres and heads of cattle.

Now, a person's worth is measured in money and cars.

We don't know how we'll assign worth and status and prestige in the future, but it's likely not to be the same as today.

96:

There was an interesting (if heretical) piece I read about this recently. Sadly it's passed out of my news aggregator and I can't find it again.

But basically he said that one of the 1%-ers lies to continue justifying inequality is the myth of the skills shortage. Once your in the club you have to keep saying the mantra to be allowed to stay in the club. But if you actually look at the data about unemployment and income in relation to skills - the evidence doesn't support it.

The best way to become an 1%-er is to inherit and your skills and qualifications make no difference. After that, luck makes more of a difference than anything else.

Below that level higher skills tend to correlate with better income for sure, but you're just about as likely to be unemployed too, with 3 degrees or 2 degrees as with only high school education. It's only if you're really unskilled plus other factors - like a prison record say - it gets really hard.

Don't have long before bed and google isn't cooperating, but it's an interesting read.

97:

I have found that answering the "what do you do" question with "I tell lies for money" really weeds out the sheep from the goats. By their responses may ye know them ...

98:

I've considered answering "An author", after reading a blog post (I think by Scalzi) on how he says he's an Author rather than Writer because some people seem to have the attitude that one is a profession, the other a hobby. But I'm not yet published.

More on topic: It seems, at least in the US, that retail employers tend to prefer part-time workers that they can pay less and get the same hours out of, though that means needing more of them. And I wonder how the new requirements of 'Obamacare' are going to affect that. I've been wanting to ask a restaurant owning friend if he's had to deal with it, particularly after opening his second sushi shop.

99:

As a solution to farm productivity growth rate outstripping added labor inputs and the consequent idling of workers leading to distribution problems, one early success was the ancient Egyptian monument building program, the original pyramid scheme. Could be the reason that state held together three millenia. Later when the yoke was invented, enabling horses to pull the new moldboard plough introduced from the east without collapsing their windpipes, then the heavy soils of northern Europe could be turned to productive use. A huge new food surplus based on horsepower, but what to do with the idled peasantry? Cathedrals! Build lots and lots of cathedrals, an arrangement that endured for centuries. America could get there as well, when shrinking employment, less wages and the resulting cutback in consumer spending throws the economy into permanent depression, or the wheels fall off as OGH predicted: just refurbish the old WPA program to hire up unemployed millions, pay them from increased taxation of the rentier class, whatever it takes. Maybe even get back to the tax rates of the Eisenhower era, high as 90% on the top brackets. And look what a boom era the 1950s were under that old pinko Ike. Projects for them to work on could likely be dreamed up by congress, hopefully something better than pyramids and cathedrals, but if the pharaohs and feudal kings could get there, I'm sure our elected representatives can too. Much of economics is not common sense, but some of it is.

100:

One of the benefits I don't think that's been mentioned for the guaranteed basic income is that it ought to make hiring people easier. Although I'm not now in that position, a few jobs ago I was in the position of hiring people occasionally. One of the less pleasant parts of hiring people wasn't interviewing people who were interested in the job, it was sorting out those who were applying 'because they had to' for some reason but were totally unsuited, or worse looked on paper like they might be suited but were clearly totally uninterested.

But if people don't have to work you should get fewer people apply for jobs that they're not interested in. They might be applying solely to try and get money of course but there's a decent chance they'll also be interested in the actual job.

101:

It's funny. I often have trouble thinking of those sort of Marxists as, well, actually Marxists. All the autonomous Marxists, and similar are on the far-left of the Marxist spectrum, and in some ways are even more left (and/or libertarian) than some of the anarchist-syndicalists (who also often distressingly fetishise work...). But anyway...

102:

Well, the usual counterargument is who's going to be waste collectors, err, "skilled worker for recycling and waste economy"

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fachkraft_für_Kreislauf-_und_Abfallwirtschaft

or sewage work:

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fachkraft_für_Abwassertechnik

Besides the hobby potential of dumpster diving, "Sperrmüll" (literally "bulky wast", the eternal struggle of students and semiprofessionals) and sewage speleology and other forms of urban exploration

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_exploration

first of all one way would be to produce less waste, second of create better systems for dealing iwth it.

103:

We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.

Ugly for whom? That's the big question. Right now it seems that it won't get ugly for the very people responsible for our current economic woes. Grim meathook futures are getting a lot more plausible than they used to be -- certainly more plausible than, say, a Player Piano future.

104:

My answer to this question is invariably, "nothing much". It seems to throw people who expect a more concrete answer. (Or recently I said, "I play poker all day", a terrible exaggeration.)
And if people walk away when you tell them you're a librarian. Well, you're probably better off not talking to them. Librarians are just as essential today as they were twenty, or fifty years ago. (He says with no self-interest...)

105:

Americans are all too isolated in our own homes ignoring our neighbors to organize any kind of collective action; all our major political movements are media creations backed by plutocrats.

Imho, the decline of labor's bargaining power for a slice of the pie can be traced back to suburbia in general and air conditioning and TV (and the internet) in particular. The most effective way for people to organize and coordinate is face-to-face, but we're rather out of that habit these days. Heck, even the political mavens who know better prefer to blow money on TV ads rather than employ shoe leather to go door to door.

106:

I think there would be some interesting research done on the amount of time wasted and how recruitement is made harder by the applicaiton fetish of the government. Forcing people to apply for 2 or 4 or 10 jobs a week, whether they can do the jobs or not, is very popular, yet I'm sure it doesn't increase people's chances of finding work, and surely wastes a lot of time at the recruiters end.

107:

Everyone knows what needs to be done. But very powerful people don't want to do this (in fact, they view the current situation as favoring them), so what needs to be done . . . isn't.

Notice, btw, that the era when Player Piano futures were deemed plausible is coincident with the era of The Organization Man. That's not a coincidence, imho.

108:

As I understand it, the medieval conception of "accidia", usually translated into English as "sloth", could better be translated as "depression".

109:

Charles Stross wrote: "I tell lies for money"

You have become a politician?

Seriously though, a well-designed and well-run basic income system could actually result in smaller, less expensive government.

However, the nature of the beast is that once such a system was in place, the temptation for those in power (or whoever has bought them) to use such a system to control people dependent upon it would be irresistible. The failure modes for such a system would be scary, indeed.

110:

What did the ancient Athenians do with their time, when all their day-to-day work was "automated"? They somehow found ways to fill their days.

There's much fulmination about basic income producing mass idleness; it might, but we have examples that indicate otherwise.

111:

Though someone else already said it, I'll wave the Mack Reynolds flag again.

Too bad he was stuck in the Ace paperback ghetto for most of his career...

112:

The current setup reminds me of nothing so much as the Dumarest Saga. Or Charlie's colonial model for that matter: the 0.1% who own and rule maintaining their grip over the bottom 90% via the merciless and brutal use of the remaining 9.9%

I don't believe in the mass extinction scenario because at the end of the day, no matter how much more efficient and effective they are, ordering robots around just isn't as satisfying as doing the same to real live human beings.

113:

You're making the mistake again Charlie, of talking sense.

Since when has that ever ruled in policy making?

From the perspective of the CEO, workers are a pain. You have to pay them money, they only work a third of the time, you need big support services to keep them in line, and their output is of uneven quality. Automation is much nicer to have and to manage. Sure, someone has to buy those products - but I'm optimising my part of the whole, my company, let some other bozo employ the masses.

From the perspective of the politician, there are these underclasses that all I do is pour money into. Money to live, money when they get sick, money to deal with the crime they cause. And for it, I get - nothing. No output, no return - hell, they don't even vote for me. It's much easier to cut out the middle man - give the money directly to the businesses I want to support (how much did you donate last year?) - much more efficient and manageable.

Easy enough to corral them in some godforsaken northern ghost town, reduce the services down, then just wait for a disease to run rife and cull the herd. What were they saying about H5N1? 30% mortality? Sounds good.

You really think an Osbourne will seriously talk about paying everyone a minimum stipend, enough to sustain them, without work? I think my scenario is MUCH more likely, and that goes for the US, SE Asia; China & India are already there. Any talk of GDPs etc can be massaged away with a bit of accountancy - and it's only their numbers that have any reality.

In the end, globally, we are in a fast car heading off the cliff. Forget the economists' models - "Limits to Growth" has been a better guide over the last 40 years than any of the sharp suits predictions. That has the death rate spiking around 2050 as poverty really sets in, resources run out and the pollution chokes us. If you want your utopia of 'optional work', you have turn that car first - see any signs of wheel turning or the current driver releasing his death grip?

114:

There are a lot of things that seems to fall into this category when you actually do the maths. I've often phrased the argument for them like this:

You don't do [public health / guaranteed wage / great public transport] because it's [nicer to poor people / more humane / an enabler of greater efficiency] ---- although each of these benefits are certainly true ---- you do it because it's the cheapest of all the available options.

The idea that each of these things would be expensive flies in the face of every single bit of the available evidence. If you somehow think that public health or guaranteed wages or public transport is more expensive than the alternatives you really have to ask yourself what the source for that information was.

115:

If, as in Australia, the provided benefits:

a) are small enough so that a couple renting a poor quality dwelling in a city they are forbidden to leave are left with $80 per week to feed, clothe and clean themselves and meanwhile to maintain communications, search for work, travel to meetings and purchase power for their home, and

b) are only available inside a Skinner-box Kafka nightmare that requires an iron will and detective-grade pattern recognition for mere survival

then it's actually pretty hard to argue that, considering the counterbalancing artificial detriments, there are any benefits being provided at all. One could more easily do substantially better by finding some laws to break. This defeats the purpose of social security.

116:

This is probably an example of Vimes Theory of Boots. This is also why in my neck of the woods, though it's well known that underground utility lines save money and pay for themselves in just ten years (AGW's a bitch, ain't it?) nevertheless, almost all utility wiring in my berg remains above ground.

117:

Has anyone else read Samuel Delany's Triton? While being a great book besides, it's also an achingly optimistic look at a system of social services that works. It's all fiction, I know that, but you're given housing, a meal card, basic clothes (and health care IIRC?), no matter what, and if you have a job, you can afford better. If your income falls below a certain level, you're automatically granted these life-support amenities, which totally eliminates much of the cost of these programs that conservatives love to bark about. I often think back to this idea - automatic supplanting of wage-borne care with fully subsidized programs. Suddenly, the shame AND COST of social services sink to a trivial level.

118:

Mate, it's not "entertainment". The people who own the news outlets here quite literally drive social policy.

The government depends upon them for propaganda - their brief defection to Labor in 2007 was a straightforward show of power to a conservative government that was beginning to think it governed in its own right - and in turn the government will, MUST, give them anything they want.

This is the reason that the government and commercial media make relentless unified assaults on the public broadcaster, and decry it as "biased" - it is a direct threat to all of them because it is the last unbiased media outlet in Australia.

What megpie71 is talking about is that right-wing commercial media figures are able to issue clear policy shopping lists to conservative politicians and expect to see corresponding policy changes in reasonably good time. When the commercial media whistles a tune, the government dances. The presence of music and dancing in this clusterfuck doesn't make it entertainment.

Furthermore, when Gina Rinehart speaks, the government listens. She and a couple of mates toppled a sitting Prime Minister with a brief media campaign in June 2010. If she says we ought to do a 60 hour week for $2 a day (and she really did) then you can be sure there's some head scratching going on in Parliament House while they try to figure out how to deliver it.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-09-05/rinehart-says-aussie-workers-overpaid-unproductive/4243866

119:

Have you read the novella Manna by Marshall Brain? It deals with this question in an interesting way.

120:

Thanks for capping an otherwise decent day with a nice dose of depressing realism... ;)

But yes. The system we live under - well, the one I live under in the 'States anyway - is thoroughly corrupt and self-serving, and moreover always has been in one way or another.

The problem IMO is
a) There's nothing any of us can do about it politically (because the political systems are completely screwed).
b) If you spend too much time thinking about this stuff it becomes essentially impossible to function. (Unless you make a living as an SF writer...)

I really like the bit about "bullshit jobs" though. (The insight I mean, not the fact that they exist.) It's one of those things I'd been aware of, but hadn't quite been able to articulate: that what some people call "right livelihood" has become a privilege. People are forced to choose between evils (and often judged harshly for it).

I do think that one can - sometimes, only sometimes - try to compensate. My job sucks in terms of social impact (financial sector, 'nough said). But I donate a fair-sized chunk of the income to a local charity, one with a good reputation. And hey - if I do a good enough job and get promoted, I can siphon more off into charity.

Maybe that's a form of doublethink, too. Helping one person doesn't nullify harm caused to another. But, see again "right livelihood is a social privilege." When you're presented a smorgasbord of bad choices, you sometimes have to be be a bit utilitarian about it.

121:

On a tangentially related note, I wonder if this is why people are so cynical about space travel right now. What's the point of colonizing Mars if 80% of people will still be living in slums?

122:

I agree with the minimum income, but with a few structural caveats.
1. It must be a lump sum that is not withdrawn if you earn income. Call it an allowance instead
2. Also add a rule that the effective marginal tax rate for all taxes can never be more than 50%.
3. Eliminate minimum wage.
4. Remove basic medical benefits from employment (in countries where it is not already).
These three together would mean that there would never be points where earning more would make someone worse off. If there is the allowance to cover basic living, then minimum wage is counter productive. If someone has their very basics covered and wants the opportunity to make a bit more, then let them do so at any mutually agreeable wage. If it is too low, they can walk away...
What is interesting is that an allowance of about $10,000, and a tax rate of ~40% gives roughly the same average tax rate across most of the income spectrum as the current Canadian system. The cost off all the various welfare and transfer systems basically would close the rest, and administering the system would be much easier.

123:

Thomas Piketty, an economist who is probably the foremost expert on income distribution, has just published a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argues convincingly that de facto slavery for the great majority, and misery for the majority of the majority is the normal state of affairs. The middle years of the twentieth century were an aberration. We're unlikely to go there again. There are a couple of points here.

The problem is not new. It is, in fact, the normal outcome of laissez-faire libertarian capitalism under ordinary economic conditions. For example, in Peter Laslett's wonderful book The World We Have Lost: further explored (3rd ed. Routledge 1983, reprinted 1994), Chapter 11 begins:

Rattle his bones, over the stones/he's only a pauper whom nobody owns
When Queen Victoria died at the very outset of the twentieth century one Londoner in five could expect to come to this, a solitary burial from the workhouse, the poor-law hospital, the lunatic asylum. On the whole the year 1901 was a prosperous time for the English ... Nevertheless something like a quarter of the population was in poverty.
Poverty, we must notice, was no vague condition then ... Families were in poverty 'whose total earnings are insufficient to obtain the minimum necessaries for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency'.[quote from Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty, 1901.]

Laslett then quotes Rowntree further to the effect that in London, then the richest city in the world and a fifth of the kingdom, over 30% of the population was in poverty. A depth of poverty such that they were malnourished and ill. The situation was not significantly better anywhere else.

That is what we have to look forward to.

Secondly, "technological unemployment" is a convenient distraction. Yes, innovation eliminates occupations. But if income were more widely and evenly distributed, it would also increase employment in other industries. If I had the income, I would use a whole bunch of services which are now out of reach of the middle classes: life coach, wardrobe consultant, interior designer, reading curator, tutors of various sorts, and personal assistant; as well making more use of existing services such as hairdresser, electrician, plumber. I don't think I'm alone: there is latent demand for lots of services -- I've listed only a few, specific to my interests and situation. What there is not, is an equitable distribution of income. So the demand remains latent, and the antitechnological mythos spreads.

Technological unemployment is not, and will not be, the problem. The problem is distribution of income. That's a political problem.

Apart from that, the post is bang on.

Where are we going? Jared Diamond, in Collapse, argues that the societies which endure are those which can abandon core principles and beliefs when circumstances change so that the beliefs are harmful.

On balance, I doubt whether we can change the core belief that "a man must break his back to earn his day of leisure" (Lennon [or McCartney], Girl).

So it'll be forward to the past: teeming rat-infested tenements, tuberculosis dysentery and chronic lower respiratory tract disease, septicemia and sudden violent death, chronic malnutrition and tooth decay, crippling injuries left untreated (never mind things such as cleft palates and congenital deafness)... all the things that steampunk so signally failed to portray.

If I'm wrong, the most likely alternatives are worse.

124:

Mr. Osborne and the Conservatives want nothing more than a new Illithid empire full of captive slaves. Let's Gith them what for!

125:

Market capitalism is the combination of a production and distribution system. It's worked very well on the production side and until recently not too bad on the distribution side, in that the labor share of total income has been pretty steady. But in the last two decades that seems to have changed. I put that down to technology, and so I don't think the trend will slow down. But who says market capitalism is fair? That idea is based on an underlying ethical belief that one should get what one "earns" with the assumption that the market determines the value of one's earnings. As long as we hold to the idea that income is appropriately related to the market value of one's labor, we have to seek "full employment" as the only way to provide incomes.

This Protestant work ethic" is not only leading to social tension, but also impedes the very technology progress that has the potential to create abundance for all in the fairly near future. I hope I can sufficiently illustrate this by reference to the fight over Tesla dealerships in NJ. There are many, many other examples of groups trying to preserve some economic rent in the face of disruptive technologies.

My point is that changing the distribution system (to guaranteed minimum income, for example) is not only a matter of human sympathy (one might even say Christian ethics of the New Testament) but also a matter of practical efficiency.

126:

There are so many interesting things to do, and so many ways to be happy doing them, if your choices aren't constrained by poverty or threats therof.

I know a lot of social change activists, from forest blockaders to food not bombs people to indymedia people. There there are the makers, who experiment with weird and wonderful things that might not have a commercial purpose but are nonetheless interesting. Like tall bikes (seat 2m off the ground) or paragliders, or urban beekeepers. I "sponsored" a couple of people at one stage who were doing blue-sky research, and were happy to have me pay them slightly more than the dole so they could do that.

The difference between those who are struggling to maintain a "working lifestyle" and those who aren't is dramatic. If, for whatever reason, you need or want to live like someone with a job while you don't have the income to do it, life sucks. I count "being on the dole" as a job, because staying on the dole in Australia takes 10-30 hours a week with no way to predict how much time will be required or how successful you'll be in any given week. Which is as bad as a the worst casual-on-call minimum wage jobs (but lower paid and lower status, usually).

My guess is the 80% in the middle that have been discussed would almost all find useful things to do with themselves if they were given the chance to.

127:

when SF writers get it wrong, they don't cause human misery and suffering on an epic scale

*cough* L. Ron Hubbard?

128:
I do think that one can - sometimes, only sometimes - try to compensate. My job sucks in terms of social impact (financial sector, 'nough said). But I donate a fair-sized chunk of the income to a local charity, one with a good reputation. And hey - if I do a good enough job and get promoted, I can siphon more off into charity.

Maybe that's a form of doublethink, too. Helping one person doesn't nullify harm caused to another. But, see again "right livelihood is a social privilege." When you're presented a smorgasbord of bad choices, you sometimes have to be be a bit utilitarian about it.


This was dissected ~120 years ago, by none other than Oscar Wilde.
129:

I think Charlie has this slightly wrong, through looking at it from a strictly utilitarian view.

Any job is better than no job in the same sense that some status is better than no status. (See the long history of the refusal to admit women, minorities, the poor, etc., actually do work, because to do work, to be paid wages, is to have status.)

It's all insecurity management, and the traditional mechanisms don't cut it in a world with seven billion people and serious efforts to unscrew the inscrutable going on everywhere. Sometime in the 40s, Operations Research figured out that, for big problems, the kind of problem you couldn't just do it all yourself if somehow you had time, you could have success, or you could have control.

The position of the party of money is that this has to be wrong; they're effectively flat-earthers about social organization. (They're also increasingly obviously incompetent.)

All it takes is one working social system that's got the distinction between decision, control, and success sorted out, and all will fall before it. (Not necessarily neatly, but probably pretty fast. Wasting creative problem solving is still a problem for your automation until you're looking at weakly super-human AI extending itself, and we're nowhere near that.)

Everybody in the overclass knows this if they're not very good at self-delusion or very dumb. They're completely doomed; either the next better thing will get them or the crash as the agricultural underpinnings fail will get them. They're stone-ground terrified.

Fear makes you stupid.

And in the meantime, there is absolutely no shortage of work to do, only a shortage of the social ability to agree that those things are work or should be paid for.

130:

Or as Iain Banks put it: "[We] live in a society that substitutes sentimentality for compassion."

But I wouldn't be so quick to call it sentimental and foolish if it makes people's lives a bit more liveable. No, it won't solve any of the problems for good. No, it's not nearly enough. Does that make it useless? Would you say it was useless, if your life depended on it?

Moreover, what would you recommend that people do instead? You're quite correct that most of these issues would be solved if we had saner political and economic systems. On the other hand, the argument I see repeated over and over again above is that getting rid of the current systems will not be possible, we're all pretty much doomed, etc.

If the patient can't be cured, you can at least try for palliative care. Seriously.

131:

BTW, to pretty much everyone posting here: does the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy" ring a bell? Fear isn't the only thing that will make you stupid; depression does just as well.

132:

Mack Reynolds was writing about this decades ago. He imagined many solutions and outcomes. But he never envisioned that the elite would be so incredibly short-sighted and disdainful of the poor as to actually refuse to give them the minimum means necessary to survive.

It's the one approach that might actually manage to build populist rage against the elite: "Let them eat cake". Rebnolds never dreamed that the elite would be stupid enough to tempt Fate this way. But he forgot one key fact: they're an elite of money and power, not brains.

133:

I'll play Devil's Advocate here: I'm not seeing a trend towards greater technological unemployment, or even necessarily a trend towards accelerating income inequality in the US. The unemployment rate in the US was 4% as recently as 2007, just before the Recession hit, and it was 3.9% back in 1999 before the 2000-2001 recession hit. And if you look at the charts at the link I list below, real family income followed that trend, going up in the late 1990s, dipping during the 2000 and 2002 slow-downs, then climbing again before the Recession collapse.

Take a look at this set of charts from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. By far the biggest jumps in the Top 1% share of income (including capital gains) was in the 1980s and 1990s. Even before the 2007 start of the recession, their income only went from about 22% to 24% (an 8% increase) - contrast that with the change in the 1980s, where their share of income went from 10% of national income to 16% (a 60% increase).

All that said, I support a guaranteed basic income stipend, although I'm undecided on where the level of it should be (probably around $10,000-$15,000 a year per adult citizen and permanent resident, or right at the poverty line for an individual). Direct money transfers are by far the most effective way to reduce poverty, as seen with Social Security and its drastic reduction of elderly poverty in the US.

134:

Also, put me in the camp that believes that if the Piketty Hypothesis is true and wealth grows at 5% a year versus 2-3% for GDP (not entirely sure I buy that, but let's run with it), then that's a good argument for an American Sovereign Wealth Fund that everyone owns a share in. You might even be able to turn it into part or all of a basic income stipend set-up, with the pay-outs linked to the performance of the Fund.

135:

I've actually been having this very discussion a lot recently, and I've found that even beyond the obvious logistical problems of achieving a leisure society, there is this huge mental block about the very idea of not working (or not working much). The line usually goes "I'd love not to have to work, but I think humans need work to give meaning to their lives" or some such rot. I actually hear this most of all from rabid anti-capitalists.

I think there's a parallel to people's tendency to say "I wouldn't want to live forever, life is made so much more precious by the inevitable end." This is a really easy thing to say given that no human being has ever been given the alternative; similarly, when nobody has ever had an alternative to the slavery of "work, leech, steal, or die," it's easy to artificially elevate that to a virtue--those grapes are probably sour anyways.

Our attachment to work can be seen in the way we look at leisure--namely, a necessary evil only good for restoring us to good working shape (break down the word "recreation" some time). Even when we hear calls for longer vacation time, it's usually in the context of how much more productive workers with longer vacation are, not how much happier.

136:

EL at #85" 'For all people scream and shout about it, I don't understand why an inalienable basic income isn't instituted.'

For all those people like EL at #85 who seem genuinely puzzled by this question ....

There's no inalienable basic income because if there were workers at, say, a company like Walmart (not incidentally, the largest employer in the US) wouldn't be compelled to put up with the conditions and pay there --
http://onlabor.org/2013/11/22/working-at-wal-mart-part-two-employee-morale-and-frequent-complaints/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/12/10/how-defending-walmarts-low-paying-employment-policies-puts-the-lie-to-conservative-philosophy/

...and in general the people who own such companies wouldn't get what they want: more for them and less for you.

It really is that simple. And since it's their country and the rest of us just live in it, they get what they want.


If at this stage anyone doubts this, note how existing U.S. benefits are structured so food stamps, Medicaid, and other poverty programs do pay a big part of the living expenses of Walmart's workers. Thus, Walmart doesn't have to pay living wages, enabling higher profit margins.

Note, too, that in 2008 when the GFC hit, the U.S. government immediately made $700 billion available -- essentially, created it out of thin air -- to purchase distressed assets, especially mortgage-backed securities, and to inject capital directly into banks and other financial institutions....
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_Economic_Stabilization_Act_of_2008

....or (to put it another way) to shore up the existing wealth structure (much of it fictitious capital) as it favored the owners of the U.S.

Note, especially, that while those owners have no problem with money created out of nothing MMT-style-- guaranteed income in the billions, in other words -- when it's going to them as in the GFC bailout, they do have a problem with foreclosure relief, bailouts, etc. being made available to the general populace.

Because then, after all, the advantages they possess in terms of having capital during a post-crash situation (as we've continued to have since 2008)when everybody else has nothing would be lessened.

If the general populace had received even a fraction of the bailout that the financial classes got, for instance, private equity wouldn't have been able to buy up large lots of foreclosed homes at firesale prices in selected areas of the U.S., and then jam those areas' residents for rents that in many cases are higher than either rents before the GFC or than regular mortgage payments.

More generally, the 1 percent wouldn't have been able to capture (or loot) 95 percent of all income gains since 2008, while the general populace continues to struggle with less. And that's the real-world situation --

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/31/emmanuel-saez-and-thomas-pikettys-graph-of-the-year/

In the bigger picture, the coming decades of the 21st century will witness a global convergence of incomes among populations everywhere(whether they're workers or not). Average folks in, say, China and America are going to receive more equal slices of the global economic pie. What the plutocracy wants is for that convergence to result in a situation where average income worldwide is nearer that of average Chinese folks now, rather than average U.S. incomes in the 1960s.

It really is that simple.


137:

It's not entirely unfounded. Unemployed people tend to have a myriad of psychological and self-esteem issues that pop up with extended unemployment, although whether that would be the case in a society where most people don't have "work for money" as their central activity and major source of identity is uncertain. Considering that aristocracies often made an identity out of not "working" , probably not.

138:

Exactly; saying "people who are idle in a society where idleness is seen as wicked are depressed, therefore idleness is inherently bad" is a bit like saying "gay people growing up a society where gayness is seen as wicked are depressed, therefore being gay is inherently wicked."

139:

I agree we need mincome in some form, but there are a couple of caveats.

First, mincome is an uncontrolled system. If you're living in a genuinely abundant society, it's no problem if you wind up with the employable leaving the work force, but if you can't handle 85% unemployment on, say, 30% or 40% of GDP, you need negative feedback to provide an incentive to work enough to relieve the pressure on the system. Seems to me that way you do that is to agree on what percentage of GDP you're going to spend on entitlements (I'd like to see mincome and health care be the only entitlements, especially since I'm American and our welfare system is even more screwed up than yours, appearing to be cleverly designed to ensure that people can't leave it, even if they want to), then work backward from that number to figure out what the level of mincome is given the current and near-future projected unemployment rates are. That way, if you get too many people flooding the system, you're pushing people back into the labor force. As you get closer to the threshold of true abundance, this problem goes away, though.

Second, capital gets a vote in all of this. Perhaps the US will find a way to spend more than 18% of GDP on federal revenue, but nobody's been able to figure out how through top marginal tax rates as low as 28% and as high as 90% in the post-war era. If you try to extract more than that, capital either takes its bat and goes home--or goes on an extended vacation to exotic foreign lands--or it becomes politically obstreperous and buys the taxation system that it wants.

Ultimately, capital just wants good value for its money. If mincome is the only way to keep consumers consuming and the population tranquil, more revenue will become available. But the value really has to be there, which means--again, pre-abundance--that the employable had better be in the workforce for as long as they remain employable.

Finally, you've got major cultural work to do before you pull the plug on work being the key extrinsic factor to a westerner's identity. You can't just leave people without a purpose and expect your society to continue to cohere. I expect we'll figure something out over time--we always have--but it's going to take a while. Again, the time between now and the abundance threshold sounds like it might be just about right.

140:

I have NOT read any preceding comments, so please bear with me.

Osborne is in the UK's hot-seat right now & deserves ho share of the opprobrium, but ... are ANY of the "other" lots any better?
[ Labour, Lib-Dem, UKIP, the nationalist/puritan-loons, respectively. Also, FORGET any form of communism or Marxism, because that was based on a set of (SF-like) predictions, that did not happen, so the model is invalid from the word "go". ]
NO
Yet, they are all stuck with the broken model that Charlie clearly posits.

Now what?

I'll come back later for other remarks, but not right now.

141:

P.S. OFF TOPIC
Inwar Ibrahim, in Malaysia, has kicked the anthill over ...
Claims there is a cover-up in progress.
Oops.
See "A Hypothesis" several posts back.

142:

I guess I don't believe Walmart run the world. Or even the US. A system that seems to balance common weal with reduced size of government and bureaucracy just ought to appeal to all.

And, on the flip side, I do believe that the people that run Walmart, or their successors, will work out how to game the new system for their maximal benefit. What they're objecting to is having to work out how to change the systems they've got to exploit their workforce.

Added to which, it simply doesn't stop people working, including working for Walmart. Unlike jesse.huebsch (#122) I don't think a guaranteed basic income should mean doing away with a minimum wage - although I think we'd see a lot of pressure for it to come down and that would probably happen - and Walmart might bleat loudly about that and everything else but I still think they'd find they get a lot of benefits from a workforce that choose to work for them for reasons other than "it's this or starve."

And if Walmart's bosses are too stupid to see that companies that have a happier workforce tend to get even more for the bosses well, I guess it helps explains why they didn't manage to invade the UK to some extent.

143:

I don't think Osbourne really intends to pursue policies known to improve employment rates - for some reason the political consensus in the West seems to be that a recession is when people are spending too much money and need to stop (also, conflating microeconomic personal debt with macroeconomic debt, as well as various fatal structural flaws in the Eurozone, political deadlock in the US, etc). I think employment rates could be higher if fiscal policy (and monetary policy in the Eurozone) were better. This is an aside to the main point of the post, but worth stating (and given the relationship of the writer with Paul Krugman, an argument that they probably know about already). Plus you have idiotic things like workfare reducing the availability of entry-level jobs, the erosion of the rights of employees with things like zero-hour contracts, etc.

One thing that could be a growth industry in the near future is nursing and other related industries. High-quality care is a difficult thing to get right, and it's a human-labour-intensive job until robotics gets really good (and even then, a human carer is probably reassuring for people who are vulnerable than a robotic one). It's not a fun job, but it will be increasingly necessary as the demographic pyramid inverts itself.

144:

Full employment means more tax revenue for the state - so why is a full-employment policy NOT a good thing?

145:

If you're going by published headline unemployment figures in the USA (or the UK), they're basically rigged. "Unemployment" reflects the number of people successfully claiming unemployment benefits (UK: Jobseekers' Allowance). People who aren't working but who are ineligible for these subsidies don't count. People in prison don't count. People on workfare don't count. PhDs working part-time on zero-hours contracts for a fast food joint don't count. And so on.

Again: the top 1% aren't the folks who're making out like bandits; it's more like the top 0.01% -- there's a sharp rupture between the very-well-off (the 1%) who have merely seen living standards rise by about the rate of inflation over the past decade, and the elite (the 1% of the 1%) who have seen their net worth skyrocket by something like 50% over the past 5-8 years.

146:

Full employment means more tax revenue for the state - so why is a full-employment policy NOT a good thing?

You're assuming that the jobs in question are sufficiently well-paid to result in the workers paying income tax. Alas, almost all jobs created in the UK since 2008 have been low-paid jobs -- a lot of the workers are still on income support, even if they're not working on workfare schemes. (Hence the recent move to increase the minimum wage. From a Tory chancellor, that's pretty damning stuff.)

VAT is a work-around -- it's a regressive tax that everyone pays -- but if you increase it it's inherently inflationary, which is probably a good thing (or the UK would have 50% VAT by now). It's beloved of governments since 1979 because they can cut the rate of income tax -- which the voters know about and hate -- and transfer the tax base to somewhere invisible (in the UK, all prices quoted at retail must include the VAT -- VAT isn't broken out as a separate charge to the consumer, so is invisible).

147:

Maybe I missed it, but "Doublethink" is also needed:

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them...

One notes the consensus about how better treatment motivates the well-rewarded to excel for the benefit of society; while the only incentives required for the less well-off people are threats, misery and abuse.

The magic phase-transition from "Baldrick" to "Prince of Enlightenment" seems to be placed about somewhere around the 20% percentile of the income distribution.

148:

Two thoughts:

1. Charlie wrote "...western capitalism did really well throughout the middle of the 20th century...". I'm not sure that western capitalism still exists, in any meaningful sense. What we have, instead, with the corporate hives and the bureaucratic hives is some kind of crony capitalism, or fascism-lite, that is not motivated by the basic drivers that western capitalism was and therefore does not deliver the outputs that it used to.

2. While a guaranteed basic income is clearly an idea whose time has come, I think that many people are mistaken as to from where the opposition to it comes. Consider that, in the USA, we spend around $21,000 per annum on welfare benefits for each individual whose income is below the federal poverty line. Yet only $2000-$3000 of that money actually ends up in the hands of those individuals. The rest pays for the salaries, office costs, Aeron chairs etc. of the welfare bureaucracy and it's those folks (typically associated with the left, rather than the right) who form the real roadblock to minbasic.

149:

"'We need a guaranteed basic income scheme. We need it now. Otherwise the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.'

"In the US, far more politically conservative, and far more armed per capita than any other developed country, there may well be blood. Lots of blood."

The rest of the world has been predicting "blood in the streets" in the States for, well, just about forever. So far, they've only been right once and we had that one coming (1861 - 65). Think of us as one Petri dish; the EU is another, ditto Russia, China, India. While we're all interdependent, I see no reason we should become a monoculture. Every flower was a weed once.

150:

So, I LOL at "Lies for money" remembering RAW's comments about pyramidal command and control structures; where everyone lies to their superiors, telling them what they want to hear, lies to their subordinates to get them to do as told and lies to their peers for self respect. And then our good friend Peter Watts posts this:- http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=4738
riffing on a study that seems to show that Oxytocin encourages people to lie for the group. So under the influence of oxytocin, you’ll only lie a little to benefit yourself. You’ll lie a lot to benefit a member of “your group”— even if you’ve never met any of “your group”, even if you have to take on faith that “your group” even exists. You’ll commit a greater sin for the benefit of a social abstraction. So goddess knows who or what Mr Osbourne is lying for. But he's clearly being paid to lie to us.

151:

I give to charity, too; no need to get heated. And that's not Wilde's objection. His objection is giving to charity and, thinking you've done good, stopping there:

The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim.
Full essay, which is the source of his "bludgeoning of the people, by the people" quote, much more than the witty aside it's usually seen as.
152:

I guess I don't believe Walmart run the world. Or even the US.

I can tell you for sure that Fox News runs the American South. It pretty well defines the limits of the political opinions I hear face-to-face (outside of my house). If I have to listen to one more rant about how global warming is a hoax, I may set someone on fire.

As far as the rest goes, well, how do politicians act in your neck of the woods? Do they spend all their time listening to the little people to figure out what the voters want, or do they spend all their time raising funds from the rich to buy ads to mislead the voters into terrible choices?

153:

It seems to me that the design of a guaranteed income system would need to take into account both political acceptability and the impact of such a system on those receiving income. For one thing, I think it is desirable to avoid the "panem et circenses" type system that, I suspect, destabilized the Roman republic as well as being damaging to the dignity of the plebeians (which things may well have been interrelated). For another, it is helpful to sell the program that subsidizing those at the bottom of the income scale also provide collateral societal benefits.

I would draw inspiration from programs like the Bolsa Familia in Brazil and its imitators elsewhere. The Bolsa, for those unfamiliar, provides direct payments to parents to send their children to school and get vaccinated. This not only provides money to those in need, it incentivizes pro-social behavior. This principle can be extended to provide universal guaranteed income (i.e. making non-parents eligible) by providing, and incentivizing life-long learning, and for participation in the political process and availability for sitting on a jury (which currently receives only token compensation, at least where I live). Such systems provide the two-birds-with-one-stone advantages of encouraging behavior which benefits us all (education is a classic public good and *anything* pro-vaccine is desperately needed) while also channeling money to those who need it in a way where they can feel that they have earned what they have received.

154:


... but life expectancies will also have increased beyond 80 ...

To fix that, the crapification of health service will soon become a government priority (if it isn't already): Combined with them rigging pensions to force savers into an annuity (an insurance) rather than a regular pension savings, the financiers can make some winning bets on our lives.

155:

You're forgetting that a chunk of the benefit of a basic income is the ability to throw out the bureaucracy needed to conditionally deliver benefits.

156:

We don't get as many adverts on the TV as you do in the UK, so

Do they spend all their time listening to the little people to figure out what the voters want, or do they spend all their time raising funds from the rich to buy ads to mislead the voters into terrible choices?
No and no.

The current batch - the chancellor seems to spend most of his time being smary and saying "I'm alright jack" and "stop being nasty to bankers" while hoping we forget he's BFFs with most of them. The PM seems to stagger from side to side trying to pretend he's in charge while being pulled to be a lunatic by his right wing and Ukip and do things that give him a chance of being electable the next time by the more moderate wing of the party. He says the right things on global warming and has an environment minister that doesn't believe in global warming too... I occasionally feel sorry for him until he trots out "We're all in this together" from his ultra-privileged, ultra-rich background.

And they're the real sources of power.

Fighting for money to advertise all the time might change if the next lot to get in don't reverse the fixed term parliament idea of Cameron. I find myself ambivalent about it to be honest - I see advantages and disadvantages but I think long term more disadvantages. One of those is that we're seeing a 400-day countdown to the next election which we never used to have. But, typically we'll have a smallish amount of election campaigning for other things. Our TV and radio news is legally obliged to be unbiased and largely does this (despite carping from the politicians) by saying "Why do you want to change what we've got? What's your evidence that what you're proposing will be better than the current system?" to everyone. The print media is a different story but from once dominating the country with several papers regularly over 3 million sold per day, only 2 papers managed over to average 1 million copies sold in January 2014 (and that now includes what used to be the freebies given to hotels etc.).

157:

I don't know how typical my situation is - it's kind of hard to get data without a lot of political spin on it - but I changed jobs under this current government. I've just completed my books for the end of March because I'm self-employed.

That, apparently, is quite common.
I work part-time too. That suits me to be honest, but is also quite common from what I hear.
I am, naturally, paying my PT NI contributions, so I am contributing to the exchequer somewhat. Frankly, it's a pittance - £10/month.
I set my hourly rate at comfortably above the minimum wage, and above the living wage - I work in an industry that lets me do that too it has to be said, and have the skills and experience to let me do so.
My gross income will probably be a little over the tax threshold to pay income tax. Being self-employed I get some deductible allowances. For example, for my work I use Adobe Photoshop which is now charged on a monthly subscription basis. That's a legitimate deductible expense and the taxman agrees. Because I work online my internet fees are too - but I only charge half because I work from home and I have better internet because of work but would have internet anyway. Those two will probably bring me down under the tax threshold.
I'll probably owe a top-up of Class 4 NI at the end of the year. It will be about £350 I think.
So, all told my contribution to the exchequer on one of these new super jobs will be If I was on a minimum wage job it would be less by the way - I wouldn't owe a penny if I worked full time, except the minimum national insurance contribution.

158:

That should be "my contribution to the exchequer on one of these new super jobs will be £500."

159:

The "impossible" part doesn't bother me. We have all sorts of goals that are impossible to achieve, which doesn't mean we shouldn't work at them.

I have been wondering about our future. Right now governments get their money from the tax paying middle class. The wealthy are bribing politicians to keep it that way while they are destroying the middle class. The wealthy want the state to keep spending money though. In the long term if they have more and more money with less and less tax, some alternative will be needed for paying for the services they want.

Looking at history, having the wealthy care about the middle class is rare. They don't care about nations either. Like the rest of us, they care about peers. If the peers are spread around the world, then local economies don't matter. Look at all of the European wars that were about one cousin against another, not for national needs, but for personal needs.

160:

Hmm, speaking of nation states; why not we get rid of all these restrictions on humans and their movements too? These poxy passports and the right to be somewhere are just annoying actually.

I would expect utter chaos as the airlines, or better still ships (why worry about hard-fascination type transport?) do a killing as everyone moves about and swaps and changes, but sooner or later many would likely want to be in Africa, or Mongolia or wherever-such-place... If the wage slavery problem was abolished, then why would many not want to live differently, go looking for life in their life? - some would choose more isolation, totally different topography, climates perhaps, etc etc... Anyhow, just popping it into the mix here, as it just keeps popping into my head these last few years.

And how about passport exchanges? LOL

161:
Hmm, speaking of nation states; why not we get rid of all these restrictions on humans and their movements too? These poxy passports and the right to be somewhere are just annoying actually.

Tend to agree. If there's free movement of capital why not of people? Almost literally a Quid Pro Quo. According to wiki Passports go back a very long way, thought in the UK we can blame Henry V, apparently. Though the idea goes back a long way. I think it has more to do with Kings wanting control and subsequent administrations being loath to abandon powers.

Though on the channel tunnel route to France I've rarely needed one. Presumably my preferred travel time is a shift change... Coming back though they're a bit more demanding. And armed. Only been stopped once. They took my toilet rolls apart, with no compensation, not even a curry. Even so, and may God forgive me I like France & the French, generally.

162:

There is free movement of people ... as long as they're attached to a large chunk of capital. I gather an "investor's visa" will set you back between €550K in Malta and £10M in the UK. Mind you, in the latter case, your application gets you the red carpet treatment from HM Border Agency -- you're assigned your very own immigration officer as a concierge to smooth your paperwork trail!

163:

I'd go for Swiss capitalism. I'm not sure exactly what they're *doing*, but they're achieving 3% unemployment (which they consider high, it's been as low as 1%), and 3% *youth* unemployment (which is basically incredible for Europe or the US). Lest you think this is because lots of people simply aren't even looking for work, their employment-population ratio for ages 15-64 is 79%, just below Iceland (benefits of not being on the euro in the eurocrisis.)

Reportedly, blue collar jobs have decently high prestige there, and going into a manual apprenticeship isn't considered losing at life.

164:

"Another way of thinking about it is that 2.5% "unemployment" is equivalent to full employment with an average tenure of about 2 years if workers take a week off when they change jobs."

Eh? If the worker has 4 weeks vacation a year, that's 48 weeks of work a year, or 96 weeks in two years. A week between jobs is about 1%.

As for the main issue, I disagree with you. While I wouldn't trust Osborne's idea of full employment policies, especially as his austerity policies have been directly opposed to that, I don't see an electorate opting for generously paying people to not work that hasn't first tried to pay them to work. I also don't see any shortage of useful work for humans to be doing; that there's a shortage of jobs just indicates we need new ways to pay for such work -- or rather, more use of the old way, government jobs and contracts. Markets aren't going to clean up polluted sites or run first-class public transit on their own.

I'd say a mix of fully Keynesian macro management (and maybe reduced work week/increased vacation) and expansion of public-goods jobs carries a lot less "are we fucking up" risk than full basic income. If we try the former and there's *still* a problem, then we can try the latter. But hardly anyone's even tried the former yet. Why not advocate for the economically less risky and politically more feasible thing first?

165:

I thought up a solution to that problem actually, based off of Google's business model;

Governments possess massive quantities of personal data relating to their citizens, and it seems sensible that governments can sensibly argue that they are best placed and positioned to mediate and license out the mass utilisation of such data for commercial means (insurance, advertising etc...).

With just the relatively small amount of data google posseses relating to people's internet habits and personal corespondence Google was able to net about $14 billion out of targetted ads back in 2009.

One can only assume that a similar sized, if not larger, revenue stream could be found for governments with access to PRISM scale information gathering - and any resulting funding gap can be closed using punitive sales taxes.

Thus the ongoing need for income and similar progressive (or jealousy based) forms of taxing is obviously questionable to a right thinking man's man with a gun on his hip and a good women in the kitchen, big commie gov'mints time is coming to a close.

(note that this idea first occurred to me a few weeks before the UK government actually did sell off anonymised medical data collected by the NHS to various international companies, because tories are beyond the pale and parody)

166:
There is free movement of people ... as long as they're attached to a large chunk of capital.
Sure, but about 30 years ago I could live like a king in Kenya on 16k GBP a year. Presumably these days I could live like a president, or General for Life, if I maintained my UK salary. Mind you the interview in Paris, where the boardroom was opposite a ballet exercise class did tend to recommend Europe, at the time. Didn't get it, American lawyers).

Mind you one of the (I think) amusing things about citizenship is that my wife has formally sworn allegiance to the Queen, which is more than I've done.

167:

I have no idea if this is relevant to the present discussion, but it might be...

In the US, the definition of "unemployed" is notoriously counter-intuitive (not having work but actively looking for it), but there is a somewhat more straightforward statistic called "Labor Force Participation" (roughly, the percentage of non-disabled adult civilians with a job or looking for one).

What's interesting is that this number hovered around 59% from the end of WW II until it began a secular increase in the mid-1960s, reaching about 67% around 2000. It then started to drift downward until the crash of 2008, when the curve bent sharply downward -- a condition that continues today, when the number is 63% and shows every sign of going still lower.

A chart showing this is at

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?id=CIVPART,

and a slightly different take referenced to the overall population is at

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/EMRATIO

It's not at clear to me just what's going on here, but it does seem as if the number of people without jobs in the US is on the rise and will probably continue to increase for a while.

It's also interesting that the period 1948-1966 is regarded, correctly or not, as a somewhat golden era in terms of the fortunes of the broad middle class. And the participation rate during that time was quite a bit lower than at any time since.

For a macroeconomist's rumination on What It All Means, see

http://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/review/2014/q1/bullard.pdf

The Rise and Fall of Labor Force Participation in the United States
by James Bullard
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis REVIEW
First Quarter 2014

168:

This leads directly to a conversation I've been trying and trying to get started for 20 years, and mostly, no one wants to think about it. As we approach what I term the "post-Adamic society" (c, 1995, me), which is where we no longer need to earn our living by the sweat of our brow... what the hell *do* we do with our lives?

I recall a brief thread about this in, of all places, The n-Category Café, a mathematics blog. To quote the mathematical physicist John Baez, writing about Greg Egan's then new novel Incandescence:

Indeed, one nice thing about certain SF stories — like Riding the Crocodile, or some other things by Egan, or parts of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or some of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels — is that they tackle the problems faced by people whose basic needs are all met, and who thus need to tackle the question what’s really worth doing, when you have the freedom to try anything?

A lot of non-SF writing — so-called ‘serious literature’ — features characters faced with this question who collapse into self-destructive behavior. This is an important problem, but ultimately I find it a bit boring. Yes, you can become a drug addict, kill someone, or slit your wrists…. next?

So, it’s really nice to read fiction with characters who find somewhat better solutions to this question.

In particular, there’s a lot of room for interesting disagreements in the region between ‘the desire between impossible knowledge’ and ‘the desire to simply enjoy existence’.

And, at least in our world, don’t forget ‘the desire to help the less fortunate’.

It's a question that Egan has addressed in quite a few stories.

169:

In pursuit of an alternative solution to this troublesome problem, I should like to make a Modest Proposal.

170:

the wheels are going to fall off, and the results will be extraordinarily ugly.

The system seems remarkably robust relative to any potential challengers. I just can't see the wheels falling off, no matter how many of us get demoted from passengers to pavement.

171:

I suspect that a world where everyone's basic needs are provided for them would resemble Clockwork Orange more than Star Trek. You see a hint of this in communities that have depended on government subsidies for generations; without some connection to the Darwinian realities of life, some mechanism for challenge and selection, their societies tend toward the dystopian.

Obviously I'm oversimplifying, but does anyone deny that when life is proscribed and provided for by the State as some are suggesting, young men in particular, who crave a sense of power and freedom in their lives, will tend to become hoodlums? This may disappoint those who think socialism is humanity's only alternative to barbarism, but without some current of barbarism, don't civilizations become oppressive, degenerate, decadent, depressed and criminal, none of which will produce a Star Trek world?

172:

without some connection to the Darwinian realities of life

Ah, social Darwinists. Because libertarians and objectivists aren't bad enough.

without some current of barbarism, don't civilizations become oppressive, degenerate, decadent, depressed and criminal

Y'know, I can hear exactly those phrases coming out of a translation of something orated by Hitler. Because? That's warmed-over Straussianism, and Leo Strauss was nothing if not a fascist-apologist. (I have a strong impression that he bitterly regretted having been born Jewish so that he couldn't follow Heidegger's example.)

173:

Except that back in real countries with real welfare systems, crime is falling, the youth are no more revolting than previously (Possibly less so, video games are good for some things), and the actual periods of crime and violence co-incide with attempts by social Darwinists to destroy the social networks and structures within which people resided.

So, in short, no.

174:

Yes I know very well what you're talking about. For me, the spectacle of young men playing video games and living on food cards is a horrific dystopia, but of course you may have a different perception. Personally I'd rather seem them revolting than accepting such a docile, dead, artificial existence, but I suppose that makes me some kind of fascist...

175:

Read most but not all of the above ... Agree with a universal minimum personal income...

.. cheaper than institutionalizing people who are 'forced' into making poor choices because they've been put into a corner -- do this or starve. (Let's call this the Les Mis scenario)

.. my biggest fantasy/wish is to see how many Einsteins our world might produce if all people were provided the opportunity and means to do what they do best. (Boredom is really very painful, so personally I think the vast majority of people would attempt to fill their time.)

.. there is no reason why people should look to large corporations for jobs ... small outfits are where most of the jobs have been created for at least a couple of decades now. Emotionally fulfilling/engaging product/ service ventures seem to be growing in popularity, i.e., becoming 'major consumer goods/services'. Such companies always need distribution and ancillary support goods and services. So check them out ... and because these companies are often very small, the working conditions tend to be pretty good. Not fancy, but liveable. (If they get really hot, there may be an employee-share IPO for you.)


A question:
Has anyone been following what's going on in Japan? Japan seems to be ahead of the curve as far as developed economies go particularly in terms of aging population, negative population growth, etc. Plus like other G7 Western cultures, they appear trapped in a semi-feudal class war - the corporations are the feudal estates - and place a very high value on 'belonging' to the right group/clique.


If anyone's interested, I'm still for a "transaction tax" of about 0.1% on stock trades ... which by the way is finally being investigated because the amount of money being made (created out of thin air) and by whom is completely insane and such a tax would plow back tons of money into the country's coffers and the overall (99%er) economy.

176:

Sorrey, Charlie, but I thought that was a given.
In the same way that the "left" (Whatever that means now) are still trying to increase taxes, not on the 0.1% (or whatever the tiny ultra-rich fraction at the real top is)) but on the 2-3% - which makes them unpopular/unelectable, which thenm favours the 0.1%, which ...

But, if those people in work are earning, say 17-22K a year, then they will all be paying income tax, with very little in the way of allowances, which then profits everyone.
I agree, that it is not what is happening, but even Osborne is showing signs of realising that it should be so.
Camoron, meanwhile, as usual, hasn't a clue ....

177:

Quoting Kipling, I believe?

178:

What are "adverts on TV"?

179:

There are only two things in Darwin; "many more are born than can possibly survive" and the definition of a Darwinian individual; born, dies, recognizably itself between times, reproduces, descendants have a chance of variation. That's it.

From that, you can get an abstraction that all that matters to anything in such a system is getting copies into the future. (Peat moss is a climax outcome of a lot of biomes. There are some great tall trees on the way, but the end is egalitarian, homogeneous, and anaerobic.)

Then you run into, this is a process whose god is chance. It's statistical, in large enough abstract quantities, but from any level we can actually see things, dumb luck is really important. It's surprising how important it becomes to lower the odds of childhood trauma.

It's surprising how important it is to not damage people in general; you don't know, you can't know, if you approach the statistics with an appropriate humility from the vast gulf in our understanding, you are terrified of even thinking you might know, which one of those kids playing video games is going to have some critical insight or obsession. (Insight is easy; proving it, well, obsession has its uses.)

So, don't waste them. You don't know which ones are geniuses.

(You also know, in the statistical sense, that the less trauma the better parent, and you still need to get copies of your population into the future to succeed as a social system. An expectation of kindness produces this slow growth in overall capability as the fear leeches out of subsequent generations.)

So, really, the Human Trick is ganging up on problems; we can be reasonably confident the "everyone is valuable" approach works pretty well. Certainly better than terror and hierarchy do. All you gotta do is give up on all that rude-ass staring and enter into a pleasant dialogue with the abyss.

180:

Charlie,

There's a pervasive cultural assumption that people who don't work are shirkers or failures, rather than victims of technological change

aren’t even you yourself exhibiting the “work is good” axiom in your thinking here, if just a little? These people should be able to sit back, now that their labour is no longer needed, have some time off, and then either go with that permanently or find something else they’d like to and can do. So they are really winners of technological progress, and victims instead of cultural stagnation, no?

181:

we can be reasonably confident the "everyone is valuable" approach works pretty well.

That approach works well when resources are plentiful. Sadly, unchecked human populations tend to double every 25 years or so, which means we're never all that far from not having enough food for everyone. Industrial agriculture and fossil-fuel based fertilizers have brought us a few extra doublings, but we're probably not going to be able to squeeze even one more doubling out of those sorts of improvements.

182:

That approach works well when resources are plentiful. Sadly, unchecked human populations tend to double every 25 years or so, which means we're never all that far from not having enough food for everyone.

World population was 3.2 billion in 1964. If populations doubled every 25 years we should be up to 12.8 billion now.

In reality world population growth peaked at 2.2% (percentage) in 1963 or 88 million yearly (absolute) in 1989. Growth slowed in richer countries before poorer ones; it's not Malthusian equilibrium suppressing growth rates. Half of the world's nations are at or below replacement fertility rate. Rates continue to go down.

183:

Something makes me suspect that you'd either have to cap income/wealth or outlaw debt or this'll be rigged very quickly.

If someone can offer a good or service that costs more than the purchaser's disposable income...and offers to sell it to them on credit, payable from their future guaranteed income, the financially unwise rapidly become serfs again.

184:

"...young men in particular, who crave a sense of power and freedom in their lives,"

Versus young women, who just naturally love powerless submission???

185:

Yes, you probably are some kind of fascist then, the term is somewhat elastic, although the concept overlaps with other not actually fascistic ideologies. I look forwards to seeing your rouse the youth up in rebellion.

186:

Except ... it seems to be a universal phenomenon, that as soon as living standards really improve, birth-rates fall.
The only exceptions to this are where religious misogynists desperately try to restrict women's rights & choices.
And, even there & them, it doesn't seem to work.
I think planetary population will peak someime in the next 20-30 years & then steadli fall back, slowly.
One can hope, on the basis of information we already have ...

187:

I suspect that there are a lot of things around, like the Bolsa Familia, which in retrospect will be seen to be pointers towards the eventual solution, or at least ways of claiming that an apparently large change of policy was in fact only an incremental tuning, should it be politically expedient to make that claim.

The end result will be something between current unemployment and training and the government acting as employer of last resort. People will get a salary largely independent of talent and skills but depending on the degree to which they comply with government restrictions on their behaviour. One way to present it would be as the formation of a reserve of government workers. The government could then penalize bad behaviour under, at most, civil procedures by treating it as behaviour by an employee bringing their employer into disrepute. They could also provide incentives for health and education - or any other behaviour they wish to support - on the grounds that it made the reserve employee more useful in any potential employment. Traditional education is expensive, of course, but computer marked drills could be very cheap if actual educational return wasn't of the first importance - and need not require staff with sufficient real managerial or educational ability, who could be used in remaining genuinely productive occupations.

Such an organization might give the governing party considerable political influence - this might at least be less bad than the alternative of low wage security guards functioning as corporate private armies.

188:

@181, this is by no means my specialist area, but I recall researching an essay a long time ago on flanimal rights etc, and one thing that struck me from my readings (probably Peter Singer), was just how much food is not possible if an animal is taking up that land - yes, we (well not me) as a race love chops and steaks and bacon etc, but were that land producing tubors, rice or pasta, or what have you, then it should make more people sustained per given area.

And if we then wonder some more (and let me go off on a tangent here some) on which economic background hominids get to eat what at the moment, it further spells out a lack of return for us as a race as a whole - in the sense that brains are expensive and need energy to function optimally, and that social class differences should not deny potentiality in one individual over another by impacting on their diet and so chance at (fulfilling cognitive/educative abilities) smartness, especially if we want to catch the ones we need most prior to them giving up on education, or themselves (a byproduct of awareness/sapience oft being a tendency to dwell, get deflated/depressed etc), and therefore not providing us with their insight or specialist ability. And so squandering/slowing our deveopment, sort of like the church vs. science analogy if we imagined the Romans and then cut-out all the crap time wasting that went on after them...

OK, poorly worded, sorry. What I mean is basically imagining the planet, and perhaps one day the system of Sol, as full of us everywhere, and every so often we get delivered random trump cards of specialised brain arrays, Einsteins in their particular fields (but which fields?), and the harnessing to the maximum of every opportunity (Masbo on 'roids?), and so the long term effect this could have on our acceleration out of system... (haha, sorry, I like the idea of space travel, even if implausible atm) ~ note, this could easily be someone else's idea what has slowly perculated out of my all-too-flooded consciousness, as the more I typed the more it seems familiar as coming from somewhere... aww, it could be the writer of tomes actually! (PFH) Hmm... or maybe it is just bastardised Sagan-ism?

189:

Well, some classes - politics, management, and celebrities - already have salaries completely independent of talent and skills...

190:

For me, the spectacle of young men playing video games and living on food cards is a horrific dystopia, but of course you may have a different perception.

Would you rather see them murdering each other (and raping and maiming and destroying) instead? Because that's the traditional alternative, in the shape of pre-industrial warfare. And industrial era warfare is even worse.

(Some peoples still practice this stuff, or at least their fringes do: people like ISIS and Boko Haram and the Lord's Resistance Army ...)

191:

Sadly, unchecked human populations tend to double every 25 years or so,

Ahem: the biggest check on human population doubling is female education combined with access to birth control. Just look at Iran since 1980 if you want the classic example (TFR decline from around 6.0 to under 1.4 in three decades).

Even pre-chemical-contraception, societies found ways of ensuring that this doubling didn't happen -- usually via infanticide.

The Malthusian model only applies in certain situations -- those where women have no effective control over their own fertility. Hopefully we can put those days behind us.

192:

Religious believers might be an exception to slowing population growth. As well as those like the quiverfull you have mentioned in your books there may be a general trend in less extreme believers: see http://www.thisviewoflife.com/index.php/magazine/articles/reproductive-vs.-cooperative-theories-in-the-evolutionary-studies-of-religi. A government dispensing welfare by need might wish to avoid such groups going into exponential growth. A first step in this would be making sure that the children raised by these groups became aware that there were alternatives to their parent's lifestyle.

193:

Birthrates in the US, the only place I know of with a measurable quiverfull population, have fallen pretty spectacularly over the last 50 years and are now basically flat over the last decade or so (for example see here).

There's a cultural change that shows a change so that women are having babies older so there's an uptick in births for women aged over 30 and especially over 40, but it's a shift in when you have babies, if you do, not anything else.

Quiverfull ideology might, given enough time, make a difference I guess, but it's really not big enough yet. Or enough women are getting out fast enough.

194:

Except that not that many children in fundamentalist families stay within the fundie churches.
Okay, it's a random internet link, but this suggests 2/3 of them that go to college leave the Evangelical church they were brought up in
http://www.democraticunderground.com/102150

There'll surely be better statistics out there. It certainly suggests why they've been busy creating their own parallel universe of colleges to avoid cultural contamination.

So there probably isn't that much of a danger from the quiverful folk as long as they don't recruite much from the genereal populace and their children are exposed to other ideas, like it's okay to have few children.

195:

When I was born 41 years ago, there were 3 billion of us (or so I remember being told). Currently, there are 7.1 billion of us. We haven't been growing at quite the unconstrained growth rate, but we're growing more than enough to cause widespread misery.

196:

I seem to recall stubbing my toe on a study that said that around 90% of USAn Catholic women used contraception, abortion, or family planning services at some time. One may presume that the 10% includes lesbians, along with nuns, asexuals, or other voluntarily celibate types. This is a religion with a strong doctrinal line against contraception and abortion. However, it's a religion whose members overwhelmingly mingle with, are educated, and work alongside non-co-religionists.

One survival strategy for marginal faiths is to raise the barriers to defection so that it's really hard for their young to leave the fold -- dress codes, lack of access to formally recognized educational credits, teen marriage (and children), social ostracism/anathematization of defectors. So a side-effect is that members of less doctrinaire groups either secularize and are absorbed by the mainstream population, or join the fundamentalists -- giving the fundy groups the appearance of evangelical growth.

(One example of this: the decline of Conservative (UK: Orthodox) Judaism, and the growth of the Haredim (UK: Ultra-orthodox) -- a large chunk of this is down to their birth rate (see anti-defection strategies above) and a smaller chunk is due to the absorption of the less zealous group.)

But it's hard to maintain isolation in a networked urban world, and the kind of social withdrawal from the secular that worked in the 19th century (look at the Mormon migration to Utah) isn't really going to be viable for much longer.

197:

Some peoples still practice this stuff, or at least their fringes do: people like ISIS and Boko Haram and the Lord's Resistance Army ...

Not to mention Aryan Nation, MS-13, and a considerable swath from southern California to northern Mexico.

198:

I'm older than you are. We were growing very fast in the 1950s and 1960s -- you may not remember Ehrlich and the population time bomb panic of the 70s -- but by the late 70s the brakes came on, and by the turn of the century the birth rate almost everywhere was dropping like a stone.

The problem with human fertility though is that most people born today will still be around in 2100. There's a tremendous amount of momentum behind the curve. Because we were born during the peak birth rate years, we won't, by definition, live long enough to see past the rise in the death rate that will hit some time in the next few decades as our cohort age and die while our grandchildren (if we have any) have one child per family (if they have any) ...

199:

We could, if we wanted, divide the world into two regions. In one region, currently growing, female education is common, fertility relatively low, and life is relatively good. In another, which is shrinking for the moment but still contains most of humanity, female education is uncommon, fertility is rather high, the general survival is lower investment per child but more children, and life more or less sucks.

Naturally anyone born in region 2 wants to get to region 1 as quickly as possible, often to the consternation of region 1 natives.

200:

I had an editing glitch. I meant "survival strategy".

201:

Re Population growth,
Danny Dorling in his book "Population 10 Billion" points out that the second derivative of population growth, the rate of change of population growth, has gone negative i.e. as the current population bulge ages the rate of population change will go negative. I suggest that any one interested has a look at Dorlings book.

202:

I think the main difference between our viewpoints is that you seem to think there will be enough energy and fossil-fuel derived fertilizer to allow the population to level off relatively gracefully, and I think that (for the aforementioned reasons) the present economic troubles will intensify gradually over the next few decades. You expect many children born today to live to 90; I wouldn't bet on an average lifespan above 40 for them.

203:

That's excessively simplistic. World TFR was 2.5 in 2005-2010 and is projected at 2.4 for 2010-2015. "most of humanity" having "rather high" fertility rate won't get you that. Also, world GDP/capita is $10,000; while we've got close to a billion first worlders living at $30-50,000, that doesn't mean everyone else is at $500; there's a lot of people actually living in the $5k-$15k range.

Changes in China are a large part of this, since they're about 1/5 of the world population right there.

204:

"I wouldn't bet on an average lifespan above 40 for them."

That's pretty extreme, given that life expectancy by country today bottoms out at around 45-47 in poor and war-torn countries like Sierra Leone or the CAR. So you're expecting world LE to drop below that of the worst off countries on Earth today. I'm not sure that's reasonable even with an unreplaced failure of antibiotics. Vaccines and clean water are still big advances over the past.

205:

I think it clear that there's no good reason there will be difficulties feeding everyone.
After all a third of the worlds food production is lost or wasted, so there's room for greater efficiencies there.
The difficulty is going to be in dealing with climate change effects on food production, which are going to be bad, but how bad is difficult to say. 5% loss? 10% loss every year?

As for fertiliser, there's no good reason to keep wasting gas and increasing the warming of the earth, but for some reason stupid people don't want to change things. Stopping burning it would leave lots for fertiliser use.

So ulimately it could all go wrong, we'll have to wait and see.

206:

you seem to think there will be enough energy and fossil-fuel derived fertilizer to allow the population to level off relatively gracefully

Au contraire: what I think now (I didn't, as little as five years ago) is that there'll be enough cheap solar power to let us replace our fossil carbon cycle with a renewable carbon cycle (Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of methane from atmospheric CO2 and electrolytic H2 -- usable as input to our current fossil fuel cycle, but doesn't release new carbon into the atmosphere) because the price of photovoltaics is dropping fast enough that they'll begin to undercut King Coal per kWh within another handful of years.

There is more renewable energy out there than we actually need: the problems are (a) conversion and (b) storage (for when the sun ain't shining and the wind ain't blowing). Conversion costs are already tantalisingly close to undercutting trad fossil carbon energy -- witness the increasingly frantic attempts by the incumbent energy industries to lobby against renewables -- and storage comes down to (c) batteries and (d) FT-reformation of non-fossil hydrocarbons that are compatible with our $70Tn installed energy transport infrastructure. There's an economic demand driver for (c) in the shape of electric cars -- did you notice Apple and Tesla doing a deal to build a multi-billion dollar battery factory a couple of months ago, to double US LiION cell output within a couple of years? -- and a smart grid that's able to use plug-in electric cars as distributed reservoirs for load-balancing and solar storage looks like the way forward to me.

Upshot: It's always darkest just before dawn. And I reckon the worsening fossil carbon and energy substitution trap is less than a decade from turning around.

Now, phosphate fertilizers ... there's a headache. But I know some folks with a keen interest in biotechnology are already looking into better phosphorous sources. And if you've got enough cheap power, even inefficient techniques are viable.

207:

Why everyone thinks that world population is the problem? Poor people have a small carbon (and other) footprints. The problem is when poor nations get better and everyone has a washing machine, a dishwasher and a car.

My hope is that with bioengineering one day we won't need to wash the clothes and dishes. If the diseases are easily cured no need for all that cleaning. My 2c. Transportation is still a problem but more ability to grow your own food would be a help.

208:

Incidentally, the electric car thing? Posit that a mid-range car with a 100hp gas engine is putting out 70kW at peak power, or maybe 20-45kW when cruising, and has a gas tank able to take it 300 miles, or about 6 hours. The current target for electric cars is a 250 mile cruising range (the Tesla Model S can do this), so we'd be talking about 300kWH of capacity in an electric car battery. (The Tesla, as a big-ass luxury saloon that can do 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds is way juicier than that, of course.)

Assume a total switch to electric vehicles, and a total switch to solar cells for generation, in the UK -- unlikely, I know -- and we'd have 20 million cars on the road, 95% of them parked (and presumably plugged into the next-generation smart grid) even at peak rush hour time. That's 6000 gWH of storage capacity. UK grid demand is around 60gW, so the storage capacity is in the right order of magnitude ball-park to provide a backstop to the grid if all renewable inputs went dark overnight.

(Yes, the grid would need to be very smart to cope with 20 million storage reservoirs. But that's what the internet of things is all about, right?)

Manufacturing the batteries is left as an exercise for the adventurously-minded investor. But if we assume a car battery will cost on the order of £1000, and a car is good for 10 years, then we have a £2Bn/year market in the UK alone (five times that -- $15Bn -- in the USA; globally an order of magnitude more).

Hmm. Buy battery manufacturer futures: it's where we're going!

209:

And in Scotland at least we are getting another pumped storage power station with enough capacity to put out hundreds of MW for a day or more.
I read years ago in Scientific American of an entire plan to turn the USA to renewables, which included energy storage in underground rock chambers by compressed air. Not that efficient, but during the day you've got lots of energy spare.

Basically our energy problems are solveable using current and prototype stage technology, it's just not being invested in because of a number of reasons, probably including that you can get a better return by buying property in any of a number of major cities, or by buying over companies and asset stripping them.

210:

In the very long term. I think a universal basic income is inevitable - if one is hopeful about the future of humanity. In the society we have today however, the obstacles are formidable.

Firstly, a UBI needs to coexist with effective controls on the cost of essentials: shelter, food, fuel, communication - health and social services too, where these are not socialised already. Otherwise the power relationships enforced by the blessed market will ensure that money returns to the owners of these resources (see housing benefit, private sector).

Secondly, without some kind of wealth tax, a UBI will entrench inequality. Property owners and inheritors of mini-trust funds might enjoy a comfortable life on a basic income level which would leave people lacking independent means struggling to make their rent.

Thirdly (especially if the first point is inadequately addressed) a UBI does not mean you can dispense with a safety net - unless you are prepared for people to suffer a great deal more than they do under the current (UK) system. People in work will tend to adjust their expenditure to the total of their UBI + earnings. If they lose their job they may not be able to make immediate cutbacks. Of course workers (income supplementers?) could be compelled to take out insurance - this would have to be better managed than it was in recent experience. A UBI doesn't discriminate in terms of need - additional needs would either have to be addressed socially (as with healthcare) or through a supplementary benefits system.

Fourthly, until you can have a *universal* UBI you probably need to decide what you want to do about immigration.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable - but they are significant.

As an aside, in the UK we already have a kind of bare bones UBI, for pensioners, for children and - with working tax credits, for the self-employed (who can claim whilst declaring very low levels of income). The last of these will be lost under universal credit (a UK in-and-out of work benefit, not a true UBI), where the self-employed must demonstrate minimum earnings levels if they are not to be coerced into further jobseeking.

Lastly, the cost of benefits delivery in the UK is about 5% of expenditure. Admin savings under UBI would be significant, but not game-changing.

211:

Here's a link to Lawrence Livermore national labs' estimate of the total US energy budget in 2013:

https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/energy/energy_archive/energy_flow_2013/2013USEnergy.png

You're claiming that solar power (currently about 0.085 quadrillion BTU/year) will, relatively quickly, replace fossil fuels (about 70 quadrillion BTU/year).

To me that seems rather unlikely. I'm always skeptical about claims that anything will scale three orders of magnitude beyond present experience. Also, the solar cell research that I've seen often uses cell designs that are hard to scale up. Gold contacts are the main one.

212:

Whoops, misread. Last year's solar energy was estimated at .32 quads. There's still a factor of < 200 between solar and fossil fuels. Still, that .32 was more than I'd expected.

213:

The USA is actually rather crap at switching to renewables. The country I live in is on course for 100% renewable energy by 2020; up from 40.3% from renewables in 2012, growing at 22% per annum.

There's nothing magical about being able to grow renewable energy supplies like crazy. What's lacking in the US is the political will (thank you, Koch Industries, US Coal Corporation, Exxon, et al). PV is growing by 32% per year, globally over 130Gw already. The cost curve is favourable, on course to handily beat conventional power sources on price by 2020 (source), i.e. to be cheaper than coal.

As for limits, the solar radiation hitting the Earth's surface exceeds our total energy needs by several orders of magnitude.

214:

For me, the spectacle of young men playing video games and living on food cards is a horrific dystopia, but of course you may have a different perception. Personally I'd rather seem them revolting than accepting such a docile, dead, artificial existence, but I suppose that makes me some kind of fascist...

Make up your mind. Are you afraid of "Clockwork Orange" style future, or would you rather see it come about?

I think that you have a very specific mental model of how humans (or at least young men) act, and that model is incompatible with welfare state. The empirical evidence that young men are quite compatible with welfare state invalidates your model, which you find upsetting.

216:

I think Charlie's a bit fond of a yes vote in August...

217:

[SPAM DELETED]

218:

(Why do I have to sign in again like every hour?)

By "energy in my country" Charlie actually means *electricity* in *Scotland*.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Scotland
Rather to my surprise, a majority of that seems to be wind, not hydro. http://www.scottishrenewables.com/scottish-renewable-energy-statistics-glance/

For the UK, 11% of the 2012 electricity was renewable. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_the_United_Kingdom

219:

I think you'll find that isn't the topic under discussion. See discussion about minimum basic incomes etc etc upthread.

220:

Fertilisers are one of the reasons why zero-meat is unlikely to be the optimum.

The problems vary by country, and I don't know the numbers in enough detail to do more than make vague handwaves, but the core of the problem is that arable farming has a greater demand for external energy than extensive livestock farming, and that demand partly arises from soil type. Even where rainfall and temperature are not a significant restriction, there's a difference between a clay-based soil and something more sand-like, and I have ploughed fields where the soil has varied enough to require a gear change part-way across.

Tractors have many more gear ratios than your car, and many had something such as an epicyclic shifter that allows an on-the-move change without depressing the clutch.

Whether you use cultivation or herbicides, weed control take energy.

And then you get places with very thin soil, or at a higher altitude, where crops cannot be successfully grown. And areas which swing from wet and fertile to dry and barren. That was part of the cause of the North American dustbowls of around eighty years ago, and we are seeing drought in Australia. The sheep stations have lost viability, and land used for wheat may now be better suited to sheep.

That doesn't make the classic ranching in Western America a sustainable agriculture, but the cowboys were running a food production system which had a lower energy input from outside. Some of the areas settled we now know to have been areas of a temporary abundance.

One of the interesting problems is biofuel. There is a lot of any plant which we humans cannot eat. Some apparent waste can feed animals, some may be used as a biofuel. We shall have to pay attention to the phosphates, but ash and manure can be a useful source, and the solid residue from the processing of human sewage is another.

Sewage waste as fertiliser: if you thought the NIMBYs were bad, you should have seen the fuss the supermarkets made, around twenty years ago.

That's one of the reasons why the whole "organic" business in the UK is a bit of a con. The rules set by the Soil Association allow some "traditional" pesticides which are chemically rather nasty. It all looks rather different from inside the farmer's gate.

Well, I am out of that business now, and never likely to be healthy enough to go back to it. Which is something of a relief.

And after a lifetime farming, doing a myriad of skilled jobs, I don't have anything that counts to a modern HR department. No bits of paper to prove I can do a particular job. Jack of all trades, paper-hanger of none.

I saw mentioned today that the median income of a CEO in the USA was over $10 million. I bet they defined "CEO" to keep out the bosses of the small companies. And I have treated animals better than they treat the workers.

You cannot lie to a cat.

221:

People will work; robot designers, ecological planners, that sort of thing. Lots of people will be doing semi-commercial stuff (gardening, farming, clothes design, entertainment, etc. can all fall into this category) on an enjoyment-and-extra sort of basis. I imagine it will be awhile before we get to Money 2.0 and can get rid of the banking system.

Water is mostly closed loop if we're sensible; so too could be the food, and carniculture, vertical farming, and complex combined-crop farming on the Central American model are all suitable for a world where most people don't work but many people might light to earn a bit extra. (And not that the heavily mechanized farming we've got now doesn't use many people and that doesn't actually need to change, though the methods do.)

Power is solar cells, mostly, supplemented by nukes. Solar cell and battery factories roboticize nicely. Mounting solar cells might be a job that persists, as might be battery swapper and certainly electrician.

Entertainment is other people; not much of a problem if everyone's leisure hours have been greatly increased.

222:

Evidence-based psycho-social change/policy is where I think we're heading and need to sort out. Basically admit that the individuals in the human race come in all sorts of different types*, get good estimates of what each type is likely to need/want and contribute and then do your economic, educational, infrastructure, etc. planning.

*If 1%-2% of the human race are sociopaths - just the luck of the draw/random genetics - and 2%-3% are saints, while another 2% are explorers/adventurers, plan accordingly. For example, the sociopaths may bilk the universal pay system. OTOH, the saints may also inadvertently bilk/tip over the system because they'll be doing their utmost to undo any harm done by the 'bad guys'. The adventurers/explorers will likely cost much more than homebodies ... but they'll contribute with new knowledge, so should be supported, etc. (Sometimes I wish Brave New World was never written because it's constantly being used/cited as an argument against learning more about what makes humans tick and how to develop policy so that people can thrive. Get over it! There's tons of research that's been studied and restudied that's pointing toward 'social equity does more good than harm."

223:

Incidentally, the electric car thing? Posit that a mid-range car with a 100hp gas engine is putting out 70kW at peak power, or maybe 20-45kW when cruising, and has a gas tank able to take it 300 miles, or about 6 hours. The current target for electric cars is a 250 mile cruising range (the Tesla Model S can do this), so we'd be talking about 300kWH of capacity in an electric car battery. (The Tesla, as a big-ass luxury saloon that can do 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds is way juicier than that, of course.)

The most expensive version of the Model S has "only" 85 kWH of storage which gives a 265 mile estimated range. They put a lot of effort into optimizing energy use, even for a luxury high-performance vehicle.

Whoops, misread. Last year's solar energy was estimated at .32 quads. There's still a factor of

Wind power is an indirect form of solar energy. The ratio between fossil use and wind + solar use is more like 45 to 1. Further, note that the largest single part of the LLNL flow graph, 38.2 quads primary energy input, is for electricity production, but only 12.4 quads come out as electricity. For energy sources that are not heat engines but directly tap fluid kinetic energy or the photoelectric effect -- PV solar, wind power, tidal power, wave power, hydro power -- every joule is born electric. That means you could annually produce 12.4 quads of electricity from PV + wind and eliminate the use of 25.8 quads of primary energy that go to waste as unneeded heat.

"Renewable energy can't scale because it needs rare materials" is one of those myths that seems to linger like a bad odor. Most PV modules currently use silver-containing alloys for cell connections. If you go back to 2011 you can read silver bulls telling the world that silver was going to $100 per ounce because, among other things, PV was growing fast and needed silver. PV kept growing fast but silver consumption by the industry was lower than 2011 in both 2012 and 2013. Once silver became a significant cost the industry optimized alloy composition and application to reduce use. A few manufacturers like SunPower already use no silver and do all their cell contacts with copper. This isn't an efficiency compromise: SunPower also makes the most efficient terrestrial modules on the market.

224:

Let me check the back of my envelope...

50 billion pounds sterling, no strings attached, would be plenty to guarantee the working-age population a good income. It's the sort of rough figure you can come up with if you were taught to use a slide rule.

The British GDP is about 1.6 trillion pounds sterling, so we're talking somewhere around 30:1.

NHS costs: England is roughly twice that.

It leads to another very rough estimate, a total of 10% of GDP.

And everyone pays 20% VAT, plus income tax from those actually working, plus Corporation Tax.

So a universal basic income, plus universal health care, doesn't look unattainable.

Yes, I have grossly over-simplified, and it's coming in somewhere close to the current social security budget. Have I assumed too low a UBI? Maybe.

But I've done nothing more complicated than I have done when I have looked at the latest governmental cunning plan and wondered what sort of Cthuluesque arithmetical method they used to come up with that set of figures.

UBI doesn't look like nonsense.

225:

For example, the sociopaths may bilk the universal pay system.

Ooh, now there's one that I hadn't thought of: with a universal basic income, dead people would become a lot more valuable. Instead of burning their "identities" quickly on a few credit cards or loans, as today's crooks do, there'd be a lot more money to be made by "farming" them for the long haul and claiming UBI for each.

Of course, it's still the same data-matching problem that it always was and will eventually be mostly (if not entirely) eliminated, but I'd bet there's still a couple or three fertile decades left in it.

226:

"50 billion pounds sterling, no strings attached, would be plenty to guarantee the working-age population a good income"

Are you talking Scotland or the UK? Because the UK has 63 million people, so you're talking less than 1000 pounds per person. Maybe 2000 for "working age". I don't see that as "good income." You invoke British GDP so presumably you're talking UK.

227:

Yeah, the US uses 3 TW of energy, and optimistically you could turn that into 1 TW of clean electricity given alternative infrastructure. Roughly 1/3 electricity generation via heat engines (for 300 GWe), 1/3 heat outright, 1/3 transporation via mostly cars at maybe 25% efficiency. So if you had 1 TWe of renewable direct electricity, and used heat engines for most heating (turning 1 J of work into 4 J of heat, better than simple resistive heating), and used electrified mass transit (which is way more efficient anyway), it could all work out nicely. Maybe even less than 1 TW!

Whereas if you want enough electricity to synthesize enough air-to-fuel to burn in our existing fleet of cars... well, depends on how efficient such conversion is, but I could easily see needing to build 3 TWe of new power just to make the fuel.

228:

Yeah, well, Scotland has about as many people as Cook County, Illinois (i.e. Chicago and some but not all of the surrounding sprawl). Going from "solar Scotland" to "solar America" or "solar Europe" is a factor of 60 increase; "solar China" is another factor of 4 from there. And we're not even at "solar Scotland" yet.

I don't know for sure that solar won't scale; it would be nice if it did. But if it's going to happen, it needs to happen very quickly; the current energy system is already collapsing.

229:

Solar is a non-starter in Scotland. We're roughly at the same latitude as the southern end of Hudson's Bay to give you an idea of where we are in the world. In winter the sun rises at 9 a.m. and sets at 3 p.m. and never gets higher in the sky than 8 degrees above the horizon which means a very long airpath filtering out the blue light, the frequencies that make PV work. That assumes it's not cloudy, raining or snowing which it often is during winter.

The wind doesn't blow predictably but our electricity demand is predictable if cyclic, storage costs money and doesn't add to the generating capacity, ditto for smart grids. Coal is cheap and gas although variable in price can be cheap so we burn 20GW and more of fossil carbon, we're keeping the 7GW of nuclear plants we have operational as long as possible (we're still getting about 500MW from a MAGNOX reactor, for God's sake!) and figleaf with renewables to garner votes from the Greenie organic vegan Waitrose shopper crowd. Oh, and we import up to 2GW of French nuclear power pretty much continuously but we don't talk about that much.

230:

Au contraire: what I think now (I didn't, as little as five years ago) is that there'll be enough cheap solar power to let us replace our fossil carbon cycle with a renewable carbon cycle.... And I reckon the worsening fossil carbon and energy substitution trap is less than a decade from turning around.

That's handy, since most people would say we are going to see decline in oil production within those ten years.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we see a 2% yearly decline in oil productions (probably will be larger). That's roughly 1.8 Mbpd of oil energy need to be replaced; or 3.64 Quads per year.

Now, we've just gone over 100GW of installed solar capacity. Let's be generous and say we can get 5 hours per day out of that - 500GWH per day, or 0.62quads per year.

In other words, just to stand still in energy terms we'd need to be adding 6 times the total installed solar PV EVERY YEAR.

Of course, Fischer-Tropsch is pretty inefficient in itself (various numbers around, but let's say you get 50% efficiency) - which means you are looking at increasing the installed solar PV base by >10 times its current total capacity each and every year. Just to stand still (and economies don't work if things are only flat). The production of all those new panels would, of course, need energy in their own right.

As I think I've said before here - it's not a problem of technology as such - it's a problem of scale, rates and timelines.

231:
In one region, currently growing, female education is common, fertility relatively low, and life is relatively good. In another, which is shrinking for the moment but still contains most of humanity, female education is uncommon, fertility is rather high, the general survival is lower investment per child but more children, and life more or less sucks.

Your statistics seem to be about one or two decades out of date. Nothing wrong with that, normally the world doesn't change too much on that time-scale, but the last few decades have been different.

Most of humanity is now in the "region 1" situation.

A two-child family is now the norm pretty much the world over, with only a few exceptions (primarily sub-Saharan Africa).

That changes the picture immensely, and it's only been in the last couple of decades that it's really happened.

232:

No
Because the UK as a whole is trundling down the renewables road - it's just that Scotland is n a better position - more WIND, more tides (exceptin the Severn & Morcombe bay, of course) etc.
Also, if Salmond's bullying blackmailers win, Scotland will be bankrupt within a year .....[ If not considerably sooner - you can bet your boots that ALL big employers will have "exit" strategies in place, if it looks at all likely that the Puritan nannies "win" ]

As has been said before, what we really want is Devo-Max - for everyone - not just the Scots......

233:

Incidentally, is THIS QUOTE:
The EU, with its inherent contempt for popular opinion, is just a convenient starting point for what is likely to become a long and heated national argument. Every major premise on which a free society rests is being brought into play: the accountability of elected governments, the legitimacy of the law, the inviolability of democratic institutions.

The Ukip case is that there is a conspiracy between Big Politics, Big Business and Big Bureaucracy to put all of these fundamental principles at risk. That may or may not be true, but at the moment – with the unintentional help of the Westminster stage army – it is looking very plausible. ... Note the link btween Big Corporations & the EU - the one that George Monbiot & the late Wedgie Benn pointed out.....

234:

Did you actually read the post?

Nobody is required to work to stay alive. That's not the same thing. People will work because they want to for a whole range of reasons.

Some will enjoy it - some people enjoy all kinds of work, however hard it is for us to understand it. Some will do it for extra money, for just a while. Some will do it for the experience - maybe so they can write a book about it or similar.

For example, many years ago now, I worked as a volunteer in a needle exchange programme for a few months. It was soul destroying, from my point of view, although I have no regrets about doing it. But the person who ran the centre where I volunteered had been there for about 10 years. For her, it was something life-affirming and rewarding and positive. I don't understand how, but it was.

Later on, I taught. I worked with some of the hardest to work with students in small groups or 1:1 and I loved it. One of my closest friends couldn't bear it but loved working with bigger groups which I never really liked until you got to much bigger groups and lecturing which again, she didn't like. I suspect many people reading this will never understand how anyone can enjoy teaching because it really is something that people either find rewarding or don't and there's very few who can take it or leave it.

But a universal basic income won't stop people working. It will change the pattern of work, it will probably remove the stigma of not working and so on, but it won't stop people working.

235:

I wrote an article last year on the true costs of DIY solar PV. That is, if you buy the panels one-off retail (best prices) and do the work yourself (which means NOT connecting to the grid). The figures, with calculations shown, suggest it is extraordinarily cheap energy, even in mid-latitudes.

http://wavechronicle.com/wave/?p=571

236:

"Whether you use cultivation or herbicides, weed control take energy"

The end point is probably solar powered mini robots doing the weeding. We are probably not far from being able to create something that can wander around a field cutting weeds.

237:

TLDR; - in London energy from a PV panel lying flat is around 3.7 US cents per kWh. Halve that for Southern Europe.

238:

Ian S wrote:-

"Of course, the alternative if you no longer need those people to work, and they have no money to consume, is to not have those people any more..."

To which Charlie Stross replied:-

"That's the fallacy of the excluded middle. You also need those people to consume; if you don't have them, you have less consumers, so less profits, so less work to be done, so ..."

No, it's not a fallacy because there's a Tragedy of the Commons mechanism at work; the "you" isn't the same. What actually happens is, each firm is better off retrenching because the resulting loss of demand mostly flows through to all the other firms, so the incentives to retrench employees and/or to displace them with technology work through to hurt all firms through loss of demand. The "you" is "each firm" in one place and "all firms" in another. That isn't even a fallacy of composition from firms failing to realise the end result; they each face the wrong incentives regardless, even if they know where following the incentives will lead.

That naturally leads me on to some observations about the original post...

'George Osborne has committed the Conservatives to targeting "full employment", saying that tax and welfare changes would help achieve it. Firstly, this is impossible.'

Actually, it isn't. For instance, it could be achieved in the U.K. by applying the virtual wage subsidy policies developed by Professor Kim Swales and his colleagues at the University of Strathclyde (Nobel Prize winner Professor Edmund Phelps has done parallel work in the U.S.A., and even I have worked on it here in Australia). Those are long run equivalent to a basic income set at levels just below adequacy, so that on the one hand nearly everybody would need work to provide a top up income, and on the other hand they could all afford to price themselves into at least top up work. There is some reason to believe that higher levels wouldn't be indefinitely sustainable, but that's yet more detail. I won't provide the material backing all that up unless people ask for it, as it is quite lengthy (but, yes, it has to do with that Tragedy of the Commons mechanism I mentioned).

"It's also quite scary when you consider that we're entering an era of technological unemployment. More and more jobs are being automated: they aren't going to provide money, social validation, or occupation for anyone any longer."

Ah, but, that's only a feature of the institutional distortions currently creating that kind of structural unemployment. If those were undone, so that firms faced undistorted costs instead, there would be much less tendency to displace people like that; the technological unemployment is itself a product of the distortions and could be reversed.

Sadly, policy makers just don't want to know, and even someone as reputable as Professor Phelps gets ignored.

239:

I was going to say your back of the envelope must be cheaper than mine, then I started doing some sums... and I'd say you're probably out by a factor of 2 but my initial thought was you were out by more like a factor of 5+.

And a factor of 2 is close enough that it probably depends on your living circumstances. Which would then bring us into all the fun about setting the level of the universal income and so on.

240:

> basic income

On the other hand, what do people need money *for*? Housing, food, clothing, healthcare, entertainment?

Throw up some barracks, add a chow hall, issue your National Dole clothing, watch the government-approved shows the government-issue TV.

Wait, I've seen that one before, somewhere...

241:

The biggest cost by far with respect to welfare costs in Britain is house prices, and rent. And the biggest cost of a house is the land it sits on. Even if putting up a house cost zero, the land price would still prevent a large percentage of the population from owning (outright) their own homes.

242:

About a decade ago, I found myself in a remote highland village talking to a local architect.

His firm specialized in importing Scandinavian kit-build houses from Norway and Sweden and erecting them for the locals. A quarter-acre plot on the north-east coast of Scotland was pretty cheap (although it comes with a lot of disadvantages: including the need for a backup generator and cess-pool, being cut off periodically in winter by snow drifts, and being 40 miles of single-track road away from the nearest small town). And a high quality four bedroom house with garage and all the trimmings could be imported and erected on such a plot for around £50,000. A similar house in any city in Northern England would go, with land, for around £250-300,000; in London it would be north of a million.

If we could deflate the housing market down to actual cost of houses, rather than speculative land prices geared against future rent-seeking, the UK would lose about £50Tn in "value" -- about a year's planetary GDP -- but the flip side is that the cost of living would drop by between 30% and 70% depending on where you live. The only folks who'd be badly inconvenienced would be new purchasers (who got themselves heavily indebted right before the crash) and, of course, the financial institutions who love to use those assets as collateral and reap a tidy income from rents/mortgages. And that "value" that had been lost? Doesn't really exist in the first place -- it's imaginary money generated by everybody's expectation that the cost of housing in the UK must inevitably rise.

243:

Why the Green Belt is sacred, and why massive house building programs will not happen.

244:

But we can't piss off the financial institutions Charlie, they're all important, don't you know.

245:

Here's why the financial institutions have control. For those who have not seen it before:

http://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2013/04/DB%20Derivative%20Exposure.jpg

The derivatives exposure of Deutsche Bank alone is around 20x greater than the entire GDP of Germany

246:

I've been in the computer field for over 30 years, unemployed the last 18+ months. My problem is that there are very few tech jobs where I live, and I'm reluctant to telecommute.

I've been thinking all my life that it would be so simple to improve working conditions and employment by reducing the work week (for Americans) from 40 hours to 30, reduce wages 20% (assuming people could afford to participate), and for every four people doing this hire another body.

But it'll never happen. I've seen the full sweep of technological change from the early/mid '80s to now, from MS-Dos to whatever desktop people care to use. And I keep asking myself: why do we work longer hours with increased automation and still lose standard of living?

Thanks, Charlie, for a cogent description of how I've felt that life these days is fundamentally screwed up. I've never read Keynes, I'll have to add him to my list.

247:

Nope, the house builders already own large chunks of the green belt.
They are ready and waiting for the destruction of it, so that they can control the market more to suit themselves. If you got rid of all greenbelt legislation etc, the next day the house builders would announce plans to build say 500,000 houses over the next two years. Not enough to fundamentally change the market and prices, but enough to cream off a lot of profit from released demand. They'd then do their best to ensure that house building rates would be kept low enough not to affect their profits, yet high enough to give a boom time.

Moreover, what they built would be badly build shoddy rubbish with little insulation and no long lasting value, cramped into a small plot taking no advantage of solar energy, minimal garden and complete inefficiency in terms of services, as well as interior and external layout. And they'd mostly be detached as well, wasting space and energy efficiency.

I mean we're talking companies so monumentally incapable and profit driven that a friend of mine is currently living in a 1 year old flat, that sells for well over 100,00£, and you can still hear the neighbours through the walls!!!

248:

One of the most basic and more robust Operations Research results can be summarized as "you can have success, OR you have have control, you can't have both if the job's large enough you couldn't just do it yourself".

Which theorem are you referring to? I'd love to read the formal details.

249:

Osborne is a multi-millionaire trust-fund kid, a graduate of Eton College and Oxford

St Paul's School and Oxford, please. My alma mater has enough regrettable alumni in the public eye without you blaming us for that ghastly oik as well.

250:

Have you looked into money, where it comes from, debt, and borrowing? The bank of england admitted recently in some sort of public education document that money is created by borrowing*, but failed to mention the need to find more of it to pay back the debt with interest.

That's one reason we're working longer hours for less money and not feeling great. There are others of course.


* I think we've had that discussion on here before, and it is disturbing how many people deny it.

251:

So why, do you think, is it the unemployed person who gets blamed for this?

Mental laziness: Unemployment is Bad. Bad stuff only happens to bad people. So unemployed people must have done s.t. bad.

Works the same with any other Bad Stuff: always blame it on the victim. Of course the neocon methods of handling unemployment go one step further: don't just blame 'em, punish 'em.

I feel with you and hope you find the strength and luck to see you through this.

252:

"If we could deflate the housing market down to actual cost of houses, rather than speculative land prices geared against future rent-seeking,"

Uh, Charlie? Supply and demand? I don't know the exact role of "speculation", everyone's favorite demonization target, but I'm pretty sure that land in London, next to subways and services and airports and *not* 40 miles from the nearest down, is intriniscally far more expensive than the rural coast of Scotland, because more people want to live there, next to the subways and museums and airports and ports and such.

Infrastructure investment raises land desirability prices; that's not speculation. The presence of other desirable people raises desirability and prices; that can be kind of bubble-like but not really, and isn't speculation.

A housing market dominated by the cost of building houses is housing that exists on worthless land, e.g. no roads, sewers, power lines. This is not a solution.

Rethinking the assumptions behind private land ownership, or just having a high land tax, those might be solutions. You're still going to have expensive housing in cities, meaning tall apartments and not individual houses for the most part, but you'd be paying land-rent to the public rather than to lucky owners.

253:

Yes, of course land where everyone wants to be is in short supply, so more desirable, so subject to demand-driven inflation (and attractive to speculators).

The point I'm making is that housing per se is not hugely expensive; land is expensive. However, we've got just shy of 250,000 km^2 in the UK; that means an average population density of 260 people/km^2, which is 2.6 people per hectare or roughly 1 person per acre. We should be able to fit on this land mass. Why is demand so tightly focussed on one particular area ...? Hint; there are positive feedback loops in play, to no small extent driven by the syllogistic logic of demand-driven inflation and speculation.

As for the tall apartments thing, high-rise tower blocks got a very bad rep in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s because they were done badly, on the cheap. Done properly, they're luxury housing in the centre of desirable urban neighbourhoods. I don't see this as a problem ...

254:

You didn't read to the bit where the land in london is valued at an amount of money that exceeds several multiples of the GLOBAL GDP.

That's the difference between London prices and Hebredean prices for housing - london prices would be expensive relative to the rest of the country, BUT, and this would not be a fact of 6 or 7 difference for a cheap flat in an poor part of a poor borough of greater london relative to a property in the richer areas of oxford.

It's that disjoint between actual and speculative real eastate values that's half of the problems with the property market in the UK, the other half is easily solved by another wave of tower block building but with improvements based on experience with the ones from the 1960s (i.e. don't build estates so they have only one or two small entrances/exits so that crime and criminals can move in and out of the estates, rather than concentrating the effects of crime within the fortress-like redoubts of the old estates).

255:

Your advice on criminals and estates doesn't make sense to me. I thought the issue within the estates was too many points of access making it easy for criminals to escape from the police or others, and precisely how many exits the estate had didn't matter so much because 1) they'd always knock a fence down to get out the back and 2) most crime was within the estate anyway, or they could just walk out or get a bus up the road.

The local monthly newspaper in the place I grew up regularly had a crime report that included "Two thefts were reported in X, and a man from Y was traced and arrested", Y being the housing scheme 2 miles down the road, half an hours walk away.

256:

The USA is actually rather crap at switching to renewables. The country I live in is on course for 100% renewable energy by 2020; up from 40.3% from renewables in 2012, growing at 22% per annum.

If you can make this switch, good on you (I've always wondered what a post-hydrocarbon society would look like) However, I have a hard time believing this is going to be PV-based. Are you talking about wind- and wave-driven alternate energy? If so, well, that sort of thing simply is not available to the U.S.A. in significant amounts.

Btw, agree in spades to Buy battery manufacturer futures: it's where we're going! The only question is, which battery manufacturer futures? Just as you were pessimistic five years ago about solar energy, so I was pessimistic five years ago about battery tech. But it looks as if attach via nanofabrication as been ramping up quite a bit. Any pearls of wisdom on that front? I'm confined to PR releases or difficult-to-follow materials physics articles, but maybe you have some inside info?

257:

Assume a total switch to electric vehicles, and a total switch to solar cells for generation, in the UK -- unlikely, I know -- and we'd have 20 million cars on the road, 95% of them parked (and presumably plugged into the next-generation smart grid) even at peak rush hour time. That's 6000 gWH of storage capacity. UK grid demand is around 60gW, so the storage capacity is in the right order of magnitude ball-park to provide a backstop to the grid if all renewable inputs went dark overnight.

(Yes, the grid would need to be very smart to cope with 20 million storage reservoirs. But that's what the internet of things is all about, right?)

Incidentally, that's your sf-extrapolation right there: democratic people power crippling the system via strategic power shortages . . . simply by the coordinated DNS attack of driving at the same time.

258:

"You didn't read to the bit where the land in london is valued at an amount of money that exceeds several multiples of the GLOBAL GDP."

There is no part that says that. He said London might lose 50 trillion pounds of value, which is *one* year global GDP. And that's if the housing market were driven all the way down to the cost of houses, wiping out the value of being London, with its location and infrastructure.

A more relevant ratio is value to London's own GDP, which seems to be about 300 billion pounds. So income is 0.6% of alleged land/housing wealth... Low, granted. Assuming the 50 trillion pounds figure is accurate; at 1 million per house that'd be 50 million Londonish houses, enough to house the whole UK a few times over. An article says the value of all housing stock in the UK is about 5 trillion pounds.

259:

Just to leave some of the politics aside just for a moment, a few thoughts spring to mind. I really do wonder what will eventually happen to employment and with it the rest of society.

It might just be that we are in for a change, though to what extent we don't know yet. Prehaps intresting changes will happen around 10 or 15 years from now. Note that I say intresting, I don't neccerialy mean bad or good.

Lots of other things will affect jobs, employment and soforth and we don't know the outcome of them. These may include;

- The retirement of the baby-boomers en masse (already started, will eventually become a tidal wave).

- The ending of many middle-class jobs as the author of this article has said about. Will there be other jobs that they can take up? Will they exist?

- The unknown effects on society of global warming

- What happens if you continually try to run your entire economy prelocated on debt.

- Natural resource depletion.

- Future conflicts and war.

That is not of course a comprehensive list, but any one of these could have big effects.

An alternative thought might say that we're just living at the end of 30+ year old economic expreiment and that this is the logcial endpoint of it all. Note that successive goverments in the UK since the 80s have all by and large had similar policies. The current goverment kept new labour policies, that goverment kept (john) major policies which in turn kept thatcher policies. So nothing much has changed in the last 30 years.

Where does it all go? That is anyone's guess. But me personally I think we could be in for some very large upheavels in the years to come.

ljones

260:

Its not green belt that makes land for housing so expensive. And its certainly not planning laws. Its the way everything is mortgaged, so banks and previous owners take huge cuts out of every transaction.


Fifty years ago council houses didn't have subsidised rents and they were net contributors to the municipal budgets. That's because they were built on land owned by the council, free of debt.

Nowadays social housing is forced to make a contribution to the compulsory taxes we all pay to the bankers. And don't mention PPI.

Ken Brown

261:


And I keep asking myself: why do we work longer hours with increased automation and still lose standard of living?

See my comment no. 238 above. Those distorting economic mechanisms I mentioned have a curve describing them that has reversed its slope. That has produced a bifurcation, a splitting into the simultaneous existence of the overworked and the underemployed or unemployed, the same way that you can get a phase change that allows the simultaneous existence of water vapour and liquid water at certain temperatures and pressures (in fact, it was that splitting that tipped me off to go and look for economic mechanisms that could work like that). The result is more work load for some with a fall in their standard of living, since they have to carry load for others as well. That includes carrying the one percenters via the economic rents created, as well as supporting welfare for those who are prevented from contributing to their own well being.


I've never read Keynes, I'll have to add him to my list.

Read Pigou too, or at any rate read about his work on externalities and the Real Balance Effect. On of the biggest down sides of Keynes's work was that he effectively derailed enquiry into the lines that Pigou was pursuing. Pigou's work is very relevant to current problems and to what could be done about them, since the virtual wage subsidies I mentioned in my earlier comment are Pigovian subsidies to undo a labour market imperfection that would also work as an automatic stabiliser by stimulating the economy more through a variation of the Real Balance Effect whenever the economy faltered (a Virtual Balance Effect?).

262:

What happens if you continually try to run your entire economy prelocated on debt.

Actually, we have some precedent for this one. People become trapped in debt to the point where they become essentially slaves. It's literally one of the oldest ones in the book; Genesis chapter 47 describes how a Pharaoh of Egypt rose to power in such a manner. Sharecropping blacks after the American Civil War were in pretty much the same boat.

263:

People become trapped in debt to the point where they become essentially slaves.

And, interestingly, student load debt cannot be discharged except by paying it off. Bankruptcy doesn't wipe it out.

264:

Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, aka "the solution has to be as complex as the problem". (The aka isn't quite formally correct but is a useful way to think about it.)

If the solution has an unspoken requirement that a specific individual has to be able to understand it ("control"), you've in effect got a requirement to not solve a bunch of problems that are, in practical terms, quite easy; so, it's a choice between success and control.

"All hierarchy is emergent" (that's Donella Meadows and systems theory), we just have to deal with people determined to constrain which hierarchies we get to ones they can control. That's far from the only ones possible.

265:

I have to agree with Charlie on this 100%, I'm a software developer working for a consulting company and 100% of my work for the last 2 years could be best described as putting office girls out of work. Businesses(or at least the sort i deal with) don't seem to want truly new functionality, but customizations that eliminate the need for 4 secretarial staff are the balls.

266:

Nope, not going to happen anytime soon. The technology is just not there, AI needs to be approaching human level before this can be seriously considered, that's at least 15 years away. Then there's the natural resource and energy limits, which won't be overcome unless we seriously start exploitation of space.

And I have yet to see a first order approximation on how this can be done within the current government budget and works with the current international economical and political framework (i.e. if your plan assumes cheap labors from China and cheap oil from middle east, it's dead on arrival). The US federal government spend about $400 billion on welfare every year, divided by total adult population under 65 of 120 million, that's just $3333 per adult per year, well below the poverty line.

267:

To reduce inflated housing values yet keep a city alive and livable you'd need some sort of control over the turn-over rate, i.e., a maximum % of housing units of type could be sold within a particular calendar/fiscal year, otherwise you'd end up with another Detroit. This is not a foolish/idealistic notion: it's a mechanism already in place with stock trading which may have helped stop the collapse of stock markets several times since its inception.

Infrastructure while a very large part of the cost of physical housing within a city/community, in no way compares to the uncapped premium attached to the psychological aspects of housing, which mostly is a bunch of variants describing an 'in/ideal' neighborhood. In my neck of the woods, there are quite a few physically and 'attitudinally' different yet almost equally very desirable (priced) neighborhoods, i.e. old money/architecture; high-rise uber-techie condos; quaint storybook, 'friendly' cottage bungalows; etc.

Also -- we need to redefine what we mean by infrastructure, i.e., what we will allow our tax dollars to be spent on and/or what we need included within a physical housing unit. By this I mean, if almost all of housing in area X has self-generating electricity - solar, wind geothermal and/or tidal - then it's foolish to automatically run electrical wires throughout that area. (Land developers do charge a premium for this -- so dropping some of this would shorten the supply/distribution chain/channel and reduce costs.) This also applies to natural gas, telephone wires, water/sewage, etc. At the same time, other physical goods/services could be added into a locality's definition of infrastructure based on that locality's demographics/needs, i.e., community funded daycare, pre-school, neighborhood/community gardens, assisted living services and-or housing for seniors, public transit, etc.


Re: 'Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, aka "the solution has to be as complex as the problem".' - never heard of this before, but definitely agree ... will read up on it further, thanks for bringing this to our attentions.

268:

"If the solution has an unspoken requirement that a specific individual has to be able to understand it ("control"), ..."

Would change this to 'perceived control': the gizmo does what you expect it to do. Most users/consumers strongly prefer not having to understand how something/anything works. (Think Mac vs. PC.)

269:

Ashby's law leads naturally into the Iron Law of Institutions, since once an organization is too big to control, nobody can define what counts as "success" for it. Pretty soon the highest end for the institution becomes is its own survival and growth.

270:
Would change this to 'perceived control': the gizmo does what you expect it to do. Most users/consumers strongly prefer not having to understand how something/anything works. (Think Mac vs. PC.)

This is why Magick is popular, and why apparently intelligent people will sometimes put a power socket in and call the electrician when it doesn't work. (Not wired to mains! Seen in Science of Discworld 4).

Any technology distinguishable from magick is insufficiently advanced, as the Krell knew, to their cost.

Irrelevantly, anyone been listening to radio 4 extra "Journey into Space"? 1971 posited through the eyes of 1954. Most interesting for the social attitudes.

271:

I think there's a better explanation than Ashby's Law. It comes from James Scott's Seeing Like a State (actually, it is the book). The general idea is that humans can only deal with so much complexity, and when you add to the complexity of the management hierarchy, you necessarily have to simplify the lower levels of the hierarchy to make them manageable.

Since I'm an ecologist, so I'll use Scott's ecological example: scientific forestry. We all know modern tree farms, with their even rows of even-aged trees and require all sorts of manipulation. They're a couple of centuries old, and came about because governments in what's now Germany wanted to have a predictable amount of wood coming out of their forests, and they wanted to be able to tax it. To do this, they reworked forests so that they could count the trees, hence the even aged, uniform stands. The stands are designed to be measured, managed, and taxed. They're also a lot simpler than real forests or even village woodlots. Ever since they were first planted, managers have had problems making scientifically managed forests remotely sustainable

Let's contrast that with a medieval village woodlot. The village was probably fewer than 200 people (see Dunbar's number), and all their fuel came out of their woodlot. They coppiced or pollarded most of the suitable trees, for use as firewood, fence wood, furniture material, or whatever. Very little of the woodland had tall, straight timber trees for major buildings, and often those were set aside for governmental use. The villagers organized harvesting of the wood from their woodland to a rotation lasting decades so that everyone had enough firewood, but the amount harvested varied by what the woodland produced, not by imperial quota. After the harvest, some people got the wood, the tanners got the bark off the oaks, farmers got the leaves to feed their animals, people had the rights to nuts, fruit, mushrooms, etc. There were many uses, and many of them were informal--kids harvesting berries, hogs getting the acorns, and so forth. This is a much more sustainable system. It has to be: if it wasn't sustainable, villagers would starve and/or move away. However, it is is also extremely complex, and it works best when there aren't that many people involved and the management system is pretty flat, with a mayor and/or some elders keeping everything going.

The problem is, if you're a king, how do you tax such a village woodlot? Most of the transactions aren't recorded or even recordable, and you need some of that wood for your palace and army. Worse, output from a woodland managed this way is unpredictable. No matter how much of the output you take in taxes, the output will vary wildly depending on what the woodland experienced the previous year. Any clever peasant will emphasize how poor a year it was, just to minimize the taxes they pay. If the king only taxes some products, the taxation will be perceived as unfair, which causes its own management problems (fair taxes are always a complaint).

So, to manage forests, kings hired foresters to simplify the forests until it could be managed from above. This kicked a lot of peasants off the land, outlawed many uses of the forest, and led to an unsustainable system, but it became manageable and predictable.

This kind of thing happens all the time: it's the reason we have last names (so we have an official name that can be censused), why city streets tend to be grids (homes can be located on grids, and grids can be expanded indefinitely), and so forth. Scott sees high modernism as the apotheosis of this approach to life: making everything simple so that it can be scientifically managed.

This need for simplification can lead to tragedies, as in the Great Leap Forward, when some charismatic leader tries to make a simple society where everything is logical, makes sense, and can be managed. Such utopian efforts inevitably founder, because simple, logical systems are horribly inefficient when they work at all. Nature's all about kludges.

I tend to think that Scott's observation better explains the problems that organizations have. Yes, some people become very loyal to organizations. However, big companies still have all organizational the problems they've had for the last few centuries, even though few are as loyal to them as they were in the days of guaranteed employment and pensions. If organizations were solely dedicated to their own propagation, modern corporations would be falling apart rather than trying to take over the world, because everyone from the CEO to the janitor is out for #1 these days.

I'd suggest that the problem is that management requires simplification, and this requirement introduces its own problems, simply because reality is complicated. Unfortunately, humans can only deal with so much complexity. Designing complex human management systems that actually work seems to be a non-trivial challenge.

272:

The Great Leap Forward failed because they forgot about eating... (massive over-simplification of course!) ~ but if we consider the last character from 大躍進, as in 進, which can easily be one with the compound 進化, when something animate or not takes an influence from outside or inside and changes to become more advanced/evolved/complex - presumably to do better with where it is at. To adapt... Anyhow, Mao Ze-Dong had a plan, and we say it failed; but in the long run it hasn't if we look really really far down the trail from the 60's to now. Indeed, the leap seems to have only kicked in recently - which is ironic yes?

I am not being serious of course; but then again, without that, the now is not the same now either - or at least not exactly the same, probably...

As to grid cities, yuk! I prefer circular, radiating outwards; throw in some canals too please...

273:

The surprise is not how vociferously and tenaciously some flock to defending {success at the current system of non-consensual BDSM games}' being normative, but how badly-off many of those defenders of the system are under it.

Well, not really:
0.) http://www.spectacle.org/0802/hogan.html
1.) Some are content with kissing-up so long as they can kick-down.
2.) Survival selected for groups with moral codes that insisted on work for all, or all but a few. These codes survive their necessity, and some people insist that thy are the only way to be 'moral'.
3.) Our host expresses himself forcefully and well; our host also attracts contrarians.
4.) Some do badly under the system, but fear doing worse.
5.) Well-functioning social systems do most of their policing from posts inside our skulls; this is as true in the U.S. as in the U.K. as in North Korea as in any libertopia, Right or Left.

274:

In the U.S. at least, moving to a guarantied annual income and the end of all other benefits, a position of some 'libert'arian-ish conservatives (it has Milton Friedman's imprimatur, and I expect Rand Paul or Paul Ryan to test-market such), would start as or soon be an entirely inadequate one...and very easily eliminated entirely (see Suetonius' Caligula's 'If only all Rome had but one neck!').

275:

Organizational Behavior courses study span of control theories/practices and one of the most interesting cases (IMO) is Magna International. Its founder decided at the outset to limit each 'company's' size to 100 employees because he felt that no company CEO/president/GM could possibly know the details of an operation particularly how to effectively evaluate/motivate/manage more than 100 employees/individuals.

This model does allow for growth: Once a 'Magna company' consistently needs more employees - usually because of one product department's growth, Stronach would spin it off as a separate venture. Magna Corporation (NYSE- MGA) grew fairly rapidly and has over 40 years or so become a major player in the auto parts industry. ASAIK, Magna is still using this management model.

This is also one of the few companies started up in late 20th century started companies that I'm aware of that included profit-sharing built right into its modus operandi*. The lesson here is that it is possible to be a good employer, operate what is technically defined as a 'small company' (i.e., under 250 employees), and be very successful. As per Wikipedia ... "Magna has approximately 125,000 employees in 316 manufacturing operations and 84 product development, engineering and sales centres in 29 countries. [4]Magna operates under a corporate constitution[5] which calls for distribution of profits to employees and shareholders. The terms of this contract are "fair enterprise" according to Frank Stronach, company founder.[citation needed]" (FYI, Stronach is not a muddle-headed softie but more of a corporate 'Schwarzenegger' ... possibly because of his Bavarian roots.)

* - The employee profit-sharing was actually considered as the most cost effective way of keeping out the very powerful auto manufacturing unions.

276:

Some do badly under the system, but fear doing worse.

Societies tend to expand freedom when economic opportunities are common, and to restrict it when times are bad. When times are good, most social mobility is upward, so people tend to devalue and evade whatever limits there may be to social mobility. When times are bad and most social mobility is downward, people fear social mobility and tend to the barriers.

277:

Actually, IIRC, there's a lot of social mobility when society collapses entirely. The critical point may not be the fear of doing worse, but how expensive it is to get out of a bad system. This is the classic mafia strategy of owing a favor to the mob. Because you've conspired with them, you have to confess your own crimes in order to turn on them. In our western culture, we know that it's unsustainable, but currently the cost for anyone to get out of it into something more sustainable is enormous, far too big for most people at this point.

278:

Let's Visit the World of the Future: http://youtu.be/FHx2nLFMAzE

Amateurish, alcohol/acid-sodden early '70s, but worth it if you can stand it.... Relevant sections:

Work: 19:47
Consumption: 04:00 (might be uh borrowed from "THX-1138")

Basically: all goods are made by self-maintaining machines, all humans must work grueling, useless, jobs 20hrs/day for `hard work''s sake; all purchased goods are bought for pure status'sake, and are immediately flushed away for recycling.

279:

Just from your summary, I am quite certain I could not stand it.

280:

A world without the necessity of work (say, with a guaranteed income) probably wouldn't have less labour being done. Good work -- work that fits heuristics A and B -- is satisfying regardless of whether or not you need to perform it to survive; instead, I suspect that after a guaranteed income (of a scale one can actually live off of) is put in place, there may be a short period of labor drop-off followed by a rapid reorganization and a movement of people towards jobs that at least hit point (A) -- and probably hit point (B) to a greater extent -- once those who had previously considered work to be universally unfulfilling get bored enough to explore and discover fulfilling work. After all, the obnoxiously wealthy aren't typically spending all their time on golden couches -- instead, they engage in satisfying hobbies not entirely unlike work.

281:

To reduce inflated housing values yet keep a city alive and livable you'd need some sort of control over the turn-over rate, i.e., a maximum % of housing units of type could be sold within a particular calendar/fiscal year, otherwise you'd end up with another Detroit.

Actually, Detroit is surrounded by a parasitic belt of rather well off townships that are bound and determined not to pay any taxes that might be used to the benefit of 'those people'. Iow, a classic example of White Flight.

282:

Btw, since I don't follow this stuff the way I ought to, does anyone have any half-way decent links to progress in the fine art of battery making? Something a little less gee-whiz that the 'Discovery' tier of magazine reportage? As noted before on this blog, for one of those 'As you know, Bob' didactic blocks of retrospection, it's one of those technological bits that's surprisingly (or rather, not so surprisingly) hard to get right.

283:

Haven't been near Detroit in a very long time and have heard only horror tales from friends having to travel there/through there. Based on this, seems that Detroit might be an ideal city to mount a social experiment ... after all, what have they to lose?

284:

You've seen the documentary on a previous attempt at sprucing up Detroit, right? It's called "Robocop".

285:

Wholesale social collapse comes with lots of opportunities. I was addressing situations more along the lines of recessions and depressions.

As for the rest, few systems last long if they're uniformly bad for everyone. Western civilization probably is unsustainable, but if the alternative is 80% starvation and 20% subsistence farming, it's not too hard to see its appeal.

286:

Thomas Edison designed an electric car over a hundred years ago, and ran into The Battery Problem.

Ever since, better batteries have been just around the corner... but they've all run into one or more of the same basic problems:

materials too rare or expensive
materials too toxic
fabrication too expensive
charge/discharge rate too low
too heavy or bulky
too fragile
service life too short
safe disposal or recycling costs high

287:

I tend to like Chemical and Engineering News for a take on what the professional chemists think is most interesting.

For battery tech, I'd suggest: http://pubs.acs.org/iapps/wld/cen/results.html?line3=battery

Note that TRX isn't that far off, at least according to recent articles.

288:

It's trickier than that, I think. If your 401(k) insists on investing in BigOil, it's that much harder to be pro-renewables. If you like cheap food, it's that much harder to fight for immigrant farm laborers to get higher wages. If you live in a country that benefits from a world-wide hegemony that extracts a lot of wealth from other countries, it's that much harder to fight for global human rights.

Another really good book that goes over this is David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains. His analogy for the situation is one of those basketry fish traps. It's a cylinder of fairly thin vines with a funnel leading in and some tasty bait in the center. Properly baited and located, it will draw the fish in, and due to the pointy ends in the entrance-way funnel, it will be very hard for the fish to get back out of the trap. He compared political movements to these fish traps: each strand of the trap (law, policy, rewards, etc) can be individually flimsy, and the bait to get you in can be delicious, but collectively the whole setup can be extremely hard to get out of.

He put it more formally in what he called the Theory of Competitive Control: "In irregular conflicts...the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate that population and its residential area." He's talking about getting rid of insurgents, but he admits the theory applies to everything from street gangs to governments. Breaking down his theory:
--Force ultimately matters. If it comes down to a situation of moral persuasion vs. force, force wins, based on the evidence. Armed groups more often go on to adopt moral codes than moral groups go on to take up arms, and groups without armed backup ultimately lose out.
--Predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative systems. Norms include all societal norms: laws everyone recognizes, a justice system that is reasonably fair and fast, a commercial system, guarantees of land rights, and so on. Wide-spectrum means that the power provides more of the functions of a normal government, everything from health care to environmental services to justice and law enforcement to military protection. Various insurgencies have bounced back from decades of defeats by being, in effect, shadow states that have a wide-spectrum of services and units, while a gang that's all about taking and holding territory can be defeated easily if it alienates the people it holds in a reign of terror.

Anyway, good book, and definitely worth reading. The basic point is it isn't just about people choosing between the society we have and a worse alternative. It's the cost of getting from where we are to sustainable that's the harder part.

289:

Battery-electric vehicles, pure battery or hybrid, how long does the battery last, and can it be replaced?

I have seen some detailed instructions on the web for battery maintenance on the Honda Civic Hybrid, involving special charging to "recondition" the cells, with the warning that you cannot get new replacement cells any more.

290:

ScienceDaily covers a research across disciplines - here's a recent article on batteries: (March 16 2014)

A battery that 'breathes' could power next-gen electric vehicles

"Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) nearly doubled in 2013, but most won't take you farther than 100 miles on one charge. To boost their range toward a tantalizing 300 miles or more, researchers are reporting new progress on a "breathing" battery that has the potential to one day replace the lithium-ion technology of today's EVs. They presented their work at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Dallas this week.

"Lithium-air batteries are lightweight and deliver a large amount of electric energy," said Nobuyuki Imanishi, Ph.D. "Many people expect them to one day be used in electric vehicles."

The main difference between lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries is that the latter replaces the traditional cathode -- a key battery component involved in the flow of electric current -- with air. That makes the rechargeable metal-air battery lighter with the potential to pack in more energy than its commercial counterpart.

While lithium-air batteries have been touted as an exciting technology to watch, they still have some kinks that need to be worked out. Researchers are forging ahead on multiple fronts to get the batteries in top form before they debut under the hood.

One of the main components researchers are working on is the batteries' electrolytes, materials that conduct electricity between the electrodes. There are currently four electrolyte designs, one of which involves water. The advantage of this "aqueous" design over the others is that it protects the lithium from interacting with gases in the atmosphere and enables fast reactions at the air electrode. The downside is that water in direct contact with lithium can damage it.

Seeing the potential of the aqueous version of the lithium-air battery, Imanishi's team at Mie University in Japan tackled this issue. Adding a protective material to the lithium metal is one approach, but this typically decreases the battery power. So they developed a layered approach, sandwiching a polymer electrolyte with high conductivity and a solid electrolyte in between the lithium electrode and the watery solution. The result was a unit with the potential to pack almost twice the energy storage capacity, as measured in Watt hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), as a lithium-ion battery.

"Our system's practical energy density is more than 300 Wh/kg," Imanishi said. "That's in contrast to the energy density of a commercial lithium-ion battery, which is far lower, only around 150 Wh/kg."

The battery showed a lot of promise, with high conductivity of lithium ions, and the ability to discharge and recharge 100 times. In addition to powering EVs, lithium-air batteries could one day have applications in the home, thanks to their low cost. Power output remains a big hurdle, but Imanishi said his group is committed to honing this approach, as well as exploring other options, until lithium-air becomes a commercial reality.

Imanishi's work was supported by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society.

291:

This also looks very interesting plus they're looking for investors and want to do some 'trials' ... the key idea here is the 'flow' ...

Organic mega flow battery promises breakthrough for renewable energy
Date: January 8, 2014
Source: Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Summary: Scientists and engineers have demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.

292:

The problem in your example is the presumption of a king.

(It's actually pretty easy to set up a system where you have obligations on the village level, rather than taxes as such; that's what the Wessex system started off with.)

Management is only really a tough problem when the objective isn't measurable or you have to have a fixed hierarchy and can't adjust who is in charge based on the answer to "in charge of what?" Since the current purpose of our society is to produce and maintain and enforce that fixed hierarchy, that's a real problem in a number of senses, but the systems design part isn't the sticky bit.

293:

I think that lithium ion batteries are already Good Enough for mass market electric vehicles on every metric save price. They have enough energy density, enough power density, long enough lifetime to displace liquid fuels from most automobiles. Battery pack energy capacity is actually related to lifetime: if you can afford to size the battery larger so that it is never fully charged or discharged during normal operation, the capacity loss is slower.

I'm sure that people will be looking for a flashy "revolutionary" approach to batteries for the foreseeable future. In a similar way there have been countless attempts to revolutionize solar PV since ARCO Solar began production of crystalline silicon modules for terrestrial use in 1979. Today the market leader by far is still crystalline silicon, representing over 90% of the solar market in 2013. The low price leader is crystalline silicon. The efficiency leader too is crystalline silicon*. There was no single headline-grabbing revolution in silicon PV tech since 1979, but there was a tremendous scaling up and hundreds of little improvements at all levels of the manufacturing chain.

The lithium ion battery works, it can be scaled, and its technical shortcomings could be forgiven at a low enough cost. Can scaling-up and incremental cost reductions make it good enough for electric vehicles to become truly mainstream? I think it is quite possible.

Interestingly, last year a study found that most of the price advantages of Chinese PV manufacturers over Western rivals wasn't low labor costs, but larger production volume and corresponding economies of scale. Building a giant battery factory in the US may not be as sure-to-be-undercut-by-cheaper-offshore-labor as it sounds at first. To fully circle back to the original topic, the reason big factories for batteries or PV modules can be contemplated in higher-wage regions at all is that they just don't employ that many workers. They automate what they can. Chinese PV manufacturers are automating too, more to improve quality than to reduce wages further. Once an automated process demonstrates sufficient improvement the manual-equivalent job isn't coming back no matter how low wages fall. Eschew computer-controlled silicon wafering systems for hand tools wielded by unpaid interns or prisoner labor? No, ridiculous, the extra waste and variation from a manual process swamps the savings from not needing to buy wafering machines.

*For ordinary terrestrial use, anyway: there are more efficient multi-junction cells used in concentrating PV but they only work with 2-axis tracking and cloudless skies. There are also more efficient non-concentrating multi-junction cells for space use, carrying a huge price premium.

294:

For batteries, you might want to Google "nickel-cobalt battery".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCaR6MiYmck is a demonstration, complete with lamentable elevator music.

Sodium-sulfur also looks promising.

Then there's the prospect of vanadium boride rechargeables, which would be lovely, as the non-rechargeable version has a greater energy density than gasoline.

Batteries benefit immensely from wet nanotech to form the anode and the cathode. They'd benefit more from some serious research, but no one really wants to put money into it because there's a bunch of chemistries and it's very hard to predict which one will win. (Lithium won't; lithium is inherently rare, and will price itself out.)

295:

So, to manage forests, kings hired foresters to simplify the forests until it could be managed from above. This kicked a lot of peasants off the land, outlawed many uses of the forest, and led to an unsustainable system, but it became manageable and predictable.

This is a perfect example of Ashby's law: the government could choose control or success, but not both.

I agree that we often fail at an institutional level, but even "failing" institutions benefit someone, at least in the short term.

296:

They'd benefit more from some serious research, but no one really wants to put money into it because there's a bunch of chemistries and it's very hard to predict which one will win. (Lithium won't; lithium is inherently rare, and will price itself out.)

If I'm to believe Wikipedia's tabulation of elemental abundance in the Earth's crust, cobalt and boron are not notably more abundant than lithium. Even vanadium isn't notably more abundant once you consider the difference in atomic masses.

In the early days of nuclear energy people thought that uranium was so rare that breeder reactors would soon be a necessity. That date kept getting put off as people kept finding more uranium (and as new reactor builds slowed). I feel like the same thing is happening with lithium. Discovery of new sources is outstripping consumption as it attracts more interest.

Look at how greatly lithium reserves expanded between the USGS reports in 2001 and 2011, from 3.4 million tonnes to 13 million:

http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/450301.pdf
http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2011-lithi.pdf

And unlike uranium destined for nuclear reactors, lithium in batteries is not consumed by use.

297:

Not exactly. I'm an environmentalist, and right now, we're fighting big battles against that same scientific forestry here in the US. The main rubric now a combination of fire protection and carbon sequestration, but somehow the answer is the same uniform grids of trees that first popped up in Prussia centuries ago. The problems are much the same, too. The only new spin is that, instead of growing pines for timber, they're growing pines for standing carbon, presumably because a pine can be approximated as a cylinder of wood, while oaks tend to corkscrew, and the math is probably a bit too hard for foresters (sarcasm).

Switching government systems doesn't fix the forestry or any other problem: high modernism, which in many ways is the scientific urbanism equivalent of scientific forestry, has been practiced all over the world, by people of every political stripe. If you're grumbling that modernist architecture isn't scientific, I'd agree, and add that scientific forestry tends to not be very scientific either. However, they both lend themselves to simple maths, and that's their advantage.

298:

Indeed. I'd suggest Ashby's Law is an empirical description of how the systems work, while Scott is getting at the origin of the problem in the limits of human processing power and hierarchical organizing. They're both useful descriptions, but Scott's idea seems to be perhaps a bit more general

299:

And unlike uranium destined for nuclear reactors, lithium in batteries is not consumed by use.

A great many other uses do consume it (lithium grease!), and even all 13 Mtonnes is, at 12 kWh/kg, at most a couple million Tesla Model S cars. (At least if I'm not too sleepy to be punching calculator buttons; (12 x 13,000,000)/85 ~- 1.835 million 85 kWh battery packs; 2.6 million 60 kWh battery packs. That won't get everybody into electric cars.

Cobalt won't, either, you're quite right, though for the present it wins on things like charge time. (And if they can make it nickel/iron or something we're much better off. And it might be another couple million electric cars over the next decade, which has to help.)

In the end, though, it pretty much has to be sodium or sodium-sulphur, because there's enough of those. We're going to need a lot of batteries.

300:

Argh. Turnip. Do not multiply supply in tonnes by capacity in kg.

13 Mtonnes of lithium is 13 x 10^9 kg, so 1.8 *billion* 85 kWh battery packs, and the world just passed a billion cars, so potentially doable.

Something else would still be better on price (and maybe durability; I get to hope for the nickel-cobalt, if cobalt's got similar constraints of abundance to lithium, with the better charging characteristics and lesser flammability), and if we start looking at grid storage sodium or sodium-sulphur almost have to be it; the only other candidate for abundance in there is aluminium, and no one's solved the electrolyte problems with aluminium yet.

301:

Fascinating stuff!
Thank you , peoples, for the insights into recent advances in battery-systems & power storage.
Now, couple that with other recent ongoing research into really improving the efficiency of artifical photosynthesis [ I've heard figures of 20%+ bandied about, in one-off experimental rigs ] and we could really be on the verge of a complete tipping -point.
When?
2018/20/25?
Because when that happens, the excess CO2/Global-Warming problem will evaporate & disappear, "vanished into thin air, leaving not a wrack behind" ...
[ P.S> - just before hitting "send" ... I can't remember their exact name, but there a firm up near Stckton (!) ( "Fuel-Air Solutions" ?? ) also looking at alternative methods of liquid-fuel manufacture, without mineral extraction/Carbon-release.

302:

We don't really know if something would be better than lithium batteries on price until it's available to buy. The purified lithium carbonate that goes into making a battery is only a tiny fraction of the battery cost, maybe 1-2%. Cheaper batteries need more than replacing lithium with a substance that's marginally less expensive in bulk. At present neither cobalt nor vanadium are even less expensive in bulk.

Many new battery concepts look promising at the bench scale, but cost projections to full scale manufacturing are rarely better than guesses. Much like all those revolutionary new solar PV concepts that were going to dethrone crystalline silicon, and then didn't. The one new battery concept of recent years that I know is approaching commercial availability/scale is Aquion's all-aqueous sodium ion battery. That's for stationary storage -- long life, but low energy density.

Part of it is just path dependency. For all I know there really are a half-dozen chemistries at bench scale today that might equal or moderately surpass lithium ion if lithium ion were also currently at bench scale and just beginning to grow up. But lithium ion cells are manufactured near the billion-per-year scale and any new chemistry has to demonstrate truly outstanding advantages or be backed by very patient, deep pocketed investors who can scale it to where it can challenge the lithium incumbent.

303:

The electric vehicle ranges in that article are misleading. Using a test sanctioned ny the EPA in the USA (much as petrol consumption figures come from standard tests) the Tesla S, depending on model, has a range of between 200 and 265 miles.

That is seriously extreme. The Nissan LEAF has a 75-mile range.

The Tesla doesn't have enough range for some trips I have made, but maybe a new battery chemistry isn't needed.

304:

My understanding is that these figures are only true in warm weather. In winter the range drops by half easily, if not more.

305:

Lithium is the incumbent for some rather good reasons, particularly weight and size. Sodium is more than 3x heavier on a per-atom basis. The size bit is useful because it means lithium can diffuse through membranes that are impermeable to most everything else (except hydrogen). If we eliminate beryllium for reasons of rarity and toxicity, and we probably should, then there's just nothing else on the periodic table that meets the needs as well as lithium.

306:

Sodium-sulfur is a great battery and a ... brave ... thing to put on motor vehicle. Molten sodium is not a good thing to have sloshing around in a car accident. Elemental sulfur ain't great either. Having them both, in quantity, close together in a box, separated by a membrane ... as I said, it's brave. Ford keeps on doing snazzy demonstrator vehicles with this tech and never producing them for that very reason.

If RnD can knock the operating temp down a lot ... maybe. Still scarier than gasoline, but maybe tolerable. Some group in Utah is working on it, but they published once in 2009, as far as I can tell.

To be fair, this is going to be an issue with almost all high-energy density batteries.

307:

Thanks . . . but do you have something a little more technical? I'm fairly well up on the general facts, but that's not going to tell me what battery company to invest in.

308:

This is the sort of release that's been handed out for fifty years . . . at least. As already been noted, better batteries have been 'just around the corner' for a looong time. It's a tough problem, maybe not AI-tough or fusion-tough, but still pretty hard.

309:

My interest is more than gee-whiz or investory-savvy, btw. Perhaps if there were better batteries my country wouldn't feel the need for so much force projection, said projection having considerable financial and social costs.

310:

My interest is more than gee-whiz or investory-savvy, btw. Perhaps if there were better batteries my country wouldn't feel the need for so much force projection, said projection having considerable financial and social costs.

Dubious, I'm afraid. Legacy fuels (coal, gas, oil, radioactives) are wonderful things for holding energy. I'm afraid we'll get away from them when it becomes more than obvious that the hazards outweigh the benefits of using them, and when the energy we get out isn't worth the trouble.

Ironically, the active threat life from CO2 in the atmosphere (100,000-400,000 years at the extreme) is on the same scale as the radiation hazard from nuclear power wastes. That's one very good argument for lumping them all into the category of "legacy fuels," left to us by the past and of limited quantity.

Of course, we'll never use all legacy fuels. At some point, EROI (energy out for energy in) drops to the point where they simply don't pay off the cost of mining them. I've seen estimates that our civilization needs fuels with an EROI of 5:1 to 12:1 to function. John Michael Greer IIRC estimated an EROI of 10-12 was necessary, while Scientific American used an EROI of 5-9. It's not clear to me who is right, but our EROI right now averages below 15 for all fuels, though some (like hydropower) are much higher and others (corn ethanol) have an EROI below 1. When the industrial age started, coal and oil had EROIs around 100, and they've been dropping ever since.

The only good news is that while the EROI for all legacy fuels is dropping, the EROI for solar and wind is increasing, although both are below 10:1 AFAIK. The bad news is that renewables don't have the global capacity to replace all the legacy energy we use, which means that, absent a miracle, we're headed for a very low energy future. Why does fusion always have to be 30 years from now?

311:

Given that many people do in fact identify with their jobs, telling them that their jobs are bullshit is dangerous, at least to your ideas' propagation. (Others will vociferously agree and ask where the goddamn door is.)

312:

I think I've seen that one as EROEI (energy return on energy invested.) Anyway, fusion's a red herring; fission is perfectly okay and there's plenty of fissile material distributed around the world to last for, well, several centuries at a minimum.

Unfortunately, (military) interventionism also goes with use of fissiles. I've made no secret of my belief that the NPT will morph into a club for them that already has to beat over the head them that currently doesn't.

313:

Of course one option if you have electric batteries, depending on how they're fitted, that isn't really an option with petrol batteries, is just to swap the whole fuel-cell. Detach the nearly discharged battery 'cage' swap in a fully charged set of batteries and drive off.

Connecting electrical cables is quick, easy and safe. Connecting petrol and diesel tubing rather less so. The place where you do it, assuming you create - by legislation probably - some standard battery packs - gets something of equal value except the cost of the charge and the time for the swap. But just like we pay for petrol now, we'd happily pay for the charge in the batteries and I'm sure we'd happily pay a bit extra for the convenience of the swap.

And I wonder just how often that service would actually be used. I'm not a great traveller and not a driver. I have travelled in a car more than 200 miles in a day a few times. I'm sure there are a few people who do it a lot. But I wonder just how frequent it really is. I bet a lot of people would quite happily design their journeys around "travel about 200 miles and rest up overnight to let the car recharge" for most personal trips and business travel might move to trains or planes wherever possible. Unless there are a lot of people travelling over 200 miles a day in a car that have to be in a car all the time, I think you'd find it could be made to work fairly easily.

314:

You both need to read up on what Elon Musk is doing with Tesla. They're rolling out SuperCharger stations at service areas that can put a 60% charge into a Model S in 30 minutes -- that's around 100 miles of driving. Think of it as two hours behind the wheel, then a half hour coffee break while the car charges up. And if you're in a hurry, they're planning a new service this year whereby they'll drop your discharged battery pack out of the car and install a new one in five minutes flat (for an $80 fee plus arbitrage based on relative battery condition, if you don't return the new pack to swap for your old one). The idea is that by the end of 2015 it'll be possible to drive coast-to-coast across the USA via interstate with no more than a 10 minute stop at any point. Oh, and I saw my first SuperCharger station in the UK (off the M76 in Cumbria) last year.

315:

Would you believe that the EROI and the EROEI factions grump at each other?

I'm not quite as optimistic about the quantity of fissiles left in the world. A Cubic Mile of Oil says that there are the equivalent of 28-30 cubic miles of oil (CMO) in fissiles left, while we have up to 90 CMO in petroleum, 300 CMO of tar sands left, and 1000 CMO for coal (although they don't factor in EROI to determine how much of that is worth extracting).

The bigger issue is that the EROI of current nuclear reactors is 5 (per Scientific American, April 2013). Since I now have the article out (it's from April 2013), Here's the numbers from the article, in two tables. My apologies for the misstatements previously. That's my memory without coffee.

In the first table, the first column is the energy source, the second column, is the global production in millions of gallons per day in 2011, the third column is the EROI:

Conventional Oil : 69: 16
Sugarcane Ethanol : 0.4: 9
Soy Biodiesel : 0.1: 5.5
Tar Sands : 1.6: 4
California Heavy Oil : 0.3:
Corn Ethanol : 1.0: 1.4

In the second table, the first column is the energy source, the second column is global production in petawatt-hours in 2010, and the third column is the EROI:

Hydroelectric : 3.5: 40+
Wind : 0.3: 20
Coal : 8.7: 18
Natural Gas : 4.8: 7
Photovoltaic Solar : 0.03: 6
Nuclear : 2.8: 5

Just looking at the numbers, depending for fuel on petroleum (EROI of 16 for 95% of liquid fuels) and coal for electricity (EROI of 18 for 43% of electricity generation) is perfectly rational, if all you're trying to do is make energy efficiently. Developing wind, solar, and cane ethanol are the next best choices, and maximizing the EROI of renewable energy sources should be a major goal.

The two problems with nuclear are, assuming you believe the authors in Cubic Mile of Oil, that there's perhaps 1/3 as much energy to be had from uranium than from oil, and (if you believe Scientific American) the EROI on nuclear is on the very low side for keeping civilization working. That EROI, incidentally, comes from building the reactors in the first place, and then curating the wastes for thousands of years afterwards. Both of these take a lot of energy. Developing something like thorium reactor with a high EROI and fewer waste issues may drastically change these numbers.

316:

Argh, take 2:

In the first table, the first column is the energy source, the second column, is the global production in millions of gallons per day in 2011, the third column is the EROI:

Conventional Oil : 69: 16
Sugarcane Ethanol : 0.4: 9
Soy Biodiesel : 0.1: 5.5
Tar Sands : 1.6: 5
California Heavy Oil : 0.3: 4
Corn Ethanol : 1.0: 1.4

Corrected the California heavy oil and tar sands. Corn ethanol remains a bad deal.

317:

Even I, as a teenager some 24 years ago, came up with the idea of swapping battery packs from cars, or maybe I stole it. Either way it was clearly such an obvious solution, and is technically not that hard to do, that anyone who moans about long recharge time on car batteries is just a total idiot.

318:

No, I mean 19 or 20 years ago. Ooops.

319:

What about progressively shorter work weeks?
http://www.thelocal.se/20140408/swedish-workers-to-test-six-hour-work-days

320:

Dubious, I'm afraid. Legacy fuels (coal, gas, oil, radioactives) are wonderful things for holding energy. I'm afraid we'll get away from them when it becomes more than obvious that the hazards outweigh the benefits of using them, and when the energy we get out isn't worth the trouble.

That has already happened, hasn't it? We're for-sure going to get between 2 and 4 C of warming before 2100. Agriculture... at least becomes substantially more challenging and might not work at all in a number of regions. (Don't buy land in the Eastern Med.)

We really can't expect to survive business as usual on fossil carbon.

321:

Heh. You're talking about the difference between obvious and more than obvious. I posted a little blog entry last fall about why the Syrian Civil War might be the first of the predicted water wars.

No, more than obvious needs to be, somehow, even more obvious than the messes in Syria and Iraq. London and DC getting flooded by simultaneous hurricanes, that sort of thing.

Alternatively, perhaps things will become more obvious once certain elderly plutocrats shuffle off. You know, the ones whose names rhyme with Coke and Dock? One can always hope that their businesses are tied up in legal disputes for a couple of decades after they go.

322:

I think, for planning purposes, one has to suppose that the elderly plutocrats get, or will get, effective anti-senescence treatments and won't die of natural causes.

This being equivalent to supposing capable heirs, I don't think it's that rash.

Fossil carbon extraction's going to stop when it's stopped by greater political power, not when impersonal economic forces would stop it; if we've seen anything in US politics since the 1970s, we've seen that.

323:

Did the "Cubic Mile" folks allow for extraction of fissile material from seawater? It's been demonstrated as a low-energy process involving recyclable ion-exchange resin mats, current pricing about $300 per kilo of uranium metal which is well above the current minehead price but only by a factor of two or three. Some folks have suggested more uranium gets washed into the sea each year from rocky deposits inland than we'd need to extract from seawater to keep the current fleet of nuclear reactors (about 15% of world electricity generation) operational.

Exploration keeps turning up more and more sources of uranium that could be mined with a decent EROEI -- sites in Greenland have over 200,000 tonnes of recoverable uranium metal, it was recently announced, enough to supply world demand for decades even if mines like Cigar Lake run out.

324:

Not a clue. I don't have the book with me, but my major grumble was that it wasn't transparently clear about where they got their numbers.

One thing I've noticed is that estimates of legacy fuels reserves don't generally agree with each other. I suspect one reason is that energy companies are more than a little chary of giving out how much they think they actually have in the ground.

I've heard some natural gas estimates (e.g. Marcellus shale a few years ago) compared to someone saying they're a millionaire, because they have a lottery ticket in their pocket. There's a non-zero chance they're correct, but it's not a good basis for future energy estimates. In general, if someone's got a Wonderful New Strike, especially if they want you to invest in it, I'd take their numbers with a small boulder of salt.

325:

I've got a more reputable cite somewhere in my bookmarks (I really should name what I save more descriptively), but this wiki page on peak uranium says there's quite a bit of the green gold in reserve. Notice how much there is depends on the scenario. I'm guessing your SciAm source was intentionally very conservative. Not as conservative as some though; the wiki shows one guy forecasting major uranium shortages -- by the distant year 2013.

326:

Which is what the French have been mocked for doing.

There's a bit of a logistic problem arranging cover for what's seen as a "normal" working day, but with so many places running for far more than the default 8 hours per day there have to be answers in place.

Stories I hear suggest the big problem is whether the management can organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

327:

Disagree.

In the first place, 100 miles is only about 90 minutes driving in Europe.
In the second, an enforced 30 minute "coffee break" every 100 miles drops your average speed over the ground from 75mph to 50mph (my figures) or from 50mph to 35mph (your figures).
Crucially, for West of Scotland based fans, it means that we might just have enough range to make Gretna or Southwaite services (depends on your actual address), when what we pretty much all want is sufficient range to make Home to Tebay (S) outbound and Tebay (N) to Home return in one hit (this is usually about 2hrs drive).

328:

There's a bit of a logistic problem arranging cover for what's seen as a "normal" working day, but with so many places running for far more than the default 8 hours per day there have to be answers in place.

I have been working for six hours a day for over 18 months now, in an industry with an 8 hour "normal" day. It took a while to rearrange my daily routines, but in the end the productivity did not drop by 20 %.

I get less salary for this in the same proportion, but I'm lucky and can get by with this smaller salary. Sadly I'm going back to an 8 hour day next autumn, for various reasons.

329:

Surprised nkt one mentioned Jacques Fresco. The guy has been talking about these issues and vision for the last 50+ years. Google him up.

330:

Hydroelectric dams generally have modestly-good capacity factors, e.g. ~40% for the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest in the USA. This is more valuable than a wind farm with the same annual capacity factor because the hydro system produces on demand: it is dispatchable.

How about we match hydroelectricity to compensate for the predictable and not-so-predictable dips in solar and wind output? It seems like it could provide gigawatt hours of virtual storage, without any new pumping systems, just by throttling hydro output down in tandem with rising wind or solar output.

OK, the problem is that dams don't just produce electricity: they also need to control flooding, provide water to farmers, and protect fish. There are definitely constraints on the flexibility of hydro output. How rigid are those constraints? They can't be too stiff or hydro wouldn't be any better than a good wind farm. How much intermittent wind/solar output can you firm up with existing dams, without adding pumping systems to reverse flow?

331:

You might be an exceptional case for who it doesn't work.

Alternatively, if a full pack will reliably get you home and will charge during your working day, you're fine. You drive to work on one pack, charge it to full during the working day, drive home, recharge overnight, drive overnight, rinse and repeat.

If there's an unusual drain one day for some reason you break in the middle of the journey for a coffee and a refill. It's a longer break than your current top-up with petrol but if it's a very occasional thing it's probably not really a significant issue. Especially if, for that really urgent journey, you have a fast swap option. Since you'll be travelling back later that day or the next day whatever deposit you pay on return will be returned.

332:

If you have to ask, you clearly don't understand at least one of the geography or the requirement.

The requirement is for people (who have too much luggage to use public transport) to get from near Glasgow to Leeds-Bradford, Nottingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Birmingham or London in a single travelling day and preferably a half-day in every case except London.

This is reasonable with a 75mph indicated (probably 70mph actual) speed cruise. There are doubts about the ability of an electric car (even a Tesla for the few who can actually afford one) to deliver 100 miles range at that speed on a 60% charge. It becomes uterly unreasonable with Charlie's assumed 50mph cruise since London is now some 12 hours from Glasgow by electric car, and not just your route but your stopping points are enforced by the battery life and not used choice.

333:

… passing observation rather than a definite point but in the current climate it’s hard for many people to find work – although I’m going to confine my comments to Scotland.
A major, generalist recruitment site like s1jobs.com usually advertises between 4,000 and 5,000 vacancies across the country, suspiciously, and has done so every time I’ve looked in the last few years (5,165 today, woo). This sounds quite healthy until you learn that unemployment in Scotland – defined the way that Charlie has criticised above – is 190,000 officially and is doubtless more, unofficially.
At the bottom end of the scale with McJobs, cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow are packed with people who could do most temp, low-paid and/or part-time jobs in their sleep so the competition for those is high. Into the middle zone, the band above and below median wage, it’s tough to get as far as an interview without relevant experience.
If you used to work in comms for a large bank for example and were made redundant in your forties or fifties – a situation a friend of mine finds herself in – you can’t simply walk into a post as a control and oversight officer, or a stock transfers & client services officer, with a completely different financial services company. Those vacancies are actually out there although I doubt whether they pass Graeber’s tests A or B.
Nor can you reinvent yourself as a teacher, lawyer or accountant without significant retraining and investment, of both money and time.
Even then, once qualified you will find yourself in competition with bushy-tailed graduates who are twenty to thirty years your junior when it comes to job-hunting. It’s tough. A friend of mine in London who works in magazine publishing, and who knows exactly which way the wind is blowing in that sector, decided to retrain as a lawyer a couple of years back. She had hardly started the course when a more honest member of faculty took her aside and said that as a woman in her forties, looking for a junior lawyer’s job in London, she stood zero chance so shouldn’t bother. She’s still in magazines but fully expects to made redundant in the short to medium term.
As for teachers – those cossetted types – they are guaranteed one year of probationary employment after teacher training college but it’s a market free-for-all thereafter. Someone attending TTC this autumn for academic year 2014/15 would have a salary for 2015/16 then would be unemployed and job-hunting come summer 2016. If you need a job and a decent salary now, because of the mortgage or feeding the kids, teaching represents the potential of jam tomorrow but not a lot today. Not so cossetted after all and, yes, I have a friend in his fifties who is an unemployed teacher although he recently picked up six weeks’ supply work.
Young people with no qualifications struggle, graduates struggle, older people in their thirties to fifties struggle – I’ll leave the retired or near-retired out of this. Since the credit crunch – and the impact of the internet and new tech – the experience of my peers has been fascinating. Some are fine, thriving even, where others have fallen off the table. If you’re an experienced occupational therapist with the NHS you’re probably okay; if you’re a divorced photographer with health problems then you’re living in a rented cottage somewhere on benefits.
You might have a couple where one partner has been made redundant but the other is still working so they survive. Others may have inherited some money from a late, home-owning parent – even folk who bought their council house then left it to their one, or two, or three kids could still have gifted those adult children lump sums ranging in the low tens of thousands to six figures on their death which is quite a financial cushion for most people.
But if your mum and dad never owned their house, or if they continue on into their eighties or even nineties retaining control of their own money – a happy eventuality – if you’re single and jobless or underemployed, if you’ve run up debts because of chronic low income over several years then you’re in trouble.
If you fail to convince someone from HR that you have the core competences that allow you to work as a Korean-speaking customer services assistant (£7.50/hour) or a customer training officer (£20-£25k/yr) then you’re in even more trouble in the modern Scottish economy. Both those jobs are on s1jobs.com today.
So what do people do? It’s getting so nuts out there that last week, standing by the Tesco car park at the bottom of Easter Road in Leith – Charlie and other Edinburgh residents will know the locale – on a rainy, grey day, a woman around my age stopped me in the street, gave me a handwritten business card and implored me to buy her book. I checked the website address on the card. She has an actual publisher, there are hard copies of her book in Waterstones and Blackwell’s, and the ebook is available via Amazon – she wasn’t some Leith eccentric.
As long as there is some work available, as long as people can kid themselves about how much money they’re making as a self-employed person, as long as the savings account with the money from the sale of mum’s house still has something in it, as long as interest rates stay low, as long as we can eat the equity from our own mortgaged homes thanks to remortgaging or credit cards then we’ll bimble on. But these resources and circumstances won’t last forever. For some they have already run out or were never there in the first place.
Sorry to bang on.

334:

You don't actually get a lot of hydro power per square hectare of collecting and storage area and it is very dependent on geography as well as rainfall. Scotland, for example has a decent amount of hydro power (to the point the local generating company used to be called Scottish Hydro) but it is still only a little over a gigawatt of capacity at 100%. We've had a wet winter this year, the reservoirs are full to overflowing and the generators are still getting throttled back to keep water in reserve for the times when the spot price goes up.

Large-scale adoption of intermittent generating systems like wind, solar and tidal requires either

A) consumers doing without guaranteed delivery of electricity at times (blackouts, brownouts, smart meters, spot auction bids for electricity)

B) expensive and lossy energy storage systems to cover low-output periods, something that does not add to the total generating capacity

C) Massive and expensive overconstruction of generating capacity to cover the lulls in wind, cloudy winter days etc.

D) "Fill-in" generators, usually fossil-fuel powered and expensive as they only earn money for limited periods of time but they do so when people will pay inflated prices for power they can't get from renewables at that time.

Note that in the cases where intermittent electricity meets total demand the word "expensive" crops up. The alternative is third-world conditions where homes, hospitals, sewage works, trains, factories etc. lose power often and have to rely on expensive standby power if they can afford it. Oh, there's that "expensive" word again.

There are other alternatives -- they can buy electricity when they need it from their neighbours who don't rely on intermittent renewables, assuming the neighbors have any extra capacity to spare. France, for example exports a few GW of electricity much of the time to various countries who don't have enough capacity of their own -- Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Britain etc. but it has a large fleet of dependable high-uptime nuclear reactors to supply their own needs as well as help out their neighbours. For a price.

335:

I agree completely. I live in Sheffield. My family lives near Falkirk - that's 273 miles according to my car's odometer. During holiday periods, the parakeets and I (large birdcage rendering public transport unsuitable) take about 4.5 to 5 hours to get from A to B. If I had to stop twice, that would add an hour to the journey even if it didn't affect the mean velocity while moving. And I bet the motorway service stations will charge rip-off prices for charging stations as they do for petrol.

Both my last two cars (bought in 1991 and 2002 respectively; a petrolhead I'm not) have had a range of about 400 miles from
brim-full to empty, which means I can do the trip comfortably on
one tank, and not be panicking about having to fill up as soon as I reach destination. Until/unless electric cars reach similar levels, I'm not in the market.

336:

Thanks.

I even picked the desired minimun range in my OP as "Glasgow - Tebay" advisedly. On my way to and from 8^2 last year, I met (and not by pre-arrangement) 10 other Glasgow area fans at Tebay.

337:

Let's go for the obvious: people learn to live with less as opposed to having nothing at all. Solar's popular in the third world, because having some electricity is better than having no electricity. We're spoiled, and we're trying to keep all our toys. Eventually, we'll realize that our grandparents and great grandparents managed pretty well without many of the energy hogs we take for granted.

There are some things that can help: rebuilding houses and other buildings to make them more energy efficient. I'm not talking about Charlie's flat, but about the buildings built between 1950 and 2000 or so that were designed to only be livable courtesy of an HVAC. Absent power, they're slow-motion death traps. There's a lot of potential employment turning these McMansions, glass boxes, and other cruft into spaces people can live and work in without a dependable grid.

There are all sorts of other things people can do to rebuild civilization to deal with less power. In places like the US, we're going to have to redesign cities to deal with less gas-powered transportation. That's a simple and obvious issue: ~30% of US energy use is for transportation, and most of that's powered by petroleum. Using tons of car to move individual people to buy food miles away is horribly inefficient (even if it's battery powered), but the more efficient solutions involve either motivating the people to buy and/or grow food locally, or moving the people closer to where the food is. This will, of course, rework all the bedroom suburbs that have been built since 1950. But hey, that creates employment.

I could go on. We're trapped in a society that has many structural inefficiencies that only work due to cheap energy. As energy gets more expensive, that system will break down one way or another. Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but I don't like the idea of just letting famine, disease, and violence reduce the population to whatever's left in the farms and urban core. Better, we could theoretically solve some unemployment problems by rebuilding our cities. We probably won't, of course (absent something like a jubilee), but there is a humane technical fix to get out of this. It's issues of power, politics, and money that stop us from taking this route.

One of the interesting challenges is going to be when solar drops below 50 cents per watt, which makes it competitive with natural gas. After this happens, and after the next large black out or brown out, I suspect people will flee the grid in increasing numbers (especially in sunny locales, such as where I live), leaving the grid with a huge mess of legacy cables and other infrastructure and no monopolized rate payers to keep it in repair. That's when things will get interesting. Given how we've adapted to the cruddy audio quality of cell phones when land lines are cheaper, I wouldn't be surprised if people go for local solar and batteries or generators in the basement when they lose faith in big power suppliers. That will be an interesting and messy process to go through. Still, in many ways the end state will be safer, because if the grid is already broken, grid failures won't kill as many people.

338:

Amusing article: Toyota is apparently looking at replacing its robots with human workers, part of the CEO's changing Toyota's goals towards quality and efficiency, rather than growth at all costs.

Given that Toyota pioneered large-scale automation of car production, perhaps predictions of mass human unemployment will turn out to be a bit premature?

(Japan Times link)

339:

I feel your pain wrt. mileage. My own car is a diesel. I don't commute to/from work; it gets used almost exclusively for long runs. As the nearest other significant city to Edinburgh is Glasgow, 40 miles away, and most other cities in the UK are 200+ miles away, electric would be ... not sensible, at least without a factor of 2 increase in battery capacity. As it is, filling the tank of a Volvo V70 diesel in the UK is painful (£100 plus or minus small change, last time I did it from empty) but it'll get me 700 miles before the warning light comes on.

340:

What's the price of LNG in the UK?

341:

Can you live with less clean water? How about refrigeration for food storage preventing wasteage and toxic spoilage? Sewerage pumping stations? There's an old adage that the level of a civilisation can be determined by the distance it puts between its citizens and their excreta and that depends on reliable electricity today (it used to be coal-fired steam).

Rail transport is heavily electrified, reducing generating capacity means less transport, both freight as well as commuting. Street lighting saves lives. Factories and offices can work 24/7 rather than only using daylight for a third of the working day. Hospitals, schools, the list of "must have electricity to work" facilities goes on and on and the places which can be cut off the grid to conserve are harder and harder to find.

The endless clamour about housing and insulation is pointless and a red herring. it's only in places like Norway with hydro power and France with cheap nuclear power can folks afford to heat their homes with electricity, everyone else burns cheap gas (and their houses only blow up occasionally). Saving some gas through better insulation isn't going to reduce the cost or improve the availability of electricity from intermittent renewables. In fact building codes everywhere, including the US have required decent insulation for decades and there just aren't that many older homes with less-than-adequate provision these days, either due to refits or reconstruction to modern standards.

342:

At this point, more people have access to cell phones than to clean water or adequate sanitation. In places like Lagos, reportedly the ratio of people per toilet runs well north of 500:1 , which tells you that, in fact, millions (if not billions) of people have insufficient access to clean water and sanitation (Mike Davis, Planet of Slums).

Our mistake is assuming that those of us on this blog are normal humans. We're not--we're certainly in the top 20%, if not the top 5%. There are a lot of people who already live in what looks a lot like a collapsing world. In fact, that's where most of the population growth is at the moment.


343:

our grandparents and great grandparents managed pretty well without many of the energy hogs we take for granted.

There were a lot fewer of them. There were about 100 million humans in North America before Columbus (estimated), and there were about 100 million of us a century ago (census data), so I tend to use that as my baseline estimate of the population carrying capacity in the US without energy-intensive farming and food-processing techniques.

There are about 318 million of us now. I can't think of a way to get from one to the other that doesn't suck big time.

344:

I have hopes that the Western world can (re-)discover how to build nuclear power plants at reasonable cost and with predictable less-than-a-decade schedules. The 4 AP1000 reactors under construction in the USA seem to be moving forward OK, so far. 10 years ago the line was that nuclear power was always going to be cheaper and more dependable than power from wind or sun. At present, at least in the West, it seems like the "cheaper" line is dead.

The EPRs in France and Finland are monumentally late and over-budget. They would have been considerably cheaper than contemporary renewables had they entered service in 2009 as planned. Instead, by the time 2016 rolls around they are going to be considerably more expensive and justifiable only because they offer more predictable output. I wouldn't be especially surprised if storage-backed renewables projects completed in 2016 actually managed to undercut those EPRs on levelized cost.

Or take the proposed new reactors of Hinkley Point C. £92.50 per megawatt-hour, inflation-adjusted, guaranteed for 35 years?! Feed in tariffs for large PV projects built after 1 April 2014 are £66.10 per megawatt hour. How much lower will they be by the time the reactors are actually built? I know that reactor output is more dependable, and much better suited to winters, but it seems like you could buy quite a bit of efficiency, demand response, and storage for the same money. This is doubly so since reactor construction timelines are so long; a series of smaller projects from now until 2023 can take advantage of cost-lowering improvements each year rather than being stuck with the one expensive mega-project over a decade.

The AP1000s in the United States so far haven't suffered major delays or cost increases. Even if they meet their targets, though, their cost per megawatt hour produced will definitely be above that of unsubsidized US wind power and quite likely above that of solar PV, for solar projects completed in 2017 (expected year of completion of the first AP1000). Again, the only bonus they can claim is dependable output. Depending on the pace of smart grid demand response and grid-scale storage development, even that may not seem like a very compelling benefit for long.

345:

Read it again; it doesn't say "Toyota replacing robots with humans" it says "Toyota setting up workshops to allow their bot-herders to learn how to do the job their bots do and drive the bots better." No more humans will be hired due to this scheme - well, that's not entirely true; there'll probably be a few more man-hours for the Toyota fitters keeping the workshop going and there might be an extra engineer per shift to pick up the slack. But this is just "you can't teach what you don't know," automated machine-tool edition.

346:

Is it wrong to remind everyone that "want to travel hundreds of miles rapidly" isn't actually a human right?

*goes back to watching nuclear power screw it's supply chain*

347:

Correction: I did not add the export tariff to large PV system rates. Current UK all-in PV tariff is actually £113.80 for large systems rather than £66.10 as I wrote. Given the historical pattern of tariff degression I would be very surprised if PV still commands more per megawatt hour than Hinkley Point C in 2023 when the reactors would enter service.

348:

The Chinese EPR builds at Taishan are coming in on budget and schedule, probably because of the debugging the Flammanville and Olkiluoto builds have gone through. A lot of the European build delays are due, literally, to paperwork, real printed forms needing to be filled in and signed with the right kind of pens, a legacy of nuclear build rulebooks dating back 20 and 30 years.

The £92.50 per MWh tariff the Hinckley Point reactors will get for deliverable electricity (about 2.8GW annually assuming 90% operation) covers everything from construction interest charges, operation, fuel and its disposal costs, operations, mid-life upgrades and final decommissioning. The tariff is only locked in for 35 years inflation-adjusted, the reactors will provide power for at least another 25 years after that and possibly with more mid-life upgrades they could run for a century after relicencing and refurbishment.

If PV is so cheap why does it need grid tariffs? Surely it can compete with coal and gas on equal terms now that it is a mature technology.... amazing, I typed all that without bursting out laughing...

The Tiree offshore wind farm project that went belly-up had a guaranteed feed-in tariff of £142.50, about 50% more than the proposed Hinckley Point reactors but it was considered uneconomic to build at that price. I presume other offshore wind projects already in place benefit from the same mindbogglingly high tariff. It it had gone ahead it would have lasted about 20 years or so before it needed to be replaced at a cost of about one of the Hinckley Point reactors (abut £5 billion) having generated about half the amount of electricity an EPR would have over the same time.

349:

I have a love-frustration relationship with nuclear power. It's not dependent on the weather, it's scaleable, it can directly replace coal, and all evidence to date is that even including accidents it's going to do less damage to human health and the environment than burning fossil fuels for equivalent electricity.

On the frustration side it seems to be getting more expensive and slower to build over time, at least in the West. Some of this is baked in to heightened regulation and safety standards. That's fine, I don't blame the industry for higher costs when society imposes more constraints. A large portion of it seems essentially random incompetence though. Why on Earth did the first EPR fall 7 years behind schedule and billions over budget? Blaming old regulations is no good answer. The regulations were old, they had years to understand them before estimating cost and schedule! Blaming post-Fukushima heightened scrutiny is also no good. If the project had been on schedule it would have been in full operation well before Fukushima happened!

On Hinkley Point C, I could just as well ask: if nuclear power is a mature technology, why does it need 35 years of high rates shielded from the market to get built? The tariff is lower than for present-day large PV systems, but only by 20%, while the guarantee period is 75% longer. The nuclear industry is apparently its own worst enemy when it comes to proving its worth for decarbonization. I say this not as someone who is gloating, but frustrated, wishing that decarbonization by any and all technologies could be significantly accelerated and reduced in cost.

350:

Hinkley and the other reactor replacements are big projects, they're going to cost a large chunk of money up front and they won't pay back in the next three months so the PPP/MBA culture won't touch it normally. Time was governments would front up the money for such projects like, say, the US Interstate system or the TVA which cost a fortune and didn't have any sort of payback guaranteed even over decades, regarding such things as necessary infrastructure for the common good.

In part the proposed EPRs and BWRs are too big, each one is six times the capacity of Britain's first power station (Calder Hall) which itself comprised four separate 60MWe reactors, with a much greater uptime, expected lifespan and lower operating costs but they've not got any military utility and their capital cost to build are through the roof because they are so big even though they cost less per MW than the previous generation of reactors. It's like building very large container ships to move goods around the world in, the sticker price for each one is gonna hurt but the long-term efficiencies will make up for it and more, it will just take time. And they could sink six months after going into service.

The length of the tariff guarantee period for the new reactors is half of the expected lifespan of the reactors and maybe a third if they get licence extensions. PV arrays have a useful lifespan of 20 years or so, maybe 25 if the oprators are willing to put up with lesser output as the panels degrade so a matching tariff period would be ten years. There's no use offering a 30-year tariff guarantee for a 20-year lifecycle product and besides the next generation of solar panels will be so cheap they won't need feed-in tariffs and subsidies, will they? Of course I first heard this said in 2006, at least two generations back.

351:

I don't think that the next generation of PV panels will be cheaper than already-built coal and gas plants in the UK. Of course this is true of the next nuclear reactors to be built also. It seems like a carbon tax might be a more uniform and effective way to decarbonize than one-by-one guarantees and subsidies to different low-carbon generating technologies.

I think that you are lowballing the average lifetime of PV modules. Of course so does basically everyone, for planning purposes.

Field trials of modules going back to the 1980s in Germany show that about half of the modules made at the time could maintain useful output for more than 30 years. Given the low degradation rate of the survivors I wouldn't be surprised if some maintained utility out to 50 years. Of course some failed much earlier too -- differences are mostly down to how good a job the manufacturer did on encapsulation and cell connections. I think there's going to be a spike in early failures among Chinese panels made in ~2011-2013 also, from when prices were crashing and they were trying every cost cutting measure without advance testing. But module testing protocols have become more rigorous especially for qualifying for utility scale projects, and I would bet good money that a significant minority of panels installed this year will see service for 60+ years. I would also bet that a majority will see service beyond 30 years; deals signed for 20 or 25 year terms will be revisited when the equipment hits its scheduled EOL but is still working, much like other generators granted life extensions.

352:

I'm not an advocate for the electric car above all - but it occurs to me for cases like Charlie's that a hire car chain could easily run a good electric car service for him and the occasional long run journey that he describes. Put a network of battery-swap stations on the motorways and if you've hired your car from them you drive in, swap your battery and off you go.

In fact, a similar answer might solve all the problems listed above. You buy the car but lease the battery and just swap them around for charged ones from your leasing agent. (This would be an alternative model for Charlie as well if he needs the car often enough between long trips to make ownership more attractive/sensible than renting.) It's a different model to the "fill her up" model with petrol that we've currently been replicating for electric cars.

I don't know enough about what the pattern of demand would be like and the costs are. I did a straw poll of other people I chatted to online and f2f yesterday. They've all done journeys of over 200 miles in the last 6 months but most of them travel <200 miles per week by car (several of them commute to work by car but a few work from home and a few use public transport) but it was still only 13 people I had the chance to ask. For these people a 200 mile range and an overnight fill-up, would be fine. Seven of them are thinking of doing exactly that and hiring a (petrol or diesel) car for their longer trips if there's not a better solution when they next replace their car, if there's a cheap enough electric car out there.

353:

Instead of my garbled half-rememberings please refer to this study on PV module life:

A large variety of modules from different manufacturers, re-examined after 30 years at the European Solar Test Installation:
http://pvevolutionlabs.com/pdf/JRC.pdf

More than 70% of modules exhibited 0.5% annual decrease in Pmax or less, after 30 years in the field. At 0.5% annual decrease it would take 60 years before module output declines below 75% of original rated power.

354:

Argh, one last correction: module time in the field ranged from 19 to 23 years. Not 30 years. All signs still point to median module remaining useful for far more than 20 years.

355:

Aged PV cells are useful but less capable per unit area covered. Total cell failure also occurs, of course.

PV is a crock for the UK, it's barely useful for Germany which has thrown hundreds of billions of Euros into PV with an energy return of 11% last year (i.e. a nominal 1kW panel of about 5 square metres produced on average 110W 24/7/365) and we're even further north than they are. Wind and tidal, maybe but they're intermittent and cyclic respectively with all the utility problems that causes. Currently large-scale renewables like wind farms use the existing baseload-powered grid as a backstop rather than building and paying for their own storage so they operate as dispatchable generation like coal, gas, nuclear, hamster wheels...

356:

Battery leasing's been tried. Said company got told to take a hike when they tried to move into the Irish market, as they essentially demanded a monopoly as a side effect of their model.

357:

"If PV is so cheap why does it need grid tariffs? Surely it can compete with coal and gas on equal terms now that it is a mature technology..."

It is a far from mature technology.
Also, grid tariffs are being severely reduced globally, but PV installation is still expected to increase by 15-20% per year. With annual installation 100GW within 4 years (predicted 49GW this year)

http://www.pv-magazine.com/news/details/beitrag/100-gw-annual-pv-deployment-by-2018--says-npd-solarbuzz_100014606/#axzz2yU3Wunnf

358:

It strikes me that's quite possibly a reaction to the demand for a monopoly rather than a problem with the business model itself?

359:

The first PV cells were made in the 1950s, not long after the first small nuclear generating stations came on line. There have been no real efficiency improvements in PV technology per se in the past thirty or forty years, manufacturing is now pretty much optimised in terms of market delivery with not much more to be squeezed out of the costs of panels and support infrastructure like inverters, switchgear etc. I'd describe that as a mature technology.

By "100GW PV installed within 4 years" I presume you mean there will be 100GW of dataplate installations, not actually producing 100GW per annum? The figure for Germany's PV output for 2013 was reported to be 11% but as I said earlier Germany is marginal for solar power. Assuming large amounts of PV installed in better geographical locations I expect the global capacity of PV would be about 20% of dataplate.

In contrast France is generating 45GW of electricity at the moment from its extensive fleet of nuclear reactors, nearly all of which were built thirty years ago for peanuts compared to the cost of PV today or even tomorrow. Typical operational factor figures for their second-generation M310 and the larger Gen2.5 P4 reactors over their lifetimes is between 70% and 80% thanks to improvements in operations, improved refuelling techniques and the like.

360:

I have long believed that unemployment insurance and similar benefit programs involve exchanges of self-abasement for money. Or, to put it another way, the caseworker with the power to authorize the aid plays the role of Compassionate But Frugal Steward Of Taxpayer Resources, and expects the petitioner to play the role of Poor Person Deserving of Charity.

This way everyone, including the taxpayers, understand who has status over whom, which is far more important than running the country in an economically efficient manner. After all, primate status competition predates the whole concept of “work for another person in exchange for money” by a few hundred thousand years.

So the problem with mincome, politically, is that it lets the unemployed person ditch the Deserving of Charity role in favor of I’m a Citizen and I Know My Rights.

361:

The first PV cells were made in the 1950s, not long after the first small nuclear generating stations came on line. There have been no real efficiency improvements in PV technology per se in the past thirty or forty years, manufacturing is now pretty much optimised in terms of market delivery with not much more to be squeezed out of the costs of panels and support infrastructure like inverters, switchgear etc. I'd describe that as a mature technology.

The world record holder Si PV cell in 1977 was less efficient than the median silicon cell being manufactured today. Fill factors for early modules were also much lower than today. Output per module, per kilogram of structure, and per square meter of space have roughly tripled since dedicated terrestrial PV manufacturing started in 1979. Since 2000, average silicon consumption per peak watt (including processing losses) has fallen by nearly 2/3.

3 years ago people were also saying that there was no more room to squeeze out costs and that prices would go back to 2010 levels after the Chinese capacity surplus exited the market. That has proven deeply incorrect. Maybe you're right that there is no more room for significant cost reduction now -- it has to be true at some point -- but I see enough changes in motion that I don't think it is true yet.

I don't think that the UK or Germany could really go solar-only, even if hardware and installation costs fell another 75%. The seasonal sun imbalance is just too great. But if solar plus short term storage meant that e.g. fossil plants could be idled several months out of the year, and operated fewer hours during the rest of the year, that would still mean deep emission cuts. Fossil fuel plants produce the vast majority of their carbon emissions in operation, not construction. Most of the world's population lives closer to the equator than Germans, so solar's global impact will be greater than in Germany even if that's where it first got big.

A couple of happy examples from sunnier regions:

Austin Energy in Texas just signed a power purchase agreement to take output from 150 MW of PV capacity for 25 years at about $50 per megawatt hour: http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/news/2014/04/01/as-solar-power-gets-cheaper-austin-energy-gains.html

Of course that has the 30% federal tax credit built in, so unsubsidized it would be more like $75 per megawatt hour. If natural gas goes back above $7 / MMBtu then this Texan solar project would be cheaper than new-build gas per megawatt hour even without the tax credit. When will gas go that high again? Don't know, I'm not qualified to tell if fracking is really a flash in the pan or will deliver abundant gas for decades.

The 50 MW San Andres plant in Chile is now operating, selling electricity on the spot market. It was built and is operating with no price guarantees or subsidies: http://www.pv-tech.org/news/financial_close_on_first_merchant_solar_project_in_chile

362:

She had hardly started the course when a more honest member of faculty took her aside and said that as a woman in her forties, looking for a junior lawyer’s job in London, she stood zero chance so shouldn’t bother.

I have two data points. I know two ladies who have done this in the field of architecture and interior design. The architect had severe cultural issues as she was employed as an "intern" in her 40s but didn't fit with the other interns due to her age. And found it hard to exist as a very junior staffer to other barely older than 1/2 of her age. "The Good Wife" is an interesting show but it is a fantasy.

The other lady got into interior design in her 50s. It has been a hard row for her to follow starting up her own business. Much of it related to her age and inability to socialize with younger clients. (Although she doesn't see this.)

363:

I was watching Masterchef last night, or maybe the night before. One of the former champions (so not a regular member of the public in many ways) was in his 50's) and went to college to train as a chef properly for 2 years with all the teens doing the training and then went on to work in a kitchen.

Maybe being a chef is different. I'm sure being at college is different - they'll take your money and train you regardless. But I wonder as well how much that is a sexism in action thing. Would a man in his 40's have been told no chance as a junior lawyer? Would a 40 year old man intern architect have had those issues? Or is it genuine ageism in action?

There are certainly professions, although not the highest paying ones, where older entrants are welcomed. Teaching and nursing are two that I know of. I've done a couple of different teacher training qualifications and on the second of them I was in my late 30's and was one of the youngest person on the course, the oldest was in his 50's. While I was doing that, some of the teaching I was doing was to what we euphemistically call 'returners to learning' who in the particular group I was teaching were largely women in the early to late 40's, married with kids old enough to not need mum at home any more studying a pre-entry qualification to go to university to study nursing. I don't know how they did on the nursing course but as long as they completed the course I was teaching there was something like a 90% acceptance rate at university onto nursing courses.

There are, equally, professions with an explicit age bar to entry. My partner was looking at the Army, and there's an age bar (minimum and maximum). I don't know if it's still the case but when I left school both medicine and veterinary medicine used to have an age limit, something like 'only in exceptional circumstances will we consider applications from those unlikely to complete their training before they are 30' - which meant apply before you're 25. That might well have changed because age discrimination is a bigger issue now.

364:

The business model requires a monopoly, or some other method of forcing every electric car manufacturer selling models that might try to use your network of service stations to build their batteries in the same form factor and make them accessible in the same way. Otherwise we (at minimum) get to re-run HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray/VHS vs. Betamax/pick your format fight except with your long-term capital purchase's refueling method.

365:

I think it requires some form of smart tracking of battery packs. I don't know what the Irish petrol stations are (I'm not sure what the current UK ones are actually) but in the UK we used to have Esso, Shell, Texaco, Jet and a few others. I know supermarkets have petrol stations now, but lets stay with the named four stations since we're thinking mostly about swapping on journeys.

If the packs are fully interchangeable then it's easy enough to posit a 'customer loyalty' type scheme. Change at our station and there's no service charge. Press button 2 on your SatNav to show all of our battery-swap stations on your route and your projected range so you can plan your swap-stops easily. If you're big business doing it for your business drivers you have accounts with all the battery providers and they simply swap to a battery and pay some relatively small penalty. If you're a domestic customer you probably make the effort not to do it. But, for a bigger penalty you could pay to swap your account over and for someone else to transfer the empty battery from where it is to the nearest station of the right type. I don't know how expensive this would be but not incredibly expensive. £50? £100? You'd do it an emergency but it's avoidable easily enough.

That said, if we're thinking of it as a service largely taking place on motorways and similar - if you're topping on a regular basis you can do it at home after all - how much space do you need? Could the equivalent of one modern petrol station which obviously needs to be supplied from one place because the petrol tank is big and full of very dangerous petrol, be converted to supply batteries from a wide range of suppliers if it's not stocking large amounts of flammable liquids? Store a few hundred batteries from each of the big battery leasing companies in an underground depot (pull them up on a hoist, access is easier after all) and plug them into the car. Put the empties back and charge them. It's a very different business model but it's certainly not one that requires a monopoly.

366:

I'm optimistic that PV is a sensible route even in temperate zones thanks to work as described in a recent article on ScienceDaily ...

"Micro-machining could be used to create almost flat, Fresnel lenses, that boost the electrical efficiency of solar panels, according to new research...

"Initial tests with their precision-machined Fresnel solar collector showed that they could obtain a peak power four times that possible with a standard panel at low resistance. The difference in power falls off quickly as the device's resistance rises, which it does as it gets hotter under sunlight and as a byproduct of its generating electricity. Nevertheless, the differential would be enough to boost its electrical output substantially offsetting the additional cost of the Fresnel collector so that the overall cost of solar panels might be reduced. This simple addition to older, less efficient solar panels might also make them viable for places and applications where modern devices of higher intrinsic efficiency are not commercially tenable."

Similarly, there's quite a lot of work being done on extending battery life/charge.

Mostly though we need a new "3R" triad: re-think, re-scale and re-structure.

367:

Unorganized reaction, as I apparently don't have the concentration to shape a proper response right now:

Do you really want to re-run the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray/VHS vs. Betamax/pick your format war with your car's fuel system? Imagine you pick the loser; you're stuck with a car with zero resale value which you can't drive out of its single-charge range.

Energy-dense lithium batteries are explosive, so your battery storage is no more safe than the underground petrol tanks. In fact they may be less safe; liquid petrol cannot explode (it needs to be vapour; thus carburetters).

Storing hundreds of batteries from every manufacturer is also a huge amount of capital bound up in stock, not making you money. If you're going to have that many batteries attached to the grid, you could just buy and sell power on the spot market and ignore the whole "electric car" bit entirely - thus avoiding the need to buy or develop machinery capable of identifying the car type and access method and removing the old battery and replacing it (a.k.a. moving ~3/4 of a tonne into and out of your storage) in 5 minutes.

Petrol is fungible - there's no such thing as engines that won't work with the wrong brand petrol. It's also easy to move and store, and easy to insert into the vehicle: liquids have inherent advantages in handling (wood-burning heating systems have reams of secondary equipment that is replaced in oil-fired systems by the fuel pump, for example). Handling machinery able to move half a tonne of arbitrarily shaped mass into and out of a hatch accessed in an arbitrary manner quickly would be a safety nightmare to design; parking in not precisely the right spot would be Not Advised.

Basically, there are several Hard Problems in the battery-swap idea, and the solutions are infinite money or the ability to make the car/battery suppliers bend to your will. The easiest way to do the latter is Better Place's solution: a monopoly on supplying the cars. And if you have the former, there are much better things to do with it.

368:

There's also nothing to stop us from using nanobots as programmable moveable lenses or whatever to optimize solar energy capture and distribution. The article referenced below has nanobots performing much more complex tasks.

"Scientists have inserted DNA-based nanobots into a living cockroach, which are able to perform logical operations. Researchers say the nanobots could eventually be able to carry out complex programs, to diagnose and treat disease." (Nature Nanotechnology)

369:

Format wars: whenever there are multiple technologies, there's often a new player who steps in and makes even more money by offering some type of 'universal adapter'/conversion. I think that thanks to computers, the general public is less likely to put up with inflexible hardware/formats because if computers - which are considered to be very sophisticated hardware/machines - can be made flexible, there's no reason other (less complex) machines/appliances cannot also be made more flexible. Similarly, there's also much less resistance now to changing formats because we (consumers) have become accustomed to getting new equipment every 5 years or so.

Regarding batteries: A battery that 'breathes' - lithium-air battery

"To boost their range toward a tantalizing 300 miles or more, researchers are reporting progress on a "breathing" battery that has the potential to one day replace the lithium-ion technology of today's electric vehicles (EVs). Imanishi's team at Mie University in Japan developed a layered approach, sandwiching a polymer electrolyte with high conductivity and a solid electrolyte in between the lithium electrode and the watery solution. The result ... almost twice the energy storage capacity, as measured in Watt hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), as a lithium-ion battery. The battery showed a lot of promise, with high conductivity of lithium ions, and the ability to discharge and recharge 100 times. In addition to powering EVs, lithium-air batteries could one day have applications in the home, thanks to their low cost."

370:

Ah sorry, I see where you're coming from. Ages ago I'd said central legislation so the UK has interchangeable battery packs by law.

The actual pack doesn't have to be, but it must mount in a rack like this, the connectors must be like this, the power supply must be regulated to be like this. You want to sell here, that's what our regulations require. No monopoly on suppliers, just meet our standards or take a hike. You want to drive your French car over here? Oops, sorry... unless it's an EU standard to make the Daily Mail readers fume.

And I'm not saying the idea of electric cars is without problems - I'm just not convinced they're insurmountable. Sorry. I'm not the right person to address them all because I don't have a real interest. I don't drive. At all.

But lets say the price of petrol triples over the next decade thanks to the nice friendly situation with Russia and the stresses and strains that causes with the Middle East. Do you really think we won't see a lot of people moving to electric cars and a lot of these problems being solved by people with a pressing reason to solve them?

371:

Yes, people not caring about format wars 'cos they'll throw out the tech in a few years anyway makes sense. Except this tech will cost you ~£10,000, not £400, should last you at least 10 years, and losing formats will lose any resale value whatsoever. Imagine buying a car and, two or three years in, being told you can no longer get brake pads for it.

372:

Quite possibly. I'm just saying battery swapping is almost certainly not going to be a major part of that solution (there may be some cases where it's used; perhaps police forces and other emergency responders would standardize on one battery or vehicle type and building a network of quick-change stations - a modern analogue of the doctor's petrol ration), for much the same reasons that every solution that includes the phrase "if we just get everyone to" doesn't work.

373:

Having thought this over, I think battery swapping is the wrong way to go about this.

Let's flip the problem around. Instead of slipping in a new box of electrons and trying to patch around all the problems that brings, imagine someone instead takes a hint from intermodal cargo containers. The passenger compartment can be built to one of a small number of standardized forms for size and support systems; when you want to go somewhere you call any 'taxi' company and they send a self-driving robot platform to collect your module, perhaps a small electric if you're running errands around town and a big diesel for trips into London.

It's not obviously less reasonable to swap out the passenger and cargo module than a battery pack; if nothing else this avoids the 'race to the bottom' problem. It's also an upgrade on the standard taxi, letting people easily travel with a larger amount of stuff, or even a small caravan. Puttering around town or commuting to work you might need only an ordinary taxi or one-person scooter, of course.

374:

The future of PV is not in high latitudes but in most of the places where most people live - close to the equator. Additionally, anyone who is living in the hot sunny Southern US states, uses aircon and doesn't power it with PV is losing money [assuming they insulate their houses]. That is, *directly* from PV and a *small* battery with no grid connection needed. I would estimate costs as well under 10c per kWh

375:

BTW, one thing seldom mentioned about PV is the fact that it will undercut the most lucrative part of the electricity market - daytime peak. Daytime peak tariff electricity from conventional sources - that is what PV is competing against. Not nighttime coal burning stations.

The more that conventional generators try to jack up their prices to compensate, the cheaper PV looks.

376:

Here in Florida we have a couple of tropical storms make landfall per year, with a serious hurricane every 5-10 years. It's a real deterrent to putting expensive stuff on your roof.

377:

Two other things about solar that most people don't think about.

One thing is that solar panels are really good shades, so having PV on your roof cuts the amount of sunlight hitting and heating up the building, even if the panels aren't generating electricity.

The second is that firefighters like to go in through the roof on fires, and they're still working out best practices for working around PV panels because the darned things are energized and often in just the wrong spot when a fire breaks out beneath them. The headquarters of the Organic Valley Co-op in Wisconsin burned last year in part because of that. They have a nice green building, but when the fire started, the fire departments didn't know how to fight it safely, and two-thirds of the building was damaged.

378:

BTW, one thing seldom mentioned about PV is the fact that it will undercut the most lucrative part of the electricity market - daytime peak.

Elimination of daytime peak will greatly simplify the life of planners in power companies. Daytime peak requires spare plants, uneven loads, unused capacity in plants and transmission lines most of the time, war room control centers to deal with the surges, etc....

379:

Elimination of daytime peak will greatly simplify the life of planners in power companies.

Except that daytime peak comes back whenever it gets cloudy.

380:

To head back towards the original post's thread, anyone out there read Piketty?

I'm not an economist and I don't have time to read the full book right now but there's a good summary in yesterday's Guardian that makes interesting reading and a pretty compelling case.

Those of you that like heavyweight economic theory and read the stuff for fun could well be in for a fun few days.

381:

I'm somewhere deep in the waiting line for the local library's copies. I've seen reviews from both sides that make me think it's great news for economists (unlike, say, Graeber's Debt or Taleb's Black Swan). The news reports of the summary of the argument look interesting too.

However, if you think about it, the problem Piketty points to goes back to Mesopotamia and other primordial states, as Graeber documented rather nicely. Families with wealth management skills and a lot of luck typically end up enslaving those who have neither (especially those who are unlucky). It's a problem as old as crop failures and loans.

That's where the notion of jubilee came from, the idea that the king periodically wipes all debts off the books, let's everyone start afresh with no debt burden. The reason this idea got enshrined in the Middle East long before the Bible imported it (think about the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors...") is that the jubilee is an essential governmental strategy. It stops the insurgencies of the landless, desperate and enslaved, while simultaneously disempowering the wealthy who prey on the poor and who threaten the stability of the government with their whims and greed. It looks like it's about charity and partying, but it's really about survival.

What we're seeing with today's wealth gap is nothing new, and what's been reported of Piketty's solution is basically a partial jubilee: tax the owners. I suspect that Graeber's right, and that the real solution is the old one: full jubilee, and ideally a worldwide jubilee, so that the debts of the poor countries to the rich countries get wiped off the books too.

382:

Google's self-driving car represents something orders of magnitude more disruptive than previous waves of automation. If it's reliable and cheap, it's good-bye truck, taxi and bus drivers.

Computers are beginning to seriously replace human workers and at a level where most humans can't shift into something else worth doing.

Farms are now so efficient that 6 guys can work hard for 12 weeks and plant and harvest 4,500 acres of crops. Software is extending the reach of analytic workers and fewer and fewer are required to accomplish necessary tasks.

Asimov's Robot novels described one potential future for the more advanced version of the situation we face. The robot-adopting planets depopulated. Just the 0.01% remained. The rest of the people were simply not there.

The basic idea that most humans can labor in a fashion that produces something of value and the value of that production can be used to determine that human's share of planetary resources is beginning to fail.

We are about to suffer a philosophical crisis which could be more damaging than climate change.

Seems to me, as computers (and robots) become more and more capable, at some point, Capitalism breaks down.

383:

Seems to me, as computers (and robots) become more and more capable, at some point, Capitalism breaks down.

Really?
Where does the capital come from, then, to build & operate new, moe "efficient" robots?
And u pgrades etc ... ??

384:

Efficient in terms of what?

Study after study shows that small farms are 2 times to 10 times more productive than big farms. Large farms work because:
1. Big Ag has huge sway in Washington DC, so agricultural policy disproportionally favors large farms. This is actually a weapon of foreign policy: cheap grain undercuts farmers in other countries, making them dependent on the US (a policy that goes back to Kissinger, if not before). For an example, look up Order 81 in Iraq, one of the things that helped turn Iraq into a net importer of food, where before 2001, it had been a net exporter.

2. Big Agriculture uses more energy than it produces by perhaps 2:1. Normally, you'd expect solar-powered crops to turn sun into food, which means that there should be more energy coming out as food than we put in as labor, materials, and transport. Unfortunately, between the costs of producing nitrogen (1% of the global energy budget), transporting in everything else (the total US transport sector uses over 26% of US energy, and 72% of US petroleum), and replacing human labor with petroleum-derived pesticides and large machines, we end up with big agriculture being a net loss of fossil fuels.

3. You can also rate agriculture in terms of nutrient efficiency (nutrient inputs by element to nutrient outputs to food). This will never be 1:1, because plants leave nutrients in their tissues, but it should get as close to 1 as possible. Right now, reportedly half the nitrogen applied to fields is washed away, leading to things like dead zones at the mouths of rivers, and there's a big push to make farmers more nitrogen efficient through proper application and recycling. Rather more worrisome is phosphorus. Basically, we're running out of high-quality phosphate deposits to mine, and the two largest are in Morocco and Western Sahara, neither of which are terribly stable (Western Sahara may or may not be an independent country, depending on who asks and who answers). While we can (using a lot of energy) fix nitrogen from the air, phosphorus is a poorly soluble mineral that has to be mined or recycled. We're running out of places to mine it. the classical recycling technique is to put wastes from cities back on fields, but since we're so crappy at only putting recyclable wastes into our sewers and green bins, this is a non-starter.

Bottom line is, we're only efficient farmers when you take Washington politics into account, and when you look at it in terms of money for food. We're great at making cheap food that provides calories. If you want to look at energy efficiency (especially with fossil fuel energy), nutrient efficiency, or even productivity per acre of land (not single crop yield, but overall productivity), small farming wins.

385:

Study after study shows that small farms are 2 times to 10 times more productive than big farms.

That's pretty hard to believe considering the opposite is true in every other industry. Does economy of scale not apply to agriculture for some reason?

386:

A farm measured in the lots of square miles can't optimize production to conditions in the 3 square metres around the spot you're standing in without essentially becoming lots of little farms with one boss - and at that point the boss is a useless rentier, to be got rid of at the first opportunity. And soil productivity can vary markedly over the course of a big step, so doing so can significantly boost productivity.

387:

Looping back to universal minimum income ...

Daniel H. Pink is the author of best-selling hot-topic management books including motivation, whole-brain, right-brain thinking, etc. In this video he quotes some research results obtained by economists at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and U of Chicago about what types of motivation work best for type of work needed. (The Federal Reserve Bank funded the research ... not your typical leftist/socialist bunch.)

Basically, money motivates 'no-brainer' repetitive mechanical work. The best reward for getting cognitive or creative work performed by employees is to remove the threat of lack of money. In an abundance economy, what we need to progress is to provide an environment that allows for creativity. (Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the motivators for cognitive and creative work/success.)

http://www.danpink.com/2010/06/whiteboard-magic

388:

The key factor in or barrier to moving toward a 'creative' economy that is supported by a universal minimum income scheme is that there is no mechanism for creating wealth out of/via the stock exchanges. That is, there's no room for get-rich schemes which underlie a lot of recent wealth creation.

Apart from music/art, I can't think of any idea-centric product or service that is currently being traded on any of the stock exchanges ... is there such a beast? (Apologies if this has already been addressed in the above posts.)

389:

What anonemouse said. The May National Geographic has an article on future food production, if it helps, and it looks to be pretty nuanced about the benefits and shortcomings of both conventional and small-scale agriculture.

390:

Look at the productivity of a well-cultivated Allotment
Approx 10x30 metres area & intensively cultivated usually part-time by the owner/lessee.
Calculated to provide enough vegetable food for "A family of four" (i.e. 2 adults, 2 children) throughout a year.

Mine certainly produces a constant surplus & I give stuff away - even in a horrible year like 2012-13.
2013-14 was good & this year looks even better.
Anyone want any Garlic?

391:

Thank you, it makes sense!

392:

Well, some people are still following this thread.

On the Electric Car, the furthest I drive (Once or twice a month) is around twenty miles, forty miles round trip, well within non-exotic battery tech. And my regular commute is around fifteen to twenty miles, pretty typical for Amurica.

The problem is all the rural Bozos who want to drive their Urban Assault 4WD monster trucks; I need a substantial vehicle that won't turn me into road kill when they run through the stop light. Puts that seven mile bicycle commute right out too (no shoulders on the roads). They would have shotgun racks in the pickup truck window if that was still legal, and most of them probably have concealed carry permits.

I am regularly passed (two lane "Country" road, no shoulders remember) in the no passing zones, old guy moseying along at 50 in the 55 zone....

(Bad habit from my days as an executive chauffeur, you might get there a minute earlier on a fifteen mile trip, but the passenger gets a much smother ride to read his morning paper)

It might be cheaper to get a rental for the 300 mile trip to visit my mother; Round trip air fare is on the order of $800 (No discount carrier service). Certainly more cost effective than a new vehicle. My current vehicle has 110,000 miles on it, and multiple issues shall we say.

393:

It might be cheaper to get a rental for the 300 mile trip to visit my mother; Round trip air fare is on the order of $800 (No discount carrier service).

I have had a reason to visit an empty house over the last 4 years to make sure it's OK, heat still working, etc... 300 miles door to door. I rent a car. Almost every time. 5 hours of driving as long as you time it to miss the rush hours. Flying door to door would typically be 4 hours. But I'd still have to rent a car when I get there. And be severely limited in what I could bring with me.

Stopping every 90 minutes would be a real bear. But then again if that was the situation it might have been easier to get the various family members on board with DOING SOMETHING. :)

394:

@333:
generalist recruitment site like s1jobs.com usually advertises between 4,000 and 5,000 vacancies across the country, suspiciously, and has done so every time I’ve looked
---
In the USA, many of those "job sites" don't appear to have any real job listings; they're just fronts to harvest detailed demographic information.

The "insurance quote" scheme works much the same way.

395:

Oh look, spam!

396:

Now gone, thanks.

397:

I like all of this, but George Osborne didn't go to Eton.

398:

One quite commonplace feature is that the same job can be advertised in multiple places, and that can throw off figures for available jobs. I suppose the classic instance is the travelling salesman. He can be covering a large area, and that job can be justifiably advertised as "local" throughout the area. While it varies with geography and population density, one job could be legitimately advertised a couple of dozen times.

And the politicians are going to be tempted to count it as a couple of dozen jobs.

399:

One quite commonplace feature is that the same job can be advertised in multiple places, and that can throw off figures for available jobs.

Indeed, and also in the literal sense. A few minutes before coming here I was on another site and saw several job advertisements (for which I imagine someone got a micropayment). However, I live on North America, so knowing there are openings for biochemists in Sheffield or teachers in Leeds don't help me much.

But now I've got the whimsical idea of assigning people employment by some random selection method. Once a year everyone could be given a random job. The ones who turn out to be useless at it can quit or be fired, they roll on the Jobs Table again; others can stay put. While silly, I wonder how much worse it would work than our current scheme. I'd never apply to be a high school history teacher on another continent, but I'd be willing to give it a shot if asked.

400:


" However, I live on North America, so knowing there are openings for biochemists in Sheffield or teachers in Leeds don't help me much. "

Good Grief! Such dismal pessimism. It would help you if you held relevant qualifications and were willing to come and work in the U.K. For example...

" Opportunities are available throughout England, including the greater London area, so if you are looking for short term work in different locations or a single long term contract / permanant role, we would love to hear from you - We can even secure work for you before you arrive!

The demand for overseas teachers (including Newly Qualified Graduates) is high as there are not enough local teachers to meet demand. We therefore have schools throughout the UK looking for qualified teachers in most subject areas and age ranges to start immediately. "

http://www.visionforeducation.co.uk/teaching-jobs-uk

That's a commercial agency but the principle holds good even if you were to investigate the opportunities independently, and that principle is that...we are DESPERATE for qualified teachers in scientific disciplines, especially in mathematics.

Of course it all depends on how much you expect to earn and how that may help you to live within, say, travelling distance of your new employers in, just say, Central London. Bio Chemistry? Certainly doable by foreign origin teachers in the UK. It just depends on how badly you want to work in the UK but, on the face of it, you do have highly desirable qualifications.

Can't have a decent standard of living with good graduate level Scientific /Mathmatics based qualifications in the U.S. of A? Yes? Then its well worth looking into the posibilities of emigration to the U.K.


401:

Can't have a decent standard of living with good graduate level Scientific /Mathmatics based qualifications in the U.S. of A? Yes? Then its well worth looking into the posibilities of emigration to the U.K.

Which is fine if it's just you. But if you have a family, a partner who also has a job, children who are settled in schools, perhaps elderly parents you need to be within reach of, migrating to a different continent is far from trivial. Thinking of friends who have switched country, most of them seem to have done so at the age before children or parents were an issue.

(One distinct exception: the extended family that all abandoned Alaska on Sarah Palin's election as governer, three generations moving as one. But the youngest was still pre-school.)

And elderly parents, yes. When my mother was ill, my UK sister and I were 'economical with the truth' to my Floridian sister, because there was no way she out there could do anything but worry. Then we had the conversation with the ward sister who asked if we could get that sister over as soon as possible, because Mum was unlikely to last the next 48 hours.

Sister was already due to be coming over a few days later. Only her former colleagues in the airline industry got her onto a transatlantic plane within 24 hours at a price she could manage.

(Mother then rallied and lived for months longer.)

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on April 2, 2014 6:58 PM.

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