(Dis)honest ways to make it rich

Money. In a world where most things come with a price tag attached, we are all obliged to try and acquire the stuff. This can be achieved through fair means or foul. But what is an honest way of becoming wealthy?
To my mind there is only one way to become wealthy through entirely honest means, and that is to provide a product or service that an informed customer may choose to spend his or her money on. The company that provides this product or service relies only on the actual quality of it to keep them ahead of competitors. 
Furthermore, the honest boss of a company recognises that he or she is but one member of a team, and it was that collective which worked together to bring product X to the market. We might make a comparison to the conductor of an orchestra. A great conductor can make the difference between a performance that is merely OK and one that is sublime. It would be wrong, however, to attribute the excellence of the performance entirely to the person who happens to lead the orchestra. Obviously, were it not for the violinists, the trumpet players, the pianists, the percussionists and all the other members of the orchestra, bringing what is likely years of hard practice at perfecting the craft of playing their chosen instrument, there would be no music at all, sublime or otherwise. 
The same can be said for the CEO of a company. A great CEO can make the difference between an outstanding year for the company and a merely average (or abysmal) one. But a CEO of a Fortune 500 company could no more bring its product to market by themselves than a conductor could wave his baton like a wand and create music, absent of all the other members of the team we call an orchestra. The honest boss recognises that he or she is but one person among many, and that it is actually the organisation the team comprises that earns those £billions multinational corporations bring in. The honest boss would not accept a financial reward that is so high other members of the team must necessarily do with so little even if they work full time their daily life is one of constant money anxiety. Of course, it would also be wrong to pay everybody the same, since people clearly have different levels of responsibilities and skills in any organisation. But there is surely a mutually beneficial compromise between the extremes of total equality and high inequality.

Do all companies competing in the market adhere strictly to these conditions for honest money-making? Clearly not, as it is not too difficult to find examples of businesses that break at least one of the rules I just mentioned. To recap, the totally honest business:
1. Sells a product or service to an informed customer. In other words, whatever advertisement is used to try and sell the product gives an honest description of its advantages and disadvantages in comparison to rival products. Any potential customer truly knows exactly what it is they are about to pay for.
2. Relies only on the actual quality of that product/service in order to stay ahead of the competition. In other words, there is no lobbying the State to pass laws that disadvantage their competitors, grant monopoly rights that are then exploited through price hikes that would not be possible in true free market competition, and other distortions of the market. 
3. Acknowledge that it is the company, not any one person, who earns the profit. This income should be distributed in a mutually beneficial way that avoids the injustices of total equality (which fails to compensate for differences in responsibility and talent) and extreme inequality (which places unnecessary anxiety on the disfavoured and can lead to structural violence, as the disenfranchised riot against what is an obviously rigged system). In a good business, every person from the bottom to the top is motivated by the hope of success; the bad business relies on the fear of failure to keep its employees working.
So, are customers always completely informed about the product they are about to buy? Not according to the documentary ‘Will Work For Free’:
“If I wandered into a phone shop, unsure of what to buy, and make the mistake of telling the salesperson that I am not too familiar with the differences, I leave myself open to product sale bias. In this scenario, the store has no problem selling the best products, so instead, I am presented with an inferior product which the store is struggling to offload. The salesperson’s job here, becomes distorted and I the customer will most likely be subjected to either a sales pitch as opposed to honest insight”.
Or how about this quote from the Daily Mail:
“The Herts and Essex Fertility Centre charges £1,247 for three drugs routinely prescribed to women on IVF. But the same prescriptions in the same quantities cost £876.72 from Boots or £929.22 from Asda. Couples who buy drugs from the clinics may have no idea they are paying over the odds or that they can get them elsewhere…Experts accused the clinics of exploitation, calling the way they charge for IVF drugs ‘a complete racket'”.
Neither of these quotes convey an impression of potential customers making decisions armed with a complete set of all facts. I dare say most people have had the experience of dealing with some salesperson or business who appears to be, shall we say, economical with the truth in order to ensure a sale.
Moving on to the second condition for honest money making, I think it is fair to say that there are all kinds of distortions of the free market principle of trading true value for value under conditions of competition that favour only those who genuinely provide the best product/service. In fact, this quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged sounds suspiciously like the actual (as opposed to some ideological ‘free’) market:
“When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favours–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed”. 
When you watch an athlete push their body to the limits of human capability and beat a record for the fastest sprint, the longest jump, the most perfectly executed dive and so on, you can only feel a sense of admiration for those who have put in such hard work to achieve this pinnacle, and a sense of humility that some are able to dedicate themselves to an effort more supreme than most of us could ever endure.
But, given that the human body is capable of doing only so much, at some point an ever-decreasing time limit for completing a sprint or other record-breaking achievement starts to seem kind of…dubious. And then, it happens. The once-celebrated athlete is exposed as a cheat. He took performance-enhancing drugs, or some other means of gaining an edge that is against the rules of professional sport. 
It is, by the way, a bit unfair to dismiss those who are caught relying on such dubious tactics as just cheats. It is almost certain that these athletes trained every bit as hard as those who never touched performance-enhancing drugs. It is not like they just slobbed around in front of the TV all their lives, then one day injected themselves with something and wandered down to the Olympic park to beat Usain Bolt. No, their result came about by a mixture of honest and dishonest methods. 
Just as we understand that an individual can only break a sports record by a certain amount before it becomes obvious that they must have relied on some kind of cheating, so too should we recognise that an individual can only make so much money for themselves before their wages and bonuses are the result, not simply of their own merit, but a combination of honest work and cheating, of either rigging the system to favour themselves and disadvantage their fellow workers, or being in a position to benefit from a system that is already rigged. Is the CEO of a multinational company worth five times as much as the average employee? Doubtlessly, yes, because he or she shoulders enormous responsibility. Ten times more? Twenty? I think most people would still accept this is fair. But when those at the executive level start making hundreds or thousands of times more than the average employee, we really should be as dubious of this reward as we would be of an athlete who somehow manages to shave ten, fifty, or one hundred seconds off the previous world record in the sprint. Anyone who is a billionaire definitely did not earn that money through entirely honest means under conditions of true competition in which all have an equal chance to excel. No, they were in a position to take advantage of a rigged system.
Like everything created created by humans, markets are not perfect but flawed creations. If we come up with a description of markets which recognises the possibility that some may violate one or more of the conditions for acquiring deserved wealth, we can see what that flaw is. So here goes: The free market is an arena of competition in which individuals and groups try to gain a greater monetary reward than other individuals and groups, via whatever method they can get away with’. Clearly, such conditions are prone to cheats whose method for gaining wealth relies not entirely on making their own money, but (at least in part, to a greater or lesser extent, ) in taking wealth from others. Modern understandings of markets view them not as efficient machines, but rather as chaotic ecosystems. Just as the natural ecosystem inevitably allows parasites to evolve, so too do market systems give rise to parasites. And, just as in the natural world, those parasites are under competitive pressure to hide themselves from their victims, or better yet to fool their victims into believing they are something to be protected, rather than fought. 
Bare in mind what I said about the ‘cheating’ athlete, though. Just as the athlete was not simply a cheat but somebody who relied on a combination of meritocratic and dubious methods for achieving success, so too are the most successful cheats in business rarely simply parasites. Just as natural parasites have a competitive selective advantage in becoming interwoven among some vital function of their hosts body, such that removing the parasite without causing harm to the host presents a great challenge, so too are market parasites under selective pressure to interweave their dubious wealth-extraction schemes among genuinely useful services. The best parasites are never just cheats.
But, whatever. It is true to say that if those who take wealth, rather than make it, are allowed to flourish too much, then society is doomed just like Rand said. We know what needs to be done to ensure that never happens, though: Don’t let them get away with it.
“Will Work For Free” You tube documentary
“And They Charge Hundreds of Pounds More For Drugs You Can Buy at Asda” by the Daily Mail
‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand

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In 1993 the science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote a paper in which he predicted a coming event which would radically change life as we know it. “I argue in this paper”, he wrote, “that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence”. Vinge coined a name for this change. He called it the ‘Technological Singularity’.

What I want to explore in this essay is the possibility that a singularity is not a unique event but one which has happened more than once. I believe that Vinge’s own words lead us to suppose that reality has gone through profound shifts in possibility before. The key sentence is as follows:

“This change will be a throwing away of all previous rules…developments that before might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century”.

In other words, a key aspect of a singularity is that it leads to a dramatic change in perceptions of time, or rather, a dramatic compression of possibility, such the the wildly implausible becomes likely. With that in mind I think we can see in the past history of our universe at least three events which qualify as Singularities.


Before science fiction writers speculated on the possibility of technology bringing about such a dramatic change that it imposed a ‘singularity’ on our future through which we could not peer and see clearly what was to come, cosmologists looked to the dim and distant past and traced the evolution of the universe itself until they reached a point where our understanding of physics can take us no further. They called this point where the state of existence is shrouded in utter mystery a ‘singularity’ and no doubt those speculators of the future (Vinge was not the first person to use the phrase in the context of future technological change) borrowed the phrase from the cosmologists. 

Today, by far the most popular theory of the universe’s origins is ‘The Big Bang’, which points to evidence that our universe is expanding and argues that, if this is so, as we go back in time the universe must have been smaller until a moment is reached where all of creation was compressed into a speck of infinitesimal size. This naturally leads to the question, ‘what happened before?’, to which the answer seems to be ‘there was no ‘before’. The Big Bang marks the moment time and space began, so asking what came before the Big Bang is as nonsensical as asking ‘what’s north of the North Pole”? It follows from this that it is meaningless to wonder how long that mysterious pre-Big Bang reality lasted, for without time a nanosecond is no different to an eternity. What bigger difference in perceptions of time can there be than the transition from timelessness to change that can be measured?

Vernor Vinge saw the Technological Singularity as an event which could compress our expectations of what is possible in a given time-frame, making ‘only in a million years’ events happen within a century, if not sooner. If we look to our past, we can see another event which dramatically speeded up possibility, and that event was the transition from single-step selection to cumulative selection.

Richard Dawkins illustrated single-step selection by selecting a phrase from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (‘METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL’) and asked how long we should expect to wait for a monkey, randomly bashing away at a special word processor with only 27 characters (each letter of the alphabet-capital only-plus a ‘space’ as the 28th character) and which allows only exactly 28 bashes per go, which happens to be the same amount of characters in that phrase, if we include a space as a ‘character’.
The chances of a monkey happening to type ‘M’ as the first letter is one in 27. After all, there are 27 other possible characters that the primate could happen to bash. In order to get the first two letters the monkey must beat odds of 1/27 times by 1/27, which gives us odds of 1/ 729. In order to randomly type the entire sentence with no spelling errors and spaces all in the correct place, the monkey must beat odds of about 1 in 10,000 million, million, million, million, million, million. As you can imagine, then, you would likely have to wait a very, very long time for a monkey to bash out that precise phrase on Dawkins’s special keyboard.
And yet these odds are quite good compared to the odds of a haemoglobin molecule happening to assemble itself from the random recombinations of amino acids from which it is made. The haemoglobin molecule consists of four chains of amino acids, there are 146 amino acids per chain, and in living things we commonly find 20 different kinds of amino acids. Another science fiction writer- Isaac Asimov, calculated the number of possible ways of arranging 20 kinds of things in chains 146 links long and came up with the ‘haemoglobin number’, which is (more or less) a one with one hundred and ninety noughts after it. Compare that to our ‘METHINKS’ odds in which the monkey ‘only’ had to beat odds of 1/10^40 or 1 followed by forty zeros. And, of course, one haemoglobin molecule makes up only a tiny fraction of the complexity of a living organism. If it were left up to random chance, we would have to wait far longer than the life of the universe itself for life to emerge.

Since life evidently has emerged we must conclude that a Vinge-style ‘possibility compression’ must have occurred at some point in the past, and we know exactly what that event was (although we are still in the dark as to what exact form it took). That event was the transition from single step selection aka random chance to ‘cumulative selection’.

The difference between these two is that, whereas single-step selection has no memory whatsoever of the past, where cumulative selection is concerned the results of one process is fed into subsequent processes. To illustrate the power of cumulative selection, Dawkins designed a computer program that, like that monkey, randomly a random sequences of 28 letters. It would then duplicate that phrase but with a certain chance that ‘copying error’ would alter the phrase. The computer would then examine all those ‘offspring’ phrases, and reproduce whichever phrase most closely resembled ‘METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL’. 

First of all, the program typed the following:

Pretty much the kind of thing you would expect a monkey to produce were it let loose on a word processor. After ten generations and selecting of ‘phrase closest to METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL’ the program had managed to produce:
Still hardly a recognisable word, let alone Shakespearian in its quality.
By the time the 30 generations had been bred and selected, a resemblance to the target phrase had become undeniable:
And within 43 generations cumulative selection had produced the exact quotation.
How long did it take for the computer to evolve five word quotation from ‘Hamlet’? About eleven seconds. Compare that to how long we would expect to wait if we relied only on random chance: About a million, million, million, million, million years.
Now, there is one important difference between Dawkins’s evolutionary program and natural selection, and it is this: That program was given a definite target in that it had to search through strings of 28 characters and select the one which most resembled, however slightly, the phrase ‘METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL’. Natural selection, on the other hand, is not heading toward any definite future goal. But still, the experiment Dawkins run does give us some inkling of the power of cumulative selection to dramatically speed up the likelihood of something as improbable as the complexity of life as we know it today. Paraphrasing Vinge, we might say that ‘events which would otherwise take about a million, million, million, million, million years to happen, can actually happen between eleven seconds and one hour’.

The theory of evolution by natural selection tells us that human beings are just one more species belonging to a great family tree comprised of all living things that exist, or have ever existed. But are human beings really just another animal, no more remarkable than any other creature or plant? Or is there a good reason to pick human beings out for being special in some way? 

I think the latter is true, and the special reason is as follows: Human beings, unique among life on Earth, enabled a new kind of evolutionary process. As Dawkins wrote, “There is an evolution-like process, orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution…This is variously called cultural evolution, exosomatic evolution, or technological evolution”. Whereas all other forms of life on Earth can only adapt at the speed of natural selection, human beings have the imagination, the communicative capability, and the dexterity to reshape materials around them to produce useful designs intended to suit some purpose. We don’t have to wait for natural selection to adapt us for operating under water, we can develop snorkels, aqualungs, submarines and other forms of aquatic technology. And while it took billions of years for natural selection to produce flying animals like birds, it took only a couple of million years for human beings to fly to the Moon. 

Our hominid ancestors were not always so rapid in their technological development. If we look back more than forty thousand years we find man-made artefacts that had hardly changed for a million years. Generation upon generation upon generation of humans produced the same kind of flint knife that their ancestors relied on, plus a few other tools. As for paintings and carvings and figurines, they produced none.
Our distant ancestors were no different to any other animal. Humans are not the only animals that make use of tools. Other primates have been observed using blades of grass to ‘fish’ ants out of holes with; thrushes use a stone as an ‘anvil’, bashing snails against it so as to break its shell and get at the soft meat inside; beavers fell trees in order to construct dams, the list goes on. But none of those animals have anything like technology, which is an ever-accumulating family of tools and techniques solving more and more problems. No beaver ever figured out how to add hydroelectric power to its dam, no thrush ever learned to add its snail meat to a recipe combining that ingredient with others to produce a tastier dish. Similarly, it seems our 40,000 year old+ ancestors never figured out that they could make dramatic improvements to their tools and that there was an almost infinite range of possible tools and techniques that were waiting to be fashioned from the resources around them. 
But then, something happened, and Jared Diamond called this event ‘The Great Leap Forward’. As I said before, prior to this Leap, the tools our ancestors used hardly changed for a million years, but after it we find paintings, carvings, musical instruments, and the beginnings of true technological capability that would result in, among other wondrous inventions, the iPad2 and app on which I am writing this very essay a mere 40,000 years or so later.
As Matt Ridley wrote in ‘The Rational Optimist’, the human race has “surrounded itself with peculiar, non-random arrangements of atoms called technologies, which it invents, reinvents and discards almost continuously. This is not true for other creatures…they do not ‘raise their standard of living’, or experience ‘economic growth’…they do not experience agricultural, urban, commercial, industrial, and information revolutions”.

This leads one to ask what it is about the human species that enabled it to trigger this paradigm shift to technological evolution. Some authorities think it has something to do with language. Perhaps not the evolution of language itself (linguists like Stephen Pinker believe language to be older than the Leap) but rather (as Dawkins speculated) “a new trick of grammar, such as the conditional clause, which, at a stroke, would have enabled ‘what if’ imagination to flower”. You can understand why people look to language, or some adaptation of the ability to communicate linguistically, for the triggering of the Great Leap Forward, because technology is an inherently collaborative process. The idea of the lone genius who gets a great idea from out of nowhere is pretty much false. Instead, inventors take materials, tools, techniques and ideas that already exist and put them together in a new way to achieve a new result. They rely, in other words, on the work that has already been accomplished. Furthermore, they pretty much always rely, either directly or indirectly, on support from other people in building whatever they are making. This fact is illustrated in a famous essay called ‘I, Pencil’, in which you are challenged to make the kind of pencil you can buy in a shop from scratch. Of course, you could snap off a twig and use it to etch markings into soft Earth, but could you make a pencil with a graphite tip and a little rubber on the opposite end, held in place by a strip of metal? In order to do that you would have to know how to mine that graphite and metal, produce that rubber, and how to get that graphite inside a hollow tube of wood. And, of course, you could not rely on anyone else’s tools to do this work, you would have to build it all entirely from scratch.

Simply put, this is an impossible task for one person to do. All of us rely on work that was done almost entirely by other people. Technology is very much dependent on specialisation and exchange, on people collaborating with one another and relying on an accumulating, evolving record of knowledge. Such a capability could never have arisen had each individual only had its own mind to rely on, and no way of communicating ideas from one mind to another and across generations. Vinge himself actually used the arrival of the human species as an example of a Singularity-like change. Recall that he wrote:
“We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection”.

So, there we are: My three examples of past events which had such a dramatic effect on time, on what is possible, that they deserve to be thought of as ‘Singularities’. Makes you wonder how different the future will be if Vinge’s ‘technological singularity’ actually happens, doesn’t it?

The Blind Watchmaker, and The Ancestor’s Tale” by Richard Dawkins.
“Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley.
“The Technological Singularity” by Vernor Vinge.
“I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read.

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It is difficult to imagine going through life without relying on banks and the services they provide. We use such services every day. Our wages get wired to our accounts, we regularly use credit cards to buy things in stores and online. And then there are all those bills and loan offers that get sent to us. Yes, clearly, banking is interwoven into all our lives.
This, however, is not universally true. Around the world there are people- roughly 2.5 billion adults- that don’t have access to banks and the services they provide. Such people are unable to start savings accounts and they cannot get credit cards. While in countries like Canada, the U.K, and Germany around 96 percent of people above the age of fifteen have a bank account, in Pakistan only 27 percent of the population does. Nor is this a problem exclusive to developing countries. While in the USA some 88 percent of people have a bank account of some kind, some 30 percent must make do with nontraditional banking sources such as payday loans, and have insufficient access to the financial system. These people, who either live where there are no banks or who are unable to access all the services we have come to expect from the industry, are the ‘unbanked’.
So, how come there are people who don’t have access to such a crucial service? The two main reasons are: Lack of facilities and lack of documentation.
Starting with the former, there are people who live in places where traditional banks don’t want to go. This is partly because, being poor, they don’t offer the kind of profits that richer clients do. But, also, it is because these people live in places with insufficient infrastructure and security and that makes building bank branches in these areas difficult. As such, there is a distinct lack of services that we take for granted. For example, in Uganda circa 2005 there were one hundred ATM machines for 27 million people.
As well as lacking the infrastructure that banking requires, the unbanked have the problem of insufficient documentation. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has shown, economic growth and the creation of wealth depend upon clearly defined and documented property rights. In the West we have documents attached to our assets- things like our cars and our homes- that can be presented as collateral to a bank to borrow money. But in developing countries people have assets but no documentation. Lacking documentation to prove their identity, put up collateral and create credit histories, the unbanked have a lack of the basic foundations for participating in the banking system, and are limited to cash transactions. In the absence of mainstream banking, a shadow banking system has emerged to meet the needs of the unbanked. But such organisations leave these vulnerable people open to corruption.
Fortunately, we have now developed, and are expanding, the technological capability to integrate the unbanked into the global financial system. This is being achieved not through building physical bank branches but by leapfrogging brick-and-mortar banks using mobile technology. The potential in bringing those 2.5 billion unbanked into the global economy is not to be sniffed at. According to the journalist Robert Neuwirth, in aggregate there is some $10 trillions-worth of assets owned by undocumented people around the world. Were they their own country, it would be a country whose economy is second only to the USA.
It is therefore no fool’s errand to find ways of overcoming the obstacles the unbanked face in becoming part of the global economy. Indeed, the work done so far proves how valuable this can be. Thanks to globalisation and digitisation, people in India with sufficient understanding of English and IT skills can work from home servicing computers in America and Europe. Multinational companies now source their goods from all over the world, bringing job prospects to areas that hitherto had only a hand-to-mouth existence. Of course, this is not without some negative consequences. It means jobs are lost in richer countries as they are outsourced to places where there is cheaper labour. But it helped drop the percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day from 43.1% to 20.6%.
Perhaps the most important device for bringing the unbanked into the 21st century is the mobile phone, for it is this device, plus the wireless infrastructure and IT that support it, that more than anything have allowed people to move away from cash and opt for more secure and useful forms of money.
Developing countries may be most open to this kind of change for a couple of reasons. For one, in richer countries we are used to digital currencies that offer all the convenience of cashless currency, but hide quite a bit of expense from the end user; that expense eventually showing up as higher prices. In developing countries, corruption and excessive bureaucracy are more blatant. Workers in some African countries must pay their boss a bribe in order to receive their wages. In Cairo, acquiring and registering a plot of state-owned land involves wading through some 77 bureaucratic procedures across 33 agencies, and can take up to 14 years. So we should perhaps expect to see such people embrace blockchain 2.0 and cryptocurrency solutions faster than countries that have convenient credit-card payment schemes with hidden charges.
Secondly, in developing countries we find a greater proportion of self-employed people- rickshaw drivers, food-stall operators, small business owners- and for such people it is particularly important to save costs on financial transactions. A payment solution that is more secure, able to circumvent corruption and avoids hidden charges, has obvious benefits for people who have to look after every penny. 
I would add a third reason why mobile banking, cryptocurrency and blockchain 2.0 technology may develop in countries where there are the ‘unbanked’ and that is the ‘latecomer’s advantage’. There is no rule that says a country has to retread all the steps that lead to the modern world. They can leapfrog straight to the latest technologies and practices. Indeed, this leapfrogging makes a great deal of sense, because the most modern technologies often do the same job as predecessors, only more cost effectively and less wastefully. The cost of purchasing and burying copper wire for a communications infrastructure would be more than $100 million. Cell tower infrastructure would cost a relatively small tens of thousands of dollars. If a city like Zinder in South Niger were to adopt PCs, then by the time 10% of the population were using them, the power they consume- 1,500 KW- would exceed that of all households today. Mobile devices, on the other hand, would consume just 74KWs, and as they run off of batteries they would be more useful in areas where power outage is a common experience. It is for reasons such as these that countries like El Salvdore and Panama have adopted mobile communications faster than the USA.

The fact that the rich nations have well-established systems and infrastructures could be an impediment to progress. W. Brian Arthur, External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute and author of ‘The Nature of Technology’ has written about how established technologies and practices can delay the adoption of new methods, even though those new methods are superior. In 1955, the economist Marvin Frankel noticed that cotton mills in Lancashire were not using the more modern and efficient machinery. This was because the old brick structures that housed the old machinery would have to be torn down before the new machinery could be installed. As Arthur wrote, “The outer assemblies thus locked in the inner machinery and thus the Lancashire mills did not change”. To this day, whenever a technology is so interwoven with the fabric of everyday life or business practice that replacing it seems too much bother, we say it has become ‘locked-in’.
There is also a psychological aspect to consider. Established technologies and practices can lead people to adopting certain ways of doing things, and upstart technologies that obsolete the old ways can be threatening. Sociologist Diane Vaughan called this ‘Psychological Dissonance’ and wrote:
“(We use) a frame of reference constructed from integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experiences…This frame of reference is not easily altered or dismantled, because the way we tend to see the world is intimately linked to how we see and define ourselves in relation to the world. Thus, we have a vested interest in maintaining consistency because our own identity is at risk”.
Therefore, established technologies, infrastructures and methods can create hysteresis- a delayed response to change- that holds the new at bay, at least until the old ways simply cannot be stretched any further. So, it could be that developing countries which lack many of these established infrastructures and technologies, would adopt the new and accommodate themselves more quickly to the methods and practices they make possible.
As a digital communications infrastructure is established and made accessible, the unbanked have the opportunity to pursue specialisation and exchange, building services that reduce problems in economic activity, match underused resources with unmet needs, and generally follow a proven path to prosperity. Through a combination of the Internet, mobile telephony and micro-financing, websites like Kiva allow individuals in the West to lend to African entrepreneurs who are able to deposit receipts and pay bills without having to handle cash. Zambian farmers have boosted profits by 20 percent by using their mobile phones to buy seeds and fertiliser.

Perhaps the most successful mobile banking scheme (in terms of helping the unbanked, at least) is M-Pesa. M-Pesa came into existence in 2007, when Safaricom began a pilot program that turned prepaid calling minutes into a form of currency. In order to use M-Pesa, people sign up for an account and their phone gets an E-Wallet. They can then go to a local Safaricom agent and pay cash for “e-float”. As Paul Vigna and Michael. J. Casey explained in “Cryptocurrency”, “this money isn’t actually held in the form of Kenyan shillings but as a separate claim on the overall M-Pesa e-float, all of which is backed by depositors in the banks with which Safaricom has accounts”. This currency can then be sent to other phone users who also have M-Pesa accounts, or a user can withdraw cash by going to an agent who will hand over money provided the user has an equivalent amount of e-float in their account.

Today, two-thirds of Kenyans use M-Pesa and 25 percent of the country’s GDP flows through it. Vodaphone, who own 40 percent of Safaricom, have brought M-Pesa to Tanzania, South Africa, Fiji, India, Romania and others. The relief group, Concern worldwide, used M-Pesa to help bring aid to Kenya’s remote Kerio valley. With the nation’s institutions frozen after violence broke out after a hotly contested election, this form of digital currency provided a means of moving money around, and the transaction fee that Safaricom charged was far less than the cost of transporting food and material. In Tansania, people who neither live near a hospital or can afford to travel to one are helped by an organisation called Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation, which uses M-Pesa to cover their travel expenses.

As a form of digital money, M-Pesa is not without its drawbacks. To the end user it may appear automatic, but lurking in the background there is an infrastructure that is unwieldy and expensive. Agents still have to handle cash-indeed, large amounts of cash-which can leave the vulnerable to criminals. And, as Vigna and Casey explained, “when agents run out of money, they have to either stop what they are doing, close the shop and go to a bank, or stop what they are doing and send somebody on their behalf”. Also, Vodaphone has partnerships with other payment networks that all charge the usual fees and banking-system-dependent costs we have unfortunately come to expect from such a middleman-heavy service.

Little wonder, then, that many cryptocurrency enthusiasts see bitcoin as a solution to the problems M-Pesa and other banking-system-dependent forms of digital money cannot resolve. After all, bitcoin makes possible the direct transfer of money between two parties, entirely bypassing the cumbersome and expensive system for international transfers. Because bitcoins are essentially nothing but lines of code, it does not even necessarily require a smartphone to participate in this form of currency. A project called 37Coins uses people who have Android smartphones as ‘gateways’ to transmit messages, and this allows others to use cheaper, more rudimentary phones to send money via SMS. Mozilla, the company perhaps best known for the Firefox browser, sells a suitable phone for just $25.

Cryptocurrency also deals with the documentation. As Vigna and Casey pointed out, “you, your identity and your credit history are irrelevant. You do need an electronic platform with which to connect to the Internet. But if you are able to get that, bitcoin allows you to send or receive money from anywhere”. With smartphones becoming cheaper, and bitcoin wallets becoming easier to use, this can only help decentralised, peer-to-peer cryptocurrency spread further.
Eliminating the need for middlemen who all take their cut lowers the costs of transactions. But this is only the beginning of the benefits that the technology behind bitcoin could bring about. The blockchain provides a middleman-free way to exchange any asset. Not just money but intellectual property, contracts, and so on. It creates an irrefutable public record not controlled from any one central institution. According to Vigna and Casey, “the Blockchain’s groundbreaking model for authenticating information could liberate the poor from the incompetence and corruption of bureacrats and judges. Digitised registers of real-estate deeds, all fully administered by a cryptocurrency computer network without the engagement of a central government agency, could be created to cheaply and reliably manage people’s rights to property”.


Looking further into the future, we can foresee a time when your money is truly your money. This is not the case with cash. Anybody who gains access to your purse or wallet can spend the money it contains. But if your smartphone will not unlock without biometric data unique to you, then it’s useless to anyone else. The science-fiction author Charles Stross imagined a scenario in which a thief snatches a bag, only for the bag to start screaming in distress at being handled by a stranger. With a combination of sensors and artificial intelligence that can distinguish between property’s rightful owner and everybody else, and GPS tracking, our personal devices could behave just like that bag, immediately alerting authorities and providing incriminating evidence.

As for people who have permission to access our property, intelligent devices could allow for more precise control over the extent of that access. No more having to carry different loyalty cards; the phone would track your position, know you are in a certain store and allow you to use its customer reward scheme. People who rent out their homes on AirBnB and other such services could rely on smartphones that provide access to the home for a set period, or which permit entry to some rooms but not others. And, seeing as how bitcoin does no care who you are, anything smart enough to begin using the service could do so. As Mike Hearn, a former Google employee, pointed out, “bitcoin has no intermediaries. Therefore, there’s really nothing to stop a computer from connecting to the Internet and taking part”. Indeed, any suitably smart AI could, and Hearn has envisaged driverless taxis that connect to an automated, electronic marketplace he has dubbed ‘Tradenet’. The car (or, rather, the AI that controls it) would own itself, paying its costs and receiving its own revenue. If it were programmed to provide as cheap and efficient a service as possible, it would be focused on maximising its productivity, with no interest whatsoever on bling and other signs of material wealth. 
The issue of robots taking over tasks traditionally the preserve of wage-earning humans has lead some to suppose that money won’t be necessary in the future. It seems a reasonable argument to make: the robots don’t work for wages, humans can’t compete against them for jobs, so goods and services might as well be provided free by our tireless AI servants. 

But this argument assumes that money is merely a commodity recognised as a unit of exchange in order to overcome what would otherwise be cumbersome barter exchanges. However, if we look past the physical manifestations of money (be that gold coins, paper notes or lines of code) and focus instead on the credit and trust relationships between the individual and society at large, we discover money is not so much an intrinsically-valuable commodity but rather akin to a social contract whose value depends entirely on everybody agreeing it can be redeemed for an agreed-upon measure of goods and services. Even if robots completely take over the economy and do all jobs, it is still an economy and there would still be resources and services whose relative value has to be measured, somehow. So it seems likely that robots and AI would rely on some way of measuring the relative value of the resources they are using, the goods they are creating, and the services they are offering. So long as there is a society, there will be obligations between debtors and creditors. And that, ultimately, is what money is.

The unbanked are a reminder that scarcity often has little to do with resources being scarce, but rather because we lack the ability to access them. There is a tremendous reserve of human potential unfortunately constrained by cumbersome bureaucracy, corruption, and unengaging work. By finding solutions to these problems, we can make the future brighter. The Mobile technology, cryptocurrency and Blockchain are doing their part to make that happen.

“Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley.
“Accelerando” by Charles Stross
“Cryptocurrency” by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey
“Rethinking Money” by Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne.
“Technology: What It Is And How It Evolves” by W. Brian Arthur.

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Thoughts On the Baby Boomers (part two)

In part one, we saw how historical events early in the 20th century lead to lower inequality and greater opportunity for the post-war generation, but that this meritocratic capitalism is no more. So what happened? Why did the conditions that Baby Boomers enjoyed- lower inequality, greater opportunity, more security- come to an end? I would argue that this was largely brought about by two things: faith in the market and distrust in the old bureaucracies. From the 1980s through to the 21st century, politicians, economists and others on both the right and the left attempted to extend an idea of freedom that was modelled on the market. This model could trace its roots back to a scientific theory called Game Theory, which was developed during the Cold War and turned by John Nash into a way of looking at social interaction in general. Nash argued that individuals lived their lives in a game, pursuing only their self-interests and constantly adjusting to one another’s strategies. Economists argued that, if this were true, then we should give up on the very idea of the collective people’s will. There was no way of adding up all individuals’ competing desires to produce one coherent goal. Furthermore, it suggested that the old idea of politicians and civil servants being motivated by some altruistic calling to serve the public good, was a lie. In reality, it was now thought, politics and the civil service were motivated by self-interest to build up their empires. The idea of public duty was based on an illusion. Only the market could possibly respond to people’s self-interested drives and create overall prosperity. The best thing that politicians could do was to stop interfering.
Political leaders like Thatcher, Major, and Blair (and, in the States, presidents like Reagan and Clinton) set about deregulating the market. Following advice from management consultants, John Major set out to create an alternate system intended to mimic the self-interested drive of the free market. This involved setting performance targets, the idea being that this would harness individualism and cause a transformation from self-serving bureaucrats to heroic entrepreneurs who would be driven by market forces to provide great services. The inexorable logic at the heart of game theory lead to this targets-based system spreading much further than bureaucratic institutions, as teachers, nurses and workers in the private sector were also given performance targets.
It wasn’t only politicians who had grown tired of the old bureaucracies. Throughout the 70s and 80s, popular wisdom increasingly saw corporations as bloated and inefficient, with business executives handicapping their organisations with unwieldy bureaucracies, and an overly-entitled workforce who were spoiled by far too generous rewards and low performance demands. In America, the business community was perceived as being unable to compete against more nimble foreign competitors. In the UK, years of industrial action turned the public against the Unions.
This perception lead to leaders in politics and business to taking drastic action in deregulation. In America, President Reagan appointed an attorney, who had previously defended large corporations against anti-trust suits, as head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, thereby pretty much guaranteeing non-interference from the government in the face of a growing mergers-and-acquisition movement. And, around the same time, the Supreme Court declared laws aimed at shielding local companies from out-of-state suitors to be unconstitutional, a decision that also helped accelerate an era of mergers and acquisitions.
Meanwhile, in the City, Michael Milken, of the investment house Drexel Burnham, created high-yield debt instruments known as junk bonds. They enabled far riskier and aggressive corporate raids than were possible in the previous, more cautious era. This deregulation and move toward hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts and corporate bust ups lead to a dramatically different working environment. This change is perhaps best illustrated by considering the nicknames that CEOs of this period acquired. In 1962, Earl S. Willis, manager of employee benefits services at General Electric wrote, “maximising employment security is a prime company goal”. In marked contrast to this, 20 years later General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch earned the nickname ‘Neutron Jack’ because, so the wags quipped, by the time he was done with all the layoffs and cutbacks, only the buildings were left standing.
He was hardly alone. Indeed, the 80s was a period in which employees went through many a corporate crisis, brought about either by deregulatory trends to global competition. The pressures these trends placed on workplaces lead to a corporate perspective focuses on increasingly short-term goals, and job conditions that became increasingly uncertain, unrewarding, and demanding. Permanent careers became impermanent jobs, with a move from permanent staff to contingent labour in the form of temps and independent contractors, and during the 80s and 90s pension protections that had existed for almost as long as a century were cut back or eliminated altogether, resulting in growing numbers of men and women who lack pensions entirely.
The change that these circumstances wrought was summed up by Steven Hill, who wrote in an article for Salon:
“In a sense, employers and employees used to be married to each other, and there was a sense of commitment and a shared destiny. Now, employers just want a bunch of one-night-stands with their employees…with ‘jobs’ amounting to a series of low-paid micro-gigs and piece work, offering little empowerment for average workers”.
It was not only the workplace that underwent radical changes. The deregulations of the 80s and 90s freed up a lot of capital, but achieved this at the expense of creating some highly risky financial instruments. For example, there was something known as Consolidated Debt Obligations. As Dylan Ratigan explained, “CDOs gave banks a way to sell investors bets on whether all of us will be able to pay all our bills”. And then there were ‘Asset-backed Securities’, a type of bond that enabled buying the right to collect on debt payments like credit cards and car loans. Aided by increasingly powerful computers capable of tracking huge quantities of data, those existing bonds became gigantic Consolidated Debt Obligations. As Ratigan explained, “the new idea in banking was to take every kind of obligation to repay borrowed money- trillions of dollars-worth-put them in a statistical blender, and then sell portions of the mixture as investments”.
Investment banks began to intentionally mix high-risk loans such as poor people’s housing loans, with low-risk loans such as wealthy people’s credit cards. This mix of high- and low-risk loans produced a credit score rating comparable to medium-risk loans, even though the safe loans in the mix provided no protection from the really risky ones.
The overall result was ever-increasing risk transfer or what Dylan Ratigan called “playing hot potato with debt…The traditional incentive for banks to act as price integrity police- the standard of making careful, educated investments, was replaced by the incentive to sell as much insurance on as much debt as possible”.
This was a time of mortgages granted to NINJAS. That is, people with no job, no income, and no assets. It was a time when every delivery by the postal service included pre-approved credit card applications. And it was during this time that the City cowboys used their political influence to bring about the Financial Services Modernisation Act of 1999. This lead to the revoking of a rule that had been established after the Crash of 1929, a rule that meant no one company could simultaneously be a traditional bank, investment firm and insurance company. The Financial Services Modernisation Act meant a bank could (in Ratigan’s words) “take your money for safekeeping and use it as collateral with no supervision, all the while insuring itself against losses that taxpayers must pay of the bets the banks made with our money went bad”.
The move to deregulate the market and free capital from political interference and bureaucracy resulted in the rise of a credit casino, which lured people into taking on increasing levels of debt hidden behind such complex financial instruments that nobody could really hope to understand them. The banking and financial sector became increasingly infected with toxic debt and a speculative bubble that threatened to pop at any time, leading to a catastrophic downward spiral.
Of course, something like that almost happened in 2008, when the subprime mortgage speculative bubble burst and threatened to bring down such huge banking conglomerates that the government had to bail out the banks to avoid a crash as bad as the 1920s, if not worse. The massive stimulus packages that rescued the banks has resulted in austerity for future generations, or at least those generations who can’t afford top financial advisers who can use every morally-dubious trick in the book to protect their money. And the dubious financial instruments that lead to the near collapse of the global monetary system are still largely in place, leaving us with the probability that another speculative bubble could inflate and then pop, wiping out your savings.
Still, at least those performance targets had rid us of self-serving bureaucrats and delivered efficient services run by heroic entrepreneurs, right? New Labour certainly expected that to be the case. When they came to power in 1997, New Labour modelled itself on the Clinton Administration. Like their US counterpart, New Labour gave power away to the banks and the markets. And they took the targets-based system that John Major introduced and vastly expanded upon it- to the point where just about everyone from cabinet ministers down, and things that were previously considered unquantifiable- such as ‘happiness’- became part of a huge mathematical system that was supposed to use targets to free public servants from bureaucratic control.
But what this targets-based system did was to provide an opportunity for cheats to succeed by finding sneaky ways of fulfilling their goals. For example, hospital managers were given targets to cut waiting lists, and they achieved this by ordering consultants to prioritise the easiest operations like bunions, over more complicated ones like cancer. When they were given targets to reduce the number of patients waiting on trolleys, management removed the wheels from some of the trollies, reclassified them as beds, and reclassified the corridors as wards. Again, this meant they could take those patients off the list and meet their targets. Obviously, those tactics were not doing much to increase the actual quality of medical care. 
At first the government dismissed reports of cheating as a few bad eggs, but as more reports of fiddling the numbers came in, it became obvious that cheating had become endemic throughout the public services. Harvard Business School and others have shown that when goals are imposed on people, though intended to ensure peak performance, they often result in efforts to game the system without producing the underlying results the metric was supposed to be assessing. As Patrick Schilz, a professor of law, said:
“Your entire frame of reference will change and the dozens of quick decisions you make every day will reflect a set of values that embodies not what is right, but what you think you can get away with”.
This endemic cheating turned what had been intended as a rational system for boosting efficiency, into a weird world in which people were confronted with numbers and simply didn’t know whether to trust them or not. New Labour responded by adding even more mathematical levels of management, devising complex systems of auditing in order to monitor workers and make sure targets were being correctly fulfilled. The effect of all this was to turn what had been intended as a system of liberation into powerful new forms of control.
Worse still, this system had the effect of creating a more rigid and stratified society, and this happened because of what the system did to education. League tables had been created which showed parents which schools were the best performing, and which were bottom of the heap. The intention was that such league tables would incentivise less successful schools to improve their services, leading to rising standards across society. But, instead, rich parents moved to areas where the best schools were, which caused house prices to spiral, thereby keeping poor families out. And since the league tables were based on exam results, schooling was transformed from a system intended to give poor children the well-rounded education they would need to achieve social mobility, into one that focused on training kids to be specialised for passing exams, thereby enabling the school to rise up the league tables. The result was that by 2006, the country had become more rigid and stratified than at any time since the Second World War.
So if we compare life for the Baby Boomers with that of subsequent generations, we find the following. The Baby Boomers had an educational system designed to train them for their future careers and so enable social mobility; future generations received an education intended only to help schools look good on league tables, and higher education that is often not worth a damn when it comes to improving one’s chances of landing a decent job. When they entered the world of employment, the paternalistic corporate model ensured Baby Boomers a secure and steady working life where they were treated as stakeholders in the company they worked for, provided with many benefits in return for loyalty. Nowadays you enter a job and in all probability have no idea if you will still have a job tomorrow. You are a ‘permalancer’, working the same long hours as a full time employee but enjoying the same lack of benefits (like no sick pay and holiday entitlement) as the self-employed. The Baby Boomers left their dependable jobs and received a pension that enabled them to maintain the middle-class lifestyle they had earned throughout their working lives. These days, with austerity eating away at so many services, and a banking and financial sector still very much prone to speculative bubbles and subsequent crashes, you have no idea whether or not you will have any money to provide support in your old age. 
If we can visualise the Baby Boomers as being on a fairly well signposted path to prosperity, we can visualise later generations as being in some bewildering maze-cum-gauntlet, trying to negotiate their way around advice from genuine, well-meaning experts, and cheats disguised as servants but interested only in achieving tremendous short-term gain at their expense. In such a complex and uncertain world, is it any wonder that today’s young have adopted an “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” outlook on life? I rather suspect that, had Baby Boomers lived under such conditions of uncertainty, they might have behaved the same.

Images from Wikimedia commons

Capital In the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty
White Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Frazer
The Trap by Adam Curtis
Greedy Bastards by Dylan Ratigan

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Thoughts On the Baby Boomers (part one)

In a letter submitted to the Daily Mail, Dorothy Dobson responded to an article, published in the same paper, which attacked the Baby Boomer generation for being one that enjoyed privileges no longer available to subsequent generations. Headlined ‘Not All Baby Boomers Lived The Life Of Riley’, Mrs Dobson’s letter explained how “I was born in 1948, to a household with no bathroom, no hot water, and no inside toilet…Our first house cost us £1,400 at a time when my husband’s wages were £4 a week…My husband worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week to earn enough to live on…We’re now pensioners and have a decent home and a small amount of savings…We have good holidays but we have worked hard all our lives. Today’s whingers…think life owes them a living…They should be like we were and go without their luxuries”.
Reading their letter, one’s impression of the Dobsons’ life is hardly one in which everything was handed to them on a silver platter. I expect many other Baby Boomers recognised their own life in this letter, for they too were born into households with very little luxury and worked hard for decades to secure a reasonable standard of living in which to live out their old age. It must be very frustrating to hear younger generations, those selfish, smartphone-obsessed kidults, going on endless ‘gap-years’ and maxing out their credit cards rather than saving for retirement, accusing the older generation of ‘having it easy’.
As it happens, an understanding of the society that Baby Boomers grew up in, and the conditions experienced by later generations, indeed does not support the notion that our parents were born with everything handed to them on a silver platter. But things were different back then, and those differences arguably did grant the Baby Boomers opportunities that did not exist before, and have not existed since.
In order to see why this might be so, one needs to understand that capitalism comes in many forms, some more inclusive than others. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the West was ruled by a form of capitalism we might call ‘Patrimonial capitalism’. This is a form of capitalism dominated by old money that’s circulated through inheritance, leading to a rigid class structure and little social mobility. This is the reason why 19th century social commentators, like Jane Austen, are so preoccupied with marriage; because back then the rigid class structure and lack of social mobility meant one’s best chances of obtaining or holding onto great wealth was to marry into old money. 
This attitude was encapsulated in an economic formula set out by Thomas Piketty: r>g. This formula relates the return on capital- r (and r includes profits, dividends, rents and other income from capital) and economic growth, or g, and > represents the idea that when the rate of growth is low, then wealth will tend to accumulate more quickly from r than from labour. It also tends to accumulate more among the top 10% and 1%. The result is a trend toward higher inequality.
This rise in financial inequality could have spelled the end of democracy, as society would have divided between an oligarchical elite whose inherited wealth dominated much of society, and everybody else, lacking the power to change their circumstances. But then, in the early 20th century, some dramatic events occurred which altered the course of history. Those events were the Great Depression and the two World Wars. As you might imagine, these events destroyed much wealth. But, as Piketty argued, they were particularly bad for the wealth owned by the elite. And in the aftermath of World War II, governments took steps towards a redistribution of wealth, and the fast economic growth occurring around the world reduced the importance of inherited wealth.
How so? Well, the clue is in the word ‘growth’. You see, when growth is slow, life changes only gradually. So a money-making venture that worked well for one generation will work for subsequent ones. The son inherits his father’s buggy-whip empire and can life off of the profits it brings in. But when growth is high, change is fast and there is no guarantee that a successful venture will continue to work in the future. There is not much call for buggy whips when the internal combustion engine has rendered horse-drawn carriages obsolete.
So, between 1930 and 1975, the trend toward higher inequality was reversed, and a combination of government redistribution programs and fast growth enabled a transition away from patrimonial capitalism toward a more meritocratic form of capitalism. Whereas with patrimonial capitalism one’s circumstances are largely dictated by the conditions into which you are born, in meritocratic capitalism it is more how you live your life that determines where on the social ladder you end up. You can go from riches to rags if you make enough bad decisions (or have inordinate amounts of bad luck). Or, like the Dobsons, you can go from being really quite poor to really quite well-off, all through your own efforts and careful money management. Certainly, this isn’t privilege handed to you on a plate; it is the opportunity to ascend or descent the social ladder based on your own life choices.
Another event which changed society from the 1920s to the 1980s was the rise of left-wing politics and the communist revolution. This revolution did not have quite the effect that Marx expected. He believed that socialism would sweep capitalism away, as the proletariat gained awareness of themselves as a class and used their superior collective strength to wrestle the means of production from the hands of the owner-classes. But, instead, the threat of communism and the collective strength of workers organised into unions lead to a reformation of the workplace. Whereas in the dark, satanic mills of the 19th century, employees were treated as commodities to be exploited for profit, made to endure conditions that would seem intolerably brutal to us, the postwar years saw business instead think of their employees as stakeholders. They would treat their staff well, providing benefits like job security, paid vacations, full health coverage and a pension that would enable the employee to continue living in the middle-class lifestyle to which he had become accustomed through decades of loyal service. And it was, of course, that loyalty that businesses hoped to encourage. If the company adopted a paternalistic attitude and looked after its employees, they would want to work to ensure the company thrived.
The rise in benefits during the Baby Boom period was captured in a booklet called ‘A Record Of Progress’, which was published by The Consolidated Edison Company of New York. It recorded “a 143% increase (from 1945 to 1960) of sick pay, medical coverage and paid absences; “a 172%” increase in leisure time benefits (vacations and paid holidays) and “a 562% ” increase in retirement benefits”.

What the Baby Boomers enjoyed, then, was not everything handed to them on a plate, but rather a world in which there was less inequality, more opportunity to succeed, and more security for ordinary people, than had been the case in the preceding two hundred years. It was a time when you were assured that doing well at school and gaining good grades would land you a decent job; your workplace would provide security for all your working life, and when you retired your company pension would allow you to sustain your middle-class existence for several decades- the remainder of your life, basically.

It was, arguably, a golden age of capitalism and state security. And now, it is all but gone. How that came about will be the subject of part two.

White Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Frazer
The Trap by Adam Curtis
Greedy Bastards by Dylan Ratigan
Capital In the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty
Daily Mail

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Thoughts On Command Economies

Non-capitalist ownership of the means of production and reliance on a command- rather than a market- economy were among the defining features of Communist states.
The difference between a market and a command economy is that whereas the former relies on decentralised decisions between customers and suppliers to determine such things as what should be produced and in what quantity, in a command economy such decisions were undertaken by a hierarchical, top-down process. This system was organised with the politburo at the apex. Next down the chain of command were ministries for every major branch of industry. These were, in turn, supervised by the State Planning Committee and by departments of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Unlike with market economies, producers working in command economies had little reason to be concerned with the wishes of whoever used their products. Nor were the activities of their competitors of any concern. This was because competition was absent; other producers engaged in production of similar goods were comrades collaborating on execution of the State plan. Above all else, producers were concerned with meeting whatever targets planners set.
If we take these two defining features of a Communist state and also take into consideration other defining features such as democratic centralism, and the leading role of the Communist party, what we find in common with all of them is a strong ideological component. As Archie Brown said:
“These defining features of Communism, while ideologically significant, were also of clear organisational importance. They were part of the operational code of Communist rule with an everyday relevance to the task of maintaining power”.
They were ideological because they were part of the Bolshevik (and successor) belief system that held Socialism to be a higher stage of development than capitalism. While the Communists considered the victory of Communism over Capitalism to be inevitable, they also believed that the process could be speeded up, provided political power was firmly in the hands of the Party.
The absence of a market economy and private ownership played a definite part in placing power within the hands of the ruling Party. At times, upsetting State authorities meant imprisonment or death, but even in more relaxed times public dissent from State authorities was a serious threat to one’s career. After all, the State controlled the career possibilities of all citizens. Brown again:
“Communism was an all-encompassing system of beliefs…It had authorities whose word could not be questioned, and whose interpreters and guardians acted also as gatekeepers, deciding who belonged and who did not”.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Communist countries were 100% run by a command economy, with no private ownership and market activity whatsoever. In fact, some private activity (whether legally, illegally, or a mixture of both) occurred in Communist systems. Agriculture, in particular, was not uncommon in favouring private enterprise. Indeed, in the case of Yugoslavia and Poland, agriculture was mostly in private hands.
In non-market economies, goods and services often suffered shortages and probably could not have functioned at all, were it not for informal rules that developed around three key Russian words: Svyazi, Blat, and Tolkach. Translated into English, those are ‘Connections’, ‘Pull’ and ‘Fixer’ (or ‘Pusher’). Together, they compromised practices that oiled the wheels of the command economy.
Let’s start with Svyazi or ‘connections’. Given the control that State authorities had over people’s lives, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that connections- knowing the right people- were very important. Although Communism was supposedly a system that abolished class, Svyazi was mostly a privilege of the Soviet middle classes and elites.
Where Svyazi was concerned, favours could be rendered without expecting anything in return, even indirectly. However, ‘Blat’ (or ‘pull’) always involved a reciprocal exchange of favours. The exchange of favours need not have been direct and could have consisted of a long and rather complex chain. According to Brown:
“How much pull a person had depended, obviously, on that person’s position within society, but at all social levels in the Soviet Union, there were unofficial networks which, to a certain extent, bypassed the official structures”.
Perhaps the most important part of the informal set of rules oiling the wheels of the Command economy was the tolkach or ‘fixer’. If a factory were to fall behind schedule, that could have a huge effect in a command economy, because there was an absence of alternative suppliers. Therefore, despite official disapproval, the tolkach were tolerated because they served t o make the top priority of meeting production targets somewhat easier. This they did through begging, borrowing, bribing- basically any persuasive method that could ensure needed supplies actually arrived.
So, as stated before, the Communist command economy was never totally without private ownership and decentralised interactions between consumers and suppliers. Of course, the same thing can be said of market economies, which are, after all, never operating completely without State intervention. The State makes the sale of certain products illegal even though there is an economic demand for such products (such regulations are not 100% effective, and tend to cause the emergence of black markets) and also affects prices by imposing higher taxes on certain products. Perhaps most importantly, at times of financial crisis even the most ardent free-market ideologues find themselves turning to Government for rescue.
Still, an economic system must either be predominantly a command or a market economy, as the disastrous attempts to find a ‘third way’ have proved. Going on what history has taught us, though, one would be unwise to consider the command economy the superior of the two. Quite simply, the planned Soviet economy never worked all that well (although it could sometimes produce impressive results- think of the Soviet success in launching the first satellite, for example). A prime reason for its relative lack of success was the fact that prices were determined bureaucratically and, unlike in a market economy, budgets were not controlled by the need to make a profit. This lead to both a weakness of the penalties for failure and scant reward for success. As Brown explained:
“Shortfalls and waste…were automatically excused by the soft budget constraint…when extra costs were incurred, prices were allowed to rise, either openly or in a disguised form through a lowering of the quality of the product (which was not high to begin with). And, purchasers, whether of producer goods or consumer goods, did not have the option of taking their custom elsewhere”.
Perhaps it is no so surprising, then, that, far from overthrowing the Capitalist system, instead Communist States relaxed more and more top-down control over time. For example, in 1987, the law on the State enterprise had devolved power to factory managers, and by 1988 Gorbachev abolished pretty much all of the Central Committee’s economic departments. What was left by then was neither a functioning Command economy nor a market economy, but instead a dysfunctional hybrid which only added to the pressure to change the Communist system in such fundamental ways that it ceased to be by the mid 1990s.
The Rise And Fall Of Communism by Archie Brown


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Thoughts On the Cold War

From 1950 to 1990, a state of Cold War existed between East and West. At its heart, this simmering tension centred around an ideological question: Who should own capital? The ‘West’ represented US-led ‘free enterprise’ capitalism, and the East Russian-style state Socialism.
From a Western point of view, the Cold War was seen as a struggle to restrain the Soviet Union and hold at bay Communism. It is ironic, then, that the Cold War brought about conditions that helped perpetuate the Communist system. Communist states tend to be highly authoritarian, and such a state is more easily maintained when there is the ever-present threat of an external enemy. Such an external threat provided justification for censorship and restricted foreign travel. Thus, the Cold War provided Communist states with an excuse to suppress information regarding the relative economic success and greater liberty to be had under market-based, democratic countries.
As Alec Nove explained, “the centralised economy, party control, censorship, and the KGB were justified in the eyes of the leaders, and many of the led, by the need to combat enemies, internal and external”.
It is doubtful that the Soviet State could have survived a hot war, as that would almost certainly have involved an exchange of nuclear weapons that would have ended civilisation. The fact that the arms race was nicknamed MAD- for Mutually Assured Destruction- speaks volumes about how unlikely survival would have been for either side if East-West tension had boiled over. But, at the same time, it was the Cold War and the tensions that resulted, tensions that were advantageous to hardliners within Eastern Europe, that helped restrict contact with more prosperous countries in the West- something that Communist states were not equipped to survive.
The Rise and Fall Of Communism by Archie Brown
Introduction To Marxism by Rupert Woodfin and Oscar Zarate

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