Tag Archives: Foundation

The “Tytler” Insult — Is Democracy Hopeless?

Well… it’s back.  One of the best examples of a mass-hypnotic pseudo-wisdom that helps to lobotomize politics in American life.

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.” 

This widely-circulated nostrum is called the “Tytler Calumny” and it is the great example of what has gone wrong with the mental processes of our friends on the right, who used to be represented in sage debate by great minds like Barry Goldwater and Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley…  but who are now reduced to slinging around aphorisms and fact-free fox-assertions.

(In fairness, after watching Bill O’Reilly hold his own with Jon Stewart in the great 2012 Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, I have to admit, there are still islands of sort-of almost Goldwater-style adult-honesty on that side, though lamentably rare, as this missive will show you.)

First off, although named for a 19th Century Englishman Alexander Tytler, there is no actual evidence that Tytler actually said it! This aphorism is also often attributed falsely to historian Arnold Toynbee or Lord Thomas Macauley, or even Alexis de Tocqueville, although recent scholarship appears to follow a trail leading to a 1943 speech by one Henning Webb Prentis, Jr., President of the Armstrong Cork Company.

It is often accompanied by another feat of cynicism called the Fatal Sequence.

“Great nations rise and fall in a 200 year cycle. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

Now, as one who had the chance to “channel” the great science-fiction psychohistorian Hari Seldon, I admit to sharing the soft spot that many SF fans feel toward the central notion of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series — that the arc of history can be somehow easily be tracked, patterns-perceived, predictions made. And indeed, there certainly are some patterns!  Such as the dominance, in 99% of human societies, of small cabals of owner oligarchs, who passed on their property-based power to sons who never did a thing to earn it. The persistent-feudal pattern that Adam Smith and the American Founders strove so hard to break. Yes, I see the pattern-seeking allure.

But I’ve learned to be wary of glib nostrums that seem just too convenient to be true.

== Stroking the ego, starving the intellect ==

Consider how the Tytler Calumny appeals to the vanity of the one repeating it.  The sad cynicism of someone who considers himself above the hoi polloi of the mere “people.”  It is a blithe dismissal of even the possibility that a democracy can maintain itself. This despite the fact that — if you include the vigorous colonial legislatures — we in the U.S. have three centuries of ever-ripening success, on this continent alone, becoming steadily mightier at the same pace that we’ve grown more inclusive.

The calumny draws believers, despite the fact that our democracy has accomplished more prodigious feats, more wonders and more improvements to human happiness and knowledge than all of humanity’s other nations and cultures combined.  By far.  By orders of magnitude.

The Tytler nostrum (appraised here on Snopes) sounds “logical” in its smug contempt for the masses… except that it runs contrary to actual fact.  For example, when the citizens of Athens voted against distributing the windfall from new silver mines to every citizen, and instead asked Thucydides to invest it in their future.  Would most kings have done that?

All through the 1990s, Bill Clinton allied himself with fiscal moderates of both parties to stave off efforts by the supply-siders to raid the budget surplus and give it all — not to the People — but to the rich.  Clinton and Senators Tsongas (D) and Rudman (R) and others in the moderate middle were able to accomplish that because they were backed up by the public! By opinion polls showing that the middle class overwhelmingly wanted the budget surplus spent on paying down debt. And not on tax cuts for themselves. 

Should we be surprised? Indeed, who is more likely to have the habit of weighing the consequences of debt? Middle class citizens who must wrestle with tradeoffs, stanching their impulses and appetites every day, in favor of budgeting tightly for the future?  Or aristocrats who are accustomed to indulging whims out of copious coffers, knowing that there are always more coppers, pennies, pfennigs etc to be squeezed from those below them on the pyramid?

Both before and after 2001, those who were demanding that all the surplus be “given back to us, right now” were aristocrats. The same caste that bankrupted most past societies.

== The Fiscal Cliff Is Born ==

DeficitFiscalCliffWhen Clinton left office, there was no one left to block the raiders — who swarmed in to vote themselves “largesse” from the public treasury.  Largesse in the form of giga-tax cuts for the uber-oligarchy, declaring that the red ink would be paid back within a year, by supply-side miracles.  Yes, that was what they promised. It is explicitly what they vowed would be the direct result.

Ah. Pity that not one prediction ever made by Supply Siders ever came even remotely close to coming true. And that is ever. The oligarchs did not spend their tax-cut largesse on productive enterprises or risky capital formation.  They spent it on dividend-rent-seeking securities and hedge speculations that withdrew cash from circulation but boosted an asset bubble, leading to staggering deficits and the Second Great Depression.

Dig this well, so that the Tytler Calumny can die its deserved death.  

The middle class demanded debt pay-down.  The aristocracy demanded short-sighted greed.  Exactly as they did in 1789 France, when the First Estate refused to help pay for the nation that benefited them… and thus signed their own fates.

The 1789 lords’ rationalization – that they needed all the money to invest in their own duchies and estates and in jobs for their tenants – was precisely the same as the supply siders and “job-creators” use today. Flat out lies for which they later paid their lives.)

== Conservatives Who Can See ==

Now, not everyone on today’s American right has been lobotomized by Fox. Some of the heirs of Barry Goldwater have taken notice. For example, Mike Lofgren, in The American Conservative  (one of the few journals of the right that today would be considered sane by Goldwater and Buckley) has penned a scathing denunciation of how a worldwide caste of uber-wealthy appears to be seceding from the nations and peoples they increasingly control. In “Revolt of the Rich,” Lofgren shows how this process – bringing us toward wealth disparities like those of 1789 France – threaten the very fabric of our western/american social contract.

“It is no coincidence that as the Supreme Court has been removing the last constraints on the legalized corruption of politicians, the American standard of living has been falling at the fastest rate in decades. According to the Federal Reserve Board’s report of June 2012, the median net worth of families plummeted almost 40 percent between 2007 and 2010.”

Here is another snippet:

“If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the super wealthy. Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?

Look across the last 6000 years, the spendthrift aristocracy that ran nearly every kingdom, empire or feudal region typified Tytler’s quotation, far more than the primly puritan democrats of Athens, Florence, Venice, the medieval guilds, or Britain or America. Committing horrors of statecraft, blundering and crushing freedom and repressing markets, the lords were the enemies of liberty in 99% of human cultures… the enemies of market capitalism who were most denounced by Adam Smith.

In sharp contrast — and reiterating because it bears repeating — middle class folk understand debt, better than anybody.  They walk its minefields every single day. Unlike the poor, they have skills and have options and practice dealing with those choices. They mostly manage to use debt as a tool… one not to be indulged excessively.  Unlike the rich, they have no illusions that you can manipulate your way out of any jam, privatizing profits and socializing costs.  Railing against government, then suckling at its teat.  The middle class — the citizens who make democracy work — don’t have that luxury.  That delusion.

== The Paradox of “Deciders and Allocators” ==

Hypocrites who adore rule-by-oligarchy violate the fundamental principles of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and the entire conservative wing of mainstream economics, who all maintain that economic decisions are best made when we maximize the number of participants who get to know and participate in a basically flat and fair and open market.  (And the same competitive-accountability principle applies in democracy and science.)

Does it surprise you to learn that I think Hayek and Smith were absolutely right about this?  All humans are delusional, but the greater the number in-the-know and applying reciprocal accountability, the more likely each delusion is to be caught by somebody.

Oh, have you listened to those who decry that top-down decisions should not be made by the “limited number” of say 100,000 accountable and skilled and unbiased civil servants?  Sure, they have a point.

Only these loud critics then – without an eyeblink of irony – swerve and excuse secret, self-interested and conniving “picking winners and losers” when it is done by less than 3,000 elite-oligarch golf buddies in the CEO/billionaire caste. Praising that closed cabal as smart and accountable-enough, they dare to call that “capitalism.”

It is not capitalism! It is the age-old enemy of capitalism. Ask Adam Smith.

== What is the crux?  ==

What do I aim to accomplish here? I want you all to recognize and be able to name the Tytler Calumny, the next time your favorite ostrich or grouchy uncle starts reciting this poisonously treasonable and noxiously lying nostrum, bemoaning the impossibility that democracy can possibly survive the inherent contradictions of human nature.

In fact, I agree that Human Nature contains the seeds of downfall for our Enlightenment Experiment.  But the pattern we must fight is not some mystical 200 year “cycle” of decadence that has no known examples from history to back it up!

Rather, the truly ubiquitous pattern that has proved ruinous to human civilization is the very one that spoilt 99% of other societies, leading small clades of delusional lords to evade criticism and to rule by owner-right, making endless errors of statecraft that we now call “history.” (And no, I don’t prefer idiotic socialism! What I’ll fight for is our pragmatic, wide-open renaissance.)

Those who keep repeating the Tytler Calumny seem eager to deride our Great Experiment, chopping away at its ankles, at its morale, implying that democracy is inherently doomed, and that we must return to the pattern that ruled other human cultures.  A pattern with a far worse, mostly vapid and stupid track record of misgovernment.

Whose tune are they parroting, when these fools demean democracy and extoll aristocracy? The lyrics come from Fox News, co-owned by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch and a couple of coal baron pals and by the Sa’udi Royal House.

Huh.  Some coincidence. Lords preaching the inevitability of a return to lordship. The biggest reason not to heed them is that they clearly are too dumb to suss out where this leads.

Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé…

—-David Brin


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Gingrich, Asimov, and The Computer-Trading Monster!

Both Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Nobel prize winning Keynsian economist Paul Krugman have a trait in common.  They grew up fervent science fiction fans, especially transfixed by the future-historical speculations of Isaac Asimov.  Gingrich wrote about this influence that helped to shape his life.

“While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways….For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the ‘psychohistorian’ Hari Seldon.  The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations.  The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior.  Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.”

Here’s an interesting essay comparing Gingrich’s obsession with Isaac’s Asimov’s compelling sci fi memes. Writes Ray Smock: “Edward Gibbon saw the decline of Rome, Hari Seldon saw the decline of the galactic empire, and Newt Gingrich saw the decline of America.” Further, Newt was attracted to the idea of one man shaping the destiny of an entire civilization. Smock adds, “History and fiction seem more exciting when there is decline.  This gives heroes, visionaries, demagogues, and politicians something to fix.”

As the similarly obsessed author of Foundation’s Triumph, who tied many of Isaac’s loose ends, I’d have a thing or two to say to Newt! Could be an interesting intellectual tussle.

Still, this aspect to his background speaks well for him. Ten points.  Out of….

== Why a Transaction Fee Might Save Us From The Terminator! ==

Here’s a vital issue under discussion (at last) on both sides of the Atlantic.  Governments, both rich and poor, urgently need two things: a way to calm speculation in the financial markets and also new ways to raise revenue. In late September 2011, the European Commission proposed a tax or fee on financial transactions. This appears to be part of the newly announced European Union plan, with Britain the sole dissenter.

“A levy of just 0.1 percent — or even just 0.05 percent — levied on each stock, bond, derivative or currency transaction would be aimed at financial institutions’ casino-style trading, which helped precipitate the economic crisis. Because these markets are so vast, the fee could raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year – from the sector of the economy that made towering profits while being directly responsible for our present depression, ” writes Philippe Doust-Blazey in the New York Times.

Read the article.  But note that it does not mention the top reason for such a tax!  That it might benefit real human investors by slowing finance and equity trading back down to the speed of human thought.

TransactionFeeTerminateWould that necessarily be a good thing? The concocted rationalization you will hear, in opposition to this proposal, is called “market efficiency.” According to what’s become a bona fide cult, any process or innovation that allows ever-smaller increments of trade to happen ever-faster is “efficiency,” and that will automatically lead to better allocation of society’s capital, and thus a skyrocketing economy.

This is wrong in many ways, starting with the pure fact that the flourishing of fast-cybernetic trading has directly correlated with the steepest decline in the health of capital markets in a century.

But absolute refutation comes from a different direction. From Physics, biology and thermodynamics.

== Computers and markets emulate life ==

Living creatures thrive by finding a steep gradient of usable energy. Green plants utilize the fact that incoming sunlight is thermodynamically clean and much less entropic than the surrounding environment.  (Greenhouse retention of Earth’s infrared radiation is thus intrinsically entropic.)

Some of this gradient is used by the plant to grow and reproduce, or else gets stored away, while some is lost as transaction cost.

Animals in turn consume plants for that stored useful energy, investing the time and effort to bite and chew and digest in order to benefit from some of the remaining gradient. Predators then pounce and bite and digest in the next stage. There are always losses with each transaction, hence the number of predators who can be supported at each scale gets smaller and smaller.

Along the way, each plant, herbivore and carnivore has parasites, intestinal worms and bacteria, etc., that grab some of that stored energy along the way. If they grab too much, the animal can’t get a steep enough or plentiful enough energy gradient and it dies.

Can you see it yet?  Beyond a certain level, increasing the total number of transactions does not make living systems more efficient.  It flattens all energy gradients and makes life unhealthy… even dead.

Returning to capitalism… yes, the existence of a stock market does create a habitat-ecology for living companies to compete, to form alliances, to prey on each other, to seek out the capital they need in order to grow.  Stock markets are vastly over-rated in the latter category, since the companies themselves benefit very little from wild swings in share price, except when offering NEW shares. (There should be substantial difference in the capital gains tax for new shares than for gains in the simple trading of old shares, an activity that only helps capitalism at very low efficiency.)

Still, you get synergies.  When a human investor looks at a company’s new product and bets “this new gizmo or service is gonna go big!” and orders 1000 shares on E-Trade, at low commission, then there’s a good chance that capital will flow to a place that can benefit and utilize it, all motivated by the hope of a nice profit “meal.”

Those pushing computerized trading… programs that dive in and pounce on any detected market trend, making millions of automatic trades, detecting or anticipating the decisions of human traders… these folks tout “efficiency.” But which efficiency?  For whom?

(Indeed, a whole new transatlantic fiber cable is being laid, just to enable a few brokerage firms to gain a couple milliseconds advantage; they’ll make billions. Do you see how that helps our market economy? I can’t.)

Want the exact parallel in nature for these systems? It is those gut parasites or e-coli or salmonella, or Typhus, who nibble away the gradient of potential profit that the human trader perceives, between the current asking price and what he or she feels the stock may soon be worth.  These programs can now detect people getting ready to buy a stock they like, and pounce to snap it up first, then offering it to you at just a little higher price. You lose a bit of that gradient, because someone – a program – who did none of your research simply pounced faster than you ever, possibly could.

Yes, there is a life- analog, but it is not the Lion King’s Circle of Life.  It is the core logic of parasitism. If you ever read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, these are the perfect passengers aboard the Golgafrincham B-Ark.

We need a small Transaction Fee not only because it will bring in revenue from the sector of the economy that made huge bonuses while wrecking our economy, restoring an emphasis on those providing new, competitively innovative goods and services.

The bigger reason is that human investors won’t care about – or even be aware of – a 0.1% trade fee.

But those computerized parasitical systems will howl in agony!  Thus, it will give you  a better chance to gain from your own savvy and insight, when you log into your E-Trade account.

== The Real Reason to Worry ==

So, what does all of this have to do with The Terminator?

Well, if you’ll recall the by-now cliched premise of that film – it supposes that (sometime in the future) the U.S. military would develope a super computer/program/system called “Skynet” that  gradually becomes self-aware through a process that theoreticians call “emergence from complexity.” This is actually taken very seriously by deep thinkers about artificial Intelligence. Indeed, our first encounter with AI may come exactly that way… by surprise.

Only… supposing that this malevolent AI comes from a military source is pure Hollywood.  Such systems are built with high priority to systematic reporting, accountability, multiple redundancies, fail-safes and obedience to chain of command.  No, there are other complex computer systems that seem far more likely to suddenly become self-aware in powerfully dangerous ways.

Take those high-speed trading systems we’ve been discussing. They are growing incredibly sophisticated, at a very rapid rate, absorbing and incorporating models of human psychology, with one goal in mind. To appraise and predict behavior patterns in order for the program to track and to pounce on opportunities for predatory trading.  Competitive ferocity is the only criterion for success. Indeed, if you were to even propose inserting balancing factors like ethics or morality or accountability into such a project, you’d at-minimum be laughed down and probably fired.

Moreover, these systems are receiving billions in funding (including their own new transatlantic fiber cable) entirely in secret.  There are no public agencies involved. No third party observers. No Congressional oversight committees.  No supervision whatsoever. Laboratories developing new genetic strains of wheat are under closer accountability than cryptic Wall Street think tanks that may unleash the first fully autonomous AI… programmed deliberately to have only the behavior patterns, goals, attitudes and morality of parasites.

And so we see the ultimate reason to demand the Transaction Fee. At a low level – say 0.1% – it would never bother a private citizen who is optimizing his portfolio on E-Trade. But it would remove the horrific incentives that Wall Street “geniuses” now feel compelled by, to invest in these monstrous, hyper-fast trading programs. The fee can be tuned to give that human a fighting chance and to discourage the very worst kind of artificial intelligence from leaping upon our necks out of the dark.


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Isaac Asimov and Human Destiny

Ever notice how many futuristic authors toy, now and then, with the concept of a global overmind? Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov both did… and my reply to them, a more subtle and diversity-based version, appeared in EARTH.

Now, have a look at The Living Earth Simulator, or the LES project, which aims to simulate everything taking place on planet Earth, both environmental factors and human influences — integrating real-time data feeds  to model global environment, pollution, population,  as well as financial and political shifts and the spread of infectious diseases.

And who dealt with the scale of human destiny better than the great Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series?  Elsewhere I’ve said about him: “Asimov served wondrous meals-of-the-mind to a civilization that was starved for clear thinking about the future. To this day, his visions spice our ongoing dinner-table conversation about human destiny.”

My own novel FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH tied up nearly all of Isaac’s loose ends – with enthusiastic approval of Isaac’s heirs. (Read a sample.) In the afterword, I describe how Isaac would always see the flaw in his most-recent Foundation “solution” and inch along, decade-by-decade to new solutions.

What were his stages?

First, writing for John W. Campbell’s ASTOUNDING in the 1940s, he came up with the lovely conceit that, in large enough numbers to swamp the effects of individuals, human societies can be modeled as if individuals were like gas molecules!  Appealing to Asimov the biochemist… and inspiring many readers to go into fields like economics.  For example Paul Krugman.  (In all honesty, the dream goes farther back, though Karl Marx was no Hari Seldon!)

Then Isaac got a lot of mail.  People had an inkling of something like what would become Chaos Theory – that random fluctuations or exceptions would perturb events until all projections become useless. Isaac’s solution in his galactic universe? Perturbations must be corrected by an elite council or knowing meddlers, the Second Foundation.  Meddlers who soon gain access to psychic powers that they can breed into their gene lines, enabling them to meddle better and keep the Plan on track. Phew! Promlem solved.

Only then: he that realized his Second Foundation will become an inherited human aristocracy! Agh! Loyal to the Enlightenment, he knew how awful oligarchies were, in the past (and today.) So, the next decade, Isaac replaced or subsumed the human meddlers with a deeper layer of controlers who would be like… court eunuchs. Robots who cannot breed and hence could not become a human lordly class. (Aside. His empire was always more Chinese than Roman.) Sounds good?

Only, next decade, Isaac realizes…OMG! I’ve reversed power! The “servants” are now few, all-knowing, all-powerful and the human masters are as numerous and cheap as sand. Agh. So he finds a way for the masters to become mighty again.

His solution? An overmind made up of trillions of human brains, called Gaia-Galaxia! Okay then! Only then he realizes….

See? I had to continue his ongoing cycle of re-evaluation until… well… read FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH and see how it actually all comes together is a fascinating pattern that winds up turning in… a… circle!

Which brings us to… Adam Smith…
I wrote a lot about this fellow, who liberals should rediscover and embrace, in order to free him from the right wingers and libertarians who always, always always misquote and betray him.  Well, OpenSalon dumped my work, so let me just offer a few quotations and a link to Blogging Adam Smith. Or actually read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a book that any politically-minded person should read, top to bottom.

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” That could be a slogan for liberalism.

Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people whose industry a part, though a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation.”
The whole tenor of this passage would, or should, outrage an Ayn Rand. Smith certainly didn’t take the view that the important agents of capitalism were CEOs or even inventors.

The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked… sell their commodities much above the natural price… The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken….”
Maybe it’s the libertarians who need to read Smith; I’ve heard them denying that monopolies exist, or that they raise prices.

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters [cartels]; though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour….” Another passage skipped over by the libertarians.

==More about the Economy: Past, Present and Future

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