Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Extended Economic Distortion and a review of what it was like living in America during WWII

In a May 2, 2020, post here the term "" was first introduced:

    In this writer's opinion, too many pundits talk about the economic situation in terms of a recession or even a depression. The problem is mankind has never before seen an economy like the economy of the first two decades of the 21st Century. So we have never seen a reaction to a radical pandemic-based shift during such an economy.
    “It is impossible to overstate the pain that people are feeling now and will continue to feel for years to come,” [Bill] Gates warns us.
    The reaction is likely to lead to an Extended Economic Distortion, not a "great" recession or depression. Mistrust, a general sense of unease, is likely to be felt by most people. And the real meaning of "people" in this context is "consumers" whose spending drives the worldwide "consumer economy" which in the United States represents about 70% of economic activity.

Beginning with that post two years ago, 14 posts here have included some discussion of the Extended Economic Distortion.  Now in its second month, the Russia-Ukraine war has added a different twist. While American fuel costs rise, the headline at CNBC on April 1 was Millions of Brits plunged into fuel poverty on Friday as household energy bills surge and the April 21 Guardian offers People are struggling to pay their energy bills – here’s a simple idea that could help. Simply European nations are being clobbered because of the ties to Russian oil.

The folks at Bloomberg have already told us:

    A barrage of shocks is building that’s unlike anything emerging markets have had to confront since the 1990s, when a series of rolling crises sank economies and toppled governments.
    Turmoil triggered by rising food and energy prices is already gripping countries like Sri Lanka, Egypt, Tunisia and Peru. It risks turning into a broader debt debacle and yet another threat to the world economy’s fragile recovery from the pandemic.

The difficulty in dealing with the situation of Ukraine ties back to the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005 in Ukraine and was followed in the next decade by Euromaidan, Revolution of Dignity, and the War in Donbas. But Americans know all about this, so no links are needed. (Yeah, right.)

At the beginning of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war, the head of the World Bank David Malpass said the economic impact of the war stretches beyond Ukraine's borders, and the rises in global energy prices in particular "hit the poor the most, as does inflation". He noted food prices have also been pushed up by the war, and "are a very real consideration and problem for people in poor countries".

Many Americans are eager to aid the Ukraine people even to the point of joining the war against Russia. The fact is black folks have been killing each other for decades in places like Sudan and Ethiopia and all the efforts of George Clooney in the Sudan haven't stirred the American people and their government anything like the Ukraine situation where white folks have been killing white folks for less than two months.

So before we go to war - perhaps against Russia and China - let's pretend that a nuclear war wouldn't be a likely outcome and instead we'd just have to prepare for a war similar to WWII. Here are just a few of the things that were required of Americans then:

  1. Over a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on September 16, 1940, the United States instituted the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 and thereafter inducted 10.1 million men into an armed force of approximately 15 million who fought WWII, of whom 405,399 were killed.
  2. Unlike in WWII, where 27 million Russians died and 10.2 million Chinese died, both civilian and military, the United States experienced no warfare on its mainland.
  3. The U.S government ended all civilian automobile sales on January 1, 1942,  typewriters in March, and bicycles in May. In addition  gasoline, shoes, rubber footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortening, food oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood, coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter were rationed, among other things.
  4. Civilian hospitals received only small amounts of penicillin during the war, because it was not mass-produced for civilian use until after the war. A triage panel at each hospital decided which patients would receive the penicillin.
  5. Officials in American coastal cities were well aware of their vulnerability to air attacks and began ordering practice blackouts long before the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor. On March 8, 1941, Seattle became the first major American city to test its blackout procedures. This expanded across America. There were blackout drills that forced people to practice their response to the air-raid alarm signal—a series of intermittent siren blasts. Air-raid wardens supervised the blackout drills, cruising up and down neighborhood streets to make sure no light escaped the houses. By early 1943, there were about 6 million volunteers in public protection roles such as air-raid warden.

Of course, if a nuclear war with both Russia and China occurs, few, if any, Americans would be alive to put up with these inconveniences.

In the meantime, the U.S. is already running out of resources to bail out our economy from the Extended Economic Distortion. So let's calm things down a bit and quit pretending that we have the military capability to beat Russia on their own turf. The last idiots who thought that were the Germans in WWII. Ukrainians are hoping for a stalemate.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

This article caused me an "Oh crap" moment after 40 years worrying about advocating computer tech; Elon Musk's Twitter offer magnifies the anguish

I had just placed in perspective my worries after reading the above article a few days ago when Elon Musk's offer to buy Twitter made the headlines. Today at the livestreamed TED 2022: A New Era conference Musk explained that he hopes to “open source the algorithm” to try and improve trust in the platform.

“Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it is just really important that people have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” Musk noted.

He added: “This is not a way to make money, my strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization, I don’t care about the economics at all.”

It is unclear what Musk thinks "the bounds of the law" are when free speech is the issue. But one thing is certain - Musk feels no constraints and given his economic resources has no constraints. 

Much of the world's population is constrained and feels frustration and anger regarding the constraints. Technology has evolved to the point that the one thing that has become nearly totally unconstrained is the ability of that population to express that frustration and anger to literally everyone else, instantly, to amplify that frustration and anger.

As a member of the "Silent Generation" I feel troubled by even the small, but active role I played in my early unconstrained embrace of computer technology evolution.

In December 1980 my wife and I started a business providing computer services, computerization studies and computer sales to businesses and government.

We were using Tandy Model II's, adding Model 100's (both of which would be considered primitive today), writing and rewriting software. These were early commercially successful computers offered by Radio Shack. By early, I mean they were preceded by the Model I, and the Model 100 was a laptop, maybe the first commercially successful true laptop.

From the beginning we noticed that - contrary to the propaganda - we were generating more paper than ever, not reducing the paper load as was one of the early arguments for computer use. 

But we forged ahead with a future of using computers, though still troubled by the symbol of a lot of results not quite like we anticipated - printouts piling up in and on filing cabinets, desks, etc., which now are huge files stored in the clouds - to what end is unclear.

By the late 1990's we were using Motorola second generation handheld mobile phones. Understand that these were phones, just using radio frequencies to connect to other folks using their wired phones in their businesses and homes, though we could talk to each other and to a few others directly via those radio frequencies.

In the mid-2000's we observed another troubling phenomenon. We had a grandchild that never lived a life that did not include watching screens - TV screens of course, but tablet-shaped toys with screens, and then computers and cell phones with screens which came to be referred to as "devices."

We worried about this, but couldn't quite pin down the broad societal "why" of that worry.

As we all now know, the most socially significant result of this technological evolution is today's social media, as explained in the article linked to the image above:

    Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009.

It is a long, well-written article that offers a warning about the future:

    ...The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
    It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.
    The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. Many authors quote his comments in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward “faction,” by which he meant our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with “mutual animosity” that they are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
    But that essay continues on to a less quoted yet equally important insight, about democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
    Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous....

Today we understand that worry we had, the "why" that troubled.

As early as 1996 the widening use of mobile phones in law enforcement caused one writer to note that "all these covert horizontal exchanges are potential breeding grounds for autonomous subgroups and informal organization as well as for various kinds of deviant behavior, because the participants can easily agree to attenuate or circumvent prescribed rulings."

At that time the mobile phone was still only a means of voice communications, not the primary visual and audio access to interact with the world for the vast majority of individuals. And it needs to be understood that the current level of interaction is without societal constraint.

Exactly how this means to create a nearly instantaneous "twitchy and explosive spread of anger" could be constrained in a democratic society fully committed to unconstrained communications is difficult to imagine. 

But it will be critical to the survival of democratic forms of government to deal with the shift of the concept of "free speech" from an environment of the "founding fathers" time that essentially limited communications between individuals to those physically present in a common space to a reality that almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world, at any time can communicate speech and images privately to anyone anywhere else in the world.

As I am very old and will not see the outcome of this, I can only hope that younger people such as Jonathan Haidt, the author of the article can guide a process towards an outcome consistent with the beliefs of James Madison. Otherwise the Chinese have a better chance of maintaining their society than we do ours.