Fun as it is to imagine a worker takeover of the industry-leading (and most infuriating) ride-hailing app company, for a host of reasons, it’s a pipe dream that misses the forest for the trees.
The number one way in which humans contribute to global warming is not mentioned in Showtime’s groundbreaking “Years of Living Dangerously”. Not even when repeatedly highlighting the impacts of climate change on the very industry and way of life causing the lion’s share of warming.
Two more financial elites join the ranks of those rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic that is capitalism. Watch in awe as they execsplain how capitalists can save their beloved system from itself, and the world along with it, but only in order to save itself.
Innovation leads to automation of more complex work, threatening higher-paid jobs more than the traditionally automated rote tasks. Unless you can outthink computers, the robots are coming for you, and the onus will be on you to demonstrate your value.
Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff exhibits a remarkable ability to see what’s wrong with capitalism and markets, while simultaneously astounding with his capacity to not consider these problems to be fundamental deal breakers.
I’m posting this partly because it’s hilarious and partly because I just found out that E-Trade abused YouTube’s copyright complaint policy
to try to get this parody taken down. (See below.) So now I feel it’s my obligation as a free thinker to highlight how particularly awful E-Trade is (that is, above and beyond the fact of their normal business that made them deserving of this spoof in the first place).
Open-source development is bound to be a growing factor for change as it demonstrates in more and more areas just how profoundly bad the ownership of innovative ideas has been for the common good. If you haven’t noticed that idea reaching out of our computers and into our 3D world, you’re in for a treat.
I just finished reading some mildly curious thoughts from radical sociologist Saskia Sassen (via The New Significance). In addition to being painfully abstract if not esoteric in her presentation, Sassen’s quirky approach to an idea titled “Open Source Urbanism” was entirely unsatisfying, except that it caused a stream of ideas to flow in my tiny brain.
It’s not at all clear that Sassen really understands the concept of open source, or that she bothered doing a Google search using the terms in the title of her commentary. We need to start with a better articulation of what open source means.
Open source is rejection of private intellectual property, at least in the conventional sense. If it’s open source, anyone can see, use, and even copy bit for bit the inner makings of the project under a highly permissive license.
In addition to this, what most of us think of as open source (in spirit if not technically) is a development model by which contributions are relatively democratic and assessed for utility and merit over profitability or their potential to concentrate authorship or credit. Virtually anyone can participate, and contributions that succeed in improving the project will be incorporated into the final product; otherwise, they could inspire a spin off, or maybe fall by the wayside.
Sassen is not the first to come up with the idea of applying this development attitude to our cities. I first learned of it a couple years ago when entrepreneur Mark Groton made a splash in a Wired feature story on his open source urban planning projects. While heavily software-oriented, we’re talking about mass transit and conventional urban planning functionality done using open standards and semi-proprietary code bases. (Basically, the stuff is packaged, installed, and supported by a company at a fee, but the underlying code is open and usable by anyone.) In theory, no longer must small- and medium-sized municipalities either hire contractors to custom-develop planning systems from scratch or pay for big-money packages just to have tools comparable to those the big cities enjoy.
Beyond software, how else would open source concepts be relevant to city planning? I think it would be more in the form of open source architecture or open design, which is to me by far the most exciting new branch of the open source movement. I’m talking about people who may or may not work in a municipal office contributing concrete planning work — blue prints, research and assessment efforts, policy drafts, functional technologies — and just handing their ideas over to the public. The idea of this happening would have sounded insane 20 years ago, but now we see people with talent and expertise making patent- and copyright-free contributions of all sorts to the public good.
Remember, a key attribute of open source is that it can be freely copied by another project, as long as it is always kept open. So I can view the code behind a piece of open-source software, without ever having lent a single minute of my time or ounce of my expertise to that project, and simply copy and paste all that code into a new folder and start building my own version. I just can’t claim the part I borrowed as my own creation or try to prevent someone from borrowing it or try to profit off that portion. (I modified the theme of this very blog by hacking the open source code base!)
Cities do this all the time, quite consciously. So do nations for that matter. They meet at conventions or send direct delegations and share their successes on nearly every front, from dealing with crime to delivering water to acquiring revenues, and they encourage their peers to copy them, without asking for money or even credit in return. It’s not a revolutionary idea at all; it’s simply how we relate when cooperation trumps competition.
But cities are not entirely unlike the corporate world, especially when private contractors are involved. They pay for consultations that might have generalizable applications, but either they or the contractor might consider the results proprietary, forcing every city that wants a similar assessment to start at the drawing board with a consultant. There is room for more openness.
Another matter is labor: those who best know how to innovate and automate aspects of municipal functionality are perversely incentivized to withhold their ideas for fear of ironically innovating their way to a layoff. In these times of austerity and hostility toward labor, even unionized municipal workers are barely more protected from this perversion than unorganized private-sector counterparts. This is a big part of the problem with productivity gains not being generalizable.
Even where openness and idea sharing are commonplace, the approach of an explicitly “open source” process for urban planning might be a positive shift. If at every stage of development, any urban initiative (or rural initiative, for that matter) were treated as open — handled with the understanding it would be kept transparent and shared freely, as well as welcoming public participation in managed ways — we could see new approaches to everything from after-school programs to traffic coordination to emergency services to zoning to local currencies*. City planners of all types could benefit from the technical approach honed by open source software developers with their version planning, communication methods, beta testing models, code repositories, and so forth.
As long as I’m brainstorming, I should note the most exciting potential for open source city organizing is in grassroots form. Above I’ve implied city officials taking advantage of the open approach, but the real beauty of this is something that Sassen did indeed seem to be trying to get at in her commentary: let residents engage in hacking their city through organizing movements that take advantage of ideas coming out of the grassroots, either locally or from another town somewhere, then push for implementation or engage in direct action.
Imagine open-source technologies like 3D printers and open-license designs giving neighborhood activists the technical power to build and install their own traffic light or construct expertly designed playground equipment without contractors. The possibilities are endless. It’s the kind of hyper-localized empowerment (not in any figurative sense, either) that communities can use to thrive during crises.
If you find this stuff interesting, you may dig…
- The Open Source Ecology project is one of the most fascinating undertakings you’re likely to come across. These guys are pushing (and beginning to practice!) open design on a grand, social scale with ambitious intentions. Take some time to check it out — the promise here cannot be overstated. Watch their video here if you want to have your eyes pop out of your head. (You will also marvel at how utterly shitty the background noise is, but I swear it’s still worth the viewing.)
- The Open Plans Project is rife with interesting ideas that, properly applied, could have radical implications; I think they’d need to be tied to the kind of social movement that can best take advantage of them.
- This short interview is decidedly un-radical but it’s kind of inspiring nonetheless.
- Finally, Open Source Urbanism is something I found in that Google search for the title of Sassen’s article, though I haven’t looked into it very deeply.
With apologies for the disjointed entry, I hope I got some of the salivary glands in your brain working like they are in mine.
*Incidentally, all sorts of community-based alternative economies have traditionally considered openness of design key to their functioning and development, be it an enhanced barter system or a local currency like Ithaca Hours; leaders and advocates of these projects tend to strongly encourage customized implementations of their ideas, which they’ll eagerly share for the price of a cup of coffee.
Image credit: opensource.com
You know this can’t be good, no matter how it’s spun…
The development of deadly hardware and software is leading to a democratization of war tech, which could soon mean that every army — private or national — has battalions of automated soliders at their command. […]
First comes the high-tech arms race with China, Israel and all the other nations competing to build their own drones. Then comes the low-cost trickledown into low-tech wars like Libya’s, where tomorrow’s rag-tag militias fight with DIY drones. Finally, if robots are simply computers with wings (and missiles), then expect to see future wars fought by the descendants of flash-trading algorithms, with humans as anxious bystanders.
Hmmm, why do I think humans as bystanders means humans as victims?
It’s that time again, when market apologists rush to wax insightful by noting that politics, not weather, causes famine. With the current uber-crisis in crisis-bound Somalia making small-print headlines, the marketiers will start tripping over themselves to seem smarter than people who superficially believe climate-based bad luck is the cause of hunger in Eastern Africa. They’ll do this by ignoring economics and focusing on government actions. And they’ll be partly right, of course, which is all that’s required to get a good pat on the back from anyone desperate not to acknowledge that “the market” has failed the destitute at least as much as their own and world political leaders have.
Case in point, a recent commentary by Richard Dowden called “Famine in Somalia: It’s the Politics… Stupid“. (One can’t help but think Dowden’s title is overstepping in its heavy-of-hand attempt to distract the reader from that other, less-palatable culprit.) Check out how insightful this sounds:
Drought can cause food shortages and price rises. But drought does not automatically mean famine. Famine is cause by politics – when war or governments prevent people moving or trading.
Nothing wrong with that statement, except failure to note the elephant in the room. Hmmm, what else could cause famine? Maybe extreme poverty, high food and general commodity prices globally, combined with the world’s reliance on markets to move goods even where movement and trade are not blocked by political forces. If political openness and local security do not guarantee a population the very basics for sustaining life, what is the failing force then? Dowden doesn’t answer this. Few ever do. Markets are treated as a fact of life, a given, not unlike the weather. So thoughtful observers hunt for causes that aren’t inevitabilities, as if we humans do not determine our economic models much the way we determine our politics (i.e., we let power elites decide).
Affluence and wealth are like magnets in terms of allocating necessities — regions and classes with greater demand power will see their excess wants prioritized over the bare basics needed in impoverished regions or by the destitute class. It isn’t really famine but the core impacts of famine we need to be concerned with; if we do, we see that famine is more a class phenomenon than a regional one. Politics somehow haven’t kept the wealthiest in famine-stricken regions from getting food. If you have the purchasing power, famine’s effects on you are very different than if you lack it. That being the case, how can we not note that the rules of the global market are the driving force of famine’s worst impacts?
Furthermore, where we see politics having the greatest impact on food insecurity in developing nations, it’s often if not usually due to economic policy that favors free markets. Where markets are freed up and stabilizing regulations or safety nets are removed, we see spikes in local food scarcity and human despair. Liberalized markets often even lead to countries exporting food during acute and chronic domestic shortages; international demand has that much perverse power! These policies are typically at the political behest of international bodies that operate under market ideologies for the benefit of international private interests.
This all applies to Somalia, which has spent 20 years in chaos following IMF intervention.
Non-fundamentalist market apologists will say this is all still the fault of government. If only governments would behave appropriately to control market forces, we wouldn’t see such perverse outcomes. It’s always the fault of politicians, and politicians are seemingly never able to curb markets appropriately in the developing world. What a coincidence. It can’t be the positive feedback loop of concentrated wealth has on politics, can it? This is inherent to market capitalist societies at all levels, which makes it the fault of capitalism, whether you like to admit it or not.
But it’s more in vogue to blame local governments, and of course Somalia’s excuse for a polity is an easy target here, what with the UN/AU-backed provisional government all but dead and the Al-Shabaab sideshow ineffectively running most of the South.
Why am I blogging about this on FuturEconomy? Because these same forces are at play here in North America. Austerity measures and deregulation are the watchword of Washington, and wealth disparities are a fact of life. Don’t think famine can’t happen here; it can, and it will, as long as we rely on an economic model that allocates necessities on a priority basis to those who don’t need them.
Not to mention the externalities (air pollution, ground water pollution, ocean pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.).
Or, consider the opportunity costs. What could we be making instead? Perhaps a product that does not have a superior substitute that is already in abundance if not massive surplus (you know, metal silverware).
Or, what would be the net leisure impact of not making disposable plasticware and freeing up all those work hours and resources? I know, you say you don’t work in the disposable utensils industry, so how would there be a net gain for you? And if you did work at a plastic spoon factory, you wouldn’t want the kind of leisure time associated with being laid off. And what about waste reduction — don’t I care about sanitation workers losing their jobs if we dispose of less shit?
And therein lies a key problem with capitalism: instead of socializing the opportunities of decreased consumption, it turns them into liabilities and institutionalizes excess and waste.
You aren’t an idiot, so you’ve long known many of the impacts of climate change are inevitable at this point. Some are already occurring. You get that. The trajectory is in place, and unless we change it sharply, we’re going to see worse and worse conditions.
But what if financial markets have embedded the trajectory to a great extent by all but guaranteeing dependence on fossil fuels? A new report (PDF) raising fear of a bubble in the fossil fuels market inadvertently suggests this trajectory is precisely what’s underway, although its authors don’t seem particularly concerned about the threat to our habitat. The deck has been stacked; there’s a carbon commitment in place, if you will.
I found the report through a blog entry by Lydia Prieg over at NEF. She summarizes some key points for those of us more interested in humanity and the planet than investors:
This research offered a fresh perspective on investment and tackling climate change, by noting that more fossil fuel reserves are currently listed on stock exchanges than can be burnt if we are to avoid breaching the 2 °C global temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels), beyond which it is believed that climate change will be irreversible. For example, the CTI notes that:
- “global markets are currently treating as assets [carbon] reserves equivalent to nearly 5 times the carbon budget for the next 40 years.”
- “the CO2 potential of the reserves listed in London alone account for 18.7% of the remaining global carbon budget.”
- “If the 2 °C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80% of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment”
Note that the +2°C point is way too high. We want to aim for +1° beyond pre-industrial levels by Century’s end, fully conceding we’ll spend most of the next hundred years cooking well above +1°. (And the prospects for even +2° are more than a little grim.)
Like Prieg’s, my take on this is different from that of the report’s authors. They seem concerned for fossil fuel investors, which is probably their mission. But I’m more worried about the rest of us. If the world’s governments get serious about curbing carbon emissions, it’s unlikely they’ll leave speculators holding the bag. Whoever is holding a hot potato (oil field) if and when steep regulations kick in could get bailed out.
Even if the influence of those invested in dirty energy were to fail in some way, they’d almost certainly succeed in protecting their existing investments in the trade-off. Which in turn means burning that fuel or transferring the burden onto the consumer/citizen, who is of course relatively unprotected by government.
Anyway, as Prieg notes, the industry isn’t particularly worried about the prospect of harsh emissions limits being imposed on fossil fuel reserves already on the market, wagering either that curbs are not impending or that the price spike they’d cause would benefit contract holders.
But Prieg’s personal insights are most important:
Both these arguments, however, demonstrate the lack of interest investment managers have about the role that they themselves may be playing in bringing about irreversible climate change. Apparently, when one is focused on optimizing an investment portfolio’s performance, concerns regarding the state of the planet just don’t feature on the agenda.
Image credit: Carbon Tracker Initiative
I don’t plan to spend a lot of time on this blog writing about acute economic scenarios like our likely double-dip Great Recession, as I have my eyes a good bit further down the road. But I’ve been seeing a lot lately about us being on the verge of that second dip. I don’t do analysis on this level, but I do pay attention to it, so I thought I’d share some. The stock market is beginning to bet on that second dip, which of course doesn’t help us avert one (if that’s remotely possible).
For a light listen, NPR is on the ball with “Double Dip: Is the U.S. Headed for Another Recession”.
So how much does this matter? This report from the Economic Policy Institute suggests the mere slow recovery is having a measurably negative impact:
[T]he last six months have seen an average growth rate of less than 1%, a rate of growth that fully explains why the previously declining unemployment rate reversed course in the past six months.
So imagine what another downturn would do.
For a slightly headier review of the prospects, check out Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff’s analysis. He notes:
But the real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged, and there is no quick escape without a scheme to transfer wealth from creditors to debtors, either through defaults, financial repression, or inflation.
Which of those sounds most enticing? (I know my choice, if I can’t have none of the above.)
No wonder the stock market shuddered on Monday, notwithstanding all the “good news” about the debt deal. The performance of the real economy was far more important and “real” than all the huff and puff about debt ceilings and defaults by the US government. The alleged “good news” of the debt agreement was overwhelmed by the undisputable “real news” that the real economy was heading for a relapse.
I made this movie to express my frustration with where we’re headed. It’s not particularly informative, but I hope it’s a funny way to make people think about how untenable our economic system is.