Saturday, April 26, 2014

Salmon, Picketty, Corporate Persons, Eco-Econ, and why we shouldn't worry

I haven’t read Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’ll skim it in the library some day, but I’m fine outsourcing that work to DeLong, Krugman and Noah.

I do have opinions of course! I’m good at having opinions.

I believe Picketty is fundamentally correct, and it’s good to see our focus shifting from income inequality to wealth inequality. I think there are many malign social and economic consequences of wealth accumulation, but the greatest threat is likely the damage to democracy. Alas, wealth concentration and corruption of government are self-reinforcing trends. It is wise to give the rich extra votes, lest they overthrow democracy entirely, but fatal to give them all the votes.

What I haven’t seen in the discussions so far is the understanding that the modern oligarch is not necessarily human. Corporations are persons too, and even the Kock Brothers are not quite as wealthy as APPL. Corporations and similar self-sustaining entities have an emergent will of their own; Voters, Corporations and Plutocrats contend for control of avowed democracies [1]. The Rise of the Machine is a pithy phrase for our RCIIT disrupted AI age, but the Corporate entity is a form of emergent machine too.

So when we think of wealth and income inequality, and the driving force of emergent process, we need to remember that while Russia’s oligarchs are (mostly vile) humans, ours are more mixed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing - GOOGL is a better master than David Koch. Consider, for example, the silencing of Felix Salmon:

Today is Felix's last day at Reuters. Here's the link to his mega-million word blog archive (start from the beginning, in March 2009, if you like). Because we're source-agnostic, you can also find some of his best stuff from the Reuters era at Wired, Slate, the Atlantic, News Genius, CJR, the NYT, and NY Mag. There's also Felix TV, his personal site, his Tumblr, his Medium archive, and, of course, the Twitter feed we all aspire to.

Once upon a time, a feudal Baron or Russian oligarch would have violently silenced an annoying critic like Salmon (example: Piketty - no exit). Today’s system simply found him a safe and silent home. I approve of this inhuman efficiency.

So what comes next? Salmon is right that our system of Human Plutocrats and emergent Corporate entities is more or less stable (think - stability of ancient Egypt). I think Krugman is wrong that establishment economics fully describes what’s happening [2]; we still need to develop eco-econ — which is notecological economics”. Eco-econ is the study of how economic systems recapitulate biological systems; and how economic parasites evolve and thrive [3]. Eco-econ will give us some ideas on how our current system may evolve.

In any event, I’m not entirely pessimistic. Complex adaptive systems have confounded my past predictions. Greece and the EU should have collapsed, but the center held [4]. In any case, there are bigger disruptions coming [5]. We won’t have to worry about Human plutocrats for very long….

See also

and from my stuff

- fn -

[1] I like that 2011 post and the graphic I did then. I’d put “plutocrats” in the upper right these days. The debt ceiling fight of 2011, showed that Corporations and Plutocrats could be smarter than Voters, and the rise of the Tea Party shows that Corporations can be smarter than Voters and Plutocrats. Corporations, and most Plutocrats, are more progressive on sexual orientation and tribal origin than Voters. Corporations have neither gender nor pigment, and they are all tribes of one.

I could write a separate post about why I can’t simply edit the above graphic, but even I find that tech failure too depressing to contemplate.

[2] I don’t think Krugman believes this himself - but he doesn’t yet know how to model his psychohistory framework. He’s still working on the robotics angle.

[3] I just made this up today, but I dimly recall reading that the basic premises of eco-econ have turned up in the literature many times since Darwin described natural selection in biological systems. These days, of course, we apply natural selection to the evolution of the multiverse. Applications to economics are relatively modest.

[4] Perhaps because Corporations and Plutocrats outweighed Voters again — probably better or for worse.

[5] Short version — we are now confident that life-compatible exoplanets are dirt common, so the combination of the Drake Equation (no, it’s not stupid) and the Fermi Paradox means that wandering/curious/communicative civilizations are short-lived. That implies we are short-lived, because we’re like that. The most likely thing to finish us off are our technological heirs.

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