Is the only sustainable growth 'degrowth'?

    This article by Noah Smith gave me pause for thought. There’s plenty of people talking about ‘degrowth’ at the moment and, I have to say, that I don’t know enough to have an opinion.

    It’s really easy to get swept up in what other people who broadly share your outlook on life are sharing and discussing. While I definitely agree that ‘growth at all costs’ is problematic, and that ‘green growth’ is probably a sticking plaster, I’m not sure that ‘degrowth’ (as far as I understand it) is the answer?

    Perhaps I need to do more reading. If it’s trying to measure things differently rather than just using GDP, then I’ve already written that I’m in favour. But just like calls to ‘abolish the police’ I’m not sure I can go fully along with that. Sorry.

    I don’t want to beat this point to death, but I think it’s important to emphasize how unpleasant and inhumane a degrowth future would look like. People in rich countries would be forced to accept much lower standards of living, while people in developing countries would have a far more meager future to look forward to. This situation would undoubtedly cause resentment, leading to a backlash against the leaders who had mandated mass poverty. After the overthrow of degrowth regimes, we’d see the pendulum swing entirely toward leaders who promised infinite resource consumption, at which point the environment would be worse off than before. And this is in addition to the fact that degrowth would make it more difficult to invest in green energy and other technologies that protect the environment.

    So while I think we do need to worry about the potential negative consequences of growth and try our best to ameliorate those harms, I think trying to impoverish ourselves to save the environment would be a catastrophic mistake, for both us and for the environment. This is not something any progressive ought to fight for.

    Source: Yes, it’s possible to imagine progressive dystopias | Noahpinion

    Happiness vs GDP

    Making the world a happier, fairer, safer place seems like an idea that most people can get behind. But how do you do it? Although there’s a relationship between average self-reported happiness of a population and increased GDP per capita, there are notable outliers.

    So, what to do? Focus on other numbers as well. This article talks about measuring ‘Wellbys’ or ‘well-being-life-adjusted-years’ which involves placing a lot more emphasis on subjective numbers.

    The trouble, as anyone who has visited a hospital in England will know, is that self-reported data while useful can be very problematic. For example, when I go into hospital, I know that they will ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1-10. Being a reasonably stoic kind of person, I used to keep that number low, which not only kept me at the back of the line for being seen, but meant they were less likely to give me painkillers.

    Guess what I’ve learned to do? Yep, game the system. People respond to incentives, so although trying to make single numbers go up and to the right might make life easier for those intervening in systems, it doesn’t make those interventions any more effective.

    Instead, I’d like to see the focus more on something like the Human Development Index (HDI) which, not only has been around for a while, but is a composite of statistics designed to increase human flourishing.

    Chart showing GDP per capita vs self-reported happiness
    As we’ve gathered more data on the happiness of different populations, it’s become clear that increasing wealth and health do not always go hand in hand with increasing happiness. By the economists’ objective measures, people in rich countries like the US should be doing great — and yet Americans are only becoming more miserable. And people in some higher-GDP European countries like Portugal and Italy report lower life satisfaction than people in lower-GDP Latin American countries.

    What’s going on here? How do we explain the gaps in life satisfaction that objective metrics like GDP don’t explain?

    Nowadays, a growing chorus of experts argues that helping people is ultimately about making them happier — not just wealthier or healthier — and the best way to find out how happy people are is to just ask them directly. This camp says we should focus a lot more on subjective well-being: how happy people are, or how satisfied they are with their lives, based on what they say matters most to them — not just based on objective metrics like GDP. Subjective well-being can tell us things that objective metrics can’t.

    […]

    Instead, [Michael} Plant [who leads the Happier Lives Institute] argues we should compare how much good different things do in a single “currency” — specifically, how many well-being-adjusted life years, or Wellbys, they produce. Producing one Wellby means increasing life satisfaction by one point (on the 0-10 life satisfaction scale) for one year. It’s a metric that some economists, including those behind the World Happiness Report, are coming to embrace. If we were to evaluate every policy in terms of how many Wellbys it produces, that would allow for direct apples-to-apples comparisons.

    “I’m pretty bullish about just using well-being as the [single] measure,” Plant told me.

    Source: Make people happier — not just wealthier and healthier | Vox

    Taxing land rather than labour

    I think I’ve always been somewhat of a Georgist, but perhaps didn’t know the name for it. The central tenet is that governments should be funded by a tax on land rather than labour.

    There’s also the idea that this tax would replace all other taxes, which I guess is kind of the mirror of Universal Basic Income replacing all other benefits. I’m happy to be convinced on that, but already sold on the land tax idea.

    Georgism, in some sense, is the idea that no one really owns land, but instead, you rent its exclusive use from everyone else through Land Value Taxes.

    […]

    If I claimed to own a 1-dimensional line that ran on the ground, and that you need to step over it, or that I owned a 6-inch cube floating off the ground, and you needed to duck under it, you’d rightly think I was insane.

    However, if I own a plot of land, i.e. a 2D space on the surface of the earth, it’s considered either insane (or tragically primitive) to not believe in this.

    (Yes, through air rights you own 3D space, but it generally has to be above 2D land, floating cubes still seem nonsensical).

    Source: Developing an intuition for Georgism | Atoms vs Bits

    Image: Gautier Pfeiffer

    The economics of blockchain-based gaming don't add up

    Blake Robbins, who used to work on game design at Roblox, has written an in-depth post on why blockchain-based gaming will never take off.

    TL;DR: not only is it likely to be a Ponzi scheme, it's just a really bad idea for basic economic reasons.

    The policy trilemma

    Narratives can be moulded, but unfortunately crypto gaming evangelists will not be able to change basic economics. The fact that the problem with the Mundell-Fleming trilemma and how crypto games fall on the wrong side of them from a pure game design perspective which ultimately prevent large developers from creating AAA games with open economies as well as ruining user experience is totally ignored by VCs who are funnelling absurd amounts of money into these projects makes me question if they actually believe in the narrative they’re pushing, or if they’re simply investing in token pre-sales and planning on dumping on unwitting retail bagholders.

    For the record, I’m not a crypto hater or anything... [h]owever, I just don’t see the application of decentralised blockchains in gaming, there isn’t a need. Putting games on the blockchain will just result in really slow servers as everything would constantly have to be verified by a decentralised database. No one gamer has ever said: “I don’t trust Rockstar to store my data correctly which is why I won’t buy GTA V”. Building games for the sole purpose of “play to earn” or “play to own” means that players are no longer playing games for enjoyment, but rather the hope that they can monetise their holdings. Inevitably, this means that the quality of game experience will drop, as developers focus solely on how to turn every single aspect of a game into an NFT which can be traded. Collectible trading should be complementary, like in Roblox or Counter-Strike , it should not be the whole purpose of a game. You might as well scrap the game altogether, and just focus on making NFT collections like Bored Apes or Cryptopunks. Recreating games to have a similiar culture will not work out.

    Source: Why crypto gaming is not the future | blakeir

    Saturday shiftings

    I think this is the latest I've published my weekly roundup of links. That's partly because of an epic family walk we did today, but also because of work, and because of the length and quality of the things I bookmarked to come back to...

    Enjoy!


    Graffiti in Hong Kong subway station (translation: “We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.”)

    FC97: Portal Economics

    Most of us are still trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that isn’t waiting for us on the other side. You can see this in the language journalists are still using. The coronavirus is a ‘strategic surprise’ and we’re still very much in the ‘fog of war,’ dealing with the equivalent of an ‘alien invasion’ or an ‘unexpected asteroid strike.’ As I said back in March though, this is not a natural disaster, like an earthquake, a one-off event from which we can rebuild. It’s not a war or a financial crisis either. There are deaths, but no combatants, no physical resources have been destroyed, and there was no initial market crash, although obviously the markets are now reacting.

    The crisis is of the entire system we’ve built. In another article, I described this as the bio-political straitjacket. We can’t reopen our economies, because if we do then more people will die. We can’t keep them closed either, because our entire way of life is built on growth, and without it, everything collapses. We can give up our civil liberties, submitting to more surveillance and control, but as Amartya Sen would say, what good is a society if the cost of our health and livelihoods is our hard fought for freedoms?

    Gus Hurvey (Future Crunch)

    This is an incredible read, and if you click through to anything this week to sit down and consume with your favourite beverage, I highly recommend this one.


    Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let's start with education

    There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a matter of emphasis more than content – of centralising what is most important. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education. As local authorities in Scotland point out, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its many benefits, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has been cut to almost nothing.

    George Monbiot (The Guardian)

    To some extent, this is Monbiot using a different stick to bang the same drum, but he certainly has a point about the most important things to be teaching our young people as their future begins to look a lot different to ours.


    The Machine Pauses

    In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.

    Stuart Whatley (The Hedgehog Review)

    No, I didn't know what a 'demiurge' was either. Apparently, it's "an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe".

    This article, which not only quote E.M. Forster, but also Heidegger and Nathaniel Hawthorne, discusses whether we really should be allowing technology to dictate the momentum of society.


    Party in a spreadsheet

    Party in a Shared Google Doc

    The party has no communal chat log. Whilst I can enable edit permissions for those with the party link, shared google docs don’t not allow for chat between anonymous animals. Instead conversations are typed in cells. There are too many animals to keep track of who is who. I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea if they are a close friend or a total stranger. How do you hold yourself and what do you say to someone when personal context is totally stripped away?

    Marie Foulston

    I love this so much.


    Being messy when everything is clean

    [T]o put it another way, people whose working lives can be mediated through technology — conducted from bedrooms and kitchen tables via Teams or Slack, email and video calls — are at much less risk. In fact, our laptops and smartphones might almost be said to be saving our lives. This is an unintended consequence of remote working, but it is certainly a new reality that needs to be confronted and understood.

    And many people who can work from a laptop are also less likely to lose their jobs than people who work in the service and hospitality industries, especially those who have well-developed professional networks and high social capital. According to The Economist, this group are having a much better lockdown than most — homeschooling notwithstanding. But then, they probably also had a more comfortable life beforehand.

    Rachel Coldicutt (Glimmers)

    This post, "a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world," is a really interesting look at the physicality of our increasingly-digital world and how the messiness of human life is being 'cleaned up' by technology.


    Remote work worsens inequality by mostly helping high-income earners

    Given its potential benefits, telecommuting is an attractive option to many. Studies have shown a substantial number of workers would even agree to a lower salary for a job that would allow them to work from home. The appeal of remote work can be especially strong during times of crisis, but also exists under more normal circumstances.

    The ongoing crisis therefore amplifies inequalities when it comes to financial and work-life balance benefits. If there’s a broader future adoption of telecommuting, a likely result of the current situation, that would still mean a large portion of the working population, many of them low-income workers, would be disadvantaged

    Georges A. Tanguay & Ugo Lachapelle (The Conversation)

    There's some interesting graphs included in this Canadian study of remote work. While I've written plenty about remote work before, I don't think I've really touched on how much it reinforces white, middle-class, male privilege.

    The BBC has an article entitled Why are some people better at working from home than others? which suggests that succeeding and/or flourishing in a remote work situation is down to the individual, rather than the context. The truth is, it's almost always easier to be a man in a work environement ⁠— remote, or otherwise. This is something we need to change.


    Unreal engine

    A first look at Unreal Engine 5

    We’ve just released a first look at Unreal Engine 5. One of our goals in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie CG and real life, and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.

    I remember showing my late grandmother FIFA 18 and her not being able to tell the difference between it and the football she watched regularly on the television.

    Even if you're not a gamer, you'll find this video incredible. It shows how, from early next year, cinematic-quality experiences will be within grasp of even small development teams.


    Grand illusion: how the pandemic exposed we're all just pretending

    Our pretending we’re not drowning is the proof we have that we might still be worth saving. Our performing stability is one of the few ways that we hope we might navigate the narrow avenues that might still get us out.

    A thing, though, about perpetuating misperceptions, about pretending – because you’re busy surviving, because you can’t stop playing the rigged game on the off-chance somehow that you might outsmart it, because you can’t help but feel like your circumstances must somehow be your fault – is that it makes it that much harder for any individual within the group to tell the truth.

    Lynn Steger Strong (The Guardian)

    Wouldn't be amazing if we collectively turned to one another, recognised our collective desire not to play 'the game' any more, and decided to go after those who have rigged the system against us?


    How to improve your walking technique

    What research shows is that how we walk, our gait mechanics, isn’t as “natural” as we might believe. We learn to walk by observing our parents and the world around us. As we grow up, we embody the patterns we see. These can limit the full potential of our gait. Some of us unconsciouly prevent the pelvis and arms from swinging because of cultural taboos that frown upon having a gait as being, for example, too free.

    Suunto

    My late, great, friend Dai Barnes was a barefoot runner. He used to talk a lot about how people walk and run incorrectly, partly because of the 'unnatural' cushioning of their feet. This article gives some advice on improving your walking gait, which I tried out today on a long family walk.


    Header mage via xkcd