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Donald Trump

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Marx at 200

“Karl Marx was right: socialism works. It is just that he had the wrong species,” wrote sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading authority on ants. But it’s really a little more complicated than that, and now is a good time to discuss it, because last weekend was the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

Marx died in London in exile in 1883, so he cannot be blamed for the tens of millions who were killed in his name in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere in the 20th century. But he did want to change the world, and his goal was equality: the ‘classless society’.

At its peak, in the mid-1980s, ‘Marxism’ ruled the lives of one-third of the world’s people. Now it is the official ideology in only five countries, and even there it is mainly an excuse for authoritarian rule, not a real belief system. But the principle of equality remains a central value in human politics, and now we sort of know why.

Egalitarianism among human beings poses a problem that cultural anthropologist Bruce Knauft dubbed the ‘U-shaped curve’. He observed that all non-human primate species – chimpanzees, gorillas, etc. — are intensely hierarchical (a vertical line), whereas for up to 100,000 years before the rise of civilisation our hunter-gatherer ancestors were extremely egalitarian (a horizontal line).

But as soon as mass civilisations arise five thousand years ago, it’s back to chimpanzee values. Until quite recently, all civilised societies were steep hierarchies of privilege and power. So draw another vertical line, and you have the U-shaped curve.

This raises two questions: how did human beings break away from the primate norm, and why did they succumb to it again as soon as they became ‘civilised’? The best answer to the first question came from another anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, who pointed out that humans were intelligent enough to realise that the usual primate dominance struggle among all the adult males could only have one winner.

Everybody else was bound to lose, and to be bullied and dominated by the dominant male. Since each individual was far more likely to lose than to win, it was in their collective interest to shut the whole dominance game down – and unlike other primates, humans had language, which enabled them to conspire in mini-revolutions that achieved exactly that goal.

All of those little hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian because they were, in Boehm’s phrase, ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’: the rank and file got together and overawed the would-be alphas. Even today the customs of aboriginal societies reflect this old revolution: they are fiercely egalitarian, and have strong social mechanisms for taking down those who are getting too big for their boots.

Human beings lived in tiny bands with no hierarchies, not even any formal leaders, for long enough to entrench those egalitarian values in our cultures and maybe in our genes. But even the earliest civilisations had many thousands of people, which disabled all the social control mechanisms that relied on spotting and discouraging the would-be alphas. Moreover, mass societies had complicated economies that needed centralised decision-making.

So the alphas took charge, and the millennia of tyranny began. They only ended in the past couple of centuries, when democratic revolutions started to overthrow the kings, emperors and dictators. Why now?

Probably because the rise of mass media (just printing plus mass literacy, in the early phase) gave the millions back their ability to organise, and to challenge those who ruled over them.

They were still egalitarians at heart, so they seized the opportunity; and by now more than half the world’s people live in countries that are more or less democratic. But it’s only political equality; we never got the material equality of the hunter-gatherers back, and the social hierarchies persist.

Marx’s goal was to reconquer the remaining lost ground (though he would never have put it like that), and create a classless society that lived in absolute equality. It was such an attractive goal that millions sacrificed their lives for it, but it was a pipe-dream.

The only way to achieve that kind of equality again in a modern mass society was by strict social controls – and the only people who could enforce those controls were ruthless dictators. So we learned something from the collapse of Communism. Absolute equality comes at too high a price.

But too much inequality also exacts a price. People living in modern democratic societies will accept quite a lot of inequality, especially if there is a well-developed welfare state to protect the poor. But if the income differences get too great, the politics gets ugly.

Why did Canadians elect Justin Trudeau as prime minister, while Americans chose Donald Trump as president? The two countries have similar cultures and almost identical per capita incomes, but the richest 20 percent of Canadians earn 5.5 times as much as the poorest 20 percent – whereas the richest fifth of Americans earn 8 times as much as the poorest fifth.

Inequality is inevitable, but you have to manage it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“At its…why”; and “All…boots”)

Tillerson Gone, Trump Unleashed

Rex Tillerson did not suffer fools gladly. He called Donald Trump a “moron” in a private conversation after one meeting at the Pentagon, and did not take the opportunity to deny it when a journalist asked him in public. In meetings with the president, he would “roll his eyes and slouch” whenever Trump said something he thought was particularly stupid. It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

He wasn’t a very good Secretary of State either. He gutted the State Department in the name of efficiency, and large numbers of experienced diplomats quit in despair as he ‘downsized’ the organisation. His only real achievement in his fourteen months in office was to restrain Trump from doing some truly dangerous things like starting a major confrontation with Iran. But we’ll miss him now that he’s gone.

Donald Trump used to enjoy dismissing people with a brutal ‘You’re fired!’ when he was doing reality television, but he seems to have problems doing it face-to-face. Tweets addressed to the world at large are more his style, with his actual victims left to find out from the media. But he is getting rid of the people who question his judgement at an impressive rate: 35 senior people have been fired or quit in little more than a year.

The net effect of all this ‘turmoil’ in the White House, unsurprisingly, has been to remove most of the people whose ideas, values, or experience and knowledge of the world led them to disagree with Trump’s obsessions, his policies (to the extent that he has any), or just his whims of the moment. What’s left, for the most part, are the yes-men and women.

The most notable remaining exceptions are the three generals who hold high positions in the Trump administration: his chief of staff, John Kelly, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. But McMaster is widely rumoured to be next for the chopping block, and even Kelly’s willingness to continue shouldering the role of senior grown-up indefinitely is to be doubted.

The era of adult supervision in the White House is coming to an end, and Donald Trump is more and more “free to be Donald.” As he said on Tuesday, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”

The Cabinet he wants is one that is entirely free from the constraints that were initially imposed on him by the Republican Party’s establishment. He is a populist who cherry-picks ideas from anywhere, and no more a Republican than he is a Democrat. In fact, he once was a Democrat, and even considered trying to hijack the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination before the 2008 election.

In the end he hijacked the Republican Party instead, but it did try to rein him in by putting orthodox Republicans in key positions in his administration. His struggle to be free began with the dismissal last July of the Republican Party’s choice as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. It has ended in total victory in the past two weeks with the resignation of his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and the firing of Rex Tillerson.

Cohn resigned last week because of Trump’s decision to to impose steep tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminum. The Republican Party has been a staunch supporter of free trade for the past half-century, and Cohn feared that the new tariffs were likely to cause an international trade war that impoverishes everybody. Trump doesn’t care about that. “Trade wars are good,” he said. “And easy to win.”

His new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a hard-liner who shares Trump’s obsession with breaking the international deal that stops Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess (Tillerson) thought it was OK,” he said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”

So stand by for Trump to alienate all of America’s main allies by sabotaging a treaty they worked very hard to achieve. Since he has swallowed Saudi Arabia’s argument that Iran is an ‘expansionist’ power that must be stopped, even direct military clashes between the US and Iran, especially in Syria, become a lot more likely.

And what about the unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Trump agreed to last week (without consulting Tillerson)? In theory it’s a good idea, because nuclear war in the Korean peninsula is a very bad idea. But there are few people left around Trump who can steer him away from disastrous decisions. They can’t even make him read his briefing papers.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The most…doubted”)

Jobs: Moravec’s Paradox vs. AGI

Don’t bother asking if jobs are being lost to computers. Of course they are, and the current wave of populist political revolts in Western countries is what Luddism looks like in an era of industrialised democracies. The right question to ask is: what KINDS of jobs are being lost? Moravec’s Paradox predicted the answer almost 30 years ago.

Right now, it’s the jobs in the middle that are at risk of disappearing. Not high-level professional and managerial jobs that require sophisticated social and intellectual skills and pay very well. Not poorly-paid jobs in delivery or the fast-food industry either, although automation will eventually take jobs in the service industries too.

But the middle-income, semi-skilled jobs, mostly in manufacturing or transportation, that used to sustain a broad and prosperous middle class are dwindling fast. Western societies are being hollowed out by automation, just as Moravec’s Paradox predicts. Often the newly unemployed find other work, but it is generally in the low-income service sector. These disinherited lower-middle-class and upper-working-class people are the foot-soldiers of the populist revolutions.

Back in the 1980s Hans Moravec, a pioneer researcher in artificial intelligence (AI), made the key observation that “it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

The paradox is that activities like high-level reasoning that are challenging for human beings are easy for robots endowed with AI. Simple sensory and motor skills that are easy for the average one-year-old child, on the other hand, are far beyond the current reach of the robots. No surprise, really: those skills in human beings are the products of a billion years of evolution, and indeed are largely unconscious in us.

So the jobs that robots can most easily take are mid-level management jobs and semi-skilled, highly repetitive manual jobs – and there goes the middle-class meat in the sandwich. What’s left is a small group of rich people (who own the robots), an impoverished mass of people who provide them with services of every kind or have no jobs at all – and a level of resentment in the latter that is rocket fuel for a populist revolution.

This dystopian vision is commonplace nowadays, pushed to the top of the agenda by Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and neo-fascist election successes (though not yet victories) in the Netherlands, France and Germany. The same phenomenon may well play a big part in Italy’s election next month.

And the robots are soon going to be able to take out the rest of the jobs too. Moravec and his colleagues were working with the computers of thirty years ago, which were really simple-minded and single-minded. Today’s and tomorrow’s AI is running on computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful, and that allows them to do different things – like ‘deep learning’, for example.

The operating instructions don’t only come from the top (human beings) any more. More and more often, the AI is told what the result should be, and works out how to get there for itself by ‘deep learning’, a trial-and-error process that only becomes feasible when you have a number-crunching capability magnitudes greater than in the 1908s.

Then the path opens to (among other things) Artificial Intelligence that has human-level sensory and motor skills. Not right away, of course, but in due course.

There go the rest of the jobs, you might think, and certainly a lot will go. There goes the need for human beings altogether, the more pessimistic will think, and maybe that’s true too. But the latter outcome is still a choice, not an inevitability.

A significant number of AI specialists are now working on what they call ‘artificial general intelligence’: AGI. Rather than teach a machine to use symbolic logic to answer specific kinds of questions, they are building artificial neural networks and machine-learning modules loosely modelled on the human brain.

Horoshi Yamakawa, a Japan-based leader in AGI, sees two advantages to this approach. “The first is that since we are creating AI that resembles the human brain, we can develop AGI with an affinity for humans. Simply put, I think it will be easier to create an AI with the same behaviour and sense of values as humans this way.”

“Even if superintelligence exceeds human intelligence in the near future, it will be comparatively easy to communicate with AI designed to think like a human, and this will be useful as machines and humans continue to live and interact with each other.…”

Feeling reassured now? Thought not. There’s never much reassurance to be had when thinking about the future. Most of the jobs are going to go sooner or later, including the skilled manual jobs and the high-level management jobs that presently seem safe. We’ll have to get used to that, just like our recent ancestors had to get used to working in cities not on farms.

But maybe the robots will grow up to be our colleagues, not our overlords or our successors. If we take the trouble to design them that way, starting now.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and . (“This dystopian…month”; and “The operating…1980s”)

Catalonia Again

I’m sitting here trying to write an article about the election in Catalonia on Wednesday, because there’s nothing else to write about. It would be more interesting if the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party for the past 23 years, elects a new leader who is not Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, but the results on that won’t be in until tomorrow.

Apart from that there’s nothing except more stuff about Donald Trump’s Russian links. So it has to be Catalonia – and the problem is that I don’t care what happens in Catalonia.

One more smallish group defined by some tiny distinction of religion or language or history wants to break away from some other, bigger group – ‘Spaniards’, in this case – that is defined by slightly broader and more inclusive distinctions of the same kind, and I simply couldn’t care less.

Maybe, after all the nonsense that happened in the past six months – big demos for independence, an illegal referendum that was designed to provoke the Spanish state into over-reacting (and succeeded), and various pro-independence leaders jailed or going into voluntary exile to avoid arrest – a majority of people in Catalonia will be so fed up with the turmoil that they vote to remain part of Spain. But I don’t think so.

Maybe a majority will be so enraged by Madrid’s blundering over-reaction that they vote for their independence from Spain, and actually get it.

Then most of the larger companies in Catalonia will move their headquarters elsewhere (several thousand have gone already), and they will have a new currency nobody trusts (because they will no longer be in the European Union), and the people running the place will be the single-issue fanatics who managed to put this issue on the agenda in the first place. They don’t seem to have many ideas about what to do next.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But I don’t think the Catalans are going to vote decisively for independence this time either.

Instead, they are going to split their votes in a way that leaves no clear majority for or against independence, and makes it hard even to form a coalition government. (What is happening in Catalonia this month is actually an election, not a referendum, although everybody is treating it like the latter.) So we can look forward to months, years or even decades more of the same.

On a somewhat larger canvas, this is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom, too. Just as the Catalans complain that they are paying too much tax to the Spanish government, which transfers it to poorer parts of Spain, so the ‘Little Englanders’ complain that the UK pays too much to the European Union (which spends a lot of it raising standards in the poorer parts of eastern Europe).

Just as the Catalans (and especially younger Catalans) are far less different from other Spanish citizens than the separatists imagine, so the English (and especially the young English) are far less different from other Europeans than the Daily Mail-reading older generation of English nationalists imagines. It is the ‘narcissism of small differences’, in Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase.

But just as the Catalan mess is guaranteed to run on for years, now that it has reached this stage of obsessiveness, so will the British mess. If the UK actually leaves the European Union, the British will be much the poorer for it, and the nationalists who foisted it on the rest of the population will spend the next generation blaming the wicked Europeans for their own mistakes.

And if, by chance, the British end up not leaving (rationality doesn’t often win, but occasionally it does), then the country will spend the next generation contending with a non-violent insurgency waged by the disappointed nationalists.

Obviously, not every separatist movement that appeals to nationalism is wrong. The anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century were fully justified and necessary because the injustices were great and the gulf between rulers and ruled was immense. The American war of independence in the 18th century was justified because great questions about human rights and democracy were at stake.

But when all parties concerned subscribe to democratic values, it generally makes more sense to stay together and try to work out the differences. Separatist pro-independence movements in democratic countries tend to be driven by the ambitions of politicians who want to be bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien put it (in a broken half-English sentence calculated to insult his fellow French-Canadians who were the separatist leaders in Quebec), they want to drive up “dans un gros Cadillac avec un flag sur l’hood” (in a big Cadillac with a flag on the hood). Enough said.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But just…nationalists”)