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Is This Paradise?

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that there has been a continuous stream of leaks showing the greed, dishonesty, and utter lack of moral values of the rich elite in society. The latest leak, the so-called “Paradise Papers” is the biggest yet, and although it doesn’t show anything technically illegal (at least not when this post was written), it does show us yet another loathsome exhibition of self-centered and cynical greed.

It’s not the people or organisations who are only just surviving and cannot afford to pay any more tax who make use of these tax havens, it is more those who have so much already that they could afford to pay out far more tax and barely even notice. Yes, too much is never enough for these people. They always want more, no matter what the consequences.

And there are consequences. All around the world people are dying by the thousands every day because health systems are failing. Education standards are dropping because schools are increasingly under-funded. Infrastructure in even the richest countries is failing. And at the same time the Queen of England, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and all the other usual suspects have so much spare cash they barely know what to do with it.

Is this what we signed up for when we gave tacit approval for modern capitalism to control our lives? I don’t think so.

When we are told that people are dying on waiting lists because there is no money to treat them in hospitals, I say that is a lie. The money exists but it is tied up in dodgy deals in Bermuda. The rich are almost literally murdering people every day because of their grossly offensive need to have more. No matter how much they have it is never enough, and no price is too much to pay for more, as long as it is not them who has to pay it.

It is a truly immoral and disgusting system we have in place. But to add insult to injury, it is even worse when we acknowledge how widely supported this is, even by those who are the most disadvantaged. Because as well as being skilled in the fine art of greed the ruling elite are also masters of propaganda!

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments they use to justify the situation we find ourselves in.

1. The rich earned their money and they deserve to keep it.

It is rare for any rich person to have actually done anything to earn their wealth. Most wealth is generated by investing in profitable deals. This might be currency trading, investing in a new company which has become successful through its creator’s hard work, buying property then gathering rent. Do these sound like worthwhile activities which should be rewarded with millions or even billions of dollars per year? If you think so then you really should reconsider your moral standards.

2. The rich pay taxes according to the rules, just like everyone else.

Everyone, the rich included, must know that the rules are easy to avoid if you can afford to pay for enough expensive but unethical lawyers and accountants. Even if it is possible to bypass tax laws the rich don’t have to do that. They go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying tax and they must know that it is bordering on illegal. If they have so much already what would be the harm in paying a bit more tax and making a fair contribution to society?

3. Big business must be encouraged because it provides a lot of jobs.

But does it? Let’s look at an example. A new branch of McDonalds opens in my street and provides work for 5 to 10 people. Isn’t that good? Well, superficially it is, but what is the overall effect of big companies like McDonalds? How many small food outlets close because they cannot compete with the big multinational? I suspect that over the long term far more people lose work than gain. The same applies to big retailers, and every other form of business.

4. Without big business we would have no innovation.

This is clearly untrue. There are certainly some examples where real innovation has come from private business (Xerox and IBM come to mind) but only in a tiny minority of cases. The real progress on the cutting edge of science and technology is coming mostly from universities. Sure, companies like Apple are very good at taking the new technology and turning it into sometimes quite spectacular products, but this isn’t true innovation. Big companies seem to gain new technology more through acquiring new, small startups than doing anything genuinely new themselves.

5. Anyone can join the rich if they just put in the effort.

Well this obviously isn’t true because there is only a certain amount of wealth to be distributed. And when the top few percent have more than everyone else put together, there will obviously always be an inequitable distribution. There are people in all modern countries working far longer hours than most CEOs yet making barely enough to survive. Effort has very little to do with it.

6. The current situation is the natural result of free markets and we can’t change it.

Well markets aren’t free, they are creations of governments. If you think a system where the vast majority of people who are poor pay for an infrastructure that the rich then exploit is an example fo a free market then I think you need to re-evaluate the meaning of the word “free”. And even if the market was free, so what? If it brings the gross inequity we see today I say we should forget about free.

7. Since the world adopted a market economy the majority of people are better off.

This is a difficult one to evaluate but I would say that many people actually aren’t better off compared with how they were under the less extreme economic system of 50 years ago. Also, most of the improvements in life today – such as longer lifespan, better communications, better treatment for disease, etc – comes from science and technology, not business. Again, it’s not as simple as saying the corporate world has had no positive effects on society, it’s more that the benefits often quoted are deliberately over-stated.

But why am I bothering? There should be no surprises in this latest leak. Most people already know how the world works: how the poor subsidise the rich, how the rich are immune to the rules which control the rest of us, how politicians are “owned” by corporations. We all know this, but still it continues, in fact it gets worse.

Well, changes do happen and often quite unexpectedly. I don’t remember the fall of the Soviet Union (another grossly corrupt, yet powerful entity) being predicted by too many people, yet it happened suddenly and rapidly. The same can happen to the current extreme form of global capitalism.

And even if nothing happens I still need to blog about it. It is sort of a cathartic mechanism for me. The indignation and disgust I feel when I hear about the latest excesses of the ultra-rich must be assuaged in some way, no matter how ineffective it might ultimately be.

As I have said in past blog posts: bring on the revolution!

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Revolting and Primitive

November 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I like to get involved with controversial topics when I debate people on-line. This sort of makes sense because what sort of interesting debate are you going to have over something that isn’t controversial? When it comes to controversy two topics tend to come to the fore: politics and religion. And if you read this blog you will see these are two of my favourite subjects!

The “discussion” I want to consider here was about who is to blame for the anti-immigrant sentiment which is giving right-oriented politics traction in various parts of the world (the US and Europe in particular).

My hypothesis was that moderate governments have been too lenient – largely through a propensity towards political correctness, and a wish to implement a quick and easy boost to their economies – regarding Muslim immigration into countries like Germany, the UK, and France.

So I made the following somewhat inflammatory remark on the subject: “I’m sure many Muslims are nice people but Islam is a revolting, primitive religion, and you can’t blame people for being worried about it. If moderate parties won’t control the power of Islam then people have to vote for more extreme parties. It’s unfortunate but you can only blame the moderates.”

Notice that, while this could be seen as controversial, I am sticking to my standards of criticising ideas rather than people. I genuinely believe the bit about many Muslims being nice people, because I know some, and they are. But that doesn’t detract from the second idea that the Islamic religious/political belief system itself is not so nice, although “primitive” and “revolting” is possibly a bit on the extreme end of the potential range of criticisms!

Of course, the SJWs immediately jumped on their band-wagon (do they ever leave it?) and criticised me by saying something like “it is you who is revolting and primitive”.

And that’s exactly what I wanted, because I replied with “yes, I often blow myself up and kill innocent children, I don’t let women participate as equals in society, I use stoning and amputation of limbs as a punishment, and I support the death penalty for apostasy”.

Strangely, the SJWs seemed to shut-up after that, although I did get a couple of messages of support!

Often in that situation I would get some reasonably fair counters to my point. People might say I am choosing the worst aspects of Islam and ignoring the best. Or they might say someone who supports those ideas is not a true Muslim. Or they might say other religions and belief systems are just as bad.

I don’t believe any of those ideas hold up to much scrutiny, but at least they are orders of magnitude better than the simple-minded ad hominem I got.

But enough of that indignation at being castigated in such insulting terms, because, as I said, that was exactly what I wanted. What about my response to the possible reasonable responses I listed above?

What about the criticism that I am concentrating on the worst aspects of Islam? Well yes, I am in a way, because those are the aspects which affect me, and the culture I most identify with. If there were a lot of positive aspects which I felt an affinity for I would have mentioned those, but quite honestly I cannot think of anything, except for the very general wish for more diversity to make life more interesting.

Remember that I am criticising Islam here. If I was asked to give my opinion on an individual Muslim I would very likely say that I liked them, because there is so much more to most people than their religion. But for some people there actually isn’t much more. The people who are prepared to kill themselves and others for their religion are very much defined by it. This gets back to my oft-repeated idea that “religion is OK, as long as you don’t take it too seriously”!

But what about the second point, that the people committing atrocities around the world are not motivated by religion, or aren’t true Muslims? This is probably the most pernicious lie that the PC left tell themsleves. We know these people are directly motivated by their religion because they tell us they are. And there aren’t many ideologies, apart from religion and it’s promise of entry into paradise after death, which people are prepared to die for.

And then there’s the idea that other religions (and other “belief systems” such as political ideologies and even atheism) are just as bad as Islam. But are they?

Look at a list of who is responsible for most of the revolting and primitive (there are those words again) acts around the world. In almost every case these are directly motivated by a belief in Islamic religious and political doctrine, including the idea that those who sacrifice themselves for the cause will be admitted to paradise in the after-life, the idea that non-Muslims can be killed or enslaved, and the wish to initiate a final battle where Islam will emerge dominant.

Do we see that from Christians? No, not any more at least, because Christianity has been tamed by modern secular politics. What about Buddhists? Well disappointingly we do to some extent, but not in such a wide-ranging way. Do we see it from atheists? Of course not, because how can having no belief in a religion lead to acting on the associated dogma, because there is none! Do we see it from neo-Marxists or neo-Nazis or any other extreme political group? Again, no, not much.

So it seems to me that my criticism is fair and that none of the responses to it really make much sense, unless you are really desperate to find a way to defend an idea that you think you must defend, irrespective of it’s true harm to the world.

So I don’t regret my comment. As I said, it was on the extreme end of what I really think, but I think I made my point effectively, and that was my intention.

Too Much of a Good Thing

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

I would broadly classify my political views as liberal left but, as you will be aware if you follow this blog, I have drifted away from a conventional view of that type and increasingly disagree with other people in that particular political camp.

I’m not suggesting at all that I have become a conservative, and when I do political surveys I seem to be just as far left as ever, but I do have difficulty with one area where the left have become intolerable recently: that is in their excessive political correctness.

I have heard the claim that there is no political correctness, just correctness, but this is total nonsense. The views that political correctness supports are all very much a matter of opinion and could easily be argued both ways. For example: is affirmative action just another way to treat one group unfairly in comparison to another? Does it simply create another instance of the problem it is supposed to solve? Even if you are a strong supporter of affirmative action you should at least admit that another interpretation is possible.

But that’s not what happens. In various environments where the PC left rule, even suggesting that an officially condoned measure, like affirmative action, might not be fair or reasonable automatically makes you the enemy and liable to a totally mindless barrage of abuse regarding what a “bigot” or “sexist” or “racist” you might be.

It has got to the point where I welcome those labels, because if you have to be a bigot, sexist, or racist to speak the truth, then that’s just what I will need to be.

But that is an example of another phenomenon the left are guilty of: concept creep. Originally to be a racist (for example but other insulting labels are equally relevant here) you would need to exhibit some fairly extreme behaviour, such as refusing to socialise with another racial group, or actively trying to stop that group participating in society, etc. But now all you have to do is suggest that the same group shouldn’t get extra privileges that others don’t get.

In fact it is the other side who are really the racists. I want everyone to be equal. And I know the argument that to make some groups equal they need extra help. Fair enough, but I disagree. But let’s have a reasonable discussion about this instead of just getting abusive.

The problem here is that by not being reasonable the left actually reduce the potential effectiveness of what they want to achieve. Many people are sickened by the ridiculous political correctness they espouse and that just drives them more to the right (it’s happened to me and to many others).

So it’s like too much of a good thing. Getting equal rights for everyone is good, but by giving extra rights to a group who, in the past were disadvantaged, they go too far and negate the good work already done.

And the failure to engage in reasonable debate about a contentious subject indicates to me that they maybe haven’t thought about it too carefully. I enjoy debating my beliefs because I am confident I can defend them, and if I can’t defend them that suggests maybe I was wrong and should change what I think is true. This is a healthy approach to arguing these points, but it’s not one you see very often from the PC left.

The underlying phenomenon powering this set of beliefs seems to be defending marginalised groups. These groups would include non-whites, women, LGBTQs, the disabled, and Muslims. That is OK. If certain groups have genuine disadvantages let’s try to fix that, but don’t go too far.

These groups should still be open to scrutiny and it should be OK to criticise them when it is appropriate and when the criticism is true. And this word, “true”, seems to be one the left are completely oblivious to.

So if I criticised Muslims because surveys show a large percentage of them partially or totally support some of the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists, then answer that criticism. Show me why it’s not true, or justify it in some way. Don’t just call me a bigot.

And if I say a lot of the rhetoric created by the “Black Lives Matter” cause is nonsense because, in proportion to the number of crimes involved, blacks actually aren’t targeted by US police to any significant extent more than anyone else (despite there being a few clearly racist cops) then show me alternative statistics which show I’m wrong, or explain why the stats aren’t fair. But don’t just call me a racist.

And if I say that it is girls and women who are by far getting the best outcomes in our education system now and, why do we need to create new programs to make this advantage even greater, then show me the facts that counter this idea. But don’t just call be sexist.

But people very rarely even attempt to come up with points to counter mine, because they don’t know them. My opponents just follow an ideology because that’s what they hear in the politically correct echo chamber they live in. When they do see an alternative view their only reaction is pathetic name calling.

There are points which can be made to counter all three statements I made above, but I don’t think they are very compelling. But a person from the PC left stating those points really well might convince me I’m wrong. But that’s just not what they do.

Until this behaviour ends, the left are doomed I’m afraid. We’re just going to get more of the sort of politics that elected Donald Trump. That was mainly the fault of the left being completely out of touch: of refusing to criticise Muslims, of treating police actions unfairly, and of making the presidential campaign a feminist contest, which they lost.

So to anyone on the left still reading this, please take notice. Your excessive political correctness is just destroying your own opportunities to convert more people to your ideals. Do what you think is right, but avoid too much of a good thing.

The Least Bad

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s general election time again here in New Zealand, and although we don’t have much of the incredibly tedious, sanctimonious claptrap of some other countries, such as the US, it is still starting to get a bit annoying, especially the tendency for using “alternative facts” by the right.

But I do have to say that in other ways it is quite an intriguing contest, because the polling seems to indicate a lot of uncertainty over the preferred major party in the next government, whether the minor parties are worth voting for, and who would make the best prime minister.

I tend to look on the democratic process as a sort of interesting sociological event which can be observed a bit like an anthropologist would watch some primitive rite carried out by a stone age tribe from the depths of the rainforests of New Guinea. In other words, it’s hard to take it too seriously, and even if you could it’s best not to if you want to retain your sanity!

In fact, everyone I have talked to so far is extremely cynical about the political system we currently have. This attitude is reflected in real statistics too. A poll conducted a few months ago indicated a great deal of disenchantment with politics in general (this was before we got the new Labour leader whose promotion might have improved people’s view of politicians a bit).

Here’s a few of the findings from that poll…

The majority of people polled think the economic and political systems are rigged against them. Also, women and those earning less are even more likely to consider the system broken.

Less than half (45%) disagree with the phrase “the country is in decline”, 25% agree with it, and 30% are neutral.

Over half those polled (56%) say traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like them. And 64% think the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. But just 50 per cent of people want a strong leader willing to break the rules.

So it seems to me that most people see the current system as defective at best and a complete failure at worst, but they clearly aren’t sure what to do about it based on the figure of only half wanting a strong new leader capable of pushing through change.

And that is fair enough, because past experience with change does not exactly inspire confidence. The last time we had a strong leader determined to push through major change here in New Zealand was 1984. Yes, that ominous year was when a neo-liberal inspired Labour government pushed through massive changes which are only being corrected now, almost 35 years later.

And Donald Trump could be seen as a strong leader determined to force change on the current system, but most people are concerned about his actions (to say the least). I don’t partake in the mindless bashing of Trump that many others do, but there is a lot to be concerned about there.

Having a strong leader is not always a good thing, because strength is only beneficial when it is connected with knowledge, honesty, and fairness, which Trump is sometimes lacking. In fact the worst thing possible is a strong leader with bad ideas!

So it almost seems hopeless. People don’t like the system as it is, but they are (quite rightly) afraid of change too. Maybe we are trapped in a no-win situation.

But that’s not to suggest that participation in the political system is pointless. Not all of the options are equally bad, even if none of them are absolutely good. Voters need to be realistic and remember that voting for the least bad party is better than not voting and effectively giving an advantage to a party you might support less than others.

So we should just be realistic and realise that, unless we are a member of the rich and powerful elite, we cannot really win in any meaningful way, we should just choose based on how we lose the least.

It’s rather unfortunate that our current systems don’t give us the freedoms and other benefits they promise. But the sooner people realise what the true situation is the sooner they can make meaningful choices about how to make it better. And don’t take it too seriously!

Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose…

The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

Forget About Growth

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently read a brief report on how an individual could make the greatest contribution to minimising climate change. This has been a controversial subject for many years now but the need to act is now more accepted.

So it seems that the world is gradually coming around to the idea that climate change is real and – even more gradually – to the idea that we need to do something about it. Even Donald Trump’s latest opinion is that is something that needs to be acted on, but he would prefer not to it through Paris Agreement.

So people who don’t accept climate change as real are probably increasingly irrelevant, and the discussion on what to do about it is where the real conflict now happens. Unfortunately it is now too late to fix the problem relatively painlessly and only difficult options remain. So the people who refused to accept reality in the past have now got us to the point where they now don’t want to act because it is too hard, but that is only because of their past obstructiveness.

But this post isn’t primarily yet another lecture on climate change. I like to tackle the really big subjects so this goes beyond the biggest problem facing modern society and looks at the cause of it, and most of the other major problems we have.

Getting back to the report: it listed several actions an individual could take and showed how many tonnes of CO2 emissions per year that would save. Upgrading to low energy light bulbs would save 0.1 tonnes, recycling would save about 0.2, going vegetarian about 0.5, buying only green energy 1.5, avoiding a trans-Atlantic air trip 1.6, and having one fewer child 60 tonnes.

The methodology used to generate these numbers could be debated, but the overall message is still relevant: that the real source of most of our problems is that there are too many people! When having one less person in the world saves six times more CO2 than all the usual energy saving efforts combined this should be obvious.

There is nothing inherently wrong with burning fossil fuels, we are just burning too much. A certain amount of rain forest clearance is sustainable but it is just happening too quickly. The environment can cope with some level of pollution but not the levels we generate now. Famine primarily happens because there are too many people for what the land can produce in food. Many conflicts happen because populations exceed the levels a country can cope with.

I can remember that a few decades back population control was one of the most commonly discussed issues in environmentalism but now it is hardly heard. What has changed?

That’s hard to know, for sure, but I think a major factor is capitalism’s constant need for growth. We have seen this everywhere. Unless business is growing we have a recession. The idea that the economy might have reached a point where is it sufficiently healthy and we don’t need any further growth just seems impossible to contemplate.

Growth in itself isn’t always problematic – although it often is – but the way that growth often happens is. Here in New Zealand it has mainly been achieved through increased population . We keep hearing that our economy is healthy and growing but, of course, it isn’t. Measures, such as per capita GDP, which calculate the economic contribution for each person, have not changed, and some have actually gone backwards.

So there is no growth except in population, and increased population is causing many social and environmental problems, including poverty, homelessness, and traffic congestion.

New Zealand has a small enough population that even quite significant percentage increases can be absorbed without causing a total disaster, but the same phenomenon in other countries which already have large populations is a bigger problem, and each country affects all the others.

Water pollution is a major issue in New Zealand. Why do we have that? Because we have too many dairy cows, and the reason we have those is that there is a good market for milk powder to feed all the Chinese people who are suddenly participating in the global economy. And the effects of overpopulation is much worse in India and some other countries.

We have too many cows because farmers can make more money by cramming more cows into land which previously was not used for dairying. They are prepared to do this while destroying our environment because, in capitalism, too much is never enough.

There are other causes of overpopulation, of course. I have already blamed capitalism so you might not be surprised to hear the next culprit I will accuse is religion! There is no doubt that religious beliefs such as an aversion to birth control and a need to have large families to increase the number of members of your particular church are a problem (yes, I’m talking about you Catholicism and Islam).

And to make matters even worse, the increased birth rate because of this is often in exactly the countries which are already struggling with famine, civil war, and other significant issues.

We need a bit more rationality in this world. I don’t mean I want to have everyone walking around like robots or Mr Spock, I just mean we could do without the more extreme cases of irrationality which cause a lot of harm to society in general. And the pursuit of growth for no good reason would be a great place to start.

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.