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Friday, April 23, 2010


I belong to several internet discussion forums, all at the edge of reality (although many of the participants no doubt of the opinion that theirs is the only sensible pathway for humanity), and a relatively new one posed the question, "Is a $100 hair cut as valuable as a $100 vacuum cleaner?" I felt compelled to respond thusly:

Mental calisthenics supposedly prevent Alzheimer's, and these mind games can be challenging and entertaining. But, in the spirit of Tom, Peak Oil and Global Warming are around the corner, so shouldn't we be focusing on useful solutions? Okay, it's too late, but giving up cannot be an option.

China's renewable energy electrical capacity will be double that of the U.S. at the end of the year (courtesy of Ray). POTUS #43 was a retrogression and POTUS #44 has gotten nowhere on climate change and seems to be focusing on all the wrong sustainable pathways. Governments are broken, and people like you should be orchestrating the virtual revolution.

Sorry, but I have now published more than 70 articles in The Huffington Post and I have no clue on how to galvanize progress. Even the comments to my postings are circular and tangential. Can any of you suggest how best to proceed?

Then I felt a bit contrite about being such a curmudgeon, but there was one response which largely reflected my general viewpoint on the subject. He went further to lament that the 15-35 age group in particular seemed to live the life of Cabaret. Remember that movie with Liza Minelli? So I responded:

Thanks for your reasonable thoughts. I agree with you in general, but can't sit back and watch the equivalent of Rome burn with our society (led by that next generation) fiddling away their future when real changes have to occur now. Does anyone have a hint of a progressive and proactive world wide web solution (demonstrations, such as that for climate change in DC this coming Sunday, are so last generation)?

It kind of started with Gen X (born 1961-1981), where the males, for the first time in the history of our country, made less than their fathers. Now Gen Y (born 1982-2000) on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser, is appearing to be totally losing it:

- 60% cashed out their 401(k) retirement plans,
- 42% don't pay their bills on time,
- 37% are underemployed,

and more.

Well, the originator of the haircut and vacuum cleaner question then responded, saying that what he was really trying to do was have the forum move outside the box to provide novel solutions which can, in fact, be applied to real world problems. Actually, makes a lot of sense, for my attempts at stimulating the masses through the Huffington Post and my daily blog seem not to be working at all. Let's see if I can use this lesson in combination with the WWW to be a tad more effective in the future.

In any case, we need a monumental wake up call! Any other good ideas out there?

The Dow Jones Industrials jumped 70 to 11,204, while world markets were up, except for most of the West Pacific. Gold surged $16/toz to $1156 and crude oil rose to $85/barrel.



Ray said...

My apologies. The "Is a $100 hair cut really worth the same as a $100 vacuum cleaner" question was idly posed but involved a slight ruse.

Yes, the question was posed, partly to provoke mirth from unanticipated responses. The other reason to avoid much context was to keep responses 'live from the id', since with sufficient sampling size, unfiltered responses may tend to present a composite cultural perspective on how a developed nation regards its resource allocations, which impacts issues like sustaining the future of our planet.

Let me now add some context. First economic, because it's easy, later the cultural portion, since it's much harder to describe.

GDP is yearly sum monetary value of a nation's goods and services. But economists define productivity as value of labor output per unit input (hours worked).

Thus, one key issue is: are services really as valuable as goods? Do a $100 hair cut and $100 vacuum cleaner have equal value?

if yes, then with the world's largest GDP, why is the U.S. dead last in trade deficit by an enormous margin?

Yes, services are harder to export than goods. But a $700 billion trade gap still somewhat reflects the world's valuation of U.S. output. I.e., Americans charge a lot for massages and peddle financial paper everywhere, but they don't seem to make 'things' any more.

On a whim, to try to redefine national productivity, let's start with GDP but reduce that by the annual trade deficit and amount of increased public/ private debt. Thus, U.S. GDP is now ~$14 trillion. Public debt grew in 2008 by ~$1.8 trillion, private by ~$3 trillion. So, my trial formula yields true U.S. productivity as only $8.1 trillion or ~58% of nominal GDP. And goods constitute just 1/3rd of U.S. GDP or $4.7 trillion.

This then suggests that the remaining $8.6 trillion of U.S. services may really be worth only $3.4 trillion, or 35% as much as U.S. goods, in terms of true productivity.

It would be quite easy for a macroeconomist to critique a revaluation of the U.S. economy via such a simple formula, then using that and the remainder to reassess the value of U.S. services. Still, the exercise does yield a services valuation that's in the intuitive ballpark, i.e., not zero, but well below the value of goods. And it also goes a long way in explaining other rather dubious official views about our economy.

Ray said...

Part II:

Onto the corollary question: "What's your ego worth, compared to say...your body?" I.e., how much of one's or a nation's resources should be allocated to the care, stroking, and feeding of egos as opposed to bodies?

As Prof. Takahashi knows fully, nowhere is the disconnect more striking than in the minds of 'global warming denialists'. Despite mountains of available scientific evidence gathered and publicized over a period of decades, less than half the U.S. population regards anthropogenic global warming as of any concern or even as real. But why?

On this issue, it's of course easy to draw political trench lines between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Yet, this seems somehow rather superficial.

Perhaps the underlying distinction actually remains with individual ego boundaries. I.e., do my maintenance responsibilities pertain only to my personal space or do they extend to neighborhood, community, and globe?

Applying his "hierarchy of needs" notion, Abraham Maslow thought, as a nation gets wealthier, that priorities shift from providing for rudimentary bodily needs like food, clothing, and shelter to less tangible, more fleeting concerns - like the vanity value of a $100 hair cut or owning a Lamborghini, the hefty ET (ego tax) of which may lie largely in knowing that few others can afford one.

Seeing that the 'Maslow shift' is hardly confined to the U.S. but rather is pervasive among both developed and developing nations AND what that implies for global sustainability, leads me, as one of many, to question whether the "Werner von Braun - where it comes down is not my dept." approach will ever be satisfactory. I.e., that of constantly providing new technology to enable the arc of human greed to maintain its exponential course. Or is such an a response doomed to failure because it's simply the product of a blindly neurotic co-dependency?

I.e., shouldn't the basic relationships between individual and community ego-bases that underpin most cultures also be questioned and confronted in sustainability terms? If so, where and how? I.e., how do we, as a species, churn the 'Maslow shift' into something productive, or at least globally benign? And wouldn't that entail a re-examination and retailoring of the nature of human egos?

As a scientist prone to charts and graphs, I view human egos as having at least two dimensions - unlimited vertical aspirations of self-hood, but also constrained by horizontal feelings of empathy, which entail extended responsibilities.

I.e., if we are to become ever greater beings, don't we need to add girth in order to grow sustainably taller w/o toppling over?

Again, I don't have the answers but any of us are allowed to ask these simple questions.

Patrick Kenji Takahashi said...

Yes, as mentioned in the blog, you, indeed, have a good point. Now, if any blog readers can be so inspired to use this lesson to effectively save (well, ameliorate the agony, anyway) humanity from Peak Oil and Global Warming.

Leighton said...

Humans seem to construct an actionable view of reality by what they perceive in the real world. It is extremely rare for a person of conscience to change their behavior based on scientific observations or reported facts alone. We need tangible indicators for what we want to or should be aware of.

For example, most people would have no concept of the status of our economy if we did not have our globally utilized system of financial indicators like the DJI, CPI, interest rates and other finanical market indices. With these indices ticking in our consciousness daily, practically everyone who reads newspapers or watches financial news on TV believes that they have a handle on where the economy is headed and this influences their daily monetary actions.

Taking Pat's blog and Ray's comments into account, I propose that a responsible organization promote reportage of life sustainability status indicators including at least the following indices:

Global Warming Indicator (yesterday's added carbon burden to atmosphere and estimated cumulative from Yr 2000 benchmark)

Index of Life Quality (see Pat's IOL proposal in his 04/14 HuffPo blog using Yr 2000 as the 100% benchmark)

Ratio of Ego-to-Survival Needs (see Ray's comments on estimating the relative value of non-essential services to production of essential survival needs in U.S. GDP)