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The long, slow, rotten march of progress (theoutline.com)
85 points by pmcpinto on June 2, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

The passage about Capitalism not knowing what to do with its capital anymore rings true. We've allowed society to bifurcate into 1. a great many people without, who know exactly what they'd do with an extra $100, and 2. a tiny number of ultra-rich who literally can't figure out what to do with all their money and have run out of possessions to gold-plate and diamond-encrust. What does the end-game look like? When interest rates are perpetually zero and you simply can't squeeze another single dollar out of the masses?

There is a 3rd option.

I don't know what I'd do with an extra $100. Maybe a nice dinner that feels about the same as any other nice dinner I can have whenever I want?

But an extra few hundred thousand, now we're talking. I could buy a home instead of rent and save money in the long run. Or travel for a while. Plenty of things you can do with an extra few hundred thousand.

As it stands today. I have more money than I need for ongoing lifestyle stuff, but not enough for long term improvements. Hence I buy avocado toast instead of a house.

You can always start saving a little. Maybe a home is out of your grasp but traveling for while is definitely achievable.

Of course. My point is that there is a whole class of people, let's call them "college educated millenials" or somesuch, for whom an extra $100 doesn't mean much, but who have plenty of things they could gold plate and put diamonds on.

The dichotomy that there are only the ultra wealthy and the almost destitude is false. There's a lot of inbetween.

The end game is collapse. To be more specific, a return to less intensive, lower overhead, and more efficient ways to support our needs. Like, currently, Americans worried about not getting taken care of in their old age do something like "create advertisements that convince people to spend their money differently for forty years, siphon off 5-10% of that, invest it in a complex hierarchy of financial instruments that nets out into debt of some sort, and finally cash those promises of real goods and services into actual healthcare/housing/living expenses".

5 generations or so ago, the plan was something like "have a bunch of children and set them up for success as best you can."

Anyhow, there's a lot of safety factor in terms of optional rent-seeking behavior. Hospital prices and care levels can be dropped from "optimized to loot savings of middle-aged families" to something more in line with the real costs of having X doctors per hundred thousand citizens. We can let the McMansions rot. We can stop squandering our resources on stuff that really doesn't matter.

Or you could fund a universal public healthcare system like the rest of the developed world.

>What does the end-game look like? When interest rates are perpetually zero and you simply can't squeeze another single dollar out of the masses?

Pet peeve: Low interest rates somehow hurting the huddled masses. Low interest rates benefit those with loans and hurts those with capital. Poor people are massively more likely to benefit from low interest rates than to be hurt by it.

Not quite. If you had income generating assets before rates were reduced, you benefited greatly.

And credit can still be tight when rates are zero (or negative). Low rates as they stand hurt those that are trying to save.

Artificially increasing interest rates is going to show up in inflation, because no new wealth is being generated. It becomes a wash. No one's wealth is increased.

Depending on what you mean by "show up in inflation", it sounds like you have cause and effect backwards? The Fed increases interest rates to act as a brake on the economy (less investment) when they think they need to reduce inflation.

>Poor people are massively more likely to benefit from low interest rates than to be hurt by it.

We're talking about homes here right? Take a look at major cities across the country, poor people aren't buying homes — developers are, and they're renting them to the poor.

The type of interest the poor are paying is on credit cards, cars, and payday loans. The poor often don't even have bank accounts.

Depends who you're talking about here. The poor aren't even those below the poverty line in this comparison - it's those who consider themselves middle-class (but are slipping out of it more and more each year).

> Poor people are massively more likely to benefit from low interest rates than to be hurt by it.

There seems to be a correlation between low growth and low interest rates.

It's interesting to speculate that the direction of causation might be low interest rates -> inefficient use of capital -> low growth. In which case low interest rates would hurt everyone.

I share his pet peev. Economics has studied this extensively and the evidence suggests otherwise. And it is more complicated than you suggest.

What is your model?

During the 90s low interest rates were not associated with low growth. Your model doesn't explain that.

You haven't established a causation here at all. How does it work? Why? What? It also completely ignores nominal vs. real interest rates.

Poor is a state of having low capital. Low interest rates make it hard for poor people to save their way out of being poor. Making it harder to accumulate capital keeps the poor being poor. That's why it's so expensive to buy stocks and housing at the moment. There's less ways for poor people to become less poor.

There are lots of options to buy stocks without big fees, in small dollar amounts.

Lack of good investment options really has little to do with poverty. Complex causes, complex remedies.

But those stocks pay low dividends due to low rates. They are expensive stocks. High capital people can access the near zero rates to invest, the poor only have access to credit cards. At high interest rates it is expensive for both the rich and poor to invest. In low rate environment low capital people are at a disadvantage.

How would higher interest rates change things? They're higher for everyone across the board. I suggest looking up nominal vs. real interest rates.

That's like saying government price caps does not make it easier for people to buy goods. While true, price controls absolutely do have actual affects on economy. Typically supply is reduced from equilibrium and the economy is damaged; in paying low prices people have to wait on long lines. Except for cronies who have political capital to get all the goods they want at a low price. 'Nominal price' is different to 'real price'

The same goes for interest rates. A cap on interest rates does not make it easier for the poor to buy homes and cars; in paying low interest rates people have to pay for much higher prices for homes.

By giving up control of nominal interest rate, it would return to equilibrium and reduce capital inequality.

Low interest rates inflate real estate prices and rents. This is murdering the lower and middle class, especially those who do not yet own a home or who had to take out some kind of ridiculous suicide loan to squeeze into one.

I know people paying >50% of their income on an over-inflated mortgage for a starter home.

There isn't a clear one-to-one relation here. The causes for inflation in real estate prices and rents are not as simple as "the fed keeps rates too low".

An increase in the price of rent should lead to an increase in construction, which leads to an increase in real estate value.

The return on investment is there to be made, and the obstacle isn't low interest rates.

Low interest rates also inflate stocks. When you can't earn much with cash sitting in the bank you switch to something with more return.

And last I checked the average Joe doesn't have enough savings to put into stocks.

I'm a dropped-out philosophy major with a humanities family and cultural background, and wearing what occasionally feels like the impostor's mantle of a software engineer.

This leads to a lot of amusing, sometimes infuriating cultural conflicts. I frequently have this type of conversation with colleagues in my profession, and it's frustrating to see all the technocratic utopianism and narrowly conceived TEDdie-ism that often obtains on the other side.

Lately, I've resorted to making the point about mindfulness and purpose through the compact vehicle of jest, since business interactions seldom organically accommodate discussion of serious ideas and issues. In our hipster age of sham social capital, deniable low-calorie intellectual commitments, and instant disavowal of anything that begets complications down the road, oblique jokes seem to work better than direct critiques.

Something like:

- Client: "Our server has had five-nines uptime this past year!"

- Me: "But was it running good stuff?"

- Client: "What?"

- Me: "What's better, a highly available server sitting idle or running crap, or a less reliable server running good stuff? Quality over quantity, right?"

- Client: "Uhhh..."

- Me: "Think about it. Is the measure of a server really in how long it's been running? The essence of a server is that it serves, yeah? Availability is a secondary—if important—quality."

- Client: "... okay ...?"

- Me: "So, it's not enough to just be up. The host has to run good stuff. Has the server been running good stuff?"

- Client: "Erm... it runs our middleware? Are you asking if it's good code?"

- Me: "No, I'm asking if it's a good thing to run, although I suppose for a thing to be good to run, it has to be written well enough. Bad code doesn't run well."

- Client: "WTF?"

- Me: "Is your middleware good stuff?"

- Client: "What does that even mean?"

- Me: "Doesn't it bother you that you don't know?"

- Client: "... I guess I never really thought about it like that."

It's what I encourage everyone to do. Bring a little ancient Greece to the cloud data centre.

You really need to define "good stuff", otherwise your point makes no sense.

That's the very object of investigation. If they had said, "Yes, it runs good stuff", the next question would be what makes it good. :-)

Yeah, you're basically just cheating your way around 'good' being undefined, and getting some kind of kick out of the fact that the other guy didn't see you palm the card. Presumably he hasn't spent a lot of time dealing with self-aggrandizing intellectual mountebanks - I, on the other hand, have, and 'pretentious' and 'tiresome' are words I scruple not in the slightest to employ in this connection.

That's the conclusion most folks are going to draw, yes. I'll take the heat for it. Very occasionally, it spawns interesting discussions whose contours look a lot like those of the article, and I think that's great.

The point is far more likely to be lost if I simply straight-up tell them the perceived problem in an "unpretentious" way. A lot of startup bros work quite simply; they may call you a pretentious prick, but they're more likely to respond to challenge to their egos by way of riddle—even if delivered in the dumpster fire form, i.e. a joke that their FOMO makes them anxious about not being in on—than sincere entreatments to ponder the uselessness of another multiplatform ad analytics play. I've given up on the latter.

That's all fine as far as it goes; I enjoy such discussions myself, as the opportunity presents. What I don't do, though, is act like a smartass for the sake of acting like a smartass. It's not funny and it's not clever; it's an annoying waste of time for all involved.

You can be the smartest person in the room, and if you're as smart as you think you are, everyone else in the room will love you for it. Acting like you're sure you're the smartest person in the room is a great way to make everyone else in the room hate you. Which do you think you're doing, when you act like you laid out above?

I dunno. Haven't thought about it that deeply. If they can think up Twitter Emoticons for Dogs without having to intellectually complete the puzzle of social purpose, I can stop short of thinking through all the issues on my side, too.

What I do know is that wisecracks seem to have more provocative potency in our day than commonsensical, plainspoken talk. The latter is easily deflected by hipster shields, as described more fully here:


TL;DR avoiding committal engagement with serious ideas and issues is pretty much table stakes among the Millennial version of MBA frat boys. That's not how you get to them.

I've talked more than one of them out of stupid business plans by making fun of them. That's closer to their language. It sometimes works.

I don't suppose I'd thought about it that way myself. Not really a problem I have - I tend to regard the hipster's self-enforced ironic detachment as its own punishment, and feel myself under no obligation to ameliorate the consequences thereof - but it might make for some interesting experiments at the bar.

> The point is far more likely to be lost if I simply straight-up tell

The prerequisite for the point being lost or you jumping straight to the point is you having a point in the first place and that doesn't seem to be the case from the comments you have posted so far.

Not one that can be distilled to a TED-worthy "actionable takeaway", no.

You seem to imply people care too much about TED yet the only one who keeps up bringing TED is you.

I also find it amusing you seem to have disdain and a feeling of superiority to startup bros and their emojis yet from a cursory glance, it doesn't look like you are doing anything out of ordinary or have achieved anything worthwhile yourself.

There are people who find "the alchemist" deep and life changing and there are people who find it trite and useless. You seem to be the first kind and I am latter. Nothing could come out of this conversation for you or me, so I will sign off now.

it doesn't look like you are doing anything out of ordinary or have achieved anything worthwhile yourself.

That is certainly true.

I mean, you can say the same about Socrates.

Sounds tedious.

Arguably the definition of philosophy. It's tedious, pedantic, semantically focused and rigorous. All which makes it insufferable, yet ultimately important.

Well, there's a reason I dropped out, after all. ;-)

But the article offers a good exposition of what happens when you have a world with too little philosophy. And that's the relatively harmless side of it. Everyone from Kafka to Hannah Arendt to Erich Fromm has sketched out the malignant side of capitalist education -- a society of people with skills but no Knowledge, a globe of narrow technical specialists with, to borrow a favoured turn of phrase from Dmitry Orlov, "nary a forehead in the crowd disfigured by a sentient impulse".

This is a great article. I nominate it for article of the year.

Approximate chance a Sam Kriss article isn't the article of the year on Hacker News: 0 (at least when displayed as an integer). But I wonder if this one would win in a fight with the one about Neil deGrasse Tyson...

(I like a lot of HN articles, but the average Sam Kriss article is a lot better. Like I'm a dog drooling over my kibble... and then one day I get a sniff of my master's well-cooked person-food.)

I didn't know the author was a thing. This is my first collision[1] with his writing, as far as I know, although I don't always pay attention to bylines as much as I should.

[1] Badoom tss.

So that makes mathematics a sub-branch of philosophy, right?

Absolutely. The field of mathematics was birthed from what we would consider traditional philosophy[1,2,3].





> Code What? To Do What? And Why?

Seriously? Our infrastructure is crumbling, billions of people still don't have enough food or clean water. Diseases, even curable ones, are killing people every day and you have to ask "To Do What?"??

Give me a break. Stop gazing at your navel for 10 seconds and go out and interact with the world. I guarantee you'll find a problem that needs fixing.

It's often the case that these issues don't need extra coders thrown at them, or if they do it will be code of a sufficiently high complexity that only a minority of experts dedicating years to it will make any headway. In either case, the result is that people could provide more meaningful help through pursuits other than becoming another mediocre programmer. Rather than balloons giving free wifi, people in difficult areas need stuff that can actually improve their lives. Unfortunately, when you have a hammer all you see is nails.

Of course, most people learning how to code will not tackle these problems in the first place. The incentives are such that it's more rational to create yet another zero-sum ad-based social-app-for-dogs project. Even the smartest programmers of our generation are probably working on some way to strengthen target advertisements or some other "late-stage capitalism" product that is not useful in the bigger picture, or even constitutes a downright drain on resources. But who can blame them? Without money you are treated like a subhuman creature, with enough of it you are almost a God.

Our infrastructure is crumbling, billions of people still don't have enough food or clean water.

And what % of tech startups are tackling these problems?

And what % of capital is available to entrepreneurs tackling those problems?

Do the people who will solve these problems drink smoothies?

There are opportunities to work at places besides tech startups, unbelievable as that may seem.

Are you suggesting we rebuild our bridges with code?

Believe it or not, quite a bit of software is used in the design and construction of bridges, much of it has a lot of room for improvement.

Sure, but you're not getting anything done with software alone.

yeah man code is magic everyone should learn how to code

most of the diseases we inflict on ourselves (70% of medical spending in the US) through diet and lifestyle choices. We could start by actually eating food, rather than the contents of boxes and plastic wrappers.

People not having food or water sounds more like a political problem than a problem that can be solved with code.

Political campaigns are being won by code.

What you need is political action and an informed citizenry that understand basic economics, to get rid of all the regulations preventing "real" innovation. Until that happens, all the coders in the world won't do any good.

Enjoyable, if verbose, read. Reminds me a bit of American Gods. There are a handful of startups that are offering genuine attempts at innovation and progress and, of course, a lot of garbage. It feels relatively slow moving until you realize how much you work differently, eat differently, drive differently than just a few years before. Like being slowly boiled alive in a bathtub.

Would you mind to clarify what you mean by "X definitely"? I think you are on to something, but cannot fully grasp wha you mean.

Take driving, for example.

1. I drive a lot less, because I can run errands online rather than having to go somewhere, like depositing a check. I do nearly all shopping online now.

2. The navigator apps eliminate the map-in-my-lap, and I've found more efficient routes to drive places than I used to.

3. I no longer have to give out detailed directions to get to my residence.

4. I don't go to the movie theater anymore.

You may have misread: the post said "differently" and not "definitely".

To be fair it did and I corrected it - slight dyslexia

It's not trivial to get money into the cryptocurrency system as it is even with trusted companies like Coinbase. For it to come closer to ubiquity, it's going to need to be trusted companies to help money enter the market and for it to be used as universally as VISA or Mastercard. Those payment points (Best Buys, Amazon, etc.) and hard currency exchange points (CoinBase, Gemini, etc.) are always going to be subject to regulation by local governments, as they should be.

Trusted points and regulation/taxes doesn't remove the benefits (distributed nature, smart contracts, and visibility) of a cryptocurrency like Ethereum. They are going to grow based on big corporate support and adoption. In fact, it's already happening: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/23/bigger-than-bitcoin-enterpris...

It is actually surprisingly difficult. I have been trying to open a Coinbase account for like two weeks. First week I was stuck in a limbo state where my attempts at adding my visa were stuck (because of a bug on their end - took them long enough to fix, must be interesting being VP of Operations at Coinbase). Now, I have finally added it, but it is in a "pending state" and the verification process is taking too long than it is worth.

How do people do it (buying BTC, or ETH)?

I have the same problem but imagine the alternatives. One reason it's so bad the last 2 weeks is the volume. The US exchanges have been hammered. Week to verify my bank on Coinbase, a week to verify my ID on Gemini.

Normally I don't like Sam Kriss' writing, and here it's because of the civil war comparison that just feels ham-fisted — that said, one can appreciate how "learn to code" is not the universal solution (especially when it's just thrown out as a conversation-stopper).

In general learning to code is up there with learning to read and write and math as it can be applied to almost any area or industry and be used to do simple scripting to advanced systems development. You dont have to become a developer but understanding how to "talk with technology" is imo one of the most important general skills one can learn.

But that's not the subtext of how it's being used when journalist/political people/noncoders use it. They specifically are saying a vast majority of people should just learn to program, do it full time, and it will solve all our economic woes. Computer skills are useful, no doubt. But they are not a universal panacea for everyone in the workforce. That inspires a new word for these blurts people mak: Friedmanism, in honor of Tom Friedman of the NYT.

I think you are wrong. Think coding as in talking with technology, think technology as a kind of species. Sure my dad wont be able to program a new plumber but he will be better able to take advantage of many of the benefits technology offers.

>In general learning to code is up there with learning to read and write and math

I think most people only need to read and write. Many skip writing. In many intellectual circles it is even regarded as slightly charming to be innumerate. These are people who take pride in their knowledge. How can math and coding be applied to a retail job? A shift worker at Zara isn't going to be allowed to integrate their code with the Inditex backend.

I think you are thinking about programming too litterally. Its more a question of learning to "think in technology" i.e. to at least be able to take advantage of technology.

For most systems the bar for meaningful contribution is too high - the average trucker who has trained to code cannot participate in automating transportation, for instance.

You dont have to.

"Uber for dogs" has been around for a few years.

So it's not just real, it's actually bordering on passé.

Now, does that make the essay sillier or does it make it scarier?

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