Category Archives: Economics

Lockdown must end very soon

It seems inevitable that the government will soon announce an extension to lockdown, and that it will be made more severe. Most of us will have several more weeks of being confined to homes, probably only except for trips to the supermarket or doctor. For many people, that means solitary confinement, in small flats with no garden. Even murderers in prison area allowed out for daily exercise.

Lockdown is due to be ‘reviewed’ soon, but it must end soon. The ongoing costs will be too damaging if it is allowed to continue, not just economic cost but extra deaths, mental health issues and lingering social and political damage

UK Health Authorities and Government negligence got us into this mess, but they are still making serious blunders

The handling of COVID by both the government, the health authorities and the police has been pretty poor so far. If you disagree, consider the following.

Experts have been warning frequently for decades that one of the biggest risks faced by humanity this century would be pandemics – every competent futurist has certainly always had it in their top three risks. They have been warned frequently that global travel and large city living would enable the very rapid spread globally of any new virus and that any time, a new outbreak could happen that would mean millions could die. Government cannot claim they did not have good warning that we would face a major pandemic. In fact, we’re fortunate this one only kills 0.66% of those it infects, it could have been far worse, it might have been 30%. Yet government and especially its Department of Health was very badly unprepared, with far too few incubators, intensive care beds, even face masks, let alone ensuring the ability to rapidly develop testing capability or vaccines. This unpreparedness goes back several governments. Hancock is doing his best and can reasonably claim he hasn’t been in that job long, but his many predecessors can’t escape condemnation. For example, I could never understand how someone who believes in homeopathy could possibly be be made Minister of Health, or why a PM would expect someone with such beliefs to have good analytical skills.

We knew COVID was a such a potential risk before the first cases were allowed to enter the UK.

In the weeks following, even though they knew large numbers of infected people were coming into the country, government did nothing. It didn’t close the airports. It made no attempt to prevent flights from infected areas, no attempt to check passengers even for obvious symptoms such as fever. It didn’t even give passengers any appropriate health guidance other than weakly suggesting they should consider self-isolating if they develop symptoms. It allowed passengers from infected area to be huddled closely together with others at passport control, greatly facilitating cross-infection. It made no attempt to quarantine anyone likely to be infected or to track their contacts. In short, government sat and watched as the virus spread beyond control, even helping it to do so.

During all that time, while it asked vulnerable people to isolate themselves, it allowed the idiot mayor of London to reduce tube services, forcing those who needed to travel into close proximity on platforms and trains, again facilitating the spread of the virus.

Faced with the choice to limit the virus coming into the UK, finding, isolating and contact tracking the manageable number of infectees, our government negligently watched as the virus became widespread. Its early policy was to achieve ‘herd immunity’, which needs 80% or more people to become infected. Many would develop serious symptoms and suffer terribly and many would go on to die horrible deaths. The estimated 250,000 deaths from a herd immunity approach contrast starkly with the few dozen that might have resulted from the alternative early action approach.

The governments response then changed to a ‘flatten the curve’ approach, still accepting that most people would be infected, but limiting the number of simultaneous cases to the small numbers the unprepared NHS could cope with. Because of their previous actions, they had little choice. They hoped that eventually, a vaccine might be developed, in 18 months or so.

When the virus seemed to be spreading too quickly, instead of reducing the rate of spread by concentrating on the gaping holes in their approach – allowing people to be crammed together in tube stations and passport control, and still letting others enter the country – they decided instead to introduce lockdown for a large part of the population, regardless of the level of infection in different areas, varying by as much as a factor of 20. Those people would suffer lockdown, while many others would still be crammed together spreading infection. In low infection areas, that lockdown could only reduce a small figure by a small amount. In other areas with high infection, a stricter lockdown would have achieved far more.

Many areas of London have very high infection rates. Given the 75% reduction in traffic, it would be extremely simple to lift London traffic controls and encourage as many as possible to use their private cars, especially for those living in the most infected areas, greatly reducing cross infection in the tube system. Instead, one of the heads of Public Health England made the comment that she was ‘slightly alarmed’ by the switch of travel from public transport to private vehicles. PHE has also stated that there is no point in wearing masks (a simple mask may not prevent you catching the virus, but they will greatly reduce how many virus-laden particles people emit when they talk, cough or sneeze and therefore will reduce the rate of infection. It may well be the case that PHE wants to reduce demand by the public for scarce masks so that enough will be available for those who need them, but if so, they should say so and not talk rubbish). I find it more than slightly alarming that people with such poor analytical skills should be in positions of decision making. Masks should be worn, prioritizing availability if need be to high infection areas.

People are still travelling between areas of very high infection and areas with very low infection. Many people in low infection areas will be needlessly infected. This will increase deaths. If we must have lockdown, there are far better ways to arrange it. Cellular lockdown, restricting travel between areas of markedly different infection rates would greatly reduce spread.

Even separating people from high and low infection areas in public transport would only require a simple ‘red and green’ trains system. Yet it seems beyond the comprehension of our authorities.

Some police forces have been intimidating people who are driving to open areas to exercise. Although a very few areas might attract occasional crowding greater than town footpaths, generally, urban footpaths will have far more joggers, walkers and cyclists, so exposure during exercise will generally be far higher by forcing people to exercise locally. That will increase cases and deaths. Closing parks and National Trust Gardens is similarly stupid and counter-productive. People will die because of that stupidity. Rather than take the side of common sense and logic, government threatens the people with stricter confinement if they continue to try to enjoy the outdoors, even when they are spread out.

Making it very hard to exercise away from other people will deter many people from doing so. Just when they have the greatest need to maintain peak fitness in case they become ill, their ability to do so is being reduced by officious police and busybodies. That will result in more deaths.

Watching such ongoing stupidity and negligence, I have very little confidence left in our government to make good decisions. I do not believe continuing lockdown is the right policy.

Lockdown

The current one-size-fits-all policy of lockdown is highly questionable, another mistake in a long line. A smarter form might have been justifiable to recover from the mess poor previous decisions got us into, but looking from where we are now, lockdown must be lifted soon, or it will cost far more than it saves.

Mental Health Costs

I was already self-isolating before lockdown, being ‘at risk’ but I don’t find isolation difficult. I’m introvert, normally work from home, and don’t normally leave my home more than a few times a month. I have a nice house and garden and a fantastic partner. So I have barely felt any change and am not suffering. Many are not so fortunate.

Many people live in tiny homes with no gardens and must find it distressing, especially those accustomed to going out frequently. Others live alone and many of them will be feeling very lonely. Still others will be experiencing relationship breakdowns, some of which will not mend when it’s all over. Lockdown will already be taking a severe toll on many people’s mental health. As lockdown continues the mental health costs will grow enormously. Some have already died via suicide and murder. Many more will follow, many will suffer extreme stress or fall into severe depression and start to suffer the wide range of ailments associated with those, especially many who are watching their business collapse.

Loneliness is a terrible problem that affects millions, particularly the old, and is known to contribute to ill health and death. Lockdown obviously is increasing loneliness for very many people, and will result in an unknown number of extra deaths.

Relationship breakdown as people are forced to live with each other 24/7 is inevitable. This is a well-known cause of stress, suicide and health reduction and will cause deaths directly and via reduced ability to deal with infection. Families of those concerned will also be affected.

Domestic violence is likely to increase similarly.

People’s energy bills will increase as they are confined to home. Many who already struggle to pay them will be greatly stressed by increased costs. Stress directly contribute to illness and deaths. If some old people who are already vulnerable have to turn down the heating because of worrying about energy bills, that will make them more physically vulnerable and mean even more deaths.

Death Costs

We now have some figures on the nature of the infection and its lethality. The Lancet suggest that 0.66% of those infected will die. If everyone were to be infected, that would be 430,000 UK deaths, and we’ve heard estimates around that before. On the other hand, the coronavirus app results suggest that as few as 25% of people have already been infected, suggesting future deaths due mainly to COVID might only be a few thousand (the majority of people dying who have COVID on their death certificate had other underlying issues and many would have died anyway, or soon).

Without testing of statistically large enough randomized samples in each area, we really have no idea and the government is flying blind. Letting everyone out and not doing anything at all to limit infection might result a few thousand or a few hundred thousand more deaths caused primarily by COVID. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that to be at the higher end, the mortality figures would need to be that high and almost everyone would need to be infected, but firstly, we can strongly limit infection by implementing sensible policies, and secondly, if we do that, we will have a vaccine in time to prevent most people becoming cases. So the high end is far too high. If we lifted lockdown now in low infection areas and later in higher infection areas after we have significantly reduce infections by better policy implementation and some optimised testing, future deaths would likely be between 5000 and 20,000, a wet-finer estimate, but probably no wetter than the models government seems to be relying on.

Not everyone lives in homes with good ventilation. Some in poor quality housing will have a higher infection rate from both COVID19 and other diseases due to poor ventilation.

Many people still rely on coal or wood fires, both of which produce particulates that can cause breathing difficulty and contribute to respiratory-related deaths.

The deaths costs from the above causes will be high, probably running into hundreds if it is allowed to continue more than another week or two, and that has to be offset against any gains. But there is an even bigger factor that will worsen if continued lockdown causes severe economic damage. As well as the factors above, some economists have done their analyses and suggested that due to the inevitable recession – up to 17% drop in GDP – far more future deaths will result from economic decline than will be saved by lockdown. For a change, even though they’re economists, I’m not inclined to disagree.

Economic Costs

In terms of saving lives, there are many ways to save lives so with finite funds, we should spend where the most lives can be saved for given funding. If we only save 5000 lives, but spend £500Bn to do so, that works out at £100M each! The NHS currently won’t provide a drug unless it is likely to add an extra year of quality life for less than £30,000. A typical 65-year old dying of COVID today would only expect to have another 20 years of life on average, so the NHS won’t pay more than £600k to keep them alive if they were dying of something that isn’t COVID. Many of those dying are much older than 65 and most have other underlying factors that make their life expectancy much less than normal. Using the same valuations,, an average spending limit of £250k seems more realistic. At £250k each, even the highest current estimate of 250,000 deaths would have a cost limit of £60Bn. On harsh economic terms, we could save more lives by helping those with other illnesses if the cost will exceed £60Bn. If you look a little further, various studies over the last decade have shown that tens of thousands of deaths in hospitals result from negligence, errors and poor hygiene. We could reduce those even more cheaply.

So the cost of lockdown makes no sense in terms of the economic cost of saving lives – there are more cost-effective ways. We could save far more for the same spend.

Social Costs

But there is still another major cost: society. If you are on social media, you will have noticed the rising tension, the conflicts between those who believe in this policy versus those who believe another one, the ones who want to comply versus dissenters, the rule violators versus the snitches.

Confidence in the police is being strained to breaking point, as is confidence in government. NHS worshippers abound, but so do those who believe shelf stackers and binmen are just as important.

Inter-generational conflict will increase. The young see their futures being thrown away to buy a few more years for the very elderly who would die soon anyway.

There will be strong resentment of the private sector worker watching their pension evaporate while the public sector worker next door has their gold-plated pension protected. People who were laid off and have to survive on Universal Credit will likely resent others having 80% of their previous income paid by the state, as will those who had to watch their businesses thrown under a bus with receive no compensation at all. Everyone will have to pay, but only some were protected.

Many of these growing tensions, resentments, conflicts and tribal conflicts will not vanish when it’s all over. Scars will remain for decades. The lingering social costs may well be as high as the economic and death costs.

Political Costs

Finally, we should consider that politics will change too.

Privacy, freedom, free speech and respect for the authorities will be permanently damaged. Social cohesion is an important part of the foundations of democracy.

Respect for the police and the principle of  ‘policing by consent’ has already been eroded by some police gleefully abusing their power like bullies appointed school prefects.

Being left with enormous bills and a trashed economy, with many businesses dead, it will take decades to recover. We already know the huge effects of austerity in politics, but are rapidly adding enormously to the already massive national debt so future austerity will be deep and long-lived.

We can also be sure that this will not be the last virus. In a year or two there will be another, and because of the poor handling of this one, reactions by society and the markets will be even more panicky, and we may take more economic hits. We may take generations to get back to ‘normality’.

Summary

Whichever angle you look at it, lockdown is the wrong solution. It has high mental health costs, it saves fewer lives than freeing everyone, and costs more per life than almost any other way of saving them. And it comes with very high social and political costs.

Whether you look at it from an economic angle, a pragmstic angle or are trying to be compassionate, it still makes no sense.

It should end soon.

 

 

Will China be the global winner from COVID?

A joint blog by Tracey Follows, Bronwyn Williams and ID Pearson

Will China be the global winner from COVID?

There have been many conspiracy theories about China suggesting that the virus was deliberately made. We may never know the whole truth.

Regardless of that, it is clear that, however unlikely, there is a greater than zero chance the virus could have been man-made. More importantly, a new virus could be man-made. Now that the West has shown its economically suicidal response to this one, there is a massive temptation for any rogue regime or terrorist group to produce a GM virus variant that is as or more lethal, as or more contagious. Death cults that want population reduction (such as environmental reasons) might well consider sponsoring such virus production in secret labs.

There is already one clear win for China: No-one is really debating democracy versus authoritarianism as it pertains to Hong Kong any more. But then no-one is really debating that choice anywhere because nation-states like the UK, France and USA, built on the core notions of freedom, have removed liberty and imposed a lockdown. Indeed, the few governments who have resisted – or even just delayed draconian encroachments on hard-won human rights to freedom of speech, movement and trade have found themselves cast as at best ignorant and at worst downright villainous by the popular press. This, despite the fact that the epidemiological and economic data and models projecting the socio-economic costs of the various paths of action (or inaction) available to authorities are questionable at best, downright misleading at worst. Perhaps Friedrich Hayek put it best when he said “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”. In other words, when faced with incomplete information, the first priority for any government should be to do no harm. When it comes to complex systems, seemingly simple solutions can have serious unintended consequences. This, however, is easier said than done in the face of an imminent threat when citizens, accustomed to having their every need met by their leaders are baying for someone to do something. This may well prove to be the biggest threat of all because populations can get awfully content being told what to do and relying on authorities to make all the tough decisions for them. Some may even be persuaded that this kind of big state, this kind of total state, isn’t really so bad after all.

The trouble is that authoritarian measures – such as state surveillance of health and cellular data and restrictions on freedom of movement or trade – adopted during times of crisis do not tend to simply disappear after the short term threat is passed.. As military men and women will tell you, it is much easier to get into wars than to get out of them. Likewise, it is much easier to lose civil liberties than it is to regain them. Have any governments who have removed or restricted citizen rights outlined any form of exit strategy for how to return those privileged post pandemic? No. The long-term normalisation of surveillance and authoritarianism driven by short-term fear threatens to create a global generation of Stockholm syndrome sufferers, grateful to the generosity of their gilded cage key keepers.

Result: China 1  – West 0

Perhaps what is most notable is that there have been several pandemics in recent memory: Zika, SARS, Ebola, swine flu, bird flu. None of these caused similar panic. The question is why. The answer lies in the way the current crisis has been handled by both mainstream and social media, both of which thrive on the spread of panic (a viral disease in and of itself), and panic, in turn creates an opportunity for authorities to capitalise on the crisis and consolidate both power and capital to their own ends. New deadly diseases emerge from nature frequently and next time the first news breaks on a future outbreak, the panic cycle we have witnessed in recent months is likely to repeat itself. Panic buying will follow, the media and the public will demand action, stock markets will fall, governments will be tempted to rush to close airports and print more money and take on more debt, and so on so as not to be the last man standing. That means that future outbreaks, however caused, will likely cause panic, confusion and likely major economic damage.

After spending tens or more likely hundreds of billions of pounds to get through COVID19, it may well be the case that the economy is only starting to recover before the next outbreak. The economy may not recover properly until we can end that cycle.

However, China, with its now proven technology to control its people, its centralised economy, and its much more compliant populace, conditioned over centuries of dictatorial rule to obey or face the consequences, would be more able to avoid such crashes.

The West will learn that the only way to avoid coming off second best in a crisis is to emulate its opponent, further eroding human rights and freedoms in the process. 

That is, of course, the rub: liberty has proven to work for the West in the long run. However, in the short run, there are trade offs. Authoritarians can do things that free men and women will not. From current events and reactions, it does not appear that the West has the short term courage (or citizens with the personal responsibility) to pay the price of long term liberty.

China 2 – West 0

Even as it becomes clear that China covered up the initial outbreak, denying other nations the benefits of foresight, and manipulated mortality rates, skewing economic and epidemiological models that could have been used to make better policy decisions, we may never know the full extent of China’s responsibility for this one. However, we can be sure they won this round, and will be the long term winners too, if our response here in the West is anything to go on.

About Tracey Follows

company: https://futuremade.consulting

twitter: twitter@traceyfutures

side hustle: https://www.femalefuturesbureau.com

Forbes contributor: tracey follows 

About Bronwyn Williams

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst, who consults to business and government leaders on how to understand the world we live in today and change the world’s trajectory for tomorrow. She is also a regular media commentator on African socio-economic affairs. For more, visit http://whatthefuturenow.com

Twitter: twitter@bronwynwilliams

About ID Pearson

Dr Pearson has been a full time futurologist for 29 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment and is a chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science

twitter: twitter.com@timeguide

timeguide.wordpress.com

The rise of Dr Furlough, Evil Super-Villain

Too early for an April Fool blog, but hopefully this might lighten your day a bit.

I had the enormous pleasure this morning of interviewing the up-and-coming Super-Villain Dr Furlough about her new plans to destroy the world after being scorned by the UK Government’s highly selective support policy. It seems that Hell has no fury like a Super-Villain scorned and Dr Furlough leaves no doubt that she blames incompetent government response for the magnitude of the current crisis:

Bitmoji Image

Dr Furlough, Super-Villain

“By late January, it should have been obvious to everyone that this would quickly grow to become a major problem unless immediate action was taken to prevent people bringing the virus into the country. Flights from infected areas should have been stopped immediately, anyone who may have been in contact with it should have been forcibly quarantined, and everyone found infected should have had their contacts traced and also quarantined. This would have been disruptive and expensive, but a tiny fraction of the problem we now face.  Not to do so was to give the virus the freedom to spread and infect widely until it became a severe problem. While very few need have died and the economy need not now be trashed, we now face the full enormous cost of that early refusal to act.”

“With all non-essential travel now blocked”, Dr Furlough explained, “many people have had their incomes totally wiped out, not through any fault of their own but by the government’s incompetence in handling the coronavirus, and although most of them have been promised state support, many haven’t, and have as Dr Furlough puts it ‘been thrown under a bus’. While salaried people who can’t work are given 80% of their wages, and those with their own business will eventually receive 80% of their average earnings up to £2500/month whether they are still working or not, the two million who chose to run their small business by setting up limited companies will only qualify for 80% of the often small fraction of income they pay themselves as basic salary, and not on the bulk of their income most take via dividends once their yearly profits are clearer. Consequently many will have immediately dropped from comfortable incomes to 80% of minimum wage. Many others who have already lost their jobs have been thrown onto universal credit. The future high taxes will have to be paid by everyone whether they received support or were abandoned. Instead of treating everyone equally, the state has thus created a seething mass of deep resentment.” Dr Furlough seems determined to have her evil revenge.

Bitmoji Image

With her previous income obliterated, and scorned by the state support system, the ever self-reliant Dr Furlough decided to “screw the state” and forge a new career as a James-Bond-style Super-Villain, and she complained that it was long overdue for a female Super-Villain to take that role anyway. I asked her about her evil plans and, like all traditional Super-Villains, she was all too eager to tell. So, to quote her verbatim:

“My Super-Evil Plan 1: Tap in to the global climate alarmist market to crowd-fund GM creation of a super-virus, based on COVID19. More contagious, more lethal, and generally more evil. This will reduce world population, reduce CO2 emissions and improve the environment. It will crash the global economy and make them all pay. As a bonus, it will ensure the rise of evil regimes where I can prosper.”

She continued: “My Evil Super-Plan 2: To invent a whole pile of super-weapons and sell the designs to all the nasty regimes, dictators, XR and other assorted doomsday cults, pressure groups, religious nutters and mad-scientists. Then to sell ongoing evil consultancy services while deferring VAT payments.”

Bitmoji Image

“Muhuahuahua!” She cackled, evilly.

“My Super-Plan 3: To link AI and bacteria to make adaptive super-diseases. Each bacterium can be genetically enhanced to include bioluminescent photonic interconnects linked to cloud AI with reciprocal optogenetic niche adaptation. With bacteria clouds acting as distributed sensor nets for an emergent conscious transbacteria population, my new bacteria will be able to infect any organism and adapt to any immune system response, ensuring its demise and my glorious revenge.”

laugh cry

By now, Dr Furlough was clearly losing it. Having heard enough anyway, I asked The Evil Dr Furlough if there was no alternative to destroying the world and life as we know it.

“Well, I suppose I could just live off my savings and sit it all out” she said.

 

HS2 is world class stupidity

£106Bn is the new estimated cost of HS2, with a new delivery date of 2040

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/20/hs2-costs-government-review-west-midlands-manchester-leeds

We hear figures in the billions all the time, and I guess politicians especially lose their sense of what they really mean. A few billion here, another few billion there, so £106Bn just sounds like a decent sized public infrastructure project, equivalent to a few power stations, what’s the big deal? Let’s do some simple sums to find out and get some perspective.

The money has to come from tax and regardless of the diverse routes it takes, people ultimately pay all that tax. There are 66.5 million people in the UK, so that’s only £1600 each. Most of those people will never or hardly ever use HS2.

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, HMRC, only 31.2 million of those people pay income tax, so they contribute an average £3400 each. But actually the top 50% of those, 15.6 million people, pay 90% of the tax, so that means HS2 will effectively cost them £95.4Bn, a whopping £6115 each. I could go more sums but you get the point.

It’s a fair bet that the half of UK taxpayers paying over £6000 each for HS2 could write a long list of things they’d rather have than the option to buy an expensive rail ticket that might save some people, but probably not them, 20 minutes on a journey to London, but for most people might actually take them longer if they have first to get a slow train to one of the privileged HS2 stations.

6000 quid, each, 12k for a professional couple. For a slightly faster train? Remember, the original spec was for very fast trains, but they had to wind the speed down because it was discovered that trains might sometimes derail due to lethal combinations of aerodynamics and subsidence, so the realistic spec is about 150mph, compared to 125mph for a normal intercity.

This is the economics of the madhouse.

Trains are 19th and 20th century technology. 21st century technology allows driverless pod systems that would be far cheaper, far more versatile, far more socially inclusive, and far faster end to end. Pods could carry people or freight. Pod systems could start off mixing with conventional trains by grouping to make virtual trains. As antique old stock is gradually upgraded, along with stations, we would end up with a totally pod-based transport system. Pods could just as easily run on roads as on rails. The rails could be ripped up and recycled, railways tarmacked over, and public transport could seamlessly run on roads or the old railways. With potential occupancy of up to 95%, compared to the 0.4% typical of conventional rail, the old railways could carry 237 times more traffic! That wouldn’t eliminate congestion – there would still be some choke points – but it would make one hell of a dent in it. It would be faster because someone could have a pod pick them up at their home or office, maybe swap onto a shared one at a local node, and then go all the way to their destination at a good speed, with hardly any delays en-route, now waiting for the next scheduled train or having to make pointless journeys to get to a mainline station. They could simply go straight to where they want, and save much more time than HS2 would ever have saved.

Pod systems could serve the whole country, not just the lucky few living near the right stations. Fixing ‘the North-South divide’ still favours pod systems, not HS2. Everyone benefits from pods, hardly anyone benefits from HS2. Everyone saves money with pods, everyone is worse off with HS2. Why is the idea still flying?

The problem we have is that too few of our politicians or senior civil servants have any real understanding of technology and its potential. They are blinded by seeing figures in billions sever day, so have lost their understanding of just how much £100Bn is. They are terrified of pressure groups and always eager to be seen to be doing something, however stupid that something might be if they examined it.

HS2 is a stupid idea, world-class stupidity. It is 20th century technology, an old idea long past its use-by date. It locks in all the huge disadvantages and costs of old-style rail for several more decades We should leapfrog over it and go instead for a 21st century solution – cheap driverless pods. We’d save a fortune and have a far superior result.

 

 

The future for women, pdf version

It is several years since my last post on the future as it will affect women so here is my new version as a pdf presentation:

Women and the Future

The future of land value

St BeesI don’t do investment advice much, and I am NOT an investment adviser of any kind, just a futurist doing some simple reasoning.

World population is around 7.7Bn.

It will increase, level off, then decline, then grow again.

Any projections you see are just educated guesswork. 9.8Bn figure is the UN global population estimate for 2050, and I won’t argue with that, it seems as good a guess as any. Everyone then expects it to level off and decline, as people have fewer kids. I’m not so sure. Read my blog five years ago that suggested it might grow again in the late century, perhaps reaching as high as 15Bn:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I only say might, because there are pressures in both directions and it is too hard to be sure in a far future society which ones will be stronger and by how much. I’m just challenging the standard view that it will decline into the far future, and if I had to place a bet, it would be on resumed growth.

Population is one large influence on demand for land and ‘real estate’.

Another is population distribution. Today, all around the world, people are moving from the countryside to cities. I argue that urbanization will soon peak, and then start to reverse:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

De-urbanization will largely be enabled by high technology and its impacts on work and social life. It will be caused by increasing wealth, coupled to the normal desire to live happier lives. Wealth is increasing quickly, varying place to place and year to year. It is reasonable, given positive feedback effects from AI and automation, to assume average real growth of 2%, including occasional recessions and booms. By 2100, that means global wealth will be 5 times today’s. Leaving aside the lack of understanding of exponential growth by teachers indoctrinating schoolkids to think of themselves as economic victims, taken advantage of by greedy Boomers, that means today’s and tomorrow’s kids will have one hell of a lot more money available to spend on property.

So, there will be more people, with more money, more able to live anywhere. Real estate prices will increase, but not uniformly.

Very many of them will choose to leave cities and with lots of money in the bank, will want somewhere really nice. A lovely beachfront property perhaps, or on a mountainside with a gorgeous view. Or even on a hill overlooking the city, or deep in a forest with a waterfall in the garden. Some might buy boring homes in boring estates surrounded by fields but it won’t be first choice very often. The high prices will go to large and pretty homes in pretty locations, as they do today, but with much higher differential, because supply and demand dictates that. We won’t build more mountains or valleys or coastline. Supply stays limited while demand and bank balances rockets, so prices will rocket too.

Other property won’t necessarily become cheaper, it just won’t become as expensive as fast. Many people will still like cities and choose to live there, do business there, socialize there. They also will be richer, and there may be a lot more of them if population does indeed grow again, but increasing congestion would just cause more de-urbanization. Prices may still rise, but the real money will be moving elsewhere.

Farmland will mostly stay as farmland. Farms are generally functional rather than pretty. Agricultural productivity will be double or triple what it is today, maybe even more. Some food will be made in factories or vertical farms, using tissue culturing or hydroponics, or using feed-stocks based on algae grown at sea, or insects, or fungi. The figures therefore suggest that demand for land to grow stuff will be lower than today, in spite of a larger population. Some will be converted to city, some to pretty villages, some given back to nature, to further increase the attractiveness of those ultra-expensive homes in the nice areas in the distance. Whichever way, that doesn’t suggest very rapid growth of value for most agricultural land, the obvious exception being where it happens to be in or next to a pretty area, in which case it will rocket in value.

As I said, all of this is educated guesswork. Don’t bet the farm on it until you’ve done your own analysis. But my guess is, city property will gain modest value, agricultural land will hold its value or even fall slightly, unless it is in a pretty location. Anywhere pretty will skyrocket in price, be it an existing property or a piece of land that can be built on and stay pretty.

As a final observation, you might argue that pretty isn’t everything. Surely some people will value being near to centers of power or major hubs too? Yes they will, but that is already factored into the urbanization era. That value is already banked. Then it follows the rules just like any other urban property.

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.

 

With automation driving us towards UBI, we should consider a culture tax

Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where everyone has enough to live a dignified and comfortable life. To make that possible, we need to tweak a few things.

Universal Basic Income

I suggested a long time ago that in the far future we could afford a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking that and many others since have adopted the idea too, under the now usual terms Universal Basic Income or the Citizen Wage. The idea may be old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure  economic feasibility.

No means testing means very little admin is needed, saving the estimated 30% wasted on admin costs today. Then wages could go on top, so that everyone is still encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea.

The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. £30k is around today’s average wage. It doesn’t make you rich, but you can live on it so nobody would be poor in any sensible sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it can’t work with those figures yet. 65,000,000 x £30,000 = £1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t big enough. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state were to take 75% of GDP and spend most of it on the basic income, £10k per person would be pushing it. So a couple would struggle to afford even the most basic lifestyle, and single people would really struggle. Some people would still need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive. It simply wouldn’t work today.

Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivize people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest £30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than the UK can afford. Switzerland is richer per capita but even there they have rejected the idea.

However, if we can get back to the average 2.5% growth per year in real terms that used to apply pre-recession, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.

So I still really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but recognise that we in the UK will have to wait decades before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards though other economies could afford it earlier.

Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too. Thankfully much of the current drive in UBI thinking is coming from the big automation owners so it’s comforting to know that they seem to understand the alternative.

Capitalism works well when rewards are shared sensibly, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.

Culture tax

The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest sense.

When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all our accumulated knowledge and culture – trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily with their time and money but actually when  considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.

That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. It is common land, free to use, today. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.

The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why should they not pay the host country for its IP – access to the residents’ entire culture?

This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future businessman might still choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of  the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation. Today a company pays for its telecoms service which pays for the network. It doesn’t pay explicitly for the true value of that network, the access to people and businesses, the common language, the business protocols, a legal system, banking, payments system, stable government, a currency, the education of the entire population that enables them to function as actual customers. The whole of society owns those, and could reasonably demand rent if the company is opting out of the old-fashioned payments mechanisms – paying fair taxes and employing people who pay taxes. Automate as much as you like, but you still must pay your share for access to the enormous value of human culture shared by us all, on which your company still totally depends.

Linking to technology use makes good sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A few people could own most of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which belongs equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.

I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share. A culture tax would provide a fair ethical basis to demand the taxes needed to pay the Universal basic Income so that all may prosper from the coming automation.

The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger, though automation may well increase it a lot. The tax would ensure that wealth is fairly shared. Culture tax/UBI duality is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.

Proposed Kent solar farm is green lunacy

Solar farms should be placed in desert regions that have low value for growing food, and relatively low value to nature. There are plans to install a massive solar farm in nice green Kent, where it is occasionally a little bit sunny. That strikes me as lunacy, and even some green groups agree and are campaigning against it.

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/faversham/news/proposal-for-solar-farm-site-increases-to-1-000-acres-184240/

The project is apparently being led by Hive Energy and Wirsol. I have been in contact with Tesla, who say “Tesla is not in conversations with any parties with regards to this project”.

Land is limited and we must use it sensibly

Nature often takes a battering when money is available, but a rich country should protect nature and ensure that some appropriate spaces are set aside. It is right to resist attempts to reassign such land to other purposes, especially when there area obvious alternatives. In this case, the land in question is mainly natural habitat, but other green areas are used for food production.

World population is growing, with another 3 billion mouths to feed mid-century. Agricultural technology will improve output per hectare and food trends may reduce the amount of meat consumption, but we should be able to feed everyone just fine even with 10 or 11 Billion people, but it will require good land stewardship. Prime agricultural land should be used mainly to grow crops. Some will be needed for buildings and roads of course, and we will want to have extensive nature reserves too. When we can produce more food than people need, we can return land to nature, but we should certainly not waste it by using it for solar farms when there are far better places to put them.

Using agricultural land for solar farms increases food costs by reducing food supply, hurting the world’s poorest people. This is also true of using land to grow biofuels, essentially an extraordinarily inefficient form of indirect solar power.

Secondly, the main current argument for solar power is to save CO2 emissions. If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll know I think that claims of human-related CO2-induced global warming catastrophe are greatly exaggerated, but there is some effect so we should not be complacent, and we do still need to be careful with emission levels. I’ve always been in favor of moving to solar and fusion as very long-term solutions. Fusion won’t be a big player until the 2040s. One day, solar will be cheaper than using shale gas, the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel solution with only half the CO2 output for a unit of energy compared to oil and coal, but that day is still far in the future. The more energy a panel can make, the more CO2 it saves. We only have one atmosphere, and a ton saved anywhere is a ton saved globally. It makes sense to put them in places where there is a lot of sun. Often that means deserts, which obviously have very little value for growing crops and support relatively low levels of life for the same reason. Putting a panel in a desert produces far more energy for far less environmental cost. A solar panel in the Sahara would make 5 times more energy than one in Kent, without reducing world food output at all. 

Sahara solar

Furthermore, many desert areas are home to poor people, who might welcome extra income from housing and maintaining panels for a cut of the revenue they make. Dust and sand would make maintenance a regular issue, but providing decent income for regular work for people with few other options makes good economic sense. Doing so would also help subsidize other infrastructure badly needed that might also improve local quality of life in those areas.

Finally, by providing extra income to deprived areas of the world, geo-political tensions may reduce somewhat.

All in, it makes far more sense socially, economically, politically, and environmentally to provide solar power from desert areas than from prime agricultural land or natural habitat.

 

 

AIs of a feather flocking together to create global instability

Hawking and Musk have created a lot of media impact with their warnings about AI, so although terminator scenarios resulting from machine consciousness have been discussed, as have more mundane use of non-conscious autonomous weapon systems, it’s worth noting that I haven’t yet heard them mention one major category of risks from AI – emergence. AI risks have been discussed frequently since the 1970s, and in the 1990s a lot of work was done in the AI community on emergence. Complex emergent patterns of behavior often result from interactions between entities driven by simple algorithms. Genetic algorithms were demonstrated to produce evolution, simple neighbor-interaction rules were derived to illustrate flocking behaviors that make lovely screen saver effects. Cellular automata were played with. In BT we invented ways of self-organizing networks and FPGAs, played with mechanism that could be used for evolution and consciousness, demonstrated managing networks via ANTs – autonomous network telephers, using smart packets that would run up and down wires sorting things out all by themselves. In 1987 discovered a whole class of ways of bringing down networks via network resonance, information waves and their much larger class of correlated traffic – still unexploited by hackers apart from simple DOS attacks. These ideas have slowly evolved since, and some have made it into industry or hacker toolkits, but we don’t seem to be joining the dots as far as risks go.

I read an amusing article this morning by an ex-motoring-editor who was declined insurance because the AI systems used by insurance companies had labelled him as high risk because he maybe associated with people like Clarkson. Actually, he had no idea why, but that was his broker’s theory of how it might have happened. It’s a good article, well written and covers quite a few of the dangers of allowing computers to take control.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5310031/Evidence-robots-acquiring-racial-class-prejudices.html

The article suggested how AIs in different companies might all come to similar conclusions about people or places or trends or patterns in a nice tidy positive feedback loop. That’s exactly the sort of thing that can drive information waves, which I demonstrated in 1987 can bring down an entire network in less than 3 milliseconds, in such a way that it would continue to crash many times when restarted. That isn’t intended by the algorithms, which individually ought to make good decisions, but when interacting with one another, create the emergent phenomenon.  Automated dealing systems are already pretty well understood in this regard and mechanisms prevent frequent stock market collapses, but that is only one specific type of behavior in one industry that is protected. There do not seem to be any industry-wide mechanisms to prevent the rest of this infinite class of problems from affecting any or all of the rest, simultaneously.

As we create ever more deep learning neural networks, that essentially teach themselves from huge data pools, human understanding of their ‘mindsets’ decreases. They make decisions using algorithms that are understood at a code level, but the massive matrix of derived knowledge they create from all the data they receive becomes highly opaque. Often, even usually, nobody quite knows how a decision is made. That’s bad enough in a standalone system, but when many such systems are connected, produced and owned and run by diverse companies with diverse thinking, the scope for destructive forms of emergence increases geometrically.

One result could be gridlock. Systems fed with a single new piece of data could crash. My 3 millisecond result in 1987 would still stand since network latency is the prime limiter. The first AI receives it, alters its mindset accordingly, processes it, makes a decision and interacts with a second AI. This second one might have different ‘prejudice’ so makes its own decision based on different criteria, and refuses to respond the way intended. A 3rd one looks at the 2nd’s decision and takes that as evidence that there might be an issue, and with its risk-averse mindset, also refuse to act, and that inaction spreads through the entire network in milliseconds. Since the 1st AI thinks the data is all fine and it should have gone ahead, it now interprets the inaction of the others as evidence that that type of data is somehow ‘wrong’ so itself refuses to process any further of that type, whether from its own operators or other parts of the system. So it essentially adds its own outputs to the bad feeling and the entire system falls into sulk mode. As one part of infrastructure starts to shut down, that infects other connected parts and our entire IT could fall into sulk mode – entire global infrastructure. Since nobody knows how it all works, or what has caused the shutdown, it might be extremely hard to recover.

Another possible result is a direct information wave, almost certainly a piece of fake news. Imagine our IT world in 5 years time, with all these super-smart AIs super-connected. A piece of fake news says a nuke has just been launched somewhere. Stocks will obviously decline, whatever the circumstances, so as the news spreads, everyone’s AIs will take it on themselves to start selling shares before the inevitable collapse, triggering a collapse, except it won’t because the markets won’t let that happen. BUT… The wave does spread, and all those individual AIs want to dispose of those shares, or at least find out what’s happening, so they all start sending messages to one another, exchanging data, trying to find what’s going on. That’s the information wave. They can’t sell shares of find out, because the network is going into overload, so they try even harder and force it into severe overload. So it falls over. When it comes back online, they all try again, crashing it again, and so on.

Another potential result is smartass AI. There is always some prat somewhere who sees an opportunity to take advantage and ruins if for everyone else by doing something like exploiting a small loophole in the law, or in this case, most likely, a prejudice our smartass AI has discovered in some other AI that means it can be taken advantage of by doing x, y, or z. Since nobody quite knows how any of their AIs are making their decisions because their mindsets ate too big and too complex, it will be very hard to identify what is going on. Some really unusual behavior is corrupting the system because some AI is going rogue somewhere somehow, but which one, where, how?

That one brings us back to fake news. That will very soon infect AI systems with their own varieties of fake news. Complex networks of AIs will have many of the same problems we are seeing in human social networks. An AI could become a troll just the same as a human, deliberately winding others up to generate attention of drive a change of some parameter – any parameter – in its own favour. Activist AIs will happen due to people making them to push human activist causes, but they will also do it all by themselves. Their analysis of the system will sometimes show them that a good way to get a good result is to cause problems elsewhere.

Then there’s climate change, weather, storms, tsunamis. I don’t mean real ones, I mean the system wide result of tiny interactions of tiny waves and currents of data and knowledge in neural nets. Tiny effects in one small part of a system can interact in unforeseen ways with other parts of other systems nearby, creating maybe a breeze, which interacts with breezes in nearby regions to create hurricanes. I think that’s a reasonable analogy. Chaos applies to neural net societies just as it does to climate, and 50 year waves equivalents will cause equivalent havoc in IT.

I won’t go on with more examples, long blogs are awful to read. None of these requires any self-awareness, sentience, consciousness, call it what you will. All of these can easily happen through simple interactions of fairly trivial AI deep learning nets. The level of interconnection already sounds like it may already be becoming vulnerable to such emergence effects. Soon it definitely will be. Musk and Hawking have at least joined the party and they’ll think more and more deeply in coming months. Zuckerberg apparently doesn’t believe in AI threats but now accepts the problems social media is causing. Sorry Zuck, but the kind of AI you’re company is messing with will also be subject to its own kinds of social media issues, not just in its trivial decisions on what to post or block, but actual inter-AI socializing issues. It might not try to eliminate humanity, but if it brings all of our IT to a halt and prevents rapid recovery, we’re still screwed.