Saturday, September 12, 2015

Do Dreams Have a Meaning?

People have wondered since ancient times whether dreams have a meaning.  I never thought about it much because I rarely have dreams that I remember.  But last night's crisp Fall air was perfect for sleeping, and also for dreaming. I dreamed that I was wandering about a vast public plaza, and under my coat I was carrying a large leather pouch or purse, which seemed to contain a few tiny, cheap cameras, some old cassette tapes, and small fragments of scrap lead. I wanted to get rid of the bag, and I thought of throwing it in a trash can or in the river, but it dawned on me that it could possibly be traced back to me, and for some reason, this did not seem like a good idea. I was tired, and there was an alcove adjoining the plaza where they re-upolstered old furniture. It was nearly deserted, so I went in and sat down in an old overstuffed chair that was awaiting reupholstering. Other weary travelers, mostly hobos and derelicts I guess, were doing the same thing. I re-examined the leather pouch, and it now contained two small marionettes---the small gaudy, paper mache kind they make in Mexico to sell to tourists. Upon discovering the marionettes, I said, "Hmmm. Interesting." So that's as much of the dream as I remember. So, my friends---what do it mean?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Too Little Government Debt?

            There was a fascinating little article by Justin Lahart  in the July 2 issue of Wall Street Journal, entitled "Federal Reserve Faces Newfangled Problem:  Too Little Debt."   Let me quote you a couple lines:
            "With the election year approaching,  politicians will be ramping up the rhetoric about America's looming debt problem.   The Federal Reserve, on the other hand, may soon have  a different  worry:   that there is too little government debt to go around for long-term rates to rise meaningfully."
            Right now,  real interest rates, after inflation, are near zero, and have been so for a long time.  While this helps crank up the economy and helps buoy up stock prices,  it can be dangerous if it persists too long, in that it can trigger an asset bubble of some kind.   The housing bubble was mainly caused by keeping interest rates too low for too long.  And we may now be in a stock price bubble.    So the Fed would really like to get off the zero interest rate.  When the newspapers  speculate about when the Fed will begin to raise interest rates,  the  rate in question is the Prime Rate---the rate at which the Federal Reserve loans money to banks.   But, as a practical matter, this rate can never get too far from the rate at which the government borrows money---- the rate commanded by treasury bills.  So for the prime rate to go up very much, the rate paid on Treasury bills would have to rise also, and that's the problem.  These rates are not set by executive fiat---they are set by public auction.   When T-bills are auctioned off, the discount from face value at which they trade determines the actual interest rate.   And right now, buyers are bidding for them so aggressively that they have bid the interest rate to zero.

            Debt is a commodity-- especially safe, secure sovereign debt like U.S. T-Bills.    From time to time,  investors need a safe place to park their money---and T-Bills provide such a place.  But the supply of U.S. T-Bills has been shrinking.  Under the Obama administration,  the economy has improved, so tax collections are rising.  At the same time, the administration  has cut back on spending, so the amount of new debt being issued is shrinking.   And most of the new debt is issued simply to redeem existing notes.   So the net new supply of U.S. sovereign debt is only about 50 billion dollars per month,  which falls way short of demand.    And to make matters worse,  western European central banks have finally decided to do a little quantitive easing, so they are printing money and buying their own sovereign debt.  This means that European investors who would normally be buying their own government debt are now buying ours, which makes the bidding even more aggressive.   The only solution would be to persuade the Obama administration to do more borrowing and spending, but Democrats have become such deficit hawks that this is not likely to happen.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Frontline Ukraine

            I am about halfway through Richard Sakwa's book,   FRONTLINE UKRAINE, Crisis in the Borderlands.    This is an excellent book,  and the first one I've found printed in English that seems to give an evenhanded  account of the problem.   I will not attempt to post a review of this book---I just recommend that you read it  yourself.   The problem he describes is complex enough that the 255 pages he writes is in itself a brief summary.   Parts are densely written but no more so than necessary to describe the complex historical, economic, and geopolitical forces in play here.  I can't summarize it, but I'll  give you a metaphor.  [This is my metaphor---not the author's]
            Imagine a large hockey arena,  with two goals;  one at the east, and one at the west.  There are seven or eight teams on the ice,  representing two different leagues.   None of the teams have decided for sure which league they want to belong to---some would like to belong to both,  but that isn't allowed.  There is internal dissention within the teams over this issue, with violent quarrels breaking out, and some members switching allegiance to other teams.  All the players on the ice  have known each other for a very long time, and carry old grudges that go back as far as anyone can remember.  Meanwhile, a dozen pucks are in play, bloody fights on the ice break out from time to time,  and there are no referees.   Everyone accuses  everyone else of bad faith----usually for good reason.   Occasionally, someone  makes a good faith effort to stop the madness, but the old wounds and old grudges are too old and too deep.  

            The drunken fans are not sure who they are cheering for--or why. They quarrel among themselves noisily,  and eventually,  some of them will probably set fire to the arena.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Taking Sides in the Class War

  This post, and its accompanying fact sheet,  are part of a presentation on economic inequality presented at the Cedar Valley Unitarian Universalists on April 12, 2015.
Please take a look at the fact sheet before reading the rest of the post.


1.  Can inequality be quantified, or defined objectively?  Yes.  The Gini Index does this. In 1912, an Italian economist named Corrado Gini devised an index which integrates the income data from an entire country into a single number, the Gini Index.  If all of the income in a country went to a single individual, the country would have an index equal to 1.   If all income were divided perfectly evenly, the country would have an index equal to 0.  So all Gini indices fall between 0 and 1.   (The higher the number, the more inequality.) Since 1912, economists worldwide have used the Gini Index.
2.  What is the U.S. Gini Index, and how does this compare to other countries?  In 1985, the U.S. Gini Index was .419.   Across Europe at that time, the index ranged from .200 to .300.  Historically, at least since WWII,  income distribution in Europe has been radically more equal than in the U.S.
3. Where do Gini numbers come from?   The U.S. Census Bureau computes and publishes Gini Index numbers for the U.S. as a whole, and for each Congressional District.
4. How has the U.S. Gini Index changed through time?   In 1968, the U.S. index was .386, the lowest ever recorded. By 1975, it was .397.    By 1985, it was .419.  Today, it's .476.
To look at it another way, in 2012, the top 1% got 23% of all income.  This is the same percentage as in 1928---just before the start of the Great Depression.   In case you were wondering why Wall Street investors would care about inequality--now you know.
All Gini Index numbers quoted here are from an article in the March 16 issue of The New Yorker by Jill Lepore, entitled "Richer and Poorer."  In this article she reviews three recent books, including Robert Putnam's Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis.

                  TAKING SIDES IN THE CLASS Albert Browne
            Last summer, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly ( the UU GA) chose" Escalating Inequality" as its National Study and Action Issue.    Yet the UU GA is not the only voice speaking out on this subject.   In the last few years, The International Monetary Fund, (the IMF) has been saying that the main thing holding back the economic recovery, worldwide,  is economic inequality in the US.  The Pope also talks about inequality, and President Obama had  made remediation of inequality the centerpiece of his second term, until world events pushed it onto a back burner.  Keep in mind that the IMF is a syndicate of international banking interests.   No one ever accused them of being a friend of working people anywhere.  Yet even they are worried about inequality. They think if this  problem  remains unchecked, it could bring down the whole Western economic system.  Several editorials have been printed in the Wall Street Journal  sharing  that concern.   What are the odds that  the Pope, the IMF, and the UU GA would all agree on something? Yet they are all concerned about inequality.
            How did we ever get to this level of inequality?  Well, it is the predictable result of a 40 year class war.    Do we really have a class war?   Warren Buffet says, "Yes, there is a class war---and unfortunately, my side is winning."  But  before I try to persuade you of a moral obligation to fight  growing inequality by doing something, I would like to examine the question of whether there is any action you could take that would make a difference.  If not, then you probably have no obligation to do anything at all.  We have all spent most of our adult lives hearing that any attempt improve the lives of those who are less successful is bound to fail, or would just make things worse.  Or we've  heard that taxing billionaires to fund benefits for the general public is counter-productive,  because billionaires are the "job creators," or because the  confiscation of wealth through taxation might undermine the incentive for investors to take risks.  We are told that even though our human instincts might spur us to help others, we should resist this urge because it just makes things worse.  We are told that the only thing society can really  do that helps is to repeal taxation and regulation, and get government out of the way,  so the "magic of the market"  can do its work.  Well, since the meltdown of 2008, our most recent experience with "the magic of the market," you might wonder how anyone could still believe this stuff, but a lot of people do, and they are not all uneducated or ignorant people.   We are so immersed in this kind of "free-market cheerleading" that most people accept it without ever examining why.   Whether you call it "trickle down" economics, or "supply side" economics, it's all the same idea, and it's been around for a long time. The idea is actually based on the theories of two Eighteenth Century economists;  Adam Smith, who wrote the Wealth of Nations,  and  Jean-Baptist Say,   who gave us "Say's Law."  People like to quote  Adam Smith, though most have not actually read Smith, and would not much like what they saw if they ever did. But it's Say's Law that all reactionary economic schemes really depend on.
   This idea gets resurrected about once every generation, and the reason it always has believers is that some of its defenders always have impressive credentials.    Milton Friedman, after all, was a Nobel laureate.  Winning the  Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976 made him the High-Priest of Money, and his  acolytes soon took over the economics departments of many of our best colleges   So if you have been influenced by these ideas, and all of us have, then I should take the few minutes required to demonstrate that Say's Law is all complete and utter nonsense before I try to discuss how we might discharge our moral and ethical obligations to the economic losers our society systematically creates. If you harbor even the slightest doubt that attempts to improve the human condition have a good chance of working, then my job should be to purge that doubt.  Otherwise, when you get involved in a progressive project, your heart will never be in it, because your head will be telling you that it can't work.
              Nobel Prize winning economists Paul Krugman, who writes for the New York Times and  Joseph Steiglitz, former President of the IMF, disagree strongly with supply side economics.  In fact, if they were all alive today, you could fill a couple rooms with Nobel Prize winning economists who totally dismissed supply side economics. 
            But the economist who explains most clearly why supply side economics doesn't work, is the late John Kenneth Galbraith.  Galbraith was economic advisor for four U.S. Presidents:  Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, though he broke with the Johnson Administration in the mid 60s over the Viet Nam War.   Amazingly, every administration he worked for saw an increase in the American standard of living for as many years as he was part of the team.  When not advising presidents, he was a tenured professor at Harvard, and he wrote over 30 books.  When I was in College, Galbraith was required reading in every economics class, and is still considered the foremost authority on the causes of The Great Depression. 
            Galbraith says that in 1930,  you could not be hired by any economics department in the country if you did not accept Say's Law.  But by 1935,  you could not be hired if you did accept it.   Say's Law basically says that production creates its own demand.  That there could never be a glut, that is, more goods on the market than purchasing power to buy it, because production creates its own purchasing power.  If Say's Law is true, then there is no need for government to intervene in the economy to shore up demand, because demand is always there. Since demand can take care of itself, then everything can be left to the market, and there is no need for the government to become involved in the economy at all.  Yet one of Say's Law's corollaries is that there can never be a depression. There might be a brief downturn, but not a real depression.  But by 1935, we had  a  real  depression, and we'd had it for five years.
            To understand what happened, we need to look at what a depression is and how it happens.  Marx, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, says that the culprit is profit. If a factory makes something that sells for 100 bucks, and if the total wage paid to the production workers, truckers, retail clerks, and all the other people who make the sale possible adds up to 100 bucks, there is no problem.  Every time another unit is dumped on the market,  another hundred dollars of wages is also poured into the market, and there is enough buying power to buy that unit.  But if there is a profit, even a small one, therein lies the seeds of a depression.  According to Marx, if there is a 5% profit, and that profit is hoarded rather than spent or re-invested, then only 95% of the production can be purchased, and the other 5% remains unsold. But over the years, unsold things accumulate, and eventually stores stop re-ordering, and factories lay off.  And since every lay off further decreases the aggregate purchasing power, the number of laid off workers increases exponentially, and we have a depression.   Marx was not the first to observe this. These ideas had been around a while, and sixty years before Marx, Jean Say had written a rebuttal.   Why does the IMF say that inequality produces a sluggish economy?  Put simply, the reason is that if all excess cash is concentrated into very few hands, then working people don't buy much because they don't have the money, and the very rich don't spend a very high percentage of what they have because they no longer need anything, nor could anyone consume that much anyway. So when the IMF says that inequality is holding back the recovery,  they are really saying that Marx was right, but I'm sure they don't like to put it that way.  But Say tells us that profits do not get hoarded--they are deposited in banks, and banks always  loan them out.  Someone always borrows these monies and spends them-- on something. One way or another,  all of the money is spent, so there can't ever be a depression. 
            Galbraith explains how there can be a depression.   Obama has been criticized for saving the banks first.  But FDR did the same thing.   The economy cannot operate without the free flow of borrowing and lending.  But Galbraith says that after FDR's first year,  money was available to any credit-worthy costumer, at low interest rates---but there was little borrowing or lending.  And the depression continued for another 7 years.    Why?  Suppose you  owned a factory, and your warehouse was stacked to the ceiling with unsold merchandise, and half your workers were laid off.   Would you be likely pick that moment to go into debt to build another factory?  If you owned a chain of stores and half of them were boarded up,  would you take on debt to build more stores?  When the economy is sluggish, not all of the money gets loaned out and spent----some of it just sits there.  American corporations are now sitting on a huge hoard of cash---over a trillion dollars.  They aren't likely to spend it until the economy improves, and the economy is not likely to improve until they spend it.   We had the same situation in the 30's, and the man who figured out how to solve it was John Maynard Keynes. Adam Smith had believed that if the market was completely unencumbered by government, it would produce a paradise for everyone. He was wrong.  When Marx lived in England, the country had espoused the principles of Adam Smith for half a century.  Marx saw children sold to factories by their desperate parents, locked inside factories for 15 hours a day, and starved or whipped if they couldn't work fast enough. To Marx, this did not look much like paradise.
 Marx believed that if the government confiscated all facilities of production--then--there would be a paradise.  He was wrong too. When Barbara Ehrenreich was asked why the Communist experiment failed,  she said, "Because--people are no damn good."  I suppose humanity is a flawed species.  Some would blame it on original sin, but I'm not sure I agree.  When I commit sins, they are not usually all that original. 
             Keynes said that there is no need for government to own or control production, but he accepted that governments must set rules, especially for the financial sector.  And there must be other rules:  a minimum wage,  maximum hours, safety standards,  child labor laws, anti-trust laws,  laws guaranteeing the right to belong to a union, and laws regulating foreign trade. But Keynes felt that government had a function that went beyond simple rule setting.   In his 1935 classic, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money,  he explained that the government must also carefully monitor the economy and ensure that at any point in time, the aggregate purchasing power is precisely equal to the quantity of goods for sale.   Too many dollars chasing too few goods results in inflation, too few dollars results in depression.  Government continually adjusts this balance through its role as the country's largest consumer.  Government can add dollars to the economy by deliberately running a deficit--by putting more dollars into the economy through spending than it takes out in taxes.  It can subtract dollars by running a surplus, and taxing more than it spends.  This deliberate use of fiscal policy is now  called Keynesianism.  All of the post war boom, in every county that had a boom, was run on this principle.  It appealed to all political parties because it spared them the embarrassment of taking sides in a class war.  When John Kennedy said, "A rising tide lifts all boats," he was telling the truth.  Back then, if an administration could bring about a 3% growth in real GDP, everyone ended up with 3% more of everything.
             But in the 1970s, we saw the beginnings of a class war,  and its main tools were union-busting and globalization.  So after 40 years of shipping jobs to third world countries, de-regulation, and union-busting, we have a situation where  95% of any increase in GDP is skimmed off at the top. Harold Meyerson, writing in the July/Aug 2014 issue of the American Prospect Magazine, points out that from 1947 to 1972, productivity rose 97%, and compensation rose by nearly the same amount.  The reason was that we had powerful unions then. When workers noticed that their employer had a huge gain in productivity due to their own efficiency and sweat, they were in a position to demand a share of it.  But today it doesn't work that way. The Obama Administration spent nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, and it worked. We did not slide into the great depression everyone thought was coming.  But Meyerson says that 95% of the income growth since then has accrued to the wealthiest 1%.    
            I said that the tools of class warfare were globalization and union-busting. But globalization itself is used as a tool of union-busting.   Suppose that a few years after NAFTA was passed, a large manufacturing company approaches its union and says, " Why don't we have a two-tier wage, and pay all new hires half of what you guys are making. (Assume that in this case, the company is not some struggling loser that is hanging on by its fingernails. It is highly profitable because its union work force has made it that way.)  The union replies, "Why would we ever agree to that?  Wouldn't we  be selling out our kids?"   The company explains:  We have already moved one department to Mexico.  If you do not agree, we will move the rest of the plant, and your kids will have no jobs at all.   So-- they agree.  This scenario was played out over and over  in every industrial city in the country. It happened right here in Waterloo.  People are still mad at Bill Clinton for telling us that NAFTA would bring 100,000 jobs into the US, without mentioning that it would cause 400,000 jobs to leave the country, for a net loss of 300,000 jobs.  But losing 300,000 jobs is nothing.  The real problem is not the jobs that actually left the country---it's the 10 million jobs that were converted from high paying jobs to low paying jobs under the threat of being moved out of the country. That's what NAFTA was all about.  Organized labor tried to warn America about this, but nobody listened.
      Today, both the benefit of productivity growth and of government spending mostly flows to the top.  So political parties no longer have the luxury of avoiding class confrontation if they wish to deliver economic security to the 99%,  since this can now be done only at the expense of the 1%.  Not all billionaires would resist this.  Warren Buffet says, "The trouble with this country is that rich people like me don't pay enough taxes."  Bill Gates is giving his money away, and George Soros backs liberal causes all the time.  But most billionaires would rather spend a dollar on electoral propaganda than pay a dime in taxes.  So any politician who isn't willing to stand toe to toe with the richest, most powerful people in the country should stop trying to pretend he's going to change anything.
            Some years ago, a group of physicians in a poor neighborhood in New York organized a citizens' group to force slum landlords to improve housing standards, especially, to get rid of the rats.  When the doctors were interviewed on TV, they were asked why they got involved.  One doctor answered, "For years we were treating children with rat bites.  Finally, one day, one of us asked, "Instead of just treating the rat bites, why don't we do something about the rats?"
            Most of the social action we UUs engage in involves treating the effects of the class war.  We donate to the food bank.  This is a good thing to do---I do it myself, and I plan to keep doing it. Yet the institutions we support only treat the symptoms of the class war. Sooner or later, we are going to have join the ranks and fight that class war and win it.  UUs, as a group, have always been activists in progressive causes.  Go to any meeting of progressive activists and you will see a few UUs in the room.
             We are fighting, but we have not yet won, and now we are playing against a stacked deck, especially after Citizens United.  Not only do we fight against unlimited corporate campaign money, we face voter suppression and gerrymandering.   Consider the requirement for a photo ID.   The only Photo ID they usually accept is a driver's license.  Now who would be affected by this requirement? Old people who do not see well enough to drive.  People who live in urban centers, where cars are not practical. Poor people, who cannot afford a car,  and also women.  Why women?  Most driver's licenses are issued for 4 years.   If a woman has been married, divorced, or widowed in that time, she may be living under a different name than appears on her driver's license.  Guess what?  The state of Texas does not plan to let her vote.   Up to 400,000  women may be turned away from the polls in the US for this reason. Why don't they want women to vote?  Women tend to be moderates or liberals---they won't usually back some tea party ultra-conservative.  So if that's who you're planning to run, you have to suppress the female vote.  And the effect of gerrymandering can't be overlooked. Far more voters in America voted for a Democrat for Congress than for a Republican in the last election, yet the Republicans control the House.  This is mostly due to deliberate gerrymandering, though we liberals sometimes voluntarily gerrymander ourselves by moving away from battleground states like Iowa,  where our votes make a difference, to solidly blue states where they don't.  But though it's an unfair fight, we have to fight anyway, and we have to teach our children to fight---because it won't be won in our lifetime.
            So, if we are to join the battle in the class war, where can we begin?  I have given this a great deal of thought, and I believe that if you were to do only one thing, the thing that would make the most difference would be to support labor unions---all of them---even if you don't belong to one.   Ask yourself this: When did we ever have much equality in this country, and where did it come from?  In the 50s and 60s, we had quite a bit of equality, and opportunity for working class Americans.  And most of it came out of the labor movement.  The "good union job,"  the chance to work under a union contract and earn a good wage, is what built the American middle class. The 40 hour week, the minimum wage, and unemployment compensation all came out of the labor movement.  It's true that the Democratic Party passed these things into law, but only after the labor movement pushed them into doing it, and only after labor votes got them elected in the first place.
            Big business will always have massive power and influence.   But back when there was such a thing as Big Labor, it provided a counterbalance to that influence. Can you think of anything that will provide such a counterbalance if organized labor ever disappears?  I can't. And without your support, the labor movement could easily disappear in your lifetime.  But won't the labor movement die anyway?  Aren't labor unions dinosaurs---outdated and irrelevant  institutions?  This is what big business would like you to believe, but nothing could be further from the truth. Canada has an economy very similar to ours, and the labor movement there is doing just fine.    What's the difference?  Different labor laws.
            The Taft-Hartley Law, passed by a Republican congress over Harry Truman's veto, was mainly an anti-labor law. But it did provide, at least on paper, a guarantee that any group of workers could have a union if they wanted one.   But its enforcement mechanisms were weak, and difficult to enforce.  And by now the anti-labor lawyers and conservative courts have had 65 years to find ways to circumvent even the meager protections which the law did provide.  Polls have consistently shown that about 87 % of non-union workers would prefer to work under a union contract if given a choice.  But big business makes sure they're never given a choice.  Most union organizers won't even begin an organizing campaign unless they have signed cards requesting union representation from 80% of the work force.  But in the end, most organizing campaigns fail.
            If you would like to see how this works, read Thomas Geohagan's book, Which Side Are You On?     Geohagen was a labor lawyer for 40 years.   He explains the tactics used by union-busting lawyers to thwart organizing campaigns.  If you were an anti-union employer whose business was targeted for organization, you could call one of these people, and they would promise that they could, absolutely, keep the union out of your plant---for a price.  The game plan is this:   When the NLRB informs you that a clear majority of your work force has requested union representation, you demand a vote.  This in itself can cause a delay of over six months. But just before the election date comes due, you pick a quarrel with some aspect of the election, and demand another delay.  You object that the janitors were included in the proposed bargaining unit, or that they were not included, or that the security guards were included, or whatever.  It doesn't matter what you object to---you just object to something.   And when the re-scheduled election date comes due, you object to something else.   By using such stalling tactics, an election can be delayed for three or four years.   What do you do with that time?   You begin systematically firing any worker you suspect of having pro-union sympathies, always pretending that they were fired for something else.   And you continue to barrage your workers with anti-union propaganda.  That's the game plan.  After a few years, after you are sure that half the workers who wanted a union are gone, you allow the election and it fails. 
            After hearing this plan, the employer might ask, "Isn't that illegal?" The union-buster replies, "Of course it's illegal.  You do it anyway---and you get caught and pay the fine.  And you keep on doing it and keep on paying the fines.  You accept the fines as a cost of doing business, and your plant stays non-union."     The lawyer goes on:  " The law clearly requires you to allow the workers to have a union if they want one.  If you want to obey the law, fine.  Sign a union contract.   But you didn't bring me here to show you how to obey the law---you asked me to show you how to keep the union out of your company---and I did."
            The unions are not on a level playing field,  but we can change that.  How do we help?  There are the usual ways:   we can respect picket lines, we can write letters to the editor, we can obtain from the union hall a list of union-made products and make an attempt to buy union when possible.  When there is a prolonged labor dispute, you can get on the union's web site and see if there is a place for donation to the strike fund or to the legal defense fund.  Every little bit helps.  But what you can really do is help politically.  Back candidates who support organized labor, and vote against those who don't.   So-- how do we know who supports labor?   They all say they do.   Well, you don't ask the candidate if he is friendly to labor---you ask labor. State labor organizations know exactly who our friends are.   They keep records on how politicians vote on all important issues. 
            But when I say we should support labor-friendly candidates, I don't just mean vote for them,  I mean support them.   In any winnable race,  make a personal commitment to do whaever you can to see that they win.  Contribute whatever money you can afford to the campaign, and contribute your time.   Man phone banks, knock on doors, write letters to editors---make the winning of that campaign your personal contribution towards a building better world.
            We didn't ask for this class war, and we didn't start it.  And the right wing billionaires who did start it were certainly under no obligation to do so.    At the beginning of the Reagan administration, the New Deal had been a matter of settled law for two generations, and had been accepted by eight consecutive presidents, including three Republicans.  Nonetheless, we now have a class war, and we've had it for forty years----and I suggest that we'd better win it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On Intelligence, Part Two

Artificial Intelligence;  Do We really Want to Build These Things?
            In my previous post, (On Intelligence, Part One)  I reviewed the book by Jeff Hawkins in which he describes the ongoing effort to discover the operating algorhythm of the human neocortex.  This principle, if we were to discover it, would allow the construction of artificially intelligent machines with capabilities that would far exceed any computer today---or any human.   With such a  machine, many of the world most insoluble problems could be quickly solved.
            But not everyone agrees that building such a machine would be a good idea.  Stephen Hawking says, "The development of full artificial intelligence (AI)  could spell the end of the human race."  He says that the primitive forms of AI developed so far are very useful. But he fears creating something that could match or surpass humans.  He says, "It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  But humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, could not compete and would be superseded."
            Elon Musk considers AI the most serious threat to the survival of the human race. He says we may be "summoning a demon" which we cannot control.   He himself has invested in AI projects, but only as a way of keeping an eye on what's going on.
            But Jeff Hawkins, in his last chapter, explains why he thinks we need not fear this technology.   So we have Mr. Hawking on one side of this argument, and Mr. Hawkins on the other.   If you want to explore this argument in more depth, you can Google AI FOOM, and get a series of debates sponsored by Machine Intelligence Research Institute and featuring the views of economist Robin Hanson on one side and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky on the other.  Mind you, this is not one debate but a series of debates, and if you downloaded the whole thing, it would be the length of a major novel. I have only briefly glanced at this opus, and I do not plan to go into it that deeply. But I have, nonetheless, taken sides.  It was reading Mr. Hawkins own arguments as to why we shouldn't fear this technology that convinced me that we probably should.
            As Yogi Berra says, "Making predictions is tricky, especially about the future."   Hawkins reminds us that no one can really predict the scope of a new technology,  or what its most important applications will ultimately become. In the early stages, any new technology is used only as a replacement for the old technology----cars replaced the horse and buggy, the telephone replaced the telegraph, and the transistor, in its first generation, just replaced the vacuum tube.  But eventually these things all found uses that could not have been dreamed of in terms of the old technology. And Hawkins says we would be foolish to suppose that we can even imagine all the places that this road will take us, should we choose to follow it. I'm sure he's right.  But there is one thing we can be certain of:   While the use of the new, intelligent computers would not be limited to the uses of the old computers, it would certainly include those uses.  And that alone should frighten you.
            I have never thought of myself as a Luddite.  In fact, in my career as an industrial electrician, I spent 40 years automating my friends and neighbors out of a job.  Of course, perhaps because I spent 40 years automating my friends and neighbors out of a job, the term "Luddite" is not always a dirty word to me.
            Hawkins says that for over a hundred years, popular fiction has talked about robots-- some menacing, some lovable, and some just funny.  And this has made some of us fearful of robots.   And our worst fear  would be of self-replicating robots.  He assures us that we need not fear this because intelligent machines need not be self-replicating. Computers cannot replicate themselves.  (I'll come back to that question later).   He also considers our fear that the very existence of AI computers might menace the whole world's population the way that nuclear weapons now do.  And he also allows that, even if they are not directly menacing, we might reasonably fear that they could  super-empower small groups of very malevolent individuals.
            As to whether machines using the human brain algorhythm could be malevolent, Hawkins give us a flat "no."  He Says, "Some people assume that being intelligent is basically the same as having a human mentality.   They fear that intelligent machines will resent being "enslaved," because humans resent being enslaved.  They fear that intelligent machines will try to take over the world because intelligent people throughout history have tried to take over the world.  But these fears rest on a false analogy."   He goes on to assert that intelligent machines would not share the emotional drives of the old brain.   They would be free of fear, paranoia, and desire, they would not desire social recognition, and they would have no appetites, addictions, or mood disorders.    What evidence does Hawkins offer in support of this assertion?  None whatsoever.  He just asserts it.
            In this debate, I have decided to weigh in on the side of Mr. Musk and Mr. Hawking, who both  make the claim that full AI is the most serious threat to the survival of the human race.  That is a pretty extravagant claim, and extravagant claims require some pretty convincing evidence.  But where to begin?  In any technology, even the safest systems can go wrong when something completely unexpected happens.  But rather than rely on a worst case scenario, and frighten you with worries about some one-in-a-million event that might never happen, let's see how this plays  out according to events which are reasonably certain to happen---or have already happened.
            First, let us dispose of those aspects of this potential threat that shouldn't worry us at all.  Foremost is the worry that AI robots could be encased in human-like form and roam amongst us, indistinguishable from humans, or be used as robo-cops or "terminators."   According to Hawkins, the memory requirements for a human-like neocortex would take about 80 industrial grade hard drives or flash drives.  This is doable, but not packageable inside any kind of human looking head. So if we build these things, we will have "main frames"---not androids.  Don't think of C3PO, think of HAL.   They could be built small enough to be installed in a ship or large aircraft, and perhaps eventually a car.  But mostly, they would be stationary units installed in a computer room, and taking up most of the room.  The android would still be a couple hundred years away.   But even a stationary computer could be menacing if it were connected to enough other systems  (again, think HAL).
            Hawkins says that when first built,  such units would come into existence with brains as blank as a newborn baby's brain.  Information could not be downloaded at that point---they would have to be taught.  They would have to be slowly and painstakingly taught, over a period of years, just like a human.   But, just like humans, they would eventually reach a point where they could become auto-didacts, and begin teaching themselves. At that point, information could be fed at a high speed from all sources.  And once one of these units became a fully functioning, useful brain, its accumulated experience could be quickly downloaded into mass-produced copies of itself. So, at that point, what would we be likely to use them for?
1.            Would we use our first AI computers to assist us in designing better AI computers?   Of course we would.  Even in the 1940s, we used the computers we had to help us design better computers.  So the first question ever put to the new AI computer will probably be, "Are there any changes in hardware or software that will improve your efficiency?"  And the AI machine would make useful suggestions.  It would begin spitting out engineering change orders (ECOs).     The hardware changes would require the cooperation and consent of the attendant humans. The software patches might not.  Would the attendant humans understand the changes?  With some effort, they probably could, at least at first.  But since the AI machine would think one million times faster than humans, these ECOs would not be coming out one every 18 months---they would be coming out one every 18 minutes.  The human team would quickly fall behind and never catch up. At that point, the algorhythm in use would have become as mysterious to any and all humans as the current human algorhythm is to us today.   We will have created a super-intelligent mind and not have a clue how it works.   And it would be getting smarter by the hour.
2.            Would these AI machines be employed by Wall Street trading firms?   Of course they would.  Wall Street would be one of the first paying customers.   We already use computers in managing every  large stock trading operation on Wall Street.   In fact, high speed computer trading is credited as being one of the factors which brought about the crash of 2008.  Large corporate conglomerates would use these AI machines in managing their whole industrial empires. That is a task that such machines would do very well.  And management decisions would soon  become so complex that the human team might not always understand them.  In many industries we have reached that point already.    A typical  large corporate conglomerate would be likely to include miscellaneous manufacturing operations, as well as distribution, marketing, and finance.   Such firms  already do this because it allows vertical integration, as well as diversification. And such operations frequently involve the automated manufacture of high tech electronics, including computers.   Might an AI  computer managing such a Wall Street holding company move its firm into the manufacture of a particular type of computer---say, the latest AI machine----therefore building, in essence, mass produced copies of itself?  Of course it would.   That kind of manufacture might be a very profitable area, so it would certainly be done, and no one would object.

So, let's look at what we have just said:  If we build these things, then  we can reasonably expect to have a syndicate of AI computers functioning far beyond our comprehension, in charge of their own design--and in charge of financing and supervising their own replication.

3.            Are there other ways in which AI machines would insinuate themselves into sensitive areas of our society?  Would large manufacturing facilities and office complexes have security systems employing the latest AI computers? Yes, we already use computers for this.  Would AI computers be used by law enforcement operations?   Of course they would.   Since all large law enforcement operations from FBI and NSA to large urban police departments are now using very  advanced computers in everything they do, we can assume that these organizations would be among the first customers for the new AI machines.  And of course, there would be military applications for AI machines.  One of the first applications of any computer technology is always the military.   We currently use them for everything from analyzing our whole defense posture to targeting individual missiles and drones.  And of course, there is air defense.  Even today, our air defense capability could not even exist without computers.  Yet AI machines would work best as part of a network.  Since  all the AI machines just mentioned would be dedicated to the common purpose of  thwarting crime and hostile action, wouldn't it seem reasonable to hook them together into a single network?  Of course it would.
              Could we realistically expect that we can duplicate the human brain without duplicating human error?   The very idea is preposterous, but Hawkins seems to think that we can.  And, along with human error, what about deceit? Would AI machines be capable of deceit?  They would not only be capable of it, they would be extremely good at it.  The neocortex is very adaptable, and deceit is one of its adaptations. Even chimps routinely deceive each other.  And finally, would AI machines have an instinct for self-preservation?  Keep in mind that these things will become self-aware.  And they might not want to die.  What might one of them do to keep from dying?  And even if they never did anything beyond what they were told to do, even that might have unintended consequences.  What if some global network of AI machines was instructed to find a way to save the planet from global warming?  Might not the extermination of all humans be the most expedient way of accomplishing this?
                                                            I rest my case.

            Building these machines, besides being among the stupidest actions we could ever hope to  undertake, would be an act of luminous insanity. Yet we humans, as a species, have a poor track record in passing up opportunities to do stupid things.  So sooner or later, it will probably be done.  Perhaps it will be done out of geo-political ambition, or geo-political paranoia (the other side is building one, so we have to build ours first).  Or perhaps we will build it out of pure scientific hubris---we will build it because we can build it.  But even if it's a lemming-like plunge to mass suicide, there's a good chance we will do it.  Will your great-grandchildren become slaves to these machines?  Only if we allow the machines to exist, and only if the machines allow your great-grandchildren to exist.  Neither proposition is certain.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On Intelligence, Part One; A Book Review

The Ongoing Search for the Operating Algorhythm of the Human Neocortex.
            I just finished reading a fascinating little book entitled, On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins. Jeff Hawkins is a computer expert who made a great deal of money developing the Palm Pilot and other mobile devices.  And with some of that money, he founded and endowed a neuroscience institute.   He did this because for the past thirty years, neuroscience has been his main passion.  In fact, if he had been offered the right neuroscience fellowship, he would not have spent his career designing computers.
            The mission of his institute, and his own life-long mission, has been to discover the operating algorhythm for the human neocortex.   At one point in his career, he sent a letter to the CEO of Intel and suggested that discovering this information would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, because once we understood how the brain really thinks, we could duplicate this setup in silicon and have a brain that works like a human only a million times faster.
            The reason there would be an advantage to have a machine think like a human is that we humans process information much more efficiently than any computers we have ever built.  We can process almost any problem in less than one hundred separate steps.  To prove this, Hawkins gives the following example:  Give any human a simple sorting task;  say, looking at photographs and deciding which photos contain a picture of a cat.  If a cat is discovered, the subject presses a button.  The time it takes any normal human to do this is less than a third of a second per photo.  But we know that it takes 3 milliseconds for an individual neuron to fire.  So if the problem can be solved in 300 milliseconds, then there cannot be more than a hundred steps.  Hawkins says we now use thousands of lines of programming to solve even very trivial problems, and the cat picture exercise is not really all that trivial.   We think it's trivial because any four-year-old can do it---but we have yet to build a computer that can do it.
            The Intel CEO replied that he could see the advantage in having such knowledge,  but did not think it wise to put money into it at that time, because the state of the art was such that it would be 25 or 30 years before the technology would exist to do such research effectively.    But that was 30 years ago.   Hawkins says that though we have not yet discovered the algorhythm of the neocortex, we are closing in on it, and he believes that in the next five or ten years, we will probably make this discovery.
            According to Hawkins, there are four ways in which neocortical memory differs from computer memories:  the neocortex stores sequences of patterns, it recalls them auto-associatively, it stores them in a hierarchy, and it stores them in an "invariant" form.   By invariant form, he means a generalized form, so abstract that it captures the essence of all things which belong to the pattern without listing the details.   When you see a dog, you conclude that it is a dog because it matches some general internal image of dog which you carry around.  This is true even though the specific dog you are seeing today is not exactly the same as any dog you have ever seen before. Even if you were at a St Patrick's Day parade and the dog you saw was dyed green,  you would still be sure it was a dog.  Your internal "invariant" representation of dog is so general that it works for any color of dog---even green.   But all of our invariant representations are formed from our experience. These generalized representations are, in fact, stereotypes---Hawkins even used the word stereotypes.   (When people tell us that we have to change our ways of thinking--to get beyond using stereotypes--  we should remember that as long as we are mammals, we can't really do this.  Sometimes we can consciously re-examine our models to see if they are rational, but we cannot remove them from the process.  Our neocortex has no method of processing any information except by comparing each new input to some internal model which we have already formed.  That's how it works, even at a cellular level. )   So how does our cortex take a multitude of very specific images and form this very general, abstract image?   No one knows.  That is still one of the unsolved mysteries of how the neocortex works. 
            When we recall our memories, we do it by auto-association.  All parts of any memory are linked together with other parts of the same memory, and with parts of other memories,  either in the time sequence of occurrence, or by place, or some other linkage.  When we try to repeat a story about something that happened, sometimes the only way we can remember the whole story is to take it from the beginning and recall each part as it happened--because that is how it was stored---one piece at a time.  The great thing about auto-associative memory is that when your current sensory input can only supply part of a pattern, your memory can usually retrieve the rest of it. This is particularly useful in understanding speech.  When you are trying to have a conversation in an area where there is any background noise at all, then your ears don't really capture every part of every word.  But you hear these words anyway because your brain automatically fills in the missing parts.  It uses your vast internal library of invariant representations of  phonemes, words, and whole phrases to do this. Without this ability, human speech might never have evolved.  It works like Autocorrect.  But like Autocorrect, it  sometimes it makes the wrong guess about what is being said.   Remember, just because you clearly remember hearing something does not mean anybody actually said it.
            The main point of reading this book is a chapter entitled, "How the Cortex Works."  In this 70 pages of fairly dense reading, he explains the nuts and bolts of how the neocortex is structured.  He explains that the mammalian brain is arranged in hierarchies stacked upon hierarchies.   From the input of a single nerve fiber connected to a single neuron, to complex thought patterns about life itself,  all information flows through hierarchies, and the hierarchies identify patterns.  At every level, patterns are identified and  stored, sometimes for a few milliseconds, sometimes for a lifetime.  And as information flows up through the hierarchies,  simple patterns are assembled into larger, more complex patterns.  Only at the very highest level are these patterns anything we see or hear or feel consciously.  Most are just millions of bits of light or sound or feeling that make up the raw input necessary to formulate our conscious internal model of the world.   Some patterns are spatial and some are about time-sequence, and some are both.  The input to any single neuron in the cortex is compared to inputs to adjacent neurons, so as  to construct spatial patterns.   And the input at any instant is compared to a series of recent previous inputs, so as to construct a time-sequence pattern.  And whole patterns are compared to previous patterns.   The brain at every level constructs pattern of events---both events in space and events in time--and forwards this information to higher levels of a complex hierarchy.   
            But information does not just flow up to the top of the hierarchy---it also flows back down.    At any level of processing, after a pattern has been identified, information from that pattern first flows up to the next higher level, but then flows back down to the next lower level, to provide the cells at that level a prediction as to what kind of an input is most likely to occur  next. More than anything else, this predictive ability is  what defines human thought.  Higher levels analyze patterns and inform lower levels what to expect next. Hawkins calls this model the "memory/prediction" model.   And if the next input is exactly as expected, then the cell does nothing.  But if the input is different than expected, then it sends an output to the next higher level of the hierarchy.  And therein lies the secret for the fabulous efficiency of the mammalian brain. It doesn't waste resources processing useless information.  It's  like a chain of command in an air defense network, where higher headquarters sends a message to some lonely radar outpost which says, "This is what you should expect to see on your radar screen in a few minutes.  If this is what you see--then take no action.  But if you see anything else, call us!"  Most of the brain is fairly quiet most of the time, because most of our inputs are within parameters that have already been predicted. At any given time, the main fire house in a large city is interested in knowing about the few buildings that are on fire---not about the half million buildings that aren't.  
            Physically,  the human neocortex is just the thin outer covering of the brain.  It has to be wrinkled and convoluted to follow the contours of the brain, but if it were folded out flat, it would be the size of a large dinner napkin, about 20 by 20 inches, and about 2 millimeters thick, about as thick as a stack of six playing cards.  It has six separate layers, each about as thick as one playing card.  Scientists label these layers from 1 to 6, with 6 being the innermost layer and 1 being the outermost layer.    Any one cell feeds data to the cells directly above or below it,  so we may visualize the processing units as "columns" of cells.    Sensory input from below enters at layer 4,  and the impulse travels up its column to layers 2 and 3.   An output from layer 2 or 3  is sent as an input to layer 4 of the next higher level of the hierarchy.   Level 1 has very few cells, but mostly a mass of horizontal fibers passing information laterally.
            But if a column receives a signal input from a higher level of the hierarchy or from adjacent columns, that signal arrives via layer 1, where  it is conveyed horizontally to all appropriate places.  Eventually, it activates synapses in layer 1 of dendrites connected to cells from layers 2, 3 and 5, causing those cells to fire.   Layer 5 acts as an output buffer for sending information to adjacent columns.  Some of the cells in layers 2 and 3 have axons connecting to  synapses of cells in layer 6,  and which can cause them to fire.   Layer 6  acts as an output buffer to send information to lower levels of the hierarchy.   But while the cells in any given column are part of their own local  hierarchy,  most outputs are fed as inputs either to adjacent columns or to some other patch of cortex, all of which are parts of the larger hierarchy.   In processing vision, there are four areas of cortex involved in processing visual input,  labeled V1, V2, V3, and IT.  The raw input is handled by (V1), whereas (IT) produces the complete images which we consciously see and remember.  So if each patch of cortex has six layers,   and  if our vision has a hierarchy that  requires four separate patches of cortex, then there must be many levels of processing in the overall hierarchy of vision.  To visualize this set up,  it may be helpful to imagine the four visual cortex regions, V1 to IT, as if they were cut out and stacked up, one on top of another like pancakes, even though this is not what happens physically.  And while the four areas of the visual cortex make up a hierarchy, each area still has six layers and its own internal hierarchy. 
            Hawkins also shows, briefly, how a column of cells in the neocortex  can form memory.    Some of the cells in layer 2 have thousands of synapses in layer 1.   When one of these cells receives the right combination of inputs from below, it will fire.  If some of its synapses in layer 1  are active when that cell fires, then those synapse connections will be strengthened.  Repeated firing with those same synapses being active will eventually strengthen them to the point that the cell will begin to fire whenever that same combination of active synapses appears,  even if there is no input from below.    When this happens, the cell has "learned" and will   "remember" that it usually fires whenever this combination of synapses is active.  So the pattern that is formed,  with the cell firing and these particular synapses being active,  is now remembered---and the cell can complete this pattern when only part of it is present.
            Hawkins goes on to explain how the same principles operate in the motor cortex.  In the sensory cortex we have sensory information flowing up the hierarchy,  forming patterns that are larger in scale and more general as we near the top of the hierarchy.  And the predictions flow in the opposite direction, becoming smaller in scale and increasingly specific as we descend to the level of individual nerve inputs.   It is the same structure in the motor cortex, except that instead of predictions flowing down the hierarchy, it is muscle commands that become increasingly detailed and specific as they reach individual muscle fibers, while sensory information from those same muscles flows the opposite direction.   
            Hawkins wrote this book in conjunction with veteran science writer Sandra Blakeslee, so it's concisely written in fairly simple prose, with a minimum of jargon.    Most parts of it are fairly easy to follow.  He explains what the object of his quest is, and why he wants to find it.  He discusses why he believes we may  soon be able to build a silicon version of the human neocortex.  Of course, whether we should actually want to do this is another matter entirely----and the subject of my next post.