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Fata Morgana
2003-08-26 20:13
(no subject)
academics, activism, berkeley, economics, politics, research, sustainability
I learned today that my Healthy Cities poster got into UbiComp, and got great reviews besides! *cheers*

Yesterday my car did not pass smog. What kind of environmentalist am I? (Answer: a broke one. I'd buy a Civic hybrid if I could ... or use public transit if it were more reliable! Speaking of which, the bus was 18 minutes late yesterday, and the driver was a prick. Good thing I'm finally close enough to campus to rollerblade - and maybe my neck is better enough to bike again.)

Today I started yoga, databases, and compilers, and talked again with A.J., my research advisor at U. Washington. Today was also the first class of Political and Economic Development in the Third World. The professor is an incisive, expressive fellow from Guyana, full of stories and anecdotes and seditious comments. Each student has to lead a panel discussion this semester, and I asked him if he could add a panel on information technology in developing countries. I also volunteered to make a website for the class, of course. Here are a few anecdotes from class:

The US economy depends on continuous expansion of demand. If the mean income in the US drops, the very basis of our economy - spending as much as possible, the sale of luxury goods, etc. - starts to erode, investments drop, people spend even less, fees go up, and we spiral into depression. Your interests are vested in the system, even though the system is unsustainable; in this way, we are all exploiters, just by living in this country.

What about Cuba? The income range in Cuba is $15-$25/month, but they don't have to worry about education, health care, or housing (10% of your income covers housing). They have trouble imagining a system where you have to worry about having a high income to cover housing, transportation, and health care - just as we have trouble imagining a system where there is no clean water, sewage, or access to food and other goods.

How do you get out of an unsustainable system, like the US? How much would nationalized health-care make a difference? How would nationalized health-care be paid for, and how would it affect the current economic situation?

Overseas work is cheap - more in the range of $1/day, rather than the US $20/hour (for comparable work with benefits etc.) - and transportation is cheap also, so it's no wonder companies export labor.

What convinces people that they have to pay $120 for Nike shoes? The shoe is produced for $9 - labor is cheap since conditions are poor, there are no benefits, and factories employ women - and the rest is marketing, plus maybe pumps, lights, etc., changing every three months. The differences go to the shareholders; it accumulates wealth, generates taxes, and creates the conditions for infrastructures and public education.

How does the system justify exploitation? There are concepts of "deserving", along income, racial, gender, etc. lines. Presumption of innocence goes to the wealthy, and excuses emerge. Why does A. Shwartzenegger deserve to run California? He's from Europe, white, wealthy, and male. Say a qualified woman originally from Rwanda was to run - people would presume that because she's from Africa, black, female, she couldn't possibly be in a position of power. A.S. claims the Horatio Algiers story - his family in Austria was poor, and he came to California with little - and since he made it when others didn't, he's obviously more deserving. We all believe we deserve what we have, or more ... and all it takes is more effort, morality, or to get more.
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2003-08-26 22:57 (UTC)
Wow - I wish my income were 10x as big as my rent. :-)
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Paul, Evil Administrator
2003-08-27 01:15 (UTC)
(no subject)
I wish my income was as big as my rent.

Ack! I don't even know where to start with the bad economics.

The US economy has to grow currently at 4% a year just to keep the same number of people employed, since worker productivity is growing at about 4% a year (which is why unemployment is not going down currently, productivity is growing faster than the economy).

Is the economy sustainable? Well it depends on what you mean by sustainable. You could argue that human society is not sustainable with more than 1 billion people in the long run. In the medium run, (remembering that in the long run we are all dead) its sustainable. Even if there was a long slow decline, it would still work, we'd just hate it. Globally, the whole edifice might be unsustainble, but short of a really impressive plague, I'm not sure what to do differently.

Cuba is not starving to death only because the Soviets pumped it full of cash. I doubt most Cubans would say they are not worried about any of those things, the decline has set in since the Soviets turned off the money spigot. (the Tourists are currently providing the money spigot - and introducing inequality and social discontent) Cuba has done an impressive job of spreading a little money very thinly, but it works mostly because of outside inputs and the fact that Castro will kill you if you complain.

To get out of the unsustainable system you would have to kill off about 50-80% of the world's population or move to just above subsistence level existance and freeze the population.

What convinces people to by crystallized carbon (Diamonds)? Artificial scarcity and marketing. Ditto Nike. Actually I think most of the money goes to advertising and design.

I'll give him the last paragraph :-) Though if it was Colin Powell, he would be ahead in the polls.

Rant over bad '70s dependancy economic theory over. :-)
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2003-08-28 01:35 (UTC)
(no subject)
Ok, this is related to something I didn't like about the discussion, but was too tired to respond to last night. Why is continuous expansion of demand unsustainable? Yes, to keep the economy growing, we have to have people spending more and more on luxury goods, but why shouldn't they? Luxury goods are things that improve your standard of living. I'm using a luxury good right now to write this comment. As eviladmin points out, we are constantly increasing productivity, which means that we have an ever-increasing supply of these luxury goods. And I think the demand for luxury goods isn't going to run out.
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Paul, Evil Administrator
2003-08-28 13:00 (UTC)
(no subject)
Well presumably we will run out of resources. As people have been saying that since the 1800's I discount that some, but we will inescapably run out of some of the resources we are currently using, but they may be replaced by other things that we will invent or switch to. The Biosphere is absolutely at risk, but it is a collective action problem of the first water, and probably only loosely related to what industrialized economies do (even shutting them down might perversely make the problem worse rather than better). Aside from the resource problem, there is no reason that its not sustainable.
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2003-08-27 01:36 (UTC)
(no subject)
I don't know what kind of bike you have, but my understanding is that the more upright you sit, the easier it is on your neck.

Interesting economics discussion. Hmm... I just calculated, and my housing costs about 25% of my income. Higher than 10%, sure, but at least by USSR standards, my accomodations would be considered very comfortable for a student — my whole family in Moscow lived in a place about the same size...
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September 2013