Review: Material World

I found, while reading this book, that I paid a lot more attention to concrete, and steel, and other aspects of our built environment. It forced me to balance away from the digital world where I spend too much time.

The author, Ed Conway, devotes a section to each of six materials (sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium), looking into the history of their use and their role in our lives today.

One fact that anyone should keep in mind is the large difference between the price we pay for any of these materials and their value in use. That difference is often very large for water, but it’s also large for these “endless” (not!) raw materials.

I was fascinated from beginning to end, so here are some quotes and notes:

    1. Consumption of some materials is falling in some locations, but it is rising globally, which often means that the pollution and other negative impacts from sourcing the materials is rising faster than rates of extraction, due to the common habit of mining the easier stuff (less work, less pollution) before looking to more difficult sources.
    2. Sand is quite the material, with many uses, like mirrors that are “probably the smoothest man-made structures in the universe’. If you blew one of them up to the size of the United States, the biggest bump would be less than half a millimetre high.
    3. Don’t think “supply chain” but “supply web” with all the complexity that allows for.
    4. We need salt in our diets to live, but it’s used in so many other ways. Governments tax salt for this reason (we need it). The obligation to pay for 7kg of salt per year (sel du devoir) spurred the French Revolution. Gandhi’s march to harvest salt outside the British Government’s monopoly (salt satyagraha) spurred Indian independence.
    5. Ironaccounted for roughly 95 per cent of all the metal we produce and use. Indeed, it’s so fundamental to our lives that it is just as good a measure of living standards as GDP. If you live in a developed economy like the US, Japan, UK or most of Europe, you have roughly 15 tonnes of steel in your life.
    6. If we wanted everyone in the world to have the same amount of embedded steel as we enjoy in the rich world – 15 tonnes per person – that would imply increasing the total global stock of this alloy to 144 billion tonnes. And since that is nearly four times what we have ever produced since the beginning of humanity, and since methods of producing steel without any emissions remain experimental and expensive, we are caught in the horns of a dilemma. The world’s twin goals of decarbonisation and development are heading for a collision. As countries become richer and more prosperous, are they really to be denied the concrete or steel the West poured and forged as it developed?
    7. The need to smelt iron and charcoal to get steel led to shortages of wood until that fuel was replaced by coal. Welcome to the Industrial Revolution, an exponential increase in wealth, and the beginning of climate chaos.
    8. In 1800, 95 per cent of Britain’s energy came from coal; at the very same point, almost all of France’s energy – over 90 per cent – still came from burning wood. No longer was Britain yoked to the organic limitations of how many trees could be grown on its landmass. And around this time, its income per capita, which for most of history had been more or less the same as France’s, began to soar. By the early nineteenth century it was 80 per cent richer than France.
    9. Here we run smack bang into the same lesson we learned from concrete [sand]: what makes steel [iron] a mainstay of the Material World? Not merely that it is very good at doing what it does, but that it is both very good and very cheap. That cheapness – which means steel is a vanishing part of our GDP statistics – is its secret weapon. Back in 1810 Americans spent roughly the same proportion of their national income on iron nails as they do today on computers. Today steel nails cost next to nothing – while being far superior to their iron predecessors – meaning we have more money to spend on, well, computers. The same observation (a big gap between cost and value) can be said about water.
    10. Copper is the great, unseen substrate that supports the modern world as we know it. Without it, we are quite literally left in the dark. If steel provides the skeleton of our world and concrete its flesh then copper is civilisation’s nervous system, the circuitry and cables we never see but couldn’t function without.
    11. There was an …astonishing leap in productivity afforded to manufacturers by electric drive motors [built with copper coils and powered by electricity delivered via copper wires]. Out went the clunky, inefficient steam engines in factories and in came electric motors. This alone doubled American manufacturing productivity by 1930, and then again by 1960.
    12. A note for the industrial ecologists: The flipside of getting ever more effective at mining ever poorer copper ores is that we displace ever more amounts of the planet in our bid to do so. Between 2004 and 2016 Chilean miners increased annual copper production by 2.6 per cent. Yet the amount of ore they had to dig out of the ground to produce this marginal increase in refined copper rose by 75 per cent. The most staggering thing about this statistic, however, is not just the numbers themselves but the fact that they show up in no environmental accounts or material flow analysis, which count only the refined metal. When it comes to even the United Nations’ measures of how much humans are affecting the planet, this waste rock doesn’t count.
    13. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer it didn’t take long to engineer near-identical alternatives to the chlorofluorocarbons that were mostly responsible. It was possible to save the environment without even noticing. Oil and gas are by their very nature far trickier to substitute since they represent an almost perfect energy source and a near irreplaceable feedstock into nearly every manufactured product. Weaning ourselves off them will take far more than a bit of goodwill and a net-zero target.
    14. As of 2019, right before the pandemic struck and skewed the data, just over 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy – which includes both electricity generation and also other uses such as transport, heating and industrial processes – came from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. The striking thing about this number is how stable it has been: just over 80 per cent at the turn of the millennium, just over 80 per cent in 1990 and only a touch higher – around 85 per cent – in 1980. Wind and solar, by contrast, provided just 1.5 per cent of our energy in 2019.
    15. The story of modern agriculture is really about… replacing natural forms of energy with fossil fuels…a kilogram of greenhouse tomatoes generates as much as 3 kilograms of carbon emissions… And since most consumers are reluctant to spend much more on tomatoes, and for that matter have little conception of how they are actually grown, that suits everyone just fine… In 2022, as gas prices soared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some growers simply opted out altogether. All of a sudden, glasshouses were left empty, tomatoes were in short supply, and food prices rose across Europe – in large part because of the shortage of natural gas. Even growers in Spain and Italy, who tend not to grow their tomatoes indoors, were hit by the rise in costs of fertiliser and of the diesel fuel in the trucks transporting their produce. Vaclav Smil has calculated that each tomato from this region has an energy cost of five tablespoons of diesel.
    16. So we return to that same tension we have encountered repeatedly: How to balance the demand for stuff with the consequences of producing it? In the case of lithium the balance is even harder to strike, since it is our means of escaping fossil fuel dependence. Yet in much the same way as the internal combustion engine helped humankind out of one hole (the pollution of our towns and cities by horse manure) yet helped create another one, what are the chances the very same thing happens with lithium, or cobalt or nickel or manganese?
    17. As Wright observed this steady fall in prices and improvement in quality, he came up with a rule of thumb: every time the production of an item doubles, its cost falls by about 15 per cent. And Wright’s law, as it is sometimes called, has been eerily successful at explaining the fall in the price of everything from container ships to specialised plastics.
    18. We are beyond carrying capacity: …we went from having to rely on the sun for all our sustenance, complemented by some mined fertilisers such as the caliche of the Atacama, to relying on fossil fuels. Today our tomatoes, our potatoes and indeed pretty much everything else are nourished with fertilisers made of natural gas. Thanks to the Haber–Bosch process, we are all made out of fossil fuels. That allowed the global population to grow beyond its Malthusian limits – the carrying capacity of the planet if we could only rely on renewable resources like the sun, the wind and the unfertilised soil – but as our numbers swelled there was an arithmetic increase in the amount of fossil fuels we burned. There is a paradox here. Without fossil fuels, roughly half of us would not be alive. Yet now, the carbon emissions from those fossil fuels are causing problems that threaten us all.
    19. No energy transition of this sort [net zero carbon by 2050] has ever been achieved as quickly, indeed the previous four would be better measured in centuries and we are still reliant on coal for more of our energy than oil. And this is before you factor in that in each of the previous transitions – the move from coal to oil and from oil to gas – there was a big incentive to shift: manufacturers could benefit from cheaper, more energy-dense fuels. Each previous shift made their lives easier. This time around, the opposite is often the case. Except for nuclear power, we are shifting to less dense sources of energy. And we are doing so even as the world’s most populous nations are industrialising, and hence increasing their energy consumption. The numbers are challenging: some would say nearly impossibly so.
    20. Consider what it takes to replace a small natural gas turbine, pumping out 100 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 100,000 homes, with wind power. You would need around 20 enormous wind turbines. To build those turbines you will need nearly 30,000 tonnes of iron and almost 50,000 tonnes of concrete, along with 900 tonnes of plastics and fibreglass for the blades and 540 tonnes of copper (or three times that for an offshore wind farm). The gas turbine, on the other hand, would take around 300 tonnes of iron, 2,000 tonnes of concrete and perhaps 50 tonnes of copper in the windings and transformers. On the basis of one calculation, we will need to mine more copper in the next 22 years than we have in the entirety of the past 5,000 years of human history.
    21. As someone who has worked my entire life in the ethereal world, enjoying the spoils of the Material World without ever getting my hands dirty, the journey recounted in this book has been somewhat chastening. The more I travelled, the greater the nagging feeling that we have all become disconnected from the primary industries upon which we all rely for our survival. Perhaps this is simply the quid pro quo of modern capitalism. You can get anything you want from anywhere in the world for a bargain price, but don’t whatever you do expect to understand how it was made or how it got to you. Perhaps it hardly matters that there is no single person in the world who understands how to make a pencil, or a silicon chip. But what if this disconnection is fuelling the alienation so many people feel towards capitalism?

Bottom line: I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it and appreciate the infrastructures that make our modern lives possible and pleasurable, and then think of (a) how expensive it will be to shift to sustainable consumption and (b) the consequences if we do not.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Happy solstice!
  2. Read how expats experience discrimination in NL (familiar to me).
  3. “Smoke from California wildfires prematurely killed more than 50,000 people from 2008 to 2018.” …and it will get worse. Read more. Related: Outdoor exercise is getting more dangerous.
  4. Read the constitutional case against exclusionary zoning.
  5. Read: The space commons are filling up, and one crash could lead to a cascade in which ALL satellites are blown to pieces.
  6. Read about the many (conflicting) ways Americans see immigration.
  7. Read: How to give and take criticism.
  8. Listen to this backgrounder on Bergheim (Berlin)
  9. Watch John Oliver explain the suffocating impacts of corn subsidies
  10. Read: Thames Water, loaded up on debt to pay investors dividends while failing to upgrade London’s Victorian-era sewers (and now Thames is bankrupt).

Climate adaptation options

Humans are not doing enough mitigation to slow — let alone reverse — climate change chaos. Average global temperature is now +1.2C, far above which is on track to exceed the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target of “holding the increase in the global average temperature… increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels…” by 2034.*

In this 2011 post (“We’re screwed, now what?”), I wrote:

Mitigation-focused investments (solar, biofuels, zero-emissions stuff) are wasted if there’s no “carbon reduction payback” — this means that a lot of projects are going to turn instantly unprofitable.

Thus, it’s time to adapt: lift your skirts for floods and prepare for droughts.

So which countries will do better with adapting — and which will not?

Here are four factors**

  1. Climate chaos will arrive in all places in different ways. No physical geography will consistently be “better” or “safer.” Winners and losers will change places. Chance and planning will battle. Nature always bats last!***
  2. Wealth is a double-edged sword. It correlates with more resources (useful but not necessary), but it is not sufficient to overcome social divisions and political opportunism.
  3. Poverty can be a blessing in communities that have practiced mutual aid while having to adjust to various shocks and injustices. The poor will abandon a cardboard shack before it floods. Will the wealthy abandon Miami as the waters rise?
  4. Corruption — the abuse of public office for private gain — will get worse before it gets better, for the same reasons as always: stealing is easier than working. The temptation to steal in a “shrinking pieworld — a world that humans have not faced for centuries — will rise as we tell ourselves “I deserve. You don’t.”

Look around you — is your community ready? Do you even have a community?

* Global average temperatures were +1.58C in April 2024, but that’s not the long-term average? Small consolation.

** What factors have I missed?

*** IMO, homo sapiens will not go extinct, as we are more tenacious than mosquitoes. I see three steps “down” from our current status as the world’s dominant organism. I think each step will take a few hundred years.

  1. We fight over a shrinking pie, but maintain a semblance of today’s nation-states, technological advances, and so on.
  2. We start to forget key elements of knowledge (e.g., nuclear power or silicon chips) and civility (e.g., more slavery).
  3. We are reduced to tribes of social primates who cooperate to survive, but we are too few, and the Anthropocene slowly starts to end.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen to this podcast if you think that maybe (just maybe!) whales might have a point in seeking revenge against humans.
  2. I’m impressed by this use of AI to help a Japanese mayor speak fluent English. It’s nice to understand more about local politics.
  3. Listen to this critique of America’s crony capitalism, and the need (I agree!) for more worker (counter-veiling) power.
  4. Well shit. US Supreme Court justices are picking the “facts” they want to support their political beliefs? What could go wrong?
  5. Listen to this clear explanation of how the US constitution is supposed to work (e.g., the Electoral College is a feature, not a bug).
  6. Read an update on trying to slow glaciers from sliding into the oceans, which was a big plot point in the 2020 Clif-Fi Ministry for the Future.
  7. Read this VERY LONG but very interesting article on Aridzona’s water issues… and very complex politics. A real masterpiece of journalism. It’s full of zingers like these:

    At certain moments in the Valley, and this was one, ingenuity took the sound and shape of an elaborate defense against the truth… When Kari Lake ran for governor in 2022, everyone knew her position on transgenderism and no one knew her position on water, because she barely had one. The subject didn’t turn out voters or decide elections; it was too boring and complicated to excite extremists.

Review: The Places in Between

Someone recommended that I read this 2004 book by Rory Stewart (a Scot with quite a CV). Although I enjoyed it, I am not sure that the average person would be too enthusiastic about reading a series of mano-a-mano encounters in which tribal customs mix with male violence and companionship.

The book focusses on a “missing link” in  Stewart’s early 2000s walk across Iran, Pakistan and India, i.e., the section in Afghanistan that was closed until America overthrew the Taliban (for the moment).

To the reader’s benefit, Stewart was willing to risk his life while (a) walking a month along a “road less travelled” that no one local knew from end to end and (b) negotiating a “fluid” security and governance situation in regions where the Taliban had killing locals only a few months earlier. Stewart reminds me of  Thesinger (1959) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (19th c.)

This book is thus a travelogue that focusses more on culture and anthropology than on fine dining and the sights. Stewart is utterly vulnerable to the idea(l)s and whims of the people he encounters, the hosts on whose hospitality he depends, and the complex humanity of a culture (or mix of cultures) that outsiders have forever misunderstood and underappreciated — at their peril.

So it’s obvious that he should pick up a dog-as-companion on the way.

He names the dog “Babur,” in honor of the historic Babur who (a) walked the same way (losing many men in the process) and (b) conquored India in the 16th century.

Here are a few insightful passages:

  1. I took out my notebook and sketched Abdul Haq, who was sleeping on his back with his rifle across his thighs, his large chest slowly rising and falling. He had a clear, honest face. I found my fondness for him difficult to reconcile with what I knew of his enthusiasm for killing people and making small children cry.
  2. Islam does not encourage strong social distinctions, and the war and social revolutions in villages had destroyed many of the old feudal structures in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, villagers were very aware of one another’s backgrounds. A multitude of points of etiquette, tradition, and tribal identities differentiated a servant such as Wazir from a feudal lord… Class did not necessarily reflect education and experience. My current host, Seyyed Umar, was a wealthy man from a respected family of landowning clergy, but he could not read or write and had never been abroad. Abdul Haq, who was from a much humbler background, was literate and had traveled. What mattered was power and that depended on allies.
  3. Why did you become a Mujahid [resistance fighter]?” I asked Seyyed Umar. “Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys.” “And why did you fight the Taliban?” “Because they forced my women to wear burqas, not head scarves, and stole my donkeys.” It seemed if the government did not interfere with his women’s headdress and his donkeys he would not oppose it.
  4. Babur seemed prepared to examine, mark with urine, and take possession of every meter of the next six hundred kilometers. Only once or twice in my eighteen-month walk across Asia had I felt some magical claim to the territory I touched with my feet. But Babur apparently felt it all the time. The warm stream of urine was set like a flag to mark his new empire. All his movement was conquest and occupation. He seemed ready to ponder and possess every place in the world. He was like a canine Alexander.
  5. This was a very useful map. It specified everything in terms of a man on foot: the best tracks, the distances that could be walked in a day, whom you should speak to in each village… Day one: Commandant Maududi in Badgah. Day two: Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar. Day three: Bushire Khan in Sang-i-zard. Day four: Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish. Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-e-Nau. Day six: Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chesme… I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.
  6. Though most communities, whether Islamic or Hindu, and Muslims talked a great deal about their formal religious responsibilities to a mosafer (traveler), or meman (guest), in practice people often welcomed me reluctantly. This was understandable—they were often very poor, lived tough lives, and were suspicious of the few strangers they met. I was often disappointed by their hospitality. Only later did I begin to see how fortunate I was that they provided me almost every night with shelter and bread to eat.
  7. Six years earlier [1996], two thousand families had lived in Shaidan. Three years ago the Taliban had killed eighty men in the bazaar. A year ago, fresh from dynamiting the giant Buddhas thirty-five kilometers away, they killed one hundred and twenty. Seven months before my arrival, they found the village empty and torched it. Most of the population had fled to refugee camps.
  8. Some [foreign aid workers], such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.” But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? [snip] These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas. Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory. [snip] The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change.
  9. Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
  10. Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
  11. Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune—often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision. This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk. To feel in these final hours, after months of frustration, an unexplained completion seemed too neat. But the recognition was immediate and incontrovertible. I had no words for it. Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.

I give this book FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Americans (and many others) do not understand the dynamics of migration (=it’s not zero-sum): “This is madness. Failing to solve the immigration-recruitment kludge as we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on technology subsidies is about as strategic as training to run a marathon while subsisting on a diet of donuts.” Read more.
  2. PFAS contamination means some Dutch eggs and fish are too dangerous to eat.
  3. Read: Dutch politicians made the solar market, and now they broke it. Just another example of why [algorithmic] carbon taxes are better
  4. Harvard wises up: “the belief that the purpose of the university is best served by speaking only on matters directly relevant to its function and not by issuing declarations on other matters [e.g., politics], however important.”… As university leaders pronounce less, faculty and students should feel more free to step up and speak up, not on behalf of any collective, but as individuals who prefer constructive discourse to groupthink. For those who crave pronouncements from the top, there is still religion.
  5. Read this sad explainer on how US governments (at all levels) have outsourced “customer service” to profit-seeking firms that… make a lot of profits by (a) making the process more confusing (tax returns) and (b) taking a large share of benefits meant for the poor. Related: Scammy student-loan servicing companies undermine the purpose of federal subsidies. Watch.
  6. Amsterdam hit a record number of stays (22.1 million nights) by 9.4 million visitors. Is that a lot? Using the average number of nights (2.35), we can see that the “FTE” visitors to the city are 60,500 people (i.e., as if 60k tourists stayed all year), or 6.5% of the city’s current population of 932,000. Is that a lot? Barcelona had 12 million tourists staying 35.9 million nights (3.00 average), which means 98,000 “tourist FTEs” — or 5.8% of its local population. (Fun fact: 1/4 of their “locals” are foreign born.) So, yeah. Amsterdam is busy. (I’ve left off the 15 million day trippers!) What about Venice? Yeah, bad data, but 4.9 million tourists staying 8 million nights gives 22,000 FTE tourists, which is 44% (!) of the historic city’s 50,000 population. That’s why Venice is piloting a “head tax” to reduce day tripping demand.
  7. Watch Stephen Colbert enjoy saying “Trump, the convicted felon” (#lockhimup)
  8. Listen: Companies are finally getting the hang of (first degree) price discrimination (often via apps), which means higher prices for us and profits for them.
  9. Worry: “An additional 1°C of warming will lead to a 12% fall in gdp. A climate-change scenario with more than 3°C of warming would be, according to their estimates, an equivalent blow to fighting a permanent war.”
  10. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail 60 years ago. Listen to this discussion and consider this excerpt:

    We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

    We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Kuznets’s caveats on GDP

Simon Kuznets (1901-1985) was a brilliant economist, making both important theoretical and empirical contributions to the discipline.

One that I’ve known about for years, without delving into details, was Kuznets’s invention (definition?) of GDP under the original name of “National Income.”

Well, I just read his 1934 paper on that topic [pdf], and there were two surprises:

(1) “If all the commodities produced and all the direct services rendered during the year are added at their market value, and from the resulting total we subtract the value of that part of the nation’s stock of goods that was expended (both as raw materials and as capital equipment) in producing this total, then the remainder constitutes the net product of the national economy during the year.”

This passage clearly indicates that net income must be reduced by the amount of capital lost or used to produce that income (e.g., depreciation), but that subtraction is left out of the modern definition of GDP (the market value of all the final goods and services produced and rendered in a specific time period by a country), which can encourage (or disguise) excess conversion of capital into income, e.g., running down machines or converting forests into toothpicks.

(2) The depression hit wage earners harder (see Table 5) than salaried workers, worsening economic (and social) inequality.

What about Kuznets saying “Don’t use GDP as a measure of progress?” Well, he said this in 1937: “Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known. And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income. The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined above.”

Bottom line: GDP is a shit measure that helps no citizens while encouraging politicians waste resources competing over whose GDP is bigger.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Students and academics are too ignorant of reality to lecture anyone on morality.
  2. Watch: The lies that sell fast fashion
  3. Watch: A good explanation of how “more lanes” only invites more sprawl… and the same traffic jams.
  4. Read: “Clean-energy investment in America is off the charts…” but it won’t matter if utilities block grid-transformation.
  5. Read what the US needs to do to get its nuclear energy industry back in shape.
  6. Watch: Cities need to lower (car) speed limits if they want to stop car murders “accidental deaths”
  7. El Niño update: Summer will scorch; La Niña means stronger Fall hurricanes.
  8. Listen: John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill – Liberalism’s original power couple.
  9. Watch: Saudi Arabia promotes oil demand… at the same time as “promising” to meet climate goals. (I’m shocked, shocked!)
  10. The American Dream™ these days means lobbying government to pay you other people’s money. Trump and his cronies will do this even more bigly than before…


Putin’s choice: 500,000 casualties

This figure shows Russian losses in Ukraine. The 500,000 figure is for casualties, i.e., dead and wounded. According to Perplexity, 100,000-180,000 of these are deaths.

How do these losses compare to other Russian fighting?

The scale of Russian losses in just over a year of fighting in Ukraine already exceeds the Soviet death toll across the entire 9-year Afghan campaign. It likely surpasses all of Russia’s military deaths since World War II combined.
While difficult to verify exact figures, the various estimates from Ukrainian, Western, and even some Russian sources highlight that Russian troop losses in the Ukraine invasion have been catastrophically high compared to other post-WW2 wars, potentially unprecedented in modern Russian military history.

Around 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam (1964-1975).

Bottom line: Putin doesn’t care about his people.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read about the sustainable use of plastic for growing food.
  2. Sad, but true: China has gotten the trade war it deserves. (I’m not going for the “free trade is dead” headlines, but trade efficiencies are definitely falling, which means we will all be poorer, which means that politicians will have more reasons to block trade — and the viscous spiral continues.
  3. China and Russia are undermining belief in democracy, freedom of speech, etc. MAGA republicans (and other conspiracy idiots) are helping them return the world to smoke, mirrors and scapegoats.
  4. Read a defence of higher education (academic freedom etc.)
  5. Why are Republicans so opposed to reducing people’s income insecurity. It’s not like they face the same risks.
  6. Maybe social media isn’t that bad for teens? Read more.
  7. Read about Saudi Arabia’s official support for the 9/11 attackers.
  8. Listen: Why Has the Opioid Crisis Lasted So Long?
  9. Listen: Why is a garden a personal paradise?
  10. A Dutch judge sentenced the developer and operator of a crypto “washing” service to 5 years in prison, for “helping crypto owners hide their identities.” That’s maybe a strike against organised crime, but it’s also a strike against privacy. Where’s the line? Read more.