America

Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead

Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward. **

Many people look to the future with fear. We see this fear throughout the web. Right-wing sites describe the imminent end of America: overrun by foreigners, victim of cultural and financial collapse. Left-wing sites describe “die-off” scenarios due to Peak Oil, climate change, and ecological collapse – as the American dream dies from takeover by theocrats and fascists.

Most of this is nonsense, but not the prospect of massive changes in our world. But need we fear the future?

The past should give us confidence when we look ahead. Consider Dodge City in 1877. Bat Masterson is sheriff, maintaining some semblance of law in the Wild West. Life in Dodge is materially only slightly better from that in an English village of a century before. But social and technological evolution has accelerated to a dizzying pace, and Bat cannot imagine what lies ahead.

  1. The Transcontinental Railroad unites America, beginning the end of the regional identities that until now divide us (It was completed in 1869, three years after the first transatlantic telegraph line).
  2. The theory of evolution remains controversial, seventeen years after the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley (“Is it on your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s side that you claim descent from a monkey, Mr. Huxley?”).
  3. Medicine and public health remain primitive. A bedside manner and diagnostic skill are doctors most reliable tools. In three years Pasteur will discover the first artificially generated vaccine (for chicken cholera).
  4. Next year Paul Haenlein will fly the first aircraft powered by an internal combustion engine.
  5. In two years (1879) Karl Benz will patent the first practical automobile engine, Edison will design the first practical electric light, and David Edward Hughes sent a wireless signal several hundred meters across London.
  6. Geo-politically stability results from a multipolar system in which Empires play the largest role, and most of the world consists of western colonies. We are two-thirds through the Long Peace between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI.
  7. The deterministic certainties of Newton still rule in science. Great discoveries in thermodynamics and electromagnetism gave confidence that more discoveries lie ahead.

Bat died in 1921 as a sportswriter for the New York’s Morning Telegraph, in a world drastically changed from the into which he was born. Three more decades of rapid change followed. By 1951 the world assumed the shape we see today, and the evolution of culture, science, and geopolitics slowed.

  1. The medical industry looked much as it does today. Doctors can both prevent and treat most illnesses, but viral and degenerative diseases remain beyond its reach.
  2. The great Empires were gone, replaced by the US as global hegemon. The technology and art of conventional war began to stagnate. Mao had brought the theory and practice of 4GW to maturity; after this no foreign occupier could defeat a strongly-based local insurgency (except in a support role to the local government).
  3. The technology of the average home would be unimaginable to Bat Masterson’s mother; our values and language would seem alien to her.
  4. Rockets, nukes, computers, cellular telephones, semiconductor devices had all been invented.

During the following three decades computers became faster and smaller, women gained more rights, and the west’s colonies were freed. Big changes, but slow evolution compared to that of 1870-1950. Now a new cycle begins.

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”
— Treebeard, speaking in Tolkien’s Return of the King

What will happen during the next three-score years, by 2068?

  1. Peak oil will have come and gone. We will have adapted to a post-oil world (one way or another).
  2. The age wave will have past. The developed world will have seen the elderly become its largest age group, placing severe stress on their economies. Many nations’ retirement systems will have gone bust under the load of so many needing pensions and medical care. Eventually the “geezer boom” will pass (many living to 100+), then the global age distribution will stabilize.    Update:  collapse of a nation’s retirement system does not mean collapse of the government, let alone the State.  Also, many nations have prepared for the age wave better than the US (e.g., UK, Chile).  {Hat tip on this to Chet Richards.}
  3. The resolution of the demographic bust will lie in the future, but the the result will be visible. Societies with fertility rates still below replacement will face extinction, unless they have learned to culturally assimilate large numbers of immigrants. By 2068 that option may have passed, as most of today’s third-world nations will have passed through years of high population growth into the low-fertility rates of developed societies.
  4. Technology will have solved our problems of resource scarcity and pollution. Unless it has not, in which case we will have a very dirty, unpleasant world. I suspect that the children of 2068 will find the concept of pollution difficult to understand. Late 21st century industry will use clean catalytic chemistry (as does our body), and their advanced power systems will make any material resources plentiful.

Conclusions

The world of 2068 might seem as strange to us as the world of 1950 would be to someone living in 1890 We can only guess what it might look like. But the general pattern of the modern age might remain the same, one of progress and overcoming challenges.

We look back at the fears of Bat Masterson’s time with amusement. Cities so large that the daily production of horse manure renders them unlivable. The lights go out when the last whale is killed for its oil. Unlimited warfare, as giant war machines — including airships and submarines — ravage the Earth.

I believe that in 2060 our descendants will similarly laugh at our nightmares, while they look to the future with fear about challenges we cannot imagine.

Humanity was born naked and ignorant, bereft of either armor or weapons, on Africa’s Serengeti Plains. We have survived droughts and floods, an ice age and a supervolcano — steadily leaning and developing our powers. We have always walked into an unknown future, but our past should give us the confidence to do so with caution but not fear.

** This opening quote slightly changes Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie X-Men. He is speaking of genetic evolution.

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts on the FM site with good news about America:

  1. Good news: The Singularity is coming (again)  (8 December 2007) — History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.
  2. Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog)  (21 December 2007) –  I do not believe we need fear the future, despite the tough times coming soon.  This remains a great nation, not because of our past but because of us and our polity.  We differ from almost every other nation.  The difference consists of our commitment to our political order, of which our Constitution is the foundation.  In this we are like Athens more than our neighbors …
  3. A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment  (27 December 2008) — Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.
  4. An important thing to remember as we start a New Year  (29 December 2007) — As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events. Here is my list…
  5. Is America’s decline inevitable? No.  (21 January 2008) – Why be an American if one has no faith in the American people?  How can you believe in democracy without that faith?
  6. A happy ending to the current economic recession  (12 February 2008) — Sometimes we can see medium-term outcomes with greater clarity than short-term events or long-term trends.  In January 1942 none could forecast the events of the next 44 months, but it did not take an expert to see that the US would defeat Japan.  So it is with the current economic down cycle in America.
  7. Fears of flying into the future  (25 February 2008) — Reasons we need not fear the future.
  8. Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future  (2 May 2008) — Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasingly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.

“America’s Greatest Weapon”  (25 May 2008)

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23 replies »

  1. Great post! I heartly agree. We can decide what to make of the future. All the pieces are at hand to make it wonderful. I focus on building resilient communities that encorporate sustainable development. Abundant, cheap, non-petroleum based energy. A high percentage of locally grown organic food. Food produced on small farms for the most part using new machines that make such food cheaper than the industrial food currently available. Much improved health as a result of better nutrition. Lots of diversity in our innovation with insights shared globally. Open-source sharing on all fronts vs patented protection. And so on…

    *** Fabius Maximus replies: You raise an important point: good extreme outcomes are possible, as well as bad. Our world of today is a good outcome beyond the imagining of Bat Masterson’s mother.

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  2. Bravo Mr. Maximus! You offer much hope and exhibit faith in the spirit of humanity to adapt to change.The future offers many new opportunities and challenges,we require the mindset to proceed forward.Thank you for your insightful essay!

    Blessings. Elle

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  3. Re Ageing of the Population. I tend to be a very skeptical (surprise) about the economy wide impacts of the ageing of the population. I’m currently doing economic projections of impacts for a client as we speak and finished just building a future cost projection model. To take one example, growing obesity is a far bigger problem than ageing

    There are several things to take into account:
    (1) Older people are healthier and can work longer. A 60 year old is, in many ways like a 40 years old, 20 years ago.
    (2) here in Australia, 50% of males over 50 are unemployed. Ok the 65+ group goes up, there are a lot in the 50-65 age group that can work (peak of their abilities in many ways). I doubt that it is much different elsewhere.
    (3) The unemployment rates have been fiddled for decades now, take the UK/UK and Aus figure, add 10% and you are getting closer (see site ShadowStats for example). So there is more spare, younger labour about than is commonly known. Only the German’s don’t lie about their true unemployment.
    (4) It is not happening overnight, so there is time to adapt.

    Yes, some industries will change, some will expand, others shrink. But that is common with capitalism (anyone shed any tears for the mechanical calculator industry?). So what if older people burn off their assets on their retirement, simply moves money from one area to another. Given the way we now load up our children with debt at the start of their lives, good that they will get something back (albeit indirectly). Yes, retirement based Govt spending goes up, but other areas decrease (e.g. child related spending).

    Back to a previous discussion Fabius, lower property prices (outside of a recession) will encourage bigger families in the future. A lot of commentators about this:
    (1) No nothing about economics.
    (2) No nothing about statistics.
    (3) Cannot count.
    (4) Are into the “growth in money is God” syndrome. Many ways to grow that don’t appear on the GDP figures (which are a right load of old tosh anyway).

    Like all problems we are facing in the future (oil, global warming, etc), provided we face the facts, plan and deal with it, starting now, then they are not problems anymore. Provided we understand leadtimes. If you leave things to the last moment (e.g. GW) given the leadtimes for power plants, et al, THEN you have problem. Work within the lead times and they just dissolve away (and everyone later on goes “what was all the fuss about”).

    Ageing is just one of those, and a very minor one at that compared to so many other challenges.

    P.S. I just read my own post – gosh I’m being optimistic, so I’ll stop that end end with: “but we’ll probably manage to stuff up something as simple to deal with as this”.

    And I just noticed the speeling errirs in the above post – apuligeess.

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  4. And on an optimistic mood – look the latest trains coming in France. 400kph, city to city as fast as a plane (under 1,000km) and if on renewable and/or nuclear energy no oil, no coal, no CO2. Cool.

    We can do it if we want. But do we want it enough?

    *** Fabius Maximus replies: we just need more interest in such things. Survival is always interesting, and should wonderfully focus our minds.

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  5. Dear Sir
    Thanks for an interesting post. But you are taking a very, very broad view of things to come. Without any doubt correct, but still…very broad. Let me remind you, that between 1914 and 1945 millions of people died due to warfare, disease, genocide and starvation. If that is included in your prophecy I don’t think we have to be too optimistic. I am saying this as a member of a family from Poland, that alone lost six persons during the combined Soviet-Nazi occupation. To be absolutely honest I don’t think it is wise to exclude the human cost of “change” and please also remember: This time the United States probably won’t be a safe “island” outside the reach of the evil-doers. What happened on 9-11 could be a warning of things to come.

    Your sincerely. Robert


    *** Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly agree with you. Extreme outcomes are possible, both good and bad. Since we see so many descriptions of the bad outcomes, doom and gloom, I like to “balance” the scales by longer-term perspectives looking forward and back.

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  6. Robert, (jumping in here for Fabius), what he means, that DESPITE all these things, we as a world (not necessarily everywhere, but in a lot of places) have made great progress in so many areas. Sometimes we do learn from out mistakes. For example: the EU is a direct function of a deep desire of all Europeans for “never again”. In other ares: antibiotics have saved (probably) as many lives as were lost in WW1 and WW2. DDT (much, incorrectly, maligned) has saved tens of million lives and, just as important improved so many lives.

    We, as a race, have the dual capacity for good or evil, to build or destroy. When we build we can achieve incredible things that better just about everyone.

    Fabius is an optimist, I’m not (well I am a tiny little bit, but I;ve seen too many people work very hard to stuff everything up). But even I acknowledge that these are choices we make for good or for bad. Can we as a race, suppress our ‘dark side’ and build and cooperate. If we can then the future is ours. Then again if not …

    The same minds and resources that can build 400kph trains can build worse bombs. The same minds that are building our new fusion plants can build worse bombs. The same minds that build a spacecraft can build a better delivery mechanism for (worse) bombs. That is duality that we all face day by day. Care and build or ignore and destroy?

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  7. As always, Oldskeptic raises many interesting points.

    As shown in Hirsch et al “Mitigations” report about preparing for peak oil, “lead times” are almost everything when preparing for change. The key factor in the timeline, the difference between disaster and smooth evolution. This is why we need to extend our time horizons beyond the five to ten years typically used for planning. Intensive and organized research (something seldom found outside NASA and DOD) is needed to develop reliable vision on a decadal time scale.

    As for aging, there is much good quantitative analysis of its implications. Esp on our health care systems and government’s finances. Both are predictable and hence subject to reliable modeling. Neither are simple enough for non-quantitative discussions.

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  8. As a contrast to today’s post here, there is a nice example of disaster-mongering at The Oil Drum. List of bad things, but no attempt to put them in any historical or probabilistic context. Just string them together with heavy breathing about this being the end of everything. Just to note one absurdity, oil prices have not risen vs. commodities — indicating that Peak Oil is not the cause).

    The dangers of short-termism, Phil Hart (10 February 2008)

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  9. Greetings, Fab et al… cribbed this from Andrew Sullivan:

    Environmentalist David Shearman thinks democracy is hopeless if you need to save the planet:

    …the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognize that the alternative is famine and social disorder.

    Let us contrast this with the indecisiveness of the democracies which together produce approximately the other half of the world’s greenhouse emissions.[…]

    Liberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the USA, unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens. The subject is almost sacrosanct and those who indulge in criticism are labeled as Marxists, socialists, fundamentalists and worse. These labels are used because alternatives to democracy cannot be perceived! Support for Western democracy is messianic as proselytized by a President leading a flawed democracy.

    There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties. (*end cribbing*)

    The point being that yes, I absolutely agree that we have the knowledge and the mettle to save ourselves, as both a nation and a race. But there is no free lunch, and one corollary of all this is that we need different structures and concepts. It may be that the bidirectional devolution of power from the nation-state both up to multinational entities and down to localities, enabled by technology, is essential. However that means giving up certain feelings and mental attitudes, many of which are dearly and closely held. Just sayin’. gp

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  10. THanks for sending this. That makes explicit what I have suspected about the greens, that for many their concern for the environment was secondary to their quest for power.

    This is truly cracked. China is one of the most heavily polluted nations, ever. No signs of concern for the environment, except in Mr Shearman’s active imagination. Also those liberal democracies he despises have a far better green scorecard than the tyrannies he appears to love.

    And (this is totally off-topic), the danger from antropolic global warming (industrial co2 emmissions forcing climate change) is a theory. More and better data is needed before drawing conclusions imo, with much greater compliance with the rules about making the data and calculation available for review by others.

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  11. Brilliant post.
    It’s amusing to see people utilize the “cyclical” nature of history to predict the demise of human kind, while at the same time completely ignoring the “cyclical” nature of history and the overwhelming evidence it presents in favor of human ingenuity to overcome or evolve beyond impending “catastrophe.” I think human resilience is often rather underestimated.
    FM, have you read Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan”?

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  12. Yes humans are resiliant but the world is littered with civilisations that totally collapsed (read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse). When stupidity becomes institutional (mass group think) and the risks very large, the probability of going totally under is significant. Will it happen to some of our societies? The book is out on that one.

    A real life example

    Fabius, statistics is one of the most powerful tools for understanding complexity and getting some meaning out of the world … it is also one of the most misused. The thing to realise is that in the real world very few things are gaussian (Black Swan idea), but nearly all stats used is based on this (and some other) underlying assumptions, basically because it is easy to work the maths. The current economic meltdown being topical, take the famous Scholes-Black formula (for ‘risk free’ stock options trading). This and some like it have been widely used for stock/derivative/et al trading. The author actually won a Nobel Prize in Economics. This and models like it, have been at the heart of the mass insanity of the financial bubble that is now melting down (to the tune of $ trillions).

    It’s a lovely piece of maths, there is only one tiny little thing wrong with … it doesn’t work as the underlying assumptions are RUBBISH. You know how long it took me to work out it was wrong? 30 minutes, with some real data downloaded and a spreadsheet. I did a paper on it and presented it at a conference (and worked out an approach that actually DOES work) this was about 8 years ago. Interest? Totally zero, though lot of people came up to afterwords and privately admitted that they knew SB didn’t work, but that their organisations used it anyway.

    This stands out as a shining example of individual, institutional and organisational stupidity of the highest scale, worldwide across banks, regulators, insurance companies, investment houses, et al.

    Now when we get to (and seem to be continuing at) that level of stupidity, then you really have to question our survival probability as a society.

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  13. I believe you are a bit harsh towards the fine boys and girls in the finance professions. Merton and Scholes received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics for the Black Scholes model and related work (with honorable mention to Black, ineligible since he was dead). The assumptions are simplifications of the real world. Objecting to this gets as much attention as telling your Physics 101 professor that there is no such thing as an “ideal gas.”

    In the finance business they use the best tools available. They can hardly close shop and play horseshoes until someone develops the perfect maximum theory of finance (which would, of course, render markets unnecessary).

    The problems that vex markets, cycles of undervaluation and overvaluation, are just one manifestation of economic cycles of overinvestment and underinvestment — the primary driver of booms and busts. Do these result from limitations in the software of the human reasoning process? Our inability to avoid emotions controlling our logic? Flaws burned into us by God following the apple incident in Eden?

    Whatever the causes, they have been with us since we were fighting dogs for carrion on the Serengeti Plains. Despite them we have advanced quite a bit. Not as high as we wish, but higher than your pessimistic view would suggest.

    You might enjoy reading one of the greatest history books ever written, in terms of giving a better understanding of human nature: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay (1841).

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  14. Nope, I’m not harsh enough towards them. Their models were systemically wrong, greatly underestimating risk. Better to use common sense or just toss a coin, at least sometimes you will be right (though you can seem to be ok for a short time, then until ‘snake eyes’ rolls up).

    I thump into my staff’s heads (when I’m not being fired of course):
    (1) A simple model based on reliable data will always outperform a complex one based on rubbish.
    (2) Always check your assumptions, especially the ‘hidden’ ones (see (3)).
    (3) Most textbook statistics is irrelvent, as they are based on assumptions of normality (gaussian) and/or independence. In the real world these are actually rare events.

    Now I’m pretty good at this sort of stuff, but mathematically many of those in the consultancies and banks, et al, would leave me for dead. But if I can build a robust, reliable model that more accurately calculated true risk, in my spare time at home, and is not dependent on these assumptions, then you have to ask some questions….

    The reality is that many of them are incompetent and/or unethical, gutless b**t**ds, unwilling to tell the truth (like the people who agreed with me in private, but would never dare to talk to their bosses). I once, over a major decision, personally handed each director a copy of my report that proved that it would cost over a billion $ in losses, so they could not deny that they had not been warned. Now I got the boot, but had the joy of seeing them all go under later, one of which (hopefully) will go to jail (oh and I will visit him there when he arrives).

    The future is something we build. We can build it well, badly or very badly. But anything built on fantasies, totally unrelated to reality, will always turn to custard.

    And people have to stand up and be counted.

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  15. And on an optimistic level. Maybe, just maybe there are some change coming:

    “Mr Rudd (new Prime Minister of Australia) said keeping commitments was the lifeblood of democracy. ‘We ask ourselves why cynicism emerges in the Australian community about the operation of this place,’ Mr Rudd told parliament. It goes to the practices that we have seen so often in the past whereby things were consigned to the dustbin of history once governments got past the day of the election itself.” US Democrats should read this carefully.

    And this is on a day when the nation wept over over this new new Government’s apology to Australian Aborigines (google it, wonderful, short words and feeling, maybe our Gettysberg Address).

    So there is hope.

    Damn you Fabius, are you trying to turn me into an optimist? Do that and I suppose I’ll have to get fired again trying to do the right thing (instead of giving up and taking the money until I retire).

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  16. The problems in the financial sector are well-understood, having little to do with the personal character of its senior management. It is called the “agency problem.” They are agents of the owners (shareholders). Like all agents, they profit from gains in the business but do not share the losses. Therefore their incentive is to take risks. Unless restrained by the owners, these risks can destroy the business.

    Corporate management in America is broken, with senior management taking home vast wealth in exchange for bad gambles (Wall Street) and/or bad stewardship (autos). We are talking about wealth, not just big income. The descendents of big company CEO’s will not have to work for the next dozen generations.

    There is always hope. Some theologians believe that despair is the worst sin, as it shows lack of confidence in God.

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  17. Excellent post! I especially enjoyed your comparision of Bat Masterson’s world of 1877 to our’s today and what the future holds.

    This is so supportive of something I wrote that I am going to cross post it as a constructive support for a recent theme on my blog.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: this is the post he refers to, which I highly recommend reading: “A Look Back At Doom and Gloom“. Plus, he has pictures — a blogging frontier I have yet to cross.

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  18. We have a great deal of fear driving our perspectives at this point. That’s why gloom and doom dominates. But with the negatives also comes opportunity and eventually progress. I really enjoy these websites for technological progress.

    * Next Big Future
    * The Speculist

    One of the great strengths of America is it’s flexibility to deal with change. We need to find the confidence to find solutions and implement them. Either we will or someone else will.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am familiar with the first site you mention, and agree that it is interesting. However, it typically shows only the optimistic view of new developments. Hence it must be read with great skepticism. Most of the developments described there will amount to nothing.

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  19. Great post and comments. For some reason, this sentence stood out for me:

    “our values and language would seem alien to her.” Esp. viz. values (whose changes would actually cause the problems with language).

    As to optimistic versus pessimistic projections: good and bad things have unfolded continuously in human history and no doubt the same will continue. One nice quote I heard again today from somewhere: ‘man learns from history that man never learns from history.’

    Old Skeptic: sounds very smart what you do with yr analysis. {snip, investment-related discussion} I agree with you that most, if not all, of the arcane complexity buzzing around is essentially smoke and mirrors, some by those who are self-deluded and most by those dedicated to deluding others. The same sort of thing is true with so-called political systems. Underneath all the seeming complexity, both procedural and ideological, it is always just about how communities maintain a proper balance of homogeneity and diversity/vitality. Or more simply put: how people lead their lives together.

    As fundamentally simple as air, sunlight, trees, water and so forth are, they are impossibly complex to analyse, (as current debates about global climate evidence). Indeed, analysis/conceptualisation is the main barrier to directly experiencing and dealing with fundamental, natural reality.

    The current challenge in the US and the world is to get more honest and ‘real’ about what we are facing and to find a sane, truly civilised way to do so together.

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  20. Great post, Fabius.

    My only quibble is that you have correctly identified a major shift in the post-WWII era but the new world order has not yet made itself visible. This means that while you are undoubtedly correct for the world, the US in particular does not have to benefit from the coming changes. Historical examples are the British Empire after WWII and Spain after the American gold mines ran dry. Both countries had massively benefited from the previous world order but were mostly shut out from the benefits of the new discoveries.

    I’m not arguing that the US will automatically be shut out as well; just that we, the American people, need work hard to ensure that we benefit from the new order as much as the other guy.

    Kudos to OldSkeptic for your analysis of Black Scholes (BS?) model. I’m a database guy, not a mathematician and empirically discovered the same flaws in the underlying assumptions that you found. Fortunately I work for a very small company with alert management and they were already on the right track even before I brought it to their attention. Net effect having smart management was that this year my company was able to expand the retirement plan, pay a dividend and a bonus, and is relatively secure for the next year. Not many companies can say that with any degree of certainty these days.

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