Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Cryptic Thoughts on Cryptocurrency

Along with over 150 others and a studio audience of unknown size, I just finished listening to a panel of three experts including its convener Adam Tooze, whose charge was to discuss cryptocurrency. I confess to feeling gratified by the panel's trashing of the validity of the various bitcoinages, though I was also glad for Adam Tooze himself taking on some devil's advocacy.

Meanwhile, not being quick enough to post my questions while struggling to follow the arguments presented, I would like to articulate a concern of mine which wasn't addressed. 

The matter of digital currency was discussed in terms of its equivalency to "actual" currency (in stark distinction to cryptocurrency) without, stunningly, discussing how it differs regarding privacy. I don't know how true my suspicions are about China's digital currency, but it seems unlikely that they won't take advantage of its usefulness to ensure or even guarantee tax compliance, along with the policing of financial fraud.

At least a part of crypto's attraction is based on its imitation of cash in the face of the discoverable digital ledgers which are a part of credit card usage. No one else need know where you choose to spend your crypto money.

I think it is true that China is building in privacy protections to its digital Yuan (e-CNY) along with limits to government surveillance of currency uses, perhaps below certain yuan limits. I haven't taken the time to research this deeply, but I know that it is not true that the Chinese government is or ever has been indifferent to the privacy and civil liberties concerns of its citizens. Digital currency is likely to be far more useful in the surveillance of corporate behavior.

I would still like to suggest that the blockchain technology which is the basis for digital currency should first be deployed in a widespread fashion, especially before any sort of central bank digital currency is legitimized and promulgated over here. Meaning that we first need to have the technology to allow complete privacy for medical transactions, electoral transactions, Internet search history, and that we should deploy such technology to prevent someone else internalizing the externalities of our public (private?) behaviors. 

The medical, political, social networking and search ore only among the biggest within the myriad entities which make up the sector which profiteers from public ignorance about what's at stake.

Crypto currency just simply jumps the shark, racing past any possible objections because nobody can think fast enough. Especially Joe Biden, for whom it apparently seems obvious that crypto is yet another arena where the US must prevail.

At the very top of my concern is the surveillance and related behavioral modification of political activity. My life is gravely taxed by the actions of uninformed idiots in the public arena, and these are assembled and prompted based on surveillance-based manipulations of very public behaviors which technology then allows to be used, as it were, against their very own interests. Especially by the processes which convince them that their interests are what the manipulators want them to be. 

Technology of the sort which bitcoin has enabled fundamentally redefines the distinction between public and private behaviors in a way to put the ironic lie to what libertarianism supposes that libertarians espouse. 

Put another way, when I invest in the securities market I pay an exorbitant tax to the finance expert insiders who control those markets. A properly deployed digital currency could actually prevent insider trading to any degree of refinement that society requests. That would or could be accomplished according to the precise methods now used by Facebook et al to monetize my seemingly private clicks. Traders are registered, and trades are recorded, and money couldn't be proxied out. 

Shoshanna Zuboff worries - with cause - that technology corporations privatize - they steal - my behavior for their own profit. I have no way to do that for myself. And if I did have, it would be worth a dollar two eighty. Billions for them, pennies for me, and so I don't really care. 

But I should care. Social networks should be deployed the way the postal service is deployed. And news organizations should be highly regulated, not for content but for service of the public interest. The test is simple; regulation is inadequate for so long as Fox News gets to exist. Opinion-shaping should never be interchangeable with reporting.

So how do bitcoin and their ilk redefine distinctions between public and private? For one thing price is meaningless without public promulgation. That would include actual price paid in a public market. And the price would have to be stable across some reasonable timeframe in order to be meaningful. If all transactions are fully private, there is then no way to determine price. That evident fact is only made worse by the instability of crypto's value, which is indeed the basis for its attraction at the moment. 

Crypto can become instantly worthless once truth is out about what it is. Right now its still rides on top of techno mystification which harnesses the enthusiasms of get rich quick startup types whose "purchases" of the new coinages serves only the interests of the crypto initiates. That's in approximately the same way that Twitter might become instantly worthless once Elon shows his actual hand. 

Getting beyond these mystifications is my job. And I'm sorry to say that I'm aging out. Oh well, as it ever was.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tooze Tomes: Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World *and* Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy

We live in a very fraught world. Only some of us worry about that. Not very many of those few share Tooze's ability to track, digest, and diagnose the complexities of macro-economics in a globalized economy, along with the quirks of politics too. These Tooze books are well worth the 1,000-plus page slog to be enlightened. As exhausting as it is exhaustive, the book Crashed, along with his next one, Shutdown, explains so much that reading the daily news becomes that much easier. Save yourself some time!

I think Tooze got his start by explicating the underpinnings of Hitler's Germany in econometric terms. Well, I'm actually not very sure if he explains it in those terms, or if he is more interested in the mindset of the technocrats in Germany who were the first to operationalize a new way to view power through numbers. I'm guessing he was doing the same thing then that he's doing here and now: Questioning the givens and looking under the hood.

Anyhow, I haven't read that first one yet, but I'll bet it provides a deeper dive than the explanations in political terms for Hitler, which are the ones more generally deployed. Like I get a much more grounded sense of the dangers of a Bush or a Trump in the White House from these Tooze tomes than I do from the political or culture wars. They really could do lots of real damage, much of which the rest of us were saved from because they didn't entirely override all the experts, nor replace them all with idiots.

It's almost as though Tooze is telling us that fretting the politics won't get us anywhere now, especially since it has never gotten us anywhere in the past, and that we'd better get in touch with what's real. By the second book's end, he's really only offering up a prayer of sorts. We seem able to scrape through hairy and ugly impasses by virtue of a kind of rapidly deployed technical prowess, and we'd better hope that we can keep on doing that through the upcoming inevitable cataclysms of the ever-widening capitalist-based Anthropocene gyre. 

Tooze still implies plenty of danger from economy-minded neoliberal money mavens taking the reins from those who should be - more legitimately - in charge. While stooges like Bush and Trump don't disrupt the real interests of the real deep state as much as the "fascistoid" (a term Tooze coined, I think) right might like to believe they wanted to, they did veer us close to a very dangerous edge. 

Thankfully, the Hitler analog is never spelled out except to highlight factors of proto-fascism that haven't been engaged in our more recent veering toward the Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Putin Trumpian fringe. Anyhow Trump's deep state is not yours or mine. Meaning he wasn't fighting the one he wanted you to think he was fighting. Tooze exposes the real deep state, and it's neither evil nor a conspiracy as it earnestly does its dirty deeds right out in the open. Except that we're too slow to know what's going on. Sleight of hand is always in the timing.

We have never yet quite acquired all the structural features of fascism, but the dangers of our divided and unequal society are well spelled out here. While Tooze's sympathies may tend toward the left, he holds out little hope that we can move that way without triggering worse outcomes than we've already experienced. Or in other words, without a more healthy and robust structure for democracy, any move left would energize the anti-democratic powers of the ideologically free-floating right. The right is where the money speaks. Or is it?

Another way to put this is that the capitalist business and finance leaders who provided the ballast to keep our economy alive align more with Democrats than with Republicans as our two main parties are currently behaving. Irony is, as always, fully in charge. There's dumb money and then there's smart money. The Republicans represent dumb money; the kind that ends the fun. Those money grubbing servants of the real deep state will only ever be bit players, though as dangerous as the mob for that.

Our increasingly bipolar world also now combines China's 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' with American 'capitalism with socialist characteristics,' so called-out by China. That was after we broke all the rules of our supposedly free-market neoliberal capitalist economy to bail out the same banking structures which had caused the 2008 Crash. We had no choice. 

Corporate welfare equals socialism for the oligarchs, I guess. The Republicans now are stooges for the kind of oligarchy which makes football players and rockstars wealthy, runs gambling parlors instead of taxing the rich, and so on and so forth scooby dooby doo-bee. There is the mob and then there is the mob.

What saved us after 2008 was no application of democratic governance, but an abdication of responsibility to the autocratic - or at least autonomous - finance technocrats who had their hands on the proper levers. Someone had to act, and fast. It was the refunding and re-enriching of the already wealthy while leaving the workers screwed which was the political matter that never did get addressed. Even after "the economy stupid" was humming again.

We did it again during COVID-19, only more so. Like three times more so.

Meanwhile, our fascoid politicians - some of them - think that they should tell doctors and educators how to ply their own crafts. Those politicians exploit the public's confusion about the differences between sex and gender, say, or they pander to constituencies which cower from what might happen if minds were actually opened by education. Will there even be a no-choice choice next time? Will there even be a 'whatever it takes' when all experts have been banished? When will it be God's turn, finally? As if it ever weren't.

One main burden of this book is to answer the question of what would have happened were a boss-man like Trump in power during the Crash. Kind of like a surgeon taking instructions from a politican, maybe, or like Biden trying to do what Geithner did. The main thing that we ask of those in charge is that they know who to call on, and then make their decisions based on good advice. Daddy doesn't always know best. In an emergency, you let the experts drive the bus. Although they might need to know where you, as leader, want them to go first.

But the other main burden is what might have happened if Bernie had caught the wave.

Well, I suppose we have to excuse the neoliberals for assuming that there was only one way to go, and that politics could only interfere with that. History progresses, after all. Combining the ideologies according to their teleologies was the real goad for Tooze's own youthful great awakening. History doesn't end, and the arc doesn't bend by itself. Tooze realizes that he's in history, that history - the writing of it -  has ends, and that even just to understand what's happening has a powerful impact on which way things are gonna go.

Of course, education is but one key to a functioning democracy of any sort. Healthcare may be another. While China is no democracy, they do seem to understand the distinctions between politics and craft - at least better than we do - and they may be running a gauge for when the population is sufficiently educated to afford it real power. Our complexity here turns increasingly toward chaos. God's world without us is chaotic. A little piece of Chinese wisdom right there.

Meanwhile, cause of global economics, China is also trapped in the neoliberal project to educate folks to be more productive workers only. Damn the headwinds of political idiocy founded on historical ignorance, full speed ahead with economic growth! We'll provide you with the cartoon versions of what you need to know to be a good citizen. The US and China seem united in that, while Western Europe seems to be falling behind, even though I'll bet they have a better sense of history still. They may think that it is still their history should guide the world. That the West has given us the good and the goods. Ha Q!

Our founding fear of mob rule is fundamentally a fear of emotion overtaking reason when it's not fear of organized crime. Emotion is of a lower order than intelligence and gets attributed to women and blacks and bushy tailed immigrants With Out Papers when they don't think or look like us. Even Tooze summarizes what's wrong with the right by saying that it's too much in thrall to affect.

Tooze still celebrates and therefore doesn't understand social media. What mob means is money fueled algorithms to aggregate and disseminate likes. Emotional organizing on steroids where, as any good fundraiser will tell you, the bad outlasts and outbroadcasts the good five to one. Meaning that what you hate takes you virally farther than what you live and love.

We in the West have a long history of feminizing the East as well. Why can't they be more like us? But thank god for feminism as yet another corrective to our historical, um, gaffes? China has hardly even started down that road. There's a reason that the uniform of China's power-elite - more masculine than even ours - is Western power-suit with boot-black hair. They know us far better than we know ourselves. Despite or because of ideological lip-service to women and minorities. China's lip-service to women.

The tech accelerated economy over here, and now in China too, has long been founded on manipulations of market enthusiasms by our version of propaganda - advertising. With technology now the multiplier, we can steer even the electorate in any way that money wishes, and then we can blame it all on some autocrat 'over there.' As though money could be apolitical. That would be pure libertarian fantasy, which Tooze calls out as dangerous for that. Just like history cannot be told in an apolitical fashion.

What we've been up to is just plain dumb, as Tooze makes abundantly clear. But I come away - both thinking and feeling - that we are about as likely to get on top of this game as we are to stop heating up the environment - or to start to control the weather, never mind handling the climate. 

I once thought it would be productive to apply chaos theory to economics and was thankfully urged by a brilliant mathematician friend of mine that such a move would be a loser. I'd have proven a loser in any case, so no great loss. Now I find that this has become mainstream; the operative term being polycrisis, borrowed from French complexity theorist Edgar Morin. 

As in sure, we can predict the weather, and sometimes we can even predict the politics, but we can't control either. Just to recognize that chaos theory applies equally to both politics and weather though, might help us to get at least some things right. Complex systems just simply aren't amenable to rational control. And you can't even predict them beyond certain horizons. What, Covid? Sub-prime mortgages? Who knew!!??

All of my right-thinking friends and family are being driven nuts by trying to understand why and how all the Trumpers can be so crazy. But they (we?) aren't considering how much work has gone into constructing our own rationalizations about how and why the world works the way it does when it's working so well for us. Sure, we all want to help out the underprivileged - just keep the crazies out of office! We want to use our education for good (after we get rich on rigged rules). Putting the Ivy leaguers in charge hasn't exactly helped, has it? Ivy stives for recognition and rots the brickwork.

Or hey, maybe we just need to elevate emotions to where they belong; large and in charge. Not Bread and Puppets, but at least a moral compass. The Trumpers are hardly all wrong, emotionally. Emotions are hardly secondary to agency either. Our cognitive intelligence is just too slow for making critical decisions, collectively or individually. We choose which of the subliminally assembled narratives to draw on by an emotive process because it's quicker than to think it through. Maybe the same is true for social processes. Maybe there's something there which might apply to politics. It's already far too late if you haven't set some process first. Like don't shoot before you know that you're hitting the right person.

Hell, even God doesn't get the most of His credit for intelligence, omniscient though He may be. For all His unpredictability, God is known best for love. Is it really right to blame the poor and downtrodden for their own shortcomings? Is it really OK for so many of our own fellow citizens to be left out from democracy's bargain? If we don't address these matters politically, then the realpolitik of what's already happening will keep on keeping on. Crisis just accelerates what's already taken for granted. We will want the end when it does come.

As my son-in-law reminds me that Larry Lessig says; getting the money out of politics may not be the most important issue, but it's the first issue. If we can't get that done, we can't get anything right. It's the economy stupid, until the world melts down (paraphrasing Tooze here, I think). Meanwhile we need a functioning government to be prepared for what might happen.

So let's be charitable and say that the right wing's main flaw is that they think that they already know what's right. If you know what's right, then anything goes when it comes to politics. That could explain a lot, apart from the basic disgrace of saying that you know God better than I do. And anyhow, it can't explain away the stench of money-loving power-loving politicians, left, right and center.

Now please excuse me while I enjoy the process of purchasing a new car, decorating my McMansion, screwing the young secretary that I hired from Tik Tok, watching a really amusing Doctor Strange with my kids, all while sipping a well-aged bourbon. Now isn't that what life is all about? I wonder how things are going over there in Ukraine. They seem like really nice people. I want to help, click click. Now back to reality TV. I'm glad I'm not over there.

I mean, really?!? Is that all there is to life on the planet Earth? I guess I'm the one who's living in an alternate reality. Rock on!

Monday, April 4, 2022

Review: When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the WorldWhen We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The very first sentence and paragraph reads easily and smoothly. I am drawn forward. I want to read, and I know already that this book will be finished in a single sitting. Would that all books would read that way!

I have a very distinct memory of carrying a long piece of lumber from the stack to the basement window when Dad was building a fallout shelter as we were urged to do back when nukes were suddenly all too real. I remember steering the plank around a curvy trajectory. I didn't know about momentum, but my body did.

What I really remember is much later learning about momentum and relating the knowledge to the mystery of what I'd accomplished in all ignorance earlier, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. How had my body known? Only later would I crash boards around corners, having grown, perhaps, too conscious.

I used words in the same way, with a kind of confidence, even though I later learned that I couldn't formally define many of the words that I deployed. Still, I communicated well enough. No understanding required. It was a social thing, and trivial.

I think I might have given this book a full five stars except that I couldn't find the literature there. This is a simple narration of the complex ironies engaged by those we consider to be our greatest thinkers. Those who invented the bomb from a new and fundamental understanding of physics. Those who could handle abstraction so abstruse that they couldn't even follow their own proofs after exit from their rapture. Who only knew that there was something missing by a kind of intuition formed in a universe they inhabited in their minds and of which the rest of us remain largely unaware.

The awesome strangeness of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is made to feel both mundane and impossible. In just the same way, we can't differentiate between the drive for fame and the more religious-seeming drive for ultimate understanding among the book's 'protagonists'. We have no way to tell who will catapult to public adulation and who will disappear.

The book describes irony on a cosmic scale, and I think that's why, in the end, I didn't really care for it all that much. There was no character development; these characters were taken mostly intact from history. Their sexual foibles distinguished them from almost no-one, which made their heroics look shrunken as well. The plot was interesting just because some brilliant soul could be directly responsible for mass calculated murder and still care for the overall life on the planet. It is an exceedingly interesting read. But I'm not sure that I cared. I couldn't quite identify with any motive.

And by books end we are left actually believing that the lives we lead exist in the same abstract whorls that physicists describe, perhaps only to themselves, which can disappear in a massive poof. Dommage et tant pis, henh?

Knowing it all is the same as ending it all, and an author is mostly made up of the poses made for the marketing tour. One must look the part more than anything. We know intelligence when we see it. It has privileged understanding. Undefinable.

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