Archive for Sustainable Development

Automating Government, Global Economics and Democracy

I recently completed a course in Machine Learning from coursera.org offered by Stanford University with Andrew Ng as the professor. The course covers many aspects of machine learning, its purposes, including pattern recognition, data compression, and others,  various mathematical models including linear and logistic regression and neural networks, and the actual programming required for modeling, testing and validation. It has been a long time since I programmed anything very substantial so I was very happy to learn that the higher level languages that are now commonly in use handle matrix math like a breeze allowing for the development of very sophisticated neural networks with relatively few lines of code. Not very long before that, I took another course from coursera.org on Global Macro Economics. The diversity of the courses that I study is not simply due to curiosity.

After having observed how people handle the economies of the world and watching the results in terms of happiness, economic well-being, distribution of wealth and many other factors, it is clear that people are doing a mediocre job at best of governing. When you think about it, the reasons for this are not very surprising. When we elect representatives to our provincial governments, the Canadian Parliament, or in the US to the US to Congress, the Senate or the Presidency, we hope that these representatives have some idea of how to run a country. The reality is that most are from various walks of life and many of the higher level representatives have law backgrounds. They know very little of economic, environmental or psychological studies on what impacts the relative well being and most could certainly not be considered experts. No doubt their political life is an education unto itself, but what they learn is not necessarily based on any reality that impacts the masses. More likely their education is based on political influences.  So why on earth would we expect a very positive outcome of a mediocre democratic system?  Even the diversity of viewpoints which could be theoretically expected from a diverse group of people is generally stifled by party leadership.

As we are moving towards a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is utilized in everything from accurate medical diagnostics to ever safer and eventually self driving vehicles, where sensors are becoming ubiquitous in society and measures of everything are being taken, doesn’t it make sense to automate some of the functions of government? While I am not suggesting that we do away with any government, if we were to simply set the parameters of where we want society to go, and the many variables  that shift the course of economics and society, perhaps we can also create machine learning algorithms that can steer the economy more successfully than our governments have.

If climate can be modeled with some degree of accuracy and auto-driving cars can successfully navigate the complexity of safe driving on busy roads, the analysis of “Big Data” pertaining to government functions, political decision making and economics is surely not very far out of the grasp of current computer analysis and machine learning algorithms.

As an individual who understands the potential in Machine Learning and the basics of Global Macro Economics, I recognize the potential for growth in these combined fields of endeavor. Projects like the “Brain” project and other AI initiatives will undoubtedly improve the tools, the methods and the capacities of our AI engines. As we apply these ever more powerful tools to an ever more complex world model that is becoming increasingly difficult for our political systems and representatives to manage, perhaps we can find some new and interesting answers to questions such as: how do we eliminate the extremes of poverty, increase global happiness and develop better health care and educational systems and policies. And how do we do that while ensuring sustainability with a low ecological footprint? Undoubtedly, if we had the capacity to evaluate all of our historical data from the perspective of sequence of events, we would discover new relationships between initiatives and outcomes that might help us to steer the future course more effectively.

Like every other use of AI, such an application would need to be structured in bits and pieces at first, taking on the evaluation of specific areas of governance. Eventually, however, with access to far more information and measures than any one person can possibly make sense of, AI systems would be able to manage certain government functions more effectively than our elected representatives and would be able to respond to global shifts more effectively and safely.

As a relative novice in both the fields of AI and Global Economics, I would love to hear the comments of those who have more experience and expertise in each of these fields. A collaboration of government, scientific, health and economic experts would be a welcome start to such an initiative. For those who may already be aware of existing initiatives, I would love to hear from you, so please contact me at my e-mail: garth.schmalenberg@gmail.com

Garth

 

 

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Happy Planet Index

The Happy Planet Index, unlike other forms of measuring of the health of a country, measures the relative happiness of the people in that country irrespective of most other measures that countries are normally subject to such as GDP, trade  surpluses or infrastructural considerations. We might ask then why the list is topped by Costa Rica and Vietnam.  The Happy Planet Index is calculated as follows:

Experienced happiness is measured by a poll of people in each country, Life expectancy is from the UN Development Report and Ecological footprint is from the WWF.

When the people of Costa Rica were polled, they were actually found to be quite happy in comparison with most other countries. They were not the highest by any means. Vietnam, on the other hand, came somewhat further down the list than countries like the US and Canada in terms of how they ranked purely based on happiness. So why did they rank second on the global Happy Planet Index?

The author of the index includes one other major factor in the rating, specifically, the index includes the resource usage of the country, which in theory should give a measure of the sustainability of that nation based on the fact that it uses few resources and will therefore be able to sustain its level of happiness over a longer period. Based on these two factors combined, Vietnam did well because its’ current level of resource usage is very low on a per capita basis.

There are obviously factors that the HPI does not take into account which might make this index incorrect. For example, countries like Vietnam, in their effort to achieve greater “success” for the people, are tending towards an open market economy. While not necessarily a bad thing, it also means that the ecological footprint of today is most likely not the footprint of tomorrow. In China, as an example, a more open economy has meant that  it generates more wealth overall, at the same time importing pollution from and exporting resources to more wealthy countries such as Canada and the US where the absolute level of happiness as citizen polls indicate, are higher than in China and Vietnam. This is precisely because we benefit from their footprint increase while at the same time decreasing our own footprint. Unfortunately, this can’t be adjusted by a mathematical re-allocation of footprint, because the impacts are real. So while Vietnam’s happiness polls are likely to go higher with increased wealth, it’s ecological footprint is likely to soar, thus lowering it’s happy Planet Index.

What is the answer to this dilemma? Thankfully, the government of Vietnam has some awareness of its need to grow sustainably. It’s Ministry of Environment asks the right questions and, at least on the surface, it is striving to manage this process of growth and sustainability.  Provided that the government is able to manage the corruption found in the political realm and enforce strict standards to significantly limit environmental impacts, it may have a chance of maintaining it’s good standing on the index. But there are pressures on the Vietnamese government as with any other country. People do not want to be poor and they do not want to be only partly happy. Businesses, likewise, want to take advantage of available resources. Even major projects in other countries may impact Vietnam’s well-being. For example, water flowing through China supports much of Vietnam’s river economy. As water is stressed by a growing industrial base, so too will be Vietnam’s environment . The increasing demand for light metals such as aluminum for automotive and many other applications have resulted in mining operations which threaten to strip the rich bauxite resources from Vietnam primarily for export while leaving behind lakes polluted with Red Mud and coffee crops poisoned with heavy metals downstream. A growing number of coal fired power plants from their vast reserves of coal will provide power for the millions of people and the growing industrial base while turning the coal into  CO2 which impacts climate and airborne pollution similar to that which has so severely impacted the cities of China. While there will be jobs created for some Vietnamese, like China and every other newly industrialized country, they will begin to suffer the impact of automation. While theoretically having the potential to benefit the people by reducing costs and increasing availability of many goods, it may also leave the country stripped of resources, while  significantly curtailing job creation, destroying some industries such as localized agriculture which provides many people with a meager but reliable income, and leaving the people possibly even worse off than they were before. Ensuring that industrial benefits and wealth are fairly and wisely distributed will be one of the greatest challenges.

The Happy Planet Index is a good start. It is a measure which tells us where we are and gives hints at where we need to be heading. On the other hand, it is not an exact measure and it is not a recipe for success. For that, we need to look deeper at the political, business, agricultural, familial, social, spiritual and other systems that contribute to our well-being.  As much as I would like to have faith that people will do the right things to make a better life for the vast majority, the evidence in most countries suggest that we are prepared to sacrifice future happiness for current desires. This appears to be even more true for those who have most benefited from the wealth and those in positions of power who are willing to exploit all resources to benefit themselves with very little regard to the impact they are having on others. Let us hope that the majority learn from our mistakes and strip the power from the most egregious offenders.

A read of the World Happiness Report is extremely enlightening. The report outlines the sources of happiness and discounts the view that wealth and happiness necessarily go hand in hand. It also measures happiness differently than the happy planet index, relying on methods defined by the Gross National Happiness index developed in Bhutan which puts Denmark at the top and yet it identifies some of the same policy related issues. The Bhutan index identifies four major pillars for happiness.

1. Equitable and equal socio-economic development
2. Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage
3. Conservation of environment and
4. Good governance which are interwoven, complementary, and consistent.

While we can never guarantee the benefits of any national policy, politician or political system, it is certainly worth having a closer look at those countries which top the happy planet index as well as the World Happiness Report index, especially those that have  happy people and a more sustainable lifestyle to see what they are doing right. It the case of Vietnam, voting for your government representatives is impossible unless you are involved with government. Those of us who live in democracies should never be fooled into believing what our government representatives want to tell us unless there is hard evidence. Before you vote, if you truly want a happier society and a happier life, read these reports and study these indexes and allow them to inform your thinking before voting. We will all be better off if our governments and government representatives take us in more humane and gentle directions.

Keep happy,

Garth Schmalenberg

 

 

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A new vision of Prosperity and Business for our future.

In this post, I’ll cover:

  • What makes us prosperous?
  • What makes us happy?
  • How our vision and worldview influences our happiness, our prosperity and our businesses

What makes us prosperous?

On the surface, personal prosperity comes in the form of income, money, investment equity and personal assets. But when you really think about it, prosperity isn’t a physical thing. It’s a feeling of gratitude. When we feel thankful, we also feel richer.

So for example, if I have a Lexus and I’m thankful for it, I might feel prosperous. But if I lack gratitude when I realize that it’s a 20 year old car, that feeling of prosperity rapidly dissipates. Or supposing that my colleague has a more expensive BMW that I’d rather have or that someone has the same car but a bigger fancier house that I am envious of. Without gratitude, at very best, this kind of prosperity is relative to your surroundings.

» Continue reading “A new vision of Prosperity and Business for our future.”

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Trickle Down Economics doesn’t work. Let’s shake it up with the Salad Dressing Theory of Economics (Take 4)

After even more thinking about how to address issues of social in-equality, I updated the original article.  So here is the updated version (Take 4, 6 Feb 2013).

Trickle Down Economics isn’t working the way it was intended and never did.

What’s really happening is more like the separation of Oil and Vinegar. The more you let an economy stagnate, the more the wealth floats to the top like Oil and ends up in the hand of the rich with less in the hands of the poor. But having all the oil on top makes terrible salad dressing. Separation continues until someone creatively does something about it.

There are two scenarios that we are seeing playing out (and a third scenario that could make a difference):
1) The poor can shake up the economy or,
2) The rich can shake up the economy or,
3) (The government can shake the economy)

» Continue reading “Trickle Down Economics doesn’t work. Let’s shake it up with the Salad Dressing Theory of Economics (Take 4)”

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Articulating the issues of Occupy Wall Street and possible solutions

The Problems with Occupy Wall Street

Whenever I see the news about the demonstrations on Wall Street, commentators ask questions about demands and conclude with statements like ”the demonstrators have no clear demands” but frequently point out that they share common frustrations.

The challenge lies in the complexity of the situation which has several underlying and intertwined causes. Although they perceive an injustice somewhere in the economic structure, they don’t know exactly where to place the blame, and they don’t appear to know what to do about it other than voicing their anger. I have yet to hear any suggestion on what they want done or who they expect should do it.

In this article, my attempt is to articulate what I believe are some of the underlying issues and a few potential solutions along with who should take action.

» Continue reading “Articulating the issues of Occupy Wall Street and possible solutions”

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Economic Policy, Gold Standard, Global Currency and Sustainability

The massive move to unbridled consumption began in the developed countries before 1971 and resulted in the decoupling of the US dollar from the gold standard. According to Mike Sheldock (MISH) in his article Hugo Salinas Price and Michael Pettis on the Trade Imbalance Dilemma; Gold’s Honest Discipline Revisited and Hugo Salinas Price’s article The gold standard: generator and protector of jobs, the Bretton Woods Agreements of 1944 held that the US currency was the standard currency based on the concept that, at any time, if any country had an excess of US currency, they could demand an exchange of Gold from the US Reserves. Accordingly, every country would at least make the attempt to maintain a trade balance. In 1971, Nixon declared that the US would abandon this agreement and no longer pay back demands for gold at any price because they had already accumulated substantial debt through the printing of US currency to pay for their growing needs, essentially giving themselves credit that was backed up, until then, by their gold reserves.

Prior to 1971, as a result of US money being backed by gold, all other countries followed the US dollar. The US had an obligation to try not to allow themselves to get too far out of alignment. However, as the US continued to allow their trade deficit to grow, being the only country with the right to print US currency, they eventually found themselves with a substantial trade deficit. So much US currency was in the hands of other countries that they could not be able to pay it back in Gold without bankrupting or substantially depleting their gold reserves. As a result the US dollar was sharply devalued against gold and the price of gold has continued to rise ever since.

By abandoning the gold standard, the US opened the doors to printing as much money as they wanted giving themselves unlimited credit and an unlimited trade deficit. Now that severe trade imbalances are showing up everywhere, it is becoming more and more difficult to reconcile accounts without extreme devaluation of certain currencies and getting hold of trade imbalances.

What Mike Sheldock and others are advocating is a return to the gold standard. The problem with the gold standard is that it would still be essentially controlled by one country and the temptation for that country to print money would still be more than it could bare. Would he advocate that standard if Chinese currency was the central currency? Probably not. » Continue reading “Economic Policy, Gold Standard, Global Currency and Sustainability”

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Building Lasting Prosperity

Although most of my past articles have been addressed in some way to Business leaders who aspire to create sustainable value in their organizations, my readers have come from a wide array of people, some business leaders, some professionals in various fields, and many others.  I wanted to acknowledge all of you and hope that you continue to enjoy reading.

In my last article, I talked briefly about an organization called Partners for Prosperity. You may remember a Remington Shaver commercial where the President came on the television and said “I liked the product so much I bought the company”.  Well, in my case, I didn’t “buy the company” but when I understood what Partners for Prosperity was striving to achieve I “bought” the message and when they found themselves with an opening, they invited me to join them as their Executive Director and I accepted.

Does that mean the end of my coaching practice? Well, no. There are still individuals and organizations that can benefit from my coaching right here in the Cowichan Valley or in Vancouver or other locations and as long as some of my time is available, I’m still willing to serve those needs. Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to my work with Partners for Prosperity.

Since I’ve started with them, I’ve had a lot of questions about what Partners for Prosperity does and what it stands for. In order to explain that, it’s worth getting an understanding of what we mean when we talk about prosperity.

In the traditional sense, prosperity has been based on an economic perspective. When you run a business, prosperity is usually tied to making money. It means having assets or financial ability and that in turn translates into having the freedom to do whatever one chooses.

For us, prosperity is a little different. It’s still about freedom and the ability to choose but not quite so much in an economic sense. It is more about freedom to express culture diversity, to have food security, descent housing and infrastructure, gender equality, availability to education, fundamental freedom of choice with regard to religious belief (or not) without persecution, freedom to investigate and learn, and freedom to develop and share arts and culture.

» Continue reading “Building Lasting Prosperity”

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A Reflection on Trends towards Happiness and what it means to Business

As I’m reading and studying trends related to various world issues, I noticed a few trends that gave me cause to ponder. Beyond speculation, these trends may also give us clues as to how we might organize our businesses to contribute to the betterment of the world.

For example, on reading the World Values Survey, there appeared to be a trend toward individualism and secularism until 1980, after which the values seemed to take a little bit of a reversal at least in most cases. While there was no discussion on this point in the chart, I have to wonder if there was a pause to re-think the issue of continued movement towards secularism and individualism.  

What’s even more interesting is that the Happiness Index taken by the World Values Survey suggested decreasing happiness in the US until 1980 (this same period of trending toward secularism and individualism) after which there was a reversal. The US happiness index also increased from 1980 onward peaking at 2006 during the Bush administration, although perhaps by that point with the anticipation of change on the horizon.
happiness-in-us
 Still, I have to wonder whether the reversal in trend toward secularism and individualism suggests. » Continue reading “A Reflection on Trends towards Happiness and what it means to Business”

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Individual (Legal?) Responsibility and Liability for Global Economic Justice

Over the weekend, I had the great privilege of attending a conference on “Rethinking Human Nature”, an incredible array of scholars and activists who, rather than protesting in the streets, demonstrated, by their examples of dedicated service, through their studies and their occupations, their deep and abiding concern for humanity. The conference theme was about evolving and developing the capacities of the higher human nature.

Among the many brilliant presenters was a young lady who is working on her PhD thesis whose presentation was entitled “What Can Justify Duties of Global Economic Justice? Individual Responsibility, Human Consciousness, and the Oneness of Humankind”. Her name is Shahrzad Sabet. In asking the question, she began by sharing with us the globally accepted UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. She the began to dissect the responsibilities for the implementation of these rights. To be fair to Shahrzad, I will state that the remaining text is my perhaps feeble understanding of the arguments she so simply and brilliantly presented and perhaps, at some point, I will have a chance to speak with her further to clarify or to refer on-line to her thesis work, but I can only say that after hearing what she had to say, I was completely overwhelmed by her convincing arguments recognizing that there really isn’t a minute to lose in beginning to bring this argument forward on a wide basis, and I am also quite convinced that someday this young lady will be amongst the Nobel Peace Prize winners because these same arguments will force all nations and all people of conscience to take action. Such action will come in the form of adopting laws and practices which will require all citizens of the world (or at least those who have the freedom to vote or make buying decisions), all business leaders and all government leaders to act forcefully in upholding these Human Rights by taking practical, direct and personal responsibility for implementing Global Economic Justice through their votes for responsible government representatives, those who will make the necessary revisions in government institutions, and in turn, through laws which will require all people to make these Human Rights a reality.

In nations such as Pakistan, Haiti, India, Indonesia and many others, billions suffer under the oppression of poverty, the lack of a suitable infrastructure, and through catastophic environmental impacts, while much of the world continues to enjoy their freedoms without paying much attention and governments pay immense amounts of money towards military spending and the expansion of environmentally destructive practices which only serve to further human suffering.

Her arguement goes something like this: » Continue reading “Individual (Legal?) Responsibility and Liability for Global Economic Justice”

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The impacts of Technology and Ethics on Sustainability and Business

What impact do businesses and other organizations have on the Environment?

Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren developed a formula for examining environmental impact stating that I = f(PAT) where I is impact, P is Population, A is Affluence, T is Technology. In other words, if we increase global population, which is inevitable, in order to maintain environmental impact, we must reduce either the Affluence, or create Technologies that reduce individual and collective impact. Brown and Garver changed the formula to I = f(PATE) and added the influence of Ethics. They also conclude that each of these variables have an influence on the others. Without going into a deeper description of the variables, we can generally agree that from a world population view, this view of human impact of the planet seems fatalistic because we know that the planet is already stressed beyond limits and on average, Population and Affluence are both increasing.

This would seemingly leave the entire hope of humanity resting upon the ability of Technology or a sudden swell of Ethics to decrease our net impact on the planet. Recent flooding in Pakistan disrupting the lives of 12 million people and leaving 4 million with food shortages, the worst in 80 years, mudslides in China, and a massive block of ice (260 square km and half the height of the empire state building) which recently fell off the ice shelf in Iceland into the water suggest that our climate is still shifting in uncontrolable and potentially dire directions. Ice falling off a land based shelf, by the way, does contribute to elevated ocean levels, cooling of oceans in the immediate vacinity of the ice, and vast amounts of fresh water (i.e. desalination) being dumped into the ocean and affecting ocean flows.

So here’s the question: Can we solve the issues facing us with only Technology and Ethics before our planet is irrepairably damaged and forces our hand on the factors of Affluence and Population?

The short answer is “probably not”! But there are ways in which Technology and Ethics can have an a positive impact on affluence and ethics and here’s how one idea of how a solution could unfold from an individual, business and global perspective. » Continue reading “The impacts of Technology and Ethics on Sustainability and Business”

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