Recently, the international world has began to slowly slide towards more tensioned relations:

– Terrorist bombings in the US

– Chinese and Japanese taunting each-other over some islands

– North Korea threatening everyone with nuclear weapons

– Even among EU’s member states, things seem to have gotten more tensioned in the past few years

While it’s too early to say anything for certain, to my untrained eye it would seem that the world is becoming more… “democratic”, although a much better word to describe it would be: “leaderless”. The transition from that unipolar US dominated world to the new multi-polar world is taking place and  the consequences of this may not necessarily be what some (especially those hostile to US influence) hoped for. But it’s doesn’t really matter what they or anyone else hopes to achieve or imagines to achieve in their local and international environment, because this is all part of the way our society evolves and changes over time. In the end … lessons will be learnt and our future will be shaped based on these past mistakes experiences.

North and South Korea

On the horizon
Source: italianinsight.files.wordpress.com

For my friends back home:

Pe vremuri, vasele de croaziera precum Titanicul aveau o impartire pe etaje care reflecta foarte bine ierarhia sociala. Cei mai bogati stateau la etajele de sus, unde traiau in lux si bunastare. Cei care o duceau bine dar nu isi permiteau inca luxul erau cateva etaje mai jos, iar cei mai saraci, clasa a III-a, stateau cel mai jos, aproape de linia de plutire a vasului, cate doi-trei in camera si in conditii minime de comfort. Exista totusi un nivel si mai jos, sub linia de plutire a navei, un loc in care nimeni nu voia sa ajunga sau sa intre, un loc unde era mereu cald, mirosea a transpiratie iar totul era negru de carbune. Acel loc era sala cazanelor si a motoarelor. Desi era plasat cel mai jos, acel nivel genera energia pentru tot ce se desfasura pe vas, de la miscarea de inaintare, pana la apa calda de la robinete si lumina de pe coridoare.

Fata de acum 100 de ani, aceasta structura nu s-a schimbat foarte mult. Lumea este in continuare impartita in 3 clase sociale, intre oameni care muncesc foarte mult si cei care asteapta sa le vina apa calda la robinet…pentru ca asa “trebuie” sa vina. Incepand cu 2008 insa, motoarele economiei, atat la noi cat si in multe alte tari, au inceput sa nu mai functioneze si imediat au aparut problemele: nu mai era apa calda suficienta, curentul avea fluctuatii, vasul nu mai inainta. Toata lumea a inceput sa vorbeasca despre solutii, despre taieri, ajustari, stimulari, fara ca nimeni sa coboare acolo jos, in mizeria aia. Acolo unde se munceste 10 ore pe zi, pe 700-900 RON pe luna, fara bonuri de masa sau alte  nebunii. Unde “patronii” care n-au timp sa doarma sau sa manace, care se chinuie sa mai ramana cu ceva dupa ce isi platesc toate contributiile la stat, s-au vazut nevoiti sa inchida pravalia sau sa-si stearga economiile pentru a putea ramane in piata. Nu, nu e vorba de “patronii” care au contracte cu statul. Nu, e vorba de aceia care au contracte cu piata. In acel loc nimeni nu vreau sa coboare. Multi ajung sa se indoiasca de existenta lui si de fapt exact acolo este problema cea mai mare.

Se vorbeste despre mariri de salarii, de pensii, de locuri de munca, de coruptie si dictatura, in timp ce muncitorii de la cazane si din sala motoarelor se chinuie cat pot sa tina vasul inca in functiune. In mod normal, capitanul ar trebui sa organizeze treaba ca sa se rezolve problema, dar capitanul este ales democratic, asa ca el vinde gogosi la clasa cea mai numeroasa de pe vas, la cei de la clasa a III-a. De voturile lor depinde ca el sa ramana capitan, sus de tot, chiar deasupra etajelor de la clasa I. Le povesteste “celor multi” cum o sa le dea si o sa faca, cum el “are solutii”, in timp ce cazanele mai au un pic si plesnesc, iar motoarele risca sa se opreasca.

In definitiv, pe cei de la clasa I nu-i intereseaza foarte mult ce se intampla cu vasul. Pe ei ii intereseaza sa-si pastreze luxul si conditiile pe care le au. Daca vasul se scufunda, ei stau cel mai bine. La fel ca pe Titanic, cei de la clasa I au avut primii acces la barcile de salvare, iar cei de la clasa a III-a au murit inecati.

Not much needs to be said about the demographic evolution of the developed countries. Basically, in order to have a stable population that maintains itself over time, fertility rates (the number of children each woman has in average throughout her lifetime) need to be slightly above 2 (applicable only for the developed countries). For values below 2, the population is contracting over time, eventually disappearing altogether. For values above 2, the population is expanding, putting pressure on the environment. Right now, these fertility rates are around 1.25- 1.5 (source) in most developed countries.

These fertility rates are not country specific, but rather group specific. For instance in the US, the white population has a fertility rate of 1.8, while the black population has a fertility rate of 2.0 and the Hispanic population a fertility rate of 2.4. (source) In other words, the low fertility rates are a characteristic of White populations (and also Asian).

Taking the case of the US into consideration, this means that over time, the white population will eventually mix and disappear into other groups; groups that will become the dominant ones within society.

But this is only half of the story, another interesting evolution is that immigrants tend to make a lot of kids (above 3), when they arrive  in a developed country. However, their offspring tend to make significantly less kids. By the time these immigrants reach the third generation, they usually have fertility rates well below 2.5. Also, in the past decades, other less developed countries had witnessed sharp declines in their fertility rates, most likely due to much better means for contraception (source).

So what is happening?

Simple, people now have access to efficient means of birth control and they do just that, control the number of kids they want to have, the moment they want to have them and with whom they want to have them.

The problem?

The problem is that until now, nature sort of tricked us until into having kids. We loved each other, had sex, and as a wanted or unwanted consequence, sometimes this led to pregnancy and eventually childbirth. This is not a very happy situation for many people, since having kids requires responsibility and financial sacrifices: one must give up on a part of himself/herself for the benefit of his/hers children. Today many people don’t feel ready for this until they feel they achieved financial stability. In previous times, without birth control, the entire institution of marriage emerged. Its purpose was to regulate the way people of opposite sex enter into relationships so that unwanted pregnancies are avoided and children have some guarantee that someone will take care of them.

Our modern society allows us to decide very much on the whole child-making issue, we are no longer at the hands of nature or stigmatised if we have kids outside marriage, we can pretty much do what we want. Unfortunately, in a highly individualistic society, where the most cherished achievement is individual self-realisation, the result is predicable: kids fall on the second place.

Why a problem?

This is a problem because the above behaviour leads to extinction.

Let’s take the case of Japan with fertility rates of 1.39. Assuming all kids survive into adulthood (which never happens), then the population of Japan of 127.8 million will be reduced to 20 million in about 400 years and to 3 million in 800 years from now. To some this sounds like a lot, but in real, historical terms, this is a very short time, for instance the Roman Empire lasted for about 500 years.

If our behaviour leads to our own extinction, then one must conclude that current social values and behaviours (especially in the developed countries) are at odds with some fundamental biological characteristics of human nature and for that matter, of any other living organism. This is a matter of further debate and research, but it is without doubt an issue that requires further investigation.

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P.S. A friend of mine once told me that he doesn’t care much about kids, because what he really wants to do, is to become a great writer and have his books read by many people. I asked him: “If you are not interested in kids, then who will be left to read your books after you are dead?”

 In the past decades, the media has often been sprinkled by debates regarding the future of the pensions system. Almost every time, the debates revolve around the unsustainability of current system and the need for reform. There are a few ideas on how to deal with this problem, like reducing the value of pensions, increasing the retirement age or moving towards private pension schemes. Unfortunately, these are temporary solutions that don’t solve the deeper problem which created this situation, which is the accelerated population decline of the developed countries.

How does the pension system work?

The pension system works like a loan between generations and is highly social in nature. To understand it, divide the population into 3 groups:

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What you are being told

You are paying a contribution to a large, government controlled fund, which then redistributes your contribution to those who are retired.

How it really works

The public system

In a nutshell: The active population is paying for the education of the young population so that when the young become active, they will be able to support themselves, their family, have a better life and a decent income. In turn, the young population when it turns into active population returns the favour by paying for the pension of the former active population, which has now turned into a retired population. This scheme has sometimes been called – a loan between generations.

The private system

Your pension contribution is largely invested in government bonds, since they’re the safest bet for maintaining the value of your contribution. Also, a small percentage of your contribution is used for financial investments. These investments can take many forms, but it’s not uncommon to be gambles on the stock market. The result is that your contribution is kept at a relatively fair value so that when you retire, you can get a good pension. The downside is that the company that invested your pension may go bankrupt and you are left with no pension or have your pension drastically reduced. This has actually happened in Argentine (2001) or with some pension schemes in the US and UK: example.

The mixed system

Throughout your life the state takes a certain percentage of your monthly salary and uses it for long term investments. These investments maintain the value of your initial contribution over long periods of time. After you retire, your contribution is returned to you in the form of pension. The value of your pension is calculated depending on the overall value of your contribution.

So what’s the problem?

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 The problem is related to how the overall social and economic system works. The above pyramids highlight the 3 areas of the population: the young, the active and the retired.

 In the developed countries, up to the 1970s, the distribution of the population was similar to the one in Angola: a small peak representing the retired population, a large middle section representing the active population and a large base representing the young population. Today, in the EU and in the US, the peak is becoming larger and larger, while the middle and bottom sections are gradually becoming smaller. As a consequence, the middle section is having a hard time coping with the (financial and economic) pressure exerted by the upper section.

One of the long term solutions is to de-couple the retired population from the active one by developing pensions schemes (be they private or public), which act like saving accounts for the population. Unfortunately, in the large scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter how you package the pension, since the economic and financial needs of the retired population still need to be fulfilled one way or another by the active population. The retired population is (in theory) a pure consumer, it doesn’t generate wealth and thus the state still needs to support itself from the active population (which is becoming smaller and smaller). In the same way, the interest generated by private pension funds is also highly depended on how well the active population is doing. The private pension funds generate their income and profit by investing in the activities of the active population and thus are depended on it for maintaining the value of your pension.

As a consequence, regardless of how you look at the problem, the current pension system is in difficulty, because the active population is unable to generate the economic wealth and financial resources needed to support the retired population at current levels. The short-term solution is to adjust these levels, either by reducing the value of pensions or by increasing the retirement age, thus reducing the number of people retiring every year.

Another quick way out of this situation is to increase the pool of the active population through immigration. Additionally, in developed countries, immigrants have the tendency of making far more kids than the local population (source), further strengthening the bottom sections of the population pyramid. This is a fair and decent solution for the survivability of the country, but it also marks a turning point in its society, because basically what is happening is that the local population is slowly being replaced by a new, foreign population.

The ideal solution?

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The ideal long-term solution is when the population remains stable over-time. This means that every year, the number of people who die must be almost equal to the number of new-borns. Thus, the population doesn’t change fundamentally over-time and it’s able to sustain itself. To have a stable population, a country requires that the local population has a fertility rate of 2 (basically each woman has to have 2 kids in her life-time). By comparison, in most developed countries fertility rates are very low, in Japan for instance, the fertility rate is 1.39. There is no indication that fertility rates will increase in the foreseeable future, and most of the current increase in fertility rates is the result of immigration, since immigrants usually have a fertility rate between 2.25 and 2.5.

P.S. Another (but far-fetched) solution is to discover means to increase the life-span of the population and maintain its youth for much longer periods of time. Sci-fi as it may seem, it does make the entire argument regarding pensions and population distribution entirely mute, since in world where everyone is young and eternal, such an argument is meaningless.

Evelyn Waugh wrote in his book ‘Robbery Under Law’ in 1938 just before WWII:

‘Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.’

In stark contrast to the “civilisation” of the developed world, there are some places in Central Africa where people, living in stricken poverty, kill each other with untold savagery, where rape is common and cannibalism is still on the menu. Our tendency here, in the so called “West”, is to sweep these things away, feeling compassionate about the people living in those conditions, but at the same time distancing ourselves from them. We tend to think… we are not like them. But five hundred years ago, us, the same peoples of Europe who are now the pinnacle of social evolution, developed some of the most horrifying means of torture, regularly conducted public executions, and developed means of human exploitation which formed the basis of an entire economic system. To some this has the sound of a bad dream, but it was all very real.

Going back in time a few more millennia, we can find that the same people of Europe used to kill each other with fascinating savagery, conducted human sacrifices and partook in cannibalism.

Thus, the difference between Central Africa and our “Civilised” World is not space, but time.

The greatest danger right now is it to think that our savagery has been defeated and it will never re-emerge again. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the past few centuries we’ve managed to cage our savagery in the basement of our mind, under hard locks and steel doors. But, without vigilance, without a constant reminder of how we got to our present state, the danger of spiralling back into anarchy is very real. Paradoxically, it is our thirst for more and more freedom that weakens our self-imposed chains.

It is pointless to hide my pessimistic view of the world, a view that took shape in time and it’s very hard to shake away – too many compromises, too many mistakes, too many unfulfilled dreams, too much reality.
Normally I should give up on everything and throw myself off a bridge, but despite all this, I keep soldiering on, sustained not by the hope of success, but by the feeling of responsibility; responsibility for the world that made me. I am part of the world I live in (all of it, from family to galaxies); I am made by it, shaped by it – and in a larger sense – a manifestation of it. I exist because “it” deems that I should exist and thus, in turn I work for it – in a loose sense I could say I feel responsible for making a “better world”. From another perspective, I could argue that if the purpose of my life is meaningless then my existence must be pointless, but if that was true then I wouldn’t exist – since nothing exists by chance, it’s all caused by something (see theoretical physics).  Thus, if I am here then there’s must be a point to all this, unless of course the universe is one big joke, which may very well be.
Thus, I keep rolling on thinking that one day, the world that made me will require me to give something back, here’s to  “hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years” (Ray Bradbury).

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I cannot help to think that something is terribly wrong with our world. I cannot pin-point it, I cannot say for certain what it is, but it is there, like a splinter in my mind which gives no rest.

I know for certain that this feeling is not something which is specific to myself, but it is something shared by many people.

The difference is that for each us it manifests in a different way. We feel something is wrong and we try to blame it on something, like the stupidity of others, or the government, or the capitalist system, or inequality, or whatever else you can think of… but never ourselves.

Remarkably, all these issues we try to blame are social in nature, and far-reaching, indicating some sort of social connection between ourselves, our problems and our social world. Yet this is somewhat puzzling in a world where each of us thinks in a highly individualistic fashion. Basically, what happens to others shouldn’t affect us. Problem is, this works both ways, if we don’t care about others, then so will others not care about us.

My impression is that somehow we have lost ourselves along the way to modernity, we no longer identify with anything and we try to fill in that void with all sort of issues which, in our view are of concern for everyone. Basically we want to do something that matters and it is noticeable. We search for these issues which are social in nature because we want to be part of something larger, something that gives meaning to what we do. I am fairly certain that while this will patch up our need for social importance and consequently for identity (since our identity is constructed in relation to others) , it will not solve it. We are still making a mess of our planet, we are still trying to live on the back of others without even realising it, and we are stuck with the same social and political issues for decades. We may solve one or two minor problems with our social activism but the big issues are still there, pressing on us, while the average less-social-minded individual dreams of getting a well-paid job and a fancy car. Unfortunately, the more we dream of these material things, the less common they will become since they will not solve our real problems and not make our world better, in fact they lead to the opposite result.

Part of this problem is also because for many years the need for social identification and meaning was filled by religion, but with religion adapting or disappearing in our modern society, now there is a void that needs to be filled with something.

While I cannot give a clear argument for why our modern society has somehow stripped us of ourselves, (in short) my impression is that our modern way of life is at odds with what we are supposed to do; with our fundamental thoughts, feelings or instincts. Maybe the world we create is not compatible with the world we are made to live in. Sometimes, what we think is better, is not necessarily what is better. Maybe this is the splinter that we feel but cannot understand. In in the end, it’s easier to bury our heads in small things that give short-term pleasure, just like a chubby girl eating chocolate when she is upset because her friends told her she is fat, instead of facing the harsh reality.

Time will tell if what we do today is right or wrong. As evolution will continue to shape us both physically and socially, the social systems and personal philosophies that are inefficient will die out. If our world fails, there will be others to take its place. My only concern is that we could have achieved so much and yet we achieved so little.

The funny bit is that, we are not even certain any more who this “we” I just mentioned is. Our problems may run deeper than anyone can imagine.

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