Challenges

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Wednesday march 4, 2020

On February 26, 2020, I was the keynote speaker at a conference at the Universidad del Valle de Mexico in Merida. Here are some of the ideas that I shared with faculty and students:

“At the beginning of this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, musician will.i.am said: ‘It’s a brand-new decade, y’all. This decade is going to define the rest of freaking humanity’.

On the eve of the third decade of this new millennium, this may well be true.

The threats and opportunities presented by terrorism and ongoing conflicts, pandemics, climate change, and the impact of artificial intelligence challenge us all in this era of instant communication, big data, massive migration, porous borders, and great technological change.

So, I have three questions that I will leave for you to consider:

Are our economies ready?

Are our institutions of governance ready?

Are we as individuals and societies ready?

First, terrorism and ongoing conflicts.

The threat of terrorism is real and growing. A good part of Africa – from Nigeria to the Maghreb – is subject to growing terrorism from Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. These threaten one of the world’s main sources of energy and strategic minerals essential for the production of many of the products that produce the artificial intelligence that is rapidly taking over our global economy and production processes. As well, these terrorist groups threaten the lives of millions of people whose safety cannot be guaranteed by world powers. This threat is growing as traditional institutions of governance weaken and, in some cases, disappear, and are replaced by an anarchy that violent groups feed upon.

The wars in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya continue to bring instability and death to millions in a part of the world that is home to many of our sources of oil. The resurgence of the Islamic State at a time when the United States appears to be in full withdrawal mode from the Middle East is very worrisome indeed.

The Middle East continues to be a region under convulsion, with the Trump Peace Plan throwing out fifty-two years of international diplomacy by proposing new negotiating parameters that leave the Palestinians at a great disadvantage. How these new negotiating parameters will affect the region remains to be seen, but the dream of a viable two state solution as envisaged by the United Nations since 1967 appears to be dead in the water.

Moreover, the resulting refugee crisis from that part of the world continues to affect Europe as millions of mainly Muslim migrants from North Africa and the Middle East arrive in countries that simply either don’t want them or cannot cope with their arrival. The political and social impact of this migration is challenging the liberal democratic systems that grew out of World War II and have contributed to such political phenomena as BREXIT and the rise of authoritarian governments and movements across the continent.

Secondly, the coronavirus.

The current outbreak of the coronavirus in China threatens us at a time when millions of people travel globally every week.

Chinese mismanagement of this pandemic has been evident since its genesis. The governor of Wuhan province forbade any public discussion of the virus at the beginning so as not to interrupt a major meeting of the Communist Party taking place in that city.

Once again, political expediency took precedence over the public interest, and Chinese authorities preferred to save face rather than face reality from the start. Anti-government public opinion in China is growing exponentially. The government not only covered up the existence of the virus, but also arrested the doctors who first sounded the alarm in December. Two of them died subsequently.

The fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to label the Coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic demonstrates the inability in some cases of multilateral organizations to respond quickly to global emergencies. As well, the number of cases prevalent in Iran and Italy underscores how fast and far the virus is spreading.

The fact that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) hasn’t prohibited flights out of China underscores the lack of coordination between these two institutions. Questions remain whether the reluctance to move is the result of internal inertias or actual pressure on them from the Chinese government.

Global challenges such as pandemics and climate change require the active participation of all states to contain them and mitigate their impact. This calls for honesty and openness by all governments in times of crisis, and an effective international system to address and mitigate challenges. It also calls for an international system to bring countries together and to coordinate efforts.

Have the WHO and ICAO been effective in this current crisis?

We are at the start of this latest health crisis and its impact will certainly become worse before it becomes better. Global suppliers of medical equipment – much of it produced in China in or near the very cities under quarantine – are facing acute shortages as Chinese factories remain shut after the extended Lunar New Year holiday. These shortages are already beginning to affect hospitals and treatment centers worldwide.

Can China, the birthplace of SARS in 2003 and, now, the coronavirus, be counted on to maintain the flow of strategic medical products when a pandemic or natural disaster closes down all production and transportation facilities?

Indeed, can we afford to concentrate the production of key materials and equipment in one or two places around the globe that are vulnerable in case of natural or man-made disasters?

Can we trust the information and data being produced by the Chinese government given its propensity for falsifying or hiding data and information for political reasons? Indeed, many governments are concerned at the lack of Chinese transparency and honesty to date that is making the control of this pandemic more difficult.

As well, on February 26th, President Trump appointed Vice-President Mike Pence to coordinate the U.S. efforts to contain the virus and manage efforts in that country to manage the impact. This after he had fired most of the competent scientists and doctors in the federal government who had the experience and knowledge to deal with such outbreaks. And severely cut the budgets of U.S. agencies responsible for managing such crises.

This is the same Mike Pence who, when governor of Indiana, oversaw a large outbreak of HIV unsuccessfully given his disdain for science and belief that prayer is the answer to pandemics. If this move was aimed at calming the waters, it is a dismal failure.

So, we have Chinese mismanagement of the crisis and U.S. mismanagement of the pandemic.

Are other governments prepared for this pandemic? Will they succumb to the need to maintain political fiction in the face of medical facts?

Will governments learn from this experience and understand once and for all that when a pandemic threatens, it is better to be safe than sorry and react quickly to contain the virus?

Questions to ponder.

Third, climate change.

At Davos this year US President Donald Trump criticized current campaigns against climate change as fear-mongering and fantasy. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin criticized climate change advocate Greta Thunberg directly and publicly on a number of occasions at Davos.

While Thunberg was defended by many world leaders at Davos including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the fact remains that when leaders like the President of the United States deny scientific data and blatantly lie, humanity is challenged. When his views are actively endorsed by his administration and the Republican party, it is cause for concern.

Fourth, artificial intelligence and its impact on global society and on individuals.

Another major issue that should concern all of us are the challenges posed by artificial intelligence. This is a major disruptive force and its socio-economic, political, environmental impacts are creating as major a transformation in governance as did the industrial revolution a few centuries ago.

The unchecked violence in parts of Africa stemming from the need by industry (mostly Chinese) for the rare earth minerals that are required to produce the computers and smart phones used to manage artificial intelligence is resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands in the Congo and other regional states as armed groups vie for control over these resources.

The digital revolution of the past fifty years has transformed us forever.

Production lines around the world depend much more on artificial intelligence than on human hands, and the resulting socio-political impact is growing.

Can governments fund retraining of people whose skills have become obsolete and incentivize industry to participate?

Are our institutions of governance capable of managing the transformational nature of the impact of technology on the means of production, and can humanity adapt easily to an economy based on machines rather than human beings?

I believe that a combined strategy by government, academia, and the private sector to address this challenge could well assist governments to provide the necessary mechanisms for people to survive these changes. It could make academia more relevant in a rapidly changing world in which 19th and 20th century education models no longer apply. Education and learning must become life-long pursuits, and academia, government, and the private sector together must create mechanisms that can address and manage this new reality.

And fifth, do current economic models work to the benefit of all. I believe that governments will have to work closely with the private sector and academia to ensure that middle and lower economic class wages keep up with those of the top earners who control most of the wealth.

Social stability requires a redistribution of wealth – not in the Marxist sense of ridding society of the wealthy, but more in the social democratic tradition that makes raising the living standards of the bottom half of society an achievable goal.

This requires creating new jobs and career paths for the unemployed and ensuring that they have access to the proper training to allow them to remain relevant in the new economy.

It also requires avoiding the use of macro-economic tools of measurement to analyze economic and social development. For example, most governments use macroeconomic statistics to conclude that unemployment has gone down. However, when a former auto worker making $35 per hour with full benefits is forced to take a job in the fast food sector at $7 per hour and no benefits and no further training, the macroeconomic outcome may look good, but the real microeconomic impact is terrible.

Digital shopping is costing millions of jobs in the global retail sector as more and more people purchase their products online. This is having a serious impact not only on the real estate market in many major centers, but also on the unemployment rate. Since retail has often been the last refuge of people who could not find other jobs, can these people be retrained in order to function in the new economy?

The social disruption could become significant, especially when one sees the growing chasm between those who are part of the information society and those who aren’t. This new form of discrimination could well have far reaching effects on social peace and governance. The rise of authoritarian populism is a result of deep-seated economic, social, and cultural divisions in many societies.

When a minority of the population benefits from the impact of technology, this results in resentment on the part of the disenfranchised. Whereas, in the past, the world was divided into three major classes – upper, middle, and lower – the world soon may become divided into two global classes – those who benefit from artificial intelligence and those who don’t.

Indeed, the disruptive impact of artificial technology and its alienation of broad swathes of society could result in the creation of what historian Yuval Harari calls a new “useless class”, those who cannot be retrained and will subsequently be useless in the new economy and damned into irrelevance and growing frustration.

As well, we must face the increasing incursions in our privacy. Today, global data bases hold massive amounts of our personal information that can be accessed by not only experienced hackers but also by governments and big business.

The political and commercial use of big-data and fake news is growing rapidly, and we risk losing not only our anonymity and privacy but also actual control over our decisions. As well, the prevalence of fake news in social media makes a major impact on our ability to make informed choices based on facts and truth.

Can this be managed without falling into the trap of censorship, or will we have to give up a certain amount of our freedom of speech to control the propagation of hate speech and fake news?

Can we adapt to the changes being forced upon us by artificial intelligence? Will it be possible to create new socio-economic mechanisms to improve the lives of all and ensure the economic and social viability of humanity over the longer term?

Managing the challenges that we all face requires both personal and societal adaptation unseen since the industrial revolution. During that time, industrialization transformed agrarian societies into urban economies and self-sufficiency was replaced by specialization and dependency on others to make a living. When the farm was replaced with the factory, individuals lost the ability to be self-sustaining and had to organize in order to survive. This gave birth to a new social order, and revolutionized the political, economic, and social institutions of the day.

Today the exponential growth of artificial intelligence is creating another massive socio-economic disruption. Nineteenth and twentieth century political structures must be reengineered and made fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.

Can our current crop of politicians provide the leadership to guide this process through to a successful conclusion? Is there enough time to reengineer our institutions and obtain positive results in order to avoid massive disenfranchisement and the accompanying social and political upheavals?

That remains to be seen.

In the meanwhile, this is the world that you are inheriting, and the world that my generation is bequeathing. I deeply apologize on their behalf.

I wish you well as you try to find a way ahead”.

edelbuey@gmail.com