Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lessons from the dead

The true nature of the evolution of humankind


Homo Naledi no doubt had many wondering what all the fuss was about. On the other hand there must have been as many, if not more, who wondered why not much more fuss was made of it. At the very least, very few would have missed the discovery of ancient hominid fossils in a cave some 50 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg, described by National Geographic as “one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century”.

In revealing the discovery, lead scientist Lee Berger described it as a new species that contributed to the pool of genes that eventually made us what we are as humans today. In the process he prompted inevitable detractions from a handful of his peers and emotional protests from those who have firm beliefs about the origins of humankind. But in the end the significance of unlocking the mysteries of our prehistoric past has to be more than academic or even simply revealing how we adapted as a species. It is has to tell us something about the evolution of our behaviour, more specifically how we behave towards each other.

Indeed, this is the ultimate measure we all use to distinguish ourselves as a species: our much greater ability than other creatures to forge social cohesion as the ultimate determinant of our survival. It is that distinction which marks our evolution; that sets us apart from other creatures and accounts for our dominance on the planet. It is also that distinction that leads to a rejection of the idea that the level of social empathy which humans have, could have come from an evolutionary process and be anything else but externally inspired.

So when a team of scientists discovers that this trait may have been present in “non-human” yet prehistoric ancestral creatures dating back possibly a million years or more, its significance cannot be underplayed. It is true that Berger and his team reached this very tentative and speculative conclusion on circumstantial evidence only and by eliminating all other possibilities. This was that the fossils got there by some form of ritual burial. As National Geographic put it: “Disposal of the dead brings closure for the living, confers respect on the departed, or abets their transition to the next life. Such sentiments are a hallmark of humanity”.

It is self-evident that such a display of respect for the dead can only be the outcome of a similar regard for the living and a very high level of caring for each other. If confirmed, it would be a highly significant finding. Previously the earliest display of such behaviour was concluded from the discovery of a 200,000 year old jawbone which told the story of an elderly woman who was kept alive thanks to the kindness of her companions.

Evolution then is much more than how we have adapted physically and intellectually to our environment. The most important criteria is about how we behave towards each other. Which poses the obvious question: have we really evolved fully as a species? Are we much more advanced than Homo-Naledi? Some would argue not, although I’m not one of them.

There is overwhelming evidence of our ability to care for each other, of empathy, as an instinctive and not purely cognitive, cultural, religious or taught behaviour. This exists on a personal anecdotal level in the way we feel when we see someone in pain or distress; on a neurological level through monitoring human brain responses to the predicament of fellow creatures (or even others such as Rhino and Cecil the lion); and now increasingly through palaeoanthropology. It is also reflected in most of us recognising universal values such as honesty, integrity, justice, fairness, and empathy.

It is true that for centuries we appear to have been on an evolutionary trajectory that favours the immediate self-interest driver; that excuses acts of blatant meanness on the understanding that it is based on a natural instinct of survival. We have even come to expect this behaviour as an essential ingredient of success, and have constructed a variety of measures on an individual, country and company level that not only encourages but ultimately drives it.

Our understanding of business is that it exists primarily for the self-gain of the owners which can even be at the expense of the other, limited only by competition and laws. But in essence the opposite is true. Trade and human transaction were giant leaps in the behavioural evolution of mankind. Their very core is based on an ability to identify and respond to the needs and wants of others. To argue that this is inspired exclusively or even primarily by individual material self-gain is presumptuous at best.

Yet it was somewhat ironic to have the Homo-Naledi news headlines mostly displaced by the plight of millions of migrants and refugees. In dealing with this humanitarian crisis, how would the receiving countries and indeed humanity as a whole be ranked on the behavioural evolutionary chart?

Our evolvement as a species physically and intellectually may be at the extreme right of this chart. But our behaviour may still be on the far left.

Now that would be a far more telling measure than any other we have followed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A momentous time

A trio of mega-trends fundamentally changing our lives

I’ve never had much faith in futurists. The flaw in futurism is that it simply cannot accommodate the entire context that will influence ultimate outcomes. History scholars also tell us that one can never accurately evaluate current events in the short and medium term. It needs half a century or more to place them in a fuller context and even then, their effects could continue to challenge those assumptions for decades to come.

But one could safely say that the current shifts in human co-existence are so great that even the most insightful minds will be hard-pressed to paint a picture of the final outcome, and then only in the broadest of brush strokes. When you are too close to a tapestry, you cannot see much more than a few threads; giving an impression of disjointed disorder. Stand back a pace and it becomes clearer. A further pace or two and the majesty of the work is revealed.

A very large part of humanity, individual threads in a tapestry, are in excruciating pain. Many are in grief, in struggle and in deep stress about the future – from the child refugee separated from his or her protectors in an unknown and menacing world, to a stock broker wanting to end it all after being devastated by giddy bi-polar markets. The stark difference in circumstance between the two does not reduce the level of anxiety; perhaps the innocence of the former even tempering it.

Many of those who have lived for seven decades or more, would have endured much; finding some consolation in the belief that “this too shall pass”. What is true for the individual, holds true for the species. A trio of trends we are in are disturbing if not deeply painful. There can be little doubt that they will leave humanity completely altered; a state that most likely will overturn many assumptions we have had about our co-existence: what harmonizes and what polarizes.

Millions on the move.

Some 60 million people have been displaced in just a few short years -- most by conflict in North Africa and the Middle East. Not all become migrants or refugees but while much of the world is expediently trying to distinguish between the two, this tsunami of humans moving from one place to another has already been described as the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, symbolised by the body of a 3-year old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, and broadening public sensitivity to their plight.

The root cause is largely economic, including the spark that lit the conflicts in the first place. That in turn has been driven in part by a systemic economic flaw that in the name of free markets, unbridled movement of often fickle and opportunistic capital is allowed; free movement of commodities, goods and services to a lesser extent but the free movement of people, or more specifically labour is prevented.

In addition, we have a confusing Colonial legacy of what makes for a sovereign state: people or territory. Colonial powers with arbitrary borders and multi-lateral haggling about territories, divided homogeneous peoples and lumped together many with stark cultural differences. The current movement of people can affect all of these constructs and overturn many assumptions that have been held for centuries about national integrity. At the very least, it further encourages the pursuit of a vaccine against the social viruses of factionalism, racism and xenophobia.

Destroying the means of exchange.

When your means of exchange, money or currency, is increasingly delinked from the goods or services you are exchanging, you are creating financial alchemy. This is what we have done with financial markets, flouting an old wisdom that enterprise and trade lead and finance follows. This has also been based on a very shaky perhaps even false foundation of exploding debt: that thing that allows you to create something out of nothing, until you discover its nothingness.

I have covered this subject many times, explaining my jitters when markets behave the way they have more recently and arguably reflecting the growing uncertainty about where this highly questionable, wealth polarising abnormality will end. This is intensified for those of us where “riding out the storm” is simply no longer feasible.

Optimists believe that we have the mechanisms to cope; that indeed it is simply a question of riding out a storm; that the way things are will not end suddenly, but fade in a long and perhaps even permanent whimper of low growth, deflation and “structural adjustments” at individual country level. Pessimists believe that there will be a hugely disruptive collapse; a financial cleansing unprecedented in history. This implies a return to basics, some say based on gold, others putting their faith in the magic of cyber currencies.


People are becoming increasingly afraid. The number of studies and reports expressing concern about the pace of technology has increased. (See a recent analysis here). In short, technology is no longer seen simply as being our friend and one can no longer scoff at the effect it will have on jobs, the environment and society as a whole. It has given birth to a rapidly growing class called the Precariat: jobless, career-less, and for a large number, even hopeless and dangerous.

Still, it’s an inexorable march that has much promise, and as with previous technology revolutions, we will adjust in time. What is of concern is that it has for some time been disrupting the relationship between capital and labour, or more broadly, owners and doers in the creation of wealth. Together with financial alchemy it has exacerbated exclusivity and inequality causing an enormous strain within humanity. Both are removing an essential conduit of wealth distribution: money in the pockets of ordinary working folk which is the catalyst of demand and inclusive economic growth.

It is clear that technology is rapidly rewriting all of our traditional assumptions about economic constructs including some of the mad metrics we use to drive and assess the economic locomotive. Conventional theories of capitalism, socialism, and any other “ism” are becoming redundant. Yet we will vehemently argue from these perspectives with little thought of the need for a completely new inclusive economic model that can accommodate this change. (See WEF report here).

There are many other trends one could cite that will affect us for decades to come. Many will take issue with me because I have omitted climate change as the most important shift of all facing our species. It is true that humanity’s impact on the environment is rupturing harmony with nature. But I have not dealt with it because no-one can really be sure if humanity alone will cause an environmental apocalypse, or whether some or other major event, even extinction, will not be caused by nature itself or cosmic roll of the dice. In addition, it could be argued that what we are doing to the environment is an effect and not a cause of the other three.

So what prompted the uplifting headline that we are living in a “momentous time”?

On a personal note it is not only because advancing age guarantees one of an endurance sell by date, but also because one can only marvel, and perhaps even be entertained by the individual threads of this splendid tapestry: those that babble about Nkandla, a falling rand, a gyrating ALSI, a raucous parliament, a comic red beret, legacy tantrums and so many more. In the end, and informed by a hindsight of many years, they become little more than that ambient, hypnotic and meditational murmuring you hear on a long distance flight.

A step back and the splendour is revealed: a species at a cross-roads facing a simple choice between its two main instinctive driving forces, that of survival or empathy. I believe that we have for too long assumed that survival trumps empathy; that they are even mutually exclusive. They are the same. They are one moment. The latter is just far nobler. It’s what sets us apart and accounts for our majesty as a species.

That is the lesson of this momentous time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Rand: winning or losing?

Winning the battle but losing the peace in a currency war.

One could be forgiven for being somewhat confused by the verbal fall-out of this week’s turmoil in the currency and stock markets (see Moneyweb analysis here). For some years now, market commentators have been talking about a currency war in which countries benefit from a weakening of their currencies to reduce their export prices and maintain market share in slack global demand. In essence it means simply that a weakness is actually a strength.

So with the rand falling to new lows these past few days, surely we could be claiming victory in a currency war? The problem lies first with terminology. An exchange rate is nothing more than a price, and lower prices are not always a bad thing or a reflection of intrinsic weakness. Decades ago, I tried to explain this to viewers on one of my television programmes, when a decline in the Rand against the dollar was caused by a strengthening of the dollar globally, and not an inherent weakness in the Rand. A few days later, a cartoonist of a daily newspaper depicted a boxing ring with a muscular dollar pitched against a puny Rand. I was in the Rand’s corner trying to assure him that it was not he that was so weak, but the dollar that was so strong.

I have always felt it helpful to think of exchange rates as prices, rather than a true reflection of the underlying strength or weakness of the economy it is based on. This is especially true when a price or an exchange rate can be subjected to a multiple of forces unrelated to domestic affairs. These include the trading performance of other major currencies and massive market speculation in financial instruments. Any less significant instrument such as the South African Rand becomes exceedingly vulnerable and subject to wild swings.

It is difficult to avoid being parochial and blaming domestic policies when these events occur. This is highly understandable, reminiscent of the time when extreme weather was linked to women wearing bikinis in public for the first time. (That really dates me!). Many of the concerns raised in response to the performance of the Rand and our stock market fell back on fundamental economic flaws, such as chronic trade deficits, labour inflexibility, power outages, public debt, and government and SOE inefficiencies. They have been there for many years and have long since been discounted in market assessments.

But to be clear, these flaws obviously increase vulnerability to market sentiment. The tragedy is that, as the last year and a half has shown, with our weak competitive base we cannot take advantage of a cheaper Rand. Even if we win the war, we simply cannot secure the peace. We could not have had a clearer example of this than the steel industry wanting import tariff protection despite a halving of the Rand’s value in the past five years. That may be a special case because of Chinese dumping, but despite all the advantages that came our way since being embraced by the global economy in 1994, we have remained inexplicably insular and inward looking and in many respects are performing worse than we did with a siege economy prior to that. It is an extremely difficult position to maintain in today’s global economy.

Until recently a decline in the value of the Rand would elicit a typical two-handed economist response – on the one hand it would boost export earnings, discourage imports and help economic growth, but on the other hand it would create inflationary pressure by making essential imports more expensive. Today assessments are mostly negative indicating a growing acceptance that we have structurally become a net importer – a situation exacerbated by an end to recurring commodity booms.

Our failure to become a significant exporting nation boils down to something I wrote about before – an inability to see global markets as an opportunity to make a contribution to others; something that we owe, rather than that they owe us. You can never bring your needs and wants to the marketplace – only what you can offer. We seem to have extended an incapacitating domestic sense of entitlement to the world arena. Until we can reverse that, both at home and abroad, no amount of grand value-adding ambitions will be realised.

Another important issue is that market turmoil ultimately has a life of its own. We seek fundamental, logical, real and tangible causes for behaviour that in many respects is delinked from reality. As economist Dawie Roodt has pointed out in a radio interview, stock markets have been behaving irrationally globally for some years now, given their bullish nature in a climate of low economic growth in most countries.

All of this has been based on the massive growth of financial services and the explosion of debt in the last 3 decades.  In the U.S. for example the trading of securities in a year is nearly 130 times the value of underlying IPO’s and secondary offerings -- $32trn to $250bn. It’s also been estimated that the size of trading in financial instruments including derivatives equals some 60% of Gross World product.

The only appropriate analogy I can think of is that this is a case of the tail wagging the dog. When the dog whimpers on events such as disappointing GDP figures, the tail wags it, not only hurting the dog but swinging it even further. It’s been mooted for some time now that the financial and property asset bubble created from unprecedented debt levels has to burst, and that a return to some form of cleansing which should have happened after 2007/2008 is inevitable.

Perhaps my hope that it would not happen in my time is being dashed.