Ron Predicts

I am 96 years old and I am amazed at the changes I have seen during my lifetime.  I have lived in many places in the world. I was born and educated in Toronto and lived in many Canadian cities. I also lived for twenty years in Florida. Then I spent thirty years as a snow-bird, spending the warmest six months on a canal boat somewhere in Europe and escaping winter for the rest of the year somewhere in the tropics or southern hemisphere.

These travels allowed me to learn something of the geography, history and inhabitants of many countries including England, Sweden, Netherlands, France, Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, India, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Bali, Australia, New Zealand and some of the South Pacific Islands. So I have enjoyed a long and interesting life.

In this website, I speculate on the future, which I expect will be (to some extent) a continuation of the trends of the past and the present. But there will likely be several unexpected surprises too. I am limiting my predictions to the industrialized countries, looking at the third world only to the extent it may be affected by changes in the first world.

I look back a long way. As a child, more than ninety years ago, one of the first ditties I learned to sing had only six words -  

"Shave and a haircut – two bits." 

Some of you will be old enough to know that "two bits" is slang for twenty-five cents. But did you know that the expression originally referred to one of the earliest forms of currency in America - Spanish pieces of eight, which Americans called "dollars". The "pieces of eight" name derives from the fact that these coins are deeply incised with grooves in the shape of a pie cut into eight equal pieces. Small change can be obtained by breaking the coin along the indentations to produce a segment of the required number of "bits". Thus "two bits" was a quarter of the whole dollar, later becoming twenty-five  cents.

Forget about the shave. A twenty-five cent haircut around the time I was a child has become more like a FIFTY DOLLAR haircut today. That is the result of our governments inflating their economies by two percent a year, when they can manage to limit it to only that amount. They do this because it makes the economy seem a bit more prosperous, for which they like to take the credit. The result is that your money has less value which allows big borrowers to pay back their indebtedness with cheaper money, especially the government which is the biggest borrower of all.  For example, if they can sell you a bond paying 3% interest and depreciate the currency by 3%, they have had the use of your money for free.

My first prediction is that global warming will soon make life on earth so painful that we will  manage to get to net-zero carbon only sometime this century which will force us all to stop inflating our economies, and to substantially deflate them. But no government is admitting that yet. Surprise!

Another game-changer out of the blue will be the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI):

  • UNIVERSAL, paid to every legal citizen;

  • BASIC, high enough to just cover basic needs;

  • INCOME, an unconditional weekly or monthly payment for life.

UBI has many obvious advantages:

  • if maintained at the poverty line, UBI eliminates all poverty

  • -UBI supports currently unpaid workers such as carers for children, and  elderly or disabled family members.

  • Pilot plans in Canada and US show no effect on employment except greater mobility between jobs.

  • An evaluation program in Manitoba, Canada found improvements in high school completion rates, reduced hospitalizations, and better mental health.

Imagine high-rise towers of low-rent apartments barely big enough for a couple or perhaps two friends, with rent low enough for them to share out of their UBI, thus eliminating homelessness. The rent could be deducted by the government out of their UBI payments and remitted to the landlord - a service that might be available to landlords who accepted rent control. But this is assuming that the homeless will not have to work so they will all just stay home. There have been several pilot UBI trials, admittedly limited in size and duration, which tend to show that most recipients will still want to work. They will want extra money for better accommodations, and for things like entertainment, travel and little luxuries such as alcohol.

What about families with children, you ask. A big problem we will look at later.

For the sake of simplicity, UBI payments are made to rich and poor alike and the income tax system can claw back UBI benefits from the more affluent taxpayers. Under an alternative plan, a “negative income tax” benefit, the tax system pays out just enough to supplement a recipient's income up to the poverty line.

The big attraction to the government of either of these plans is that payments are automatically transferred by computers into the citizen's bank account. Almost cost-free to administer. And the new system replaces present government payments for disability benefits, unemployment insurance and every current welfare program.  This would save the treasury not only the amount of all these benefits, but also the high cost of the large staff now administering them, which together would free up about half the cost of UBI.

But even with all these savings, where will the other half come from? I can think of one obvious source of government revenue which is waiting to be tapped.

For the past twenty years, the introduction of computer systems has replaced many workers and made many of the remaining employees more productive. And the current big advances in artificial intelligence will accelerate that trend in future. The problem is that for twenty years, the profits from all this increase in productivity has accrued just to the employers - not to the employees. Most of the lower-paid workers have seen their wages, when adjusted for inflation, remain about where they were 20 years ago. Perhaps the corporation tax system should have multiple tax levels, like income tax, but whatever the device, more of the benefits of artificial intelligence will likely be diverted to the workers and probably paid by the introduction of UBI or negative income tax.

If the government likes UBI, the voters will love it so it is sure to be adopted sooner or later. First, probably by the Scandinavian countries and then perhaps the UK. The US, the UK and Canada are already experimenting with limited versions of the negative income tax.

The COVID pandemic forced working-at-home and, to management's surprise, employees worked just as efficiently without the bosses' direct supervision. Artificial intelligence will make even more types of tasks available to remote workers. They can now participate in employee meetings and group projects on Zoom.

Working-at-home is popular with most employees. They will save the large amounts of time and money they previously wasted in commuting to and from the office and they will save the money they no longer spend on office wear. Most workers-at-home have flexible working hours which saves money on child care and is essential to carers of disabled or elderly family members. As I write this, British government employees are on strike demanding more time working at home. Employers will be more enthusiastic about work-at-home plans when their office leases come up for renewal and they realize they can get by with much less of that expensive office space.

Working-at-home is here to stay and "home" can be any place with internet access. Swarms of miniature communication satellites now being deployed into low earth orbit will soon offer internet service on every square inch of the world's surface. For hundreds of years there has been a steady worker migration from the country into the big cities. I predict that this will now begin to reverse. Why should the home-worker stay in the city with its pollution, crime and exorbitant cost of living? There will be a growing exodus from the cities and their suburbs to villages or rural areas in the more impoverished parts of the country where a worker can still afford to buy a home. The economic leveling-up that politicians have long been promising will eventually happen without government help.

The big cities and their nearby suburbs will go into steady decline for decades - perhaps a century or more. Citizens moving away cause lower occupancy levels in both business and residential rentals. This reduces property values, lowers tax revenues and leads to deteriorating municipal services.  Many of he city's businesses, libraries, art galleries, museums and cultural attractions will gradually disappear. This decline won't happen in my lifetime, but I see it coming.

With world-wide internet, the home-worker can continue working while spending months or years exploring each of the countries on his bucket list. Nations now compete for vacationers who come for a week or two. Home-workers would stay much longer and contribute much more to the local economy.

I foresee more companies following Uber's example and having many tasks performed by independent contractors paid by piece-work, rather than by employees paid by the time spent on the job. I expect some of the big media companies to offer employment service sites for these contract workers. A worker would select his abilities from the service's long list of skills. Every employer who used that worker would rate his performance so other potential employers could see his rating for any particular skills. After each job, the worker would rate the employer and these ratings would also be displayed. Five-star workers would tend to gravitate to five-star employers, potentially giving that company a superior product or service and some advantage over its competitors.

Many future changes will become necessary because of global warming. For one thing, more serious flooding will result in houses no longer being replaced on flood plain lots and on many waterfront properties.

Transportation patterns will also change. The outlook for drivers is not good. Compared to human drivers, self-drive vehicles are more efficient, using less fuel and reducing wear and tear on vehicles. Self-driving vehicles are becoming increasingly safer than humans. Drivers will be replaced by self-driving vehicles, first on public transport - buses, taxis and trains, soon on long-haul trucks and incrementally - one feature at a tine - on private cars. Introductions such as carbon tax will make driving  gradually more expensive until eventually only the more affluent will own their own cars. Most of us will find it more economical to hire a car, van or pick-up for a few hours or days whenever we need one. Usually we will get around on public transport and e-bikes or e-scooters. Working from home will reduce our transportation needs. Another big change will be the growing adoption of the “fifteen-minute city” concept - a municipal design where work, shopping and all essential services are  within 15 minutes walking or biking distance from home.

City streets will be more difficult for cars with more areas being pedestrianized and others having lanes reserved for e-bikes and e-scooters. Street parking will be banned in most areas and off-street parking will become increasingly expensive. I see some cities setting parking taxes high enough to fund public transit costs, giving non-drivers free public transport.

When cars back up during rush hour, the usual result is a demand to widen the highway or even build a new one. Governments will soon adopt a more economical strategy. Tolls will be imposed during the busiest hours, set at just the amount needed to motivate enough drivers to time their trips to a period with a cheaper toll or no toll at all. Toll booths and human toll collectors will be replaced all over the world by cameras at all on- and off-ramps to read the license plates and record when the driver was on the highway and the distance traveled. This information will appear on the car-owner’s monthly toll bill to justify the toll charges. Once the system is set up and running, computers will operate it almost cost-free.

Carbon taxes will make airline tickets increasingly more expensive so overseas vacations will become longer but much less frequent.

Longer term, there will be big changes in the food we eat. One-third of global warming is now produced by farming. Meat and dairy foods will gradually be replaced by vegetable alternatives and we will be forced to adopt a largely vegetarian diet, whether we like it or not. Even vegetables can now be synthesized using carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen split from seawater, using surplus renewable electricity. A factory in Helsinki is aiming to produce five million meals a year with this process.

And the current prejudice against GM foods will gradually wane as people realize that everything we now eat has already been genetically modified – not by scientists but by farmers. For thousands of years, farmers have been selectively breeding their crops (which has modified the DNA of all farmed plants and animals) to the point that we can hardly recognize the original wild ancestors of many of our modern foods. Crispr is simply a faster and cheaper way to continue improving the size, yield, nutrition and pest resistance of all our foods.

Genetics will soon revolutionize health care too. Scientists are identifying genetic abnormalities as causes of (or susceptibility to) more and more of our currently incurable ailments. DNA transcription and analysis is on the verge of becoming much quicker and less expensive, leading to increasing demand for gene testing of all newborns. This will alert the health care system where to concentrate their surveillance to apply any available treatment at an early stage. And when the child grows up, in-vitro fertilization, together with gene editing can be employed to eliminate the genetic abnormality in all future generations of that family, gradually reducing the incidence of these deadly diseases. Eventually, genetic testing will be required for everyone to make the health care system more efficient.

Nuclear power will be recognized as necessary to supply electricity when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. But nuclear reactors can use either of two fuels - uranium or thorium. Why don't they use thorium now? Eventually they will.

Both Germany and the US have built and tested thorium reactors but decommissioned them in favor of uranium because of the uranium reactor's one big advantage – it can manufacture plutonium to make nuclear bombs. The only thorium reactor now in service is in Norway, in the first year of its four-year trial run.

Thorium has many advantages over uranium. There is much more of it and it does not need the extremely expensive processing of uranium fuel so it is almost free compared to the cost of uranium. Thorium is much safer: no meltdowns are possible and thorium generates much less radioactive waste. In fact, some thorium reactors can be designed to consume limited amounts of our stored radioactive waste. Another advantage is that a seawater-cooled thorium reactor can use its cooling system to distill large amounts of free fresh water. Most existing uranium reactors can be converted to use thorium as a fuel but a reactor designed expressly for thorium can be 200 to 300 times more efficient. So we might see a phasing in of thorium reactors beginning in Scandinavia as soon as in the next five or ten years.

Finally we come to children. I can see the problems but I cannot imagine any feasible solution. The first problem is that global warming is largely caused by global over-population and the number of humans is expected to keep growing for at least another thirty years. But if we are ever going to avoid even part of the global warming catastrophe, we must do something to drastically reduce the population. This would need some form of government mandated birth control.

Another part of the problem concerns the children's welfare. Today you are not permitted to adopt a child if you are likely to be or to become an abusive or neglectful parent and you must have a substantial and reasonably secure income sufficient to give the child a safe home, a nourishing diet, appropriate clothing and an advanced education. Doesn't every child deserve that level of protection?

The difficulty is to administer and enforce such a scheme. China is a police state with a largely compliant population but was only partially able to enforce its one-child policy. I cannot see how any democracy could be regimented to that extent. 

One final prediction: the banana we see in any supermarket will very soon become extinct.

Bananas are an important food.  A banana was probably one of the first foods you tasted when you were weaned and will probably be one of the last foods you will enjoy when your teeth fall out.

There are thousands of kinds of bananas, mostly wild varieties, but a few hundred are domesticated. Wild bananas generally have thick skins enclosing large seeds and comparatively little edible material.

Bananas have been eaten by many animals, including monkeys and our ape ancestors, who learned to search for the more edible varieties. Occasionally, but very rarely. in a banana seed, a gene would be damaged which was essential for seed formation. The plant that grew with that genetic abnormality would have  more edible pulp and would be sweeter than usual. But they would be infertile so that genetically modified variety would soon become extinct.

However, sooner or later one of our stone-age ancestors would have noticed that a stem of a plant which is stuck into the ground and kept watered will often grow into a new plant. If he happened to find a particularly tasty banana, he might have had the imagination to cut off a stalk and plant it to get more delicious fruit in future. Such a combination of events would have happened only very rarely but something like this must have happened every few million years or so to produce the hundreds of varieties of domestic bananas in the world today.

There are two main types of domestic banana grown today. One, which is usually called a "plantain" is the much larger type, containing mostly starch and very little sugar. We eat them sliced thin and fried, as a substitute for potatoes. The smaller types, which we will call "dessert bananas" have thinner skins, are much sweeter and tastier than plantains and are customarily eaten raw. The bananas we find in the supermarket - the Cavendish variety - are intermediate in size, which suggests that they may actually be a hybrid between a smaller dessert banana and a larger plantain. Compared to the smaller bananas, the Cavendish is less sugary, with less flavor and a thicker skin.  But bananas are traded not by the piece but by the pound, so Cavendish bananas are much more profitable and comprise 95% of world exports.

They say India has nearly 400 varieties of domestic bananas, most a bit larger than a man's fingers. You see one or more banana trees beside most Indian houses. Cavendish fruit is grown on Indian plantations for export but is not grown for domestic consumption except in spots frequented by tourists like in Goa, where they are called "hotel bananas" and sold in the markets almost exclusively to foreigners who think they know what a banana is supposed to look like.  Like the locals, I prefer the "finger" bananas which are sweeter and tastier than the Cavendish. I have tried many different varieties and my favorite is a small "pink" banana - with a pink skin and pink flesh inside, and with a taste much like honey. But I have seen these for sale only in markets in Kerela, at the southern tip of India.

The thing that interests me most about this subject is the banana's inter-dependent relationship with us. Domestic bananas have no seeds.  The pulp and sugar that would have been used to make seeds remain as edible material for us to eat.  Bananas are completely dependent on humans to propagate them. If, for any reason, we stopped planting them, every domesticated banana in the world would promptly become extinct. And in turn, we are dependent on the banana as the world's most popular fruit.

Older folks may remember that up until the 1960's, a different variety - the Gros Michelle (Big Mike) banana - was almost the only banana available in Europe and America.  Like the Cavendish, it was propagated without seeds, so every banana tree was an exact clone of every other one. If one got sick, they all got sick. A fungus called the "Panama disease" wiped out one plantation after another. Soon the "Big Mike" banana was extinct.

But by that time, the search for a disease-resistant substitute had selected the Cavendish variety. However evolution has produced a new variation on the Panama disease. This is a virulent infection which is now spreading through the Cavendish plantations.  It looks like our current banana is following Big Mike along the one-way road to extinction. I  wonder what the plant scientists will come up with next.  Could I cast a vote for Kerela's pink banana?

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