Sunday, April 26, 2009

Walking a Tightrope on torture...


=== lighting the political lamp ===

New York Times Columnist - and fellow Asimov fan Paul Krugman - has my respect at many levels.   But he can sometimes miss the big picture.  Recently, Krugman inveighed against President Obama’s purported lack of courageous leadership on the “torture front.” While Obama has moved toward ending shameful practices, shedding light on the past transgressions, restoring the trust of our allies and setting up procedures to prevent repetition, critics maintain that all of this will remain hollow and hypocritical without vigorous prosecuton and punishment of those who either commanded or else executed the travesties.

“What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay.”

Here I beg to differ, appealing to folks like Krugman that they should look at every angle.  Look, I too twinge over letting people have immunity for "following orders." In order to avoid bad precedents, this process should at minimum be confessional, as in South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation process. Bushite immunity doctrines have to be savagely rejected.

But is it possible that Obama is not simply wussing out for political reasons?  Might he have priorities that rank higher than punishing the monsters who despoiled America’s honor, for the last decade?  And no, I am not talking about focusing his efforts on fixing the economy -- even that is less important than Barack Obama’s true, historic purpose...

Culture-War-quote...which is to end the foul betrayal known as Culture War.  The trumped-up pitting of region vs region, rural vs urban, red vs blue, know-nothings vs science, the future assailed by a mythologized past, and the reflex measuring of all matters  against an insanely simplistic “left-right axis” that no longer even maps onto any sane definitions of “liberal” or “conservative,” anymore.

 This twenty-year campaign to divide America has effectively lobotomized the world’s greatest nation, leaving it bereft of foresight or ability to mobilize its most famous trait -- pragmatism -- toward the solution of a myriad 21st Century problems.  A sensible willingness to innovate and negotiate, shrugging aside dogma in favor of progress, based upon incremental problem-solving that is both hard-headed and good-hearted.  That has been the American genius, for several centuries.  While pragmatic incrementalism has never been easy or smooth, it has ultimately paid off, almost every time.  Moreover, it has never, ever been about faux European silliness like “left vs right.”

 And it has never been more needed than now.

Who would even want to thwart such a magnificent trait?  Only those who find the Western Enlightenment -- and America, its foremost champion -- loathesome.  Heck, I won’t even blame the retro-troglodytes of the fundamentalist/creationist awakening, whose hatred of the Enlightenment is visceral  and deeply psychological. They are adversaries, but sincere ones.  No, let’s go straight to the source -- the oligarchs who have financed culture war via agitprop agencies like Fox News. Those are the real beneficiaries of the Bush/neocon era.  And they are the ones who stand most to be thwarted, if Culture War ends and the nation can get back to business.

Seriously, do you see any other winners, including fundamentalists? Certainly markets, democracy, freedom, even capitalism and the Pax Americana that the neocons claim to love, all of these things have suffered terribly under Bushite misrule.  Only a narrow clade -- a small subset of billionaires -- stand to benefit from a continuation of our national illness.  But they have made it clear, they want culture war to go on.

And that is why Barack Obama must pick his battles.  Think! Any drive to indict and prosecute the “torture memo” writers would be counter-productive in many ways.

1) Obama is trying to rebuild the confidence of a US Civil Service, including our defense and intelligence agencies, who were deliberately savaged during the Bush years.  Having those people continue to think of themselves as Bush Era victims is extremely valuable. No single step is more needed, but it would be rocked back by such a campaign.

2) Attacking right now on the torture front would fall into a trap, allowing Fox & friends to portray it as a “liberal witch hunt” at the very moment when the base of the crazy right is crumbling, with millions of sincere, conservative Americans starting to drift away.

Look, even if we’re talking about some heinous stuff, there is precedent. When The US Government pardoned Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War, this action ran against a massive current of popular passion for vengeance. But the pardon has a practical aim.  Davis had planned to use his trial as a soapbox in which to establish that secession had been legal.  The victorious Union wanted the de facto rejection of that principle to  be accepted as a perpetual assumption, trampling the notion of state supremacy under the boots of half a million parading victors.

Parallels to this era?  Walking a tightrope, President Obama trying to find ways to permanently reject the  horrific moral lapses of the Bush Administration and to shine cleansing light upon them, without going to court trials that would further divide the nation and give rant-platforms to neocons, letting them bask in their favored drug of self-righteous indignation at public expense.  In any event, there are bigger and better fish to fry!

The key point is this:  Why should Obama spend political capital to go after one set of Bush -era crimes, when there ought to be others, just as easy to prosecute, that would bear and supply fresh political capital instead?  I am talking about crimes of direct malfeasance, corruptions and betrayal of trust, e.g. in the vetting of “emergency” government contracts to buddies.  Send up a few dozen on explicitly clear evidence of stuff like this and the shrill cries of “witch hunt” will only rile a fringe, while millions of decent American conservatives continue their veer of revulsion, away from a Republican Party that long ago abandoned any genetic connection to Lincoln, Eisenhower or Teddy Roosevelt.

Those are the crimes we and Obama should be going after, right now. Crimes that demonstrate venality, betrayal, outright criminality and complicity with a program of theft that helped hurt average Americans' livelihoods. That is where indictments will get consensus backing, helping anchor-in Obama's -- and our -- uprising against unreason.
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Oh, go hunt down and read this one -- "The GOP: divorced from reality: The Republican base is behaving like a guy who just got dumped by his wife.” By Bill Maher (LA Times OPINIONApril 24, 2009)  A bit extra-partisan, but worth it for the 2nd-to-last paragraph.

*(PS...Someone tell Krugman about FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH.)

==Self-righteousness & Robustness==

Self-righteousness redux...  Clay Shirky addresses one of my major themes in discussing his own recent outrage over a “crime” purportedly committed by Amazon.com (one having to do with bias against gays, the details of which do not matter here)... one that Amazon actually did not commit.  ”In 1987, a teenage girl in suburban New York was discovered dazed and wrapped in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with racial epithets scrawled on her torso. She had been attacked by half a dozen white men, then left in that state on the grounds of an apartment building. As the court case against her accused assailants proceeded, it became clear that she’d actually faked the attack, in order not to be punished for running away from home. Though the event initially triggered enormous moral outrage, evidence that it didn’t actually happen didn’t quell that outrage. Moral judgment is harder to reverse than other, less emotional forms; when an event precipitates the cleansing anger of righteousness, admitting you were mistaken feels dirty. As a result, there can be an enormous premium put on finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’”

Of course, this has resonance with my own notion, supported by growing evidence, that self-righteous indignation actually triggers many of the same neural-reinforcement processes that underlie addiction. This was already known about rage and gambling. But since indignation poisons inter-human discourse in almost every field — spoiling our natural, pragmatic, problem negotiating skills — this “addiction” may do vastly more damage than all others, put together.

A noteworthy non-anniversary? --  A fan with the wonderful name Francesca Flynn wrote in, pointing out that May 2009 was the date on the mimeographed circulars printed by Godon, the Postman, in his lie-that-became the-truth.  Funny thing; his potemkin “National Recovery Act” had a similar name to a bill now before Congress.  Let’s hope and pray things never get that serious in our real world.

Toward robustness -- I have long complained about trends toward increased brittlness in our civilization.  Surely the “war on terror” should have focused attention upon potential point failure modes that could have devastating consequences?  Back during the Cold War, when “thinking about the unthinkable” became a topic of passionate debate, there was talk of “Fail-Safe” -- a design methodology aiming to ensure that crucial systems, if and when they do fail, would fall back into a safe mode that prevents the very worst outcomes. (e.g accidental nuclear war.)  This meant that, should any of our systems controlling nuclear weapons degrade, malfunction or fall into the wrong hands, those systems would at worst do no harm.  But this doctrine has long ago been set aside, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and so-called “success-oriented planning.”

This trend - as we’ve seen - can prove terribly dangerous when a Black Swan arrive... the unforeseen event that hits unexpected.  After 9/11 and Katrina, one would think the lesson would be learned.  But the trend continues to be toward ever-greater reliance upon the perfect performance of a caste of expert first responders, with very little allowance for the possibility of massive first-line casualties, or big surprises, or even a nod toward the wisdom of redundancy.  Examples of this growing worry can be seen in the excess-emphasis on professionalism in the military, the over-reliance on zero-inventory “just-in-time” industrial practices... and in the newest hot trend, Cloud Computing -- which offers a long list of advantages, plus some very plausible dangers, should we rush into a system that puts all our information eggs into very few baskets

=====     =====     =====

Also......See a diverting essay by Rudy Rucker about Stephen Wolfram's 'mazing views of artificial intelligence.  "Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there’s a one-line box where you type in a question.  The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box.  What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer."

Publicity stunt?  San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric said it was seeking approval from state regulators for an agreement to purchase power over a 15-year period from Solaren Corp., an 8-year-old company based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The agreement was first reported in a posting to Next100.  Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid.


==And more Cool Stuff==

7EkCP9i3Plwt70d9QAdY4vfQo1_500Then, some lighter stuff -- Derek Benson, the lunchbagdude, draws fantastic lunch bags for his son, every day.  See this one inspired by Startide Rising.  How lucky is that kid!

Sci fi author Greg Bear to feed Halo fans hungry for details.

See Peter Norvig’s terrific “What if Abraham Lincoln had used Power Point at Gettysburg?

Best thing I ever saw come from Microsoft.  It's a peek at how they expect the world to work, 10-15 years from now.  How do YOU think they are on-target or off-base?


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Irony #1: billionaire-subsidized "populists"

First off, a quick note: Last year, I was one of the main pundits on "Life After People," the top-rated show ever to run on the History Channel.  Now comes "Life After People: The Series"... starting 10pm this coming Tuesday... on History.  I’m in some of these episodes, too.

Also: one of you regulars (TwinBeam) offered the following, down in comments: “What should we call our economic crisis?
1929 - 1933 : The Great Depression
2008 - 20?? : The Lousy Depression
Just thought we should start thinking about a name for this dog, in case it sticks around...


T’would be funny, if it didn’t hurt.

And who could let this pass without comment? Texas' Republican Gov. Rick Perry's praise for his state's tea party protestors, accompanied by not-so-veiled references to a potential Lone Star State secession.

Um... weren’t these the super-patriot flag-wavers, just three months ago?  Isn’t this the very same thing we saw in 1861, when Jefferson Davis - who had only a few years before given a speech declaring undying, perpetual loyalty to the USA “right or wrong” - flounced away into treason, before Abraham Lincoln had a chance to perform even one official act? Without even giving Lincoln a chance to negotiate?  Small surprise, actually.  Scratch a redneck “patriot” and you’ll find a fellow who has fantasized, all his life, of riding with Nathan Bedford Forest.

But no, incredible, staggering hypocrisy is NOT the most astonishing thing.

After the rallies, Perry downplayed his secession comments, amending them ] in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to say: "I'm trying to make the Obama Administration pay attention to the Tenth Amendment." The so-called Tenth Amendment Movement, asserting the rights of the states to claim all powers not granted specifically to the federal government, has been grist for conservatives for more than a decade.

No, what is more mind-blowing is the inability of Democrats to even glance toward hypocrisy as the killer issue.  For example, by pointing out that “states rights” were stomped flat under Bush and that Obama has cut loose the federal handcuffs from many state initiatives....

... or, with Fox News running all these “anti-tax tea parties” how trivial it would be to point out that Fox is largely owned and controlled by two foreign billionaires, one of whom almost hand created Culture War while the other is a Saudi prince and fourth-richest man in the world?  The notion that such people could get away with using populist, anti-elite rhetoric and sentiments to herd tens of thousands of fools into the streets, in order to demand more tax cuts for the very same oligarchs who drove our economy into the tank... that would be positively weird.  But the fact that Democrats seem unable to grasp this nettle and find the right polemical tools to turn the resentful populists on their masters... that part is simply beyond all understanding.

One polemical antidote may be suggested by the wry satire of Stephen Colbert.  What if some people began showing up at these trumped-up “populist” rallies, offering  big posters with the following messages, held-high, perfectly straight-faced.

DON’T TAX BILLIONAIRES!

BILLIONAIRES UNDERSTAND CAPITALISM BETTER THAN ECONOMISTS DO!

THE SUPER-RICH LOVE US BETTER THAN OUR GOVERNMENT DOES!

IN RUPERT MURDOCH AND PRINCE WALID BIN TALAL WE TRUST!


Any other suggested “Colbert-Style” signs to wave at Fox-run rallies?  Only remember to be prepared and thorough. Stay in character! Because stations other than Fox will zoom in to interview you!  So have some good Colbert-ish patter ready.  Like about how America has been going down the wrong road ever since those pathetic leftists, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine preached against aristocracy.  Decry the flat social structure of the 50s-70s as socialism. Poker faced, demand that we keep going down the road pushed by Fox -- toward feudalism.

Also in the news... In 2010, incumbent Rick Perry will face a challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, in what is likely to be a . Strains are showing between rural social conservatives, who back Perry, and big-city Republicans, whose concern about changing demographics have helped motivate their support for Hutchison.  In any event, one can hope this may lead to the Republicans staging their own “Miracle of 1947.

Oh, finally. Re those “tea parties” on tax day... Just a month after the birth of my first child, I made yearly a practice that I began back in the 1970s and that I recommend to all Americans, who both love their country and want to see the next generation less-burdened by the wastefulness of ours.  Beyond honestly and carefully paying whatever taxes that I owe, I also send a small and entirely separate donation to the U.S. Treasury, to be applied against the National Debt.  It isn’t much - a gesture - but it seems a good way to express not only faith and commitment, but also rejection of the Cult of Selfishness that got us into this mess.  I

f you feel as I do, then send your check (made out to US Treasury) to the Treasury Dept: Bureau of Public Debt, PO Box 2188, Parkersburg WV, 26106-2188. Send enough so that their time logging it and sending a thank you note isn’t a net loss to our kids, okay?  And feel free to use this, next time some ranting flag waver fool tries to “out-patriot” you.   It leaves the “tea-baggers” staring, slack-jawed.  Some of them even shamed. (Of course, tutoring at a homework club accomplishes much more...)

-----
President Obama said he would seek a reform of the U.S. tax code, calling the current tax system is a "10,000-page monstrosity." But that promise has been made by others before.  Whenever somebody proposes tax simplification, we run up against the fact that every “simplification” would gore somebody’s ox.  The more code-trimming you do, the more people will scream.

In fact, I know a simple way the tax code could be trimmed by perhaps 70% or more, without much political pain or obstructionism! Because I designed the method to be mostly politically neutral.  It does not aim at some utopian fantasy (like the Flat Taxers rave about.)  It gores very few sacred cows, and would be cheap and easy to implement. And almost guaranteed to work! (Only accountants should hate it.  Yet, to the best of my knowledge it has never been tried, or even proposed! Alas.

NoLosersTAxHow? It is easy enough to create a program that would take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers. The key innovation would be to program in boundary conditions to this experiment.  The top first condition would be “no losers.”  Let the program find the simplest version of a refined tax code that leaves all 100 taxpayer clades unhurt.  If one group loses a favorite tax dodge, the system would seek a rebalancing of others to compensate.  No human being could accomplish this, but I have been assured by experts that a computer could do this in a snap. If the iterative search finds a new, much simpler structure that leaves none of the 100 groups more than 5% worse off than they currently are, then who is going to scream?

Oh, cheaters will scream.  And of course, after simplification would come some genuine tax policy shifts that DO advantage some and disadvantage others.  Like all of you, I have my favorite injustices I’d love to see redressed, behaviors disincentivized, business ventures stimulate...

 But, by starting with “no-losers,” you can use politically neutral optimization routines to find a much simpler system, trimming and slimming the machinery to use the fewest moving parts, in order to achieve the same job it is doing right now.  The, and only then, will it make sense to argue about steering the vehicle in new directions.

-----
Re a common theme of mine -- the fact that oligarchy has always been the worst enemy of freedom, whether it wears raiment of the left or right -- someone wrote in: “The deeper point here is that elites will tend to form in any society regardless of the economic model they follow or the political doctrine they ostensibly espouse. Those familiar with George Orwell's 1984 may recognize this if they recall that the "forbidden book" featured as criticizing the totalitarian regime of Big Brother was titled "The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism." Note that Orwell, who to the end of his days considered himself a man of the left, placed oligarchy as a qualifier ahead of collectivism.

“The tragic experiences of the 30's and 40's taught Orwell that the economic determinism of the left was hopelessly flawed by its failure to come to grips with reality of the oligarchic impulse. Perhaps the last thirty years, culminating in the crisis of international Capital (ie, oligarchic corporatism), will teach us the same lesson regarding the economic determinism of the right.”


Vital stuff to remember.

-----
Another matter: The US government is to increase security at the country's border with Mexico in an attempt to combat drug cartels, the White House has announced. Let me reiterate.  Democrats talk tolerance and promote it... but also put far more boots on the ground, at the border.  Clinton did it, Obama is doing it.  Bush savagely cut the Border Patrol.  Will any Democrat or liberal pundit, ever, stare this fact in the face and talk about it? http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7961670.stm

-----
More reader comments: ”If a corporation is deemed “too large to fail,” then it may be necessary to incur the moral hazard and terrible public expense in order to save it.  On the other hand a clear price for saving it should be to break it up, into units small enough that later failures won’t threaten the public with grievous harm.  Breakup of near monopolies into smaller, more agile units should be a price of saving them.”

Another reader wrote in to comment on how I have been describing the abandonment of Adam Smith by the right. That icon and co-founder of modern capitalism is now an embarrassment to the oligarchs who control today’s conservatism, since Smith called oligarchy the very worst enemy of free enterprise.

So who has replaced Smith in the hagiography of the right?  Glenn Beck has been ranting lately about Thomas Paine. True, Paine railed against abuse of authority. But the truly heinous betrayal of Paine, by Beck & co., can be seen by actually reading Paine’s pamphlets, instead of turning him into a strawman.  In fact, Paine despised aristocratic oligarchy even more than Adam Smith did and far more radically.

Seriously, read up about this.  Even those Founding Fathers who were aristocrats shared much of this radical attitude.  Today, every last one of them would be laughing at the teabaggers.

====

Read more: Economics, Past, Present, Future

or continue to: Why Obama is Upping the Border Patrol

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blame the corporate boards... and change them.

I am going to jump in again, this time by simply snipping-in segments from the newsletter of tech-industry pundit Mark Anderson, perhaps his best missive yet!

I had dinner last week in Washington, D.C., with a top lobbyist, who told me proudly that she had led the charge in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act. (This allowed banks to get involved with non-bank, high-risk activities.) I had heard that the bankers spent $1B to get rid of this iconic piece of learning from the Great Depression; she confirmed it. Ten years later she is 38, and she laughingly told me over hors d’oeuvres that she now recognizes it was a huge mistake, adding that she no longer represents the banks.

Oops. I guess that’s how you destroy empires. Which leaves the obvious unfortunate impression: the banks themselves must have known what a mistake this would be.
...
Yesterday, in a lunch discussion with serial entrepreneur Al Davis, we covered all this ground in about an hour, and then he said, “You know, this all comes down to the board of directors.” ...We can blame the regulators who really came from industry, we can blame the bankers and CEOs and their lobbyists, we can blame the politicians who pretended that no regulation was good regulation, we can blame co-presidents George Bush and Dick Cheney. But, with the exception of the last two, there is another layer of governance that should take most, if not all, of the responsibility: the board of directors.

Let me start by breaking the neck of the good-old-boy scheme: most board members are friends (or even relatives) of the CEO, or work for him or her. Those who are not – even the most independent “outside” directors – tend to be selected on a rank of the CEO’s ability to direct, manipulate, or intimidate them; OR because they are guaranteed not to look too closely at the company.

For example: AIG wrote insurance in amounts far greater than its total book value, or the value of all its reserves, creating liabilities infinitely beyond its ability to pay. Today, the now-defrocked longtime CEO Hank Greenberg continues to “protest too much” on TV: that he is the good guy, the government got it all wrong, if only he were still in charge all would be fine, the government wrecked his company, and so on.

How did Hank and his short-term successor, Milton Sullivan, get away with it all? It would appear, among other things, that they used the usual tricks: find famous, busy people who make you look good and have no time to dig deeply into company affairs; and make sure your board is too large, so that nothing ever really happens at board level. In AIG’s case, that number was 17, or about eight more than are really useful.

What about the board of Lehman Brothers? Or Bear Stearns? Who exactly authorized 30/1 leverage on contracts that no one could understand, in numbers beyond count? Some board members, from the Old Model, would say: Well, that’s a level of detail beyond what we were asked to look at.
...
Great companies don’t fail because of one madman; they fail because of one too-timid board. And great civilizations don’t fail because of one company gone awry; they fail because core beliefs and values fall away, which we’ve seen in the U.S. recently.


Terrific insights. Wish I could pass on the whole thing. Some followup questions, though.

1) What about the antitrust laws against interlocking directorates? Have you seen evidence that members of one board cozy up to their CEO in part because he can do the same on their boards? If so - and even if it is done third-hand, to mask things - should not people go to jail?

2) To what extent has CEO compensation skyrocketed because of what boils down to a "cartel"?
If a small clade of a few thousand golf buddies control and corner a market -- in this case for "top managerial talent" -- can't they thereupon curtail supply and create the appearance of scarcity, boosting prices just likeOPEC & deBeers?

The very theory of capitalism that these guys praise should have corrected these compensation packages by attracting fresh supplies of new talent into management, bringing competition and hauling prices down again. When something quacks like a cartel, waddles like a cartel, and smells like a cartel... should not some ducks be carted off to jail for restraint of trade?

More important, should not their praise of capitalism and markets be exposed as hypocrisy?

See also my article: The Contradiction of Capital Markets.

3) I have long felt that "corporate democracy" can be reformed with one simple change. Instead of current proxy-based stockholder voting, in which a vast majority of stock owners simply don't get involved -- favoring whoever is currently in charge, let blocks of stockholders self-organize. Any group that comes up with 20% of shares can send a director to the board. Ideally, you'd get five very different activists. But this way, you'll at least get two.

Hence the danger. If our present crisis lasts too long, the U.S. and the world and its people will suffer badly. But if it ends too soon... then not enough tumbrels will roll, things will remain the same, and civilization will fail to right itself with enough reforms.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is "Overseas Contingency Operations" a case of doublespeak?


One possible (though not certain) sign that President Obama may be on the right track is the way that he’s attracting fire from dingbats on all sides, and not just the far-right.  One case in point that I feel compelled to comment on, off-schedule, was a load of tomfoolery offered on the Huffington Post by Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  

In “Requiem for the War on Terror,” Chernus first  rightfully critiques some of the duplicity and malignity that were rife during the Bush Administration, whose bellicose terminology trumped-up an exaggerated state of emergency as an excuse for irrationality, theft and horrific national management.

Only then, Chernus takes Obama to task for replacing  the "war on terror" (WoT) with an admittedly clumsy phrase -- “Overseas Contingency Operations.”    Granted, it is an  infelicitous choice, but Chernus sees this as just verbal legerdemain, replacing one excuse for imperialism with another.   Alas, here  he gets it all completely wrong.

But lets briefly revisit where Chernus was on-target.  Bush’s “War on Terror”  (WOT) was, indeed, a farcical Orwellian distraction, aimed at helping to rationalize imperialism, oligarchy and outright fraud.  But the worst crime inherent in the WOT is something so ironic -- and so offset from the standard political axis -- that it goes almost unremarked.  For you see, the "war on terror" was perpetrated by men who styled themselves as realpolitik pragmatists, but who were in fact totally idealistic and ideologically-driven fools.    If these fellows were imperialists, they were profoundly incompetent ones, who completely mangled all the goals that they cynically proclaimed.

The proof is right in front of us, in real world outcomes from the last two decades.  Pax Americana was at its very peak when they entered office.  Under Bill Clinton, we achieved the triple play sought by all previous top-nations, to be respected, liked and feared, in all of the best ways.   After the stunningly efficient Balkans Operation delivered Europe its first peace in 4,000 years, our alliances were firm, popularity high (even among most muslims), military readiness scored at maximum, science, economy and finances were all at peak health.  Above all, our twin reputations for both moral international behavior and rare-but-ferociously effective use of force meant that only suicidally determined maniacs would choose to challenge  the unipolar American Peace.

Sadly, such maniacs existed and made their enmity known.  Their extreme good luck coincided with a perfect storm of ill-fortune and bad moves on our part.  But the subsequent, rapid toppling of the Taliban only maintained and fostered the impression of invincibility that the skilled men and women of our security services spent decades building...

...only to see it all frittered away by the top political leadership casts.  By the very same neocons who uttered the language of force with their every breath.  There is the stunning irony!  American pre-eminence, the purported neocon goal, was virtually destroyed by the neocons.  Our alliances, military readiness, science, economic and social health were all savaged, as fully and effectively as if it had been done on deliberate purpose.

HowDemocratsRepublicansWageWarCan no one stare, agape, as I do, at the bizarre juxtaposition.  The liberals who claim to despise imperialism, are good at managing a (light-handed and generally beneficent) empire, while the imperialists prove calamitously bad at it?  If this causes cognitive dissonance, get over it.  There are literally dozens of other strange chords... like the fact that Democrats always guard our borders better, or that small businesses and stocks and budgets all do better under those supposed “free spenders.”  Live with it.

The crux.  There is absolutely nothing inconsistent about Barack Obama wanting to reverse the worst damage done to our world stature by the Bushite neocon gang.  That reversal can and must include restoring alliances, our science, our economic health... and yes, the military readiness and respect for American power that gave the world its longest and best peace since Roman times.

Reflex liberals like Ira Chernus need to grow up. Just because the neocons stood for addle-pated, moronic, schoolyard imperialism, that does NOT mean abandoning Pax Americana is the logical response. (Recall that the American Peace was the brainchild of Democrats Truman, Marshall and Acheson.  After WWII, the GOP leaders wanted either isolationism or a spasm confrontation with Communism. This gentle imperium was a Democratic construct.)

Furthermore, just because the "war on terror" was trumped-up does not mean we aren't in a memic struggle of cultures!  One that confronts us with determined foes who wish to see us toppled, threatening our fragile Enlightenment with destruction and pain, unless we are willing to defend it.  Hopefully with skill and competence and courage and goodwill, as we did so effectively in the Balkans.  Indeed, that is the ONLY way it can be done, nowadays.

Just listen to the men and women of the US Officer Corps.  Obama is (tentatively) their dream come true.  It is time for democrats to get over the Vietnam war, at long last, and embrace the skilled people who were the worst victims of the Bush era.  Doing so (for one thing) would further isolate the neocons, politically.  It is also the right thing to do.

Wars-Emergency-PolicyAlas, Chernus ignores all this, showing that he is a left-wing version of the same kind of doofus we had to suffer under on the right. For example, by failing utterly to distinguish between wars of emergency and wars of national policy.    And here is where we see the point behind Obama’s use of  the contorted term “Overseas Contingency Operations.”

George Bush couched all his overseas adventures in terms of an "emergency" for many reasons, above all so he could bypass contracting rules and award lavish deals to friends, thus helping them to steal billions.  But that hysterical word  "emergency" also covered many other sins, e.g. budget deceits and torture. It was also an excuse for calling up and abusing the reserves and national guard.

Obama is firmly ending that betrayal.  His "Overseas Contingency Operations" terminology clearly and rightfully reclassifies our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq as the other kind of war... wars of national policy, in which our armed forces will be used judiciously, carefully, efficiently to pursue rational goals, without using the crutch of a false "emergency" to excuse waste and fraud and concealment of pain. Above all, lacking the frantic justification of the “E-word,” operations that deal with international contingencies must be performed with careful attention to whether each step actually serves the long-term interests of both nation and civilization.  In other words, they have to be much more than worth the cost.

Should we EVER have wars of national policy?  The reflex of the left would be to shout "never!" Same with libertarians.  Americans are uncomfortable with outright imperial enforcement of policy goals by use of force. We don't like to view ourselves as being like Romans, nor should we!

 But until Pax Americana has a reasonable alternative, we should keep to George Marshall's plan, which worked pretty well, so far. Till some kind of wise law envelopes the planet, we have to be willing, at times, to police a dangerous and unruly world.  As the Balkans mission showed, it can be done sagaciously and well, triggering vast international acceptance and goodwill.  The crux is whether the Pax is being led by wise and good pragmatists, not vile and corrupt idealogues.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Laughing at Laffer

Arthur Laffer is at it again. One of the core rationalizers in the push for a New Feudalism, he weighs in against the Estate Tax (ET), which is scheduled to go back to historically normal levels in 2011, after briefly zeroing out in 2010.

(In the Bush Era's final gift to greedy scions, 2010 is known as the year that Mom and Pop hide from their kids, lest they be tempted to hurry the parents along, for tax reasons.)

Laffer starts with the sly trick of offering up a strawman - claiming that top and only purpose of the Estate Tax is to redress a blatant unfairness of some kids inheriting vast fortunes that they never earned, while others languish in poverty. Yes, that is terribly unfair, and Laffer even concedes it. But then, he says, so is the unfair and unequal distribution of inherited talent, intelligence health, attractiveness. He implies that those who admire the Estate Tax are pure-pinko lefties, who want to level out everything, with inevitable homogenizing effects that lead to ruin, as in Ayn Rand's book "Anthem" or Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron."

= Two Types of Leveling =

This is a standard neocon stunt, of course. Couch the debate in terms that none of your opponents ever dreamed of suggesting, then portray yourself as arguing sweet reason against a vile phantom. So, before getting to my main point about the Estate Tax, let's first deal with Laffer in his own, rigged playground, by considering the distinction between two types of "leveling."

The kind that right-wingers like Laffer accuse modern liberals of seeking -- confiscating and repressing the fruits of endeavor and successful competition, with the smothering, paternalistic goal of equalizing of all outcomes. Indeed if society ever plunged down that road -- eliminating all inequities and quashing of any natural competitive advantage -- that would, indeed, lead to a "Harrison Bergeon" world...

...and it is not at all what most American Liberals seek. Only a few ditzo, socialist-lefty flakes want that kind of foolishness, and those nuts have been marginalized, ignored by the vast majority of pragmatic liberals and democrats. (A far different situation than the one enjoyed by the nuts and flakes of the far right, who run, rule and dominate the GOP and have for decades. Indeed, the chief difference between Democrats and Republicans has much less to do with fundamentals of philosophy -- Europeans claim to be able to tell the two apart -- than it is simply this; in one party, the inmates have been allowed to run the asylum.)

levelingThe other kind of leveling is one that Americans find far less viscerally displeasing. Indeed, it has been the American consensus to pursue it, for generations. The very goal of Classic Market Liberalism (as envisioned by Adam Smith himself) was to maximize the feed stock of healthy, knowing and capable competitors that can enter into the mill of market capitalism. A little state intervention, in other words, with the clear goal of increasing the number and capability of competitive players. This is precisely the chief outcome of many liberal and progressive endeavors, from free public education to civil rights, to womens' rights, to the unleashing of the Internet. And many of them have been fantastically successful at pouring millions of new, avid players into the great, creative game of markets and enterprise.

In other words, "leveling" can be good and loyal to market capitalism, if it helps to increase the overall levels of vivid, vigorous and creative competition. This is the inherent complexity and irony that men like Laffer have deliberately obfuscated for two decades. One would wonder why... if one did not already know.

Think about it. In his article, Laffer deliberately uses his strawman to dodge the obvious question -- won't some of the funds gathered by the Estate Tax go toward helping other children better leverage their health, intelligence, etc? So long as the discussion is about children, helping them get to the starting blocks all together, to run a fair race, Laffer loses, bigtime, and he knows it.

So he strains to turn the question in other directions -- "we should focus on its impact on those who bequeath wealth, not on those who receive wealth."

You see, it is all about polemic. When the issue is kids, then disparities in wealth look unfair. But when you talk about adults, well, now those disparities were (to some degree) earned. And so, any attempt to take any of those earnings away is unfair confiscation of rightful earnings by a brutal state.

= Estate Tax vs Inheritance Tax =

EstateTax-InteritanceTaxIn fairness, Laffer does make a distinction worthy of some note, between an estate tax and an inheritance tax. The estate tax in effect puts the burden of proof on the IRS to prove that the money isn't in fact going to little Stanton III at Harvard, and if you're very rich you can hire better tax lawyers than the government can, thus giving you an advantage over the middle class woman who owns a small business and wants to leave it to her daughter.  The estate tax can thus be twisted to, in effect, work as a force to help create exactly the kind of dynasties we abhor.

An inheritance tax does the opposite.  Stanton has to prove that he's not getting the money--much harder to evade. All right. I am happy to argue details like that, in good faith.

But in fact, I am still falling for Laffer's strawmen. Because this clever master of distraction has done it again!

For the real issue, when it comes to the Estate/Inheritance Tax, is not about any kind of fairness and "leveling" the playing field, at all. No, those are diversions. Instead, our focus should turn to something else entirely, a matter of utter pragmatism -- the very survival of the Western Enlightenment, and the vibrant market-and-competition system upon which it is based.

For there is a ghost at the banquet. It is a stark and ironic truth... that only liberals want those markets to survive. And conservatives like Laffer are doing everything in their power to ensure that markets fail.

How can I say this? Well, one could start with the recent record. Across all the years since the second World War, almost every economic indicator has done better, on average, under Democrats than under Republicans. If you subtract three years of Reagan and three years of Eisenhower, then the correlation is near perfect.

But no, I want more history than that. A lot more. Will 4,000 years suffice? A historical record that spans every continent and every single civilization that ever had both metals and agriculture?

Wealth-of-NationsThat long and brutal story shows, as Adam Smith very clearly described, that markets, democracy, science and everything we value has had one terrible enemy. A foe that is relentless, because it rises out of human nature itself, every time an elite forms at the top of any social order. It is an enemy that has ruined far more markets and systems of competitive enterprise than socialism or enlightenment governments ever did. It has been THE major enemy of human progress and freedom.

It is conspiratorial oligarchy. Feudalism. Under which the main and central goal of every aristocracy has always been the darwin-driven compulsion of elites to favor their own kin. To warp public policy in favor of cronies and offspring. To become top lords who are exempt from law and market rules, and then ensure that your children inherit your position, so that they can keep using those advantages, all the cheats that come with privilege, in order to keep augmenting that position, and become kings.

= Evolution in Action =

At one level, this is simple evolution-in-action... we are all descended from the harems of insatiable men, who succeeded at achieving this profoundly biological goal

Every effort of the right has been aimed, for 30 years, at bringing back a feudal-friendly regime.  Rationalizers and court apologists like Laffer cry out "class warfare" whenever anyone raises this overall issue.  Furiously, they distract attention from the blatant horror-story of human history, spanning every continent and every era, where oligarchs routinely shut down all competition, picking and choosing winners with far greater zeal than the most oppressive bureaucrat, ever.

Free-MarketsSo far, the campaign of distraction has been most impressive.  Especially enlisting armies of libertarians to march against the very same enlightenment institutions that made free markets possible.  By calling government the sole and only enemy of freedom, they manage to serve their masters well.

In the short term. But not over the long run. Because they are fools if they think a limit won't be reached. We are starting to hear populist rumblings, and this time they are refusing to be diverted into silly-ass "culture war" distractions. The trick of turning rural folk against urban citizens won't work much longer, when both sets of red and blue middle class Americans start realizing and recognizing the Old Enemy.

Now is the time for Laffer's masters to ease off. To recognize what Franklin Roosevelt -- a man born to the top elite -- knew so well. That FDR's liberal restraints upon neofeudalism weren't "treason to his class."

Rather, they were a social compact that SAVED his caste and made America the safest place in all of history... to be rich.

========

See also: The Economy Past, Present and Future

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Re-Thinking Corporatocracy

==Re-Thinking Corporatocracy==

To set the stage, see a fascinating article, The Quiet Coup, in The Atlantic about why nations in economic crisis never do the obvious thing -- go after the oligarchs who caused it.

Kent Pitman has posted a couple of interesting items on OpenSalon.  One of them is “Fiduciary Duty vs. The Three Laws of Robotics” which contends that the modern corporation is exactly the wrong model for an intelligent, artificial organism, one whose feral amoral dedication only to stockholder value conflicts diametrically with all of the values that scholars and philosophers found attractive about Isaac Asimov’s famed “laws of robotics.”

Pitman raised interesting points.  Still, I have to demure a little.  Having served as the last author to channel Isaac -- indeed the one to consolidate and tie together all of his loose ends (see my novel Foundation’s Triumph), I became painfully aware of the flaws underlying Asimov's Three Laws -- especially the fact that super-intelligent lawyers would be able to interpret them any way they liked.  Indeed, there is an additional complaint against the corporate fiduciary law, and that is the way it so easily is hijacked by parasites, like a simple organism taken over by viruses.

We have seen this happen in the corporate world, when the top leadership clade in not just one company, but whole swathes of the corporatocracy, were taken over by a single cartel/ingroup of a couple of thousand cronies, who bent every rule or procedure to assist each other in cycles of parasitism that had nothing to do with maximizing stockholder value. Both deceitful and self deceiving at every level. this small cluster of golf buddies did everything that a cartel does -- creating an artificial perception of “scarcity in managerial talent” that then allowed them to jack up prices for CEOs, directors and all other members of the cartel. 

Thus, what we are discussing is not an inherent flaw of capitalism, but a failure of our immune system to deal with a calamity that we already know about.  A crime that is already on the books.

Any system that lends itself to parasitical predation so easily is flawed, not just in moral terms (Pitman’s point) but also in terms if simple Darwinistic common sense -- the basis upon which capitalism was supposed to be more realistic and objective than socialism!  Indeed, the failure of libertarianism to realize ANY of this is the overwhelming top reason why that movement has relegated itself to complete irrelevance, at a time when it might have had useful things to offer.

Another interesting Pitman perspective is “Rethinking Mega-Corporations” -- I don’t agree on all levels.  But it is part of the re-appraisal of corporate capitalism that’s badly needed... if we are to save and re-invigorate capitalism as an economic cornucopia. 

==What to do about Detroit?  About toxic assets?==

I’ll put aside most political matters for a couple of weeks, but let me just reiterate that there are some alternatives that ought to be on the table.  I have suggested elsewhere (see: Offer a Fresh Deal to Labor and Management) that the best way to get the automakers a vastly better deal from the unions, and to get them out of hock, and to revamp management at the same time, would be to admit the core truth, that these companies are already employee owned.  Replacing much of the hourly wage with stock would instantly fix the balance books while prodding workers with a powerful motivation to return the companies to profitability.

I do not understand Treasury Secretary Geithner.  I thought he was supposed to be on our side.  The way to deal with the “toxic assets” is to sop them up in a “negative auction” in which present owners race to the bottom, so we taxpayers get the best deal in buying them up.  But Big G is arranging the opposite kind of auction, in order to boost the banks apparent balance books and keep them “apparently solvent.”  But that appearance of solvency could be solved another way, simply by relaxing the rules for writing down bad debts, temporarily.  Most of the mortgage-backed securities are NOT failing, but banks must liquidate due to reserve requirement rules.  So?  Adjust the rules, for a while!  As long as it takes to buy the toxics at prices that aren’t toxic to you and me.

As if I know what I’m talking about.

==Misc New Items...==

Take a look at the amazing new H+ Magazine.   Singularity 101 with Vernor Vinge, Space Solar, First Steps Toward Post Scarcity, Building Your Perfect Memory, Hacking The Economy, and Nanobots in the Bloodstream are among the articles in the impressive new Spring 2009 issue of the online trendsetting edge-culture magazine H+.

See an interesting profile of Freeman Dyson, who has suggested not that Global Warming isn’t happening... (only dingbats and those whores at Cato believe that)... but that there may be a lot of net good to arise out of the warming trend.  He makes some interesting points, and I agree that chicken little scurrying may have gone too far.  On the other hand, rapid transitions... ANY rapid transitions, inevitably spur disruption, habitat extinctions, desertification and local desperation.  Some locales that turn desperate will also have nuclear weapons.  Read and be provoked.

A distinct electric signature in the brain that predicts that an error is about to be made has been found by UC Davis and Donders Institute neuroscientists by analyzing recorded magnetoencephalographic (MEG) brain activity. (Donders Institute) About a second before errors were committed, alpha  activity was about 25 percent stronger in the back of the head (the occipital region), and in the middle region, the sensorimotor cortex, there was a corresponding increase in the 's mu  activity.

Myelin (the fatty layer of insulation coating neural wiring in the ) plays a critical role in determining intelligence, and is largely genetically determined, a team headed by UCLA neuroscientists has found. Myelin-coated tracts make up the brain's white matter, while the bodies of neural cells are called grey matter. DTI scans of 92 pairs of fraternal and identical twins. They found a strong correlation between the integrity of the white matter and performance on a standard IQ test.

Resistance to paternalistic secrecy can take many forms.  Satire is among the most powerful.  See the Chinese people fighting back... with humor.

A fascinating summary of the roots of Chinese history in the conquest of Mexico and the Opium War:

Research spanning 20 years has given us almost a recipe for planting and embellishing false memories in people, said Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California at Irvine. This has serious implications for false memory problems that are occurring in society, which are really memory distortion episodes, she said.

An interesting article about lie-detection -- In the first use of fMRI to detect deception in individuals, the researchers used the patterns they identified to correctly determine whether each of the subjects had taken a watch or a ring 90 percent of the time. The use of fMRI represents the cutting edge of lie-detection technology. As far as we know, no region of the brain specializes in lies. But investigators have found that lying activates brain regions involved in suppressing information and in resolving conflicts—such as that between the impulse to describe reality and the wish to contradict it. ...When a subject was fibbing, the scientists noted a burst of activity in a strip of brain tissue at the top of the head that is involved in motor control and sensory feedback and in the anterior cingulate, which performs cognitive tasks such as detecting discrepancies that could result in errors.  Also found that activity in inferior frontal regions and in the right anterior insula, which interprets bodily states as emotions, directly paralleled sweat gland productivity, lending credence to both brain and skin responses as indicators of fibbing.  Otoh, studies of people with antisocial personality disorders, for example, indicate that such patients may have damaged frontal lobes. Because of these discrepancies, a sociopath, psychopath or someone who is simply a good liar might well be able to suppress any suspicious neural responses to the “insider” choices and thus avoid detection. 

==On the Great Apes==

The Great Ape Trust in Iowa is engaging in an  experiment, bonobos, which are part of the great ape family that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, have been given their own house in which to live and dwell. In 2005, organizers placed eight bonobos in a multi-million dollar facility in what is hoped will be a successful long term and multi-generational experiment. The house is equipped with 18 rooms that include a kitchen in which to prepare meals and vending machines that dispense snacks. There are flushing lavatories, an indoor waterfall and walls for climbing. When it comes time to eat, the apes help their human handlers prepare meals in a compound kitchen. The bonobos can monitor the front door with a camera and decide for themselves who can come in – although they are known for welcoming visitors and often taking newcomers by the hand to show them around the complex.

A fascinating development in the war between science and postmodernism.  Apparently, some members of the latter -named cult have come to realize that their beloved nonsense became far more the tool of reactionary oppressors than science itself ever was.

See Brockman’s EDGE site for a fascinating essay on the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s famous “two cultures” epistle, about the gaping divide between the scientific and the academic literary world.  Snow's descriptions of the two cultures are not exactly subtle. Scientists, he asserts, have "the future in their bones," while "the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist." Scientists, he adds, are morally "the soundest group of intellectuals we have," while literary ethics are more suspect.

Speaking of apes.... A truly dismal and misleading article in scientific American about   S. JAY OLSHANSKY, LEONARD HAYFLICK and BRUCE A. CARNES says corectly that “no anti-aging remedy on the market today has been proved effective” and that most of the promises made so far are pipe dreams.  I agree, so why do I find their article dumb and below SciAm standards?  First, they dimiss any thought that aging may involve some kind of expiration clock, hewing solely and exclusively to the “accumulation of errors” theory.  But...

 (1) pure accumulation of errors, all by itself, would inevitably feature far more outliers -- individual exceptions -- than we see in human or animal populations.

  (2) Caloric restriction and sex-delay in many species (e.g. flies and mice) have triggered fundamentally and qualitatively different aging profiles and rates... and yet caloric restriction evidently has NO such dramatic effect upon human populations (a puzzle that I can tentatively explain, but that the authors’ theory cannot.)

  (3) There is a famous mass-vs-lifespan curve for mammals, such that most species seem to get roughly the same number of heartbeats!  Yes, this might be consistent with error-accumulation!  Except primates get more heartbeats, apes even more, and humans three times the mammalian norm!

   Funny thing, primates are the mammals that NEED longer lifespans because their babies are dependent longer.  More so apes.  And humans needed longer spans even more.  So... we evolved to get them.  Um... that sounds a lot more like a “clock” than error accumulation!  These guys may be right in their cautionary message to the public.  But it doesn’t stop em from being dopes.

==Please help update the predictions site!==

Until I can arm-twist some billionaire to fund a real predictions registry, we can at least continue our group experiment with the little wiki that holds me accountable.  So folks, please do (if possible) drop by and help Tony (and others) revise, fill and update the predictions wiki at: http://earthbydavidbrin.pbwiki.com/Predictions

Not only is it interesting -- tracking the successful... and embarrassingly wrong forecasts from Earth and other books-- but filling it in and taking care of some of the missing sections could actually help your humble host at getting some attention paid to interesting topics. Making the wiki look fairly professional and respectable could make a real difference.If you want to join with full writing privileges, just ask Tony Fisk via the comments section, below.

Oh, someone be sure to keep an eye on Bill Christensen’s much more general sci fi predictions site, technovelgy.com!  And help the two correlate.  This is part of the long slog toward getting society to admit that sci fi knows best!

==And now for something different…==

After the sublime... the ridiculous! Google is at it again with April Fool’s yuks:

--Research Group switches on world's first artificial intelligence tasked array
--Introducing Google Chrome with 3D
--The easiest email could possibly be

An absolute must-see: FDA approves drug for the annoyingly cheerful!

*** Open call for articles about interesting breakthroughs in augmented or mixed reality, especially overlays of virtual objects on realtime surroundings (e.g. through eyeglass headsup displays.)   Also, anybody with contacts with companies either in DC or Phoenix, I’ll be in those two cities and open to suggested folks who might want an inspirational and stimulating speech or consultation about “the future.”