Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Americans Spent Themselves into Ruin... But Saved the World

In the 1/1/24 edition of the Silicon Valley newspaper and online journal Metroactive, I have an editorial: Power of Consumption describing how the American consumer came to propel the export-driven development of Japan, Korea, Malaysia, China and now India.

That process, spanning more than six decades, is almost always portrayed -- especially in Asia -- as having come about as a result of eastern cleverness, in catering to the insatiable material appetites of decadent westerners.  But there is a far more interesting, complex, and even inspiring explanation for how the greatest wealth transfer of all time -- which has lifted several billion people out of poverty -- actually came about.  I reveal how George Marshall and the United States chose, in 1946, to behave differently from any other "pax" empire, and thereby changed the world.

I'll now repost that essay here, in expanded form.

If your politics operate on reflex - from either left or right - you are likely to find something here that will offend. But please, dear fellow believers in tomorrow, bear in mind that I'm an internationalist who opposed jingo-chauvinists, all his life.

And yet, I feel it is long past time that someone spoke up in defense of Pax Americana.

==The Far-Right's Caricature Version of Pax Americana==

Sure, that phrase Pax Americana (PA) fell into disrepute during the era of the mad neocons, whose misrule left the United States far worse off by every clear metric of national health.  During their time in near-total power, steering the American ship of state, fellows like Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and their ilk made a point of proclaiming imperial triumphalism - exoling an America invested with sacred, perfect and permanent rights of planet-wide dominance, based upon inherent qualities that were said to be unaffected by any objective-reality considerations, like budgets or geography; like world opinion or the end of the Cold War; like science or technology; like rationality or morality or the physical well-being of our troops.

Indeed, the only factor that they felt might undermine America’s manifestly-destined and eternal preeminence could be a failure of will, should the wimpy liberals ever have their way.  But if led with a firm-jawed determination to bull past all obstacles, the American pax could linger indefinitely, with all the privileges of governing world affairs and few of the responsibilities or cares.

Sure, it has been proper to oppose the policies of such deeply delusional men -- policies which unambiguously and uniformly brought ruin to the very things they claimed to hold dear. Capitalism, freedom, fiscal and national health, as well as U.S. influence in the world all plummeted under their rule. (These metrics all skyrocketed under Bill Clinton, whose endeavor in the Balkans was inarguably one of Pax Americana's finest hours.)

==But The Left Goes Too Far The Other Way==

And yet, something is very wrong with the unselective manner in which some folks on the other side have allowed those neocon nincompoops to define the argument.  It is an unfortunate habit of the left to assume that any appreciation of the American contribution to human civilization must be inherently fascistic.  This reflexive self-loathing has given (unnecessarily) a huge weapon to the right, in their ongoing treason-campaign called "Culture War," allowing them to retain millions of supporters who might otherwise have abandoned them.

By abrogating the natural human phenomenon of patriotic pride, these fools on the left have allowed guys like Sean Hannity to claim love-of-country as a sole monopoly of the right!  If they get away with pushing simplistic “greatest nation ever” rants and portraying themselves as the implicit opposite of homeland-hating liberals, that gift comes gratis from the left.

Moreover, there is another reason for liberals to re-examine this reflex and to find good -- and even great -- things to proclaim about America.  Because, without any doubt, America deserves it.  Yes, self-criticism is a useful tonic, and there definitely were crimes committed, during our time on top.  Nevertheless, the net effects of Pax Americana have been generally positive, compared against every single previous era in human history.

This can be proved, with just a single example -- one that was as decisive as it is ironic, and that has spanned an entire lifespan.

==The Miracle of 1946==

Mr. Wu Jianmin is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University and Chairman of the Shanghai Centre of International Studies.  A smart fellow whose observations about the world well-merit close attention.  Specifically, in a recent edition of the online journal The Globalist, Wu Jianmin's brief appraisal of  "A Chinese Perspective on a Changing World" was insightful and much appreciated.

However I feel a need to quibble with one of his statements, which reflected a widespread assumption held all over the world:

 "After the Second World War, things started to change. Japan was the first to rise in Asia. We Asians are grateful to Japan for inventing this export-oriented development model, which helped initiate the process of Asia’s rise."

In fact, with due respect for their industriousness, ingenuity and determination, the Japanese invented no such thing. The initiators of export-driven world development were two military and diplomatic leaders of Pax American at its very peak:  George Marshall, who was Secretary of State under President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during his time as military governor of Japan, in the ravaged aftermath of the Second World War.

miracleof1947While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come.  Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy -- the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid.  And then, over the longer term, with trade.

(One might well add a third American hero, W. Edwards Deming, whose teachings about industrial process -- especially the importance of high standards of quality control -- were profoundly influential in Japan, helping  transform Japanese products from stereotypes of shoddiness into icons of manufacturing excellence.)

Look, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not downplaying the importance of Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian efforts to uplift themselves through the hard work of hundreds of millions who labored in sweatshops making toys and clothes for U.S. consumers.  Without any doubt, those workers... (like the generations who built America, before 1950,  in the sooty factories of Detroit and Pittsburgh)... and their innovative managers, were far more heroic and directly responsible for the last six decades of world development than American consumers, pushing overflowing carts through WalMart.

Nevertheless, those consumers —plus the trade policies that made the WalMart Tsunami possible, plus a fantastically generous and nearly unrestricted flow of intellectual capital from west to east — all played crucial roles in this process that lifted billions of people out of grinding, hopeless poverty.  Moreover, it now seems long past time to realize how unique all of this was, in the sad litany of human civilization.

==The Thing About Empires==

Let's step back a little.  First off, if you scan across recorded history, you'll find that most people who lived in agricultural societies endured either of two kinds of global situations. There were periods of imperium and periods of chaos.  A lot of the empires were brutal, stultifying and awful, but at least cities didn't burn that often, while the empire maintained order.  Families got to raise their kids and work hard and engage in trade.  Even if you belonged to an oppressed subject people, your odds of survival, and bettering yourself, were better under the rule of an imperial "pax."

That doesn't mean the empires were wise!  Often, they behaved in smug, childish, and tyrannical ways that, while conforming to ornery human nature, also laid seeds for their own destruction.  Today, I want to focus on one of these bad habits, in particular.

The annals of five continents show that, whenever a nation became overwhelmingly strong, it tended to forge mercantilist-style trade networks that favored home industries and capital inflows, at the expense of those living in in satrapies and dependent areas.

The Romans did this, insisting that rivers of gold and silver stream into the imperial city.  So did the Hellenists, Persians, Moghuls... and so did every Chinese imperial dynasty. This kind of behavior, by Pax Brittanica, was one of the chief complaints against Britain by both John Hancock and Mohandas Ganhdi.

Adam Smith called mercantilism a foul habit, that was based in human nature.  A natural outcome of empire, it over the long run almost inevitably contributed to self-destruction.  But alas, everybody did it, when they could.  Except just once.

==The Exception to the Rule of Imperial Mercantilism==

In fact, there has been only one top-nation that ever avoided the addiction to imperial mercantilism, and that was the United States of America. Upon finding itself the overwhelmingly dominant power, at the end of World War II, the U.S. had ample opportunity to impose its own vision upon the system of international trade.  And it did. Only, at this crucial moment, something special happened.

At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows.  A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall's time kept fealty with this compact -- to such a degree that the world's peoples by now simply take it for granted.

Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs!  But they aren't.  They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n' roll.

==Why Did This Happen?==

Now, of course, more than pure altruism may have been involved in the decision to create counter-mercantilism. The Democratic Party, under Truman, and Republican moderates, such as President Dwight Eisenhower, held fresh and painful memories of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs, instituted under Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress of 1930, which triggered a trade war that deepened the Great Depression.   Both Truman and Ike saw trade as wholesome for world prosperity -- and as a tonic to unite world peoples against Soviet expansionism.

 (Indeed, as another example of his farsighted ability to plan ahead for decades, Marshall also designed the ultimately victorious policy of patient containment of the USSR until, after many decades, that mad fever broke, for which he deserves at least as much credit as Ronald Reagan.) 

Nevertheless, if you still doubt that counter-mercantilism also had an altruistic component, remember this -- that the new, unprecedented trade regime was instituted by the author of the renowned Marshall Plan — both a name and an endeavor that still ring in human memory as synonymous with using power for generosity and good. Is it therefore plausible that Marshall -- along with Dean Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower -- might have known exactly what export-driven development would accomplish for the peoples of Europe, Asia, and so on?

Cynics might doubt that anyone could ever look that far and that sagely ahead.  But I am both an optimist and a science fiction author.  I find it entirely plausible.

==Alas No One Seems to Notice==

Unfortunately, while recipients of the Marshall Plan's direct aid could clearly see beneficial results, right away, other parts of the program -- especially counter-mercantilist trade policy -- were slower in showing their effects, though they were far more vast and important, over the log run.

What they amounted to was nothing less than the greatest unsung aid-and-uplift program in human history.  A prodigious transfer of wealth and development from the United States to one zone after another, where cheap labor transformed, often within a single generation, into skilled and educated worker-citizens of a technologized nation. A program that consisted of Americans buying continental loads of things they did not really need. Things that they could easily done without and stopped buying, any time that they, or their leaders, chose to call a halt.

(Oh, sure, the U.S would sometimes make a stink and nibble away at the edges of these unfair trade flows.  But such efforts were never serious, intense, or undertaken with anything like full power or national will behind them. No plausible theory was ever raised, to explain that tepidness... until now.)

Yes, yes.  There are a few obvious cavils to this blithe picture. One might ask -- does anyone deserve "moral credit" for this huge and staggeringly successful "aid program"?

Well, that is a good question. Perhaps not the American consumers, who made all this happen by embarking on a reckless holiday, acting like wastrels, saving nothing and spending themselves deep into debt.  Certainly, even at best, this wealth transfer seems less ethically pure or pristinely generous than other, more direct forms of aid. (See my posting: Saving the World Through Walmart.)

Moreover, as the author of a book called Earth, I’d be remiss not to mention that all of this consumption-driven growth came about at considerable cost to our planet.  For all our sakes, the process of ending human poverty and creating an all-encompassing global middle class needs to get a lot more efficient, as soon as possible.  Call it another form a debt that had better be repaid, or else.

Nevertheless, if credit is being given to the Japanese, "for inventing this export-oriented development model," then I think it is time for some historical perspective.   Because the impression that one gets from many, especially in the East, is that the West must forever remain counter-mercantilist as if by some law of nature, and that the vigorously  pro-mercantilist policies of the East are some kind of inherently perpetual birthright.   Or else, these trade patterns are purely the result of asiatic cleverness, outwitting those decadent Americans in some kind of great game

This view of the present situation may feel satisfying, but it is wholly inaccurate.  Moreover, it could lead to serious error, in years to come... as it did across centuries past

==What Might The Future Bring?==

Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

A world saved.  A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect.  And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph.  As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or "central kingdom."

 If that happens -- (as I portray in a coming novel) -- will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom?  Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

==Is Anybody Still Reading==

Probably not.  This unconventional assertion will meet vigorous resistance, no matter how clearly it is supported by the historical record.  The reflex of America-bashing is too heavily ingrained, within the left and across much of the world, for anyone to actually read the ancient annals and realize that the United States is undoubtedly the least hated empire of all time.  If its "pax" is drawing to a close, it will enter retirement with more earned goodwill than any other.  Perhaps even enough to win forgiveness for the inevitable litany of imperial crimes.

But no, even so, the habit is too strong.  My attempt to bring perspective will be dismissed as arrogant, jingoist, hyper-patriotic American triumphalism.  That is, if anybody is still reading, at all.

Meanwhile, on the American right, we do have genuine triumphalists of the most shrill and stubborn type -- mostly moronic neocons -- who share my appreciation for Pax Americana... but for all the wrong reasons, and without even a scintilla of historical wisdom.  Indeed, it is as if we are using the same phrase to stanf for entirely different things.  If they are still reading, I can only point out that their era of misrule deeply harmed the very thing they claim to love.

Alas, my aim does not fit into stereotypical agendas of either left or right.  Instead, I am simply pointing out the necessary sequence of causation events that had to occur, in order for the International Miracle of export-driven development, of the last sixty years, to have taken place at all.  Indeed, it is the fervent, tendentious and determined denial, that American policy played any role at all, that beggars the imagination.

And so, at risk of belaboring the point, let me reiterate. If the U.S. had done the normal thing, the natural human thing, and imposed mercantilist trade patterns after WWII -- as every single previous "chung kuo" empire ever did before it -- then the U.S. would have no debt today.  Our factories would be humming and the country would be swimming in gold...

...but the amount of hope and prosperity in the world would be far less, ruined by the same self-centered, short-sighted greed that eventually brought down empires in Babylon, Persia, Rome, China, Britain and so on.

Also, by this point, every American youth would be serving in armies of occupation, and the entire world would by now be simmering and plotting for the downfall of the Evil Empire.  That is the way the old pattern was written.  But it is not how this "pax" was run. Instead, the greater part of the world was saved from poverty by the same force that rescued it from the fascistic imperialism and communism.

Yes, America's era of uplifting the globe by propelling the world's export-driven growth must be over.  Having performed this immense task, Americans cannot expect (if Wu Jianmin is any example) any credit or thanks.

But that is okay. Nobody needs to be angry and we certainly do not have to be thanked.  It simply is done.  Other dire problems now stand waiting for this much richer world to address them. And meanwhile, the U.S. must rebuild.

In other words, soon it will be time for someone else to start buying, for a change. The products, the services, and especially the ideas -- of which we will always have plenty.

New ideas, for a new century, when efficient production and care for the planet will combine with far-sighted mindfulness of generations to come.  Ideas that – just like George Marshall’s – the world will need and want.

 And just watch. America will be happy to sell.


David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author.  His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web.  A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was based on The Postman.  His fifteen novels, including New York Times Bestsellers and winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, have been translated into more than twenty languages.  David appears frequently on History Channel shows such as The ARCHITECHS, The Universe and Life After People.  Brin’s non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.
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For more of David Brin's articles on the economy: See: The Economy: Past, Present, and Future

Friday, November 20, 2009

Re-allocating energy research... a lesson in capitalism

The Obama Administration, while pumping up funding and incentives to further develop hybrid vehicles, has slashed $100 million (60%) from the budget for George W. Bush’s preferred approach -- hydrogen fueled cars.  Of course, this is one more sign that we are being led by people who want America to succeed, and no longer by technological morons, determined to make every possible wrong decision.

Why am I so fierce in my appraisal of so-called “hydrogen-power” -- despite my portraying it positively, in several stories and novels?  Because it cannot possibly help us in the near (twenty year) future, as was cogently pointed out recently by Energy Secretary ( and Nobel winner) Stephen Chu.  Even were all the bugs to be solved and taken out of the fuel cells under discussion, the lack of anything resembling a system to distribute hydrogen fuel to the masses would relegate this technology to the realm of science fiction for at least several decades.

Meanwhile, it would be business as usual, as the US plunges ever deeper into hock to Big Oil and hostile foreign producers.  Of course, anyone vested with a scintilla of imagination might wonder if this was the intent of the entire H-Power endeavor all along, to suck up public energy research funds and fritter them away uselessly, without ever actually affecting national self-sufficiency.  Moreover, ask yourself this: even once all the problems with distribution were finally ironed out, and hydrogen-ready service stations were finally standing by, who would handle the new fuel’s distribution and commercial sale?

You got it. The same guys who were actually getting all the research money, under Bush.  The oilcos.  All of them Bushite pals.

In contrast, plug-in hybrids have the potential to draw much of their power off the electric grid... and potentially - eventually - solar rooftops, leading to true (if partial) autonomy.  Above all, they would result in a dispersed power and supply system, not dependent upon the oilcos and more conducive to participation by small, startup companies.  In other words, real capitalism instead of reflexive monopolism.

That latter distinction is one that I will continue to hammer home.  When, oh when, will liberals come to realize that the Left has been at-best only a part-time and problematic friend?  That socialism may work in helping redress injustices (free education and all that) but it is absolutely lousy at generating the sort of economy that is wealthy enough to take on big projects?  Good capitalism, the truly competitive and open and accountable kind -- bulwarked by lots of startups and small businesses that unleash creativity -- has always done better under democrats!  So why not crow about it?  Show the statistics.  Embrace the “first liberal,” Adam Smith, who above all denounced and despised crony conspiratorial aristocratic monopolists? Why allow the shills of monopoly to pretend that corporate gigantism has anything, whatsoever, to do with free markets?

Why is Obama allowing Fox to portray him as a socialist?  Is he a Keynsian?  Yes.  But if the energy initiatives are any sign, he also wants creative enterprise to get healthy again.

More Miscellany About Tomorrow

Stefan Jones offers this:  Phthalate Exposure Linked to Less-Masculine Play by Boys -- "A study of 145 preschool children reports, for the first time, that when the concentrations of two common phthalates in mothers' prenatal urine are elevated their sons are less likely to play with male-typical toys and games, such as trucks and play fighting." Maybe this will be the issue that makes concerns over toxins crossover to convervativeland. Yes, these plastics are turning your sons into sensitive nancy-boys who are no good at sports!  Hey, Culture War wasn’t our idea.  But we gotta win it.

Start your home solar system with solar thermal.  It’s more mature, with more rapid payback. 

The future of tissue culture meat... has been predicted by sci fi for nearly 50 years (including by me).  Now there are signs the time may be at hand. "Future flesh" - instead of slaughtered animals - could eliminate 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (and 90% of choking victims). A quarter of the earth's land is currently used to grow meat, along with 8% of the world's water.  There’s talk of then being able to “taste” extinct critters like Dodos, since regrowing muscle may be possible, even if we can’t clone the whole animal.  The meat could be more pure, safer and gene-designed to be healthier.

Alas, the article in H+ is way too sanguine.  Getting texture right will take many years. Purists will despise “chicktish” and “pertribeef” for a long time and ranches won’t go away overnight.  Also, Industrializing tissue culture is going to be a huge undertaking, messy, using a lot more water and energy and feedstock protein, than boosters predict. At least at first.  The zealot author also predicts an end to dairy -- not likely. (See my short story “Piecework” in which “fabricows” are turned to producing a lot more than just milk.)

Nevertheless, meaticulture is potentially a huge breakthrough, perhaps as worldsaving as the solar shingle will be.  Above all, it’d be way more moral.  And the switch away from killing animals could trigger us finally being contacted by those wise but disgusted advanced beings from ... Vega.

Speaking of disgusting.... yipes, a both humorous and cringeworthy analysis of the evolutionary origins of the human... er... scrotum

One of the best political blogs - though partisan - is produced intermittently by my friend Russ Daggatt.  This entry, about what Rupert Murdoch has been doing to the Wall Street Journal, goes beyond that to how we’re in an era of “assertion politics.”  When you are reduced to your red-meat political base, all you have to do, to keep them furious, is assert lots of things without providing a scintilla of evidence.  This, of course, is free speech.... till we start paying for it in a “tsunami of McVeighs...”  my own aphorism for the rising tide of fomented treason that we can confidently to arrive, as bitter fruit of all the lies.
States in New England top a new set of health and death rankings, while the South still lags.

IBM scientists have created a fast, one-step point-of-care-diagnostic test, based on a silicon chip that uses capillary forces to analyze tiny samples of blood serum for the presence of disease markers.

Sergei Mayburov at the Lebedev Institute of Physics in Moscow suggests that optical communication is a natural process in many cells of body, closely related to photosynthesis.

Scientists at  report that playing specific sounds while people slept helped them remember more of what they had learned before they fell sleep, to the point where memories of individual facts were enhanced.

A 25-Year Battery Technology Review .

Two important tips for improving cardiac arrest victims' chances of survival: - (1) Use continuous chest compressions without stopping for mouth-to-mouth breathing (Duh? The chest compressions already fill the lungs.  Still, if a top model needs the full old CPR on the beach, I suppose...
     (2) - Cool the brain.

Make your “Avatar” action figure come alive, onscreen!

Over the next three years, the Planetary Society will build and fly a series of three solar-sail spacecraft dubbed LightSails powered only by sunlight, first in orbit around the Earth and eventually into deeper space. 

The feasibility of redesigning the human condition (such as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet Earth) will be the focus at Humanity + Summit, Dec. 5-6 in Irvine, California at EON Reality.  A lot of the usual suspects will be there.... this time including yours truly... (actually, I’ll be at the pre-conference, the day before, about how Hollywood and mythology are screwing the Enlightenment..)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Well, at least science pushes on...

First some REALLY important news. Splash! NASA moon strikes found significant water. Having an abundance of water on the moon would make it easier to set up a base camp for astronauts by providing drinking water and the ingredients for rocket fuel. 

No one could be more proud than I am, to see a great scientist's theory play out and be proved before the world. All the more so for a discovery as important as finding water on the moon (in deep-shaded craters at the south pole), which fact may help open the solar system to all humanity.  So let me brag right here that this possibility was first broached back in the 1980s by UCSD Professor Jim Arnold, who at the time ran the California Space Institute and honored me by serving on my doctoral committee.  (I was studying the mechanism by which the water might have got there in the first place -- comets.)

And while we’re ‘out there’... Apparently, the European Space Agency scanned science fiction stories for ideas that could be used in future space missions - this is the project's report.  Further details about the study, together with the fact sheets, images and sources, can be found at

Name That Decade...
Sure, science has been marching on.  But what else?
 David Segal of the New York Times quoted me in an article about “what to name the decade that’s about to end.”  My suggestion -- the Noughty Aughts signifies what a great big set of zeroes we’ve been living in, since 2000, wallowing amid self-righteousness and self-pity, instead of innovating and looking toward the future.   I distinguish “noughty” (meaning zero-ish) from “naughty”... which would imply that at least we had some fun, by being a bit bad!  (Alas.)

Note that I don’t single out any particular group to blame for this plague of gloomy self-indulgence.  Indeed, lefty-Hollywood seems almost as much  at fault  - for putting out endless droves of future-hating films -- as the neocons are for their travesty-betrayal called Culture War.  Somehow, I hope we can rediscover our capacity, as adults, to restart the can-do spirit of innovation, negotiation and faith in tomorrow.

More Science... High!
So, what would it take for human intelligence to march forward, even during the Noughty Aughts?  And might we start sharing the gift of intelligence with others soon?  (As in “uplift”?)

”If humans are genetically related to chimps, why did our brains develop the innate ability for language and speech while theirs did not? Scientists suspect that part of the answer to the mystery lies in a gene called FOXP2. When mutated, FOXP2 can disrupt speech and language in humans. Now, a UCLA–Emory University study reveals major differences between how the human and chimp versions of FOXP2 work, perhaps explaining why language is unique to humans.”

Might a simple modification of this one gene have interesting effects upon chimps?  Would that fascinating prospect justify germ-line experiments on a great ape? Nobody mentions this question in the article, for obvious reasons.  The first person to even broach the idea will meet a firestorm.  And yet, it is obvious.

Ah, but always be willing to follow up!  See this dissent-critique of the whole FOXP2 “speech gene” thing as a possibly grotesque oversimplification.  In fact, we should all be wary of “this is the gene for that”.  Yes, defects in single point genes can remove a capability.  But single point additions seldom have a direct turn-on effect.  Phenotype depends on genotype in the most convoluted and nonlinear ways.

A Pause of Optimism? 

Ah, but now, for those who doubt the possibility of progress:“Since the 1950s, while Earth’s population has grown to more than 6 billion people, the large fraction suffering from malnutrition has shrunk from one-third to one-sixth. And although the total number of people suffering from malnutrition remained the same—one billion—this means some 5 billion people, more than ever by far, get enough food to eat today.”   
Good news for liberal progressives, who really want to save the world, who are willing to admit that sometimes good news happens, and who think it is no sin to admit it.  TERRIBLE news for lefty grouches, who just want to complain and bitch and whine.  (When will liberals ever wake up and cut their ties to those jerks? Ah, but I am MUCH harsher on the right. See below.) 

BTW, note.  The virtuous fish to eat is tilapia.  All right, it is kind of bland and needs to be seasoned. (Costco sells nicely spiced frozen tilapia.) But it is the farmed fish with the greatest food efficiency and lowest eco-impact. And, as a vegetarian fish, it accumulates the fewest metals out of the food chain.

Ah, but now for some bad news....

The Decline of the West Correlates With That Of Science Fiction

Doubt it?  Take this I just received from my friend, scientist and SF scholar Joe Miller:
”Today I cancelled my 48 yr old membership in the SF Book Club. The woman who answered the phone asked me why. I told her that the club does not seem to do SF anymore--horror, fantasy, DVDs, tv series, everything but. So she asked me for the names of authors who had not appeared recently. I said Greg Benford, Greg Egan, Greg Bear, David Brin, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, etc. She said she did not recognize any of these authors. So I asked her who she would consider a SF author. Her reply was Anne Rice! QED!”

Yipe.  Maybe Spengler was right, after all.

News from the Front..  in the War on Science...

Ah, but continuing re civilization’s decline... a new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the GOP is alienating scientists to a startling degree. 

Only six percent of America's scientists identify themselves as Republicans; fifty-five percent call themselves Democrats. By comparison, 23 percent of the overall public considers itself Republican, while 35 percent say they're Democrats.  This may seem unsurprising, given the red-meat troglodytism of recent years.  Still a startling figure.  Moreover, since we are talking ablout inarguably the nation’s smartest and most learned people, the Fox-propeled culture warriors have to find some way to wave off what thie implies -- that their movement is nothing less than the rebirth of the infamous Know Nothing Party.

As it turns out, there is only one recourse for rationalizers of the Right to fall back on... 
      ... to preach that “being smart and knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make one wise.”

Well, when you put it that way, sure.  Duh.  We all have known bright fools.  It’s a truism with some basis in fact.

Ah, but what Fox and Murdoch and the new right culture war machine have done next shows genuine, feral canniness.  As a subtext underlying alomost every narrative, they extrapolate this basic truism into a completely new message:

“Being smart and knowledgeable automatically makes someone unwise.”

Sound ridiculous?  Absurd?  But that is precisely the message being pushed by culture warriors. It is absolutely essential, in order to justify dismissing the consensus held by 99% of the atmospheric scientists in the world, regarding global climate change.  It underlay the subordination of science to politics, during the Bush Administration. 
In fact, let me be so bold as to claim that this is an unnoticed underpinning to the entire movement, propping up almost everything that the Neocons have pushed, for this last decade, and longer.  For, without exactly this foundation assumption, there could be no venom-driven hatred of the Civil Service, or contempt for the advice of well-informed experts.

Let’s take this farther. Leaders of the GOP used to brag that their party was more than a year ahead of Democrats in average education levels.  Okay. That seemed obvious and easy to explain. Remember, for generations the dems have included most of the immigrants and the poor.  That, alone, affected the averages.

Only now? According to surveys taken across much of the last decade, the average Republican is now behind the average Democrat by more than a year of schooling -- and this despite the Democrats still representing society’s poor and underprivileged.

What could this mean? Other than reflecting a party-migration by nearly everybody in America with real expertise or a post-graduate degree? Including, lately, a great many members of the US military’s Senior Officer Corps.  (Except for MBAs, of course.  Funny -- they still tilt toward the Grand Old Party.)

Seriously, might the “Republican War on Science” and George Bush’s war against the US Civil Service, plus Culture War animosity in red counties toward Urban America, all be rooted in something deeper and more fundamental than anything that's spoken aloud?  Deeper than the run of the mill talking points?

At this juncture, I am willing to wager that Culture War has almost nothing to do with race, or even region.  Certainly not classic “conservative” policies, since Barry Goldwater would be a democrat, today.   No, it is -- to some large extent -- about something puerile and basic.

Hating smartypantses.

Some Politically Redolent Items

Oh, while we’re in rant mode, see Russ Daggatt's latest!

You’ve all heard my riff -- about how the democrats ought to rediscover the “first liberal” Adam Smith, and steal him from the Republicans, who have warped and perverted and reversed almost everything that Smith wrote and stood for. (Seriously, dems, he’s almost a poster boy for your side!)  Now see a wonderful article in which Salon “interviews” Adam Smith -- one of the founders of Classic Liberalism. (And see my letter that follows it.)

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano called for closer collaboration with foreign partners, more intensive cooperation with local law-enforcement officials, and greater involvement by citizens in watching for and responding to terrorist threats."For too long, we've treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation's collective security"...  a line that seems lifted almost verbatim from one of my many essays on this topic.

Meanwhile... illustrating my point about a possible “Tsunami of McVeighs”... we’ve seen plenty of action on the far right.  Just to remind folks it can come from the other direction, too. (Though, in this case, what does “right-left” even mean?)

Salon Magazine offers a cogent look at Archie Brown's major new book “The Rise and Fall of Communism. At minimum, read the review.  I find it depressing, in conversations with so many contemporaries, how little people know about that fantastic, huge, failed experiment in politics, economics and - ultimately - human nature.

See a clear comparison of red states vs blue states, when it comes to rates of divorce, teen pregnancy and subscription to online porn.  Some pretty astonishing placings!

PJ O’Rourke “tweets” the US Constiution!

And finally, from the ridiculous to the sublime -- Stefan Jones found an archive site containing Patrick Farley’s brilliant online strip “Spiders.”  I wish even 10% of the folks I have met at CIA, DTRA NSA or ODNI had as much insight into the core problem -- and its ultimate solution -- as Farley exhibits here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Name The Decade (of miserable whiners)?

Any NY Times readers, out there?  Let me know when an article appears, about naming the decade that’s about to end.  I was just interviewed for it, suggesting that the “Noughty Oughts” might signify what a zero-time it was, with America, especially, giving in to every bad habit of self-righteous, dogmatic whining - from both ends of the political spectrum - rather than facing the future with eager, ambitious level-headed, good-natured devotion to our problem-solving heritage. 
 Note the spelling distinction vs “Naughty Oughts” -- which would at least imply we had some fun being bad.  (Of course, using the simpler “Zeroes” to name this decade would imply the same thing.)

And yes, sure, one end of the spectrum was worse than the other, doing us calamitous damage with Culture War.  So?  Big deal. There’s been plenty of whiny grouchitude from all sides. Look at all the bummer movies from lefty Hollywood, preaching that civilization can’t do anything right.  Ever!  No, the neocons were merely the worst... not the only... loony curmudgeons in a Nothing Decade when the Baby Boomer generation proved to be a bunch of near useless indignation junkies. Except for the scientists.  At least they kept pushing forward, against all odds.

Are better times ahead, with the end of this misbegotten decade?  Maybe the Gen Xers - typified by Obama - will be a more cheerfully pragmatic bunch. Less dogmatic.  Less obsessed with their own know-it-all rage.  Perhaps they will defeat Culture War the only way it can be... by defying their sniveling, grudge-ridden parents and returning us to the spirit of Ben Franklin.

If they do, America may once again be a light into the future, for the world.

Proof that we’ve been crazy troglodytes...

Want to see how previous generations had a much more positive slant on the future?  Reported from the Sigma site: There is a site called that is a joy to visit. It has news clippings, postcards, etc. of how the future was seen at different times, and you can access them by decade. For example: a series of cards that came in boxes of chocolate and which date from 1900s and 1910s (There was a French series and a German one, and it is interesting to compare what scenes each thought interesting. ) But beyond the flying cars and transatlantic dirigibles and the moving sidewalks that they foresaw for the year 2000 or 2010 is the fascinating spectacle that the people wearing the motorized roller skates or stopping their aerodyne at a rooftop restaurant are clearly people of the Edwardian/Ragtime era acting as they have always acted. One of the cards shows a home television -- but naturally it is relaying an opera live performance and naturally the people who are sitting around viewing the image are wearing their opera clothes. "

 Humorous? Sure. But compare these visions to the universally dismal projections you see nowadays, like SURROGATES  and 2012, or even WALL-E.  No wonder science fiction - the most forward looking literature, is in a steep nadir. (In America; it is thriving in places that have lifted their eyes, like China.)

It just goes to show that no previous decade ever hated tomorrow as much as the Oughts did!

Dang, I am looking forward to the Terrific Teens.

Even though there ARE still good ideas....

Did I mention that science does march on?  Even during the neocon madness of the Noughty Oughts, the brightest kept forging ahead, revealing insights that our pragmatic kids may yet turn into wonders.  So, as I always do, I’ll list some examples:

Are Black Hole Starships Possible? ”A SBH (small Black Hole) capable of driving a starship produces Hawking radiation which ultimately gives rise to gamma rays, neutrinos, antineutrinos, electrons, positrons, protons, and antiprotons [5]. Gamma ray telescopes are already in use and thereby one might think that a careful search through the gamma ray sky could conceivably turn up evidence of an extraterrestrial starship (cf. [18]). However, gamma rays produced by a SBH in a distant starship might be extremely difficult to detect if the starship is very energy-efficient and has well-collimated exhaust jets. A BH starship using the technology we are proposing would emit gravitational radiation at nuclear frequencies. Current gravitational radiation detection experiments are optimized for much lower frequencies, and would not detect it. We propose building gravity wave detection devices of a different design.”

(Query: Can anyone cite a sci fi novel in which starships use artificially generated black holes to channel the resulting Hawking radiation as thrust?  No magical space-warpings, please.)

Sabine Kubesch at the University of Ulm in Germany and her team found that executive function - the ability to focus and avoid distraction improved after 30 minutes of aerobic endurance exercise. "Physical education should be scheduled before important subjects like mathematics and be offered before the first lesson, not at the end of the school day, as is often the case," says Kubesch.

The first global map of the solar system reveals that its edge is nothing like what had been predicted. Neutral atoms, which are the only way to image the fringes of the solar system, are densely packed into a narrow ribbon rather than evenly distributed  - a new insight on the interaction between the heliosphere — the vast bubble in which the solar system resides — and surrounding space.  Hinting at my story "The Crystal Spheres?"

The Voyager 1 craft in 2004 and the Voyager 2 craft in 2007 journeyed to opposite sides of this fringe region of the solar system and crossed the termination shock — where the solar wind encounters a shock that precedes the influx of particles drifting into the solar system from interstellar space. Both craft recorded the density of particles and the strength of the magnetic fields.  Both Voyager 1 and 2 missed seeing the newly found ribbon because it spans a region between their flight paths. 

Spread the word to your female writer friends about Write-em Cowgirls!  A helpful site and newsletter by Sharon Cousins.

Terrific riff on Augmented Reality (though you heard most of it here, first! ;-) by Jamais Cascio, in a venue not formerly known for tech friendliness -- The Atlantic.

Ah, but next time some news from the “War on Science...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Contemptuous Memes Part II: "Cycles of History"

Last time we looked at one enticingly seductive mind trap that we all fall for, now and then -- because it (a) flatters our own egos and (b) nearly always seems so well-justifed.  Contempt for the Masses seems to come as naturally as breathing.  And you (or I) never happen to be one of the innumerable fools, out there.  You (or I) are in the know!

TYTLERCALUMNYNow we'll move on to another silly notion that folks routinely seem to love to fall for. That history runs in patterns and even predictable cycles. Here's the second half of that infamous "Tytler Quotation" we examined last time -- a touchstone of modern neoconservative cant.  The portion that claims there are predictable patterns that control the destiny of peoples and nations.

"The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness toĆ¢€¨complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."

First, let us avow and admit that the Left can get just as teleological and mystical.  Karl Marx's forecasts about the inevitable path of human development may not have been cyclical, but they were just as stupid, built upon a series of fabulated Just-So stories that were then twisted to excuse mass murder.  What seems to attract mystics of the Right to the more cyclic models, like Tytler's, would seem to be their attraction to the past.  Marx saw history as something to be built upon, never to repeat.  Cyclicalists see the past as endlessly relevant and revealing of our fore-doomed pattern. ("What was, will be.")  This is more suitable for the fanatical wing that is filled with nostalgist-romantics, instead of transcendentalist-romantics.  A definite difference, if a small one.

Anyway, Tytler's riff begins with a preposterous premise (offered as an "of course" axiom) that societies all collapse at a given age.  A notion wholly unsupported, across the continents and ages.  It may be that dynasties and even city states fade over such a very rough time frame... (though tell it to the Plantagenets and to Venice).  Even so, the overall cultures, of which they were part, tended to keep on flourishing, over vastly longer time scales.  Indeed, the West only "fell" once.  And then, only if you ignore the whole eastern half of the Mediterranean.

But never mind all that. This concept has been rife -- and fruitless at predicting actual events -- since forever.  For example, almost a century ago, all the chattering classes were going on and on about Oswald Spengler's book, THE DECLINE OF THE WEST, which claimed that the First World War was sure evidence of the imminent collapse of Western Civilization... from senescence, decadence and old age.

Oh, sure, there were many visible ways that, in Spengler's time, the faults and contradictions of nationalism, capitalism and primitive economies failed to cope with the onrushing tide of powerful technologies.  And the world did spiral into hell around the middle of the Twentieth century.  But there was nothing decadent about the dynamism with which the western democracies bounced back, confronted Hitler, then chose Marshall's path of steady strength and development-through-trade, as a strategy for dealing with communist expansionist empires.  If decadence consists of going to the moon, exploring the solar system and the cell and the atom, purging ourselves of age-old prejudices, liberating education and loosening the guild-constraints on expert knowledge -- well, then here's to decadence!

It's easy to laugh at Spengler now. Though one  does feel a chill in the air as, periodically, our country and civilization seems to toy with cowardice and rejection of progress.  Contempt for the Masses combines with our human propensity for pattern-recognition, as we sometimes cry out "Aha!  I see what's happening."

(One example (mea culpa) is my own schtick, in which I portray Rupert Murdoch as Jefferson Davis, in pushing Culture War as a way to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War.)
    Among the most insidious of these patterns that people periodically perceive -- (and, ironically, it is held most strongly by those who proclaimed "morning in America!") -- is the nostalgic-romantic-cynical grouse that: "we're past our prime."

Cycles of Generations?

What's the latest of these cyclical patterns to make the rounds?  Well, it happens to be one that mixes the usual pessimist view with dollops that are oddly hopeful and even quite rousing.

6a00e00989822288330167693acd51970b-320wiMy friend and international economic pundit John Mauldin is (in his words) "a huge fan of the work of Neil Howe. His book, The Fourth Turning, has turned out to be stunningly prophetic. Uncomfortably so. A roughly 80 year cycle has been repeating itself for centuries in the Anglophile world, broken up into four generations or turnings. We have begun what Howe called many years ago The Fourth Turning."  By this, Howe means a time of crisis, similar to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Depression/WWII period, all of which called upon the strength of a "hero generation" to rescue civilization from the ruinous danger inflicted by earlier "prophets," "nomads," and such.

First the bad news.  I responded to John that I am deeply unimpressed with Howe. My own record, predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall, a false Fukayaman "end of history," and then a hyped up tussle with macho Islam -- is inarguably far more specific and far better than Howe's. Heck, most of my Science Fiction writing colleagues have done better, too. (SF gets no respect!)

To be fair, there are some enticing patterns to recognize... e.g the roughly eighty year (a human lifetime) span separating the crisis of the American Revolution from the Civil War, from the Depression/WWII crisis to the one that supposedly will sweep upon us, very soon. (Cheery thought!)  In each case (1) "Heroes" stoically and courageously resolved the emergency, then strove to raise their kids in security they never knew.  A security that turned the next immediate generations into (2)a stifled, silent generation (e.g. kids of the 1950s) and then (2) rebellious, individualist, transcendentalist egomaniac "prophets" (the Boomers), followed by a "nomad" generation (Gen X, including its first president, Obama) which grew up under chaotic home lives...

 ...followed by another "hero" generation, that will presumably fix the mess created by the boomers. (A phrase I use decades ago.)   One forecaste I think Howe gets spot on: "The Baby Boomers will still be tearing and screaming at each other, when they are hobbling around retirement homes."

What Howe does is what humans do... look for patterns and then find (voila!) what they are looking for. So-called "cycles of history" are among the most pernicious of these wish-find patterns. People often attribute such thinking - unfairly - to the great historian Arnold Toynbee, because he spent a lot of time talking about them. But in then end, he debunked them. (Ask and I'll tell you what Toynbee REALLY considered to be the factor that explains history, especially the rise or fall of great nations.)

No, as I mentioned earlier, the great Cyclicalist who transfixed our parents and grandparents - but who everyone has now forgotten, was Spengler. (He also said that "optimism is cowardice." What a marroon.)  But what makes fellows like Howe especially distressing is that they are positing a cyclical determinism that dismisses our ability to take such "wheels" of destiny and modify them, perhaps even learning to steer.

In fact, I find illusory "cycles" far less rewarding than the notion of
"attractor states"... or pitfalls that seem relentlessly to pull in cultures,
because of repetitive traits in human nature.

newmemewarOligarchic feudalism is one such attractor. (Find the exceptions: agrarian societies that avoided this trap. I can name only eight.) Another attractor is fear-driven xenophobia. Machismo is one more. Put a dozen or so of these together and you start getting a really good picture of our tragic history.  (And yes, because these themes keep recurring, matters can thus look a bit cyclical.  But that's like saying the fundamental reason that a car moves is because the wheels turn.)

But leadership also matters, e.g. Athenian democracy did not fail till Pericles died, and then just barely. And that is where miracles keep happening to America.  here America finds NEW attractor states.... bad presidents are followed by good ones, citizenship triumphs (barely) over anomie and cynicism, and seminal decisions transform the world.

Example. America's current deep indebtedness is portrayed as a pit of ruin.  Yes, it is a pit, a difficult one. But nobody looks at what we got, in exchange for it.

What did we get for the debt, other that lots of expensive cars and cheap tube socks?

Well, we saved the world. Because of anti-mercantalist trade patterns, set up by Marshall, Truman and Acheson, and then Ike. Pax Americana was the first empire ever to eschew and reverse mercantalist temptations. The result was a steady export-driven UPLIFTING of Europe and Japan, then Taiwan, Korea, China, and so on... till 2/3 of the world is now out of grinding poverty and sending their kids to school.

90% of that progress happened because Americans spent trillions on crap we never needed. It is an accomplishment far greater than going to the moon or defeating Hitler. We'll never get any credit. But we did it.

So we've reached an end to our ability to lift the world, all by ourselves? So
they will now have to pull their own weight while we resume saving and fight down the debt left over from 30 wastrel years? So we have some problems? Big deal.

Americans can do anything. Anything! So long as we shrug off Murdochian propaganda and start thinking like adults again.

I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again, for the 20th time.  Dang. I don't care about the space stations.  What matters is that we are better PEOPLE than Kubrick thought we'd be, by now.

 It's time to be ambitious again.


See also my essay: 2001: A Space Odyssey: Shining Light on How Far We've Come.

and The Tytler Insult: Is Democracy Hopeless?

David Brin
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