Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Re-Evaluating All We Know?

SoYouWantToMakeGodsFirst an announcement: I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others. My topic: So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  

Our can-do, problem-solving zeal may save humanity and light up the galaxy. Yet, talk of “tech-transcendence” inspires some – and worries others. What can we learn from the past about our future? This will be a stupendous conference. Sign up to attend!

== Can Science Re-Evaluate? ==

The physics world is buzzing over the recent faster than light particle result from CERN - one of those science stories that gets a lot of public press. Apparently, some neutrinos emitted by the great accelerator in the Alps are showing up in an Italian detector a nanosecond or so earlier than relativity ought to allow.

If the result is verified it will prove a major milestone. Among possible explanations might be that super-energetic neutrinos are bumped (very briefly) out of the four dimensional "brane" we call spacetime. (Envision separated membranes like soap bubbles; one film is our universe.) Hauled back in by gravity (the only force that carries between branes), they re-enter our world a bit farther along their old trajectory. Enough (some suggest) to explain the apparent cheating of ol' Einstein. No, I ain't pulling your leg. There are brainy guys who ponder such stuff. And if this, or some other exotic explanation, pans out then we're in for interesting times!

But dig it, please -- extraordinary claims call for extraordinary (and reproducible) evidence. One of the great things about our civilization is we get to see scientists constantly checking, re-checking and poking at whatever Standard Model reigns in their field.  In my life, nearly all of these re-checks have resulted in only minor re-adjustments -- with the exception of the Dark Matter and Dark Energy findings. (Even if they are disproved, it will only be by something else stunning.) Others, like Cold Fusion, caused yearlong investigations and Re-Evaluations of All We Know (REAWK!) but with negative results.

I find it all healthy and look forward to seeing this very competitive truth-finding process apply to the new CERN "FTL" results.  Still, it worries me that many in the press and public take a very unhealthy attitude - that re-appraisal in a branch of science somehow means it had been "all wrong" before.  Some take it as revelation that science is waffling or poorly based... instead of proof of the very opposite.  Others yearn for an upset apple-cart! They see any sign of a re-proved Standard Model as evidence of stodginess or oppression by Old Professors Incapable of Seeing the New (OPISN).

To be clear, I have known plenty of OPISNs! But the incredibly competitive nature of science (Adam Smith would be proud) generally makes them targets of the next wave of bright young guns.

Look, given our heritage as a superstitious species that danced to incantations by campfires, it should be no surprise that many of our neighbors are emotionally out of tune with science, or don't see how its competitive process results in ever-improving models of the world. Models that keep getting better, even when some part of them is shown to have been incomplete, or even wrong. That is how they improve. (Duh?) The ultimate market.

It is only human to perceive a process that you do not understand and judge it by the way your own mind thinks.  But racism was also deeply human. And feudalism. So come. Start by repeating this aloud: "It can be fun to re-evaluate all that I know! Heck, I might even learn something."

There. Don't you feel more scientific already?  Now to make that same spirit work in politics....

Oh... while I'm at it... here’s another paradigm-changing update: Could Dark Energy and even Guth’s “inflation” be overly contrived theories for something more easily explained? By the existence of hyper-long gravitational waves -- left over from the Big Bang?  These might elucidate the recently discovered preferential direction in the cosmos - the so-called “axis of evil.” Plus the revelation that distant-most galaxies seem to be accelerating their velocity of recession from us (thus requiring dark energy to explain the hyper expansion).  The gravitational wave concept makes such cludges unnecessary. Maybe. This paper is certainly worth a read.

== Space Updates ==

Does our solar system exist inside a bubble? Astronomers say we're in a “local bubble” in the interstellar medium – perhaps a result of stellar explosions millions of years ago. (See my cosmological short story about... "Bubbles"!)

Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars -- what's called a circumbinary planet. The planet, depicted in foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. (Nearly every article has compared it to Tatooine from Star Wars -- so I'll avoid that cliche! Oops too late.... dang Star Wars $%#$#$!)

Similarly cosmic! Anyone with a soul should find this breathtaking! Watch a Saturn fly-by video composed from high-resolution images from the Cassini Orbiter.

Scientists analyzing data from the Kepler spacecraft for exoplanets have encountered a problem: noisy stars! Before Kepler's launch, researchers had assumed that most Sun-like stars would be about as quiet as the Sun, with mild fluctuations in luminosity. Noise in the Kepler data is much larger - much of it variations in the stars themselves. Sunspots and magnetic activity are the most likely culprits – perhaps because about half of the sun-like stars in the Kepler field are younger than expected (Young stars spin faster, with more vigorous magnetic fields.) If this youthful bias is true of the entire Milky Way, it could alter our understanding of how stars are born and die.

Note also... if our sun is older than average, it might help explain the Fermi Paradox.

How would humans survive extended voyages in space? Five men cooped together over a year to simulate a Mars mission... apparently were going stir crazy! Yipe! (Well, look, several are Russian. Jeepers, did you ever read the book or watch the original film SOLARIS? All is explained.)

See the Solar System in action!  Stunning animation of planetary and satellite orbits – set to any date you choose.

== Life, the Universe and Everything ==

How Life arose on Earth, and How a Singularity might bring it down. This Scientific American article reporting about a recent biological conference is worth reading from top to bottom. Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll opened the meeting by commenting that “The purpose of life is ... to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” There  you go...

dowereallywantimmortalityFrom another talk on the scaling of life: “An organism’s lifespan is proportional to the 1/4 power of its mass, its heart rate goes as the –1/4 power of its mass, so the total number of heart beats is independent of mass—a universal value of about a billion beats for all of us. Use them wisely.” (Except humans get three times that! We’re the Methuselahs of mammals. See my article "So You Want Immortality?")

An interesting and fair discussion of the possibility that dolphins have a sort of language and a sort of “intelligence.”  As a sort-of dolphinish guy, I actually have subtle and complex beliefs about this.  The folks I know who’ve worked with high cetaceans all tell me their impression: that the creatures seem to “wish they were smarter.” Subjective, but poignant and telling. (I’ll discuss dolphin “uplift” further in my next novel, EXISTENCE.)

== And a Few Updates ==

Being Human in the 21st Century: Again I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others. My topic: “So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  Come on, sign up!

Oh... I may announce an open fans-n-friends bar session in New York, stay tuned!


I’ll be speaking at TEDx Brussells November 22: A Day in the Deep Future.

New Orleans! I'll be Author Guest of Honor at the Contraflow Science Fiction Convention the weekend of November 4-6.

Also attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego.


One of my classic short stories “Bubbles” is in the latest issue of the fine online sci fi zine LIGHTSPEED!  And Harlan Ellison, my rambunctious pal, is doing an audio reading.  I’m honored.

A cool fan site showcasing my novels! Thanks to Susan O'Fearna.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous... or at least now for something completely different... David Brin playing the harmonica at the Reno World Science Fiction Convention (thanks to Lawrence Person.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Class War" and the Lessons of History

One aspect of our re-ignited American Civil War is getting a lot of air-play. It is so-called “class war.”

That's the tag-line ordered up by Roger Ailes. The notion: that any talk of returning to 1990s tax rates - way back when the U.S. was healthy. wealthy, vibrantly entrepreneurial and world-competitive, generating millionaires at the fastest pace in human history - is somehow akin to Robespierre chopping heads in the French Revolution's reign of terror.

That parallel is actually rather thought-provoking! Indeed, can you hang with me for a few minutes? After setting the stage with some American history, I want to get back to the way things got out of hand during that earlier 1793 class war in France.  There are some really interesting aspects I'll bet you never knew.

Wealth-of-NationsBut in fact, "class war" has always been with us. If you ever actually sit down to read what people wrote in times past - for example Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, or even the Bible - then you know struggle and resentment between social castes was the normal state of human affairs for 6000 years, or much longer.  Seriously, randomly choose (or "roll-up") a decade and locale from across the last few millenia! Tell me who oppressed freedom and competitive markets in that time and place. I'll wait.

In fact, today's American perspective that there is no-such-thing as class - so blithely exploited by Fox - seems rather quirky and charmingly innocent.  Baby Boomers, especially, were raised under  unusual circumstances -- perhaps the only stretch of time in which a great nation experienced a (fairly) flat social order.

Now this calls for simplifying - so let's set aside the battles over racial and sexual equality, etc. - but squint with me here, for a minute.  It's fairly obvious that the period following the Second World War was (for white U.S. males) the least class-ridden of all time.  Disparities of wealth were at an all-time low and the middle class, flush with WWII savings, good wages and GI Bill-fostered competitiveness, experienced a generation of utter dominance over the American experience. A confident dominance that got woven into popular culture through TV and all other media.

= Pyramids and diamonds =

Instead of the classic human social pattern -- pyramid-shaped with a tiny, fierce nobility lording it over peasant multitudes -- ours was diamond-shaped with a well-off middle that actually outnumbered the poor! A miracle nobody in all the past ever foresaw. Except perhaps Smith. Certainly not Karl Marx! In fact, nothing so undermined the honey-seductive mantras of Marxism so much as the living example of the U.S. middle class. Which the whole world wanted to join.

And now the penultimate point (before getting back to 1793 France). Our post-WWII flattened-diamond pattern did not quash or undermine competitive capitalism!  Not at all. In fact, never before or since has there been such fecund, vigorous entrepreneurialism as during the flattest and most "level" social order the world ever saw.

the-theory-of-moral-sentimentsThose who proclaim these two things - social flatness and vigorous market competitiveness - to be inherent opposites, in perpetual conflict, are simply fools or historical ignoramuses -- or outright liars. They are pushing the sick illogic of the zero sum game.  Indeed, Adam Smith himself contended, in both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that a relatively flat social order -- combined with lots of opportunities for the poor to get education, so the total number of competitors is maximized -- can vastly increase the total number of people who get rich in the best way, by delivering innovative goods and services.

(Smith held less truck with inherited wealth or dividend-clipping "rents" - the kind of income with the very lowest tax rates, nowadays. In fact, Smith strongly implies that some kind of upper limit to the meaning of "rich" might be called for. But more on that another time.)

= A burden of proof on FDR-bashers =

The final pre-point I want to make here - before tooling off to France in 1789 - is more in the form of a question.  How did we get into a situation where Franklin Delano Roosevelt is portrayed as Satan incarnate?

Yes, yes.  I spend a lot of time around libertarians and I know that their current version is all about hating government.  No other agenda or priority.  See my earlier challenge (two postings back) daring libertarians and decent conservatives to consider taking on a positive goal instead of a purely negative one - fostering competitive enterprise and not just reflexively hating all civil servants, under all circumstances, all the time, while ignoring every other threat to freedom. That may by Ayn Rand, but it sure ain't Adam Smith.

If government is always and automatically evil, then yes, Franklin Roosevelt was the antichrist, because he sure expanded its reach.  If, on the other hand, you judge by outcomes... defeating Hitler, ending the Great Depression, starting the process of racial justice and - above all - engendering a society that both fostered vast amounts of competitive enterprise and kept the social order flat, then maybe we should consider cutting the man some slack.  (Wasn't he admired by the "greatest generation"?)  I'd like to see you -- or any ruler/leader across all of human time -- do better.

Sure, some of FDR's bureaucracy got cloying. Or else it got "captured" and stifled competition.  Democrats themselves axed many New Deal and Progressive agencies - the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, for example, had to go!  Others needed trimming and so did the pre-1960 tax rates that JFK slashed.  Indeed, about half of the Reagan-era government prunings seem pretty much called for... a process culminating in the Clinton-Gingrich Welfare Reform, another time that the moderate-right had a strong point. And was listened-to.

But outcomes comparison is not kind to those who gutted Glass-Steagel and other bank regulations, opening the door to abuses that helped bring our Second Depression.  And since every single prediction ever made by Supply Side Economics proved wrong, well, we can understand why science and outcomes comparison are the Big Enemy, attacked by Fox 24 hours a day.  If facts are inconvenient, well, damn those who live and work with facts.

= Okay, back to France =

days-french-revolution-christopher-hibbert-paperback-cover-artAll the shouts about "class war" bring to mind images of rabid Jacobin mobs in 1793 hauling brave nobles and gentlemen to the guillotine. But if Rupert & co. really want us pondering that image, we owe it to ourselves to leaf back just a few pages to 1789, when the revolution began as a much more moderate thing, inspired by events across the ocean, in America.

France was broke.  Louis XVI and his ministers were incompetents who deliberately squelched commerce with internal tariffs and policies that crushed innovation. The church owned much of the productive land, tax-free. So did the feudal aristocracy. Top merchants and corporations managed to wrangle exemptions too. After years of quagmire wars, poor tax revenue, bank collapses and mismanagement, Louis needed more money to stave off bankruptcy and save the country. So he summoned the Estates General.

That was the rough French equivalent of the British Parliament, but with much less authority.  In fact, it had last met in 1614. But Louis was desperate. What he needed was for the first and second "estates" -- the clergy and  nobles -- to vote themselves a temporary levy and join the third estate (the people) in paying their fair share.

That's how it all started.  The country's leader asking oligarchs and aristocrats to pay the same rates as common folk, for a while, especially since they already owned damn near everything.  The answer given by the dukes and bishops and marquiseseses?  Heck no! We're the ones keeping it all together. The managers and investors and owners and job-makers. The government can damn well keep its mitts out of our pockets. It's our money, not the state's.

Now you can see where I'm going with this. So I won't spell out what happened next. (Though a little reading might be in order?  After the last assignment, to learn what the founder of modern market-capitalism, Adam Smith actually said. I promise surprises!) 

And no, I am not predicting tumbrels rolling through American streets, with billionaires holding their chins high as rabid mobs taunt them on their way to chopping blocks! 

What I am telling you is that "class war" has a whole lot more to it than they are telling you with their blithe, two-word nostrums, over at Fox.  As Warren Buffett said: "my side - the rich - have been winning class war for some time, and it won't end well." 

= The American Difference =

Founding-Fathers-9780470117927Across the sea, in America, a different experiment was being tried. The aristocracy over here -- like Washington and Jefferson -- certainly enjoyed being rich, and wanted opportunities to stay that way! But they also knew the frontier virtue satiability -- the notion that getting rich is great! Economic success can both entice and propel innovation, hard work, enterprise, competitive creativity and philanthropy. But that (as Adam Smith proclaimed in the miracle year 1776) there comes a point where enough is enough... and sometimes even too much.

Hold onto your seat, because I'm about to tell you something about Washington and the others that you never knew... that they were "levellers."

The founders started by banning primogeniture, so no family fortune could sit and accumulate, undivided, as a lordly demesne at the pyramid's peak. Instead, they would get divided among the large numbers of children that folks had then -- an intentional act of "social engineering" and outright "levelling" and don't you for a moment think otherwise!  They also seized the assets of the Tory lords and even neutral absentees and distributed them to the masses. And they made homesteading easy, with laws that favored Yeoman citizens. (All right, some of the lands they seized belonged to native American tribes - I never called these guys perfect, just smart, with a goal of not repeating the historical mistakes they loathed. Sure, they proceeded to make others.)

Never heard of these "levelling" acts by the founders? Heck, even liberals have forgotten them. Or they've become used to simply ceding Washington and Adam Smith to the blustering right, without even putting up a fight.  Stupid-lame liberals.

The point is that we never had the kind of violent class war that erupted in France, because our elites were smart enough to avoid it! After the primogeniture and distribution and land grant tricks started to fade along with the frontier, we entered a dangerous Gilded Age when the pyramid shape began re-emerging and Marx rubbed his hands over the growing urban proletariat....

...but even among the titans of the 1890s, there were men who could see. "I would rather leave my son a curse than the almighty dollar," quoth Andrew Carnegie, who was the Warren Buffett of his day.  Even a jerk like Henry Ford realized the essence -- that he benefited from a rising middle class that could afford to buy his cars.  And our agile nation came up with moderate solutions like anti-trust laws and progressive tax rates, that staunched class war without ruining capitalist enterprise.  That kept the goose alive, to keep laying golden eggs.

I've already discussed FDR. But now you can see the context of it all!  It is the context of the positive sum game. (Look it up!) The notion that we can get all the benefits of an enterprise-market system -- using the allure of wealth to reward innovators and vigorous competition -- while somehow preventing the toxic side effect of wealth... the poison called oligarchy.  The same poison that ruined markets and freedom in every culture other than ours, in every other era than ours.

= A wake-up call =

So what now? Well, for one thing, it's time to rouse yourself from propaganda hypnosis.  History repeats itself. And the last thing that the New Oligarchs want you to do is study history.

After a full generation of innocence, since the Second World War, in which we took for granted some highly unusual circumstances, we seem now to be plunging back toward the norm for human societies. And you - yes, you - need to start asking questions:

-- like what degree of wealth disparity would you find discomforting?  Today, unlike 1945 or 1980 or 1999, the top 400 U.S. families own more than the the bottom 50% of Americans. Please, please, please pause a minute and picture that in your mind.  If you can somehow manage to shrug that off, is there some level of disparity that would worry you?

When it's 75%? Or when it's 90%? Admit that there is some level that would make even you call yourself (and your country) the victim of class war. A struggle that's gone on (with a recent, slight break) for 6000 years.

-- or ask what it means when Fox says the top families do pay a lot of money in taxes, despite paying at very low rates.  Can you do the simple algebra in your head, divide and put in an equal sign and draw the obvious conclusion?  If they pay vast amounts, even at tiny rates... doesn't that mean they are getting most of the money in the first place?  And that's supposedly a reason for you to... shrug?

ManufactuirngConsent-- or ask who is financing the propaganda that you watch? When simplistic tag lines are ordered up at Fox News by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Prince Waleed, and they are parroted within hours by every politician and talking head on the right, perhaps ask "is this the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, any longer?" Ponder: what do these New Lords get out of teaching you to hate every American elite of science, intellect or skill, along with your own freely elected government... while demanding that you ignore the one elite that threatens everything we love?  Theirs?

-- for the first time in American history, we went to war - a decade-long quagmire in Asia - and the rich refused to help pay for it. Isn't patriotism an issue all the time, and not just when you (or Glenn Beck) pick or choose?

More important: doesn't this start sounding a whole lot like what the nobles did on the east side of the Atlantic in 1789... and not at all like the smarter elites did in the west?

-- is history really so boring to you that you find it completely irrelevant? So much so that you'll ignore the patterns of 6,000 years?  If so, wow, FDR sure did make a different world for Baby Boomers to ignorantly take for granted.

But the Gen-Xers and Gen-Y and Millennials won't.  As I foresaw in EARTH, they are waking up.

So don't fret, Boomers. Your children will rescue America.  Not with violent class war... what are we, French? But with the kind of tweaking we saw from Washington and Lincoln and Carnegie and Teddy Roosevelt and FDR. (Three of them Republicans.) The kind that restores that flattened diamond... while continuing the miracle of competitive markets and freedom.

David Brin
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Monday, September 19, 2011

The Transparency Amendment: The Under-Appreciated Sixth

Transparency and a growing web of surveillance are again in the news, starting with an interview I just gave ZDNet in Britain, discussing the recent use of streetcams to identify rioters and moving on from there to many broader topics, comparing a world dominated by “Big Brother” to one oppressed by several billion “little brothers.”

And the topic keeps bubbling.  I’ll be tuning in this Thursday to the premiere of “Person of Interest” on CBS (Sept 22 9pm). It looks thought provoking, with a lovely overlayer of dramatized paranoia, expressing a core point from my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom - that there will be no escaping surveillance. The cameras get smaller, faster, better, cheaper and more numerous at a pace exceeding Moore’s Law. (Brin’s Corollary)

Trying to pretend this isn't happening, or that well-intentioned laws can ever blind the mighty, will only prevent us from getting sousveillance, the power to look back.  I imagine that will be an issue in the show at some point, as the "Machine" ruthlessly evades any possibility of eyes turning its omniscient gaze around.  We’ll be watching.


All of this is related to one of my principal topics. A week or two ago I was touting tentative optimism after a Federal court ruled in favor of citizens recording their encounters with police.  Now this is reinforced as an Illinois judge recently ruled the state’s eavesdropping law unconstitutional as applied to a man who faced up to to 75 years in prison for secretly recording his encounters with police officers and a judge. “Such action impedes the free flow of information concerning public officials and violates the First Amendment right to gather such information,” he wrote.

Let me qualify my fervent support for these decisions. I think both rulings put too much emphasis on the First Amendment “press” freedom aspect, and too little on the 6th Amendment’s declaration of an absolute right of citizen access to testimony that might exonerate - in other words, using the core weapon of the Truth to protect against abuse of authority and power. Let me be plain, I find the first Amendment so heavily used that it becomes squishy, amorphous, in many cases rather unreliable.

I often find I have to remind people that the 6th -- the “forgotten Amendment” -- is actually one of the most important and powerful of them all!

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor…"

It is the transparency amendment, making clear that our real bulwark of freedom is not the passive, hunkering “right to remain silent” or even the blustery right to speak...

...but the aggressively assertive right to “compel testimony” on our behalf from reluctant witnesses. The logical extension of this to a universal ability to record our interactions with authority is direct and logical and vital...

...and I hope some attorneys make this point about the Sixth Amendment soon, instead of staring only at the sacred but over-used First.

Still, whatever basis is given, the ruling clearly established the core point of law we all needed... that is, till the Supreme Court does its thing. Do any of you still have faith that Justices Scalia, Thomas and Roberts are on our side?  I remain hopeful, ever.

Let there be no mistake, this issue is still fragile! "Judge Richard A. Posner isn't known  for his genteel treatment of parties whose arguments he doesn't agree with. When an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union began to make his opening statement at a Tuesday oral argument, Posner cut him off after 14 words. "Yeah, I know," he said dismissively. "But I'm not interested, really, in what you want to do with these recordings of peoples' encounters with the police....Once all this stuff can be recorded, there's going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers."

I've met Justice Posner and argued with him about this before.  He is a very smart fellow, but also deeply mired in mid-20th Century ways of thinking, alas. I am hopeful, though, that he can learn to see with 21st Century eyes.

For follow-up see: You have the right to record police.

See: More articles on Transparency

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Libertarians and Conservatives must choose: Competitive Enterprise or Idolatry of Property

Even conservatives now admit that conservatism has changed.  Take the Ronald Reagan who Republican activists idolize in abstract; in real life he raised taxes, increased regulations, signed environmental laws, and (worst of all) negotiated countless compromise give-and-take, pragmatic measures in tandem with a Congress run by the other party. As did Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, giants who argued with genteel courtesy and who revered both knowledge and intellect, especially science.  Even the most fervid Tea Party aficionado would avow that today’s GOP has little room for such things – as Goldwater and Buckley themselves proclaimed, to their dismay, before they died.

In this analysis, I’d like to focus on one of the directions that conservatism has gone a-wandering.  But note first: I’ll try to do this without taking a single position that could fairly be called even slightly left-of center - by the old standards at least.

My entire critique will be from what used to be a completely conservative perspective. You’ll know this by the historical figure whom I cite above all others.

It begins provocatively, with prominent online commentator John Robb, who offers a simple… and clearly-correct… explanation for the gross mismanagement of the U.S. economy in the 21st Century - an appraisal that seems both tragically on-target and stunningly ironic. Ironic in ways I plan to elaborate -- and I expect you'll not look at the hoary old “left-vs-right” axis in the same way, ever again.

For starters, Robb shows that the patron saints of modern libertarianism and conservatism -- including Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek -- were right in their core message...

.... proving that today’s peculiarly myopic libertarians and conservatives are wrong in theirs.

The Smithian Fundamental

In order to grasp that apparent contradiction, let’s start by asking: what did Smith and Hayek say?

No, it wasn't "laissez faire" or  social darwinism or extolling the virtues of greed. Though both men praised private enterprise and market initiative, they did not share today's idolatry of personal and family wealth as the fundamental sacrament of economics. Those who most-frequently bandy Smith's name appear never to have cracked open a page of "The Wealth of Nations" or 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments."

Rather, Adam Smith essentially founded our modern phase of the Western Enlightenment by anchoring a central postulate -- one that Pericles and Locke discussed earlier, and that others, like Hayek, later embellished. The postulate that human beings are supreme rationalizers and self-deceivers.

Moreover, across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge. Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing -- cheating for self-interest -- or else sincerely try to “allocate for the good of all,” they will generally do it badly. As a blatant recent example, Robb cites the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Wealth-of-NationsThe reason for this failure was that the Soviets relied on central planning.  A system of economic governance where small group of people -- in the Soviet Unions case bureaucrats -- had all the decision making power.  They decided what was spent and where.  Even with copious amount of information, they decided badly. Why did they decide badly?  The massive economy of a modern superstate is too complex for a small group of people to manage.  Too much data.  Too many uncertainties.  Too many moving parts."

Indeed, the transformation of modern China from a Maoist calamity to a mercantilist success story began with their abandonment of nit-picking central planning in favor of capitalist-style enterprise.  Of course, the Chinese ruling caste retained overall control, “guiding” categories of credit and investment while executing a grand mercantilist strategy, the same process that Japan accomplished masterfully, during its own rapid primary and secondary phases of export-driven economic development.

Alas, for Japan, (but as a few of us forecast in the 1980s), national development eventually hits a tertiary phase when simple-minded, predatory mercantilism breaks down. If history and human nature are any guide, the Chinese will hit the same “wall” when economic complexity surpasses the ability of any planner-elite to comprehend or manage.  For all his faults - and the many ways he's misinterpreted - Friedrich Hayek understood this well. He showed how an obsession with Guided Allocation of Resources (GAR) eventually turns skilled planners into smug blunderers.

the-theory-of-moral-sentimentsNow this barrier can shift, as computers and sophisticated models let rulers extend their period of competence a bit longer. (It helps, apparently, that nearly all of the top Chinese leaders began their careers as engineers, responsible for actual goods, infrastructure or services, not as lawyers, politicians or “business majors.”) Still, however you look at it, there is no way that the old ruling principle of GAR that held in 99% of human societies could possibly work in a tertiary economy as intricate as the United States. As Robb continues:

The only way to manage an economy as complex as this is to allow massively parallel decision making.  A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.”

Now all of this may sound surprisingly well... "libertarian"... given that both Robb and I are highly critical of today's right! But bear with us, because what's at issue is a fundamental conflation and betrayal of the very essence of libertarian and conservative fundamentals . The ultimate irony and hypocrisy.

What Robb describes here is the central discovery, not only of Smith and Locke, but of Benjamin Franklin and the American framers... as well as Galileo and the founders of modern science.
Ever since civilization began, nearly all societies were dominated by centralized oligarchies, priesthoods or hierarchies who ruled on policy, resource-allocation and Truth for 4,000 years of general incompetence mixed with brutal oppression.

Today, by sharp contrast, all three of the Enlightenment’s great arenas -- democracy, markets and science -- feature a revolutionary structure that broke with the oligarchic past. The old, arrogant, top-down approach was replaced with something else. Something that great Pericles described 2,000 years earlier, during the brief Athenian Renaissance.

That something is the most creative force in the universe. The principle that propels evolution, in nature, and that brought humanity into existence. It is -- 


Elsewhere I’ve called the Enlightenment’s principal tool Reciprocal Accountability (RA). But it really is just another way to say "get everybody competing." By dividing and separating power and -- more importantly -- empowering the majority with education, health, rights and knowledge, we enabled vast numbers of people to participate in markets, democracy and science. This has had twin effects, never seen in earlier cultures.

1) It means everybody can find out when a person stumbles onto something cool, better or right, even if that person came from a poor background.

2) It allows us to hold each other accountable for things that are wrong, worse or uncool, even when the bad idea comes at us from someone mighty.

Never perfectly implemented(!) -- this reciprocally competitive system nevertheless dealt far better than any predecessor with that problem of human delusion. None of us can see and correct all our own errors, past a cloud of rationalizations. But when RA is healthy, then criticism flows. And others (your opponents) will happily point out your errors, for you. What a deal! And I’m sure you're happy to return the favor.

The result? An Enlightenment Civilization fostered by Smith, Locke, Franklin etc., but propelled by tens of millions of eager participants. Inarguably the most successful of all time, cutting through countless foolish notions that held sway for millennia -- like the assumption that your potential is predetermined by who your father was -- while unleashing creativity, knowledge, freedom, and positive-sum wealth to a degree that surpassed all other societies, combined.

Even the most worrisome outcomes of success, like overpopulation, wealth stratification and environmental degradation, come accompanied by good news -- the fact that so many of us are aware, involved, reciprocally critical, and eager to innovate better ways. 

Lip Service to Wisdom

So, what’s that irony I spoke of, earlier? How does this central principle turn around and bite today's libertarians and conservatives, proving many of them fools?

TransparentSocietyClearly, Everything I’ve said, so far, ought to make a libertarian or conservative happy!  Indeed, my nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom, is all about how open information flows can empower reciprocal accountability and competition, the things that make democracy and markets and science great. (There have never been humans more inherently competitive than scientists; try talking to one, some time.)

So where’s the problem? The problem is that it’s all lip service on the right! Those who most-loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets (FIBM) are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence, a tenet to be clutched with religious tenacity, as it was in feudal societies. Obdurate, they refuse to see that they are conflating two very different things.

Private property - as Adam Smith made clear - is a means for encouraging the thing he really wanted: fair and open competition.  Indeed, the propertarian reforms that Peru instituted under the guidance of Hernando de Soto, vesting the poor in the land they had always farmed, resulted in a boom that delighted both libertarians and socialists.  Safe and secure property rights are a boon... up to a point.

But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that "fair and open" part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition. Unlike today's conservatives, who grew up in a post-WWII flattened social order without major wealth-castes, Smith lived immersed in class-rooted oligarchy, of the kind that ruined markets, freedom and science across nearly 99% of human history. He knew the real enemy, first hand and denounced it in terms that he never used for mere bureaucrats.

When today's libertarians praise the creative power of competition, then ignore the unlimited propertarianism that poisoned it across the ages, we are witnessing historical myopia and dogmatic illogic, of staggering magnitude. 

The Irony of Faith in Blind Markets

GuidedAllocationWhen Adam Smith gets over-simplified into a religious caricature, what you get is "faith in blind markets" - or FIBM - a dogma that proclaims the state should have no role in guiding economic affairs, in picking winners of losers, or interfering in the maneuvers or behavior of capitalists.  Like many caricatures, it is based on some core wisdom. As Robb points out, the failure of Leninism shows how state meddling can become addictive, excessive, meddlesome and unwise.  There is no way that 100,000 civil servants, no matter how well-educated, trained, experienced, honest and well-intentioned, can have enough information, insight or modeling clarity to replace the market's hundreds of millions of knowing players.  Guided Allocation of Resources (GAR) has at least four millennia of failures to answer for.

 But in rejecting one set of knowledge-limited meddlers -- 100,000 civil servants -- libertarians and conservatives seem bent on ignoring market manipulation by 5,000 or so aristocratic golf buddies, who appoint each other to company boards in order to vote each other titanic "compensation packages" while trading insider information and conspiring together to eliminate competition. Lords who are not subject to inherent limits, like each bureaucrat must face, or rules of disclosure or accountability. Lords who (whether it is legal or not) collude and share the same delusions.

Um... in what way is this kind of market "blind"? True, you have gelded the civil servants who Smith praised as a counter-balancing force against oligarchy.  But the 5,000 golf buddies -- despite their free market rhetoric -- aren't doing FIBM at all! They reverting to GAR. To guided allocation, only in much smaller numbers, operating according to oligarchic principles of ferocious self-interest that go back at least to Nineveh.

If you want to explore this further, including how the notions of "allocation" and "faith in blind markets" get weirdly reversed, and how Smith and Hayek are betrayed by the people who tout them the most, see my article: Guided Allocation vs. Markets: An Ancient Struggle.

Economy-past-presentHence, at last, the supreme irony.  Those who claim most-fervent dedication to the guiding principle of our Enlightenment: competition, reciprocal accountability and enterprise -- our neighbors who call themselves conservative or libertarian -- have been talked into conflating that principle with something entirely different. Idolatry of private wealth, sacred and limitless. A dogmatic-religious devotion that reaches its culmination in the hypnotic cantos of Ayn Rand. Or in the Norquist pledge to cut taxes on the rich under all circumstances -- during war or peace, in fat years or lean -- without limit and despite the failure of any Supply Side predictions ever, ever, ever coming true.

An idolatry that leads, inevitably to the ruination of all competition and restoration of the traditional human social order that ruled our ancestors going back to cuneiform tablets -- Feudalism. 

Growing past the "left-right axis"

Let's be clear. Every aspect of my argument, today, was from the perspective of an admirer of Adam Smith, of market enterprise, science and freedom. It has been a paean to competition. Not a single argument even referred to socialist or left-wing parts of the spectrum.  Sure, I hinted that some liberal endeavors -- e.g. mass education, civil rights, child nutrition and national infrastructure etc. -- empowered greater numbers of citizens to join the fair and open process of Smithian competition. It's a truth we can discuss another time. But then, Adam Smith was called "the first liberal" and liberalism isn't "lefty" anyway.

No. This indictment of today's right was made entirely from the core postulates of the libertarian right.  Indeed, what Robb points out - and that I elaborated here - is a reason for sincere libertarians and conservatives to awaken and rebel against the hijacking of their movements by an old enemy.

This is an internal matter, a cancer within libertarianism and conservatism. If there are still honest-smart men and women within those old and noble traditions, they should think carefully, observe and diagnose the illness.  They should face the contradiction. Discuss the conflation. And then do as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and many others have done. Choose the miracle of creative competition over an idolatry of cash.

They should stand up.

=====    =====    ======

==See also: Guided Allocation vs. Markets: An Ancient Struggle with strange modern implications

Defending Enterprise from its defenders

and Articles on the Economy: Past, Present and Future

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Wonders and Disburbances Part 2: From Science to Politics

== A qualified defense of reason ==

(Continuing from Part 1)

Some have been discussing a grouchy missive by the brilliant linguistic philosopher George Lakoff -- specifically Lakoff's latest dismissal of reason as a tool of enlightenment decision making. It provokes me to respond.

Lakoff is completely right that so-called logical reasoning is extremely faulty because it fails to take into account human nature. For example, our biased perceptions were faulted by Plato, the father of the socratic tradition... though Plato went on to claim that such systems can fully compensate, by self-correcting for bad perceptions. One of the great ironies in the history of thought - since our human talent for delusion easily extends to the misleading incantations of "logic."

Also, recent advances in neuroscience seem to be supporting the cynics. As Lakoff points out, our brains seem wired for bias, which reasoning generally serves only to rationalize. We process new “facts” offered by our opponents through parts of the brain associated by emotion, rather than logic.  To see how bad it gets, just look at yourself, by taking my infamous “Questionnaire Regarding Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny.”

On the other hand, I must quibble --

Lakoff asserts that logic and reason are fundamental underpinnings of the Enlightenment Experiment.  And I will confess that they started out that way, and still are vital components of the non-Anglic (e.g. Franco-German) wing of the Enlightenment.

But the Anglo-American wing long ago demoted reason to second-tier status.  It is still important, as an ideal to be yearned-for. But primary position was given - by Locke, Smith, Franklin, and Madison to something else: Reciprocal Accountability.

Knowing how good human beings are delusion and at rationalization, the sages of the Enlightenment's pragmatic wing chose to emphasize adversarial processes, in markets, democracy, justice and science. Competitive criticism and reward systems, based on actual outcomes and repeatable tests were supposed to overcome the biases that the Founders knew to be inherent in human nature.

Let me elaborate: while reason has clearly been revealed as faulty, in guiding us to useful conclusions, it still serves science crucially well, as a hypothesis generator! As a fertile source - like manure - of the assertions and wagers that then make the basis for subsequent science.

By far most of the assertions that are later subjected to Popperian falsification arise, either wholly or in part, through processes of abstract reasoning.  In other words, reason is a great truth-seeking tool when it is paired with other essential things... diversity, competition, reciprocal accountability, experimental testing,... and a cultural tradition of cheerful -- or at least grudging -- acceptance of the paramount value of evidence.

As Herbert Spencer once wryly quipped... 'there is nothing so tragic as a beautiful theory, disproved.'  Well, tragic, except in comparison to 10,000 years of wrong theories that were forced upon folks, by bullying.

Sure, all of these ingredients come hard, especially willingness to heed criticism. Only scientists are actually trained to use them systematically, and still they squirm!  We are at-root, genetically and at-heart immature cavemen.  And yet, we are cavemen who built a spectacular enlightenment civilization, more successful in every way - including gentle decency - than all others combined. We did it by learning and applying reason... and then (a crucial second step) by refusing to be bullied by it. By subjecting it to the superior authority of evidence.

== Science & Society ==

And now for a catch-all potpourri that is NOT political!

-- Climate Change & Civil War: Starting with data on conflicts that killed more than 25 people, as compiled by the Center for the Study of Civil War to include 175 countries and 234 civil wars in the last six decades or so, the researchers mapped out how many of these disputes occurred in years with an El Niño weather pattern. They found that the risks of civil war breaking out in a tropical country during an El Niño doubled. Then, running a comparative simulation in which such El Niño weather patterns did not occur, the researchers determined that the hotter, drier conditions helped stoke 48 civil wars that did not occur in the modeled El Nino-free world. "Even in this modern world, climate variability has an impact on the propensity of people to fight," says climate modeler Mark Cane of Columbia University. "When people get warmer than comfortable they get irritable and they are more prone to fight." (Late note: there has been a lot of blogging by folks pointing to contrary evidence and studies. So take this with salt.)

-- To resolve conflict, believe people can change. Negotiation often fails because each side believes their opponent is inflexible, according to researchers in Israel. Stand-offs, they say, can end if those involved ponder the possibility that their counterparts can adopt a flexible mindset.

-- Identity in the modern world: Across India, using fingerprint & iris scanners, workers are creating the world’s largest biometric database, a mind-boggling collection of 1.2 billion identities. One goal: to reduce corruption & economic inequality. 12-digit ID numbers will help build real citizenship in a society where identity has been historically linked with caste, kin & religion. Ah, one hopes it won’t just serve as a tool of top-down control

-- Picture a world where tools improve with use. It’s the premise of my way-fun novel, The Practice Effect. Our own world may not work that way, but Tarus Balog suggests that open source software can follow that pattern. Version 1.0 may be bare bones, then users add features, erase glitches, till it becomes robust. Creative transparency. I have such a project!

== Science Snippets ==

-- Gorgeous! See time-lapse videos—captured over the course of 14 years by the Hubble Space Telescope. Amazing to see vast phenomena changing across the years.

-- Looking back: Jupiter-Bound Spacecraft Sees Earth and Moon from Afar.

-- Vaccines are nearly entirely safe.  But don’t try telling that to the cultists. On second thought.  Do. Try.  And keep on trying.  Your efforts may be the vaccine they need to wake up from the fever.

-- Human Activity Is Officially Acknowledged to Cause Earthquakes.

-- The Big Bang Theory: A fan video of the Barenaked Ladies theme song:  Even if they get the "cycle" of bangs wrong... it's still way cool!

== Miscellaneous ==

-- “From The 'London Times' of 1904” is one of Mark Twain’s sort of halfway sojourns into science fiction.  Read about an imaginary device called a “telelectroscope,” which was essentially a telephone with a “moving picture” screen that, when connected to a network of telelectroscopes all around the world, created a worldwide system of information sharing.

...and then how it inspires one sci fi reader to ponder “green SF.”

-- Speaking of Twain... ah boys will be boys.

-- Just watched the movie "Paul." From the trailers, I expected something like "Alf" - alien-as-male-jackass. So I watched it with just my 14 yr old son. We were pleasantly surprised! Sure, lots of immature jokes. But it was more subtle and well-written than expected. Way fun. And the story portrayed being a "Nebulon Award winning sci fi author" as the highlight of human existence! Well now... how can I complain or disagree? ;-)

-- Alyona Lompar has posted her Ukrainian translation of the first ten chapters of The Uplift War.

--  A cool short video about a woman who wakes up in prison and gets ahold of the gun from PORTAL.

-- Okay, slightly political: but this is important. It shows why those who benefit from “culture war” paint all sides as intransigent, unreasonable dogmatists.  See how I weighed in on this topic for 20 years, via my “questionnaire” that pokes at many of the assumptions that underlay ideology. Yes, even yours.

-- A new massively multiplayer game announced... one with real science and possibility... NASA's Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Set in the year 2035, you will embark on an adventure into space, Mars, the asteroid belt and the outer planets. You will uncover secrets about a threat to civilization as we know it. Here are some notes on the upcoming game:

•Real science, technology, engineering, mathematics and physics content is infused throughout the AMMB universe.

• Astronauts may pick from several character classes, including several types of Engineer, Physicists, and Pilots.

• AMMB is currently being developed using the Unreal Engine 3 platform.

• A playable beta is expected in December 2012.

• NASA sponsored the selection in the MMO competition, and Project Whitecard and WisdomTools comprise the winning team!

Hope it does well. It'd be nice to see some sci fi that celebrates our common adventure in civilization, instead of taking the cheap shots we keep seeing from both right and left.