Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A widening chasm... Is there a "left" vs. "right"? And the Russian mob.

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics." - Erma Bombeck, author (1927-1996). *

To be clear, we already have two holidays celebrating veterans and those who have fallen or sacrificed for nation and freedom. And remembering yet-again certainly has a place on America's Independence Day. Alas, Donald Trump’s shamelessly self-centered hijacking of the DC July 4 commemoration had a political purpose. Republicans are seeing arterial loss of support among members of the U.S. military officer corps - the 3rd best-educated clade in America and deeply concerned over the GOP's all-out war on all fact professions, including science but also the Intelligence Community and FBI and the rest of the slagged "deep state." 

This loony display - rained-upon by the heavens - did not shore up support from the officer corps, who saw it as a waste and distraction - like some spandex-wearing 'Space Force.' But the officer corps are not main audience for all this lobotomized bluster. That is Red America, and (I believe) the enlisted personnel and noncoms who come disproportionately from southern states.

If we see a widening gulf between commissioned and non-commissioned personnel, a dangerous situation may arise that we haven't seen since Vietnam. A factor that goes unmentioned even in recent "new US civil war" novels like Tears of Abraham and Our War.

== “Left” and “right” as obsolete concepts ==

Robert Reich brilliantly questions the continuing usefulness to the Left-versus-Right axis that is not longer meaningful in older ways:

A half-century ago, when America had a large and growing middle class, those on the “left” sought stronger social safety nets and more public investment in schools, roads and research. Those on the “right” sought greater reliance on the free market.” Reich avows that both sides used to have some validity. 

Indeed, I’ve long held that infrastructure, R&D and especially the uplifting of poor children are all defensible as ways to enhance competitive market enterprise. History has proved this correct.

What has not proved correct is the interpretation of “free market” that took over the U.S. right since the 1980s, raging against any regulation erected to prevent cheating or to provide a flat-fair-open-competitive playing field. Especially, the cult called “Supply Side” has been utterly disproved, as oligarchy-demanded tax cuts fed asset bubbles and slowed money velocity, while sending wealth disparity skyrocketing and actually reducing investment in research or productive capital.

Reich is a better communicator than I am, with a bigger platform, so he goes to the heart of why oligarchy-owned media keep pushing a “left-vs-right” narrative.  

I suspect it’s because the emerging oligarchy feels safer if Americans are split along the old political battle lines. That way, Americans won’t notice they’re being shafted. In reality, the biggest divide in America today runs between oligarchy and democracy…. So long as the oligarchy divides Americans – split off people of color from working-class whites, stoke racial resentments, describe human beings as illegal aliens, launch wars on crime and immigrants, stoke fears of communists and socialists – it doesn’t have to worry that a majority will stop them from looting the nation. Divide-and-conquer allows the oligarchy free rein. It makes the rest of us puppets, fighting each other on a made-up stage.”

Wow. A bit more “lefty” than I would put it. But totally correct and we’re agreed this calls for real militancy. In fact, it’s a pity no one will put this in historical context. Like how the American Revolution wasn’t against “government” but against a royal/feudal oligarchy that monopolized trade and rigged markets... the kind of oligarchy that’s always been the worst enemy of true enterprise. (Try actually reading the Declaration of Independence.)

Reich concludes that: The only way to overcome the oligarchy and Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy is for the rest of us to join together and win America back.” 

 And yes, that “join together” part means resisting the siren calls of sanctimonious splitting that are already pouring from Moscow provocateurs, urging our “left" to wage war against moderate or enterprise-oriented democrats and independents and even the “deep state” public servants we’ll desperately need.

About that! Note that while pundits pay top attention to the "leftward swing" of many deep blue districts, where AOC types are primarying old line democrats (and welcome to do so), little is paid to the ones who made the real difference in 2018, ex-military officers who ran in red and purple districts, taking ground and putting Rep. Nadler in a position to issue subpoenas. That is the trend terrifying Koch-Murdoch-Mercer-Putin and the oligarch crowd.

They are counting on our own fringe nutjobs to burn flags and spit on soldiers and veterans, partly egged-on by memes generated in a special basement of the Kremlin. We certainly can rip defeat from the jaws of victory; we've done it before. And that was what this July 4 stunt was all about.

== The future ==

An interesting Australian documentary about the year 2040, on how we can solve our climate problems and make a better world. And a film review.

Oleg Kalugin – now 84 - was Vladimir Putin's boss at the KGB and said Putin's background is essential to understanding today's Russia. Putin brought back some of the worst sides of the Soviet regime. As a former KGB guy, his psychology is based on the old traditions of the Soviet system."

== Russian Influence ==

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. boasted at a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” 

Here’s another gem from this amazing and important article: “The money, illicit and otherwise, began to rain in earnest after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. President Boris Yeltsin’s shift to a market economy was so abrupt that cash-rich gangsters and corrupt government officials were able to privatize and loot state-held assets in oil, coal, minerals, and banking. Yeltsin himself, in fact, would later describe Russia as “the biggest mafia state in the world.” from Craig Unger's article in The Atlantic: Trump's Russian Laundromat.

“After Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president, Russian intelligence effectively joined forces with the country’s mobsters and oligarchs, allowing them to operate freely as long as they strengthen Putin’s power and serve his personal financial interests. According to James Henry, a former chief economist at McKinsey & Co. who consulted on the Panama Papers, some $1.3 trillion in illicit capital has poured out of Russia since the 1990s.”

Among the nuggets in this article exposing relentless Trump ties to the Russian mob (2 years old but devastating): “In 2015, the Trump Taj Mahal was fined $10 million—the highest penalty ever levied by the feds against a casino—and admitted to having “willfully violated” anti-money-laundering regulations for years.” Oh, but it gets far more spectacular.

Seriously, this is an important article. Then there’s Craig Unger’s whole book: “House Of Trump,House Of Putin: The Untold Story Of Donald Trump And The Russian Mafia.”

*Preserving the only continent without (much) in the way of borders and standing armies was the maybe #3 or 4 reason the Union had to win the 1860s phase of our ongoing Civil War. For most of US history, citizens never saw soldiers and moved vast distances without checkpoints. Ponder how that would have changed if the Confederacy won. Followed by another war between nations in the 1880s. And another in 1914. But now we're in the territory of science fiction....

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Science fictional news and musings

First, science fictiony musings about our next creative step, in the guise of science: All sorts of famous folks - and then also me - give 13 quotes about the future of AI. And yes, mine was the only one that offered - instead of a pablum warning or reassurance - an actionable recommendation that could make a difference. (Alas, could have done without the exclamation points!)

== So much new in science fiction, starting with.... ==

A new anthology: Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern WorldI have an essay in this one, along with David Gerrold and Jim Wright. And there are cool stories by Resnick, Yolen and others, having fun with... well... impudent re-examinings of age old assumptions.

A wide-ranging interview recorded during our recent appearance at BayCon, the wonderful SF Bay-area science fiction convention (which broke all attendance records) - Fanboy Planet Podcast Episode 550. Many topics were covered: like the role of prediction in science fiction and how its methods are spreading through society. And how the greatest social invention of the last 70 years - the NGO - lets a middle class person like you amplify power on a plane with governments and elites! And novels and stories and more fun.

I am weirdly on two lists. Top Ten End of the World novels, from Ballard's The Drowned World to Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. And my own EARTH makes the compilation… though it’s overall optimistic about averting the End. (The Guardian.) 

Zoe Saylor’s list of seven science fiction tales that offer a little hope includes another of mine that is post-apocalyptic! Guess whichone. Yes, I see their point, in each case! And I choose to interpret it to mean I am … not preachy but nuanced!

By the way, this handsome, signed Easton Press edition of The Postman is really gorgeous and a good deal… and it’s almost sold out. (I’m signing pages now for a whole fresh printing.) 

Question, is anyone interested in a hardcover of my one novel that never had one, Sundiver? We'll be re-releasing the ebook of Sundiver soon. 

== Science fiction, new and bold ==

Battlefront, the fourth and final volume of Jeff Carlson’s Europa Series has been published. It is available now on Amazon as an eBook and the paperback version, as well. Jeff’s manuscript for Battlefront was nearly complete at the time of his death in July 2017, and the final editing and assembly was done by his father, Gus Carlson. 

At the time of Jeff's terrible passing, I was just finishing my polish of our shared project: NEW MOJAVE, the sequel to my YA novel SKY HORIZON, both of them part of the COLONY HIGH series. And how I regret Jeff didn't get a chance to see it. I will persevere until it gets published.

Meanwhile, Get Jeff Carlson's EUROPA Series! Such adventure.

Innovative and highly with-it, The Black Box by Jennifer Egan consists of a series of twitter-length observational statements that nevertheless convey setting, character, action, dialogue and perception extremely well. The kind of sparseness and efficiency of conveyance that I teach my students can be seen in these two ways, early in the story: 
“If your Designated Mate is widely feared, the beauties at the house party where you’ve gone undercover to meet him will be especially kind." 
“Kindness feels good, even when it’s based on a false notion of your identity and purpose.”

 It is also a way-cool and tense spy story, with terrific science fictional elements, plus a stirring view of citizen resilience that may slip by most readers, but not those of you who hang around here. It’s in a ‘tense’ that I can only call second-person-mentor, straddling present and future, delivering vivid action amid advice-observations for an amateur secret agent. Heinlein showed us how to do this, establishing point of view through a character’s observations and especially what she/he takes for granted. But this efficiency is even better.

== More items... ==

An excellent BBC article about one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time – John Brunner’s 1968 Stand on Zanzibar. Often lauded for its agile, content-rich, multi point-of-view style (I modeled EARTH after it) and for its long list of eerily on-target predictions, I am in fact most impressed with the novel’s masterful mixture of pertinent worry and tentative optimism, a rare gift in this era of simplistically dolorous-discouraging dystopias and finger-wagging moralizings. This writer cites many of Brunner’s accurate foretellings, leaving out the one so many remark upon… that he featured an African “President Obomi” (cue Twilight Zone theme.)

Fun stuff! Some fans  worked with physicists and engineers on this infographic scaling a range of sci fi weapons!
Though this list left out the absurd super-ooper-dooper death star of "The Force Wakens," Which shot a beam across the whole galaxy in an instant destroying the entire Republic (a million worlds) in one plot simplifying cheat-minute! Then there's the Gravity Lasers in my novel EARTH, which use coherent beams from the core and mantle to lift ships and an island or two.

A wonderful analysis and trip down memory lane! Charlie Jane Anders surveys one of the great SF universes, the Hainish series by my former teacher, Ursula LeGuin, truly a visionary pioneer who was recognized early by our wonderfully expansive field... as was Charlie Jane Anders! Treasures.

A terrific and empathic story about an uplifted chimp detective by Rich Larson, an up-and-coming SF star - author of Annex, The Violet Wars.

== Final Brin bits ==

Our fine/fun panel discussing Blade Runner - hosted by the UCSD library - was lively with insights and inside poop. It is now online via UCSD TV

And I was final judge for a fiction writing contest run by the DoD “Mad Scientist Lab” – the entries portrayed ground warfare in the future, some of them thoughtfully and with some nuance, as well as technological vision. This page also includes several items of “advice to rising writers of SF.” Like how to establish point of view and how to make that first paragraph work for you.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Central Planning and “Team Human.” Are we able to steer the ship, while letting markets do their creative thing?

Before getting down to the matter of central planning vs. market forces -- an argument that's raged since ancient Egypt -- I need to point out something regarding our current Constitutional Crisis over Congressional powers of subpoena and oversight. Never mind that the GOP used those powers endlessly in 25 years of Clinton hearings (that examined every pore, file and tax return, finding literally nothing). Now that scrutiny might shine on Republicans, Chief Justice John Roberts & co. must prevent a tsunami of light from eviscerating the oligarchy.**

In fact, it's arguable that this is none of the Court's business!

Consider how John Roberts just established precedent that legislatures have sovereignty rights that Courts cannot interfere with. (In this case, a sovereign right to deny voters any rights at all.) Yes, Roberts made that ruling as a last-ditch effort to preserve Republican gerrymander cheating...

... but amazingly, this bit of utter sophistry - The Roberts Doctrine — is one that House leaders could now exploit. Indeed, there is a way -- I believe -- to pull a judo move on the administration's stonewall tactic and get those subpoenas enforced.

The chief element of my proposal would be surprise... it might only be done once... and hence I've restrained myself from describing it in detail anywhere, before floating it past a member or senior staffer.

But one Democratic candidate has noticed what I am noticing. In a field of very bright folks, Julián Castro has been the one smart enough to look to the Fourth Branch of the U.S. government. I'd be happy to explain things to some smart staffer. Though alas, everyone seems so sure they have a clear view of things. What does anyone need outside perspective for?

== The recurring power fantasy ==

Central planning vs. Markets? 
You - yes you - are so sure you know all about this and have a firm 'side.' 
Can you pause to broaden it, a bit? ...

Central control over an economy is the great dream of all oligarchies. Even 'good' lords aim to justify their continued reign by the simple recourse of delivering good statecraft. Early Bronze Age societies succeeded at managing primary economies (hydraulic empires) with the super technologies of their day - irrigation and roads, boats and basic literacy by a few hundred priests and scribes.  Around 1200 BCE they hit a wall of competence and it all crashed down.

The classical powers that followed were more resilient and advanced. The Persian empire and Roman Pax had advanced primary economies, but finally hit their own wall, partly through incapabilityto adapt to environmental effects they were wreaking.

The third wave built a secondary economy of infrastructure and iron and coal, which Marx analyzed -- at first with real cogency, until he began believing his flatterers. Alas for his predictive reputation - the worker's revolution was supposed to happen in advanced economies like Britain or Germany, not the most primitive -- Russia and China. 

Lenin made excuses and declared that a socialist state can dispense with Marx's final stage capitalism, after all! It can plan a major secondary industrial economy as well as Adam Smith's competitive-blind capitalism. And for a while it seemed true! Soviet planners commanded "get a hundred train cars of cement to this dam construction site or you'll be shot." And to visiting western observers, it seemed effective! Dams sure got built.

"I have seen the future and it works," commented one visiting American.

(Elsewhere I show, in some detail, how probably the closest acolyte to Karl Marx, using his catechisms to predict an opposite future, was Ayn Rand.)

== Economies at the third level ==

Alas for the communist experiment, we were transitioning to a tertiary economy driven by consumers. While dams and highways are one thing, the Soviets hit their "wall of competence" when it came to centrally designing a refrigerator anyone would want.

The Japanese took these lessons to heart, with the next planned economy, incorporating what seemed an impossibly competent combination of overall planning with fluidity of market allocation among obedient but competitive companies, all propped-up by American indulgence toward predatory mercantilism.  Led by MITI, Japan blew past the Soviet wall... only to hit its own wall, in the 1990s.

Now it is China, led by brilliant former engineers, who are taking all the lessons from the USSR and then Japan, modifying them with vastly improved planning models, again relying upon the multi-trillion dollar subsidy of predatory mercantilism. The whole world benefits (except for the pollution and oppression). 

But again, we are endangered by the smugness of those who proclaim "this time there's no wall!"

== No wall? Is central planning becoming plausible? ==

History shows several things. First that every pyramid-shaped human society (that’s 99% of them) was ruled by oligarchies that were at-best moderately delusional and usually outright hallucinatory, confident that they knew exactly how to Guide the Allocation of Resources (See where I define and explain GAR.)

Second, as we’ve seen, these GAR fetishists always hit a wall of incompetence… though we have to admit, modern tools have let that wall shift substantially.

Third, introduced by Adam Smith, the alternative notion was to let the dispersed wisdom of vast numbers of private players coalesce – both cooperatively and competitively – through our arenas called Markets, Democracy, Science, Justice and Sports, where no one can suppress criticism, the only known antidote to error. 

By flattening all power structures and ensuring freedom of knowledge and speech, these arenas proved to be magnificent at piercing delusions… bad products, bad policies, bad theories, bad behaviors and bad ideas. The result? More success than all of the rest of human existence for half a million years.

But that very success generated another bad idea! While flattened power and distributed agency helped these arenas to achieve fantastic success, oversimplifiers turned Smith’s rejection of GAR into a different and just-as-stupid cult! FIBM or Faith in Blind Markets became an incantation, citing Adam Smith for something he never asserted and in fact actively loathed: the idea that society should assert no goals, have no hand on the tiller, insert no values into the mix of incentives that millions consider, in making market decisions.

(In case you missed it or skimmed, that just now was a key paragraph and you ought to at least understand it, even if you disagree.)

In other words, FIBM fanatics claim we should charge into the future lobotomized and blind, considering only what's right in front of us, pondering no long range goals other than the next quarterly profit statement. Indeed, under the Friedmanites, industrial ROI (return on investment) planning horizons shrank from ten years, to five, all the way down to 90 or even 60 days.

Of course the net effect is ironic. It has been to shove all decision making power into the ample laps of a narrow oligarchy, a caste of 5000 golf buddy CEOs and Wall Street arbitrageurs, along with foreign and domestic mafias, all of whom chant slogans of FIBM, but in fact aggressively behave like all past lordly classes… grabbing the power to do GAR.

Reiterating, they do not argue against command-allocation of resources and endeavor. They just want that the power of command allocation be theirs. The "C-Word" -- Competition -- falls from their lips, even as they strive to crush it.

In fact, the true friends of flat-fair-creative-productive markets have been the moderate or “rooseveltean” liberals who knew that Marx was right about a few things, like the tendency of corporate lords to consolidate into monopolies, duopolies or other market wrecking patterns of theft. Or that when parasites pull money out of the economy, it does not get invested in risky R&D or capital production equipment, but squirreled into rentier-passive asset bubbles that slow money velocity down to near zero. Exactly the achievement of every “Supply Side” (voodoo) vampirism of the last 40 years.

Dig it. While Republicans rage at regulation and the far-left sniff at "competition," It is only Regulated Competition that delivered the cornucopia fostered by the Rooseveltean social contract of the Greatest Generation. A contract whose dissolution is the one shared goal of every Republican policy.

Adam Smith would have no trouble with anti-trust laws, or with a society insisting that “externalities” like environmental effects get incorporated into the prices of goods available for consumer choice, so long as those incentive adjustments are flat, fair and predictable over spans that markets can adapt to.

Now, back to the present day and the central planning advocates in this world.

== They truly believe this time they’ve got it ==

Elsewhere I appraise some of the rationalizations that are now pouring from Chinese intellectuals, justifying the claim that only a centralized, party-ruled state can possibly (1) manage a modern economy, (2) distribute wealth properly as jobs disappear to automation, and (3) exert control over the new AI entities we are about to produce. These missives by Chinese scholars are typified by a recent one by Tsingua University professor Feng Xiang, which I critique here.

The crux: It has always been an appealing dream to plan an economy and an ideal state. That alluring notion may have long term merits - certainly we've become a lot better at it -- but we must also remain aware that till now there have always been "walls of incompetence." Moreover, there is a tendentious wish for this dream to come true, on the part of those who envision themselves as the "world directors" (from Huxley's Brave New World.)

The opposite notion has its own cult following: that central planning cannot work for long. That it is a chimera and a meddling tendency that interferes in Smithian market wisdom. 

All too often these folks are even worse! Because their rationalizations almost always excuse consolidation of allocation power in the hands of a small, incestuous and shortsighted oligarchy of owner-lords. Exactly the same old GAR approach but in feudal form, like the last 4000 years.

Adam Smith himself favored some degree of planning when it comes to overall priorities and goals, while leaving most allocation decisions to very well-informed and liberated citizens. In other words, as those computer models keep improving, there is no reason why they should have to be monopolized by top party officials or oligarchs. 

What if we all had them? A world market economy in which every citizen and consumer knew almost everything, with super models and analytic engines at beck and call? It's an image I don't see much discussed. Yet, it would still aim for that sweet spot, between fallible-but-necessary foresight and the flat-competitive interplay that gave us everything we now have.

We're told we must choose between two models: on the one hand proponents of centralized state planning who are clearly very smart and who have yet to reach their 'wall,' but who rationalize despotism while ignoring how much of their mercantilist success came because of western indulgence...

... versus a clade of would be oligarchic lords who claim to champion open-competitive-Smithian markets, while hypocritically joining with world mafia forces to send wealth and power disparities skyrocketing toward French Revolution levels. Their sycophant-flatterers are proved wrong, of course, when these would-be aristocrats cannot perceive the foolishness of waging war upon all fact-using professions, nor can they stretch their minds to ponder the word "tumbrels."

No, my friends, face it. Were he alive today, Adam Smith would be a Democrat. And the #1 (of many) silliness of democrats is that they don't proclaim it.


** CORRECTION: In an earlier version I said that an appeals court had ruled against Congress in the emoluments case. Actually the court did not rule against Congress on the emoluments case.The three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., found that the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia had no legal standing to bring suit on the emolument case. The Congressional case is ongoing. Fine. But when it comes to potential corruption of the entire Executive Branch via a crime specifically called out in the Constitution, I believe any and every citizen has "standing."