Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Betrayal of the Smart Sons

Having recently read a dyspeptic and grouchy, but eye-opening, look at the fix we’re in - 15 Signs American Society Is Coming Apart at the Seams, by David DeGraw - it occurred to me that there are all sorts of possible theories to explain what's happened to American Civilization... its astonishing plummet from the richest, most confident and progressive nation in history to an irascible bunch of bickerers, trapped in perpetual a cycle of Culture War. 

Why, especially, have Americans been losing their knack at creating new and better goods and services and winning at the agile game of market capitalism?  This is a matter of no small import to the world as a whole, since it is precisely the engine of U.S. economic success that has - thereupon - driven the development of most of the rest of the world. (See: How Americans Spent themselves into Ruin…But Saved the World.) While that engine has to learn to run leaner, more efficiently and more sustainably, its actual vigor and innovation are just as important, if the world is to see better days.

Alas, the engine is sputtering.  Furthermore, none of the diagnoses that I've seen publicly bruited, so far, has seemed convincing. Most are either superficial ("we were led by fools!"), or myopic ("MY side is always right and so is every item on our wish list!"), or dreamy ("we should wake up and face the future again, as a nation of ambitious problem-solvers!")  (All right, that last example is the favorite wish-whine of yours truly.)

Time for a fair warning.  I was raised, trained and apprenticed in the art of "what-if" generating... the craft of offering unusual outlooks. New-Perspectives-R-Us.  Even knowing full well that most of them will be flawed at some level, people still pay me -- sometimes a lot -- to do this. To be interesting, even if I don't turn out to be right.

Hence, some of my hypotheses, to explain America's current funk, are iconoclastic. For example, I think that a big part of our problem may be rooted in a simplistic, insipid, illogical... and French... metaphor, the so-called "left-right political axis," a dismally lobotomizing meme that some of the smartest people I know actually buy into, without ever being able to define it.
Spinning around in a different direction, last month I offered a relatively sunny theory about the rise and gentle decline of Pax Americana -- suggesting that everything we've seen, including our trade and budget deficits, may have been intentionally mapped out by the greatest genius of the 20th Century, George Marshall, whose innovative counter-mercantilist trade patterns wound up propelling two-thirds of the people on this planet toward peaceful prosperity through one simple method -- Americans buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed. 

Sound cheery?  I can also do dark. (See Republicans and Democrats: Two Very Different Kinds of Internal Party Struggle. )

But let's put aside all the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, for now.  This time, I want to get strange and cynical with a new theory that's simple, creepy, and chillingly plausible. I don't expect any modern person will agree that this is the real, underlying cause for all that’s been happening to our economy, across the last few decades. 
 Yet, I'll bet any of the top thinkers from other centuries and civilizations would take a glance at America today and totally agree with the hypothesis!

"Yep, that's it," they would say. "Any nation that allowed such a thing to happen would deserve what it got."

It is a theory about the sons and daughters of the rich.

Who’s Minding The Aristocracy?  A Crackpot Explanation for the Decline of American Capitalism
Now and then, during my time at Caltech and JPL and across careers in science and the arts, I used to notice something that struck me as strange. While interacting in these endeavors with bright men and women who were colleagues and/or peer-competitors, all of us eagerly pursuing truth, I would every now and then pick up on something odd and unexpected. Through all the normal give and take, amid fascinating conversations that plumbed ideas at the fringe of the known, a hint would slip out revealing that... hey... this guy or that gal, in addition to being a skilled worker and dynamic innovator, also happened also to be rich! 

Now let's be clear; I’m not talking about the self-made billionaires I know -- guys who started in the middle class before developing some cool concept that gave millions of people added value. Exemplifying Free Enterprise at its best, those fellows are proudly “first generation” self-made men. Indeed, several have declared that they will join Warren Buffett in leaving most of it to causes, making a better world.  But we’re putting them aside. They’re not relevant here.

No, instead I'm talking about another kind of rich people. Folks who got wealthy the old fashioned way, by inheriting it.

And yet, despite being raised in affluence, these colleagues, friends or fellow scientists were not using their silver spoons to live it up or lord over others. Sure, they had some of the finer things. But they treated money as something that one can actually get enough of. More is always nice, of course!  But one of the principal hallmarks of sanity -- satiability -- means a surfeit that's doubled, and then redoubled, drops in importance.  In its place, the central drive may even move on to other things.  Like curiosity.

(This doesn't impugn the tech billionaires. Past a certain point, is it cash that really matters to them?  Or winning, again and again, at a cutthroat, innovative game?  Most claim that money, itself, isn't the motivator, anymore.  It's being -- and doing -- the best.)

In fact, when it came to the rich scientists and artists I knew, these colleagues nearly always seemed to be at pains to downplay the whole topic. It was never polite to go there.  Often, to my puzzlement, they acted as if admitting their wealth would be like avowing to some mildly repulsive and irritating social disease.

I pondered this phenomenon over the years... I mean, beyond ratcheting up my respect for women and men who turn their back on luxury (though they often had boats or planes), in order to head for realms where the truly interesting stuff is going on.  (BTW, some of them went into science fiction, too.  I won’t tell who.)

These were people with options.  Yet, they chose to go and prove themselves in fields where ability and quality are genuinely measurable, and where esteem generally ignores the number of digits in your income. You gotta respect that.

Still, I eventually got around to wondering -- all right then, who is managing your family’s influence and power?

Who gets the treasured stock exchange seat?  The Skull & Bones membership? The golf games with Illuminati board members?  I even probed about this a couple of times, when I felt the friendship could stand it.  Clues showed up, when I would accompany a friend to some family gathering, and met relatives. Soon, I observed enough to stoke a growing suspicion.

Who got the power and influence?

Dim-witted siblings.   That’s who.  The family dullards, who are not lured by adventures in science or innovation or the arts.  The brother who, if left in charge of a restaurant or small business would run up the mortgage and leave it bankrupt, in months.  The sister for whom preening and partying with Paris Hilton actually seems important.  The kind who drift toward crony dealing, because genuine market competition might be way too challenging.  Who will clasp their (reflex-genetically-inherited-by-all-of-us) notions of born-privilege, and justify them with mantras of smug superiority.

Look, I am really, really not interested in making enemies of any of these rich/spoiled/dumbasastone fellows, so in case any of them just happen to read this obscure blog, will you accept a pre-apology? Or assume I am talking about someone else? Thanks.

Nevertheless, seriously, don’t we all know what families are like?  Typically, each one has its bright bulbs and dim ones. In fact, one of the ways that families work best is that the bright sons and daughters wind up taking care of everybody else.  If there's a shared business, they make sure the taxes get paid and the workers are happily creative and that customers remain content. They see too it that the whole thing doesn’t get leveraged too far to weather the next storm, and they refuse to let company officers vote themselves lavish bonuses, diminishing value that could be re-invested in growth.  They use their prefrontal lobes to look ahead and invest not in wild ass get-rich-fast schemes, but in things that will enhance product or service, engendering more wealth -- for everybody -- down stream.

You see this in almost any family-run business.  Sometimes, the other siblings resent it.  Often, they know what’s good for them and help the smart-bro or wise-sis, however they can. (Heck, we saw it in “The Godfather,” right?  Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, after all.)

Only here’s the point.  An awful lot of American family businesses don’t get to benefit from this process.  They lose the natural leader, for a reason that’s ultimately ironic -- because the bright siblings may get a little too bright.  Having been raised in some comfort and privilege, with all the education they could possibly want, lo and behold, they want - and get - a lot!  Moreover, they look around for where exciting stuff is happening, and they soon come to recognize the places where human endeavor is really achieving important things, pushing back the envelope.  Challenging the unknown, breaking molds, inventing the new, and unrolling the very blueprints of God.

Sure, sometimes these challenges can be found right there, in the family business. Making the products and services way-better.   Terrific. Still, there is a natural human tendency for the smartest kids to wander off, away from all the privileges and assumptions, to prove they can make it on their own, perhaps even in a field where some of humanity’s top minds may acknowledge their talents and hard work with the greatest of all rewards... that nod of genuine respect.

It doesn’t have to be science, though that is where I found these refugees from the aristocracy, most often.  It might also be the arts, or starting a new company from scratch, in a completely different field.  Any way you look at it, this trend has to be viewed with admiration.

Alas, it may also be one of the principal reasons that American capitalism is going down the toilet. Because... who is left behind, minding the store?  Oh.  Yeah.  I already answered that question.

Only now, squint and envision good old Fredo, put in charge of a big investment fund.  Instead of a ma and pa grocery store, picture a prominent county bank that used to service mortgages carefully, combining intimate knowledge of local borrowers with a strong sense of community. That is, til frat-bro came back from a golf junket fizzing with excitement over hedge investments that he learned about from some sharpguy on the back nine. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that Wall Street is filled with fellows who actually think that vampiring companies with endlessly-churned commissions is doing them a favor and improving their bottom line?

Has anybody out there read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?  Remember the "Golgafrincham B Ark"?  If you don't, ask your nerdiest friend to lend you that passage.

Is That Really The Answer?

If you were to offer up any list of hypotheses to explain what has happened to American business and capitalistic enterprise, across the last 40 years, this one surely ranks among the most crackpotty-sounding. And I am not declaring it to be true. (I don't believe all my own strange hypotheses -- it's simply my job to come up with an endless supply!)

 Yet, doesn't it belong somewhere on the table of notions to investigate?  Note that the Standard Model -- proclaiming that we've been half-ruined by moronic, short-sighted greed -- does relate. I'm simply suggesting a process -- one that is totally consistent with the facts -- by which a large fraction of the mover-and-shaker slots in American finance might have become filled with greedy, short-sighted morons.  Moreover, there are plenty of precedent-examples one can point at, from history, where it proved devastating for a nation or enterprise to be inherited by the wrong brother.
Nor is this explanation inherently leftist. (Though Karl Marx mentioned "inherent contradictions" leading to capitalism's demise.)   Indeed, it posits something decidedly non-lefty.  Even far to the opposite direction.

It suggests that, if we are destined to return to the core human method of governance -- the one that dominated 99% of civilizations and recorded eras -- then at least aristocratism ought to be run by the BEST scions of the ruling class.  Not its worst.  They owe us that much, at least.

Consider, if this hypothesis has any validity at all, the profound awfulness of a well-intended betrayal.  In these high families, the smarter brothers and sisters want to be part of a lively, enlightenment civilization and to prove they can make it on their own. Today, these brighter siblings vanish into science, the arts, etc, leaving their bonehead bros, who shouldn't be trusted with a burnt match, holding great power.

 And hence, the bright ones have committed a crime against the very thing they love.

Okay, maybe I should have saved this one for April Fool's Day...

There. Forget all the convoluted analyses of Wall street and the Fed. The aristocracy was betrayed by its smartest scions. That's it!  Crackpotty or not, if this weird scenario does have any basis, then the cure is obvious.
Hunt down all the smart boys and girls who vanished into challenging and honest activities... science, teaching, research, the arts... and chase them BACK into the family business! Make them pick up their responsibilities to manage the inherited capital and influence well. Send the dullard brats off to sniff coke and chase models in Hollywood.

Yes, it sounds draconian, even deeply cruel.  But this measure could rank second only to closing all the undergraduate business schools, as a way to save our economy and our civilization.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Health Care. Again... Insure the kids first!

 What does it take to see the obvious?

 First, in today's weirdly reshaped political process we should not be wringing our hands over details in the Senate's version of Health Care legislation.  The current bill is warped by the need for perfect unanimity among members of the Democratic Party coalition. The Republicans’ strangely awe-worthy trait of utter party discipline, threatening filibusters instead of negotiating and deliberating as individuals, has put the independent senator from Hartford (capital of the insurance industry) in a powerful position to make certain that his industry gets what it wants.

In the current Senate version, that is.

But remember, all the Democrats need is to get some kind of bill out of the Senate.  It will then go into a reconciliation process with the version passed by the House.  The final bill that results from that blending will then be offered up for a straight vote in both chambers with no filibuster allowed.  This means that:

 1- liberals who are crying now about President Obama's "cave-in" concessions to Joe Lieberman ought to learn something about the process. And about patience.

 2- Since the final bill will only need 50 Senate votes to pass, Senators Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson, Baucus and several other Democrats from more conservative states, will be able to posture and vote against it, for the sake of those at home, and still see it pass.

3- If the final version looks a lot more like the House Bill, and thus more liberal than anything the Senate might have passed, that will only be the Republicans' fault.  They could have negotiated and participated in a real process of deliberation, and hence had a real voice on the reconciliation committee.  (Democratic majorities have traditionally given the GOP Congressional leadership substantial voice in the reconciliation process -- that is, until the Republicans chose all-or-nothing political war. Total political war has its consequences)

 But I want to focus, briefly, on another matter-- one that I've raised many times before... that the Democrats have waged this struggle with the wrong emphasis, all along, in ways that are tone-deaf to both justice and the inclinations of the voters.

On several occasions I've pointed out the obvious, that Americans are inherently more "socialistic" toward children than toward adults.

When it comes to grownups, we retain, from Wild West Frontierland days, an attitude that people ought to stand on their own two feet.  Hence, our public still expresses relative puritanism over issues like welfare and insurance etc, compared to other industrial nations. (For all the FoxNews screeching about "Socialist Obama," the most radical version of health care reform that he ever proposed -- including the "public option"-- was positively right-wing by European standards.) 

But that puritan-cowboy-individualist reflex tends only to apply when the topic is adults.  The point I have been pushing is that we feel differently toward kids.

Just Go Ahead and Take Care of All Kids First!

It goes all the way back to Adam Smith, the so-called "father of capitalism" who nevertheless pushed for free public education.  The logic is simple.  Free enterprise works best from a level playing field, so that a maximum number of  individuals can participate in the competitive  process, delivering ever-improving goods and services  (Um, duh?  This is why any trend toward monopoly or oligarchy is the enemy of enterprise, whether that oligarchy is governmental or "private.")

Now, one can level the field by bringing the aristocracy down a notch. (Smith actually favored this, to a cautious and limited degree, at least by eliminating the secretive, collusive power of oligarchs to warp markets.) But a better way is to lift the bottom up. Again, carefully.  In the right ways.

If helping the poor has real capitalist-pragmatist justifications, certain types of help benefit long-range competition better than others. Conservatives are right to be suspicious toward lefty endeavors to "equalize outcomes."

On the other hand, certainly, the most justifiable kind of aid to the poor is also the most moral -- lifting up children.  Even rough-n-ready Americans know that.  And even George W. Bush felt compelled to push the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which - inefficiently and haphazardly - helped states with matching funds, to reduce the number of uninsured children.

My point is that Obama and the Democrats have been foolish to ignore this inherent double standard -- a willingness on the part of Americans to apply socialist methods to help kids.  Instead of trying to expand Medicare downward to include people between the ages of 55 and 65, they should have gone to the other end and presented a provision to simply cover all American children.   

I've been proposing this for a long time. First, it would - in a shot - take care of the most vulnerable citizens and those whose long range futures merit the greatest investment... offering the most profound return, on a simple cash-actuarial basis!

Second, a lot of the health care needs of kids offer great bang for the buck.  These include effective preventive care, or the rapid attending to brief-acute problems... exactly the areas where even Republicans admit that Canadian-style single payer systems work best.

Third, even if that left a lot of parents uncovered, at least those parents would get their worst fears lifted off their shoulders.  They could then negotiate their own policies with private insurers from a position of strength.  In fact, the insurance industry would know it had to play nice, or else "children" could be re-defined upward, from ages 21 to, say, 25... and so on.

Finally, this approach is politically powerful.  Because many who rage at "socialism" for lazy adults would not dare object to making sure that children get seen by a doctor and have their basic needs met. Putting opponents in a position of refusing care for babies... now that's political hardball.

Frankly, it worries me that this blatantly obvious option seems not to have occurred to Obama or the Democrats.  It reveals a tone-deaf lack of political savvy, as well as any clear-eyed notion of how to get the most accomplished, in a long and grinding process of incrementalism.


Final note... go to GOODREADS.COM and look up your favorite author! But you can help by writing "reviews" of some or all of his books! It would be much appreciated and help a lot! Come on, do this for the guy! ;-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Miscellaneous wonders.....

While polishing a more entertaining piece for you all, here are some interesting snippets….

This one is simply amazing! ”For 23 years Rom Houben was trapped in his own body, unable to communicate with his  or family. They presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. But then doctors used a state-of-the-art scanning system on the brain of the martial arts enthusiast, which showed it was functioning almost normally. "I had dreamed myself away," said Houben, now 46, whose real "state" was discovered three years ago.  What is even more amazing is that he was even sane at all, after that time.  I find that incredible.

Fascinating story about the Man Who Forgot Everything.

The perfect answer to those who think that Twitter encourages short term... oops, ran out of characte--

Out this week, Jeff Carlson's PLAGUE ZONE brings his popular trilogy to a close with a new adventure featuring fan favorites like Cam Najarro and Allison Barrett as well as a host of new characters, both good guys and bad.  The arms race for weaponzied nanotech has continued.  America is struck by a new contagion. Together with a small band of friends and rivals, Cam must discover the source of the new plague, never suspecting that its creator is an old enemy he believes dead... 

Another pal, Jamais Cascio, has been named a “Top 100 Global Thinker” by Foreign Policy Magazine.

In this new science fiction anthology: WHEN IT CHANGED: 'REAL SCIENCE' SCIENCE FICTION, each piece of fiction is partnered with a note from the scientist whose input inspired it, allowing us a rare glimpse into their world.

==News Updates==

Snippet of interest: More than half of the $923 billion's worth of US currency in circulation is in the possession of foreigners.

As an expedition from Chinese state television worked its way across the remote Tibetan plateau earlier this year, the explorers were amazed by what they found. The plateau has been called the world's third largest ice store after the North and South Poles. Yet according to Chinese scientists, the "third pole" is warming up faster than anywhere else on earth. They brought back a visual lesson in global warming so stark that censors allowed the program makers to broadcast a frank exposé. Their film attracted the attention of the Communist party's leaders and has put climate change at the centre of a remarkably open debate in China. 

From the Transparency Front... or "shades of EARTH"... The IRS is analyzing a trove of information from more than 7,500 taxpayers who voluntarily disclosed their offshore accounts this year to avoid prosecution. To qualify, clients had to disclose everyone who handled their money overseas and everywhere it went. IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said the IRS is hiring 800 people in the next year and increasing staff in eight overseas offices, including Hong Kong. It also will open offices in Beijing, Sydney and Panama City.  

==Science Snippets==

Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense --Evidence for human interference with Earth's climate continues to accumulate

Spiral galaxies seem to feature an odd X-wing shape around their center, odd dust tracks at and angle to the galactic plane, and beforewe can explain them we have to be able to see them: specifically, we need a galaxy that happens to be edge-on from where we are to afford us an end view. Like NGC 4710, recently imaged by the Hubble telescope.

Astronomers have watched the violent death of what was probably the most massive star ever detected. The supernova explosion, which lasted for months, is thought to have generated more than 50 Suns' worth (10E32 kilograms) of different elements.  It also may have revealed the unique Pair Instability mode of supernova collapse.

A new "crystallising block universe" model that combines relativity and quantum mechanics suggests that the past crystallises out of the future, in the instant we call the present.

Petman, a bipedal bot that walks on two legs and can recover from a push (using the same balancing technology that allows BigDog to recover from a kick) has been developed by Boston Dynamics. 

== Plus Some Politically Redolent Items ==

Why China has cornered the market for rare earth elements.  Seems a good reason to start mining asteroids. 

Unbelievable.  Several senators and congressmen actually live on the premises of a weird (and powerful) evangelical Christian cult that preaches that Jesus believed in exceptionalist capitalism, aristocratism and the secret manipulation of power by an elite.

Zombie Reagan Raised From Grave To Lead GOP.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Democrats and Republicans -- two very different kinds of internal party struggle

There seem to be civil wars taking place within both of the major American parties.  At least, that is how internal disputes among republicans, and among democrats, are portrayed in the media -- as bitter tiffs  between political pragmatists and stubbornly intransigent (or else 'principled') idealists of either the far-right or far-left.

Certainly, you do hear some left-leaning democrats accusing President Obama of betraying his promises and beliefs, by accepting anything less than the full suite of liberal health care recommendations, or by continuing to put troops in the Middle-East.  Meanwhile, the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck crashes  down upon any GOP office holder who so much as utters the word "compromise."

So, have we embarked on an era of ever-more bilious partisanship?  Is dogmatism on both left and right all that remains of the once-vaunted American gift for dialogue, courtesy, reciprocal-learning and practical problem solving?  Certainly, one can be excused for picturing this trend -- sometimes called "culture war" -- as a pell-mell rush toward one inevitable conclusion.  The violent and hate-drenched third phase of our ongoing American Civil War.

Each Party Has Its Own Style

We'll get to the fascinating and rather surprising nature of internal conflict between democrats, a little later, leading to something even more astonishing -- what may be a unique and highly strange historical phenomenon. A weird new take on how legislation is now done, under the U.S. Constitution.

 But first, let's talk about the republicans, among whom the popular diagnosis really does appear to be on target. No one can deny that influence within the GOP is measured by a person's fierce adherence to doctrine. And to bitter, uncompromising, partisan wrath.

The results of a poll conducted by "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair magazine and issued Sunday (November 29, 2009) show that, by a wide margin, Americans consider Rush Limbaugh -- who openly prays for the current administration to fail, even at achieving any good for the nation -- to be the nation's most influential conservative voice. The radio host was picked by 26 percent of those who responded, followed by Fox News Channel's equally vociferous Glenn Beck at 11 percent. Top politicians -- former Vice President Dick Cheney and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- were the choice of 10 percent each, neither of them particularly well-known for concession-trading with folks on the other side of the spectrum, or being amenable to agreeable bargaining.

As for those GOP members who now hold actual office, few even figured as blips on the influence poll.  But stalwart partisanship applies to them as well.  Reciting the same talking point phrases -- sometimes within minutes of their issuance over Fox -- these men and women seem content to be interchangeable, seldom making any effort to be distinguishable, in a political sense, from one-another.  When it comes to the republican denizens of the U.S. Capitol, the current style of GOP partisan uniformity has had an odd effect -- of rendering them into doctrinal clones who matter only en masse, never as individuals.

Stunning Party Discipline

Sure, the 40 republicans in the Senate and 200 or so GOP representatives in the House appear to be there.  They inhale and exhale, make speeches and intone "present" during roll calls.  But to what effect?  To a man, they have submitted themselves, almost 100%, to absolute party discipline.

Let's make this situation plain; on the republican side, there is no bargaining, dickering, haggling, persuading, pleading-to-conscience, intercession, arbitration, or mediation -- nor efforts to find common ground of any kind with the majority party, representing more than half of America. They do not seek to come up with incremental steps toward creating new laws, amending old ones or allocating tax dollars  These "delegates" do not serve their constituents or the districts.  They are party men, first and last.

Now lest we simply shrug and accept this as normal, let's recall that American legislators used to be among the least party disciplined in the world, notoriously willing to negotiate as individuals.  Traditionally, the way things used to get done was that you might seek the least-unpalatable portions of the wish-list of the opposing side, and grudgingly let some of those smelly-but-acceptable measures come into being, in exchange for getting some progress on matters that you consider to be really important. It is the "sausage" approach to making law... perhaps inelegant, even ugly, but it's democracy and we did okay with it.

But that sort of behavior is now impossible, at least among republicans.  Even one deviation from party line perfection may be punished, volcanically, on radio and in the blogosphere. Everything is now purely black vs white.  Good vs evil. A complete matter of "sides," with no permissible shades of gray.

History Lesson: How Has This Played Out?

Now, you might imagine that this trait would have differing effects, depending upon whether the party is in the majority, controlling Congress, or in the minority.  Let's see if that was the case.  Take the brief era of 1993-94, when -- for a short time -- newly elected President Bill Clinton also had slim democratic majorities in both chambers.  As economic pundit Russ Daggatt put it:

The 1993 Budget Act, which was designed to eliminate the record budget deficits inherited by Clinton From Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, included an overall increase in taxes and extended the pay-as-you-go budget rules.  It passed without a single Republican vote in Congress by the closest possible margin – by one vote in the House and with Vice President Gore breaking a 50-50 tie in the Senate.   Republicans predicted that the economy would collapse as a result. (Like all predictions based on Supply Side theory -- that one failed diametrically to come true.) Instead, it produced record budget surpluses and the strongest economy in a generation.  But the Democrats paid a price, as they were crushed in the 1994 elections and lost control of Congress.  Unfortunately, the lesson that was learned in Congress was that fiscal responsibility doesn’t pay politically."

In fact, polls showed that it was not the 1993 tax bill, but Hillary Clinton's overly complex attempted Health Care legislation, that helped propel the 1994 rout. Nevertheless, Daggatt's point is taken.  While in the minority, in 93-94, the GOP showed impressive discipline and utter devotion to partisanship, just like today.

One might have expected the Party of No to change its tune, after it gained control of both houses of Congress, in late '94.  After all, Newt Gingrich led that "revolution" with a full agenda of clearly stated goals.

Indeed, it is instructive to recall the one time that Gingrich actally negotiated with Bill Clinton in good faith.  Out of that narrow moment of adult-style bargaining, we got the Welfare Reform Bill, which was without any doubt one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in the last forty years, correcting hundreds of abuses and inefficiencies, effectively getting millions off of the state dole and into job training... followed by real employment. Despite dire predictions by both radicals of left and right, this pragmatic piece of goal-oriented legislation achieved real progress, proof of which is seen in the simple fact that nobody mentions welfare anymore.

Alas, though, Gingich got so much grief from his partisan-dogmatic wing, for even speaking to Clinton, that this kind of thing never happened again. Indeed, apart from a relentless flurry of brinksmanship confrontations with the President (which Clinton always won), republicans on Capitol Hill settled in for the laziest, do-nothing stretch in the history of the Legislative Branch.

Until democrats wrested back control in 2006, the Senate and House spent fewer days in session and considered fewer bills than any comparable period in the last 100 years.  Except for seeking the ever-elusive "smoking gun," to prove that the Clintonites were corrupt, they held almost no investigative hearings. Even bills that might have pushed the conservative agenda languished and were seldom even reported out of committee.

During the long era from 1995 through 2009 -- and especially 2001-7, when they  controlled every branch of government -- there were only three general ways in which the Republican Party consistently used its sweeping power to change conditions in the United States of America. (1) They passed bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.  (2) They then passed more bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.  And (3) they yet again gathered the energy and will to pass bills that cut taxes and granted special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.
Beyond that, despite having the best-disciplined and most potent lock on government since the democrats' Do-Everything Year of 1965... and despite the nation facing major problems, plus a tsunami of outright corruption... the GOP consensus seemed to be to Do-Nothing.

 Never Really Happy in the Majority
My private impression?  Fellows like Tom Delay, John Boehner and James Imhofe never seemed all that happy when they were in the majority.  For one thing, they had to face nagging questions from sincere conservative citizens, demanding: "Well?  We sent you to Washington, and now you have complete power. So legislate!"

They couldn't even blame the darned democrats, since that party almost never practiced lockstep-obstructionism.  Here, again, is Russ Daggatt:

'During the George W. Bush years, his tax cuts and Medicare Part D passed the Senate with less than 60 votes. which meant there was no problem with any democratic fillibuster.'  In fact, Medicare Part D was -- "the largest increase in entitlement spending since the creation of Medicare in the 1960 s with a ten-year cost of almost a trillion dollars.  At least when LBJ created Medicare he also enacted taxes to pay for it.  Bush and Congressional Republicans never even discussed any means of paying for their budget-busting initiatives.  To pull that off, they had to let the pay-as-you-go budget rules lapse."

The point here is that from Nixon to Ford, from Reagan to both Bushes, there was always some way to get democratic votes, when they were needed. Always some who were willing to horse-trade... as when the mega tax cuts of 2001 and 2002 passed without any serious threat of a democratic fillibuster. In that case, one small concession got enough democrats to go along. That was an expiration date on the tax cuts.  The GOP simply assumed that, by 2010, every supply-side dream would have come true and they would thereupon be so popular that they could make the cuts permanent, before they expired.

 (Alas, at risk of repeating, every major Supply Side forecast in history has been disproved.  It is pure voodoo, and our children are deep in debt, as a result. But let's move on.)

 The crucial point is that, when the GOP was in power, the opposition Democratic Party nearly always let things come down to an open, majority vote.  And that had a real downside to GOP leaders like Boehner and Delay.  For it meant they never had a very good excuse to offer conservative constituents, for their near-total inaction on any part of the official GOP agenda... except, of course, doing favors for the rich.

 Happier to be in the minority again
Ever since the GOP became the minority party in both houses, the republican senators and representatives now seem -- in fact -- much more cheerful!  Not only is it easier and more emotionally satisfying to be outraged outsiders, but this has meant that their existence, in either chamber, is simply a matter of standing up, whenever the party whip calls, shouting "Nay!" when ordered to, then perhaps staging an irate public statement before going off for an early weekend.

And yet, whether they are in power, or in the role of Loyal(?) Opposition, one thing stands out as consistent -- republican grumpiness and refusal to negotiate. This uniformity is far more than simply a function of being in the minority.

It is a character trait.

Are The Democrats The Same?

In a word, no.

All right, I'll add a sentence or two.  Popular American humorist Will Rogers used to say "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a democrat."

Everyone knows that the very words "Democratic party discipline" constitute an oxymoron. Any democratic representative has his or her own, weird internal concoction of ideology and pragmatism, local interests and global passions.  If republicans are dogmatically uniform, disciplined and lockstep dedicated to both complaining and to doing nothing...

...then democrats are scattered across the political horizon, flighty, distractible... and each of them frenetically determined to save the world. (And yes, that can have its scary aspects, too.)

That is where the real difference between the parties lies -- in the small but vital matter of personality. And it explains why we have embarked on one of the weirdest epochs in American political and legislative history.

The Result: A Completely New Approach to Legislation in the USA

So what does this mean for the Republic, right now? It means that all actual negotiation over legislation -- such as finance/banking reform or healthcare or passing a military budget, must take place within the Democratic majority caucus... and that caucus must somehow achieve unanimity, before a bill even goes to the floor of either house. Because, given the predictability of lockstep GOP opposition, only with a completely united democratic caucus can there be any chance of passing any bills, at all.

But we've already seen that democrats don't march well together. If republicans click their heels and obey Rush, then democrats are more like a herd of cats. This means that unanimity must be achieved the hard, old fashioned way.  Through persuasion and negotiation, one legislator at a time.

  It means that the Democratic caucus in each house is the locus of deliberation in today's United States.  That is where men and women who are charged with the nation's business do the actual arguing, criticizing, tradeoff-balancing and incremental modification, by which legislation improves (we hope) enough to become law.  It is there that Santa Monica liberals must debate semi-conservative "Blue Dogs" -- sometimes late into the night and across weekends -- struggling to find common ground, combining (we hope) good ideas from the moderate left and the moderate right, shambling, bleary-eyed, toward a consensus that everybody can live with.  That is, everybody who has chosen to participate in negotiation.

No wonder things get so excruciating!   We have sixty senators - with sixty fractious and varied viewpoints - who must come to complete consensus (with some murkiness regarding Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe) in order to get by a Republican filibuster that is now seen as automatic, reflexive, inevitable, and impervious to any effort to placate, mollify or apply reason.  In fact, the GOP senators might as well just go fishing, under the new quasi-Constitutional tenet -- "when the dems are unanimous, it passes.  If not, it doesn't."

Things are similar in the House, only with a teensy amount more slack.

Is that it?  All that blather, just to point out the weirdly obvious?

Well, yes, it's what I'm routinely paid for.

Nevertheless, we now see that the civil wars within the two parties are very different phenomena.  In the GOP, it amounts to the systematic purging of any hint of heresy from central dogma.  Among democrats, today's tiffs between liberals and "blue dogs" constitute something that Americans have almost forgotten the name of -- "deliberation."

Does this grate on liberals? That blue dog semi-conservatives have extra leverage these days, because legislation must be passed unanimously?  (In the real legislature: the Democratic Caucus.)

Sure it does!  The lesson??  Live with it. Learn to accept incremental change. Better yet, recognize that the sane version of conservatism, that the blue dogs represent, does have important and useful things to say.  Moreover, that part of America deserves to be heard.  Especially since the main "conservative" party is lost, down boulevards of delusional catechism that Barry Goldwater denounced as quite mad, before he died.

Indeed, the top liberal agenda right now should be to help more Blue Dogs win in contested districts!  Recruit decent, progressive, if sometimes a bit too-crewcut ex-military men and women to run against the loony culture warriors, everywhere possible.  Help the GOP to continue along in a long, self-chosen path, marginalizing itself into the New Know Nothings, and thus finally put the once-great party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower out of its  terminal illness.

And, if the predictable result is to eventually split the Democratic Party in two?  Into a Liberal party (mostly free of loony lefties) and a Decent-Moderate Conservative/Libertarian Party (free of monstrously crazy neocons)?  Well, it may surprise you to learn that this exact thing happened before, earlier in the life of the republic.

What? You cannot see that as possibly the best of all possible worlds for the nation of Washington and Franklin?  A nation that desperately needs to rediscover the grace and power and effectiveness that arises from the adult practice of reason.

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.