Thursday, January 01, 2009

Suggestion #19: Consider a few CRACKPOT ITEMS

Concluding this series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.)”   I will offer a list of notions that are even more unusual -- some possibly borderline strange -- befitting a guy who earns his living partly from sci fi!

Then I’ll finish with a final suggestion --something that is just plain wise.

---- First Crackpot Item ---

Are you sick of the way the Loony Right keeps dodging and weaving and shifting ground?  They do this in part to dazzle and distract the Decent Conservatives of America from noticing that their hijacked movement is no longer about facts, but two decades of bizarre stories and never-fulfilled predictions. Disprove one and it is always replaced by new stories, new distractions. Examples from a vast bestiary:

- “Supply side gifts and tax breaks for the rich won’t worsen deficits, but will erase them! It will stimulate the economy and lessen social gulfs, rather than widen them!”  (A thirty year experiment, decisively disproved.)

 - “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction... no, that wasn’t our reason for going in, at all!  It was ties to terror! No, it’s nation-building! Did we once call ‘nation-building’ stupid? Us?  Never!”

 - “Just you wait: the Clintons will be proved corrupt traitors and murderers, just as soon as decent republicans control the Justice Department and open all the files! And whenever you prove one allegation false, I’ll hurl others!”
  (Hint: after 14 years, not one Clinton official has ever even been indicted for a single crime-of office. Not one. Ever.)

I could go on, ad infinitum, and most of you are already familiar with this tidal wave of nonsense.  But the key point here is not to indict the Right for being wrong a lot! The public has already awakened to that fact.  Rather, it is to express awe toward the neocon spinmeisters, who can veer and gyre with stunning agility, spewing story after story to keep their base in a culture-war rage, without ever proving even one of their tales.

Hence, my first crackpot suggestion:

Make wagers!  I have experimented with this method and it really does work.  Every time my gopper pals come up with yet another story -- about Obama’s nefarious background or his plans to confiscate all private firearms -- I dare them to lay money on the line.  To back their certainty and bluster with guts and cash!

“If you’re so certain about this,” I demand, “then give me odds!  It should be easy money for you.”

Watch how fast they backpedal!  Oh, how I wish I had done this over their supply side predictions, their UN “black helicopters”, their Vince Foster inanities, and so many other fabulations.  Make it a matter of both currency and courage!  Demand that they back up their slanders and fictions, like men.  Or else, calm down and earn some credibility, for a change.  (Again, I have found this really does work.  I’ve not only forced friends to take some deep breaths and back off... but also made some nice wads of cash, when they foolishly agreed!)

(Added note: every time I hear someone yatter nonsense about doomsday in the year 2012, I demand a bet!  You should too!  Think about how it’s a total win-win!)

---- A related matter: take credit! ---

     The most agile thing the democrats could do is to make explicit that free enterprise works better when they rule. In fact, everything conservatives should want does better, including reduced premarital sex, STDs, domestic violence and even abortion.

So?  Time to get aggressive. Attack the right’s rationalizations and fictions.  For example, under Jimmy Carter, capital gains taxes went from 49% to 24%, far more of a tax cut than under Reagan. Carter did more and far better deregulations of unwarranted government meddling in markets, even while adding much-needed government efforts in energy, that would have borne fruit by now, if Reagan hadn’t gelded them.  Just one Carter reform, allowing pensions to invest 10% in Venture funds, is credited with stimulating the Silicon Valley boom that gave us the prosperous nineties. (Note my special trick here. Every criterion I have chosen is one that conservatives supposedly care about! In fact, liberals and moderates should always do this - point out that conservative Americans should despise conservative leaders and the GOP and prefer the democrats... entirely in conservative terms!)

Above all, pound home the correlations that can no longer be denied.  Except under Eisenhower, and a couple of years of Reagan, things generally go far worse under republican rule than when dems are in charge.  Fight “stories” with facts..

----- Launch a peace and love offensive aimed at Tehran. ---

     Think Nixon-to-China.  The Iranian people are ready.  At least the students and urban folk are, plus several million expatriates. All intelligence info and polls show that they are sick and tired of the mullahs and only Condi Rice’s incessant saber rattling has sufficed to drive them into the arms of the islamists time and again.  In fact, nothing terrifies the mullahs more than an American charm offensive... starting with the one thing that the Iranians have demanded since 1979 -- an apology for the Shah.  (What would it cost us?)

Timed and phrased right, this can be done without sacrificing US honor or prestige... and might even help the moderate, Khatami, get back into power. And if we’re snubbed?  It will hurt us HOW, to be seen earnestly trying for friendship?

 Only remember who you’ll cross if you do this!  Not only the mullahs, but the Saudis, as well.  The reason they ordered Condi’s saber-rattling is clear.  Fear of a restored friendship between America and Iran.

------  States rights. ---

 Why didn’t even one democrat raise this issue?  When every republican effort in this century seemed aimed at concentrating power in an imperial presidency?   Oh, meanwhile, collect all the Cheney-isms about how the Presidency is answerable to nobody, and hurl them in the neocons’ faces.  Without, that is, actually using their awful rationalizations.

And now, just to prove that I’m not biased in favor of the (fictitious) “left”... here’s a far more “rightward” (but reasonable) crackpot item from my 2006 “Suggestions to Congress" article.  

--- Steal and co-opt the "good parts" of gingrich's  "Contract With America" ----

    Wait! Don't leave! Please stop and think about it. What deed could possibly embarrass the GOP more than pointing out half a dozen solemn promises from the "contract" that Republicans betrayed?  Here are the “good parts” of that Contract that the GOP never kept..

- requiring all laws that apply to the country also apply to Congress;
 - arranging for regular audits of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;
 - limiting terms of committee chairs and party leadership posts;
 - banning the proxy votes in committee and law-writing by lobbyists;
 - requiring committee meetings to be open & public;
 - guaranteeing honest accounting of our Federal Budget.

Really, who could object to these items? Indeed, what could be a more powerful blow to the GOP than to remind Americans of these broken promises... and then for Democrats to fulfill them at long last? (While mocking the “bad” parts of the Contract, that were fulfilled.)

Indeed, just the right olive branches may lure the “decent conservatives” out there to finally perform their own “miracle of 1947” and cut off their unholy alliance with kleptos and troglodytes.  It seems worth a gesture or two!

---- Do something about the prisons ----

   Now, veering “left” again... (actually, staying “sensible”), let’s fix the absurd fact that the USA has by far the highest percentage of its population behind bars.  Far more that Cuba or China or Russia.  Of course this is related to the absurd Drug War and so, finding some reasonable “medical” solution to personal drug use would seem to make sense.  One example: perhaps half of our prisoners might better be declared semi-competent wards of the state who must check in weekly to clinics, while living at home and working -- or possibly getting clean at voluntary conservation camps -- rather than costing us millions to incarcerate.  I don’t have any perfect answer.  But, what we’re doing is wrong.

--- Initiate a discussion about the future of capitalism. 

    Among possible reform topics that would not disrupt our creative markets, but possibly prod them back toward sanity:

- Does the present “C Corporation” - an immortal entity with most of the rights of a human being, but very few of the responsibilities - need some tweaking or revision? So that “success” is rewarded across decades, and not by maximizing stock price peaks for insider sales? Or so that the minimal conscience of a normal person can be expected or demanded?  See also the concept of the “B Corporation.”

 - Revise “corporate democracy” to reward involved, long-term stockholders and limit the power of passive proxies.  Consider a transaction tax to limit volatility and to control a “churn-hungry” financial caste.

 - Sharply limit the recent abuse of interlocking corporate directorates, with a narrow CEO clan of golf buddies voting each other vast compensation packages in the most outrageous racket ever seen.  (Think about it. If CEO compensation truly were “competitive,” then these high salaries would have -- by natural capitalist incentive -- drawn fresh supplies of managerial talent toward the field! Till the price of good managers fell back down again. That’s something called -- capitalism. In other words, every excuse for these “incentive packages” boils down to anti-market hypocrisy.)

 - Ban the undergraduate business major?  I am only partly joking or exaggerating about this one.  We have been very badly served by an “MBA caste” made up of people who think that the purpose of companies is to give them papers and money and people to shuffle around, while charging commission on each shuffle.  Hypocrites on the right think this is solely a crime of government, but it is in the corporate world that locust swarms of bureaucrats have taken over, thinking they are geniuses because they vote each other bonuses.  Would it hurt for every member of the managerial caste to have at least once been required to make a product or deliver an actual service, so they might remember what market capitalism is supposedly for?

---- Let’s finally find out who owns what!  ----

    I’ve mentioned this before, but it seems crucial.  Instead of seeking to raise taxes or more socialist interventions, we should respond to the recent kleptocratic raid by demanding that the present laws, taxes and markets be allowed to work!  And one thing would help above all, revealing who owns what and where all the money is.”

The only people who ought to fear this are crooks and tax evaders. Moreover, the billions that could be reclaimed from them might not only erase deficits but even let tax rates fall, for honest men and women.  It is called transparency, economists (even right wing ones like Hayek) know it is the fundamental element needed for markets to function, and it could be radically better than it is.  And if transparency becomes radically better, ironically, it could stave off many forms of radicalism.  (Conservatives who oppose this, again, are the most fragrant hypocrites.)

Oh, while we’re at it... at long last, call in the greenback!  Every other major country has replaced its currency by now, with important positive effects for honest taxpayers.  The rationalizations being offered by opponents - who claim the greenback is forever special, different, and sacred - are getting ridiculous and awfully long in the tooth.

---- Create a whistleblowers/predictions registry!----

    The intelligence communities, the economic bureaucrats, the professionals of all stripes, keep promising that they are on top of things.  That they can anticipate what’s coming.  But every year, we hear of people who were right in the past, yet ignored.  In the 1980s, one fellow forecast the S&L crisis.  Did he rise in influence after?  In the 1990s, another warned repeatedly that Orange County would go bust.  What about those who said Saddam would invade Kuwait in 91? Or that there were no WMDs in 2002?  Or take this example:

His repeated warnings that Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff was running a giant Ponzi scheme have cast Harry Markopolos as an unheeded prophet.

But people who know or worked with Markopolos say it wasn't prescience that helped him foresee the collapse of Madoff's alleged $50 billion fraud. Instead, they say diligence and a strong moral sense drove his quixotic, nine-year quest to alert regulators about Madoff.  Markopolos waged a remarkable battle to uncover fraud at Madoff's operation, sounding the alarm back in 1999 and continuing with his warnings all through this decade. The government never acted, Madoff continued his ways, and people lost billions.

Some modest strides toward prognostication-accountability are coming, through the new field of prediction markets.  Some intelligence agencies are making timid steps. But this is an area we simply have to get far better-at, and fast!  This isn’t the place for details, but I raise some intriguing possibilities elsewhere.

--- Let’s talk about Privatized Force... ---

   Blackwater in Iraq is just the tip of the iceberg.  More and more, aspects of security, and even justice, are being diverted into secretive and unaccountable private hands. sometimes featuring terrible abuses, as happened during Hurricane Katrina.  This is an ancient pattern going back to before history began, and we re enter the Mercenary Era at great risk.

Even if we put aside moral implications, there are historical dangers: Mercenaries inherently do not want to solve problems completely, but rather to maintain ferment as a source of demand for lucrative services. Quiet-calm-efficient means of achieving national goals get replaced by noisy-frenetic-inefficient ones that offer opportunities for parasitism. The power of prison guard unions illustrates what can happen when this becomes a full-scale political constituency.

--- ...and the privatized sky ---

    Anyway, the rich are already abandoning us to our fates, in the deteriorating airports and airlines, fleeing from First Class into charters and corporate jets, avoiding all the frisking and hassles.  I’ve spoken of this before.  When the elites abandon a mode of transportation (e.g. railroads in the 1950s) it starts to die.  And the gulf between the mighty and the Little People widens.  (For more on this see David Rothkopf’s book SUPERCLASS.  And see if anybody would deny that free enterprise faces just as much danger from an ancient human tendency, even older and more dangerous than socialism.

--- Stop letting taxpayer subsidized companies “shout” into space ---

     All right, this one is going to sound super-crackpot.  But as we speak, a private company, the Deep Space Communications Network, in Florida, is engaged in the routine practice of using dishes that were paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, to assist in NASA missions, to transmit commercial stunt messages -- for everything from snack food companies to Craigs List -- into outer space.  Supposedly to sell music videos and garage sale items to aliens.  Sure, it sounds harmless enough, and it might be!  But that’s the problem, we just don’t know.

See an evaluation of the cult phenomenon called METI or “Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Shouting to the Cosmos.”

What’s offensive isn’t that these messages are likely to bring alien invasion or death. (It doesn’t seem likely.) But that it is being done without a scintilla of open discussion in the scientific community, or the slightest consideration by government, which is, after all, supposed to be looking out for even unlikely dangers, and giving them whatever study they deserve.

In fact, this is part of a very general problem.  We have no idea why humans seem to be alone in the cosmos.  But it may imply the universe is dangerous, with many ways for intelligent species to fail -- ways that go beyond nuclear war, bio-terror and climate change (the perils that seem right in front of our faces.)  I suppose what I am saying is that at least a little effort should be given to appraising, cataloguing and rating a list of things that might go wrong, like they try to do over at the Lifeboat Foundation.  After all, isn’t that supposed to be one of government’s jobs?

And if that notion seems too crackpot, the other one is (unfortunately) all to down to Earth and real.

See more articles on SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

--- Look into the radicalization of the Military Academies --

   Hardly any attention has been paid to a potentially disturbing issue.  Indeed, all I have to go on is anecdotes from a few high-placed sources.  Nevertheless, there is strong reason to believe that a hundred or so extremist members of Congress  -- the sort who are only in office because of district-level radicalism that is propelled by geerymandering (see#18) -- have been using their appointment privilege to wage Culture War against the United States of America, by appointing cadets to several of the elite U.S. service academies, based not upon intellect or other relevant qualifications, but based primarily upon adherence to severely dogmatic creeds.

Judging by anecdotes and appearances, the problem is worst at the Air Force Academy and has been resisted stiffly by the US Navy.  Frankly, I cannot say that this phenomenon has crested to dangerous levels, though harrassment of non evangelical cadets has been scandalous at Colorado Springs.  But I do believe that the new administration should assign some people to look into it. Procedures may need changing. Certainly, all religion-based intimidation has got to stop.

Go ahead and search.  You’ll not find anyone who spoke up earlier to defend the United States Officer Corps against the abuse and suffering that was inflicted by Bush and his minions upon these brave and dedicated and extremely brainy men and women.  There are ways in which they have -- often discreetly and quietly -- stood up for us all against enemies both foreigh and domestic -- the latter requiring care and tact and precise judgment.  Now is not the time to allow fanatics to conspire a change in the fundamental character of this crucial American clade.  And Democrats, above-all, need to wake up to this fact.

 We have been well-served by an Officer Corps that is elite, professional, intellectually impressive and dedicated, above all else, to the Constitution

All right.  That’s a lengthy enough list of “crackpot items.”  Any one of which might make it easy for clusters of folk to dismiss me as a kook.  Which is a pity.  Because that makes them far too closeminded!  Fortunately, this is the first civilization to recognize that The Wide Perspective is a gift ;-)  And when you think wide and deep, it means challenging assumptions.  In other words, I’d be a failure at my job and craft, if some fraction of my ideas did not sound... well... strange.

Note:  The next posting will be my last in this series.  And it will also be well into a new year -- when I have vowed to deeply REDUCE the blogging!  After this, I will try to limit myself to maybe two postings per month.  (Except for quickie news flashes.)  In fact, those who really care or admire me at all will help me keep to this promise!!   But last suggestion.

Or: Return to the Beginning of the series


David Brin said...

Would anybody out there be willing to help do the legwork and drudgery of cross-posting a lot of these, topic by topic, on the Obama transition site?

Here's the instructions one of you suggested... site
select 'agenda' from the top menu-
select an appropriate area from the popup display (your guess is as good as mine as to which one is appropriate to IGUS!)-
To the right of the feelgood waffle, there's a box saying 'submit your ideas'- fill in the form.

I wish I could do it, but I have a new year's resolution to keep!

ThoughtCriminal said...

Betting with right-wingers. One thing that you can count on is that they will seldom if ever accept any contrary facts as proof that they are wrong. Example: A few unexploded chemical warheads lost in the Iran/Iraq battlefield from the early 1980's is "Proof that Saddam had WMDs" for them. A good example of how right-wingers handle bets like this was Boone Pickens offer to pay $1 million to anyone who could disprove any of the "Swift Boat" allegations about Kerry. As soon as Pickens was challenged, he began playing "Calvin Ball" and changing the terms of the bet.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin, I'm glad you've finally mentioned the travesty of the Drug War for what it is and called for its speedy termination. But what the hell are you thinking with this idea of declaring us (I'm one of the millions of Americans who make the rational choice to use cannabis instead of alcohol recreationally) 'semi-competent'? This is a recipe to put all users of unapproved drugs in concentration camps, replacing one crime against humanity with another. Drugs are tools, nothing more, and can be used responsibly or carelessly. Education is the answer to help keep people from using them improperly.

We need a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing all adult sentient beings the ultimate control of their bodies. This would not only end the stupidity of Prohibition once and for all, but would also enshrine the right to terminate a pregnancy or one's own life into the Supreme Law of the Land. It is no one else's business what I put in or do with my body.

Matt DeBlass said...

Your "crackpot" ideas probably make more sense than a lot of the "rational" ones that have showed up in actual government.
I don't know much about the whole METI thing, but aren't we more or less leaking a constant flood of radio waves into space already just by going about our daily business?
I suppose the METI broadcasts might be more directional, but really, what's the point? It doesn't bother me, the taxpayer, as much from the point of view of attracting potentially hostile attention as being a redundant wast of resources.
Correct me if I'm wrong (journalist, not scientists here) but it seems to me if someone's listening, they're gonna hear us anyway.

As for our justice system... it is definitely not working. Too many resources tied up in it with too little result. I think the whole prison system is based on a Puritan-era ideal that if you are given enough time to quietly contemplate what you did wrong you'll realize the error of your ways. While this is very effective on misbehaving children, it doesn't seem to do much for drug dealers and car thieves.

There are some people who just aren't safe out on the streets, ever. But, there are a lot of other minor violators who would probably be better reformed/punished/useful to society doing some kind of productive work rather than just locked up for a few years.

Today's verification word: "press" as in "Matt, get off the computer and get dressed for work, them newspapers don't write themselves."

Larry C. Lyons said...

I'd like to make an addition to your crackpot item list. Require the water intake for factories to be immediately downstream from their water outlets. It would strongly encourage the owners to clean up their water discharges fairly quickly.

I wish I could take credit for it, but its based on a suggestion from a short story by Robert A. Heinlein.

regardless I hope you and yours have a happy new year.


Max Kaehn said...

My crackpot idea for dealing with Iran is to go chumming for freedom: put together an Ubuntu distro (and make sure that a team of Farsi-proficient linguists have been over the whole thing to get the internationalization right) preloaded with all the open-source tools you need to bypass Iranian network restrictions and set up mesh networking, load it up onto a few hundred thousand cheap netbooks, and contrive to “lose” them onto the Iranian black market. There are already plenty of Iranian bloggers craving freedom; just give more of their citizens a taste of it, and meanwhile run that charm offensive so they feel safe in demanding more from their government without worrying about the USA coming after them.

Fake_William_Shatner said...

Correctly, Dr. Brin has pointed out that he has suggested "Crackpot ideas." This doesn't mean that they don't make sense, or would have a great benefit to society, or be well within our means to implement.

A "Crackpot idea" is anything that has not played on the media, to at least 3 news cycles, and been bandied about as "reasonable" by people in nicer suits than you can afford.

A reasonable idea, was that the Iraq war must go through, before it's too late. Because a country that had its military dismantled for about a decade, and had less offensive capability than Granada, was a serious threat to the USA.

Reasonable people projected this would take 2 weeks, and cost a few Billion $.

Reasonable people on TV, told us that drilling in ANWR was going to solve the oil problem -- unreasonable people, who pointed out that we have less than 3% of the worlds reserves if we drilled every square foot of land, that it would only mean a reduction in output from other countries and would not effect price with a world market, and that much of our oil was being exported were swept aside as the crackpots they are.

I could go on and on with this issue. But you really have to have a track record of at least 90% wrong predictions, and to have at least two or three good conflicts of interest to be considered even remotely reasonable.

Henry Kissenger, had to have two failed wars and war crimes in Chile under his belt, to be considered as one of America's great Authorities on diplomacy. I don't think we'd even want to exchange fruit cake with David Brin if he were an authority.

If he were to submit the "Uplift Wars" as a proposal for threats to the earth, then that might help to get his body of work up to snuff for starting his life as a media pundit.

Anonymous said...

David wrote:

"(Conservatives who oppose this, again, are the most fragrant hypocrites.)"

Fragrant, as in reeking.