Saturday, January 30, 2021

Go asteroids, young folks... but also good luck Perseverance!

Amid all the fights to save civilization and the planet - and my own busiest time (professionally) ever - we could do to pause now and then and remember... we are still a magnificent, scientific and exploratory civilization! Before girding ourselves for those 'minutes of terror" as we root for the aptly named Perseverance rover to land safely on Mars, there are other reasons for confident satisfaction.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu appears to have succeeded at collecting samples even better than expected, having penetrated as much as half a meter into the carbonaceous regolith and jammed itself full of material... even causing a minor problem, forcing scientists to stow the sampler into its return capsule early. Now, if the competence continues, we can keep doing stuff out where the riches are. And that is NOT the dusty, almost (for now) useless tourist trap called the Moon. (Leave that sandbox to the kiddies, please.) 

And while we’re talking asteroids…

From The Planetary Society: " Hayabusa2’s samples from asteroid Ryugu will return to Earth on 6 December 2020, Japan’s space agency announced. The samples will land in southern Australia at the same military complex where the first Hayabusa spacecraft sent samples from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa2 itself will pass within 200 kilometers of Earth and fly on to visit another asteroid. Pictured: Hayabusa2 snapped this picture of Ryugu after collecting 1 of 2 samples in 2019. Hayabusa2's shadow can be seen, along with a dark splotch where the spacecraft's thrusters blew away lighter materials on Ryugu's surface." 

THIS is what only Japan and the U.S. (with ESA) can do and we should be doing, while all the Apollo wannabe eager tourists rush to the dusty-useless lunar plain to plant footprints. (I got no problems renting them hotel rooms and landers and sending down robots to do science.) Asteroids are where quadrillions of dollars in wealth lie.

Meanwhile, plans develop for a 2022 launch of a robotic mission to 16-Psyche... (Psyche was made infamous on the show EXPANSE) … which is thought to be the metal core of a planet that died in collisions that formed the asteroid belt.  Metal that – if crudely totaled by today’s prices (omitting market crashing discounts) would be worth $10 Quadrillions at today’s markets. 

== There’s a Place for Us? ==

Are underground lava tubes the way of the future for colonization in Mars and the Moon? With lower gravity and less quake activity, it's estimated some may be cavernous enough to hold whole cities, offering protection from meteorites, cosmic rays and sections that can be sealed against vacuum. Not mentioned: these realms may be easier to clean vs the moon's jagged regolith dust and the caustic perchlorates of Mars. Those that are near ice deposits could be highly valuable. So who is ahead in the race to these sites?

We are, at NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC)! We've issued a Phase III study that should lead to a lander-bot that creeps to the edge of a "skylight" opening in such a tube, perhaps within a few years.

Now researchers estimate that Martian and lunar tubes are respectively 100 and 1,000 times wider than those on Earth, which typically have a diameter of 10 to 30 meters. Lower gravity and its effect on volcanism explain these outstanding dimensions (with total volumes exceeding 1 billion cubic meters on the Moon). “Tubes as wide as these can be longer than 40 kilometers, making the Moon an extraordinary target for subsurface exploration and potential settlement in the wide protected and stable environments of lava tubes.”  Further: “Lava tubes could provide stable shields from cosmic and solar radiation and micrometeorite impacts which are often happening on the surfaces of planetary bodies. Moreover, they have great potential for providing an environment in which temperatures do not vary from day- to night-time.” Reminiscent of life in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

And now more news how the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon are considerably larger than here on Earth. Enough so future settlements or research outposts could be safely nestled away inside. Certainly any such tubes that are also near Martian sub-surface ice formations or adjacent to Lunar Polar ice deposits would be sweet spots and among the most valuable sites in the Solar System.  

Then there’s Venus, a broiling, high pressure hell, down at the ground level. But my colleague Geoff Landis and others have speculated about a shell-level of the dense atmosphere where temperature and pressure (though not gas mixture) could be pleasant to Earth-type life, encouraging thoughts of balloon beings or steam-punk dirigibles and colonists getting about needing only face masks… AND NOW a stunning discovery of spectral signs of Phosphine gas - a molecule made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms - which on Earth is pretty much always (outie of certain factories) a sign of life!

Also underground!  One of our Mars orbiters used radar to detect several of what seem likely to be lakes of hyper-saline perchlorate brines, “known to form at Martian polar regions and shown to survive for geologically significant periods of time at temperatures well below the freezing point.”  Unhealthy stuff for any of us, but definitely plausible refuges for Martian life. If so, we can likely co-exist in careful colonies there, because ain’t no Earth-bugs gonna live in that stuff.

New research challenges the “warm and wet ancient Mars” hypothesis, which posits that Mars was once covered in massive river systems, fed by rain and large oceans of liquid water. Instead the “river tracks” we now see may have formed under sheets of ice. 

== Planets out there? ==

UC Riverside astrobiologist Stephen Kane crunched the data and found that some stars could potentially host as many as seven Earth-like planets, so long as they don't have a Jupiter to screw things up. Already the Trappist-1 system is home to several Earth-like planets located in the star's habitable zone where liquid water could exist. Is that beginning to sound like the “Verse” system of copious colonized worlds in Firefly/Serenity?

95 newly discovered brown dwarf sub-stellar ‘planets” have been found by a smart mob of 100,000 amateurs. The finds are vastly colder than other known brown dwarfs — and are likely cool enough to have water-rich clouds like we do here on Earth. It’s not yet clear whether that’s important from an astrobiological perspective, but it does help scientists better understand these bizarre worlds.

== NASA & Space Tech ==

In a much-criticized tweet, US president (now former) Donald Trump claimed that “NASA was Closed & Dead [sic] until I got it going again.” The categorically false claim drew widespread ire from the space exploration community - NASA never “closed” and it was never dead. “In a searing reply on Twitter, veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly also entered the fray: “Great leaders take blame and pass along credit.”

The notion that the present miracle of commercial space development cannot be credited to 8 years of Obama administration efforts to goose and stimulate it is insane. Moreover, I am on record denouncing the loony notion that the US should focus on returning American footprints to the dusty and (for now) useless moon, rather than joining Japan heading where the real wealth is, in asteroids. And yet – 

-- and yet, I do feel that NASA Director Bridenstine - a Trump appointee - has been surprisingly sensible, curious and willing to listen and learn. In fact, I nominate him as one of the few GOP officials who might serve as holdover gestures to bipartisanship.

The Blue Origin-led Human Landing System (HLS) National Team just delivered to NASA a full-scale prototype of a lander that could one day carry American astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Terrific, but not in the way meant here. As you know, I oppose any frantic effort to return US astronauts to that dusty, useless, nasty plain. Yes to robots! And yes HUMANITY will return there soon, since China, India, Russia and the rest are eager for their rite of passage “Bar Moonzvahs.” Tourism will be the economic driver and US companies should prepare to cater to it! Make money on landers for tourists, yeah! But NASA should lift its gaze to do (with Japan and Europe) things that others can’t do.

And finally....

As you’d expect, I love these new, improved images of the granular photosphere of the Sun

Finally… One of the better recent SMBC comics.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Science fiction! – and related projects that affect the world

Did you step out to view Mars during "opposition"? When it's both closest to Earth and fully illuminated at midnight? To prepare... listen to a free audio version of my story "Mars Opposition!" (found in Insistence of Vision.) A creepy tale of the weirdest invasion-of-Earth, ever! With perhaps a powerful message for our time. Then go out tonight and stare up in restored wonder.

Wasn't that conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter amazing?

And yes, this bog posting is a chance - (Post Inauguration!) - to catch up on news I've stored up for better days. And so, taking a brief break to look up from our current crises at vistas of science fiction! Though while we're on science fiction, I'll repeat one politically pertinent link to a passage by Robert Heinlein, who spent most of his life active as a Roosevelt Democrat. The highlighted paragraphs here will knock your socks off with his concern and prescience. Use them and certain solipsists we know will stammer into silence.        

== News and more from the future! ==

In case you missed these: the Hugo Award winners for 2020, including A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine for Best Novel, and This Is How You Lose the Time War,  by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone for Best Novella, Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemison for Best Novelette, LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor for Best Graphic Story ... and many other fine choices representing the best of science fiction and fantasy for the year.

TIME Magazine recently listed “Eight books that eerily predicted the future.” And Mental Floss lists nine. Can you guess what book is the only one on both lists? Yes, it's EARTH, though each list chose it for different reasons! But I’m glad to be listed with some awesome peers in the craft of peering ahead.

One of the oldest notions in fantasy is a hero’s confrontation with the supernatural. Humans are forever pondering some way to change the hand they’re dealt. From Gilgamesh and Odysseus to Faust and Daniel Webster, fascinating characters have tried arguing with fate or divine will… or the Devil.  And hence, in the genre of “debating the devil.” My just-released playThe Escape: A Confrontation in Four Scenes”  takes a hyper-modernist and rather science-fictional take on that theme, ready to share some fun with you, along with fresh takes on Genesis and Babel, destiny and randomness, reshuffling the deck and challenging the Grand Order of Things. 

(Groups volunteering to do Zoom table readings are welcome!)

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert put out an amusing parody spoof: You owe Kevin Costner an apology for The Postman! Choice! But then... what am I, chopped liver? 

Hey, Stephen, I thought you were a sci-fi nerd!  Particularly relevant today... as we see would-be Holnist coup-attempts against America. It started last year with our oldest institution, the USPS. 

Coincidentally, I've just re-released a new and revised version of The Postman - in ebook and POD formats, with a fantastic new cover by Patrick Farley. (Actually your choice of TWO different spectacular covers!) And for teachers or book clubs... a discussion guide is available on my website.  

== Assertively looking ahead! ==

The Lifeboat Foundation has teamed its recipient of the Guardian Award for engagement in efforts to reduce humanity's Existential Risk -- or danger of self-inflicted extinction. "The 2020 Guardian Award has been given to David Brin in recognition of his long-term interest in existential risks. Um, well, gosh. Thanks. Though if there was ever a 'generous' activity that came tinged with self-interest....

Staying pertinent....  How can we aggressively change memes so our citizens think more long term? I'm sure some of you are aware of Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation, building the Clock of the Long Now. One cute aspect, they put a zero in front of all dates! So this year is ... 02021 ... (Kinda cool looking? Though it made 02020 creepy.)  If we all did that, it might help spread a sense that we are ancestors with obligation to a palpable, if yet-unborn, future.

Of course the notion of time as a river with many currents and eddies is an ancient one. It inspired my own artistic extrapolation in my very first nominated short story "The River of Time," here in the eponymous collection.

In their latest near-future Washington thriller - Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution - P.W. Singer and August Cole – authors of the novel most-read by military officers everywhere: Ghost Fleet) – return with a fast-paced adventure exploring a near-future when robotics and AI both empower creative citizenship and amplify the destructive ability of terrorists.

In Existence I have scenes about how the most advanced AIs and robots may need to have childhoods. After all, that is how we humans did it, with extended neoteny. Now go enjoy a sweet story about fostering a robot child, by Tobian Bucknell.

== Sci Fi on TV ==

It won't be easy. It will take a lot of imagination and smarts to make Asimov’s Foundation into a TV series folks can follow. I wish them luck. 
Making Gaal Dornick female was a very very easy move. They'll need added sub plots to provide any action. Bear in mind that Benford's book and Bear's take place before the first novel - Foundation - and my own novel (Foundation's Triumph), which ties up all of Isaac's loose ends, takes place just after the exile to Terminus. Hari's last and greatest adventure.  

Immodestly, I assert I am likely a top expert on that universe and the show runners might want to chat?

Alas, this slur-attack on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series is an unsapient grunt, though typical of today’s much-declined National Review, which has William F. Buckley spinning so fast that Connecticut draws half of its power from his grave, fueled by the sustainable, never ending resource of idiocy.  

Still it reminds me of my own essay about Foundation, Robots and the argument that Isaac had with himself, decade after decade, first with the statistical "gas law" approach of psychohistory, then the human oligarchy of the 2nd Foundation, then the governance-by-sterile-eunuch robots model - which made the Galactic Empire not "roman" but more "Chinese"!  And finally Gaia-Galaxia. … And why things could not stop there. They just had to come full circle.

== Other sci fi miscellany! ==

You can watch the first episode of Marc Zicree's Space Command - featuring such wonderful actors as Nichelle Nichols, Robert Picardo, and Bill Mumy.

Tom Cruise is reportedly trying to film an action movie in space. Deadline reports that Cruise has partnered with SpaceX to make it happen. If it comes to fruition, the untitled project would be the first narrative feature film to be filmed in space.”

A U.S. Naval Academy instructor and part-time sci fi author appraises the most recent space battle that concluded season one of PICARD. Fun to see how future oriented the officer corps has become. (After all, I've repeatedly been welcomed to give talks and courses at the US Naval Postgraduate School.) 

And finally... 

Wow, shades of my “North American Church of Gaia !  (From EARTH.) A proposed non-religious systems of faith and rituals for lovers of the world.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

World: please celebrate for us! (But not Vlad.)

Many factors are at work in the drama that’s unfolding this week, and maybe the least important player is a whining toddler who will rant at at Joint Base Andrews, Wednesday morning, screaming for attention after running around the White House prying the letter “J” off keyboards and leaving doobies in the ventilation ducts. There will be worse.* And just-in-case, I’ve urged that Biden, Harris and Pelosi keep distant (social and precautionary) from each other, while offering us all words of hope that America is back, baby.

Three groups will matter a lot, now and for weeks to come: foreign friends, foreign and domestic enemies… and nerds. I’ll get to Vladimir Putin and his fear of renewed western skill, in a bit. but first, here’s a call for our friends around the world to celebrate for us.

== Dancing in the Streets ==

To our allies around the world and to all friends of freedom, enlightenment, science and progress -- please turn out, the Wednesday.  Our domestic, home-grown enemies of progress -- many of them dear neighbors lured into furious madness by Fox/Sinclair/Goebbels liars, far more than by that pathetic toddler -- have triggered immune response by our protective services, locking down the American Capital and other cities when Joe Biden takes the oath of office, even more than we're compelled by a Trump-amplified pandemic.  

As  a result, Americans won't be pouring into the streets to celebrate nearly as much as we want to. But YOU, our allies in wanting an enlightened, forward-looking, fact-seeing and decently-just world, YOU can celebrate for us!

We ask that you fill your most famous streets with flags and balloons and signs that congratulate not just Joe Biden but all of us, including you fellow members of the Great Enlightenment Experiment!  Oh, stay safely masked and distanced! But please, make a good show of welcoming America back.

Because we need encouragement, right now! It truly would help Joe & Kamala, a lot. And also because, well, a dynamic and forward-looking, scientific-creative and generous USA is still necessary, if we want a civilization worthy of the stars. 

Certainly our enemies think so, given how hard they have striven to bring us down. Which brings us to...

== I wouldn’t be in Vlad’s shoes ==

I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am wrong. But given the nearly 100% perfect record of Trumpian Republicans betraying the West and giving the Kremlin everything is wants (offer me large wager stakes on that: I will own your house), tearing down our sciences and alliances, weakening US entrepreneurship, waging war against all fact-using professions and instigating civil war, I have to worry whether the quarter million men and women in our security and intel agencies are even ready to teach Vladimir Putin that it’s time to back off.

1. For four years the top political-appointee slots atop those agencies have been people of at-best questionable qualification or loyalty. I have no doubt that skilled professionals isolated/cauterized the worst of them. But it is quite possible that an evisceration or rot-from-above has plunged deep into the ranks of those whose skill and professionalism won the Cold War and the War on terror, while treasonous, Sinclair agitprop demoralized them with slanders like “deep state.”

2. Putin is desperately getting in final licks. Yesterday he pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty that Trump formally exited a couple of months ago.  I expected (and obviously so did Vlad) that Biden would rejoin almost instantly (along with the Paris Accords on climate) since the Open Skies Treaty VASTLY favored Europe and the West and Putin long chafed over allowing NATO planes to crisscross Russia. Giving Putin an excuse to quick-exit that treaty - and the Intermediate Forces Agreement and others - was among the countless favors performed for him by the Kremlin’s White House agent. 

ALAS, not a single news report (that I’ve seen) has looked at this matter of timing. But watch. Don’t be distracted by Trump’s sudden tsunami of pardons! Vlad will do as many last-minute sabotages as Trump, these last few days.

3. On the other hand, Vlad’s got to be nervous. Surely some corner of our ‘deep state’ has been un-suborned, preparing options to offer the new president. Ways to - in some measured degree - at least smack the relabeled (but almost identical in staff, goals and methods) Soviet KGB across the snoot and say “back off!”  Oh, how wonderful - for example - if the Russian people were suddenly to see how much of their nation is now owned by “ex” Soviet commissars, now relabeled as billionaire oligarch mafia dons.

Okay. Revenge doesn’t interest the mature… and we count on Joe to be mature and judicious. So I expect to be frustrated and angry at his levels of restraint! Because… well… I am not ‘mature.’

4. I’ve spoken relentlessly about what simply has to be the elephant in the room, in DC. What I expect will be revealed as a mountain of blackmail.  We all saw in the recent Borat movie how trivially easy it is to lure many males into kompromat traps, and Russian spy services are much more adept at it than Sacha Baron Cohen. They have been doing it since the 1800s.  Elsewhere I warn those newly arriving in DC to be wary! 

If I’m right, then no event would so dramatically reverse our current troubles than a tidal wave of light. Some of the most blatant examples, for whom there is no other conceivable explanation than blackmail - Graham, Cruz, Rubio, Collins and Anthony Kennedy - could at any moment turn their legacy from zero to hero, by helping turn the tables on their tormentors. But don’t expect that. At least not till Biden establishes a Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

5. Extending that more generally, Putin knows his edifice will collapse if the West gets good intel. It's hard to retaliate or deter the current wave of relentless Muscovite attacks when we are blind! Part of that blindness will be solved when our defenders are no longer hampered by the quislings who were appointed over them by a Putin-blackmailed shill. 

But that leaves out an even more significant factor. That HALF of our good intel during the Cold War came from defectors, who would regularly even the playing field by bringing over vast floods of information, counterbalancing excellent KGB spycraft and our disadvantages as an open society.

==The vital importance of the moral high ground ==

During the Cold War, defectors were attracted by three things. We offered:

1) Safety

2) Good prospects

3) The moral high ground.

I’ve tried to explain this - repeatedly - to large audiences at CIA, fer gosh sakes!** - how the patterns of FSB/Putin actions all fit an overall aim of demolishing western alliances (Trump accomplishment #1) plus systematically toppling all three pillars that brought us recurring waves of defectors from the USSR. 

To that end, 'botched' assassinations of Russian dissidents were actually perfectly executed, achieving terror in potential defectors. 

Above all, the Trumpian campaign to crush and despoil the US moral high ground has been Putin's greatest accomplishment….

…but that victory can be reversed if our friends around the world do that one thing - both for us and for themselves and the planet and their children and the future:

Celebrate for us! 

Show the world that you know Donald Trump was an aberration! That the confederate side of our recurring American fever is and always has been a minority of fervid lunacy and when the blue is back, we can resume being a scientific, progress-seeking, problem-solving, egalitarian beacon and partner in making a better world.

And the forces of evil, trying to re-impose 6000 years of wretched, failed rule-by-oligarchy will fade under waves of cleansing light.


*Rent the first episode of the Kiefer Sutherland TV series DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. 

** And yes I am regularly invited back.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

If only our heroes were nimble instead of plodding. Not just good, but agile.

So many things happening all at once. I am juggling ten projects, reviving old favorites like the Uplift Series, plus my great old YA series and a nonfiction book about science fiction and Hollywood... and more! Stay tuned for news... 

...that is, after we save the Earth and a human civilization that may become worthy of the stars. That's all. No more than that is at stake, teetering these very weeks.

And yes, I have proposals for how to run forward, toward that better future. I'll be offering many... without any hope or expectation that any of them will be noted even slightly by those leading the Good Side in this battle to save the Enlightenment Experiment. We have many decent/skilled folks -- and not one apparently has the imagination of a squirrel.

Expect that I'll opine on...

SHORT TERM - you all know I've been yammering about methods to expedite either impeachment or the 25th Amendment that appeared in Polemical Judo, methods that still could be valid and useful, even now...

...along with a way for the three Americans who should not stand near each other till all this poisonous dust settles -- Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi -- to nonetheless put on an Inauguration that's both spectacularly memorable and hugely safe. 

...along with a dozen super-quick actions Pelosi-Schumer could push through the new Congress in a day... even next week... some of them quick bills taking up one page... or even one sentence(!)... that would demonstrate grit, determination, common sense and utterly devastating repudiation of Trumpism. (Example: a one-sentence bill clarifying that Secret Service agents are not personal servants - an implicit, devastating, eviscerating rebuke of Trump that also would make friends where Joe needs them, ASAP. There are other zinger bills like that, that few Republicans would dare to oppose or even delay.) my warning to any incoming reps or administration officials to watch the damn Borat movie and heed its clearest lesson, not to get snared into blackmail traps! Seriously, there is no other explanation for what's happened in DC, and you can bet the KGB lures are out, right now, seeking to sink hooks into na├»ve new Washingtonian power folk. So warn any pols or civil servants you know. Especially... well... the male ones, or the ones who have male relatives.)

MEDIUM TERM - I have offered a great way to hold together the Coalition for National (and world) Salvation, by presenting 31 consensus goals that all democrats and even some sane republicans (they exist!) can share

Dear liberals, look over the list and tell us you can keep some discipline and stay with the program till these 31 things get done... or else that we all (especially you) won't be better off and better able to make progress from that new level!

LONGER TERM - Yes I will return with many of the proposals I've made in the past, including this 2008 version of things that could likely have prevented Trumpism altogether. (He asserts, arrogantly.) 

Expect repetition. Because I just don't know what else to do. How else to get through.

== Pertinent Miscellany! ==

"Many patients who are hospitalized for COVID-19 are discharged with symptoms such as those associated with a brain injury.... For many affected patients, brain function improves as they recover. But some are likely to face long-term disability... the infection can lead to blood clots that may cause a stroke." And yes, this can happen to the otherwise asymptomatic.
On the other hand, wearing a mask and treating your neighbors with courtesy and science with respect will turn you into a shambling liberal freedom-hating zombie. So... weigh the alternatives.

The silver lining is that we're much readier than before for what's next. If the transition goes well. My Hugo-nominated story “The Giving Plague” explores our complex relationships with viruses. Get it free.

Stepping back, I am surprised by one Biden cabinet choice... a democratic governor for Commerce Secretary, a position Dem presidents usually give to a simpatico Republican, as GOP presidents used to always have a Democrat as Labor Secretary, as a tacit nod to bipartisanship. Back when some degree of consensus was a shared goal. Yes, reliably sane/competent and honest Republicans of high level are very rare, these days. But there must be some? I know one, exiting NASA Director Bridenstine shocked all by coming in and zealously administering with curiosity, respect, competence and enthusiasm. Not NASA's best/brightest or most inspiring, by far, but far from worst, especially in light of the pressures from insane superiors. He could do nothing vs. the Trumpian Moon Footprints Fetishism, a terrible waste of US space talent and resources aimed at repeating what we did 50 years ago. But he defended science and long term investments surprisingly well.

A fascinating study of interrogation methods finds that the technique used by the WWII Luftwaffe’s top interrogator – of relentless (though carefully tactical) friendliness – appears to deliver best results. Think “Good cop, bad cop” but with the bad cop toned way down.  “The Scharff Technique was defined by four key components: 1) a friendly approach, 2) not pressing for information, 3) the illusion of knowing it all, and 4) the confirmation/disconfirmation tactic. (The latter strategy is when an interrogator presents a claim in the hope that the prisoner will confirm or disconfirm it.”

== And NON-political palate-cleaners! ==

An inspiring tale about the first Asian-American woman naval officer who taught air combat during WWII. 

This app Gigwalk lets you earn nano-pay for nano-jobs in your area. I just a couple of months blurbed an SF novel about something like this, see the works of Karl Schroeder!

Now a suggestion for all! The last-quarter-hour vow. Swear off all e- communications during the last quarter of each hour.  If you’re hard core, swear off all ”e” for that quarter hour. But at minimum put down the phone.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

A completely unexpected bipartisan win for civilization? This matters, a lot!

How on Earth did this slip past Mitch McConnell?

 By a vote of 81 to 13, the Senate on New Year's Day joined the House in overriding Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. It was the first (and last) veto override of Trump’s presidency. Among the shifting reasons Trump gave for that veto were its requirement that military bases named after (incompetent) Confederate generals be renamed, and his demand for the repeal of protections from liability for online sites hosting the content of third parties. But I suspect the real reason was the inclusion in the bill of the Corporate Transparency Act. 

Years ago, it occurred to me that perhaps the single biggest progressive reform Congress could enact would be to eliminate the anonymity of shell corporations, requiring the disclosure of their ultimate beneficial ownership. It would go a long way toward solving a whole range of corrupt practices, from tax evasion to money laundering, and all manner of other illegality. 

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) had introduced a version of this legislation in the House every year since 2009. I had no real hope that such a fundamental reform would ever be achieved. So I’m a bit stunned that it actually passed Congress. This is huge. 

In addition to requiring disclosure for most new corporations, it also requires it from existing corporations over a two year period. It’s not perfect. It only requires that this information be given to the US Treasury Department, rather than being made public. But that’s the nature of legislative compromise. That doesn’t seriously detract from its virtue. 

Of course, Trump has been a notorious, corrupt user and beneficiary of shell corporations.  (Among other things, he was virtually the only developer of high-end residential properties in NYC to allow purchases of units by anonymous shell companies, making them havens for money laundering by Russian mobsters and all manner of other disreputable people. This is likely at the core of his love of all things Russian.) So it’s no wonder he vetoed the bill. It’s ultimate passage is an achievement that should be celebrated.  (Thanks to Russ Daggatt)

== An implied next step... one simple act that would save the world ==

Naturally, this long-needed reform is consistent with everything I said in The Transparent Society about the core health metric of any society is light and reciprocal accountability. But all the more so in this case, because it is a clear step toward the one act that I think could save the world, especially Western Civilization, in a single shot. That reform would be a World Ownership Treaty with one simple provision:

 If you own something, you must say, publicly, "I own that." 

Here's my earlier missive about this concept, back in 2010, and more generally in The Transparent Society.

For most humans, this would be a small and temporary inconvenience. A few ambiguous property lines might abruptly come into conflict and each nation must offer its own conflict-resolution systems, ideally with plenty of Solomonic incentives for out-of-court mediation. And as I suggested in 2010, this could be phased in, starting at the top.

 Despite all those palliations, sure, such a worldwide edict would open a decade-long golden age for lawyers. So? we need new jobs for humans anyway. But that's an almost trivial side-effect.

Imagine if all property - from ocean-going tankers to great tracts of land - can be attributed either to a state, to named people, or to accountable foundations. Then the tax base will expand, enormously, allowing a rate CUT for almost all honest taxpayers. 

But that, too, is a secondary effect.  

So is enabling markets to work better, by empowering consumers and buyers and sellers to know better who owns what. It is where Adam Smith and Hayek overlap in agreement! No 'defender of free enterprise' should oppose that -- though many hypocrites will. 

But no, even that is secondary!

The primary outcome of such a worldwide accounting of ownership would be the abandonment off truly vast amounts of land and riches that are now ambiguously 'owned' by mafias, cartels, drug lords, and countless other kinds of scoundrels. All that vast wealth would devolve to states who would first use it erase crushing debt burdens and then - very likely - be able to declare a year-long tax holiday for honest folks. 

And yes, there's likely that much illicit wealth, out there. (Developing nations would better be able to retrieve trillions stolen from them by former kleptocrat despots, and present day ones would likely topple.)

Oh, there'd be clever tricks and cheats. Picture a drug lord, knowing that he cannot declare ownership of an entire valley without prompting too many questions, simply handing out parcel deeds to every man, woman and child living on the estate... with the assumption that they will then 'sell' their parcels back to him at a very low price. Yes. Though to avoid scrutiny he'd have to leave them with some of the land and some profits. Call it a form of redistribution, even if you are cynical. (This bears some relationship to the methods of Hernando de Soto, that bore such excellent fruit for poor farmers in Peru, empowering them to participate better in market economics.) 

Point is that vast amounts of criminality and evil in this world are built on a house of cards, relying on shadows and obscurity. (e.g. Vladimir Putin might spend sleepless nights worrying if the Russian populace will find out how much of their wealth he and 100 other former commissars now own.)

== Specifics ==

Want the biggest reason for this reform? Bigger than erasing most governmental debt and giving honest citizens lower rates and a tax holiday? 

Bigger than disempowering drug lords and despots around the globe? Bigger than basing policies and market decisions on greater participant knowledge, the very thing enthusiasts claim healthy markets require?

Okay, how about saving the world?

On 16 March 1978, the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground on Portsall Rocks, 2 km from the coast of Brittany (France). NOAA estimates that the total oil spill amounted to 220,880 metric tonnes of oil resulting in the largest oil spill of its kind in history to that date.  While Amoco wound up paying reparations to France, the actual owner of the tanker itself was so thoroughly masked under shell companies that investigators could never find or hold them accountable. This sort of thing happens all the time... and defenders of capitalism are utter hypocrites when they say public exposure in the open marketplace will take care of most such problems.  No, not when 'public exposure' is a mockery and light never shines upon the skulldugerous mighty.

Hence, an aggressively radical idea... actually serves to save moderate, even capitalist processes from the very contradictions and lethal cheats that act -- as both Adam Smith and Karl Marx described -- to detroy market societies from within, turning consumers, citizens and the young against them.

No anonymous ownership of anything. You want the state to uphold and defend your property rights? Declare them! If no one claims ownership of a corporation, it dissolves and loses all its assets. 

Do I expect any of this to actually happen, short of the "Helvetian War" that I described in EARTH? 

Of course not. The powers of the world come in all varieties and many of them are generally in favor of enlightenment civilization that's been very good to them.  Still, the "good" or "sensible" zillionaires are twitchy, nervous types with obsessions distracting them from helping us overcome the well-focused and tightly collaborating cabals who are busy bringing back feudalism. And yet...

...oh, well, if Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney can plug away at this for 12 years, I suppose I can, for 30. Thank you, Rep. Maloney. I lay my sword at your feet.

== Oh but glance at this jpeg ... to see what we're up against ==

I've long held that THE central issue before us is the war on all fact based professions. No other matter compares, for one simple reason... all our other fights - e.g. to advance justice, fight racism/sexism, save the planet and all the rest - will go far better if the power of FACT is restored, because in those battles, facts are on the side of justice!

Which is why the all-out war on facts must be fought above all else. 

Our enemies of civilization know this. As exemplified in this graphic from 'Medal of Freedom recipient' Rush Limbaugh. It summarizes the all-out, Kremlin/Foxite-funded war vs. all nerdy professions perfectly: our major sources of objective fact are all part of the “universe of lies”:

Which is why the new administration needs to make this Job#1.  

Perhaps starting with my proposed FACT ACT.