I saw a documentary about AIDS in Zambia last night – “The Lazarus Effect”, free on YouTube Red Channel. I was astounded by the way they talked about ARV’s (anti-retrovirals) – it was like they were just a given. As though, at some point in the early 2000’s, some beneficent hand (God, the Zambian government, Butros Butros Gali) sprinkled them across the land like manna. Not even a mention of the evil capitalist society and the greed-mongering pharmaceutical companies that developed the drugs and now give them away at or below cost to the poor of the world.
I mean, it’s really amazing: AIDS in the United States started out as, and still remains, a disease that primarily effects homosexuals. I am not making a judgment on homosexuality here, but I am making a judgment on human nature. Anywhere else, AIDS would have been ignored at best. Here? We mobilized hundreds of billions over the course of 25 years and we cured it, and now we give it away to the less fortunate. No other culture in human history has ever had the combination of empathy and expendable resources to do something like that. Not even close.
And yet, not a mention of it in the documentary.
We see this today - the stimulus and TARP funds are in bank reserves right now to shore up bank balance sheets against "toxic assets" with little resale value. But what if they weren't? Where would they go? But where did those TARP funds come from? Banks, somewhere, be they American banks or foreign banks or foreign central banks. Banks with liquid assets, who had invested wisely in the bubble years or got lucky at the crash, and seeing a bad economy, ran to the treasury for "safe" investments. Treasury was all to willing to oblige. But what if their had not been massive deficit spending to finance?
- First, there would have been more demand for the same supply of "safe" treasury assets. This alone would have caused an expansion of the money supply and made the Fed redundant because it would have forced interest rates to zero or even lower.
- As those interest rates dropped, commercial investments would have looked better and better to banks. So banks would have started lending and investing. Currently fashionable argument is that banks aren't lending because the economy is bad. Really, banks aren't lending because the US treasury is offering a sweet deal to finance massive government spending. All that stimulus cash would still have found its way to the market, it just would have been in the form of small business loans, M&A, and mortgages. The current Obama fetish with admonishing bankers for not lending is laughable and see through - it is the direct result of his policies.
- We would also still get plenty of foreign investment. China would start to act like Japan did in the '80's, buying up cheap real estate and taking controlling interests in large American firms. Is this worrisome? Sure. But is it more worrisome than China taking a large interest in the federal government, on which we depend for national security against... China? No, not even remotely.
You can talk about multipliers all you want, but they all apply just as well to private lending; and without deadweight loss incurred by government hamfistedness in the economy. So they apply better to private lending. Banks won't just sit on money if they have it and if the market drives interest down on treasury bonds; they will invest or die. It's the same reason why I'm lathering at the mouth about buying a house as soon as I can; you can get good investments cheap right now.
The main point is, in a fractional reserve system, the amount of liquidity is set by the reserve rate, the rules about what constitutes a collateral asset, and the inflation rate. If government is borrowing to spend, it is taking liquidity from business.
“For what we’ve learned in the last few years as one scandal after another spilled onto the front pages is that the bubble economies of the last two decades were not merely monstrous Ponzi schemes that destroyed trillions in wealth while making a small handful of people rich. They were also a profound expression of the fundamentally criminal nature of our political system, in which state power/largess and the private pursuit of (mostly short-term) profit were brilliantly fused in a kind of ongoing theft scheme that sought to instant-cannibalize all the wealth America had stored up during its postwar glory, in the process keeping politicians in office and bankers in beach homes while continually moving the increasingly inevitable disaster to the future.”
He nails it pretty well. In a word, the US financial system is a giant compulsory Ponzi scheme, with politicians and business executives at the top and the rest of us getting screwed. The blame for the crisis should be shared, he says, and letting either the Wall Streeters or the politicians off the hook is dogmatic. It’s similar to the Rand/Marx dichotomy that isn’t: “There is some small class of people who have great power and use it to steal from everyone else. Invariably, I belong to the second group.” It’s a teens-level redux of class warfare.
Taibbi suggests that both the politicians funneling dirty money to election funds, and the businesspeople providing that money by taking their points off toxic deals and buying vacation homes in the Caribbean, were both equally guilty:
“This GSE story is a big one, but if it gets used as a path back to a “The Market Reacted Rationally” version of history, we’re screwed. It has to be looked at as an important part of a diabolical whole, a symbiotic scheme in which the banks and the state were irreversibly intertwined in an enterprise that on both sides was never about market economics, but crime. Because otherwise… the diversionary notion that one side or the other is wholly to blame is part of what makes the whole scam possible.”
I cannot quite buy this evil incarnate at the top of the mountain theory. Taibbi ignores the difference in projected power between two groups of people. Businesses can only balance the books in their favor, politicians can use force against any form of blowback. There is a qualititative difference there, and just following the money does not quite tell the story. For instance, I’ve pointed out before that bankers’ actions were perfectly rational if one considers the implicit guarantee from the Fed, Treasury, and Congress that they would not be allowed to fail – by forceful edict. There were two ways this trading could have played out when the system crashed. In the market version, conservative banks who had eschewed growth for the last decade would watch as the paper tigers of the BoA’s and Citigroups collapsed, and use their hard-won capital to purchase the remains at pennies on the dollar. This happened in a few cases, like Wells Fargo picking up Wachovia, but it was not to the extent that it should have been to break up the too-big-to-fails once and for all. In the corporatist version, the government would step in and save bad banks from their bad investments using money forcefully extracted from taxpayers. This happened and is still happening and will happen for the next 50 years.
Rationality does not just mean seeing bad investments for what they are and avoiding them. Taibbi ignores game theory. Rationality requires weighing the risks including the reactions of others. If there is a player in the game who can tilt the field in your favor unfairly, game theory suggests you court that player and play the tilted field. That is exactly what Wall Street did – rationally. The only short term gains here were election cycles.
I would also lump into this category movies like The Matrix, which don't so much place me in another world with their story and characters, as with the technology they use to tell build the world. These films are more about world building than they are about storytelling. Avatar is a tremendous example of this - certainly the best since The Matrix, and maybe the best since The Wizard of Oz made color the technical standard of the future. Not only was the 3D experience completely immersive, but it seamlessly integrated the computer world with the cellulite.
There were a number of times when I truly felt like I was inside the world. There were the exquisite scenes where the main character was learning to fly, and the battle that included floating mountains in mist, aircraft and helicopters, and flying pterosaurs. But there was also a quality of depth to the faces during conversations which placed you right in the circle. Where past 3D films looked something like a diorama, with 2D cutouts at different 3D depths, there was a gradualism in the Avatar 3D world.
An then there was the story. Because you can make a great movie with only effects, but you cannot make a truly groundbreaking one without a story. On the one hand, I enjoyed the love story quite a bit (but then I'm a sap). It was felt natural, and I've got to say 'em are some hot aliens. I found the rest of the story to be vapid and empty, though. It retreaded ground already trod to death, and it did so with no shades of gray or ballsy plot twists or even depth of character. 3D movie, 1D characters was something I saw a lot on the internet - and it is true. The story itself is the same old Silent Spring re-telling about how humans of the future, and by metaphor the present, are ruled by large corporations which are driven solely by a profit motive that inexorably leads to the destruction of the environment and aboriginal cultures with the help of corrupt military mercenaries.
The best part about the movie’s “pantheism” or “gaiaism” or whatever is that it unwittingly (I presume) blows a fatal hole in its own metaphor. Obviously, if the biomass of Earth were sentient and communicative as the biomass on Pandora was, one would have to approach things like, say, mining and forestry, quite differently. In the context of the movie’s world, the response of the main characters is quite ethical and reasonable. Although, on the other hand, the response of the businesspeople is clearly allegorical and lacks any depth whatsoever… Giovanni Ribisi’s momentary pauses for effect notwithstanding, of course.
The problem for the holier than thou set is that it bears no parallel to reality. If you are not dealing with sentient plant life, then it makes perfect sense to cut down the tree. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to replant the tree and foster a diverse forest ecosystem around it once you are done with the area, provided of course you own the property and hope to continue to be able to make money off it for generations. And if you are mining, it makes a great deal of sense to reclaim the land when the mine closes, so you don’t get a bad rep for you company and therefore end up shut out of other rich resources by the people who live nearby. The fatal conceit is the idea that reality must support your faith, that ideally science must find a justification for your beliefs, when in fact the converse is true.
Likewise for the Na’Vi. We hear things like “We don’t have anything they want.” A perfectly true statement for a people who apparently never get sick thanks to the protection of their planetary organism and live quite fantastical lives flying on their neurologically-joined pets and not-breaking their “natural carbon fiber reinforced” bones and and living harmoniously within just heirarchical tribal structures and transferring their consciousness intact to the biomass organism when they do die. And if that was representative of the lives of pre-technical humans or, say, modern Islamic societies, then it would be a valid metaphor to the intrusions of the Western world into our developing neighbors.
But it’s not. The fact is, poor people do live brutal lives, both at the hands of nature and at the hands of their neighbors. They do want medicine, education, surplus food, and cell phones; regardless of whether they particularly like the people they are getting them from. And they are led by demagogues who twist their words, feed them false information, and promise things that they have no intention of delivering.It did not need to be this way. Star Wars was groundbreaking both for its technology and its story, as was The Wizard of Oz, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. If the stakeholders had had some balls, there were a lot of places to take the plot besides a dramatic re-telling of Silent Spring with some Little Bighorn mixed in. But in the end, Cameron et al. went the safe route. The produced a technical masterpiece on the bare minimum story, and it is still a great movie.
I am quite certain that terrorist incidents would virtually disappear if we did this - just let anybody on a plane without screening of any kind. On an average flight, you would be almost guaranteed to have several retired military, law enforcement, and good ol' rednecks strapped and ready to waste a prospective terrorist or hijacker.
The first objection is, as usual from people who take what the government says without question, "we can't do that! Everyone would be shooting up planes." Right, and if heroine was legal I guess you would go stick a needle in your arm tomorrow. There is a growing body of research that suggests violent crime rates drop significantly when gun laws are softened. It's the age old truth that criminals with guns can usually avoid cops, and they are not afraid of citizens with knives. Didn't 9/11 show us that our elaborate security theater had done nothing less than make use mortally vulnerable to such treacherous weapons as box cutters? And did it not also show us that, given either a reasonable chance of success, or an overwhelming reason to try, ordinary citizens are our best defense against random acts of violence? Yes and yes.
The second objection is more rational, which is "but don't guns put holes in planes?" That one suggests some caution. After all, if the brave and intelligent Dutch tourist who stopped pantsbomber had been packing a .44, the cure could very well have been much worse than the disease. In that case, how's this for a compromise. Offer a course for military, law enforcement, and maybe ordinary citizens to become licensed "reserve air deputees." Once licensed, these deputees would be allowed to discreetly carry weapons on their person onto commercial airplanes. Of course, there would be a restriction on type of weapon - high-caliber handguns, explosives, rifles, and shotguns would be of little use in a close-quarters airliner fight. However, small caliber and non-lethal weapons like .22's and similar low-power handguns, tasers, mace, etc, would be allowed on. The key word is "discreetly" - the RADs would go through the same screening process as normal passengers, they would be required not to show their weapon to anyone, and they would be required to have their weapons on their persons at all times. The point is to make sure a terrorist can't know how many RADs are on a given flight, or where they are sitting.
The course would teach people the dos and don'ts of airliner combat. The course would cover small-caliber handguns, as well as non-lethal weapons like mace and tasers. Users would be instructed in an airliner mockup about things like where a small caliber bullet is least likely to cause explosive decompression, whether bullets will penetrate different types of partitions, what kinds of proximity effects a cloud of mace has, and so one. It might also cover such things as basic hostage situations, simple forms of non-verbal communication, ways to improvise weapons and/or create diversions with things commonly available in an airliner bathroom or galley, ways to contact the ground from the cabin, and steps to take in case of loss of crew. The class need not be especially long or expensive - probably no more than two days or several two-hour evening sessions should do - one could commandeer a derelict DC-8 in Mojave and shoot it full of any number of holes.
The worst case scenario is that several terrorists would take the course and be allowed on a plane with a gun. However, this is still better than the current scenario. First of all, there would be the requisity background checks. Anyone who took the course would be automatically red flagged by the FBI, and any commonalities where several people on the same flight took the same course, or were funded by the same organization, or have sketchy backgrounds, would come out. This would have stopped at least the Reids and Abdulmutallabs. Second, the worst that would happen is they would get on with a small gun - there would still be screening for explosives, large caliber weapons, etc. All this would not necessarily have stopped 9/11 however. But, potential terrorists would have no way of knowing how many other passengers were carrying weapons, or where they were. This is the most important line of defense. Terrorists are willing to lose their own lives; and if there is a 3.7% chance that they will go to jail because an air marshall happens to be riding then so be it. But if those odds went to close to 100% that there would be at least one and likely several people with the weapons and training to make every attempt at martyrdom as pathetic as pantsbomber, regardless of what kind of heat the terrorists were packing, then they will move on rather quickly.
There could, of course, be automated rules in place to put the odds even more in our favor. There would obviously be flags raised when an aberrant number of RADs chose a given flight. RADs could show up to the airport, and be either deputized (allowed to keep their weapon on their person) or demoted (with their weapon placed in checked bags or in safe storage at the airport police station) at random for their flight that day, so that no one could ever know whether he would be allowed a weapon on board for a given flight. Likewise, we could limit the total RADs on each flight to no more than 2% of passengers, or no more than 5 total RADs, or so on. We could arrange it so that the RADs on a given flight had a wide variety of birthplace, hometown, religion, ethnicity, and education, to reduce the likelihood of collaborators. RADs could be seated together without their knowledge, with air marshalls secretly seated around them, in any suspicious case. But this is all just working the odds. The point is, the program would open the RADs up to so much scrutiny that it would probably be unprofitable for a terrorist organization to attempt infiltration.
Fact is, the cops are never there when you need them. At any level of spending that won't kill mass air travel, we are not going to cover enough flights with air marshalls to make terrorists think twice.
The reasoning behind the slowness is that banks aren't lending. Well... duh. Here's some of the things they are looking at:
1. The bailout kept a huge amount of bad investments in the banking system that should have been purged through bankruptcy and pennies-on-the-dollar sales last Autumn. The resulting revaluation would have been extremely painful (as if what happened instead wasn't...), but it would have placed real income in the hands of healthy institutions rather than keeping deflated balance sheets on life support. We would have probably lost a lot of "too big to exist" banks, and in their place we would have some new names and a few old names with right-sized financing capabilities. Instead, we have a bunch of flailing brontosauri - giant institutions on cash-swallowing life support keeping the mammals around the fringe.
2. Barney Frank won't shut up. The regulations bill coming down the pike is the typical DC disaster. Long after the public has realized that maybe banks were just operating under instructions from the FDIC, FMA, FHMCA, GMA, CRA, and the rest of the alphabet soup of agencies that so blatantly fell into the "irrational exuberance" trap (probably for kickbacks... but that only happens in Central America, right?), this congress is trying to create a veritable pterodactyl. Banks don't want to move when doing so could break the law in a year. It is quite clear at this point to everyone in finance, and not clear at all to most of the voters, that banks do what the government says. If the government says to lend to questionable borrowers, you either lend or you get pushed out of business. I don't even know if lifting the regulatory burden would do anything good... the industry needs to be weened slowly from the Federal teat. Instead, BF wants to do the opposite.
3. Business sucks right now. The stock market is back to neutral. Housing may be bottoming out, but that's like saying the Michael Jordan had a "bad night" when he scored only 35 - it's really back to where it should be. IPO regulations have all but killed the venture capital industry as an agent of growth. The American government is currently acting like one big barrier to entry. To top it off, American people are shocked into saving, which is good, but their savings are going to feed the flailing brontosaurus. Instead of contributing lending cash to institutions on good footing, they are contributing the disappearing money that should have been destroyed months ago in bankruptcy court. So yeah, investment isn't going too well right now.
4. The government is using all the credit. True. Any cash that is in the system - from foreign government or US banks - seems to be flowing directly to the Treasury. People with money are spending it on treasury bills, notes, and bonds, which is kind of like a self-fulfilling bet on another turndown... although, another turndown without inflation, which is very unlikely. The point is, there's so much "safe" government debt out there, why would any institution actually do the hard work of building a portfolio? This kills big companies, because they have to out-price government bonds. Yields grow, profit dies, and people get layed off.
5. Finally, the fundamental flaw has not been fixed, if anything it has been further fundamentalized and flawed. We as an economy are in a precarious spot. We charge 5x more for our time than anyone else. As protectionism slowly falls away, the problem will get worse. I know a lot of laborers, and I feel for them, but I honestly can't look them in the eye and say that they should really be able to work for 5x as much as an Indian or Mexican who is willing to do the same work. The US needs to continue to create new industries better than anyone else, it is regression to the mean for us. But we are choking that off with inane immigration policies that treat smart people like slaves and kick them out of the country, and treat hard working people like criminals and force them under the table where they lower wage rates for everyone. Not to mention all the things in 3) that are killing wealth creation. And when we do create wealth, our politicians sic on the creators legally, rhetorically, and financially. It's unsustainable.
- NASA does not have enough money to do anything meaningful outside low Earth orbit (LEO), at least not the ways NASA has to do things thanks to aforementioned b's & c's.
- We will never develop the infrastructure and technology to change that fact unless NASA loses its literal deathgrip on the LEO launch and space-station market and lets commercial companies do what they do - try, fail, and then try better.
"1. Are beyond-LEO exploration and fitting the budget really incompatible?
Two of the goals in the Committee's charter were to fit the budget and to enable beyond-LEO exploration. However, only two of the options presented by the Committee fit the budget, and neither of these options enable beyond-LEO exploration in a meaningful time frame.
- A medium-lift rocket to get humans into orbit (Ares I)
- A pod to carry those humans into orbit, and also into deep space (Orion)
- A heavy-lift rocket to lift supplies and the lunar lander (Ares V)
- The lunar lander (Altair)
- The first was the program of record. It is an "option" because DC might have just gotten to the point where they see literally no point to NASA beyond buying votes in districts with NASA centers. This would be a quick, silent kill of the US civil space program. It would continue on in budget alone, but American space capability would essentially be done until the military or private industry took it up.
- The second was the second choice, with budget constrained to current sizes. It assumed that the civil human spaceflight program had some utility besides graft, and therefore it arranged for basic human spaceflight capabilities to LEO to be picked up by competent organizations (not NASA) on a fixed-price basis. At the same time, it still managed to throw the majority of taxpayer money down the rathole of a heavy lift vehicle we won't need for a hundred years, a deep space capsule that we can't launch, and a moon lander that... well, it's a fucking moon lander and we can't even get to LEO after 2011, so figure out how serious they are about that one.
- The third option wasn't presented because it was as much a political fairy tale as #2 was a technical and economic fairy tale. It was discussed in some of the meetings by Jeff Greason and Sally Ride, though, and it was as follows: shut down NASA centers that design vehicles. Contract each vehicle out to 3-4 commercial vendors on the COTS model. This is how a private company would do things. Private companies probably aren't quite there yet. But it was what could be if this was a market.
"2. Why wasn't a Phase I EELV HLV or similar HLV included in any options?...It also wouldn't be bad if a smaller HLV encourages us to perfect our skills at refueling, ISRU, reusable space-only craft, frequent low-cost launch, docking, and assembly. All of these skills may find productive use outside NASA exploration. Enabling such capabilities may prove to be more important than NASA's actual exploration itself.
"3. Should Earth orbit be included in the Flexible Path?there are Earth orbits beyond LEO that could be useful for satellite servicing, remote sensing, and other purposes.
"4. Should Venus orbit be included in the Flexible Path?
"5. What is the real goal of human space exploration?
The Augustine Committee's report states the following:
A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration.