If you had told me this 10 years ago, I would think you were crazy. But sure enough, newspapers are failing all around us, and news on TV seems to be relegated to niche cable channels, or else some remedial and deteriorating facade for special interests that can never hope to stand up to the depth and fearlessness of the blogosphere. A recent article compares the current Web 2.0 revolution, or whatever you want to call it, to the printing press. It's hard to argue that we are living in a revolution on that scale. (That is pretty cool.)
"If human flourishing rose exclusively out of spiritual projects, the Dalai Lama
would have been the first man on the moon. "
That is a quote from Lileks at Screedblog in response to a post by Amitai Etzioni, whom I do not know but I suppose he is high on the social freedoms dimension and low on the economic freedoms dimension on the world's smallest political quiz. The quote is true - I think we would all agree, regardless of how we felt about the relative merits of spiritual projects versus the moon landings. I also liked this post, which breaks down all the deficit talk (from the defend-Obama perspective) into political motivations - it basically says that running up huge deficits is a great way to force the other party to clean up your mess when they get into power. I don't think it's a defense, but it's better than the firey discourse we keep hearing where one side's wrongs are justified by being not-as-wrong as the other side's.
I link them here because, while both are a bit snarky, they show's the level of discourse I would like to have in politics, and, really, everything. I see a lot of polarization out there right now. Something about the last two administrations scares the shit out of ordinary people. Rightfully so. It is not that the blog posts I read are seriously weighted - that is what one expects of the sides in a good argument. It is more that they don't take seriously where the other side is coming from. The Screedblog post above is a good example - both sides are obviously working from entirely different assumptions, and ignoring the others', or at best ridiculing them as puerile or self-evidently wrong. Like most people, I personally think material and spiritual health are mutually beneficial results of the same providence, so where am I in that argument?
Those who know me, or read what I write, can probably figure out where I stand on political issues. I've found recently, that in trying to communicate my stands I run up against "the Wall." You've all probably felt this. You're having a conversation about politics, the other person is not making sense to you, and you can tell the feeling is mutual. You try to backtrack to get at more basic assumptions, but the discussion becomes disconnected armchair philosophy and no one takes it seriously. Or you try to attack assumptions and turn into an asshole. Or the other person clearly doesn't see much importance at all in politics and just changes the subject.
It bothers me, because it affects me intensely and no one seems to care. "The best part about being a ______ is knowing you are right. The worst part is that people won't believe you until everything collapses." I know a lot of people, most of them very intelligent and rational and good and just as helpless as me. Why do they believe different things than me? I am going to try and deconstruct the types of people I see around me in terms of political beliefs. Then I am going to try and dismantle those beliefs at as base a level of assumption as I can reach and articulate. Before I start, here are the rules of the game:
- You are smarter than me, and I am smarter than you. If not, then someone who shares our views. Lack of intelligence is not a defense or weapon. Neither is lack of sanity, morality, foresight, hindsight, or fear of God.
- Assumptions are more important than arguments. Get to the roots. I've read enough blogs and comments to know that you can build a convincing argument for fucking a zebra if you make a dozen barely detectable leaps of ethical judgment in different threads of the argument. Really, but not really.
- Make up the labels as you go. There will be no pinko commies or capitalist pigs in this discussion. Feel free to re-label the groups to things you think are more appropriate, but re-label them - actually think up a term from your own brain that best describes the characteristics of the group.
- Similar to #1, it is improbably that all ______ists lack compassion, fortitude, sense of history, penises, and the like. We're probably all made relatively equal, though with different outcomes. What happens in the middle?
Four simple rules. So, since we're working from assumptions, I'll start. Here are my assumptions that I go into every political conversation with:
- "Rights" by their definition are alienable. There is no cosmic enforcer that stops one person from taking another one's life, or forcing another one to do something, or lying to another person. So it is up to us.
- Theoretically, right and wrong exists for every decision. This is the moral equivalent of Newton's law.
- There is no completely rational and omniscient person, and if there was there is no possible way he could process all the information available, and if he could chaos theory says that he would still be unable to determine outcomes. This is the moral equivalent of quantum mechanics.
- #2 and 3 are analogously extendible to groups. We can determine right or wrong more easily for 1000 people than we can for 1. If by killing one you save 999, that's right. If you are the person who has to kill the 1, then it is a lot more ambivalent.
- We have a set of inalienable rights, and it is a very small set. They essentially boil down to this: don't do things to other people that you don't want done to you. It is that simple, but it is not that simple, because almost everything one does is bound to effect someone else negatively. This leads to questions like, "Is it wrong to kill Hitler in 1941? How about in 1933? In 1900?". It suggests a philosophy utilitarianism where it is possible to measure or deduce effects, and sophistry where it is not.
- Talents, culture, and luck are the animal-vegetable-mineral of any outcome involving human life. All influences can be sorted into these categories, and all outcomes can be thus ascribed. One is a fixed internality, one is a fixed externality, and the third is unfixed. Maybe you'll win the lottery tomorrow, or maybe you'll get cancer, but maybe you're content with your current finances and don't need to win the lottery, and maybe your culture has managed to assemble medical researchers in such a way that this particular cancer has a high cure rate.
- People who are completely alone are animals in the wilderness, and will probably live short, violent lives and contribute very little change to their environment. By "alone" I mean not only isolated personally, but also isolated from the teachings of the past, and from the support of other humans. Even a hermit who grows his own food is beholden to the tools he uses, the generations of farmers who bred his crops, the skills developed over eons necessary to build his shelter, and so on. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all in constant debt to countless others.
- Order is the quality of coherence amongst disparate parts. Now the controversial part - it is always emergent. You can draw a nice org chart, but actual outcomes are determined by a huge number of real actions. You must change the rules that govern the emergent system to recognizably change the outcome. It is probably futile to kill Hitler in 1935, because the conditions at the time would have bred a tyrant out of someone else.
- There are two forms of human exchange that are possible. The first is where both parties are on equal standing, and the second is where they are not. The most important distinction between them is a right (and ability) of refusal for both parties. We generally call exchanges with a bilateral right of refusal "trade," and those without it "force."
- There is something called "The Shit." This is when systems become unstable and collapse. First living standards fall, then rule of law collapses, then mass death happens - it would get worse, but it can't get worse than death, so it usually spreads sideways from there. Famine, war, genocide, ecological collapse, and murderous regimes are forms of The Shit. So far, it has happened to every society, ever. It usually happens suddenly. It happened in the US, in 1861. There are worse than the worst things we live with in the US today, and they can happen to you, in your lifetime.
So there are my assumptions for politics. They seem pretty non-partisan and neutral to me, but I'm sure there are some things to disagree with in there. Go ahead and weigh in on them.
"The length of Japan’s asset deflation, recession and liquidity struggles has been blamed largely on the lack of political leadership and willingness to choose the hard but necessary policies—such as letting banks fail and letting the market reset itself. Politicians bent on retaining their power and showing the public that they are “doing something” took action that sought to solve the present-day concerns without regard to their long-term effects."
- Central bank complicity. The funds rate is a blunt tool that is exceptionally useful at wiping out all market information about interest rates. In both crises, the national bank cut rates too deep and too long to respond to a previous problem whose severity they overestimated (remember the dot-com bubble)? Then, after companies and individuals took advantage by making capital investments at a rate that overheated the economy, the bank quickly raised rates, which had the effect of crashing the wave and catching good investments that hadn't gottent to profitability yet along with all the bad investments made in the same period. This is in contrast to a more gradual culling that a market-based interest rate would have caused. Finally, the central bank showed up at a gunfight too late, and without bullets, and slashed the interest rates again. This had the effect of erasing any possibility of banks finding a profitability optimum interest rate. Worse yet, the nature of the bubble made this route meaningless, because there's no point having low interest rates without any liquidity in the first place. In both crises, the doling out of loans became a political decision rather than an economic one, the final blow to the system ever fully recovering.
- Bailing out bad businesses. Again, this happened writ large in both crashes, and it destroyed the ability of the market to correct itself. We see today banks sitting on their hands due to the political uncertainty in the face of economic certainty:
"Just months after a $25 billion investment in Citigroup, and signaling its confidence in the firm by supporting its bid for defunct Wachovia (which was ultimately bought by Wells Fargo), the government had to step in with a second bailout of $20 billion after a negative analysis of Citigroup’s obligations. The analysis had caused the financial sector to lose whatever confidence it had left in the banking giant. Citigroup is now in the process of breaking up its holdings, though the process could have been started months ago if taxpayer dollars had not been used to feed the zombie firm."The white paper makes two points that seem to be in opposition: one, that the government is not requiring failing companies to restructure, and two that the government is meddling in the affairs of the companies. They're not in opposition. The government is meddling for political gains in an economic game. It's prescriptions are things like limits on CEO salaries, which is a terrific way to run off any competent leaders that a company might hire on or have left on staff. On the other hand, we have a great system of laws for just this circumstance. Bankruptcy law in the US is a safety net that limits the ripple effects of failed businesses and forces restructuring of unprofitable enterprises. Or, as the white paper says more eloquently:"While the debate over when and if government should act as the “lender of last resort” remains unresolved, a clear principle should be that government money—tax dollars—should never be used to “prop up” failing firms. Firms that have neither re-organized nor changed their management have not yet reached their “last resort”"
a) you're slowing down long-term growth rate even if the booms feel like sex, cocaine, and double black jack all at once. And to my liberal artist friends, this is not up for debate. Even John Maynard Keynes, the planniest of central planners, had a name for it (dead weight loss) that was so ingrained in macroeconomics that it turned into an acronym to save time (DWL). I know, it's all just math in a sea of semantics, god bless the US education system.
- Spend, spend, spend! With this the current government is playing a dangerous game, one to which it seems completely oblivious. It is using the dollar as a bluff, but it seems to think that the borrowing can go on forever. The assumption is that the dollar has been rock solid for a century, so how could it fail us now? Of course, the mortgage industry was rock solid for 50 years before Autumn 2007. That's one of the big problems with a planned economy. You trade in little panics for big recessions and eventually system-breaking collapses. This happened in Russia in 1991. The problems are thatAnd b) human memory, even of the smart people running the whole circus, is too short to remember how shitty it was last time all the things that never fail failed. Actually, that's giving them too much credit. It's more like human foresight for the smart people running the whole circus hasn't gotten to the point where they think the wall will come down while they're still holding the buck. Will China start selling off it's $2T in dollar reserves tomorrow? Probably not. Could it? Yes. Are we doing things that make that more likely by the day? Absolutely.
"Other policy changes, such as reducing the tax rate or eliminating the exclusivity clause in bankruptcy proceedings, would increase investor confidence and prompt private capital to flow back into the marketplace. Even the most toxic mortgage-backed securities aren’t worthless. With renewed private investment, a market in these assets could emerge, allowing banks to sell off the debt and begin repairing their balance sheets."
During the 1990s, Japan passed 10 fiscal stimulus packages, focused largely on public works, totaling more than ¥120 trillion ($1.4 trillion in today’s dollars)... Those plans did not succeed in reviving the economy, but they did saddle the nation with a mountain of debt that helped to postpone any recovery for years. Including “off-budget” debts, Japan’s debt was estimated to exceed 200 percent of GDP.
"There were two major tax cuts during the Lost Decade: a ¥5.8 trillion ($69 billion in today’s dollars) income tax cut in 1994 that lasted for one year, and a ¥4 trillion ($46 billion) income tax cut in 1998 spread over two years.17 The problem was that these tax cuts were not permanent and thus did not increase long-term aggregate consumption."From 1994 to 1995, the Japanese economy began experiencing modest growth, partially due to the first tax cut. Deflation in 1995 reduced government revenues. In an effort to stem surging debt, the consumption tax was increased from 3 percent to 5 percent in 1997, which slowed the economy again.
During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s massive spending program, which actually had its roots in the Hoover administration, did not work to “stimulate” the economy. Despite all that spending and employment programs, unemployment remained extremely high.
Most people haven't had the joy of tangling with non-linear PDE's directly, but everyone has watched a weather report generated from them. We know to take the proclamations therein as a mere probability. Now, it is a simplistic statement that invites simplistic rebuttals to compare weather forecasting to climate modeling. The inputs are completely different. But the math involved is the same, and it is the same math that is used to predict the airflow over an airplane, and the breakage of a truss, and the interaction of plasma in a fusion reactor. All are based on deceptively simple-looking equations which have no simple solutions. All these problems are made tenable by certain simplifying assumptions like, "turbulence can't be predicted, but it can be averaged" or "when this angle is really small it is approximately the same as this distance," or "this feedback mechanism is really a curve, but if we look at a really small part of it it appears to be a line," or "well, we know how to solve this really well, but if we did it really well it would take all the computers in the world a million years, so we'll just do it kind of well on what we have."
Depending on the assumptions, resources available, how well they are calibrated by real results, and how well you can confine the problem, these nonlinear equations are correct to a certain degree. I can be reasonably certain that an FEM calculation I run on a structure will predict breaking point to within 50% if I set it up right. I can go on intellicast.com and be fairly confident in the forecast for the next 3 days or so. This "correctness" is quantifiable against real results. What is more, it is predictable by studing the limitations of the model - in other words, a mathematician should be able to look at any nonlinear model and say something like, "well, this will be correct within 10% approximately 90% of the time." I have yet to see a comprehensive discussion of this nature in the popular science media, and I must admit I have not had the time and motivation to look in the scientific press. I suspect from my limited experience with these things that the numbers for time-dependent non-linear feedback model, calibrated by a reliable sample size on the order of 10^-7 the total dataset (billions of years of Earth vs. hundreds of years of data), with "success" determined by variations in output of about 1% (i.e., 303K vs. 300K), are vanishingly small.
My critique of the professor is that, beyond models, there is a large body of evidence that certain things are happening in certain parts of the Earth. But with the current sample size, it is difficult to rationally blame them on higher levels of CO2. Hurricane frequency and ferocity is somewhere between completely random and long-term cyclical. Desertification is mostly a product of farming practices and much larger forces than anything we have yet brought to bear. Even melting glaciers, ice caps, and rising temperatures remain on a trendline from the end of the last ice age. They don't really mean anything right now, but eventually it might. Someone should measure these things. Being a tragedy of the commons issue, I wouldn't even put up much of a fight if government insists on being the one to do it.
The second article was up on boston.com, and it was mainly notable for the comments at the end.
I wouldn't call myself a global warming denier. I'm prepared to admit that humanity, for the first time in history, is at a point where it can alter the climate on a global or at least multi-regional scale. We are in the first stages of a Kardashev level 1 civilization - we are gaining technological power (and responsibility) on the level of an entire planet. I am not ready to say that we understand how or how much we are altering the climate, and I am certainly not ready to say that it is an unmitigated disaster. Certainly, our previously-attained abilities to control plants, animals, metals, and electricity have had locally mixed but globally positive results; and probably began with similar ineptitude and alarm.
Anyway, to those comments. freddysavage writes:
Regardless, I don't understand why anyone wouldn't be in favor of limiting the pollution we dump into the environment. A study released a couple of weeks ago attributed a half-year increase in the average life span to the curbs on pollution over the last 20 years. What dopes are in favor of polluting, other than the companies that own the coal plants and oil refineries?
...says a person who, I am willing to wager money, heats his house, drives a car, eats food that was not attained through hunting and gathering, shits, and therefore pollutes. The hypocrite probably hasn't even invested in solar panels for his roof; if he did he would begin to understand the concept of "30 year return on investment." "Give a hoot, don't pollute" is a fine sentiment, if you're in second grade.
For those of us who live in the real world, CO2 is not a pollutant. Sure, enough of it will kill you, but so will water. CO2 is a potent fertilizer and drought resistance agent for plants. It is a macronutrient. It's direct effect on the capture of solar energy is negligble, mostly because it absorbs in a similar range as water vapor, and there's a whole lot more dihydrogen monoxide out there (and its a better greenhouse gas). All the hullabaloo about CO2 rests on possible feedback cycles, like slight warming will cause oceanic outgassing, which will cause more warming. Except that slight warming also causes more clouds which causes less warming. So no one really knows, and until we have a really good data set to look at we're relying on models, which I've already disgussed. The main point is that it's not going to kill us all. Volcanic periods have raised CO2 levels far, far higher than they are today and the Earth's climate still stayed in a habitable range through all the fluctuations. So, fearmongering aside, business as usual, but with agressive monitoring of the factors that will improve our theories, is probably the most sane course of action.
Little JJ [the article's author] may not even read his own posts. Although it may ppear to be a text from a human, JJ is a T-1000. You see a web developer generates entire websites by changing user names in a database. He can rollout several hundred a day. JJ is no more real than Sarah Conner.
It probably lowers the level of discussion here to even include this, but there were a few comments on the lines that this is all a massive conspiracy by oil companies. This is a line of thought I usually associate with UFOlogists and paranoid schizophrenics. However, I've heard this from both sides. Al Gore is bent on global domination. Exxon killed cold fusion.
On a slightly more sane level, mouthing along to Obama campaign dogma, ReasonedReply writes:
This is irony. I see someone decrying one perspective of global warming as "fear of change." But what is global warming? All but the most pessimistic, Venus-type runaway predictions show a world that has undergone some change, but is certainly distinguishable as Earth. Clearly this man or woman believes that all change is not bad, so why must global warming be bad? Step back from the white man's guilt and ask yourself: what is honestly worse - a slightly warmer world, or force-feeding a change through political means for which we do not yet possess the capabilities technologically or economically? Looking at the history of history, I'd say the former is probably good, while the latter is almost certainly bad.
Consider the players and the real struggle to control the message. The dominant energy industries don't want to change. Change is needed and very do-able, and whole new enterprises will emerge that need trained professionals to run them.