Category Archives: history

150 years after Lincoln at Gettysburg… Can we maintain our resolve? Our Union?

Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, is a historian and author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” In her recent article – 150 Years after the Gettysburg Address, Is government by the people in trouble? – Dr. Faust offers an eloquent and quite moving exploration of the context in which Abraham Lincoln transformed his earlier “hopeful” rhetoric into the more hardened sense of passion that spoke to his contemporaries’ aching hearts about “dedication” and “resolve” — a determination that something more must come out of all their shared sacrifice than mere preservation of a national union.

Seared by fire and blood, the newly emerging version of the United States of America would have to be something finer. In the spirit of a “new birth of freedom,” it must forever aspire to be better, then better still.

lincoln_gettysburg_sepiaThat sense of resolution is currently at stake, as we confront the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address — widely considered to be the most impactful speech — (certainly on a per-word basis) — in the last several centuries. Greatly noted and long remembered, it has been compared by some (including myself) to the inspiring “funeral oration” of the great Athenian leader, Pericles. (As conveyed to us by Thucydides.)

Only with this vital difference.  Both men died before completing their tasks.  But, unlike those who followed Pericles, we appear to have been ready, after Lincoln, to forge ahead in victory and determination. His words, burning in our hearts, continued making a difference at crucial moments for six succeeding generations, so that the Great Experiment thrived and survived every intervening crisis.

Across the succeeding four score and seventy years, each of those generations found itself disturbed, provoked, challenged not only by foreign dangers, domestic ructions or tsunamis of both immigration and seismic technological change, but also by torments of conscience, as each generational wave gradually matured enough to recognize what its parents could not…

… such as the litany of crimes that had served as bloody mortar, sealing the nation’s foundation in a gritty blend of both hope and sin.  Or the waste of human potential that (across more than 6000 years) had dogged and hampered every society that ever pre-judged vast numbers of distinct individuals, based on accidents of birth or gender, class or race.  Or how to deal with the alluring drug of empire, when Pax Americana faced the same temptations that turned earlier great powers into tyrants —

— a dilemma that we handled – if not perfectly – then less-horribly than any other nation that was ever so-tempted.  In part because of the moral ember that Abraham Lincoln sealed into our hearts, smoldering there to remind us that democracy and wealth and power and even freedom become meaningless, unless they accompany a fierce ambition. To aspire. To become better. Together.

That is my brief rumination upon this 150 year-old epochal masterpiece of sadness and solace, of courage and resolve, of dedication to our common project, our shared experiment, our unfinished work called America.

== Oh, but it is always in danger ==

Gettysburg-Address-LincolnOnly there is more… there is always much, much more.  Such as how Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address relates to this time. More than ever, it is pertinent to our present set of crises.

For, now we Americans are engaged in a new phase of civil war.  Not yet violent to any significant degree and we can pray to almighty providence that things will stay that way. But there is no question that forces are at work upon this continent, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.

Look at the political map of our bitter, partisan divide, and just try telling yourself that it’s not the very same struggle. Not over slavery or freedom or states’ rights, which — for all their importance — were surface matters of dispute, symptoms of a fissure that plunges deeper than even those great matters. So deep, because America and Americans seem divided by differing, incompatible dreams.

One side of our national character hungers for change and tomorrow. To treat the future – the range of possible futures — as ambition-attracting terra incognita, across which our children will explore and stride, better than we are in every way, even if that means repudiating many of our now-unclear assumptions and errors! Preparing those much-better generations for a boundless future is our dedicated proposition. Our mission.

But there is an opposing passion — the temptation to wallow in nostalgia, romanticism, sanctimony, authority and the comforting rigidity-of-caste that dominated nearly every other civilization, across 6000 years.  It was called feudalism and humanity’s greatest heroes fought to liberate us from that beastly, limiting and dismally stupid way of life.

Those who would restore the feudal yoke have always been with us, gathering forces, conniving, aiming persuasive dogma-incantations at both extremes of the vile “left-right political axis.” These would-be lords (whether aristocrats or commissars) are spurred by deeply human impulses, arising largely out of male cojones. Impulses that whisper – “You could be a lord, build harems, dominate. Your wealth and power were all self-earned! They arose from inherent superiority! Never imagine that mere luck might have played a role. Or the coordinated creativity of a great nation, or the brilliance of a whole people and civilization. You owe nothing back. The sheep owe you everything.”

President-LincolnBoringly predictable, heard in every ancient palace, this rationalization propels ingrate-lords who call themselves “job-creators” while creating few jobs, except for the propagandists that they hire en masse to rail against Abraham Lincoln’s high aspiration. Or against scientists, teachers, professors, civil servants, journalists, economists, skilled laborers, law professionals, diplomats, medical doctors — every profession of ambitious, forward-looking knowledge and skill.

But one core thing is under attack, more than any other. That is the very idea of shared endeavor, of joint action, of common projects that are mediated-by and consensus-chosen through the process of politics that we call “government”… this very idea is denounced as anathema, as repulsive, as inherently evil.

How far has this mania gone? So far that even members of the United States military officer corps  are experiencing real fear for the republic that they love. To which they dedicated their full measure of devotion.

== The passing generation of heroes ==

As happened in 1861, a major fraction of our countrymen have been talked into suckling nostalgic future-rejection and caste-romanticism. Enraged, they’ll fight for New Confederacy lords whose “plantations” now span Wall Street, cyberspace and ten million secret accounts in foreign private-banking havens.

How ironic, for this coincides with the passing of the Greatest Generation — men and women who fought down the curse of Hitlerism, who overcame the First Great Depression, who embraced the plan of Marshall, Truman, Acheson and Eisenhower to contain communism peacefully until its fever broke… without nuclear annihilation. All so that their unique nation might live.

A generation that created the mighty American middle class, amid a burst of entrepreneurial productivity so fantastic that their children could afford to take on ancient evils that all others had taken for granted, like racism, sexism and environmental blindness.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled in those mighty causes shared one trait more common than any other.  The Greatest Generation adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt — once compared lovingly and in all ways to Lincoln — but who now one third of our fellow citizens have been talked into equating with Satan Incarnate.

RhetoricHow long until the same thing is done to Honest Abe?

This ongoing struggle is not (despite propaganda) about ‘left-versus-right.’  Not when entrepreneurship, small business, federal fiscal responsibility and the middle class always do far better under democrats than under the Republican Party. We could fill page after page with clear evidence that the father of capitalism and the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — would today be a democrat.

No.  When the rhetoric has devolved into a universal and blanket spite toward all government, in principle, and when the greatest sin  — as perceived by one third of our fellow citizens — is to even speak of compromise, negotiation, deliberation or an agile freedom from constraining dogma, then we have come full circle.

== For we, the living… ==

GettysburgAddressLincolnGovernmentOne hundred and fifty years after Abraham Lincoln urged our predecessors to advance the unfinished work which the heroes of Gettysburg so nobly advanced, we should read his words again, letting them roll in our heads and off our tongues. And then we must rise to our feet, in similar, steely resolve that the epochal achievements of those who came before us shall not have been in vain.

Oh, this phase of the American Civil War will end as the others did, with victory for Union and moderation and freedom, plus continuation of our ambition to forge ahead.  Mostly as individuals and families and self-formed teams…

…but also with great projects that we choose by “governmental” processes that — even when filthy-political — still often launch us forward.  To conquer polio and build internets. To educate one and all. To create the world’s finest universities. To span the continent with highways and dams and electricity… then to preserve much of the rest for future generations. To probe ahead, with the tools of science, for mistakes to catch and solve in the nick of time. To keep the world’s longest and greatest peace. To step onto the surface of the Moon.  To aim for the stars.

But first, it will take resolve — stopping those who would end the Experiment amid dogma and rage. We intend to welcome them back, with charity for all, when this latest fever breaks!  Abe Lincoln showed us how.

But till then, it must simply be stopped.  The oligarchy-financed attempted putsch. And the nostalgic-romantic lunacy that makes so many citizens of a great and free republic screech their hateful vow —

— that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.


1 Comment

Filed under history, space

Optimists Rise Up!

Here is yet more news that shatters the cynical incantations and pat nostrums of  both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty worldwide by the year 2030. Does that sound naive and delusionally utopian? Jeffrey Sachs in the New York Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Optimists“According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010.”

Sachs shows that “…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, infrastructure creation and protection, anti-monopoly market protection, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are all public functions that must align with private market forces.”

Read this.  It supplements Steven Pinker’s work on the incredible decline in worldwide per-capita violence since 1945.  It shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic and non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold…

… and especially if we thwart the grouches and cynics of both right and left whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

Kennedy-Problems-of-the-worldAs President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

To whom might I — and Kennedy — be referring?  Read a fascinating rumination about how “southern white notables”… the local white aristocracy across the U.S. South… is not only still fighting the Civil War, but has had winning strategies for most of the last 150 years — with a result that their region still lags bitterly in every metric of economic, social and personal health.

While combatting the current madness in that direction, remember. There were (and may again be) other enemies of the future like communists. Staring venomously in just one direction is blinkered and deliberate blindness. Sanity and adulthood — both wary and hopeful in all directions — are our hopes.

==The vanishing U.S. trade imbalance: what does it mean? ==

Want more optimism?

My friend the brilliant and popular economics-investment pundit John Mauldin publishes economics insights from what might be called an “Eisenhower Republican” perspective — rock-ribbed and skeptical of debt, but also well-distanced from the Murdochian Madness that has hijacked today’s GOP.  John’s latest report appraises how a combination of resurgent oil and gas production in the U.S., Obama Administration policies and a rapid return of high-tech manufacturing to U.S. shores, is already having huge effects upon the American balance of trade, a lingering deficit that has spanned a human lifetime.

HowAmericansSpentThemselvesA deficit that – by the way – I call deliberate, and one of the most important contributions of Pax Americana to world history. A deficit that propelled export driven growth across the world, uplifting generations first in war-torn Europe and Japan, then Taiwan, Korea, Singapore… and so on until U.S. trade is now the chief force lifting China and India at the same time.

Mauldin shows how the trade imbalance appears to be going away more rapidly than anyone expected: With the US current account deficit continuing its fall, we need to be alert for the next crisis abroad. It is very difficult to predict exactly when, where, and how markets will panic, but taking US dollars out of the trading system is akin to losing a chair in a game of musical chairs. Someone is going to be left out. It could be Europe or Japan –  but more likely it will be emerging-market countries loaded with a lot of external debt denominated in US dollars who struggle to keep a seat at the table.”

Another outcome. When the US is no longer shipping tsunamis of dollars overseas, the countries of Asia will need another currency to trade with each other.  China is already preparing to set up its renmimbi (yuan) as a new reserve currency to stand next to the dollar.  This will be accelerated, so long as China does not collapse because America is buying fewer Chinese goods.  It can get complicated. For example the impact any China slow-down is going to have on commodities like metals, on countries like Canada, on countries like Australia.

It probably is time for the development teat of U.S. trade deficits to start shutting down. It was fun, buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed, so that manufacturing jobs would cycle through the planet leaving new middle classes rising in their wake. (Foreign aid via Walmart.)

But America needs to attend to finishing the latest outbreak of its ongoing (and psychotic) civil war — a task of self-purging and healing that’s going to take a while, before we can go back to helping move the world forward.

== Making optimism general and ongoing ==

SocialPyramidHow has our rare and unique Enlightenment – with its vibrant, win-win markets and democracy and science – managed to stay in business, given that human nature routinely seeks to destroy it? Across 99% of human history, the classic social pattern was a pyramid of power with a narrow owner-elite controlling teeming masses below them.  The classic Power Pyramid is clearly a stable system since it dominated everywhere that humans developed both farms and metals.  We are descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick. Human males are good at it and it should come as no surprise that they are always conspiring to bring it back.

Problem is: while the Power Pyramid may be “natural” to humans it also sucks at governance, at statecraft, at delivering peace, wealth, happiness, freedom, science or progress. We have six millennia of violent, horrifically stupid history that testifies to that pure and proved fact.

Our diamond-shaped society, with a dominant and confident Middle Class, is rare and (alas) not inherently stable, which is why earlier experiments failed.  It is, however, fabulously successful at creativity, wealth-generation, and fostering the spectacular positive sum games of democracy, science and competitive-open markets. No combination of human societies ever accomplished a fraction of what we have, with enlightenment methods, in just 200 years.  But in order to keep the experiment going, careful design and management and relentless fine-tuning have been required.

Adam_Smith_Wealth_of_NationsNumber one among those methods – as prescribed by Adam Smith and the American Founders – was divided power.  You sic the mighty against each other!  Break up monopolies and insist that companies fight it out in the market place with new goods and services, for example. That’s hard! So naturally, their CEOs try to collude and connive while strolling the golf course.  So we sic regulators on them, and lo!  They turn and use a myriad methods to “capture” the regulators… as happened when the railroads turned the old Interstate Commerce Commission into their own private brothel.

(Ironically, it was democrats who disbanded the ICC and the horrid old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and who did every other major DE-regulation of the last century except in one industry.  Finance.  Republicans led the charge deregulating that area, for the simple reason that regulation of finance is desperately necessary to prevent massive raids on our economy.  And sure enough, major raids on the economy happened right after each of those GOP-led “deregulations.”

Which brings us to: Meet the Flexians: A new professional class of movers and shakers—people who serve overlapping roles in government, business, and media with smiling finesse—is controlling the flow of power and money in America.” See the article by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standard.

PredatorsParasitesScary huh?  To which I can only respond with “Um…. duh?”  Predators and parasites and oligarchs will use monumental cleverness to game any system – whether it is feudal or mercantilist or “communist” – and help pound the diamond into a pyramid of power and control.

We should not despair that clever people learn to game whatever system we create.  It is a good thing that our species creates clever individuals who are able to spot opportunities, form teams and compete well!  We must merely stop them from doing the toxic thing that such teams always did across six thousand years of wretched feudalism, conniving to CHEAT and prevent the competition from continuing!

“No, that is not how we will let you succeed,” we must tell them. “Go and innovate new goods and services. Compete with each other to manage creative enterprises without unfair advantages. You may not win by conniving our systems.”

Let’s take our example from professional sports.  Praise this year’s champions. Reward them with riches.  And break up concentrations of excess power so that the game continues to be interesting. Vibrant and fun.

1 Comment

Filed under economy, history

Pondering Pax Americana and the government ‘shut-down’

GettysburgAddressWhile Americans await the recoil of their government’s impending shut-down, I recommend, for light reading/listening, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, especially the last sentence, which is a tonic for those who have been taught the koolaid mantra that “all government is vile, all the time.” Ask yourselves what our parents in the Greatest Generation would have said to that noxious oversimplification.

And, mind you, I say this as the only science fiction author ever to deliver a keynote to a Libertarian Party National Convention… back when the “L-word” had not been hijacked, before healthy skepticism of bureaucratic over-reach mutated into bilious hatred of an entire system that has worked well for U.S. citizens, for generations.  Listen to Jeff Daniels recite the Address for you. Then re-dedicate yourself to what Lincoln meant, spurning the cynics seeking to re-ignite that civil war.

== On American Exceptionalism… ==

JeffDanielsAw heck, that makes a perfect segue to Jeff Daniels again… now in the hit HBO show “Newsroom.” The show can be dramatic, fascinating, smart, on-target… and occasionally too smug in its mainstream liberalism not to deserve a wince or two.  Or maybe an occasional “yeah, true enough, but you left out….” spray-shouted at the TV. (Oh, I am so much fun to be around!)

In this clip, Daniels responds to a student’s question, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” The first two panelists on the stage give pat (strawman) answers — diversity, opportunity, freedom and freedom. Daniels ventures into somewhat indignant territory, but his answer is worth pondering. Indeed, I discussed this issue in “American Exceptionalism vs What has Made America Exceptional“…

AmericanExceptionalismAnd yet, at risk of offending both left and right in my contrarian way, I must demur. Daniels’ response blatantly ignores many things.  Like why the United States has spent so much more money than any twenty other nations on defense. He deems it a mark of shame, but it has been a burden that largely saved the world.

Perspective time. The reason is because we were the world’s Pax Power and that in itself is a type of “greatness.”  Across history, most pax empires (e.g. Pax Romana or Pax Sinica) were oppressive, but generally there was a huge upside to living under or near one; cities were safe from rampaging hordes and people were free to build their lives in peace. The alternative of fractious warring states could have advantages too… there was never a more fecund time than splintered Classical Greece or Colonizing Europe, but the fragility and brittleness of those times were a terrible price and most “warring states” periods did not even have such fecundity.

War21CenturyWithout question, Pax Americana was the best and least hated of all grand paxes. (Try reading what non-Roman peoples grumbled about Rome, even while benefiting from the peace. Or what Gandhi said about Pax Brittanica, even while admitting it was the least immoral empire seen up to that point.) In fact, all of them — including PA — committed crimes. Dig this well — we are human beings and when we get some power our egos get carried away with it. You try being king, sometime.

If you want to hurl a list of bad PA actions, from police enforcement for United Fruit Co. to Mossadegh in Iran and Allende in Chile, I will thump my chest and cry “nostra culpa!” for each one. You’ll not get mealy-mouth excuses or shrugs from me. Indeed, clear-eyed criticism of such crimes — or disastrous-hubristic meddlings, like Vietnam  — is part of the duty of an aware American citizen. And dig this, boy are we trained to criticize with abandon!

Still, by comparison, and weighing the pile of good next to the bad — and partly because of the habit of self-criticism — Americans exercised more restraint and responsibility with that temptation than any other nation across all of time. In fact, I’d ask you to name a people who ever did better when tempted by power.  (You who are fuming right now, consider. Are you part of the national habit I am describing? Are you honest enough to name the tsunami of films and other propaganda that made you such an eager critic?)

Back to specifics, the U.S. defense umbrella has, since 1945, allowed most nations to spend far, far lower fractions of national income on warriors than at any time in history, allowing them to divert more to education and development.  Look up the stats and be amazed!  And Steven Pinker’s proof that violence has plummeted under the era of Pax Americana. Further, do go ask folks in Poland and Korea, before you dismiss all this “pax” stuff.

== A word hated by the left and horribly misused by the right ==

selfcritiqueAlas, no American gets any of this! In part because Americans avoid knowing anything at all about history. For their part, Republicans love the glory of imperium  – its pomp and preening-doofus “Yew-Hess-Hay!” pride… and thus they have plunged us into wasteful, horrendously-futile and self-defeating wars in search of it… while never admitting the grown-up obligations and accomplishments of Pax Americana — especially the vital and unprecedented habit of self-criticism.

Liberals, in contrast, are so obsessed with seeming “grownup” that they never mention the fact that PA was flat-out necessary and mostly good for civilization, especially in comparison to the mess wrought by every preceding great power.  This despite the ultimate irony, that Democrats nearly always have managed America’s pax responsibilities vastly better than Republicans ever did (except Ike.)


Vastly better.  Want it laid out clearly and decisively? How Democrats and Republicans Wage War.

No. Go watch Jeff Daniels’s rant . He tells truth… but only half of it. The surly, grouchy half, which is just as limited a liberal dumbness as “Yew-Hess-Hay!” is insipid troglodytism on the right. In fact, the Pax period since 1945 is serious history that our descendants will study in books for 10,000 years. It has been far more positive than negative, but in part because of our reflex of despising empire, not glorying in it. This calls for perspective, not uni-directional reflexes.

And thus, the Daniels rant — his narrative — is, in fact, a poison.

== Another perspective ==

My friend the popular economics-investment pundit John Mauldin recently showed his added class by attending the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio and revealing himself to be an uber-fan. He also publishes economics insights from what might be called an “Eisenhower Republican” perspective — rock-ribbed and skeptical of debt, but also well-distanced from the Murdochian Madness that has hijacked today’s GOP. John’s latest report appraises how a combination of rising oil and gas production in the US, Obama Administration policies and a rapid return of high-tech manufacturing to US shores is already having huge effects upon the American balance of trade, a deficit that has spanned a human lifetime.

A deficit that – by the way – I call deliberate, and one of the most important contributions of Pax Americana to world history. A deficit that propelled export driven growth across the world, uplifting generations first in war-torn Europe and Japan, then Taiwan, Korea, Singapore… and so on until US trade is now the chief force lifting China and India at the same time. 

Endgame-Mauldin-John-F-9781118004579John shows how the trade imbalance appears to be going away more rapidly than anyone expected: “With the US current account deficit continuing its fall, we need to be alert for the next crisis abroad. It is very difficult to predict exactly when, where, and how markets will panic, but taking US dollars out of the trading system is akin to losing a chair in a game of musical chairs. Someone is going to be left out. It could be Europe or Japan – but more likely it will be emerging-market countries loaded with a lot of external debt denominated in US dollars who struggle to keep a seat at the table.”

Another outcome. When the US is no longer shipping tsunamis of dollars overseas, the countries of Asia will need another currency to trade with each other. China is already preparing to set up its renmimbi (yuan) as a new reserve currency to stand next to the dollar. This will be accelerated, so long as China does not collapse because America is buying fewer Chinese goods. It can get complicated. For example the impact any China slow-down is going to have on commodities like metals, on countries like Canada, on countries like Australia.

It probably is time for the development teat of U.S. trade deficits to start shutting down. It was fun, buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed, so that manufacturing jobs would cycle through the planet leaving new middle classes rising in their wake — perhaps far more fun than “foreign aid” is supposed to be… though also vastly more effective than any other form of wealth transfer or aid ever attempted. But America needs to attend to finishing the latest phase of its ongoing civil war and that’s going to take a while, before we can go back to helping move the world forward.

== A final note on that civil war we’re in ==

You want my own quirky, contrarian take on the insane lemming charge toward a shut-down of the U.S. government?  Well… all right. So long as you are ready for more contrary insights. Here are some peeks behind the curtain.

Key is the Hastert Rule, under which all Republican House members have vowed to always and absolutely obey the majority of the House GOP Caucus, no matter how slender (or crazy) that majority might be. This means that 51% of the 51% can utterly control the agenda and proceedings and output of the United States House of Representatives. This, plus gerrymandering, plus Fox News, compose all the explanation anyone needs for the current made-up “crisis.”

Despite all the pundit-ravings about a “civil war within the GOP,” The 21st Century Republican Party remains (for now at least) the most tightly disciplined political force we have seen in American political life since the “solid south” of the old Dixiecrats, seventy years ago. Pundits tell us that discipline and the Hastert Rule are maintained by fear of Tea Party insurrections in next spring’s GOP primary.  Don’t you believe the pundits.

LincolnGettysburgAddressIn fact, nothing happens in the Tea Party without say-so from Fox News. Fox is co-owned by Rupert Murdoch and several Saudi princes who have made their agenda clear. The government of the United States of America, which has functioned — overall — far better than anything else the world ever saw , helping to lead a consortium of other free nations and peoples to transform civilization for the better… that government and even the concept of “government” must be undermined, discredited and ultimately destroyed. It is the core, consistent narrative and one that a third of U.S. citizens now swallow as eagerly as babes do mother’s milk. And hence, amid this re-ignited civil war, it is only proper to evoke Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one more time. Recite it to your neighbors enthralled by the Murdochians. Watch them wince.

So. Do not let the appearance of internal GOP strife fool you.  All — (or nearly all, so long as the Hastert Rule applies) — is choreographed.

Were these sane days, it would take just twenty House GOP members to break off and form a Grownup Conservative Caucus — taking their chances with the inevitable Tea Party vengeance in their district primaries, next spring — in order to negotiate with moderate democrats, as used to happen all the time, back in the 20th Century. They would do this for the sake of the nation, out of courage and love of country… and love for a version of conservatism that Barry Goldwater might recognize. (A deal to make entitlements more efficient, in exchange of elimination of some fat-cat tax breaks, has been on the table for two years. Those twenty are all it would take.)

Alas, Rupert Murdoch and his partners have made clear their agenda to destroy Goldwater Conservatism in America… and thereupon all meaningful discourse. God help us if the Democrats ever become likewise dominated by their loony fringe. (And you better believe they have one – as feeble as it currently is!) If that ever happens — (and a vanishing Middle Class just might drive such radicalism) — then our only escape will be Canada… or space.  And Pax Americana will be finished.

Which has been the aim of Rupert & Co., all along.


Filed under history, politics

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

I haven’t said much political in a while. Moreover, amid all the talk of budget balancing and sequesters, I’d like to shift attention to a topic that may – at first sight – seem a bit wonkish and detached: farm subsidies.  In fact, they are an area where Blue America remains frightfully ignorant and where the flood of entitlement spending merits closer attention, in times of near bankruptcy.

CornEthanolAre we entering a new era of negotiation?

Amid the flux of rapid change, new alliances and alignments are being made, as we speak.   Some conservative pastors are reversing what had been standard dogma, speaking out for “creation-tending” and action on climate change. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are cautiously easing (even in the wake of Fukushima) their once-rigid opposition toward nuclear power. While Barack Obama and the democrats show flexibility toward cautious offshore drilling, a few Republican legislators showed a willingness to pursue more stringent gas mileage standards and cap-and-trade methods for curbing greenhouse gases.

Of course, in some of these cases, what we’re seeing is another example of “leaders” following the public, rather than the other way around.  Still, after the century’s first decade (the Nasty Oughts) featured intransigent Culture War,  is it possible we are witnessing a gradual return to the other, classic American pattern?  That of even-tempered pragmatism? Finally shaking off a bad case of Future Shock that swept America, along with that fearsome “2” in the millennium column.  I guess we’ll find out, if (as predicted by my friend, the renowned business pundit John Mauldin) Democrats and republicans astonish everyone with a sensible compromise budget deal.

If so, it has to be only the beginning. After immigration reform and modest sensibility on assault weapons, there are some other sticky matters badly in need of a fresh look.

(Note: this posting is an updating of a “classic” that got a lot of buzz some years ago.)

The History and Common Sense of Farm Subsidies… and What Happened

Let’s zero in on one area where logic and pragmatism have been in short supply — the question of farm subsidies, and how they lately spurred a giant biofuels industry — one that could have been set up sensibly, but for the simplemindedness of all sides, leaving in place little more than a wasteful scam.

image.axdFirst a little history, of the biblical kind. Remember Joseph? He of the technicolor coat, who wandered into Egypt and interpreted a Pharaoh’s dream? Seven fat cows, followed by seven skinny ones.  These, Joseph announced, forecast a time of bumper harvests, followed by one of devastating famine. That is, unless sufficient stocks were bought and stored away. Which the forewarned Pharaoh did, whereupon he ultimately thanked Joseph for saving the nation.

Historians now verify that the Egyptian state used to do this sort of thing often, in a routine and simple way. Whenever crops grew abundant and grain prices were low, the government bought and stored grain, both assisting farmers hit by low prices and creating a stockpiled reserve. When supplies ran thin and prices ran high, the caches were opened and stores sold, softening price swings, letting both farmers and consumers have a little predictability in life. Any resulting profit to the government helped to maintain to the granaries. A simple system. Everyone benefited. Farmers weren’t bankrupted by too-good harvest years. The people weren’t starved and taken advantage of in lean times. Taxpayers got their money’s worth. The state’s useful role paid for itself.

Now, there were a few special circumstances that helped Pharoanic Egypt master this trick. The dry climate allowed grain storage for extended periods. Also, there are a few things that simple-minded kingdoms do really well, such as repeating the same working pattern, over and over. Pivotally, those ancient farmers did not have a powerful voting bloc, able to sway government policy and alter the arrangement in shortsighted ways — a failure mode of later, more sophisticated nations.

dust1Take the U.S. Great Depression, a time when urban populations went hungry, while farmers poured excess milk into sewers, because the price was too low to be worth shipping. Under the New Deal, various methods were tried, for helping rural populations hard beset by market ructions… as well as dust bowls, foreclosures, bank failures, disease and bad land mismanagement. Some of the solutions — e.g. roads, schools, electrification, farm-science and thousands of farm bureau offices, subsidized post, phone and internet — seem proper tasks for government, even from a conservative perspective. (Now, that is; though all of these sensible measures were bitterly fought by the same shortsighted folks who today equate FDR with Satan.)

Notably, urban taxpayers never demanded payback for a cent of all that rural infrastructural support — a tradition that continues today, as rivers of tax dollars continue to flow from Blue to Red. Nor should they. (Nor should rural folk brag about how “independent” they are.) We need each other. E pluribus unum.

How did Farm Policy Leave Common Sense Behind?

Infrastructure is an easy decision, but how to damp those pesky swings in market price? Of course, a direct approach for achieving rural assistance, and one that involves the most market-meddling, has been direct farm subsidy payments and price supports. And, way back in the 1930s, the first recourse looked pretty darn traditional. The government simply bought up extra food and gave it to poor people. Some of the grain and milk got turned into storable items, like flour and cheese, to serve as a national reserve before getting recycled through food stamps and school lunch programs. And, yes, the government bought grains when they were cheap and sold them later, when the price was high. All very logical. Almost Egyptian.

Food Politics cover smallOnly progress follows progress. With all that education and infrastructure and investment, farmers got a whole lot better at their business. There came a time when US agriculturalists could not be stopped from producing too much! Domestically, at least, there was no longer a “famine” side of the cycle, for the government to dump its stockpiles into. And sure, the government tried making this a win-win by sending massive amounts of food overseas, as foreign aid. But, while some of this was genuinely life-saving, we now know that another result was — just as often — to undermine local agricultural systems and wreck a developing nation’s ability to feed itself. Beware of unforeseen consequences.

So the idea arose simply to pay farmers not to produce on some of their land. On occasion this has been done, in some countries, by purchasing some of the farmland outright, leaving it fallow or converting it to other uses, even parks. Farmers benefit from higher prices or collateral value for their land. Farmers also get higher income from their crops, since less land is in production overall. And taxpayers get something tangible, in return for this help. They get that land. It can be banked, just like that Egyptian grain. Only much better-preserved and with ecological benefits, too,

farmSubsidiesBut then, we are a nation where political power was deliberately tilted, from the beginning, toward rural states. And, as one might expect, there came pressure for change. It began to occur to clever people that governments can be arm-twisted into giving, without getting anything in return. (After all, look at the dams and highways and schools.) So, polemical tricks were used. For government to buy land and surplus produce was “socialistic.” On the other hand, simply paying farmers to keep their land, but not to grow anything on it, well, that somehow made sense and was not socialistic at all!

This is an old, old argument, and I am neither qualified, nor interested in getting down to the actual fight over farm supports, per se. Or the way giant agribusinesses now collect the lion’s share of subsidies that were designed to preserve family farms. Or the way opponents of socialism nevertheless have managed to rationalize demanding that the taxpayers’ government never get anything direct and tangible, in return! (Socializing and externalizing costs while privatizing profits — that’s the new version of “capitalism.” And Adam Smith is spinning in his grave.)

Only let’s get back to Joseph; note how the second half of the ancient cycle is now almost completely missing. When the government used to stabilize low prices by buying something material (grain or land) it acquired a palpable reserve that it could then use in emergencies, or sell when prices were high. But, today, there are no large federal stocks of food pouring forth to ease the skyrocketing supermarket prices, nor stocks of reserved land being nurtured in fallow-recovery, or else offered to young, suburban couples to try their hand, as new farming pioneers. Nor are the direct-payment subsidies being cut back, now that floods of profit are pouring into agribusiness.

It is no longer a matter of cycle balancing. It is an entitlement.  Indeed, one sees some very “non-egyptian” things going on… like a US government hurrying to fill the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve with high priced oil. The same government that (does anybody at all recall?) sold out of the reserve, years ago, when prices were low.  Buy high and sell low.  Very “non-egyptian,” indeed.

(Note, that particular scandal happened under the George W. Bush Administration, when this article first posted. Nor was it alone.  The Bushes sold off most of the US helium reserve – to friends at low prices – and now a helium scarcity is growing dire. We all need to become better at detecting such scams.)

What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Biofeuls And Ethanol?

Good question. First, some more historical perspective, provided (in 2008) by economic analyst John Mauldin:

“North America has experienced great weather for the last 18 consecutive years, which, combined with other improvements in agriculture, has resulted in abundant crops. According to Donald Coxe, chief strategist of Harris Investment Management , you have to go back 800 years to find a period of such favorable weather for so long a time. Yet food stocks in corn, wheat, rice, etc. are dangerously low. We are just one bad weather season from a potential worldwide food disaster. And Dennis Gartman has been pointing out almost daily how far behind US farmers are in getting their corn crops planted, due to bad weather:” Further. “… the corn crop really is behind schedule. Corn is not like wheat. Wheat can survive drought; it can survive cold; wheat, as we were taught by our mentor, Mr. Melvin Ford, many years ago, is a weed. It is an amazing, resilient plant. But corn is temperamental; it needs rain when it needs rain; it needs dry conditions when it needs dry conditions. It needs to not be hit by early season frost, or it will suffer, and it needs a rather archly set number of days to grow. Each day lost at the front end of the planting/growing season puts pressure upon the corn plant to finish its job before the autumn frosts, and puts increased soybean acreage and decreased corn acreage before us. Meanwhile, ranchers are reducing their herds, as they cannot afford to feed them due to high grain prices.The same thing is happening with chickens. This means sometime this fall supplies of meat of all types are going to be reduced. Maybe someone will point out that using corn to produce ethanol has the unwanted and unintended consequence of driving up food prices all over the world.”

As usual, economic wisdom from one of the best analysts in our generation. (Note that in the years since, our US grain belt has been struck by a devastating, multi-year drought.)

So, then, let’s bring in ethanol.

cornIn recent years, a heavy and generous federal subsidy has created a vast corn-to-ethanol industry whose effects are causing a lot of public debate. Environmentalists claim that it takes more than a gallon of imported oil to actually create a gallon of ethanol fuel. The greenhouse gas benefits are negligible and possibly negative. According to Mauldin, the price and energy balance would be much better if we imported Brazillian sugar cane, which seems made for ethanol production. But farmers in Idaho apparently have a veto over anything sensible like that.

Of course, never mind the blatant silliness of pouring food into our gas tanks, while poor people around the world riot over skyrocketing prices and we, here, feel a sharp pinch in the store.  Clearly, we are witnessing democracy at its almost-worst. (Wherein hypocritical oligarchs who keep citing the infamous “largesse” diss upon the common citizen, are by far the worst offenders.)

Today, the special interests are vast and well-entrenched, so don’t expect them to enter into negotiations to find a logical way out of this mess. Indignant rationalizations abound, and every person seems convinced that their own version of government-suckling is not socialism. It is patriotism.

The Right Way to Apply Hard Liquor…

But now I plan to surprise you. I will speak up not only for government price intervention to help farmers, but also for subsidized biofuel alcohol!
Though not as it is being done today.

Perhaps it is time to take a look back at the Egyptians of old, and go back to the root of the problem, so to speak. Farmers (especially giant agribusinesses) do not deserve automatic subsidies as some kind of birthright. On the other hand, the ancients were onto something. We are all better off if farmers are cushioned from wild market swings and get the kind of predictability that can let them invest in what is, after all, a business vital to us all.

Back when the New Dealers and Great Society folks tried to balance the cycles by buying cheap-excess bumper crops and storing for lean days, they ran into a problem. A vast, continental nation can only store up so much grain and cheese. In part, the move to simple cash grants came out of despair over how to do the job effectively, the Egyptian way.

But here is where alcohol comes in! Because alcohol can be stored.

In fact, it can be stocked away indefinitely, cheaply and beautifully.What was done poorly under Lyndon Johnson… turning excess farm production into mountains of wasted cheese… can now be accomplished logically and efficiently…. if we make biofuel ethanol a seasonal or occasional way to absorb and store, and later use, surges in excess grain production.

What should we do?  Let the ethanol subsidy go away. It is an insane market interference, choosing a market winner and a dumb one, at that.The money could be far better used making up for years of deliberately-sabotaged research into energy independence. Stop the gasohol mandate now!  But don’t shut down the gasohol plants completely.

The-Politics-of-Food-Supply-Winders-Bill-9780300139242Instead, let the taxpayers buy excess corn whenever its price is worrisomely low, convert the surplus into storable form, and sell the alcohol later, when the price seems right. That is the exact equivalent of the Pharaoh’s storehouse. And let the government’s profit go to maintaining this reserve capacity, when it is un-needed. 

We need to stop thinking of ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. That’s just silly and a crutch for those diverting us from real solutions for energy independence. Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the excess produce of America’s fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel or money… and thus even back into food.

And yes, chuckle at the image that is brought to mind.  Nearly all of the American founders – especially George Washington – distilled their own moonshine. It often served as cash and currency for farmers, when money was scarce. Alcohol flows through our national blood, in a sense.  And if we view it properly, it can answer the modernized Riddle of Joseph, offering a way to damp the waste of fat years and help us prepare for the lean one that will surely come.

1 Comment

Filed under history, politics, society

Was 2012 the “best year in the history of the world”?

Most of you know that I have a reputation for optimism.  I find that irritating since, in fact, I have a rather low opinion of humanity and of our dismal historical record. I know the odds are against us, especially in a galaxy that seems devoid of voices.  Still… I find today’s fashion for universal cynicism – spanning from left to right – to be not only tedious and dull, but fantastically unhelpful.  The Enlightenment, the best thing that our species or planet ever did, thrives on a confident, can-do, problem solving spirit. Not the sick drug of pessimistic sanctimony.

I’ve long pointed to work done by Prof. Steven Pinker and others, showing that inter-human violence has fallen steeply (on average and per capita) every decade since the end of World War II.  Civilization’s moral compass has swerved in powerfully positive ways. Although the campaign to rid ourselves of racism, sexism and other sicknesses is far from done, those ancient ills were taken for granted in most cultures but are now driven into ill repute. As the environmentalist author of EARTH, I feel we’ll become good planetary managers as much by learning from what we’ve started doing well, as from self-flagellation.

prosperitySo I had to pause and wonder why I was irked by an article in The Spectator (UK), blithely declaring that “2012 was the best year ever! Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity.” It’s not that any single thing the author wrote was wrong: the campaign to halve world poverty reached its goal seven years early, for example, in 2008, and no one said a thing. The list of good news is long, amazing and encouraging. The author is right to point out that gloom blinds us to hope.

Still, as a “contrarian” I find occasional outbursts of fizzy optimism just as grating as the much more common habit of grotesquely thoughtless grumpiness. The optimists are more-right and more-helpful, by far! Still, do read this article. He’s completely right!  Yet the aroma of smug satisfaction is almost as bothersome to me as the overwhelming stench of  me-too cynicism rising from millions.  We have grownup work to do.  Both sides… grow up.

== Interesting Miscellany ==

The rest of this posting sweeps up a wide melange of miscellaneously enticing items: enjoy.

My friend Kevin Kelly offers a fascinating perspective on the meaning of General Transparency in the era of YouTube.  “Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we’ll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightning. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we’ll float in extraordinariness.”  And “Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don’t feel as improbable.”

The_World_Until_Yesterday_coverSee a review of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.” The span and thrust are pretty clear — it seems a much less important a contribution than Guns, Germs and Steel or Collapse, at least on the grand level of sweeping ideas.

In portraying the wisdom — and some systematic errors — of tribal societies, Diamond comes down as he did in the disappointing final chapters of Collapse, deeply skeptical of modernity and its prospects for achieving respect-worthy civilization. He expresses nostalgia for the primitive that – while sometimes insightful and willing to perceive warts – can also, in some campus communities, turn into a fetish. Indeed, in EXISTENCE I portray him as an archetype for one variety of renunciationism — a philosophy you’ll be hearing more about as we head toward the mid-century crisis of choice — whether our path will be forward or back.

Still, I always recommend Jared Diamond’s works. He is a major thinker and you will be broadened. Though it’s rare to come across wisdom as fine as Jonas Salk’s succinct: “Be a good ancestor.”

=== Fun numeralogy and destiny ==

Interesting facts about 2013:
- first year with four distinct digits since 1987
- first since 1432 with four consecutive digits!

The secret bad day? January 13, 2014 could be viewed as the 13th day of the 13th month of the 13th year

Oh but the biggest deal?  The Fourteenth Year.  You’ll be hearing more about this from me.  The fact that the 20th Century “began” in all its character, in 1914… as the 19th Century began with Napolean’s defeat in 1814.  It is a daunting trend to contemplate, if you let it really sink in.

JT-CollapseHeck let’s spread our sources wider from Jared Diamond and glance at another take that’s relevant:  Joseph Tainter’s (1990) book: The Collapse of Complex Societies contains Tainter’s theory within the title. Tainter appears to take the view that the social complexity of major urban cultures creates the seeds of collapse through an inevitable process. Rising populations, over-used resources, growing stratification of classes, difficulties of allocation and management, all of these problems can be solved by innovation and determination. But unlike Toynbee, who sees ongoing renewal in a culture’s “creative minority,” Tainter says that this renewal process gets harder and harder to maintain, with ever diminishing rates of return.  In this dour view – somewhat of a cross between Marx and Spengler – Tainter seems to agree with Diamond that our sole hope for long term stability is to rein in ambition, to reduce complexity, even if that requires some degree of suppression…

If you’ve read my review of Collapse, you know how highly I think of Diamond’s scholarly efforts to warn us of problems… and how little I think of his proposed solutions.

Me? When it comes to prescriptions, I’ll go with Toynbee.  We need a vigorous society, not a cowardly one.  A culture that invests eagerly in its creative minority.

== Making a new world ==

So, is the “maker movement” going to rescue American manufacturing independence… and civilization in general, as some  tech-utopians not predict? (And as I depict in my graphic novel TINKERERS.)  Have a look at a very thoughtful essay in Technology Review that considers some factors that the tech-transcendentalists – in their zeal to believe – may have missed.

While we’re on new worlds:  “Dio” is a new endeavor by Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, to do something I had been aiming at with my Holocene invention, empowering folks and businesses to create their own virtual worlds.  It looks pretty crude so far… and could definitely be vastly improved with my patents… but I’d be interested in what people think, who try it out.

PATENTWhy Silicon Valley innovation has stalled. A fascinating article that uses a simple metaphor to show what’s wrong with the current Startup-VC Mentality. “Unlike medical research, or for that matter microprocessor engineering, the current internet space is largely driven by people trying to make a fast buck as opposed to people working at the edge of the envelope.” … “People aren’t driving new technological innovations so much as they’re creating convenience models…. There’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurs seizing a business opportunity, but what is disconcerting is how this entire segment has convinced themselves that they are on the cutting edge of innovation and have all the answers. Using the medical analogy, the current environment in the internet space essentially tells people that they will make more money as a pre-med dropout opening clinics than as a serious researcher looking for a cure for cancer.”

Tell me about it.  I have patented several dozen fundamental interaction modalities that would enhance online communications. But they do not fit the “massage what’s familiar” mindset of those who have made billions milking the obvious and plucking the low-hanging fruit.

Ah but want good news? Sales of super-efficient and durable LED light bulbs are skyrocketing as prices fall, posing a new challenge for manufacturers. LED lights offer higher profit margins, but because they can last for decades, people will be buying fewer bulbs — of any sort. The Energy Information Administration estimates that total light bulb sales will fall by almost 40 percent by 2015, to just under a billion from 1.52 billion bulbs, and continue their decline to about 530 million by 2035, with LEDs making up a steadily increasing portion of the market. New versions even accept bluetooth commands to adjust color or output on demand.  (We’ve spent to LED our highest use areas and will shift each room as prices keep falling.  This is an ingredient in world-saving.

romanceWindDo you tire of videos everybody says you HAVE to watch?  This kite-flying display –  Romancing the Wind – is spectacular… by a Canadian in his 80s. More sublime than you ever could have expected.

Danger 5 is the most creative comedy I’ve seen since Coupling. (Sort of WW2 in the 1960’s with cheesy special effects).  Then go to and watch the 2 episodes they have up. New ones added every Sunday.  “Team, your mission is to stop the flow of weapons into France and above all, Go Kill Hitler!”

Ooooh I am so so tempted by this… Father hires virtual hitman to assassinate deadbeat son in online video game. Get off! Go outside and throw a ball.

== More Marvelous Miscellany ==

contemplation of Shakespeare and Galileo..both born in 1564 (450 years ago next year).Galileo supposedly the day Michaelangelo died.  And Newton born the year Galileo died.  Ah cue Rod Serling.

dragonKickstarter projects come in a wide range of ambitions.  Here is one at the high end. Motion capture maven Tracy McSheery is participating in a project to create an animated movie: Tower of the Dragon, with just $50,000 of startup funds. See” Features some cool freebies.

Here’s a short film Tom Munnecke did a while back about Jonas Salk’s “good ancestor theme.”

Speaking of ancestors, the appropriately named CRACKED site has distilled why we do not need social status in society to be something that’s inherited (as ruined 99% of human cultures.)  See: The 5 Most Hilariously Insane Rulers of All Time. Though poorly-written and historically flakey in spots, it is still tragically funny. Even if it leaves out the worst loony monarchs, by far. Try Victoria’s grandsons “Nicky” and “Willy.” Time travelers… skip Hitler and take out those two. If the Kaiser and Czar had had “accidents” in 1913, Adolph would’ve become a minor animation frame painter in Disney’s 1930s Star Wars studio.

This is exactly what the Age of Amateurs should and will be about. A woman who is a professional hairdresser became fascinated with images of Roman and Greek women in complex tresses.  She recreated scores of them for an archaeological journal, proving that they had been real, held by needle and thread, rather than wigs. There was no guild opposition to her contribution, only enthusiastic help… as I have found when I published papers about Neoteny, anthropology, addiction and so on.

== And a final sweep of coolstuff ==

The British Interplanetary Society offers a lovely retrospective on pioneering space artists including the great Chesley Bonestall

Zoom in and find yourself! A census dotmap of every person counted by the US & Canadian censuses.

Askimo TV is an interesting concept… a collation of pod video interviews with experts on a wide array of curiosity topics. What do you think of it?

ouch… The website “SSRI Stories: Antidepressant Nightmares” offers a sortable database of more than 4,800 newspaper articles, scientific journal reports, and TV news items linking antidepressant use to cases of extreme violence. Not taking sides.  Just so you know.

Petra Haden’s amazing a capella renditions of movie scores... scroll down and play the whole thing!

51NMMLsw6XL._SL500_AA300_Raspberry Pi is a palm-sized full computer – announced in 2012 (here among other places) selling for under $50 —  for a bare circuit board that runs free linux on a 700Mhz processor using an SD card instead of hard drive, but with two USB and one ethernet ports to let you link in your stuff. According to tech-biz guru Doug Hornig: “Interest ran so high in the first days that it stalled the sites of the shops selling the computers. Moreover, that demand has proven durable. Premier Farnell, one of the two authorized manufacturers of the product (RS Components is the other), announced in January that it has sold more than a half-million units. RS Components, which took 100,000 pre-orders on day one, is apparently selling them equally briskly, so it’s likely that there are now a million of the devices out there.”

A whole amateur maker trend is finding uses for the things and they have abounded with an app store and “Raspberry Jams” – meetups of enthusiasts.  Google is giving 15,000 to schools in the UK.  Competitors in the under $100 space to lookup: Mini X, Oval Elephant, Cubieboard, and Olimex.  Hornig adds: “It just might be that manufacturers of these microdevices are sowing the seeds for the next crop of young hackers (who will increasingly come from the developing world, as all of its nascent talents are released).”

Land Without Evil coverMy friend and Colleague Matt Pallamary has written some wonderful things.  Now it seems that this year’s production from Austin based aerialist group Sky Candy is based on Matt’s novel Land Without Evil, which tells the tale of the physical and spiritual journey a Guarani Indian man undertakes in order to lead his people to a mythical place of peace.  Austin Public television also offers a cool peek at the performance.

Want to see the effects of Twitter on the dumbing down of people?  Go to Google and type in “How can u” and see their suggested continuations.  Then type in “How can an individual”  ’nuff said.

1 Comment

Filed under future, history, society

Past keeping faith with future… and day with night

== Why the U.S. Civil War -relates to Sci Fi  ==

BurnsCivilWarEach night in November we watched Ken Burns’s CIVIL WAR documentary with our 16 year old. A terrific work of high-class, dramatic and enriching media, very highly recommended. Still, I felt the documentary was a bit light on the underlying causes of a national trauma that is resonating within and among Americans.

Oh, sure, slavery was central. Those who try to minimize that or make other excuses ought to read the actual documents and declarations of secession published by South Carolina and other rebel states. South Carolina’s declaration used the word “slavery” proudly, dozens of times. Those declarations presented “grievances” which pretty much consisted of hating northern states for not shutting down abolitionist newspapers. That truly was about it, in almost every secession declaration: “you Yankees allow freedom of the press so folks can say mean things about us. In that case, we spurn the oaths we swore. Goodbye.”

“States’ Rights” were scarcely mentioned — indeed, the south had pretty much owned and operated the US Federal Government for thirty years till Lincoln’s election ended that long run.

I have long held that the Civil War did not start with the firing on Fort Sumter.  It began in 1852 with the passage – and brutal enforcement – of the Fugitive Slave Act, which led to invasion and outright raids of northern states by squadrons of irregular southern cavalry, committing outrages and depredations from Illinois to Pennsylvania, supported first by southern-appointed U.S. Marshals and later – when locals began resisting – by federal troops.  These slave-catcher raids, smashing into homes, terrorizing neighbors and dragging off friends you knew since childhood, were the prime provocation that radicalized northerners into re-starting their dormant militias. It is what drove many of them to support Lincoln. Nothing like it happened in the south until Sherman.

But slavery is gone.  So why are we still blatantly fighting the same Civil War, 150 years later? Across pretty much the same geographical and cultural divide? Can it be something deeper and psychological?  A current that flows through impenetrable veins, that made slavery a poisonous side effect and not a primary cause?

GettysburgA hint can be found in Ted Turner’s excellent 1993 Civil War film, “Gettysburg,” based upon the 1974 novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. (Don’t bother with its putrid film prequel “Gods and Generals.”)  In “Gettysburg” a British military observer, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, comments to General Longstreet that both sides spoke the same language, sang the same songs… but had different dreams.

This resonates with what Mark Twain said — blaming the war on the addictive quasi fantasy novels of Sir Walter Scott and the streak of romanticism that wove through Southern sensibilities. Indeed, Sam Houston is quoted in the Ken Burns documentary, predicting that hot southern blood would be overcome by northern coolness and ponderous momentum of will.

A hundred years ago, in the time of Spengler, Spencer, Wells and Stapledon, this notion of national character was taken seriously.  That the pragmatic cynicism of the French and British contrasted against the Romanticism of Germany and Russia.  And yes, Nazism was the most thoroughly Romantic movement ever conceived.  It is one reason why I am chilled by Tolkien, though I respect him.  It is why I find deeply disturbing the utter-romantic visions of George Lucas.

This is not unfamiliar territory for me! I have a romantic soul – sired by generations of poets – that has been harnessed by discipline in science. Hence, I know what both science and romance are good for. Romance is for the evening, when the day’s work of contributing to civilization is done.  When all the drudgery of adult endeavors — cooperation and competition and accountability and all of that — can be put aside. The stars come out, a chill breeze blows, and the snapping of a twig out there can suddenly send chills up your spine!

Romance renounces accountability and so-called “objective reality!” It sees no need for them. And when that mind-set ruled our daylight hours, warping politics and business and the way we perceived our real-life neighbors… horror ensued.  In almost every other culture and society, the romantic tendency to view our own worldview as perfect and the enemy as subhuman reigned.  Until the Enlightenment came to show us – oh so painfully and gradually – how to utter the great words of science and decency: “I suppose I might be wrong. Let’s find out.”

KillerAngelsBut that way of thinking is for the things we do in sunlight. Cool science is for day, when a civilization must be built by negotiation and practical arts and compromise and fact-checking and the banishment of rage. When matters are decided that might decide or alter life… or death.

Romanticism must never again be allowed anywhere near the world of policy! Despite the Riefenstahlian machinations of Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. Or Vladimir Putin or Al Qaeda. Or the residual torches of recidivist leftism that keep trying to warp the liberal mindset. Romance ruled our forebears and made ten thousand years of living nightmare! Good-riddance in the daylight of grownup activities.  Justice, science and saving the world – these pursuits can’t afford delusion, no matter how vivid and tantalizing it may be..

But oh, how horrible it would be to live – as human beings – without any romance at all!  The shiver of something unknown.  The brush at the cheek.  The thrill of obsession. The itch that must be scratched.  The itch – the compulsion – to howl! We pay our dues by day, striving to make a civilization without fear or want or much pain. But it will all be for naught if –  at the end of each day – we cannot welcome back night!

I thought of this a few weeks ago, while visiting my home town of Los Angeles help dedicate a square in honor of LA’s greatest literary son, Ray Bradbury.  I pondered how Ray was the truest romantic of all. How he plumbed the darkest corners of the human soul.

But Ray also despised pessimism. He was grateful to a civilization that had been good to him, that gave him readers and audiences and a chance to play pundit during moon landings… and to see four healthy daughters grow up into bold, unlimited women. How to reconcile those two apparent contradictions? Honest gratitude with a soul that screams at infinity? It’s simple. Division of labor.  Be willing to be many.

Darkness is to be shivered at voluptuously…

… and shivers make the darkness ours.  They push aside the Gernsback Continuum of day, which strives to make a future for our children…

…and instead give us the moment. They take us back to wallow in past eras and ways, when light did not fill the world but rather flickered bravely against a chill wind and looming darkness.  Against all odds, we flickered. When courage was our only weapon in the wild and vivid night. The same realm we still go to in our dreams, after dusk, when duty’s put aside.

Oh, if we make a better, saner world… as in Star Trek… I hope we never lose that driving need, that penchant and longing!

For telling ghost stories by the campfire. And wolf-calling at the wild moon.


Filed under future, history, science fiction

Herb Brin: Remembering a Remarkable Man

My father, Herb Brin was a poet, journalist, and publisher – and one of the most colorful figures to practice the craft of journalism, both in Chicago and Southern California. He passed away 10 years ago today. (2/17/1915 – 2/6/2003)

HB 1955Herb was born in 1915 in Chicago to a poor family of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia – in an era when signs posted on some windows read “No Jews and Dogs Allowed.”

In the years before America’s entry in World War II, Herb infiltrated the German-American Bund for the Anti-Defamation League, then became a gangland reporter for the legendary City News Bureau in Chicago. He quickly gained a reputation for tough and fearless reporting, but with a unique tone of heart and compassion.

Herb+plane&WACHerb served as an army reporter during World War II, then he joined the Los Angeles Times as a respected feature writer, covering everything from local pothole scandals to the Khruschev-Eisenhower summit and the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1954, he launched the Heritage Jewish newspapers across Southern and Central California. Its motto, inscribed above the masthead, was a commandment from Deuteronomy: “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue…”

As the paper’s star investigative reporter, Herb broke many stories, including early revelations about the heroism of Oskar Schindler, the crimes of Klaus Barbie, and the plight of Soviet Jewry and other oppressed peoples. He stood not far from Robert Kennedy the night the Senator was shot and killed. Herb’s social activism – generally liberal – took quirky, individualistic and sometimes downright contrary turns that sometimes irked friends on the left. But his willful independence and cheerfully cantankerous eagerness for a good story endeared him to thousands and helped to weld Southern California Jewry into a strong and eclectic community.

Herb traveled extensively, to Israel and Spain, Poland and Germany, writing poignant soul-searching reflections on history.  “Where there is conflict, pray for conscience,” wrote Herb.

WildflowersSmallerBrin was also a world-renowned poet, whose collections were prefaced by great names like Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who wrote,  “How a journalist, how an editor could also be a brilliant poet is a source of astonishment – and of gratitude.”

But none of these accomplishments even hint at the vividness of this “character” who made a strong impression upon everyone who met him: eager, argumentative, unfailingly generous, and always interested in the underdog.

HerbBioCoverNewRecited to tape just a few years before his passing, in 2003, Herb’s autobiography, Shouting for Justice: The Journey of a Jewish Journalist Across the Century of Hitler and Israel, touches upon the highlights of a most unusual and illuminating American life. A fighter for his people and for a more just world. See the extensive tribute page that contains selections from his autobiography, travelogues and poetry. 

JusticeJusticeNewCover“Not to the weak of heart does artistry belong,” Brin declares in the opening line of his book of poems, Justice, Justice, Poems Reflecting the Measures of Man. Herb brings to his poetry the same burning indignation against tyranny, the same compassion for the persecuted as he did to the readers of his widely-quoted Heritage column, “Across the City Desk.”

With every word and stanza, Herb holds a lantern to the humaniy and all too frequent inhumanity of mankind, as he weeps for a child’s tear, reminisces over lost love…or chronicles the pangs of aging.

A remarkable man — he is missed.

Here is a sampling of Herb’s poignant poetry, from his book, Poems of the Rubio: 

A Song of Magic

 PoemsRubioA child with a tear

Sheds a torment for me

His grief tears the heavens apart


Oh I’d bring him a song

To soften his wrong

And a trick

And a trick for a start


For the trace of a smile

I’d tumble a mile

I’d tangle the trees

For a child


And weave for him tales

Of high-flying whales

Of princes

Of kingdoms beguiled


Oh I’d sing him of places

Where monkeys made faces

At rhinos that frolic on air

And I’d pop a balloon

For my friend the baboon

And I’d dance with a laughing bear


A sob and a fear

Would soon disappear

And he’d laugh

At a tipsy giraffe


Or a turtle that sings

Of wondrous things

Or a lion on butterfly wings


Oh child of my heart

Oh child of my heart

Grief tears the heavens apart.

 ====    =====    ====

ConflictsCoverNew I Invented Time

 Hold back your clocks

Damn it, no requiem for me!

I’ll rust those gears

With the fine spray of seas

That sweep my autumn years.


Crusts of age clog my knees

But I’ll get along

At a lesser pace.


And softer my sighs

Gentler, more gentle

And as suns descend

I’ll get along

It’s moonlight saving time

For me.


CantoCropI’ve many a mountain yet to climb

And the hot breath of lips on mine

And the touch of tender hips.


Are there promises to keep?

Don’t count my ways

Don’t count my ways.


The brook, the stream, the massive sea

Hold many mysteries for me

And books unread

And paths untrod

Primeval forests beckon me.


Don’t speed my way to dreams undreamed

I’ve cantatas to create

I’ve heady lilacs yet to sense

And little foxes to divine.


Take back your clocks

Hold back your clocks

With searing breath of lips

On mine

I invented time. 

 ====    =====    ====

And this one from Wildflowers: A Garden of Jewish Verse


1 Comment

Filed under history, society, theology, writing

Contemplating Civilization: its rise, fall, rebuilding… and future

nonzero1Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero. Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.

Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours… but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs – who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

Then take a look at Niall Ferguson’s new book Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Ferguson appraises some of the reasons that civilizations fail, a topic that Jared Diamond surveyed (with a bit too obsessive a focus only on environmental causes) in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed… and that I take a Big Perspective on, in my next novel, Existence.

In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a “decline of the west:”

What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.

In other words, break free of the hobbling/crippling, oversimplifying metaphors like “left-vs-right” – a curse bequeathed on all thinking, by the French Revolution – and get back to acting like intrepid grownups again.

==Rebuilding Civilization==

Open Source Ecology: Following the DIY “maker” trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization — or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization.

And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

Seems related to a TV series I was pitching for some years, to start with contestants wearing loin cloths in the desert, challenge them to make stone tools, then leather, and eventually smelt metal, etc.  The show?  REBUILD EVERYTHING!  Picture “Survivor” meets “The 1900 House” meets “Junkyard Wars”… then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs… along with a dash of “The Flintstones”. Include some tasty inter-tribal rivalry, and add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

REBUILDEVERYTHINGIn the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization! Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture — then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on. Each next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level. Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next.

Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV….

==Threats to Civilization==

In EXISTENCE I portray the rich buying up small island nations that are doomed by rising tides, then building stilt cities on those nations, who already have legal international sovereignty.  Now see the beginnings: leaders of the Pacific archipelago Kiribati are considering moving the entire population to Fiji, as their islands are threatened by rising ocean levels. When you see stilts rising over there, know that I told you first.

We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil.  Ponder that. And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat.  Now T. Boone Pickens is back touting natural gas… of which North America apparently has a vast supply… as a way to break that habit.  Sure it is still fossil/carbon fuel (though better and cleaner than oil).  But it might serve as our “bridge” in order to both do better and keep some of our money, to invest in the true solution technologies of the future.  Pickens will stand to make big bucks if we go along with his plan.  But at least we’d know what we are buying – a deal that makes sense, unlike the total sellout of our children that happened in the first decade of this century.


Filed under future, history, society, technology

Do you despise Congress?

Do you despise Congress? You’re not alone.  The current Congress’s 11% approval rating is the lowest since polling began. Yet, because of gerrymandering and the resulting hyper-partisanship, people tend to support their own particular Representative, and to heap the blame on the other party.

Is everything just a subjective matter of partisan opinion. Are there  explicit statistical reasons to credit one party in particular with the present mess?

I think you’d have to go back to the 1850s to find a period of congressional dysfunction like the one we’re in today,” says Daniel Feller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Tennessee. In modern history, “there have been battles, delays, brinkmanship — but nothing quite like this,” says Thomas Mann, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a book about Congress with a title that provides a succinct answer: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Mann acknowledges there have been worse times for Congress, but he reaches back a very long way for a comparison.

“There were a few really bruising periods in American congressional history, not only the run-up to the Civil War, but also around the War of 1812,” Mann says.

Ah, but as I’ll show you (below) things are not only biliously hateful within the hallowed Capitol walls. There is another sin that’s become rampant there… one never reported in the press, but in some ways more contemptible than any other.

== Comparison to the “merely” insane 1990s ==

I have long pointed out that Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1995 started out with some impressive activity.  Part of it was disturbing, like the banishing of all scientific advisory staff from Congress, freeing right-wing members to simply declare any facts they felt like uttering. This action was an early harbinger of what became today’s pyrotechnic, outright and open War on Science.

On the other hand, Newt’s initial negotiation of Welfare Reform and budget balancing measures with President Clinton had stunningly impressive results. In fact, those two major accomplishments should have demonstrated conclusively what can be achieved for the national good by pragmatic people negotiating mixed methods to solve problems.

In 1995 Newt and other Republican intellectuals proposed a Health Care plan that later became the  template both for RomneyCare in Massachusetts and ObamaCare in 2009. The main features – Insurance changes combined with a required individual mandate – were at the time offered as a market alternative to the more European style “HillaryCare” that the democrats proposed.  Still, the Republicans under Gingrich, in the 1990s, appeared to (occasionally) want to deliberate, negotiate, dicker, come up with some way to move ahead.

It was in that spirit that Barack Obama based his Health Care Plan entirely upon the Republicans’ earlier proposal. Let’s make that even plainer… the “socialist” ObamaCare bill is almost identical to the Gingrich proposal that was in the Republican Party platform for a decade and that Romney instituted in his state. If that isn’t negotiation, I don’t know what is. But… of course… by then the GOP had moved on.

== The Era of Absolute-No Begins ==

It seems hard to look at it the last decade of the 20th Century as one of halcyon political statesmanship, since 75% of the time Gingrich and the 1990s Republicans were engaged in volcanic partisan behavior rife with irony (e.g. assigning nearly all divorcees to prosecute the just-once-married Clinton for marital misbehavior.) But the 25% of the time that Newt spent on problem solving helped to make the 90s work for America. And, under Gingrich, the GOP-led Congress was part of that.

Alas, things were evolving fast within the GOP. Roger Ailes was taking charge. Soon, the fact that Gingrich actually negotiated with the (constitutionally elected) enemy some of the time became seen as a criminal offense against conservatism and he was ousted from his leadership posts. To this day, many in the party refuse to forgive the fact that Newt co-designed working legislation with William Jefferson Clinton.

So far, we’ve been discussing things that are common knowledge. But it gets much, much worse. What ensued after Newt’s ouster — years of howling and lynch mob tactics — have masked from the public a far more important fact: that the GOP-led Congresses from 1996 through 2006 were also the laziest and least effective in 100 years.

I don’t say that from any “liberal” perspective. Rather, I base it on objective and unambiguous standards of hard work, time and productivity. Giving their employers what they pay for. The recent Republican Congresses passed fewer bills, held fewer hearings, issued fewer subpoenas and held fewer days in active session than almost any other since the era of William McKinley. The record is damn near perfect. There are no metrics of legislative or deliberative indolence that weren’t broken by the GOP-led Congresses of the last decade or so.

Wanting “less government” is a pat but stupid excuse for this, since Republicans go on and on about changes they would like to make!  De-regulations and privatizations. Abolishing departments! Restricting abortions. Hemming in gays and abrogating foreign treaties. Border walls to build! And penalties for hiring illegal immigrants. Unifying church and state. Reining in the judiciary and unleashing corporations, and so on…. Well? Then why didn’t you actually do any of those things?

The GOP owned Congress and the Courts for ten years, and operated all three branches of government for six of those years, with nothing whatsoever to stop them from passing anything they wanted. Yet, amid a tsunami of complaints, they would not even issue subpoenas or hold investigations to harass their enemies! Nor even show up on days that they were paid to.

Lip service. That is all  Republican Senators and Representatives actually delivered on any of those matters so dear to Tea Partiers and the GOP base. Words, lots of angry words. No actions. Well, almost none.  One constituency actually got enough attention to get bills passed. Do you remember which? De-regulation of the banking and mortgage and credit industries. Liberation of Wall Street gamblers. Removal of gas mileage standards. Plenty of the sort of thing that sent our economy toward a cliff.

Otherwise?  Pure laziness.

== Watch out for the voting machines ==

Nearly every county in America now uses electronic voting machines that – under several dummy corporations – are made by a single deeply-Republican family. Given the irregularities that erupted in past years — and the potential for untold mischief — I had expected that this matter to  receive copious attention from Democratic groups.  Yet I’ve heard nothing.  Nothing at all. In fact, lack of attention is deeply disturbing.

Now dig this recent statement:

 “If someone were to hack into the machine, if the logging is not secure and doesn’t protect it from rollback, that would allow someone to tamper with it and leave no trace.” – Candace Hoke, Cleveland Marshall College of Law professor, on defects in optical ballot scanners currently in use in voting in the U.S.; quoted in USAToday.

One bit of progress.  In most counties and precincts a separate paper record is kept, that can be audited. In most cases, this means a physical ballot that you marked by hand and that was scanned-in as it went into a box. It’s an improvement, allowing random audits that might catch any cheaters. Still is this true in YOUR area?  It’s your duty to check.

If your region doesn’t use this method… if you use a “voting machine” with a touch screen, for example… then when you finish voting, ask to see the log of your vote on the printed record.  Verify that it printed what you remember voting. Spread the word about this and make your friends curious! If enough people do that, then one of many failure modes will become a bit less likely.

If you cannot do this simple check, start asking why. Bring it up on your own discussion lists and make it viral.

==And the SuperPacs==

Finally, by now all of you savvy types will have watched the YouTube of Stephen Colbert handing his SuperPac over to Jon Stewart.  It is rich, hilarious… and educational… and absolutely scary for the future of our republic.  This will be the summer and autumn of lies.  Expect a BILLION dollars – no less- to be spent by Super-Pacs with zero reporting of where they got their cash. Is this the America you want?

Any American with a lick of patriotism has to know by now… we must get the money out of politics. Or the Republic is over.


Filed under history, politics

Are we “evolving” toward becoming “marching morons”?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel’s argument is just a reiteration of the old “marching morons” notion – once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement – that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

Pagel starts with a reasonable premise: that as humans created ever-larger societies, featuring rapid communication among greater populations, more people would benefit from copying the innovations produced by a few truly creative individuals.

So far, that seems pretty obvious. Cultural dissemination of new techniques started really burgeoning about thirty to forty thousand years ago, around the same time that trade networks clearly developed, with seashells adorning necklaces in the Alps, for example.

The Neolithic Renaissance, at the dawn of the Aurignacian, erupted with astonishing abruptness after a hundred millennia of static technology. Within a few dozen generations – an eyeblink — our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely-shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits – for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

And — for the poor Neanderthals — possibly genocide.

What changed?

The cause of this rather rapid shift is hard to confirm, but Pagel seems to be implying (by my interpretation) that it was triggered by something as simple as an expansion of clan size – augmented by increased inter-clan trade.

So far so good.

Only then Professor Pagel does something I find wholly unjustified, even rather weird. He proposes that – amid this flurry of trade-enhanced innovation – the need for the trait of innovativeness would decline, on a per-capita basis, because the average person or small group would benefit by copying whatever came along.

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers.”  In other words, what need to maintain the expensive capacity to create new ideas when you can simply borrow them from a small coterie of idea-guys, scattered across the continent?

Alas, Professor Pagel spins a just-so story that is conveniently and charmingly free of reference to historical or archaeological evidence. For example, he ignores the fact that innovation sped up, intensely and supra-linearly, as the number of individuals connected in a society increased.

According to Pagel’s premise, that rate should not rise appreciably with increased communication! Rather, if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need, then with an expanded community the per capita creativity resource supplying that need would atrophy until the need was barely met. With the minimally needed level now acquired and satisfied by trade. people would simply become more dull and parasitical – that’s his theory.  Only logically it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level.

Toynbee, Marx and Wills

I mentioned that this notion has a long history. Dour folk have long held that civilized life must have negative effects upon the gene pool, leading some, a century ago, to push eugenics legislation. But there are other glimmers from the past that merit mention.

For example, Karl Marx actually praised the cleverness and acumen of the bourgeois capitalist class, deeming them absolutely necessary for economic development. Their competitive creativity (and theft of labor-value from proletarians) would drive capital formation. Cyclically, the actual number of capitalists would see a secular decline with time as their trade networks expanded. In the end, Marx foresaw this brilliant class extinguished, after all the capital was “formed” and when their cleverness was no longer needed. You can see how this eerily mirrors or foreshadows Pagel’s teleology.

Another maven, who comes across better in light of real history, was Arnold Toynbee. His survey of the past led him to conclude that civilizations rise when they support and eagerly learn from their “creative minority” — those who innovate useful solutions to rising problems. And societies fail when they don’t. (In which case, does America’s current war on science… and upon every other clade of mental accomplishment… forebode a coming fall?) In this light, Pagel’s assertion seems dour, indeed.

A third, more recent voice is Christopher Wills, whose book Children of Prometheus contends that civilization, in fact, rapidly accelerates changes in the gene pool, propelling evolution ever-faster. I believe this case is very well-made, and wholly consistent with what really happened in the era discussed by Professor Pagel.

The Great Acceleration

In fact, after the Aurignacian the pace of creativity only sped up, then exponentiated. Agrarian clans and then kingdoms allocated surplus food to specialists, rewarding them for talent and expertise, sometimes in accurate correlation to their effectiveness at innovation.  (Though skill at persuasiveness – lying – was always a higher correlate. That trait has almost certainly been an evolutionary rocket; but more on that another time.)

Key point: with agriculture, the collection and allocation of food surplus became a substantial human reproductive driver, as subsidized specialist roles became common. Competitively striving to attain that status, youths who became scribes, blacksmiths, tool-makers, engineers and priests must have achieved enhanced reproductive ability almost equal to the feudal lords who soon dominated every society.

Hence, a proclivity for nerdiness would increase… though, of course, not quite in pace with an ever-rising tendency toward oligarchy. I’ll admit that the trait most avidly reinforced was the ability of some men to pick up metal implements and take away other men’s women and wheat… a trait that required not only strength but some cleverness and yes, innovation.

Nevertheless, the brain-lackeys – the priests and tool-makers and monument builders – certainly did well. And they passed on the traits that made them successes. So much for the dismally grouchy “marching morons” hypothesis.

All of this is clear from the historical record. I find it disappointing that Professor Pagel seemed so willing to spin us a vague tale without confronting any of it. Indeed, for an evolutionary biologist to weave such a story without referring to reproductive advantage seems very strange, indeed.

A Warning for the Future?

But it isn’t finished. Pagel extrapolates to the modern age: “As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

He continues, “What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

“Domesticated?” One is tempted to demand that the professor speak for himself, not this wild spirit!

But ah, well.  So we come down to the couch-potato argument. The question posed by Nicholas Carr and other cyber grouches who contend that Google is making us Stoopid. As I have said before, any sensible person can look around and see plenty of signs that suggest the cynics may be right. Their criticisms may be more inherently useful than the giddy proclamations of cyber-transcendentalists, like Clay Shirky. Criticism is welcome… even if I find both sides romantically unrealistic.

Nevertheless, look, this is just an assertion, bereft of even correlative evidence, let alone proof. Sure, ninety percent of Internet activity is crap. But that could be said about everything, all the time, even – especially – during all the eras leading up to this one. And while Pagel’s lament may elicit voluptuous schadenfreude, it is hardly utilitarian or helpful.

If civilization relies upon Toynbee’s creative minority, depending on the small percentage of creators more and more, then that minority had better buckle down and find ways to get more support from those marching (copycat) masses. Duh?


Filed under future, history