Tag Archives: oligarchy

Who benefits from the politics of outrage?

Outrage-industryThe authors of The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, have offered an interesting and balanced article on Politico appraising why so much of the media has become polemical and angry-immature, here and now in the 21st Century.  In Are Americans Addicted to Outrage? — Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj suggest that we the viewers are to blame, by flocking to the hate-waves for our daily doses of sanctimonious thrill.

And, of course, at one level they are right….

And yet, we should note that this cynical payoff is not homogeneous or uniform:

(1) MSNBC’s profits are a fifth those of Fox.  Moreover, as Berry and Sobieraj point out “talk radio, which is more than 90 percent conservative, offered only a modest selection of liberal programs, all with much smaller audiences; as a result, only two of the 10 radio programs we studied are oriented toward liberal audiences.

(2)  The liberal stations favor a return to “fairness rules,” even though those doctrines, if once again enforced, would compel them to change their business practices, inviting top opponents to offer rebuttals onscreen. In contrast, Fox and Clear Channel and the outrage industry of the right act as if they are utterly terrified of the prospect that their audiences might hear one minute of rebuttal for every 20 minutes of biased ranting. That is a fundamental difference, not one of just amount.

politics-outrge(3) Who does it all serve?  Follow the beneficiaries. There are reasons that Fox is co-owned by the Sa’udi Royal House and that coal and other carbon barons finance the right’s propaganda machine.

And yes, Big Labor influences the left.  Granted. Only ask yourselves this.  Which power center is growing, and which has become… pathetic… during the last generation? Is there, even theoretically, any level that the labor movement can decline to, when you’d admit “Okay, I’m not afraid of them, anymore… and maybe there are other, rising centers of influence that are a bit more worrisome”?

== The beneficiaries of broken politics ==

It isn’t all about carbon barons though.  Much discussion has recently focused on the skyrocketing disparities in both wealth and income between the very richest 0.01% and the hard-pressed U.S. middle class.  While the ratio between a company’s average employee wage and that of its CEO was in the teens and twenties in the glory-days of American capitalist entrepreneurship… the 1950s, 60s etc.

CEO--pay-ratioAmerica now has by far the biggest disparities. Major U.S. execs now pull in, on average, over 350 times the pay of America’s rank-and-file workers. Even the most successful Japanese firms, by contrast, don’t exceed ratios of seventy to one. See a global comparison of CEO to Worker Pay Ratios.

This will get clearer, soon. “The federal Securities and Exchange Commission, after four years of delay, will likely release this year new regulations that require America’s top corporations to annually reveal the ratio between their CEO and median worker compensation, a disclosure that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act mandates.”

The aspect to all of this that I find most surprising — as I illustrated in the year 2040, in EXISTENCE — is the notion among today’s conservatives that this trend might simply go on and on, without reaching an inflection or tipping point. Without eventually raising the kind of radicalism and push-back that has not been seen in American life since the 1930s.

== Push back begins ==

In Massachusetts, nurses have collected over 100,000 signatures for an initiative that would levy fines against any hospital in the state, profit or nonprofit, that compensates its CEO over 100 times the hospital’s lowest-paid worker.  In Switzerland last year, young activists ran a referendum campaign to cap Swiss CEO pay at 12 times worker wages. This pay cap proposition was running even in the polls until an ad blitz sent the measure to defeat.

percentage-signCould 2014 be Year One of the Pay Ratio Era? A vigorous article at Truthout –– while of course partisan — nevertheless makes a strong case that these measures portend a rebellion brewing, against what I’ve called the Oligarchic Putsch — the transformation of America from a diamond-shaped society, dominated by an empowered middle class, more toward the classic pyramid of privileged (and largely inherited) power that dominated 99% of human cultures across 6000 years.

In fact, though, let me briefly give voice to my libertarian side: I do not see this disparity being solved by simple-minded ratio laws.  Socialist decrees and price-setting are not a long-term or even desirable solution.

What is needed is a return to the principles of Teddy Roosevelt – that market economics is best when it is competitive,  This would require, especially, the breaking up of a cartel of cheaters, restoring the natural synergies and feedback mechanisms of capitalism!  Think about it —

== If you truly believe in market forces… ==

By capitalist theory, high rates of compensation in a particular field of human endeavor should attract talented people from other professions, drawing them to compete with these top-CEO guys, thus swelling the pool of managerial talent until prices… go… down!

Essential-man-CEONothing could be more fundamental.  It is basic market forces 101. It is the sine qua non, and the whole justification for competitive enterprise. Supply rising to meet high demand. No matter what the field of endeavor, whether it be the availability and pricing of local plumbers or the allocation of fields to next year’s wheat or soybean crops, or hedge betting on interest rates – markets are supposed to self-correct great imbalances.

Failure of this to happen is prima facie evidence for collusion and cheating.

This is so basic that it bears reiterating in other words: If capitalism works, then these high CEO wages should be attracting brilliant talent from elsewhere, till demand meets supply and the wages fall.  How can supposed defenders of capitalism proclaim their fealty to a system that they, themselves manipulate to fail in its core process?

1-  On the rare occasion when a member of this caste comments on this contradiction, here is their excuse. At the very highest managerial level, they are irreplaceable!  They are in effect calling themselves “mutant geniuses” like NBA basketball players — worth any price. And hence, market forces do not apply to their own compensation. (See: The Syndrome of the Essential Man.)

Only, this comparison fails.  For top NBA players are fiercely measured by statistics. Explicit performance parameters, not only in scoring but in ticket sales. But not one study has ever verified a clear correlation of CEO compensation with long range company success.  In fact, fudging and obscuring any such metrics would appear to be a top priority of the cartel.

2- The cartel is maintained by a system that was supposed to be banished more than 100 years ago.  Interlocking directorships, in which companies that are purportedly in competition with each other feature amazing overlap in their boards. Oh, there are efforts to keep these relationships “once-removed,” substituting partners and family members, or appointing each other onto the boards of companies that aren’t in direct competition… Gerbers and Boeing, for example, thus evading any enforcement of  the creaky, (needful of tuning) anti-trust laws. It still amounts to “vote to raise my compensation and I’ll vote to raise yours.”

Can stockholders fight this?  Many have tried, but systems of shell corporation ownership enable contrivances where a few men can control major enterprises with very small boiled-down minority share ownership. And most small stock-holders (let’s be frank) never exert their proxies. If corporations truly are our future form of governance, then “owner democracy” is going to have to be refreshed with more fairness, or (again) people will start to radicalize.

GuidedAllocation3- Critics of socialism cite Friedrich Hayek and proclaim that any control over an economy by the state — by civil servants — will fail. Because, no matter how smart a set of top-down allocators are, they will be foolish simply because their numbers are few.  Because of limited diversity of knowledge and insight and perspective.

In-groups are delusional. It wasn’t just Hayek who said this.  So did Adam Smith. And so testifies the horrifically bad statecraft of 99% of oligarchy-led human cultures.

Indeed, history does show that narrow castes of “allocators” do inevitably perform poorly, over the long run.  State-capitalist mercantilist trade empires like Japan and China have done well in stretching out their successful phase. But we know the inevitable end-game, as complexity and chaos inevitably prove the limits of in-group hubris.

So sure, I don’t want the government “picking winners and losers” … that is, unless there is a clear and proved need to lay extra weight on certain market forces, for the sake of our kids — e.g. to encourage the development of efficient and sustainable technologies, for example.  And national defense.  And vital infrastructure. And fulfilling Adam Smith’s goal of maximizing the fraction of kids ready to compete… and…

But still, beyond that sort of thing, I know that state -controlled “allocation” can be clumsy, inefficient and wrongheaded, compared to the wisdom of mass markets!  Let us always remember that there is a core essence to libertarianism and conservatism that (despite recent craziness) should have a place at the table.

hayek-road-serfdomOnly in that case…  how is a secretive cartel of 10,000 or so conniving, back-room-dealing, circle-jerking, self-interested golf buddies intrinsically better allocators than say 500,000 skilled, educated, closely-watched and reciprocally competitive civil servants?  Both groups suffer from delusional in-group-think, Hayek had a good point.  But the smaller clade – more secretive and inward-looking, uncriticized and motivated solely by conniving greed – is inherently more likely to fail.

Again, 6000 years of history testify to that.

== What’s needed? ==

We need fierce measures to stop interlocking directorships and the in-group mutual stroking of 10,000 golf buddies — a criminal conspiracy that not only has stolen billions but runs diametrically opposite to the entire notion of competitive enterprise.

We need to demand that hypocrites either stop pretending to believe in market forces, or else show us those market forces at work, correcting a blatant campaign of theft from citizens and stockholders.

We need to break up the worst cartel of all, the “seated members” of the great stock, securities and commodities exchanges, an archaic arrangement that serves no benefit to people or capitalism — especially in the new era of electronic trading — and one that amounts to pure, vampiric parasitism.  All seats should be converted into ten, tomorrow, with nine of them to be sold off to the widest diversity of bidders. Or else, let Google handle all trades for 0.001%. You think they can’t?

TransactionFeeTerminateFinally, tomorrow, for the sake of our children, we must inpose what more advanced nations in Europe and Asia have imposed — a tiny High Frequency Trading (HFT) transaction fee.  Just 0.1% or one thousandth per trade would push these fellows back into earning their livings by helping real humans to find value differences or gradients that are useful to genuine investers or sellers. See my article: A Transaction Fee Might Save Capital Markets…and Protect us from the Terminator?  This is urgent, in some very surprising ways.

Now please take careful note: not one of my proposals is leftist or anti-capitalist. Adam Smith would have no trouble with any of it.  Every single item that I raised would have the effect of invigorating markets by re-establishing actual competition.

These measures are inevitable, as the boomer generation’s delusions start to fade and we become aware – again – of humanity’s perpetual problem of class.   problem that seemed to vanish – in America – for an entire human lifespan, because of rooseveltean reforms and the burgeoned middle class.  As that era passes, and we face our duty to renew and restore the social contract, proposals like the ones I offered (above) will come to the table. When these reforms start looming the best course for the rich and members of the cartel would be to negotiate, since the first wave of reforms will aim to — as FDR did — actually save capitalism from the otherwise inevitable volcanic fury of the sinking classes.


Alas, as happened when the First Estate fought all-or-nothing for their privileges, in 1789, that negotiation will not happen. (See Class War and the Lessons of History.)  Instead, we’ll hear howls of outrage by a rising oligarchy and their media shills. But don’t be fooled. That is noise rising from the ancient enemies of market enterprise.  Not socialism, but feudalism. And they have no idea that modern versions of tumbrels are being fashioned, by their own hands.

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“Neo-Reactionaries” drop all pretense: End democracy and bring back lords!

Following up on my previous posting, about the rationalizations of the new aristocracy, this time I plan to reveal to you a pernicious trend among some of society’s best and brightest.  But first, will you indulge me with a riff of background?

In Existence,  I portray a grand conference, held in the Alps around the year 2045.  The secret meeting has been called by a consortium of “trillies,” or trillionaire families, with the objective of commencing a new, world-wide era of Aristocratic Rule.  But their goal is not just to re-institute the ancient pyramid of privileged domination, but this time to start off on the correct foot. To get it right.

Social-pyramidPainfully aware of how gruesomely awful such pyramid-shaped societies were at governance, across the last many-thousands of years — how fraught with violence, delusion, waste and error — the trillie families are nevertheless unable to step back from the approaching time of takeover that their parents had conspired for, all the way back even to the Twentieth Century.  Giving in to human nature, they nurse rationalizations about the failure of democratic systems, and their hired boffins supply them with plenty of incantations to support the coming putsch.  And yet —

Yet, I also describe this particular lordly cartel as smarter than average. They know that the vast, educated middle class has access to powerful technologies that, should they become enraged, could make the guillotine look like louffa. Hence, they take their coming transition to rulership seriously, much as the Medici dukes of Florence did, during the Renaissance. Amid that alpine conclave, I show them calling on their hired intellectuals and house savants to take up the role of Machiavelli. To study and report what went wrong with past eras of oligarchy and feudalism, innovating ways to do it better, this time.

These are deeply cynical scenes!  But still, they also contain my patented brand of optimistic faith in reason: in this case positing that a cabal of trillionaires would have enough honesty and self-awareness to know how badly their favored system worked, in 99% of past human cultures. That they would hire the brightest people they could find (among those who could be trusted to help them end democracy) and ask those boffins to develop modified approaches to aristocracy,  based on lessons from both history and science.

For example, how to avoid catastrophic in-breeding and instead use meritocratic systems to invite the very best commoners upward to join their elite families via marriage and other alliances, at the top. Solving the illusion of superiority by making it — gradually — completely real.

== Fictional wishful-thinking? ==

ThePlutocratsDo I expect such calm and measured sobriety from the New Lords who are — even now — making their moves to restore the ancient social order?  Replacing the middle class, enlightenment, diamond-shaped social order with a traditional pyramid of owner-lord privilege?

Of course not.

For every Lorenzo de Medici or Heny Plantagenet there were hundreds, thousands of fools who let flatterers talk them into believing ego-stroking stories — that they were lords because of their own genius, or inherent superiority, or God-given right.

As I have said many times, this is human nature.  We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it’s amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.

== The rise of the Neo-Reactionaries ==

Till now, the Enlightenment had several things going for it: like the fact that it works.

For three hundred years, in realms as diverse as science, wealth-creation, error-avoidance, innovation, justice and happiness, it has outperformed all previous societies combined. But that is not the secret sauce. Its key trick, above all, was a very strong mythology of egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism and liberality —

Four-Arenas-Competition— the ideal of a level and fair playing field, in which good ideas should win out over bad ones, without interference by stodgy or biased authorities. Adam Smith taught us — and the American Founders instituted — ways to benefit from arenas of competition in which no single person’s (or narrow cabal’s) delusions may reign — but instead products, policies, theories and justice are wrangled, tested and refined in four great arenas — markets, democracy, science and courts — where avoidance of criticism or error-discovery is difficult, even impossible over the long run.

They never worked perfectly and were always under attack by cheaters.  Still, these accountability arenas are the only systems that ever penetrated our species’s penchant for delusion in any systematic way.  Leftists who despise competition in principle are fools who ignore both human nature and a cornucopia of positive-sum outcomes from the four arenas.

Rightists who believe competition works well without careful tuning, regulation, research, opportunity-enhancement, shared investment in infrastructure, and (above all) relentless prevention-of-cheating are even worse fools who ignore all our past.

CourtsEven that most-solipsistic of clades, the libertarians, used to declare fealty to Adam Smith’s process, albeit grudgingly. But you had only to look at their favorite books and stories to detect an undercurrent and foretell that it would emerge openly, someday, into betrayal of Smith. Idolatry of the Nietzschean ubermensch or superman — the figure every geek supposes himself to be — oppressed and kept from his natural place on-top by jealous mobs of bullies, like those who oppressed him on the playground.  Where every young nerd (myself included) muttered: “just you wait till I come into my powers!”

IAAMOACFrom Ayn Rand to Harry Potter to Star Wars to Orson Scott Card, how many mythologies have catered to that fantasy, in all its voluptuous, masturbatory solipsism?  In contrast, can you count any mythic systems — other than Star Trek — that encouraged a different view? Recognition that “I am a member of a civilization”? One that made million miracles possible? Not by unleashing a few demigods, but by stimulating the efforts of whole scads of bright folks who are merely way above-average?

Well, the pretense may be over, fellas and gals.  Welcome to Nietzsche World.

Welcome to the Rapture of the Ingrates.

It is called the Neo-Reactionary Movement”  — a quasi-new cult that yearns for the ancien régime of monarchy and feudal rule. One that rejects Adam Smith and Franklin and the entire Enlightenment.  And above all — democracy.

== Yearning for the “Return of the King.” ==

Rise-Neo-ReactionariesI’ll let Klint Finley describe this movement for you, in a few paragraphs clipped from his excellent article on the subject: Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neo-Reactionaries:

“Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.”

Finley continues“Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.

“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” a leading light of this movement, Michael Anissimov writes. “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”

Is this just a fluke? No, the movement has been long-simmering. It reminds me of a statement made by Star Wars impresario George Lucas in an infamous 1999 New York Times interview. “Not that we need a king, but there’s a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There’s a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled. In the past, the media basically worked for the state and was there to build the culture. Now, obviously, in some cases it got used in a wrong way and you ended up with the whole balance of power out of whack. But there’s probably no better form of government than a good despot.”  

Every time I read that, it leaves me breathless. Stunned. I appraised that perspective – and its toxic lesson – in Star Wars on Trial.  Indeed, I have elsewhere explored the emotional underpinnings of all this:

“Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly “scientists” do today? Weren’t miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95? Didn’t we stop going to the moon because it had become boring?”


The temptation to wallow in romance — in fiction — is understandable.  To prescribe feudalism for real life, though?

Oh, where to begin on this grotesque — and  poisonously romantic — wrongheadedness?   Shall we start with the way that these fellows erect edifices of assertions that, when examined, prove to be not only untrue, but spectacularly and diametrically opposite to true? Like maintaining that Hitler and Stalin were epiphenomena of democracy, and not absolutist-oligarchist reactions to democracy — attempts to throttle it to death, erecting new elites, complete with harems? Or the way no ancient autarchy ever “got done” even a scintilla’s percentage of the accomplishments of any modern democracy.

The list of staggering rationalizations is too long for me to even ponder addressing, from ignoring Adam Smith’s denunciations of aristocracy as the core enemy of enterprise, to the bizarre belief that you can have economic freedom without any of the political kind, or that the clearly nasty and stupid rulership pattern of 6000 years should ever, ever again be trusted with anything more than a burnt match. Or that Communism was somehow a version of democracy, instead of a quasi-feudal theocratic cult that relentlessly spewed hatred at “bourgeoise democracy.” Or the way they rail against the Hayekian sin of “too few allocators and deciders” when it is committed by civil servants, yet justify narrow cliques of conniving group-think lords who do the same thing, just because they are “private.”

Above all, the hoary and utterly disproved nostrum that bourgeois citizens are fiscally less prudent than kings and lords, a slander that is as counterfactual as claiming day is night.

Fortunately, I do not have to refute this nonsense in detail, myself. Finley links to Anissimov’s manifestos — and many others’ — against modernity, democracy and enlightenment… so go ahead and give their own words a fair shake. Read the incantations! I have faith in you.

Anti-Reactionary-FAQThen head over to a marvelous, point-by-point refutation provided by Scott Alexander showing, among other things, how neo-reactionaries overestimate by many orders of magnitude the stability or governing aptitude of monarchies.  Alexander recently published an Anti-Reactionary FAQ, a massive document examining and refuting the claims of neoreactionaries.

Seriously, it is huge but painstakingly detailed, accurate and devastating. You need to give it a look. Alexander writes very well, entertainingly, and this vote of confidence in YOU needs to circulate as widely as possible.

== Disproof by example ==

Let me clip just one short part of Mr. Alexander’s devastating refutation of those who contend that absolute monarchy, following ancient principles, will outperform democracy, equal rights and all that decadent western crap. He starts by suggesting the simplest and most fair experimental test of rhe neo-reactionary assertion.  That we take a very homogeneous country and split it in half.

“One side gets a hereditary absolute monarch, whose rule is law and who is succeeded by his son and by his son’s son. The population is inculcated with neo-Confucian values of respect for authority, respect for the family, strict gender roles and cultural solidarity, but these values are supplemented by a religious ideal honoring the monarch as a near-god and the country as a specially chosen holy land. American cultural influence is banned on penalty of death; all media must be produced in-country, and missionaries are shot on site. The country’s policies are put in the hands of a group of technocratic nobles hand-picked by the king.

“The other side gets flooded with American missionaries preaching weird sects of Protestantism, and at the point of American guns is transformed into a parliamentary democracy. Its economy – again at the behest of American influence – becomes market capitalism, regulated by democracy and bureaucracy. It institutes a hundred billion dollar project to protect the environment, passes the strictest gun control laws in the world, develops a thriving gay culture, and elects a woman as President.

“Turns out this perfect controlled experiment actually happened. Let’s see how it turned out!”

zrx_image19Alexander then provides an image that speaks ten thousand words.

Some of you know the experiment to which he refers.  North and South Korea.

Oh, but read this section.  Read the rest.  And marvel that bright males (almost no women, of course) are able to talk themselves into believing factually-opposite, example-free, history-ignoring, human nature-ignoring and cosmically stupid incantations, just because it flatters their playground-traumatized imaginations to imagine that — in a world of far more limited opportunities and justice — they would somehow get to be the ones with harems.

== We generate our own, home-grown enemies ==

It is said that every generation is invaded by a fresh spate of invaders — their children. In our case, western civilization has raised many generations steeped in memes of suspicion of authority and questioning the home-and-familiar, one of the most unusual things that any culture ever preached to its own offspring!  I appraise this reflex favorably in my essay and book Otherness.  These memes are what led to so many successive self-improvement campaigns, from constitutionalism to elimination of slavery. They led us hippies – for example – to march against horridly assumptions that all other generations took for granted — wasteful and inherently impractical superstitions like racism, sexism and environmental blindness.  They also guarantee that new immunal rejection reflexes will be applied against the Boomers’ assumption sets by even-newer generations!  So be it.

To an extent, this is a core element of the Enlightenment’s healthy process of advancement and renewal. Heaven forbid that the young stop getting in their elders’ faces, confronting their mistakes.  But T-cells that go screeching through the body looking for mistakes are not always right! And many a sanctimonious twit of both right and left conveys more heat than light.  More noise than value.

better-angels-of-our-natureIn this case of the neo-reactionaries, you have a cult of ingratitude that should incur at least a burden of scholarly proof. Certainly not being allowed to get away with blithe assertions and bald-faced lies. For example, I have again and again pointed out recent evidence — such as Steven Pinker’s book on declining world violence — that we have good news to build upon.  Open and reciprocal criticism helped to make the violence decline happen!  Along with steep plummets in world (per capita) poverty and so on.  That’s a lot of accomplishment to overcome, in claiming that kings could do better.

In fact, I know — and rather enjoy — some of these fellows, such as Anissimov and Peter Thiel, whose other accomplishments are respect-worthy and whose lively, vivid minds make up for abstract disagreements.  There are areas of common ground! Like the long range goal of a world that overflows with empowered and sovereign individuals, needing little in the way of regulation or constraint, a shared dream, even if we part company over how to get there.

Indeed, some of them have legitimate complaints — in the nitty gritty of the details of running a complex, democratic civilization. Fine.  Want to propose alternatives? Experiments? Deregulations? Criticism is a feature, not a flaw of demotic life, part of the completely unique ferment that generally keeps us moving forward. (For example, I have no objections — only questions – regarding Thiel’s endeavor to create new sovereignties out at sea.) You want to offer innovations and solutions and evidence, along with those wild-eyed assertions? Well, you know…

…we’d all love to see your plan.

== We are still the revolution ==

Alas though, they tend not to view things that way. Here I am speculating: but I believe that some of these fellows have swung this way because they are too smart to be fooled any longer by the undead thing that has hijacked American conservatism, sending poor Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley spinning so fast that Arizona and New York draw electricity from their graves.  Having driven off all the nation’s scientists, teachers, doctors and every other clade of “smartypants” professionals, the New GOP could hardly hold on to brainiac Silicon Valley libertarians, who can see the unalloyed record of catastrophic governance and universally bad outcomes from the Bush years.

But what’s the alternative? Preachy, smarmy, compromising-consensualist and preachy-progressivist liberalism?  Never.

Let’s give them points for imagination, then, finding a new — or rather, ancient — direction to call their own.  Even though Neo-Reaction winds up as delusional as any dogma issued by the House of Ailes.

Rather than picturing themselves as part of Adam Smith’s flat and open competitive churn,  Neo-Reactionaries prefer to envision a kind of uprising or counter-reformation. An up-ending and reversal of what they see as a decadent experiment in mob rule, gone wrong, demanding that we return to the beastly way of life that oppressed and limited and cauterized all of our ancestors (including the lords!) — only getting it right, this time.  A way of life that (I admit) is the natural human attractor state! One that caters to every romantic impulse behind the popularity of fantasy tales of Martin, Lucas or Tolkien. One that is darwinistically so compelling and natural that it probably snared most intelligent races in our galaxy — a top potential explanation for the Fermi Paradox. An attractor state called feudalism.

An attractor that is yanking hard on us now, as would-be lords deliberately instigate a fresh phase of Civil War to cripple American pragmatism and institutions, throwing into imbalance all four of those great, positive-sum accountability arenas upon which our Great Experiment relies.  But it won’t work.

OligarchistsThey do not get to call themselves rebels!  We and our Enlightenment are the revolutionaries, still, beating down the repeated, clawing assaults of oligarchists from all sides, some of whom called themselves “communists,” but always prescribing the same, boring pyramid of power.

These guys face a steep burden of proof that we should reject the social contract that brought them to their high status, in a civilization that may — in just two generations — embark upon interstellar adventures, bringing light, at last, to the galaxy.

Amid the Rapture of the Ingrates, they are welcome to contend (it’s a free country) that we’d all be far better off if the west had not followed the advice of Locke and Montesquieu and Franklin and Smith and all the other heroes — the greatest our species ever produced — who rebelled against oligarchic rule, giving us one chance — perhaps only this one — to try something else.

They are free to offer that assertion. But I am (nodding thanks to all those heroes) equally empowered to say bullshit.

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Bringing back feudalism — is libertarianism an unwitting tool?

== Those helping feudalism return – unwittingly ==

ElevenQuestionR.J. Eskow – on Salon – offers “11 Questions to see if Libertarians are Hypocrites.”  And yes, most of Eskow’s posers certainly do set up some stark and thought-provoking contradictions – even hypocrisies – in the oft-touted positions held by many who today use the “L-word” to describe themselves. The article is well-worth reading and it does skewer especially those who bow in obeisance to Ayn Rand, the patron saint of resentful ingrates who want desperately to blame society for being  under-achievers. And yet…

…and yet Eskow wound up inciting the contrarian in me, with his blatant straw-manning — setting up the reader to assume that all “libertarians” are lapel-grabbing, solipsistic randians.  Moreover, indeed, he tells flagrant untruths even about randians. Elsewhere I have dissected the Cult of Ayn far more carefully, actually looking carefully at her messages on many levels. Eskow wants only a caricature and a punching bag.

He ignores, for example the randians’ admission that government should retain a monopoly on force and should be involved also in the enforcement of all contracts, not just copyright. Not entire-anarchism, indeed, it retains what’s necessary for the ultimate randian outcome — a return to feudalism — to have real teeth. Eskow should know his enemy better.

(Note that I use Eskow’s method of asking questions in what I hope is a much more neutral and thorough way, in my Questionnaire on Ideology, that encourages folks to re-examine many of their own underlying assumptions; take it if you dare!”)

In fact, Eskow ignores other strands to libertarianism that include the erudite versions of William F. Buckley and Friedrich Hayek, who denounced the randian obsession with demigods as a guaranteed route to feudalism.  Hayek, in particular, extolled a level playing field that maximizes the number of competitors and avoids a narrow ruling-owner caste. Indeed, there are some versions of libertarianism that I consider to be entirely justified  — the moderate versions offered to us by authors who range from Kurt Vonnegut to Adam Smith, from Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury, version under which one is willing to negotiate and see a successful State that does good and useful things by general consensus and assent, but always with an emphasis on doing good things that wind up empowering the individual to go his or her own, creative way. In other words, judging state actions (even skeptically) by a standard that is high, but allows us to work together on some valuable things that help us to then grow as we choose.

I could go on and on about that aspect of things; but instead I will simply offer a link to a far more cogent appraisal of this important thread of human political discourse, one that – alas – has been hijacked by oversimplifying fools who wind up parroting fox-fed nostrums and serve as tools for the very oligarchy that aims to tear down every remnant of freedom. (See: Maps, Models and Visions of Tomorrow.)

DefendingFreeEnterpriseIndeed, the name you’ll never hear randians mention… and alas the same holds true of the oversimplifying straw-manner Eskow… is Adam Smith, whose version of libertarianism adults still look to, from time to time.  A version that admires and promotes individualism and the stunning power of human competition, but also recognizes that competitive-creative markets and democracy and science only achieve their wondrous positive sum games when carefully regulated… the way soccer or football must be, lest the strongest just form one team and stomp every potential rival flat and then gouge out their eyes… which is exactly what winner-owner-oligarch-lords did in every human culture for 6000 years.  Till Adam Smith came along and described how to get the good outcomes without the bad.

The stealing of Adam Smith’s movement by fanatics and cynically manipulative oligarchs is not just a tragedy for the right, and for market capitalism.  It is tragic for civilization.

==  Those seeking feudalism KNOWINGLY —

Here is the fundamental political fact of our times, amid phase three of the American Civil War.  The gulf between the richest 1% of the USA and the rest of the country got to its widest level in history last year.

The top 1% of earners in the U.S. pulled in 19.3% of total household income in 2012, which is their biggest slice of total income in more than 100 years, according to a an analysis by economists at the University of California.

Also, the top 1% of earnings posted 86% real income growth between 1993 and 2000. Meanwhile, the real income growth of the bottom 99% of earnings rose 6.6%.One-Percent-Wealth

The richest Americans haven’t claimed this large of a slice of total wealth since 1927, when the group claimed 18.7%. Just before the Great Crash and Great Depression… so much for the notion that Oligarchy assures prosperity and good management.  In contrast, the flattest American society — just after FDR — featured the longest boom, the most vigorous startup entrepreneurship, the fastest-rising middle class… and all of it with labor unions and high marginal tax rates.

The penultimate irony?  That the ones complaining about this are called “anti-capitalists” when the fair and productive-creative, entrepreneurial capitalism prescribed by Adam Smith is the top VICTIM of wealth and income inequality. Across 6000 years of human history, the enemy of open markets and freedom was always owner-oligarchy. The blame for this can be spread widely! Those liberals who ignore the “first liberal” Adam Smith are almost as foolish as the dullard right wingers who are helping to restore feudalism.

Book-Review-The-Greatest-Generation-by-Tom-BrokawThe greatest irony?  The people who are bringing all of this about claim to adore the “Greatest Generation” – our parents and grandparents who overcame the Depression and crushed Hitler and contained communism and started a hugely successful worldwide boom under protection of the American Pax… and got us to the moon and invented so many cool things that we got rich enough to go on a buying spree that made every export driven nation prosperous.

Funny thing.  That Greatest Generation adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the flat-but-dynamically entrepreneurial society that he and they built together.  Oh, but they were the fools and Rupert Murdoch knows so… so much better.

== So what is to be done? ==

BringBackFeudalismLeft-wingers who blame “capitalism” for our recent messes should replace the word with “cheaters.”  At risk of belaboring a point that must be reiterated because people keep blinking past it: I consider healthy “Smithian” capitalism to be one of the top five VICTIMS of the malignantly incompetent rule of the recent US GOP.  There are no outcome metrics of national health under which the Republican Party’s tenure in command did not wreak harm on the people of the United States, especially upon the middle class, upon human civilization and upon healthy capitalism… and the spinning ghosts of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley.

So let’s try some simple reforms.  Fierce measures to stop interlocking directorships and the circle-jerk of 5000 golf buddies appointing each other onto each others’ boards, then voting each other staggering “wages” –  it is a criminal conspiracy that not only has stolen billions but runs diametrically opposite to the entire notion of competitive enterprise.

1- If capitalism works, then these high CEO wages should be attracting brilliant talent from elsewhere, till demand meets supply and the wages fall.  They are in effect calling themselves irreplaceable “mutant geniuses” like NBA basketball players… only with this blatant rub. The top NBA players are fiercely measured by statistics!  The mutant-good CEOs are only “good” by the flimsiest of arm-waving by… their pals.

2- Critics of socialism cite Hayek and proclaim that, no matter how smart a set of top-down allocators are, they will be foolish simply because their numbers are few.  Now it happens that I agree! History does show that narrow castes of “allocators” do inevitably perform poorly. (The Chinese have done well… so far… but at spectacular environmental cost and corruption. And we know the inevitable end-game.)

So, how are 5,000 conniving, back-room-dealing, circle-jerking, self-interested golf buddies intrinsically better allocators than say 500,000 skilled, educated, closely-watched and reciprocally competitive civil servants?  Both groups suffer from delusional in-group-think.  But the smaller clade – more secretive, self-serving, inward-looking and uncriticized – is inherently more likely to fail.  Claiming that they are better allocators because they are “private” and secretively collusive is just religious litany, refuted by 6000 years of horrific oligarchic rule.

Return-To-CapitalismWe deserve and should demand a return to a capitalism that is more about creative-new goods and services than manipulation of imaginary financial “assets.” Colluding cartels, like the caste of 5,000 CEO-director golf buddies must be broken up.  If you are a senior officer of a company, you should be disallowed to sit on any boards, anywhere, for anything. And anti-trust laws that served our parents well should resume being enforced.

LawrenceLessigTEDThere are dozens of other possible reforms, especially Lawrence Lessig’s proposals to get the tsunamis of money out of politics and my own judo approaches to getting around gerrymandering.  But above all we need to MINISTER to our libertarian cousins, calmly drawing them away from Mad Ayn and back to Solid Adam, getting them to realise that capitalism is not being helped by the rising oligarchs. It is being killed by them. Libertarians should re-enlist in the League of Adam Smith, and help restore the system to health, lest socialism rise again.  As it surely will, if this goes on.

== The central battleground – the War on Science ==

Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, offers a moving missive about  how his long career never prepared him for a 21st Century in which so many of his fellow citizens are actively hostile to science.  He winds up agreeing with my own conclusion, that his is not normal give and take, but something akin to civil war, and that pro-science part of our civilization must take on the responsibility of militancy against waves of roomy-cynical nostalgia… and not all of it from the mad right.

And… because this is the central battle field of culture war…

== Blues & Greens – waking up and getting active ==

UnknownNext Step in Climate Change Activism, a Cross Country March! Six months from now, 1,000 people will set out from Los Angeles to walk 2,980 miles across America to Washington, DC, on the Great March for Climate Action.  The march will inspire and motivate average people to pressure political and business leaders to act now to address the climate crisis. The GMCA will be the largest coast-to-coast march in U.S. history.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom we are reminded that all movements must reach a moment of critical mass, when the call for change becomes powerful enough to shift public policy. We believe the size and scope of the Great March for Climate Action will be a vital next step. The March will start in Los Angeles on March 1, 2014, reach Phoenix in early April, Denver in early June, Omaha in late July, Chicago in early September, Pittsburgh in October and Washington DC on November 1. Marchers will walk 14-15 miles per day and camp in a mobile green village which will demonstrate sustainable technologies to feed and provide support services for the marchers.

Hey, we can only accomplish so much wrangling at this extreme intellectual end of things. There comes a point (as the French aristocrats learned after their dismal greed and obstinacy) when this goes down to the countryside.  To the streets.

                    Politics for the Twenty-first Century

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Things only a zillionaire could do to save America

Mention George Soros anywhere on the far-right and you’ll get fulminations.  To Republicans, Soros is an aristocratic mastermind who swore to “spend whatever it takes” to end the Bush-Neocons’ grip on political power in America… a vile plutocrat, striving to trample the will of plain-folks, along with the populist GOP that protects them. Glenn Beck railed to his audience, calling Soros the “Great Oligarch” and a master manipulator “who toppled eight foreign governments.” (The one thing Beck never mentioned, and that – tellingly and symptomatically – not one member of Beck’s vast following ever asked, was “which eight foreign governments did George Soros help to topple?” Tune in at the very end for the amazing answer.)

1101970901_400Okay, after wiping away tears of ironic laughter, one is left wondering.  If George Soros – and other rich liberals – are so potent and determined, why have they accomplished so little?

On the right, you see plenty of men and women who have proved ruthlessly effective at translating money into power, directing vast resources toward politically effective ends. There’s Rupert Murdoch, controlling — along with his Saudi co-owners — much of the world’s mass media, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal. His deep-pocket interests have been highly effective, funding everything from “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (remember them?), to Carl Rove’s Super-PAC empire, to the war on science.

Forbes_cover122412David and Charles Koch, a pair of wealthy and politically radical brothers have leveraged millions from likeminded investors, to wrest control over most of the nation’s voting machines and funded (with several hundred million dollars) the campaign to delay, obfuscate and render impotent any determined action to mitigate global climate change.  Not to mention foreign commodities moguls who have used deep fingers of influence to fare best of all, in recent years.  The list goes on and on.

Now, mind you, I am less enraged by all of this than you might think, simply because I view such behavior as the most natural thing imaginable!  We’ve had at least a million years in which human reproductive success was partly determined by males jockeying for status in tribal settings… followed by 6000 years in which 99% of all agricultural societies wound up being dominated by inheritance oligarchies, who strove above all to keep the masses in their place, ensuring that their sons would own other peoples’ daughters and sons.  The chief outcome — suppression of competition and free-flowing criticism — resulted in the litany of horrifically awful statecraft that we call “history.” Adam Smith and the American founders decried the toxic effects of oligarchyoligarchy, which has always been the chief enemy of markets, enterprise, science, truly-competitive capitalism and freedom. Populist or elected “government” – in sharp contrast – has almost no track record at actually harming those things.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why we’re attracted to tales about kings and wizards and such, and why so many of the rich strive to re-create feudalism. Isn’t it what you’d do?

We are, indeed, all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off that trick.  We carry their genes. Wanting all of that is the most natural thing in the world.

No, to me the amazing thing is what a high fraction of the new billionaires actually “get” the enlightenment… the modern civilization that gave them all of their opportunities and to which they owe absolutely everything.  Maybe 50% of them — the Musk-Gates-Buffett-Bezos-Page-Brin-Soros-types — grasp the enormous goodness and clever dynamics, based upon relative-equality of opportunity, that brought them their great fortune! Half of them seem to get it; this is wonderful.  It gives me hope there’ll be an ambitiously accomplished and exciting civilization for our grand-kids.

Can the Good Billionaires be as effective as the would-be lords? 

I explore this on the pages of Existence, wherein you attend a gathering of rich clans in the year 2048 and view them weighing how much of their gratification to defer, in order not to kill the golden-egg-laying goose.

All right, it’s hard to envision Steven Spielberg pulling shenanigans anywhere as effective — in the short term — as the Foxite war on science.  His films are designed to provoke thoughtful conversations, not reinforce bilious hatred of your neighbors.  It’s a more wholesome endeavor, but those seeds take time to germinate. The Fox-approach is quicker.

Of course, the top endeavor for a rich person who wants to change the world for the better is simple.  Keep getting rich by delivering excellent goods and services. And when you’ve reached a certain, sane level of satiability with wealth itself, you can either give a lot of it away (your kids will never starve) — or else start investing in new endeavors that are risky!  Then riskier still.

givingpledgeFor example, several of the tech-wave billionaires have invested heavily in the privatization of space exploration. Prime examples include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s mysterious Blue Origin project, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch System, and Sergey Brin’s Space Adventures. Recently, Peter Diamandis, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and others have teamed up to launch Planetary Resources aiming to mine resources from asteroids… a topic I happen to know a thing or two about.

Yes, that’s the top thing they can do. Innovation.  Risky entrepreneurship.  That and setting an example with real philanthropy, by signing the Gates Pledge.  Nevertheless, given that so much of our future depends upon the political process, can we afford to leave that arena to be meddled in by just the New Feudalists?

Do Friendly Billionaires Matter in Politics?

Let’s be clear.  Our present electoral divide won’t depend on the whim of a few  moguls.  Nor is Culture War all about “rich vs poor” – not yet. Historically, most nations were wracked by class struggle – and we may yet revert to that age-old pattern – which could become an especially dangerous schism, when the poor will be technologically empowered.  (It’s an IQ test for the uber-wealthy: do you actually believe you can rebuild lordship in the coming era, when the prols will have smart drones and desktop bio labs and all that stuff? Really?) But such times may be averted.  Indeed, many of today’s affluent are loyal to the mobile, competitive, egalitarian and rather-flat society our parents made, after World War II.  One that rewarded innovative commerce, without entrenching permanent castes.

So, let’s suppose there are a lot of wealthy, frustrated enlightenment fans out there.  With so much hanging in the balance, what’s a rich dude to do? Heck one great option would be to start a competing company to, say, make honest voting machines. Surely you can get that ready in time to win some contracts for 2016? Or else, organizations that perform poll watching and electoral process-checking could absorb large donations, in time to do a lot of good.  Though these groups are officially neutral, we know who would benefit, if elections proceed transparently and fair.

Likewise, the political caste will never rouse itself to do anything about gerrymandering. But a privately funded campaign against that foul practice, even as little as 20 million dollars, could start an avalanche of public anger over this blatant crime. In the short term, this would help both parties to back away from radicalization and elect more rational pragmatists. Kill gerrymandering and you will be well-remembered as a dragon-slayer.

philanthropyBut it’s my role to look in directions that are more, well, unconventional.  So let me bring up one idea, from a general compilation of Concepts for Billionaires: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy, that’s been in circulation for some time.

A Henchman’s Prize

I’ve long wondered why some billionaire who is worried about our open society doesn’t pony-up and offer truly substantial  whistleblower rewards. One action that could be especially well-targeted, during the next month or so — while having immense publicity value — would be to announce a great big prize for proof of massive cheating or dirty tricks, in time for the evidence to matter, before the next round of elections.

For best effectiveness, one would couch the idea in nonpartisan terms.  Offer a million dollars to any conspirator who turns coat and steps forward with – say – solid evidence that either party has engaged in a systematic effort to deny the vote to a thousand or more people in any political constituency.  Plus five million if the evidence leads to rapid, public plea bargains or convictions.

Yes, five million dollars is a lot of money.  But note that the larger sum is paid upon conviction, in which case it’s a small amout to buy a scandal-tumult of huge proportions. Perhaps big enough to transform politics in America.

Sure, people will see through couching it in nonpartisan terms.  (Though a Republican co-sponsor could be found.)  But even that implication would be useful, highlighting what everybody knows — where that kind of cheating is coming from.

Why emphasize “conspirator”?

HENCHMENThis is where the word henchman comes in.  Those most likely to have the goods — real evidence — will be people already deep inside.  Ironically, a henchman is probably venal and psychologically primed to jump ship, if offered the right combination of inducements — both cash and introduction to people who can offer some immunity.  (Rep. Henry Waxman has been responsible for recent strengthening of whistleblower protections, for example.)  This qualifier also keeps out a flood of mere rumor-mongers, who have other places to go.

There are many other possible whistleblower prizes.

But there’s a catch.  Any such program must be carefully phrased. A billionaire will have to fight past his or her own attorneys, in order to do something like this.  One doesn’t want to be held liable for enticing unproved or false allegations, or slander.  (There might be a discreet application process and a committee to vet claims, while police and prosecutors are given their full due.)

Still this sort of thing has one advantage — it could be set up and unleashed quickly.  And it appeals to the avaricious spirit that has driven so many dirty tricks operatives, ever since the days of Nixon and Donald Segretti.  Remember, tempting rats to betray each other ought to be easy, if you use the right cheese.

And all it might take is just one.


FOLLOWUP:  Have you guessed yet (or looked up) the eight foreign governments that master-mogul-manipulator George Soros “toppled”? How telling that (to my knowledge) none of Glenn Beck’s viewers or listeners even roused themselves with God’s greatest gift – curiosity – to ask which governments those were.  But you know, by now, what those toppled governments were, right? They were…

… the communist dictatorship of Poland … the communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia … the communist dictatorship of Soros’s birthplace Hungary … the communist dictatorship of Lithuania … the communist dictatorship of  Estonia … the communist dictatorship of  Latvia … the communist dictatorship of Romania … the communist dictatorship of  Bulgaria…

… and that’s erring on the low side. Some credit Soros with having major effects in Yugoslavia, Belarus, Ukraine….  Yep.  It is pretty clear why Glenn Beck never likes to get specific.  Facts kind of interfere with the narrative.

This is a heavily revised version of a posting from  roughly 2004.

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Do the U.S. 2012 elections reflect the Fermi Paradox? The empty Galaxy?

The Fermi Paradox is the question of why we seem to be alone in the cosmos. Why don’t we observe any blatant signs of intelligent life in the cosmos, including the great works that our own descendants may begin to build, if we give them a good start in the right direction?

When I first started writing about this 30 years ago, I called it the Mystery of the Great Silence — a quandary that we’ve covered here and elsewhere, in articles that list over 100 hypotheses for why we appear to be alone.  A topic that is also woven into the weft and flow of my new novel, Existence.

Almost everyone who dives into this subject swiftly chooses a favorite theory.  Perhaps life erupts rarely, or intelligence, or most life worlds are more oceanic so that few create hands-and-fire users, or maybe life gets pounded in most places by comets or supernovae.  I’ve had the role of cataloguing these theories, refusing to tout just one! But I do have a personal Top Ten list. And two of these most-plausible explanations for the Great Silence are of significance to us today.

That’s because two of them relate to political choices we’ll make next week, in the United States of America. These two scenarios, which may seriously winnow down the number of visible galactic civilizations — and might soon do the same to us — are:

1. Bad governance leads to Big Mistakes (e.g. nuclear war, eco-collapse etc.) that kill off or render impotent many or most technological species. Note that this is a whole class of potential failure modes, a minefield of errors that young, technological races might commit, veering past one doom and escaping the next before tumbling into a third… or fourth… or…

2. Most tech species slump into the same social attractor state that snared 99% of human cultures. That pattern, repeated from Egypt and Meso-America to Babylon, China and Rome — from Tokugawa Japan to Bourbon France to Hanoverian England — was family-based oligarchy. The standard, pyramid-shaped social order wherein conservative elites (king, lords, priests, wizards) squelch rapid scientific advancement and middle class innovation as a threat to their carefully maintained inherited privilege.

This system – (envision all the endless variants on feudalism) – was dominant in nearly all past human societies because, for one thing, it is reproductively self- reinforcing! Indeed, you see the same drive at work in the hierarchy-seeking or harem-keeping behaviors of males in countless other species on Earth. It’s a powerful and deeply natural attractor state and there’s no reason it won’t be likewise compelling in other realms across the cosmos.

At a glance, it is obvious how both #1 and #2 are “Fermi-relevant” failure modes that could stymie many — perhaps most — intelligent-technological species from communicating or spreading among the stars. Other factors may also come into play.  But these two are persuasive top candidates.

== Does oligarchy limit the potential for collapse? ==

Contemplating these two potential explanations for the Great Silence raises a question: do these two winnowing factors work together?  Or against each other?

After all, one of the top rationalizations that oligarchies have given, when they suppress science and markets, competitive invention and enterprise, is that the priests and lords are acting for the good of all.  Preventing instability and disruption. Indeed, this is a chief point raised by Jared Diamond in his great, highly-recommended, but disturbingly off-target book COLLAPSE.

In other words, a lot of species might find serenity through #2 — while most of the rest are swept away by #1.  Together the pair may help to explain the interstellar quiet.  And naturally, the genteel stagnation represented by #2 seems preferable to the effective extinction of #1. Assuming these two choices represent our only alternatives — and some of the characters in my new novel EXISTENCE argue that point — then we have a pretty good idea why the stars appear so lifeless and empty of voices.

But as we’ll see, that may be a false way of looking at things.  Rather, I will contend that the oligarchy process guarantees falling into fatal pitfalls, rather than avoiding them.

== The Fermi Paradox and U.S. Politics ==

These two paths and types of failure modes seem especially relevant to the present US elections. COMPETENCE and RENUNCIATION are the distill-words.  Even if you favor oligarchic conservatism as a model for our future, over the fevered drive of Periclean-egalitarian positive sum games… you are still behooved to consider the competence issue. But hold that thought. We’ll get back to competence and option #1 in a minute.

First, how does Fermi Choice #2 — oligarchy-pushed renunciation — bear upon the 2012 campaign?  It’s relevant!

Consider: in the recent debates one candidate spoke about “science” fourteen times , whereas the other has has barely mentioned it during the campaign trail.

American scientists have voted with their feet, with only 6% now calling themselves Republican. (It used to be about 50%). Indeed, the head of the GOP controlled House of Representatives Science Committee recently and repeatedly declared the Earth to be 9000 years old.  Yes, the head of the Science Committee. Of the House of Representatives. Of the United States of America.

In every conceivable way, from science to education… all the way to the rebuilding of a vastly powerful American Oligarchy, the GOP is your party if you feel that renunciation and a return to traditional patterns of aristocratic rule is preferable to Periclean instability. It is the Olde Way, pushed hardest via a media empire owned by multiple foreign billionaires, including the Saudi Royal Family.

Moreover, it may be that millions of other species faced similar choices and all picked this route! The decision may be inevitable. The star lanes may appear empty because millions of other races made the same, Darwinistically-driven choice — settling into genteel, aristocracy-tended conservatism. Which I’ll admit beats extinction.

Still, in weighing this choice, I know what decision I will argue for. I vote to keep faith with Pericles and Adam Smith and Washington and Franklin and Lincoln and Jonas Salk and Warren Buffett and the Silicon Valley geeks. Yes, the Periclean Western Enlightenment, with its egalitarianism, transparency, competitive markets, democracy and flat, anti-oligarchic social order does charge ahead into the future.  And yes, the faster we charge ahead, the more we’ll need transparency and freedom, to probe ahead of us, finding mine fields, quicksand pools and other pitfall-dangers ahead. And yes, the nostalgia junkies and oligarchy-lovers have a point when they cry out “slow down!”

But think.  The fundamental fact of the Fermi Paradox is that we see no signs of advanced civilization “boldly going” about, out there.  So, if oligarchic pyramids are the main attractor state, among the stars, isn’t that an argument that we should try something else? Perhaps something unusual? Something like this enlightenment?

Think about that a while.  Chew on it. Put it all together. If 99% of human cultures did the natural thing, and most other sapients do, as well, and we see empty star lanes… then maybe, just maybe, we should do something different. I say we ought to stick with Pericles.

Ah, but that only addresses failure mode #2. Then there is Fermi failure mode #1 and that matter of competence! 

== Stand on your record of governance ==

Whether you support the Periclean Experiment (in this election that makes you Blue… or largely a democrat… or maybe libertarian), or else you happen to favor a return to the oligarchic pattern of 6000 years (in other words, a follower of Fox-owners Rupert Murdoch and Prince bin Walied)… there remains the other Fermi Factor listed above.

Factor #1.  Is your side any good at governing?

You might yearn for a king, but if the one available is horridly stupid and BAD at statecraft, maybe you should side with the Pericleans for a while and wait for a better king.

Please.  Put aside preconceptions.  Use curiosity to overcome the all-too human tendency — to funnel disliked information through the emotional amygdala.  If presented with clear and systematic proof that your side is incompetent, will you at least have a look?

Cutting through all the polemic, attack ads and sketchy evasiveness, this 2012 U.S. election ought to boil down to which party tends to govern better. On that, the historical record is clear. For those who can still be swayed by factual comparisons – and if you care about the role America might play in taking civilization to the stars – have a look at these stark contrasts and share them with others:

“How Democrats and Republicans differ at defense and waging war,”

This one has gone viral, drawing a lot of hits from regions where soldiers and sailors live.  If we must endure dangerous times, shouldn’t we compare who does defense well?

The Eight Top Causes of the Deficit “Fiscal Cliff,”

In tallying the reasons for the deficit, we see one party vastly more at fault than the other, and yet that culprit is the noisiest in denouncing the debt it created!  Supporting evidence comes from Forbes, the business magazine, which tallied the rate of increase of government spending under the last five presidents, including Reagan.  The rate of increase was lowest under Clinton and Obama. Please. Click to scan the Eight Reasons for the Deficit and judge for yourself.

“Which party stands up for science?”

This one is just awful.  You cannot name a clade of intellect and knowledge in American life that is not under attack by Fox.  But science bears the brunt.  That that is an absolute proof which side you must be on, in this trumped up phase of the American Civil War.

These are not convenient, cherry-picked anecdotes or assertions, but complete lists for clear comparison, backed up by economists, generals, admirals and the 95% of U.S. scientists who voted with their feet, abandoning a party that plunged America into anti-science hysteria.

Finally, do we really want our geopolitics run by someone who thinks that Syria is Iran’s route to the sea?

== Might we be the exceptions? ==

Getting back to Fermi… one question stands foremost: who will govern better?  Those who are willing to negotiate openly, fight carefully, manage cautiously and consult science as we charge into an uncertain future?  Or dogmatists who erased every scientific panel that used to advise Congress from 1940 till 1996?  Because those panels offered inconvenient and impudent things called facts.

The great historian Arnold Toynbee studied every known Earthly civilization and concluded that societies either thrive or fail in direct proportion to how much trust and initiative they willingly invest in their “creative minorities.”  The far-lookers and problem solvers.

We are plunging ahead into a mine-field, one that may have killed every other sapient race in our galaxy!  Can we be the first to pick a safe path across?

Not if we wallow in nostalgia and tell the smartest people in our society to go to hell.


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Will the world’s middle classes rise up, in a “Helvetian War”?

 My 1989 novel Earth is credited with a fairly high predictive score.  In fact, fans maintain a wiki to track its successful “hits” – including little things like the World Wide Web and wearable augmented reality “google goggles.”

(They also track some embarrassing “misses”… ah well.)

Set in the year 2038, Earth portrays citizens in that near-future era looking back upon a brutal struggle that took place in the 2020s.  The Helvetian War was unlike anything we’ve seen since the French or Russian Revolutions. A radical rising by a fed-up world middle class, pushed against the wall by cynics and the corrupt connivers.

What they seek – and attain – is not socialism, a discredited foolishness that arose out of silly abstractions that bore no relationship at all to real human nature. Market economies have out-performed socialist or communist or oligarchic ones so overwhelmingly that only delusional fools – or would-be oligarchs – should prefer top-down, bureaucratic control instead of the fluid productivity that we get out of creative competition. (Does that make me sound like a right-winger? Silly.  Broaden your memes.)

No, the new radicalism that may be demanded in the 2020s — especially by emerging middle classes in the developing world — is to give all people a chance to compete fairly, free from parasitism by their homegrown kleptocrats and from the rising global variety. Free from the secret, conspiring control of a caste that Adam Smith himself called the oppressors of freedom and market economics across 6000 years.

“All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” –Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations

$21-trillionNow, in that context, consider this headline. $21 Trillion hoard hidden offshore by global elite.

Yes that is a “T” and not a “B.” Just sit there and consider that number.  Then think about my prediction that the world’s middle classes will become radicalized, perhaps in the 2020s, or even sooner.

The study in question estimates the staggering size of the offshore economy and how private banks help the wealthiest to move cash into overseas havens. Russian, Saudi and Nigerian oil barons top the list, followed by US and British bankers and then drug lords and other criminal enterprises.  The totals amount to as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together.

With US tax rates at their lowest levels in 60 years, and taxes on the rich at their lowest levels since 1920, it would seem that they still aren’t low enough for today’s super wealthy.  Consider the GOP’s potemkin rally in Tampa, in this context.

See also this angle: This hidden wealth costs western democracy governments $280 billion a  year in lost tax revenue. That’s annual.  An amount so huge that infrastructure repair and boosted science could coincide with cuts in the actual tax rates for law-abiders who aren’t part of the secret Lords Economy.

Want to see where this might lead?  Try reading Earth.

== Is a World Middle Class Even Possible?

In fact, it is more than possible. If by “middle class” you mean having a clean home with electricity and sanitation, a washing machine and access to transporation, plus kids who are in school with adequate food, clothing and books, then that already includes two thirds of the Earth’s human population, a fact that is seldom mentioned by either left or right.

Why is this good news ignored? Because of the Paradox of Progress.  It’s all a matter of deep personality. The reflex of folks on the right is to avert the gaze from problems to be solved and to resent nagging to solve them. The reflex of the far-left is hypersensitivity to perceived problems. To rail for solutions – but to deny that any past attempts at improvement ever worked! The right is suspicious toward the whole notion of “improvability” of either humans or society. The left wants improvability, passionately, but insists it has never happened yet.

Both extremes are – in effect, completely crazy.

Amid ongoing debates over progress, there is a third group. Those who seek to improve the human condition and who admit that steady improvements have already taken place.  These are called “liberals” – a very different breed than leftists – and to them the question of whether development has taken place inevitably gives way to practical discussions.  How to foster a speedup of already ongoing progress.   Pragmatic progressivism eschews dogma in favor of asking: what has worked and what hasn’t?

What’s becoming clear is that some parts of the world are doing better than others.  In 1970, South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana.  Today, all the nations of East Asia have left all African nations in a cloud of dust, and that includes China, which had a thirty year hiatus under Maoism.  Today, Latin America has large areas that are burgeoning — e.g. Brazil — and sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing its most rapid rate of growth (outside of certain hell-holes) since colonial kleptocrats gave way to local kleptocracies in the 1960s.

Still, the African acceleration is only impressive compared to previous stagnation. And some regions that have tried — under pressure or tutelage from international development agencies — to reform their laws and civil society, have failed to make them sufficiently competition-friendly to invite much new investment, or to give vibrant locals a level playing field against conniving local elites.

== What do the professionals say? ==

Two interesting perspectives offer a glimpse at just how difficult the problem can be.

In a fascinating and vivid audio-visual presentation, Owen Barder explores the implications of complexity theory for development policy. He explains how traditional economic models have tried and failed to understand why some countries have managed to improve living standards while other countries have not. Using complexity theory, he shows that development is a property of a system, not the sum of what happens to the people within it.

While Barder is both interesting and informative and is on-target in his range of criticisms – (do watch the video!) – in the end he winds up sounding like a lot of “complexity” fans.  Okay, so the problem is complex.  Thanks for telling us that.

For balance, have a glimpse at an interesting, if a bit depressing, appraisal of the likelihood that creative-competitive capitalism can ever take root in MENA — the Middle East and North Africa — despite formal legal reforms.  The problem is an ancient one… oligarchies of a few at the top, engaging in what Adam Smith called “rent-seeking,” using informal connections and conniving to bypass the new “civil society reforms” and still maintain their advantages, thus repelling or driving out investment in new competitive enterprises.

It is a standard pattern that this World Bank report deems fairly hopeless to overcome in this region, though others are doing better… while the United States slips ever deeper into the classic oligarchic pattern that Adam Smith loathed.

So, shall we commit seppuku and give up?  Of course not.  There is enough light erupting all over the Earth to encourage belief in progress, not only that it can happen, but that it has.  And that tech-driven transparency will help, when citizens can record and expose local corruption with the touch of a cell phone.  And that — far better than chiding — is good enough reason to persevere.

== So, will the world’s new middle classes rise up? ==

As I portrayed in EARTH… and explore a bit in EXISTENCE… there are two types of uber-rich.  Those who are loyal to the Enlightenment Experiment that empowered their rise and (in effect) gave them everything they have… a diamond shaped social structure in which even with their billions, they – and their children – will keep facing fresh competition from a lively, vibrant population of educated and confident citizens…

…versus a portion of the new-aristocracy that simply does not get it.  Who think – as oligarchs did in 99% of past human cultures – that they are superior NOT because of this year’s latest goods and services, but because wealth inherently means lordly merit.  Such folks aren’t at fault for having this reflex.  We are all descended from the harems of guys who pursued power tenaciously and darwinistically.  The reflex is in our genes.

But it’s a poison. Our Enlightenment Experiment achieved more human progress in just four generations than all the preceding feudal societies combined.  Its founders, like Adam Smith, recognized the oligarchic tendency and denounced it.  They knew that the foolish “uber” types would keep trying to pound our diamond shaped society back into a pyramid, promoting “rent-seeking” income (like dividends and capital gains) ahead of the wages earned by creative and hardworking people with their hands.

Inevitably (and history bears me out) all this conniving will have just three possible outcomes.

1- They succeed.  The Enlightenment Experiment comes to an end. (In Existence I explore the rationalizations they might give, to excuse such a backward shift, some of them very clever!)

2- The middle classes – uniting in common cause with knowledge professions like science – could enact yet another mild, moderate, incremental, American-style revolution, of which 1776 was only one example. So was the first U.S. Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive era, and FDR’s New Deal, in which oligarchy gets stymied just enough to keep freedom and creative competition and entrepreneurial markets and  transparency and divided power and opportunity and social mobility going, while maintaining the allure of competitively-earned wealth as a reward for delivering cool things into the world.

3- Paris… 1789.

Here is the chief difference between the good/smart/tech billionaires and the fools who now use Fox News to push an idolatry of property that has always, always, always been the enemy of competition.  The smart guys — the billionaires in Silicon Valley for example, or Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — want option number two. If need be, they will join the world’s middle classes and help keep our looming “helvetian wars” mild.

In sharp contrast, the ones who are pushing the United States into Culture War… indeed, the lastest phase of the American civil war … actually think they are very smart.  But their efforts, if successful, will only lead to outcome#3.

They aren’t as smart as they think they are.


Filed under economy, future

“Class War” and the Lessons of History

One aspect of our re-ignited American Civil War is getting a lot of air-play. It is so-called “class war.”

That’s the tag-line ordered up by Roger Ailes. The notion: that any talk of returning to 1990s tax rates – way back when the U.S. was healthy. wealthy, vibrantly entrepreneurial and world-competitive, generating millionaires at the fastest pace in human history – is somehow akin to Robespierre chopping heads in the French Revolution’s reign of terror.

That parallel is actually rather thought-provoking! Indeed, can you hang with me for a few minutes? After setting the stage with some American history, I want to get back to the way things got out of hand during that earlier 1793 class war in France.  There are some really interesting aspects I’ll bet you never knew.

But in fact, “class war” has always been with us. If you ever actually sit down to read what people wrote in times past – for example Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, or even the Bible – then you know struggle and resentment between social castes was the normal state of human affairs for 6000 years, or much longer.  Seriously, randomly choose (or “roll-up”) a decade and locale from across the last few millenia! Tell me who oppressed freedom and competitive markets in that time and place. I’ll wait.

In fact, today’s American perspective that there is no-such-thing as class – so blithely exploited by Fox – seems rather quirky and charmingly innocent.  Baby Boomers, especially, were raised under  unusual circumstances — perhaps the only stretch of time in which a great nation experienced a (fairly) flat social order.

Now this calls for simplifying – so let’s set aside the battles over racial and sexual equality, etc. – but squint with me here, for a minute.  It’s fairly obvious that the period following the Second World War was (for white U.S. males) the least class-ridden of all time.  Disparities of wealth were at an all-time low and the middle class, flush with WWII savings, good wages and GI Bill-fostered competitiveness, experienced a generation of utter dominance over the American experience. A confident dominance that got woven into popular culture through TV and all other media.

= Pyramids and diamonds =

Instead of the classic human social pattern — pyramid-shaped with a tiny, fierce nobility lording it over peasant multitudes — ours was diamond-shaped with a well-off middle that actually outnumbered the poor! A miracle nobody in all the past ever foresaw. Except perhaps Smith. Certainly not Karl Marx! In fact, nothing so undermined the honey-seductive mantras of Marxism so much as the living example of the U.S. middle class. Which the whole world wanted to join.

And now the penultimate point (before getting back to 1793 France). Our post-WWII flattened-diamond pattern did not quash or undermine competitive capitalism!  Not at all. In fact, never before or since has there been such fecund, vigorous entrepreneurialism as during the flattest and most “level” social order the world ever saw.

Those who proclaim these two things – social flatness and vigorous market competitiveness – to be inherent opposites, in perpetual conflict, are simply fools or historical ignoramuses — or outright liars. They are pushing the sick illogic of the zero sum game.  Indeed, Adam Smith himself contended, in both Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that a relatively flat social order — combined with lots of opportunities for the poor to get education, so the total number of competitors is maximized — can vastly increase the total number of people who get rich in the best way, by delivering innovative goods and services.

(Smith held less truck with inherited wealth or dividend-clipping “rents” – the kind of income with the very lowest tax rates, nowadays. In fact, Smith strongly implies that some kind of upper limit to the meaning of “rich” might be called for. But more on that another time.)

= A burden of proof on FDR-bashers =

The final pre-point I want to make here – before tooling off to France in 1789 – is more in the form of a question.  How did we get into a situation where Franklin Delano Roosevelt is portrayed as Satan incarnate?

Yes, yes.  I spend a lot of time around libertarians and I know that their current version is all about hating government.  No other agenda or priority.  See my earlier challenge (two postings back) daring libertarians and decent conservatives to consider taking on a positive goal instead of a purely negative one – fostering competitive enterprise and not just reflexively hating all civil servants, under all circumstances, all the time, while ignoring every other threat to freedom. That may by Ayn Rand, but it sure ain’t Adam Smith.

If government is always and automatically evil, then yes, Franklin Roosevelt was the antichrist, because he sure expanded its reach.  If, on the other hand, you judge by outcomes… defeating Hitler, ending the Great Depression, starting the process of racial justice and – above all – engendering a society that both fostered vast amounts of competitive enterprise and kept the social order flat, then maybe we should consider cutting the man some slack.  (Wasn’t he admired by the “greatest generation”?)  I’d like to see you — or any ruler/leader across all of human time — do better.

Sure, some of FDR’s bureaucracy got cloying. Or else it got “captured” and stifled competition.  Democrats themselves axed many New Deal and Progressive agencies – the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, for example, had to go!  Others needed trimming and so did the pre-1960 tax rates that JFK slashed.  Indeed, about half of the Reagan-era government prunings seem pretty much called for… a process culminating in the Clinton-Gingrich Welfare Reform, another time that the moderate-right had a strong point. And was listened-to.

But outcomes comparison is not kind to those who gutted Glass-Steagel and other bank regulations, opening the door to abuses that helped bring our Second Depression.  And since every single prediction ever made by Supply Side Economics proved wrong, well, we can understand why science and outcomes comparison are the Big Enemy, attacked by Fox 24 hours a day.  If facts are inconvenient, well, damn those who live and work with facts.

= Okay, back to France =

All the shouts about “class war” bring to mind images of rabid Jacobin mobs in 1793 hauling brave nobles and gentlemen to the guillotine. But if Rupert & co. really want us pondering that image, we owe it to ourselves to leaf back just a few pages to 1789, when the revolution began as a much more moderate thing, inspired by events across the ocean, in America.

France was broke.  Louis XVI and his ministers were incompetents who deliberately squelched commerce with internal tariffs and policies that crushed innovation. The church owned much of the productive land, tax-free. So did the feudal aristocracy. Top merchants and corporations managed to wrangle exemptions too. After years of quagmire wars, poor tax revenue, bank collapses and mismanagement, Louis needed more money to stave off bankruptcy and save the country. So he summoned the Estates General.

That was the rough French equivalent of the British Parliament, but with much less authority.  In fact, it had last met in 1614. But Louis was desperate. What he needed was for the first and second “estates” — the clergy and  nobles — to vote themselves a temporary levy and join the third estate (the people) in paying their fair share.

That’s how it all started.  The country’s leader asking oligarchs and aristocrats to pay the same rates as common folk, for a while, especially since they already owned damn near everything.  The answer given by the dukes and bishops and marquiseseses?  Heck no! We’re the ones keeping it all together. The managers and investors and owners and job-makers. The government can damn well keep its mitts out of our pockets. It’s our money, not the state’s.

Now you can see where I’m going with this. So I won’t spell out what happened next. (Though a little reading might be in order?  After the last assignment, to learn what the founder of modern market-capitalism, Adam Smith actually said. I promise surprises!) 

And no, I am not predicting tumbrels rolling through American streets, with billionaires holding their chins high as rabid mobs taunt them on their way to chopping blocks! 

What I am telling you is that “class war” has a whole lot more to it than they are telling you with their blithe, two-word nostrums, over at Fox.  As Warren Buffett said: “my side – the rich – have been winning class war for some time, and it won’t end well.”  

= The American Difference =

Across the sea, in America, a different experiment was being tried. The aristocracy over here — like Washington and Jefferson — certainly enjoyed being rich, and wanted opportunities to stay that way! But they also knew the frontier virtue satiability — the notion that getting rich is great! Economic success can both entice and propel innovation, hard work, enterprise, competitive creativity and philanthropy. But that (as Adam Smith proclaimed in the miracle year 1776) there comes a point where enough is enough… and sometimes even too much.

Hold onto your seat, because I’m about to tell you something about Washington and the others that you never knew… that they were “levellers.”

The founders started by banning primogeniture, so no family fortune could sit and accumulate, undivided, as a lordly demesne at the pyramid’s peak. Instead, they would get divided among the large numbers of children that folks had then — an intentional act of “social engineering” and outright “levelling” and don’t you for a moment think otherwise!  They also seized the assets of the Tory lords and even neutral absentees and distributed them to the masses. And they made homesteading easy, with laws that favored Yeoman citizens. (All right, some of the lands they seized belonged to native American tribes – I never called these guys perfect, just smart, with a goal of not repeating the historical mistakes they loathed. Sure, they proceeded to make others.)

Never heard of these “levelling” acts by the founders? Heck, even liberals have forgotten them. Or they’ve become used to simply ceding Washington and Adam Smith to the blustering right, without even putting up a fight.  Stupid-lame liberals.

The point is that we never had the kind of violent class war that erupted in France, because our elites were smart enough to avoid it! After the primogeniture and distribution and land grant tricks started to fade along with the frontier, we entered a dangerous Gilded Age when the pyramid shape began re-emerging and Marx rubbed his hands over the growing urban proletariat….

…but even among the titans of the 1890s, there were men who could see. “I would rather leave my son a curse than the almighty dollar,” quoth Andrew Carnegie, who was the Warren Buffett of his day.  And our agile nation came up with moderate, progressivist solutions like anti-trust laws, that staunched class war without ruining capitalist enterprise.  That kept the goose alive, to keep laying golden eggs.

I’ve already discussed FDR. But now you can see the context of it all!  It is the context of the positive sum game. (Look it up!) The notion that we can get all the benefits of an enterprise-market system — using the allure of wealth to reward innovators and vigorous competition — while somehow preventing the toxic side effect of wealth… the poison called oligarchy.  The same poison that ruined markets and freedom in every culture other than ours, in every other era than ours.

= A wake-up call =

So what now? Well, for one thing, it’s time to rouse yourself from propaganda hypnosis.  History repeats itself. And the last thing that the New Oligarchs want you to do is study history.

After a full generation of innocence, since the Second World War, in which we took for granted some highly unusual circumstances, we seem now to be plunging back toward the norm for human societies. And you – yes, you – need to start asking questions:

— like what degree of wealth disparity would you find discomforting?  Today, unlike 1945 or 1980 or 1999, the top 400 U.S. families own more than the the bottom 50% of Americans. Please, please, please pause a minute and picture that in your mind.  If you can somehow manage to shrug that off, is there some level of disparity that would worry you?

When it’s 75%? Or when it’s 90%? Admit that there is some level that would make even you call yourself the victim of class war. One that’s gone on (with a slight break) for 6000 years.

— or ask what it means when Fox says the top families do pay a lot of money in taxes, despite paying at very low rates.  Can you do the simple algebra in your head, divide and put in an equal sign and draw the obvious conclusion?  If they pay vast amounts, even at tiny rates… doesn’t that mean they are getting most of the money in the first place?  And that’s supposedly a reason for you to… shrug?

— or ask who is financing the propaganda that you watch? When simplistic tag lines are ordered up at Fox News by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Prince Waleed, and they are parroted within hours by every politician and talking head on the right, is it time to ask “is this the “conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, any longer?” What do these New Lords get out of teaching you to hate every American elite of science, intellect or skill… while demanding that you ignore the one elite that threatens everything we love?  Theirs?

— for the first time in American history, we went to war and the rich refused to help pay for it. Isn’t patriotism an issue all the time, and not just when you (or Glenn Beck) pick or choose?

More important: doesn’t this start sounding a whole lot like what the nobles did on the east side of the Atlantic in 1789… and not at all like the smarter elites did in the west?

— is history really so boring to you that you find it completely irrelevant? So much so that you’ll ignore the patterns of 6,000 years?  If so, wow, FDR sure did make a different world that Baby Boomers ignorantly take for granted.

But the Gen-Xers and Gen-Y and Millennials won’t.  As I foresaw in EARTH, they are waking up. So don’t fret, Boomers. Your children will rescue America.  Not with violent class war… what are we, French? But with the kind of tweaking we saw from Washington and Lincoln and Carnegie and Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.  The kind that restores that flattened diamond… while continuing the miracle of competitive markets and freedom.


Filed under economy, society

Philanthropy: Moving from a Scarcity Economy to a Gift Economy

Will we transform ourselves from an archaic Scarcity Economy to a “Gift Economy” – much as portrayed in Star Trek? Is philanthropy a crucial recycling direction for wealth to take? I participate in round tables on philanthropy theory. Here is an important one.

Philosopher Fed Turner has some interesting insights: ”There is a myth that we as a species have moved from having an edenic and arcadian gift exchange economy to a cold and corrupt market economy. As a myth it has its uses; as a fact it will not fly. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists now find trading practices among the earliest humans nearly 200,000 years ago; we were always buying, selling, hiring, trucking and bartering. And economists tell us that even in today’s advanced industrial economies the amount of value that is transferred by gift is greater than the amount transferred by market exchanges. This may sound counter-intuitive until we reflect that gift includes the free services rendered by parents to their children, husbands and wives to each other, friends to friends, hobbyists to their community, and the bequests of the dying to their heirs.

“We have plenty of theory about markets, since Locke and Smith and their ilk. There is some theory about gift exchange in traditional tribal societies (Marcel Mauss, for instance), but very little until now about the economic, moral, social, political, ecological, aesthetic, and spiritual implications of today’s gift economy in advanced societies like the United States.”

Finally, there’s a fun item — EON: the Eye of the Needle Foundation — my own article that stimulated discussion in philanthropic circles, about an entirely new kind of charitable institution, one that might help dramatically enlarge the pot of modern generosity by offering the super-wealthy (and many of the rest of us, too) some unique incentives. Something for the man or woman who has everything.

=== Can We Learn Useful Things About Society/Security From Fiction and Magic? ===

Is fiction a security issue? DARPA wants to know how stories influence our thoughts and actions. And what form of literature can be more radical than science fiction – which teaches that the future can be different than the past – that humans might stop making the same mistakes over and over again…. and hence, that it will be our fault, if we choose not to stop.

Recording Police Abuse Could Get You ARRESTED! Magician, supertainer and paladin of freedom Penn Jillette recorded this episode of Penn Point back in June. I highly recommend Penn’s rants; they are uniformly smart, vivid and informative. Even when I disagree, I feel glad he is out there, fighting for us, and proud to know him. (I have an ulterior motive in this case; Penn repeatedly touts my nonfiction book The Transparent Society.

I especially like one of Penn’s aphorisms: “Always look for the solution that’s for more freedom.” I say something almost identical in The Transparent Society. Alas, in the info age, people point to problems and all-too often suggest solving them with LESS information flow.

Take recent arguments over renewing the Patriot Act. I despise the damned thing. (See where I predicted it – as well as terror-doom for the WTC towers – in The Transparent Society on page 206.) But I don’t waste my time writhing over the parts of the PA that let government see more. That trend is inevitable and unstoppable and freedom knights who rail against those parts are just foolish. It is the OTHER portions of the Patriot Act that are demonic, hateful and downright dangerous… the sections that remove oversight and allow government to operate more in secret and less under our supervision. Those are the parts we should be fighting to eliminate. But political reflexes tend to be dumb, and liberals are no exception, even when they are on the right side of an issue.

=== Symptoms of Sickness… Signs of Health ===

Want to perk up? Here are 25 minutes worth watching: Kevin Kelly on the future of book publishing, speaking about how value will be generated in a free copy world: “The internet is the world’s largest copy machine.” We can’t stop books from being copied, so we need to make it easier to pay for immediate, interactive, personalized content. Kevin is very smart and always worth-heeding. It happens I think he’s wrong here in several ways. But tune in!

Caltech basketball team just won its first victory since 1986! A 310 game losing streak… done!

The team controlling the Kepler planet-hunter telescope has released a small part of its 1st 4 months of data recently. It revealed more than 1200 potential extrasolar planets. If a reasonable percentage of these worlds turn out to be independently verified, this treasure trove will yield more results in 4 months (1200+) than astronomy had found in the past 15+ years (550+ objects). (Um, than astronomy had found in the last 5,000 years.)

Kepler uses the transit or partial eclipse method to identify new planets. It keeps a constant vigil on 156,000 stars that are up to 3000 light-years away in a region close to the star dense galactic plane in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra…. Since other planetary systems can exist at all different angles, we would only expect that a small percentage of extrasolar systems (1-10%) would be edge on to us. That means that Kepler is really only sampling 1,500 to 15,000 systems. That makes the fact that they have found 1200 potential planets all the more impressive!
Findings. Neptune-type worlds seem dominant. The large number of Super Earths (23.3%) that may be determined to be rocky after further study, combined with the significant percentage of Earth sized bodies (5.5%) suggests that a sizable percentage of stars that could show evidence of Earths seem to have them.

But note, Kepler’s results are so-far weighted toward finding planets with quick orbital “years.” Later data must gather to find those orbiting farther out. “There were 54 planets detected in the water-possible zone. Five (5) of those were Earth sized or smaller. This is where things really get interesting. These are the gems in the group.”

Those who have read (and enjoyed) STAR WARS ON TRIAL… or the original Salon article that first accused the Lucasian universe of nostalgic-romantic hatred of the future… might enjoy an hour-long podcast discussion that assesses the article, from the perspective of several british and australian writer-fans. They try hard. They are very silly, but they do try hard. (Someone tell them about STAR WARS ON TRIAL, in which George Lucas’s defenders have their chance… and come up wanting.

=== Unabashedly Political — Be Afraid! ===

“Spending cuts approved by the House would end America’s reign as a scientific leader if they are enacted into law, a former Bush administration Energy Department official said yesterday. “Left intact, the massive cuts in research contained in the bill passed on 19 February would effectively end America’s legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community,” Raymond Orbach wrote in an editorial published online by the journal Science.

I guess the Saudis haven’t changed their plans for us, after all. Their lackeys are still trying to end Pax Americana from within. This is war.

Speaking of mouthpieces for the real, behind-the-scenes instigators of Culture War… try this Glenn Beck conspiracy generator.

See this.
Absorb it.
Spread it.

If you spread nothing else this year, spread that one link.

I consider myself a libertarian who believes in competition as THE great creative human force. Objecting to the rise of a dominant oligarchy is not a SOCIALIST issue! It is an issue to anyone who wants the enlightenment… including its competitive markets and small businesses… to survive.

I hated the soviets and commies as dangerous ignoramuses and threats to the enlightenment, markets and freedom.

I hate the new oligarchy for exactly the same reasons — both bands of would be aristocratic lords think they can “allocate” wisely in secret cabals. Both communists and oligarchs believe that history and justice back up their monopoly of power. Both replicate EXACTLY the failure mode that ruined every other brief renaissance of openness and market freedom. The oligarchs try to hide this by relentlessly claiming to favor market competition — without ever showing a single example of a competition-enhancing action on their parts.

I’ve said it again and again. The people who should be angriest at the neocons aren’t the liberals or even the pinko socialists (two very different things). The ones who should despise the neocons most of all – with red-hot livid hatred – should be the libertarians. And fools like the Pauls, who think that the GOP is a hold-your-nose choice that’s better than the democrats, are all profoundly stupid fools.

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Filed under science, society

State of the Union: Things Obama Did Not Have to Say — But Did Anyway

The president’s State of the Union Speech was – at long last – the one I wanted him to give. It went after the very poison that has so sickened the United States of America. His call for us to shake off the Cult of Future-Hatred, indulged in by both right and left, was about urging us to start looking forward again, instead of to some mythically better past.

Clearly, Barack Obama does not expect that to happen through a sudden coming-together in unity and courtesy.  (He did ask for those things, but we know that asking will not make them happen). For those those demanding accountability for the greedocracy of a looming oligarchy he had only incremental steps toward transparency. And, while the President pointed out the hypocrisy of Teaparty “deficit fighters,” who plunged the nation into tsunamis of red ink during their watch, in the name of disproved Voodoo Economics, he did so in fairly gentle terms. For one simple reason.

Because none of these side-skirmishes are where the real battle lies.

As I’ve said for months, for years, the real agenda of the neoconservative movement – its one consistent theme – has been to wage bitter war against nearly all centers of American expertise.

You may have only heard of one part of this campaign — the relentless and undeniable Republican War on Science, now so blatant that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have all taken to deriding “scientists” as a universally-damned caste, no longer even applying qualifiers or conditionals! It’s become so flagrant that – whereas twenty years ago thirty percent of U.S. scientists registered republican – now, according to the AAAS and the Pew Research Foundation, only 5% cling to their old political loyalties with the GOP. Many remain “conservative” over matters of fiscal or foreign policy, but none can any longer abide an all-out, Know Nothing campaign against fact-based reason.

Is this why I applauded, so heartily, the president’s repeated references to science, technological leadership, innovation, education and bold entrepreneurship, in his State of The Union address? To renew that post-Sputnik spirit — the fierce dedication-to-curiosity that forged the keel of our prosperity and success?  Of course it was.

It reminded me of the moment I liked best, back on election night in 2008, when Obama’s victory speech resonated in so many ways… but I kept aloof from the regular, ringing rhetoric, listening not for the words that he had to say, but those that he inserted wholly on his own account.

(Try to develop this habit. It can be illuminating!)

We expected him to endorse all the requisite motherhood and apple-pie phrases… some of them universal, or pan-american and some blandly liberal.  You know, likeunity, brotherhood, responsibility and – yes, hope. Yada. Good things. And totally expected.

But when he spoke of a nation propelled forward by curiosity… that was what I had been listening for.  It wasn’t a word on anybody’s requisite political litany or list of necessary catch phrases. It was not compelled by politics, polemic or audience expectations, nor by tradition or dire need. Nobody even commented on it, in all the speech postmortems. It was there simply because Barack Obama thought that it ought to be.

A nation propelled forward – in part – by curiosity.  In 2008, it was a drop-in hint.  Last night, it was the central theme!

Moreover, Make no mistake, it was militant. They were fighting words. For, I was watching closely, and every single time that Barack Obama referred glowingly to science, or innovation, or entrepreneurial boldness, you could see the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, grimace or frown a little deeper, making clear that this is precisely where our deepest battle will take place. Not across fictional gaps in a mythical and stupidly misleading so-called “left-right political axis.” But across a chasm between those dedicated to the past and those eager for the future.

Let’s be plain: I would have liked the speech even better, had President Obama directly challenged Congress to perform an act of good faith, by restoring the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and other independent advisory boards that were wiped out during Republican control, when they decided to dispense with the inconvenience of reality checks from even the most studiously impartial and nonpartisan commissions.  Not having restored the OTA, when she had the chance, counts as my biggest grudge against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama should have demanded this, and dared the GOP to justify its refusal.

Yet, this is about so much more than science and technology.  Last night’s speech hinted that the President at last understands; the “war on science” is only the most blatant, surface manifestation of a general campaign against all of our professional castes.

Name one that isn’t under fire from the new-right! Scientists, teachers, university professors, attorneys, civil servants, diplomats, journalists… heck even cops! And yes, if you have watched carefully, or know anything about the “miracle of 2006”– even the brilliant men and women of the United States Military Officer Corps have been under assault, for years.

Why? Why has such a broad campaign to discredit (almost) every highly skilled and educated expert class become the centerpiece of conservatism?  A hijacked version of conservatism that has Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave?  You have only to look at the few centers of elite expertise that have been left alone! Those that are spared this all-out onslaught. The financial industry, industry lobbyist associations, and the hyper-rich.

A select group who are spared attack by Fox News. Now why would these groupswant to fund propaganda aimed at undermining all other intellectual elites? Unless… in order to the power of those with the skill and fact-based knowledge to notice and point fingers at outright lies….?

Hm… well… maybe we can analyze that another time.  For now, let’s get back to the speech.

I had one proud moment when I heard the president drop in another of those “he did NOT have to say that!” lines. There was one sentence, while he discussed our need to improve American schools, when Obama mentioned something that our schools do better than any others on the planet. Do you recall what it was?  Did any of you catch it? Even briefly?

I doubt one pundit in a hundred  noticed.  But it is something that we do SO well that  Education Ministries in Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing send out hundreds of minions, every year, re-training teachers to instruct their classes in a more American manner!

Boldness, confidence, creativity, and unabashed willingness to question.  These are traits that American schools (and parents) encourage very well! They are not easily measured by standardized tests, so they do not get mentioned in the news, nor do they become the fodder for hand-wringing political diatribes. But, at last, I have seen one politician notice! Moreover, it is important. In order to improve, it is necessary to grasp what you are doing right, as well as what’s wrong.

Do I expect this speech to make much difference? Indeed, was it even worth the time I spent writing about it?

Not really.  Certain parties in high places, not just in America but in foreign lands, have already chosen to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War. We are in it, right now, 150 years after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. (Which happened ten years after the Civil war actually began, in 1850. Ask me later.) When things have gone that bad, one doesn’t hold out much hope for transformation emerging out of a single speech.

But at a time when all forms of expertise and skill and knowledge are the chief victims and targets in a bilious civil war, and when science is the paramount enemy – openly declared – of a faction that wants us to turn our backs upon tomorrow… any talk of “winning the future” is welcome, indeed.


“During an appearance with Greta Van Susterin on Fox News, Sarah Palin criticized Obama for referencing Sputnik during the State of the Union, because she believes that Sputnik brought down communism. She said, “Yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time, that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.” Yep, Sarah confused the space race with the arms race.”

Please, go read the article.  See what she said. Does it get any plainer than this? Choose tomorrow.


Filed under politics, science

Custer and Sitting Bull…and the politics of idiocracy

Stinky bull — Fox sings the praises of “General” Custer. President Obama’s new children’s book — “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” — celebrates 13 famous figures in American history, including George Washington, Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong, Helen Keller and Sitting Bull. Profits will be donated to a scholarship fund for children of fallen and disabled American troops. But this is how Fox Nation chose to present the book… “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.”

Never mind that Sitting Bull was too old to fight at Little Big Horn and certainly killed no one, on that fateful day. Even making allowances, anyone with an ounce of intelligence would dismiss this snark as just another example of pinheaded culture war.
Still, I do have to offer a small side note, in the interest of historical nit-pickery.  I don’t know if anyone else has pointed this out.  But at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn, George Armstrong Custer was not a general.

Yes, he had been one, during the Civil War, when rank inflation made generals as common as grass nettles.  But after peace returned, those choosing to stay in the army took steep rank cuts.  Heck, at the time of his fateful encounter with the allied Lakota and Cheyenne nations, Custer wasn’t even a full colonel!  He did not command the Seventh Cavalry, but just one of its battalions, as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Violating clear orders, he led that battalion off scouting duty and straight into premature hostilities.  Violating all military sense, he peeled off two companies and charged them into certain death… thus saving the other two companies from the misfortune of his further suicidally insane leadership. (Those two mostly survived.)

Two companies, badly led by an insane lt. colonel, were wiped out.  A Fascinating event that did resonate loudly with the public. Still, on the grand scale of things, this wasn’t a “battle” but a dismal skirmish, in which all sides have been over-rated. Without taking away from the courage of Custer’s men or the victory of the tenacious war leader, Crazy Horse, certainly the earlier triumphs of Tecumseh were more substantial and came far closer to achieving historical change for native peoples.  But let’s admit the Lakota and Cheyenne earned a moment of significance in history, fair and square, especially through the later diplomatic skills of Sitting Bull.

So, does this nit-pick really matter?  Not really, except to illustrate another example of really, really bad journalism.  The shabby villain in all this is snippy little episode — as always — Fox News. No other force in American life is as responsible for undermining the old spirit of pragmatic negotiation with our neighbors and non-political problem-solving, than this foreign-owned organ of bilious hatred, whose incessant lying has forced many of us Goldwater Republicans to flee in disgust from a GOP that has gone quite un-dead.


Faced with rising, dogma-driven attacks upon science, hundreds of climate scientists are joining a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives who have threatened prominent researchers with investigations and vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions…. Now, the American Geophysical Union, the country’s largest association of climate scientists, plans to announce that 700 climate scientists have agreed to speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution.
I have urged that scientists take a less-passive stance in the “war on Science,” which is spearheaded by precisely the same law firms, think tanks and ad agencies who brought us 40 years of “tobacco is good for you” and who now pushboth creationism and climate change denialism from the same slush funds.  In fact, the scientific consensus is not always right, and benefits from regular scrutiny and criticism! But parsing the difference between genuine Skeptics and members of a dogmatic cult is something that scientists are going to have to learn to do.
Following up on my posting about “corporate personhood:
Murray HIll Incorporated Running for Congress.”
And finally… from a classic article (2005) in Esquire: “Greetings from Idiot America” Creationism. Intelligent Design. Faith-based this. Trust-your-gut that. There’s never been a better time to espouse, profit from, and believe in utter, unadulterated crap. And the crap is rising so high, it’s getting dangerous. By Charles P. Pierce

“…a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that both ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up: “We’ve been attacked,” he says, “by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.”

“The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents — for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.”

“In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.”

Is that creepy enough for you to realize they mean it, when they say “Culture WAR”?  Now recall that these are allies of the same folks who brought you “cars don’t make smog,” then “flouride is a commie plot,”

Now hop over and have a look at these links, and remember, these are the guys who, via their wholly owned propaganda machine, have used populist methods to rile up a third of the US population against science, against their own government, against the universities, the cities (that pay most of the taxes and that sit in the terrorists’ crosshairs) and against modernity.

http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_Saudi_ billionaires
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_the_ richest_royals
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_Arabs_ by_net_worth
http://www.zawya. com/story. cfm/sidGN_ 11032010_ 120349/The% 20Billionaires% 20Club
http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ List_of_richest_ American_ politicians



Filed under history, science