On New Years Eve, the Bloomberg system will syndicate worldwide my year-end essay — more of a scary-provocative story — about the real meaning of “the fourteenth year.”
== Reasons to believe a better world is possible ==
I have long inveighed against a pair of matched personality flaws: that some on the far-left seem compelled only to chide, never praise… and that savanarolas on the right use that chiding as an excuse to denounce progress, in general.
Both extreme wings are crazy, of course. The world and its people and ecosystem etc do need to be saved! We have a full plate of vital projects and bad things to repair. We need to move forward if our grandchildren are to survive… and I speak to this in many places, including EARTH (1989).
Still, I have hammered on the cynically-chic pessimism expressed by playground bullies of both extremes, declaring – contrary to all evidence – that everything is getting worse.
The disproof is all around us, in steep declines of per capita violence, worldwide and steep rises in the fraction of children who live in clean homes and go to school. No possible combination of past civilizations accomplished a fraction of what this one has — an assertion that does not insult the best of our ancestors, who strove to prepare the way for us. As we are duty-bound to stop cynical, dyspeptic moaning and prepare the way for better-greater grandchildren.
So let me begin this year-end political round-up with more good news, that is sure to infuriate some of you! Louis Gave – a well-known investment guru – pointed out these additional milestones:
“The United Nations recently released a heartening update on its ‘millennium goals’ for the developing world, with many of its 2015 targets on the way to being met, or indeed already met. The target to halve the number of people living on less than US$1.25 per day was achieved in 2010; the proportion of undernourished people fell from 23% of the developing world in 1990-92 to under 15% in 2010-2012; more than 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water.
“The list goes on but suffice to say that never in history have so many people across the globe lived so comfortably. This reflects the fact that with global GDP set to exceed US$74 trillion this year, never has the world produced this much.”
Economist John Mauldin adds: “New energy production (and new forms of energy), robotics, nanotech, the second (or is it the third?) wave of the communications revolution, and the amazing discoveries in biotech are all unfolding before our eyes. Global trade is expanding, and slowly but surely governments are changing. An ebb and flow thing, to be sure, but the tide is clearly lifting more boats than ever.”
To be clear: I do not call any of this cause for Pollyanna complacency — (the fear that makes liberals and leftists suppress good news) — but rather for guardedly optimistic militancy to keep all trends positive.
Nor is there a lack of counter-balancing bad news or heavy items dumped on our to-do agenda! For example, ever since 2001, America has had trouble sharing in the rising boats effect — even as we propel it in other lands by our trade deficits. With the rates of hunger in this country actually going up as a result of deliberate politics, with skyrocketing wealth disparities threatening neo-feudalism, and a tetanus-locked political caste unable to grapple with desperate economic and ecological problems, one thing is clear — that Olde Enemies of progress are baying and chasing our sleigh.
If this continues, the world will continue its march upward and forward. But America will forfeit any leading role, sinking into a mist of anger and nostalgia and civil war.
Still, if you are personally unable to parse the vast number of good news items on the other side of the scale and weigh them in-balance, then YOU are part of the problem! Because only those who see and acknowledge what is working are even remotely qualified to chide us into trying new endeavors.
Folks who want progress, but then deny that progressivism ever worked in the past, are not just very bad salesmen. They are crazy.
=== Back to worries ===
Oh, but the To-Do list is immense and worrisome! Just because I am guardedly optimistic, that does not stop me from feeling militant about some things! For example:
I cannot recommend too-highly the documentary INSIDE JOB — laying bare a calamitous chain of delusions, inanities and cheating that led to the 2008 crash and the near demolition of the American (and world) financial systems. I slid it into the player with mixed feelings, expecting something of a polemic in the style of Michael Moore — a fellow who is often on-target but who makes me cringe with his excesses and often one-sided righteousness. (Oh, I watch Moore, but taking notes for things to double check.)
INSIDE JOB was far better. Featuring in-depth interviews with financial experts and insiders, this sobering, Oscar-winning documentary (directed by Charles H. Ferguson) presents in comprehensive detail the pervasive and deep-rooted Wall Street corruption that led to the global economic meltdown of 2008.
The flick is not just for liberals and/or leftists. You folks right-of-center desperately need to watch INSIDE JOB. It should be of special interest to those who do believe that capitalism can be made to work! Indeed, if you want capitalism to work, and to stop being the top victim of a rising lordly-oligarchy of cheaters, then you should especially want to get informed.
(Ancillary note: I kept notes in this one, too. There were dozens of places where the producers glossed over or ignored ways in which the system did work right. But that hardly matters. There are thieves out there who do not deserve jail. They deserve tumbrels.)
== Denying the heinous infamy ==
Memes take a while to percolate, I know. But will someone add this to my Foresight Wiki? Back in the late 1980s I used to regularly publish op-eds calling for the “Erastratos Effect”… denying terrible villains the reward of seeing their names go down in history. In a 1999 issue of Salon Magazine (updated last year): “Names that live in infamy: Killers want notoriety. Let’s not give it to them“ — I argued that society has a perfect right to remember heinous criminals any way it chooses. And we could choose derisive contempt.
At last, the idea is gaining traction. In the aftermath of a recent, gruesome suburban Denver shooting, families of victims and law enforcement officials have begun urging journalists and public officials to avoid using the gunmen’s names and photos in public. The first notable effect of this trend came last year, when When President Obama flew to Colorado in July 2012 to memorialize the 12 people killed in an Aurora movie theater. He agreed not to mention the gunman’s name. And on Saturday, the sheriff investigating a shooting inside the halls of Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver announced he had made the same decision.
This New York Times article, A Plea to Deny Gunmen their Quest for Infamy, takes a simplistic view and I suggest elsewhere that there are ways to do this without engaging in “censorship.” But at least the ball is rolling. One variant I just thought-of? Identify the perp by his membership in whatever group helped to enable his actions. “NRA Member 524239B12” might be a salutary appellation.
== Bitcoin and other non-standard payment systems ==
Recently I posted a rumnination-tutorial on Bitcoin that got a lot of viewers. I’ve been toiling in this realm for another reason, though, which I’ll get to in a minute.
First, Paul Krugman has a very interesting article about Bitcoin, gold-mining and the relatively greater value of (responsibly managed) paper money: “(Adam) Smith is often treated as a conservative patron saint, and he did indeed make the original case for free markets. It’s less often mentioned, however, that he also argued strongly for bank regulation — and that he offered a classic paean to the virtues of paper currency. Money, he understood, was a way to facilitate commerce, not a source of national prosperity — and paper money, he argued, allowed commerce to proceed without tying up much of a nation’s wealth in a “dead stock” of silver and gold.”
Mind you, as the world’s top Keynsian, Krugman is only right about 70% of the time. I’d be more critical, if his opponents in the Austrian School weren’t wrong 80% or more of the time… with their Supply Side associates batting a pure and perfect 0%.
But back to my own obsession. Micro-payments. I have been poking at ideas with others, that boil down to this: we need a way for internet browsers to empower surfers pay a nickel for an article they want to read online. A one-cent or five-cent or ten-cent button that would let any of us hand over a small increment of value for something we choose to use for short time.
There is a mythology that “people won’t pay, they want everything online to be free!” But that is baloney. Only a fool would refuse to pay a nickel for access to something she or he values enough to read for ten minutes (at 30 cents per hour.) No… the issue is convenience! We do not want surfing to be slowed down by paywalls and passwords. But I know a way around that…
…and I believe micro-payments will not just open a billion dollar industry. They could also save professional journalism. Which presently is bordering on extinction.
== Cyphers are Wafers ==
But getting back to the BIG issues of freedom, privacy and all that, let me offer this over-broad and deliberately provocative assertion: Anyone who calls encryption a panacea is a religious fanatic.
I described this to the cypherpunks way back in 1996… that encryption can be broken by spies and cops and competitors in a plethora of old and new-fashioned ways… such as the different sounds that each of the keys on your keyboard make, allowing any room recording to become a transcription keystroke-logger. Oh, by all means, learn and improve your security! But know that your favorite cypher-ware is not a six-gun “equalizer” and odds-are that someone could see-all, if they cared.
Oh, but it gets much worse. “Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we already knew the NSA played a central role in promoting a flawed formula for generating random numbers, which if used in encryption, essentially gives the spies easy access to computing systems. A piece of RSA software, bSafe, became the most significant vector for the security flaw. The encryption tools which hundreds of millions of people rely on to protect the private information are significantly weaker as a result.” Now it seems that — according to some reports — the NSA additionally bribed the security firm RSA to leave the back door to computers all over the world open.
Now RSA is fervently denying the allegation that they sold NSA keys to the back-door. But in fact, it does not matter. There are a jillion-bazillion methods and work-arounds that cypher guys blithely ignore as they armwave sugarplum visions of encrypted utopia, without ever – even once – studying the range of secret police methods used by powers from Sumeria to the Okhrana. It is not pragmatic defense of freedom… it is religion.
And it is not how we will prevent Big Brother.
== How to live in the modern world? ==
Finally, let’s circle back to that first matter… how to be a person who pragmatically and effectively pushes for improving the world, without rendering yourself impotent with smug-sanctimonious finger-wagging?
Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy are much wiser than anything else I have run across in a good long while. I’ve been trying to live by them. Do give them a look. They include:
1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
This particular page goes on to offer Russell’s definition of “liberalism.” And caution is necessary, since he lived long ago and that word has been kicked all over the map in subsequent decades.
“But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.”
Here Russell is stunningly on-target in the modern context. For indeed, his definition reveals the yawning divide between “liberals” and “leftists.”
Indeed, the greatest of all of Sean Hannity’s towering lies is the one he repeats daily, that a “liberal” is the same species (or even phylum) as the kooky “leftists” he describes with grotesque anecdotes about this or that ludicrous-pushy political-correctness police-person.
They may be allies at the moment (liberals and leftists), out of necessity (given the screeching madness that has taken over Barry Goldwater’s conservatism). But they are uneasy allies, since leftists believe that the expansion of inclusion and care must be a coercive process, while liberals want progress to come 90%+ from persuasion and negotiated compromise.
Also from Russell: “Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.”
This latter point explains the main difference with Leftists, who do respond with rage when you question dogma. It also explains why rightists like Hannity conflate the two. For on the right there IS uniformity of essential dogma. All of their recent “civil wars” – say between tea-partiers and Fox-supported establishment crazies – have been over minutiae of tactics. Conservatism has become a creed, with Roger Ailes its pope.
Likewise, libertarianism has long abandoned any devotion to pragmatic competition — touted by Adam Smith and Hayek — in favor of incantatory quasi-religious doctrines of solipsism spread by acolytes of Rand, Mises and Rothbard. Sanctimony is its core agenda. Adam Smith’s enlightenment — including his contempt for oligarchy — is spurned with contempt.
Hence, staring at their enemies, it is only human for those on the left-right-randian wings to assume that “liberals must be dogmatically driven, as I am.”
But it ain’t so. Among the four main political segments of the American political landscape, only liberals are American, in their devotion to pragmatic and testable experiments, “whatever works,” and negotiated compromise… all of which their authoritarian, dogmatic leftist allies despise.
(Dig this well… that it PAINS me to write the preceding paragraph! I consider myself to be a Smithian/Heinleinian libertarian with some liberal tendencies. But with the LP and the GOP having abandoned Adam Smith and pragmatic common sense entirely, I am left with no recourse but to negotiate with the one sane group that remains in American political life.)
Liberals need to make this distinction clear and disavow any fealty to the hoary and lobotomizing “left-right axis.” Admit that you must be allies with your lefty friends… the New Confederacy’s blatant pathology and civil war mania require it.
But the Left, too, is mad. Perhaps even 10% as crazy as the red-confederates who Rupert and his Saudi co-owners of Fox have riled into a froth. Yes, that mad.
And they will remain loony-birds, so long as they refuse to admit that progress is possible. That much of it has happened already, and that science and open argument are preferable to incantatory doctrines.