Tag Archives: politics

Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.


Filed under politics, public policy, science, society, technology

Science Fiction, Cool War and Civil War

Science fiction – or more accurately, speculative fiction –  has a rich tradition of exploring What if... scenarios, exploring alternative paths of important historical events, asking questions such as, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if America had lost World War II?”

Just a few of the multitude of novels diving into divergent paths for the American Civil War include Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. The recent, best-selling Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters posits that the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in regions of America. Even politician Newt Gingrich has written in this genre: his novel Gettysburg, co-written with William R. Forstchen, explores how history might have unfolded if the Confederacy had won this crucial battle. In a more outlandish speculation, William Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, beginning with Rally Cry, envisions a Civil War era Union regiment transported through time and space to an alien world.

But science fiction more often projects into the future. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. Several recent novels have foreshadowed a possible – and plausible – hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. I’ve written extensively about what I view as ongoing Phases of our American Civil War; luckily most segments of this persistent animosity have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating. Indeed, I fear, with current tensions, the possibility that something could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like those of Steve Bannon.

One novel I’ve touted lately is Tears of Abraham, by Sean T Smith, which chillingly takes you toward a disturbingly hot second Civil War, a deadly struggle of countryman against countryman. What would happen if the U.S. split apart into warring states — set off by a far-reaching conspiracy? A president who declares martial law as states take steps toward secession. This page turner offers vivid, believable action and characters, along with sober, thoughtful insights into what it may mean — when the chips are down — to be an American. What divides us… and what unites us?

This seems particularly relevant considering the deep divides across America during the election cycle of 2016, where Red States and Blue States were more bifurcated than ever, seemingly unable to fully comprehend the opinions and problems of their own neighbors.

220px-TheCoolWarAnother science fiction vision that came to mind, given evidence of recent efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, published by science fiction master Frederik Pohl back in 1981. This tale portrays ongoing slow-simmering international tensions, a series of shadow wars where rival countries seek to sabotage the economy and markets of their enemies — and allies. In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intelligence communities.

Wars, cool, cold or hot? David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs, distinguishes them, commenting, “The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war, while making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during the Cold War days) or even necessary.”

51YXFeqOcQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a similar vein, the near-future thriller Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole envisions a revived Cold War, with rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia. An all-too believable war played out not just on land and sea, but also in space and cyberspace.

Returning to parallel universes, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II,  The Man in the High Castle — follows a scenario where the Nazis have won the war; it has been vividly adapted in the recent television series of the same name by Amazon. I’ve also explored that dark aftermath where the Nazis won World War II in my graphic novel, The Life Eaters. Connie Willis has revisited World War II in her novel, Blackout. Three time travelers find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz, facing air raids and bombing raids.

Another book just hitting the shelves –  American War by Omar El Akkad – is a dystopian novel about a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The United States has been largely undone by devastating ecological collapse, a presidential assassination, the onset of a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus, and a militantly divided North and South. The novel vividly portrays a doomed country wracked by vicious guerrilla raids, refugee camps interning displaced citizens, accompanied by relentless violence and death.

Whew! One can only hope that dark visions from these nightmarish scenarios might serve as self-preventing prophecies — much as George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 girded many to fight against the rise of any possible Big Brother to their last breath. Can we resist the divisions that threaten our country?

Indeed, our civilization’s ultimate success may depend on our foresight — perceiving potential problems we are able to navigate, mistakes we manage to avoid. Science fiction has often served to shine a light to reveal possible — and catastrophic — pitfalls in our shared future.

Warnings we would be wise to heed… and wounds we would be wise to heal.



Filed under books, future, history, literature, novels, politics, science fiction, society

Where do we stand – verging on 2014?

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 ==

Where-do-we-standI 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.”

Progress-happensTo 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:

Inside-Job-movieI 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 ==

NamesInfamyMemes 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 ==

Bitcoin-lifeformRecently 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 ==

Encryption-panacea-brinBut 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?

Bertand-russell-ten-commandmentsBertrand 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.”

LEFT-LIBERALHere 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.”

LIBERAL-LIBERTARIAN-RIGHT-LEFTBut 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.

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Government Shutdown or Showdown?

Hello, did I call this or what?  “Is the GOP dropping Obamacare in shutdown debate?” Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, and the party’s vice presidential nominee last year, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Here’s How We can End this Stalemate, that Democrats and Republicans should focus on “modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.”  Yet, Ryan’s column never mentioned Obamacare, focusing instead on  spending cuts to domestic and military programs, as well as Medicare reforms.

Of course this elicited rage from the dogmatic wing. Amanda Carpenter, a communications adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted: “There is one big word missing from this op-ed. It’s start(s) with an O and ends with BAMACARE …” Those who want to keep up the game of chicken, despite all reason or sense, will threaten any House GOP member who drifts toward Ryan’s position, with a challenge in his or her district’s Republican primary, next spring.  This is no small cudgel, because of the radicalism engendered by gerrymandering. A disaster that has a surprisingly simple solution that I’ll post about soon.  But first, back to the desperate search by Republican leaders for a way out

With the Ryan proposal savaged by Tea Partiers, Speaker Boehner stepped up on Thursday, reiterating Ryan’s position, suddenly dropping all mention of Obamacare, and making aggressive noises as if this retreat were an ultimatum.

SHUTDOWNAs I predicted, saner elements of the GOP are now desperately seeking a face-saving way out. Especially now that the Koch brothers and others in the Republican money establishment see a gaping gulf gulf between the neo-confederate radicalism they engendered with billions in political meddling vs the damage that their own self-interest will suffer if the mania takes our economy over a cliff.

So let me repeat my forecast. Under orders from above, just enough House GOP members will threaten to break with the House Republican Caucus to force the others to free up Boehner. He, in turn, will accept the offer the Senate has made twenty times since March, to hold the constitutionally mandated House-Senate Budget Conference Committee — which is the proper place to discuss a deal that was already mostly worked out last year. A deal for moderate efficiency reforms in entitlements plus elimination of some fat cat tax write-offs.  Boehner and his co-leaders will accept the invitation at last…

…but declare it as a great victory!  That Obama and Sen. Reid had “caved” under pressure from Speaker Boehner’s tactics, playing extortion-chicken with the shut-down and default cliffs.  And the President will let them crow for a week or so.  His only real concession, after the dust settles, will be letting them have a week of face-saving “we won!” chanting.  Then, after all the drama and puerile posturing has finally ended, grownups may gather in the proper place — the House Senate Budget Reconciliation Conference, where these things have been worked out for 230 years, where they will strike a deal that the dems have offered for a year.

The problem with the deal, if it is made, is that – like Obamacare – it might actually work.  With the right mix of reforms in entitlements and taxes, the budget deficit — already vastly improving — might swing back toward Clintonian balance. If Obamacare also works, then where will the GOP stand in the 2014 elections?

I could not care less.  As we’ll see below, the asymptote for all of their momentum and orbits leads to insanity.

== The real aim of the Shut-down ==

SCIENCECUTBACKSThe National Radio Astronomy Observatory has gone out of business for the duration.  Already hampered by the sequester, it is now closed by the government shut down. So have all research activities for the entire season in Antarctica.  NASA says 97% of its personnel are furloughed. Certainly my colleagues at NASA NIAC have been. Perhaps that’s why no one answered George Clooney’s calls in GRAVITY?

In fact, the shut down has shuttered most of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, The National Academy, research divisions of the Energy Department, the EPA and the Weather Service. Moreover these interruptions do far more harm than at first appears, as some experiments and observations are completely ruined. If they continue, they’ll divert graduate students and research fellows who must eat to survive.

Now the kicker… this is not something that the currently dominant brand of conservatism (as opposed to the older, and deeply-missed brand of Goldwater and Buckley) deems regrettable collateral damage.  It is not a “flaw” in the GOP tactics. To the madmen now running the asylum — who for two decades actively have waged the War on Science —  this latest hampering is a silver lining.  It is a Feature.

Take this additional example:   “In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to sell off our entire helium stockpile by 2015. This has forced the price of the gas way, way lower than it should be, considering how little of the stuff is actually left in the world. (Some estimate that a balloon’s worth would cost $100 if the market were allowed to set the price.”)  The US currently owns 80% of the world’s supply and given the ever-widening range of uses for Helium, it might offer leverage against – say – the Chinese near monopoly on rare earth minerals. At minimum, every scientist alive cringes at what the GOP has done on just this one (of countless many ) area of deliberate destruction.

Indeed, if anyone out there can think of a non-criminal reason why the GOP made this fire sale selloff such a high priority, I’d love to hear your theory.

== And finally… ==

TeaPartyLunacyThis harsh rumination by Josh Eidelson on SALON ponders why the Republican elites of Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce, who have so much to lose if a U.S. default trashes the American credit and economy, have not laid down the law upon the unruly House GOP, the way they have in every past crisis.  After all, they were the ones – not average Red Americans – who gained the benefits from every past Republican legislative and/or executive action, from the Bush tax breaks to middle east wars.  But this time, it appears that the Tea Party — a genuine populist movement — has metastacized completely out of control of the party’s traditional masters.

This is evidenced by the behavior of the shills at Fox News, who are riding a brahma bull. They keep hinting that the Obamacare fixation may be over-wrought and may have to be set aside… (as we describe Congressman Ryan saying, above)… this is the message from up-top.  But they must also look to the bottom line! The average Fox viewer is by now so riled up — ironically by fox itself — that any calm-down message might alienate them and hurt the advertisers who pay the network’s bills.

Although the deep-right coined the term “culture war” I have been the one suggesting this is now Phase Three of the American Civil War.  Now have a look at an incisive appraisal by a writer who is (admittedly) from the left-end. And you all know that I am caustic toward the much-smaller far left, which was once — and may someday again be — the locus of dogmatic dangber in the world.

Nevertheless and despite that bias, an educated person knows that Marxists at least have thought a lot more about this whole “class” thing that most of us blithely ignored, during the anomalously flat era from 1945 to 2000.  So, while retaining a wary awareness that Marxists truly are crazy at another level (e.g. they believe in social teleology), I nevertheless think there is plenty here worth pondering.  From Josh Eidelson’s article, Tea Party’s Shutdown Lunacy: Avenging the Surrender of the South:

“A couple things. I do think that we have this broad kind of rot at the top end of our society: It’s devolved from a real ruling class, with some distance from day-to-day moneymaking, into something more just like a pure plutocracy, interested in maximizing its cash in as short a time as possible, and really not capable of thinking about policy in a serious sense. The Financial Times has been writing about how groups like the Chamber of Commerce, who normally would put pressure on the difficult Republicans, don’t seem to be willing or able to do that — and one of the reasons is that they’re so enamored of the tax-cutting side of the Republican Party that they don’t really want to stop things like the government shutdown, or they don’t have the capacity to stop things. It does seem like there’s a breakdown at the elite level of society.”

Josh Eidelson continues: “But also, Michael Lind had an interesting piece about how the roots of Tea Party are in a Confederate, almost kind of a neo-Confederate structure of people who want to preserve their class privileges — very much articulated through race — and they are a very, very sizable portion of the Republican Party. And what they see — and this is also confirmed by the focus groups that David Greenberg et al. did — the core of this is a group of people that feel like the country is being taken away from them by a new minority-majority country. And all of their familiar touchstones are being smashed. They feel like they’re fighting a heroic kind of lost cause, and they’re willing to do a  lot of damage to try to get their way.”

“To some degree the Big Business interests are paying a price for having relied on these characters in the first place. The last thing that Big Business wants to see is something that threatens the status of Treasury bonds. They don’t want to threaten the status of the dollar as reserve currency. They don’t want to rock the image of the United States as the most stable capitalist power in the world. Even though the financial crisis essentially originated here, money still flowed to the United States then because it seemed safer than everywhere else. The big boys don’t want to endanger that status.”

Okay that was at least thought provoking. Still. At risk of agreeing with a quasi Marxist… I will one-up that appraisal, taking it even farther.

After the almost perfect record of calamitous rule by the Bushites — with every large decision directly resulting in extreme harm or decline in the American Republic, its small businesses and entrepreneurial verve, its science, its economic and its Pax power — one has to wonder about the author’s core assumption, that all of the right wing’s oligarchs want the United States to thrive.  Don’t forget that the Republican Party’s top bankrollers now include quite a number of foreign princes, aristocrats, moguls and sovereign wealth funds, many of them rooted in cultures that express open contempt for North American civilization in principle and who have openly wished for an end to the American Pax. I include one of the top foreign co-owners of Fox News.

As Goldfinger said: “Once, Mr. Bond, may be happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three … or many many times… that’s enemy action.”


Filed under politics

Pondering Pax Americana and the government ‘shut-down’

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

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

== On American Exceptionalism… ==

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

== Another perspective ==

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under history, politics

The Case for a Scientific Nation: Part Two

Last time I made it clear whom I blame for 90% of the tragic collapse of American political discourse, and especially the War on Science.  Indeed, I will finish (in a bit) by quoting one of the most eloquent calls that I have seen, for a return to confidence in our future-oriented nation.

But first…

== Where democrats have sinned, too ==

Oh, I could cite figures to you. Like the fact that only around 6% of U.S. scientists are still Republicans. (And that includes folks like me, whose GOP registration is both nostalgic and “tactical.”)    Still, it’s true that Democrats do not have a blemish-free record when it comes to science.

Oh, the dems increased research budgets and ended most political censorship of peer-review commissions. They repaired the crippling damage done (deliberately) by George Bush upon our energy and efficiency research programs, goosed the now-healthy auto industry into a burst of mileage-saving measures, and steered manned spaceflight from an absurd lunar boondoggle to privatization of launch and reaching toward planetary resources. Polemically, I have reason to believe that President Obama is at least friendly to the notion that we should be a civilization propelled by curiosity.

Still,   Go look up Science Left Behind by Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell…about the rise of anti-science tendencies on the far left. A secondary but very real problem, described by a founder of Science2.0.  Anyone who talks for very long with a genuine American leftist — as opposed to the vastly more numerous moderate liberals — can quickly see that romantic-nostalgic spite toward science and technology is not the sole province of Fox-watchers.

(The real difference between the far-right and the far-left? Both extremes are crazy. Both despise science. But one of them owns and operates an entire political party and ran the nation off a cliff. The other dominates a hundred university soft-studies departments, and almost nothing else. Big deal.)

In fact, let me take this farther and lay down my biggest science-related grievance against democrats. I will never forgive Nancy Pelosi for what she did not do during her brief tenure as Speaker of the House.

One move might have made clear the two parties’ pro vs anti science traits. That action would have been to restore the independent advisory apparatus that Congress used to maintain, from World War II all the way until 1995, when Newt’s radical neocons banished the Office of  Technology Assessment, kicking out every fact-checker and irritating expert who might dispute polemical dogma with inconvenient “data.”

Amid the battles over Health reform and other major fights, this would have been a trivial side matter to pass in an afternoon, funding OTA for twenty years in advance and making sure all congress-critters would have neutral bean-counters and nerds at their elbows, irritatingly murmuring “Well… actually, the facts say…”

What could be more important, as our politicians are asked to construct policies about a rapidly changing technological environment, with every issue dependent upon scientific  insight? Both as a practical matter and as a declaration of fundamental political difference, no other action would have spoken as loudly or carried as much weight with our nation’s knowledge castes.

I take Ms. Pelosi’s failure to fix this very seriously. It disqualifies her from leadership, should the dems re-take the House. Seriously. A total blow-it.  Go with someone else.

== The real problem and solution, eloquently put ==

But enough with being evenhanded.  The matter before is is fundamental.  As fundamental as freedom, or the basic laws of economics.

This needs some punch. So let me hand the mike over to internationally renowned tech-business pundit Mark Anderson, of the Strategic News Service, who wrote the following, just after watching the brilliant landing of our Curiosity space probe on Mars:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not “believe in” science (i.e., objectively provable reality) – or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu – NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents, and today, of the planet itself. 

Any person or party which mocks science should be considered for what he or it is: a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox (Not) News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity.  Ignorant delusion is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge. 

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result in many locations, demonstrated an objective truth.  Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another permanent addition to our ever-rising mountain of human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted.  This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome. 

I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface.  We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country which threatens scientific endeavor, and the acceptance of scientific findings. 

Our thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute that popped out from a targeted aerobraking shell, from a ballistic missile, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science.  In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Wow. I could not have said it better than Mark just did. All the way to his tone of militancy.  Because it is, indeed, time for moderate pragmatists to stoke up their own sense of militant ferocity and drive.

If you are unconvinced by the plight of the middle class, or the diametrically opposite records of the two parties at fostering economic growth or entrepreneurial startups, or the blatant oligarchic power grab of Citizens United, or the fact that all our present deficit comes from just four GOP “programs”…*

…then at least ponder science. Hated by viewers of Fox, adored by viewers of Jon Stewart.  That pretty much says it all.



GOP “programs” that made nearly all of today’s skyrocketing U.S. debt. Two multi-trillion dollar land wars of endless quagmire-attrition in Asia, attempting futile “nation building” in places where we’re hated… plus vast tax gifts to the oligarchy, that they have not spent on the promised productive factories, not ever… plus Medicare Part D for which no funding source was ever devised, just a vast, red-ink gift to Big Pharma.  Add them up, plus the effects of Bush’s “ownership society” deliberate asset bubble….  Remove them and what do you get?  We are back to Bill Clinton, paying down the deficit every year.  And you would put those guys back in charge?  Really?


Filed under science