Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More Notes from a Small Town Republican Meeting in Texas – October 2013

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at a small town Republican meeting in Texas. Previous posts are available below. I try to present a neutral view while just reporting what was said, but I don’t always succeed.

This time the local Democrat and Republican meetings happen to fall on the same day, so I went to parts of both meetings. There were some interesting points of contrast. First, a quirky little thing I noticed is that the Democrats were much more willing to express their identity and views with bumper stickers, while the Republicans had very few bumper stickers. (Anyone want to offer an explanation of this phenomenon?) The Democrats were also more optimistic and lively. They talked quite a bit about the next Texas governor’s race and the leading Democratic candidate Wendy Davis, even though she is still a long shot to win the election. By contrast, the Republicans were much more subdued. This is consistent with a recent survey of Republican beliefs about the state of the country which listed the three most common words they used as “worried, concerned, and scared”. They didn’t mention the upcoming governor’s election even once during the meeting.

The only time national issues came up was during some pre-meeting discussion in the audience. One person felt compelled to share his belief that the country is getting close to the point where millions of people will march on Washington DC to throw Obama out of office. He was sure that Obama will declare martial law and try to use the military to protect himself when this happens, but “there are more of us than there are of them”.

Outside of such discussions there was little other talk of national politics, not even of Obamacare, which surprised me given the obsession with it at previous meetings. It was also surprising because this meeting occurred during the emotional height of the debt ceiling negotiations in the US Congress. The main speaker at the Republican meeting was a state legislator who seemed to make it a point to avoid discussing the situation in Washington DC. Most of the discussion centered on Texas and local issues. This included taxes, the state budget, and of course water issues. There will be a proposition on the ballot soon in Texas to authorize spending $2 billion on water infrastructure and conservation. This was supported by all the members who spoke up. (By contrast, the Texas Tea Party is strongly against this measure, and generally despises the establishment Republicans like those present at this meeting.)

Local water board elections where a big issue, and they discussed the need to keep liberals off the water board. Some background: in Texas the state regulates the taking of water from rivers and lakes. However there is a long standing part of Texas political culture that says any person can pump as much water from their well on their property as they want, and no government agency had better try to interfere with that right. You can pretty much guess what has been happening to the level of water in Texas’ aquifers in the last few decades.

According to the stories told at the meeting, the liberal members on the local water boards have been sitting on hundreds of applications to drill wells without processing them, and in the long term they plan to put meters on private wells in order to monitor the amount of water used and eventually charge the well owner per gallon. The response from an audience member was “when they trespass on my property to put a meter on my well, if they manage to get past my Rottweiler they’ll have to deal with by ‘45’ “. Obviously they were strongly against changing this part of the Texas political culture regarding water rights.

One of the other interesting topics discussed was increasing the support for vehicles being fueled by natural gas. There was also support for an interesting new proposal for underground aquifer storage and recovery of water instead of the above ground reservoirs which lose a lot of water to evaporation during Texas summers.

Finally, there was a familiar commentary on how it’s been proven that non-profit charities do a better job at providing food and health care to poor people than the government. It was recommended that people read the speech “Not Yours to Give” by Davy Crockett, in which he explains why it is not the government’s job to spend money on charity (Note: I looked this up, and it turns out the speech was almost certainly a fabrication by the author of a Davy Crocket biography).

Monday, August 26, 2013

More Notes from a Small Town Republican Meeting in Texas – Aug 2013

This is the third installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at a small town Republican meeting in Texas. Previous posts are available here and here. I try to present a neutral view while just reporting what was said, but I don’t always succeed.

This meeting occurred in August during the congressional break, and our local representative from the US House was the guest speaker. Like all such meetings, it started with pledges to the American and Texas flags. The opening prayer started with “We thank you Lord for this great country and its current leaders…” which was a phrase I didn’t expect. Various Republican candidates for local offices then introducing themselves and gave a 2 minute stump speech. I was actually impressed that they all discussed their experience and qualifications and avoided partisan ideology.

Our US congressman started his speech with a joke -“Redistricting is a sport in Texas”, which has some truth to it. That was followed by feeding red meat to a hungry audience. The basic outline of his talk was “obamacare, socialism, obamacare, impeachment, obamacare”. His priority on obamacare was to completely defund it, and then don’t replace it with anything else. In his view, our health care system was doing just fine until Obama tried to introduce socialized medicine. We need to get government completely out of health care and let the free market do its job.

An interesting moment occurred later during audience questions when a woman described herself as a moderate and asked him to consider something between all and nothing. Her husband is a cancer survivor and couldn’t get private insurance before obamacare because of that pre-existing condition. The congressman’s response was that government still needed to get out of health care and maybe we just needed to tweak the private market a little to handle such cases. I thanked the women afterwards for speaking up since I’m also a cancer survivor.

He was in favor of not raising the debt ceiling this fall unless obamacare was defunded, even if that meant the government would be shut down or default on its obligations. There audience cheered when he said that. He described their plan as having Congress pass a bill that gave Obama everything he wanted except funding for obamacare. Then if Obama vetoes it, the public will put all the blame on him for shutting down the government.

In terms of getting the economy moving again, his answer was to cut all tax rates including corporate taxes and the capital gains tax. Obama has already tried socialist solutions to help the economy and they didn’t work, and now he’s busy pitting people against each other as his next plan. He was mad at Obama for taking money from our military and instead sending it to those people on welfare. He stated that without a dominant US military the world would implode. On energy, he was for “all the above” (i.e. pursue all sources of energy). The government should get completely out of the energy business though. The government only has 3 legitimate functions: collect taxes, defend our borders, and manage our infrastructure. The topic of climate change didn’t come up.

The congressman described his platform priorities as: lower taxes, smaller government, defend our borders, the 10th amendment, and always stand with Israel. (The 10th amendment is a “states rights” thing). He was for independence instead of dependence. He was guided by the Constitution, his conscious, and the Bible. He also said that as grownups we will need to plant some trees that we will never stand under.

He defended his vote in support of the Ryan budget after an audience member complained that it didn’t cut spending enough. He also stated “I’m willing to negotiate on the budget, but I won’t compromise my core values, which are no tax increases and a strong military”. “Obama has broken every rule, why not impeach him?” an audience member asked. His response: impeachment papers have already been drawn up and we’re waiting for the right time to introduce them. They may take too long to go through the system to be effective though. When someone expressed concern over NSA spying, he said we need to reign in the NSA and go back to the Patriot Act.

A restaurant owner spoke up and said we desperately need a guest worker program, but not amnesty. Response from the Congressman: border security is a more important first priority. One audience member stated that the reason for the lower Republican vote in 2012 wasn’t bad policies, it was because (1) we didn’t run a true conservative candidate, and (2) we ran a Mormon and many Christians stayed home and refused to vote for him. The congressman responded that if we’re still upset about the 2012 elections we need to get over it. Focus on the 2014 elections; they may be the most important ones of our lives.

Fort Hood is in the congressman’s district, and he was upset that Obama labeled the shootings there as “workplace violence” instead of terrorism. There is a bill in Congress to label these as a terrorist act, which would mean those who were injured could receive additional financial aid and possibly a Purple Heart medal.

One audience member expressed concern about Obama signing “that UN gun thing”. The congressman’s response was that we don’t need to sign ANY UN treaty, and he will make sure that never happens.

As a final statement intended to inspire the crowd, he quoted Will Rogers - “Don't look back 'cause we ain't headed that way.” He apparently did not think there was any irony involved here.

More Notes from a Small Town Republican Meeting in Texas - June 2013

This is part of a continuing series. The agenda topic for this meeting in June 2013 was the 2nd Amendment, but you know they couldn't leave the IRS out of the discussion. We had a talk from a representative from the NRA, which he referred to as "the nation's largest civil rights organization" (!). Although the recently concluded Texas legislative session passed 15 "pro-gun" bills, his organization only gave the legislature a rating of a 'C' because of the bills they failed to pass. Allowing students to carry concealed handguns on school campuses was one example of a failed bill that the NRA strongly wanted.

The NRA representative made no attempt to represent the NRA as non-partisan. Democrats in general, Obama in particular, were described as "the enemy". For the most part though, he came across as more moderate than I expected. Many of the "pro gun" bills passed were actually rather reasonable, and some I might have even supported.

It is also noteworthy that two "pro-gun" bills submitted by members of the Tea Party caucus were not supported by the NRA because they went a little too far even for the NRA. One example included a modification to the concealed handgun law, which currently restricts places where people cannot carry concealed weapons even with a permit. Bars are one example of such restricted places. One bill included a provision that would specifically allow members of the Texas state legislature to carry their concealed weapons into most of those restricted places, including bars. That was a little too much even for the NRA, and the bill failed when the NRA withdrew its support.

The night ended with a possible preview of things to come when one of the audience members felt compelled to suggest that this is the time to completely abolish the IRS. If the national Republican party made this a key policy issue, they would win complete control of Congress in the next elections he predicted. The comment was met with enthusiastic approval from the audience. I wonder if the Tea Party wing will take up this cause, forcing the Republican party to continue playing to an increasingly vocal and increasingly narrow base?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Notes From a Small Town Republican Meeting in Texas Shortly after the 2012 Election

A few days after the election in November, I went to the local county Republican meeting. It was a small town gathering near Austin Texas, just far enough outside of Austin to qualify as a representative small town in rural Texas. Here is a description of what I observed that night. My intention is not to poke fun at anyone in a mean spirited way, but to try to present some honest observations. I can’t claim to be completely successful at all times, but I tried.

There was a real sense of gloom in the discussion before the meeting. Paraphrasing typical comments:

"I've lived through bad presidents and bad congresses, but I've never seen anything as bad as this. I don't know how we're going to get through these next 4 years."

“It's going to take millions of people learning hard lessons from the mistake they've made.”

“We need to be more conservative in these tough times”

“We lost because there were obviously there are more takers than producers.”

“We lost some local races because liberal PACs outspent us 10:1”

They saw this election as a “mistake” that can eventually be corrected and then things will return to normal. Nobody suggested that it was as a signal of some sort of permanent change. Interestingly Romney's name was not mentioned once. Republican/ Democrats were only rarely mentioned. It was all about the battle between liberals and conservatives. I also observed that the term "conservative" seemed to have evolve from defining a collection of political views, into something that was roughly synonymous with righteousness and strength of moral character. In such a view, there was no such thing as a balanced conservatism - being more conservative was ALWAYS better.

The meeting was opened in the usual way with a prayer, pledge to the American flag, followed by a pledge to the Texas flag. A local Republican county commissioner then gave a report on various local county issues: roads, taxes, emergency preparedness plans, and of course water issues. He came across as very experienced and knowledgeable, and motivated by a desire to do what’s best for the county without a hint of partisan politics appearing in his talk.

The Republican Texas State Representative from that area then gave his view on issues and priorities for the coming state congressional session. He supported what I found to be an interesting mix of ideas:

  • Clamping down on immigration
  • Tort reform - "looser pays" legislation
  • Drug testing for welfare recipients
  • Our schools needing more focus on vocational training and less on standardized testing. Vocational classes have been canceled over the need to focus too much time and funds on test preparation.
  • Addressing our long term water needs. This includes building more reservoirs, as well as investigating “aquifer storage”, which involves pumping water back down into underground aquifers. It turns out that the city of Austin looses more water from evaporation from its reservoirs than the city actually uses. (This idea was new for me, and quite interesting)
  • Improving our transportation infrastructure
  • He also supported legislation to give people rights to carry guns on school grounds, including grade schools and high schools. This would only apply to adults with gun permits. His explanation was that churches sometimes worship at schools on weekends, and people need the right to defend themselves during church services because Christians are being increasingly persecuted.
The meeting then ended with a long lecture on socialism. The speaker was very sincere and gave a very well prepared talk. He had apparently migrated to the U.S. from an eastern European country when he was young. (This is where it becomes difficult for me to remain completely objective and avoid giving a biased and perhaps somewhat sarcastic view based on the selection of key points that I chose to include. I will say I found the talk entertaining. )

The Threat of Socialism:

  • Capitalism is clearly based on Christian principles
  • Socialism is the government control over means of production. The most socialistic agency in our current government is the EPA.
Here are the plans being used to introduce socialism into our society
  • First corrupt our culture, starting at the universities
  • Then the press and entertainment
  • Finally destroy Christianity though liberal teachers at seminaries
Howard Zinn was singled out as being one of the most corrupting influences around because his books are corrupting US history. He is teaching our children that the U.S. did bad things at times, reducing the pride we have in our nation. This is a major problem, because it's very important for citizens to maintain their pride in America.

The real goal of the Obama administration is a “one world government” that takes away our guns.

The main groups working for socialism include: civil rights groups, feminists, the gay pride movement, environmentalists,liberal churches, organized labor, esp. the AFL-CIO, the far left radical liberals including Obama and Hillary, and of course the National Education Association.

The end result of socialism in Europe is the Muslims moving in and establishing sharia law. That's our future too, and George Soros is funding this. We may say that couldn't happen here, but they said the same thing in Europe, and it's happening now.

(End of lecture)

I don’t know to what extent the audience agreed with everything the speaker said, but they did give him a standing ovation after his talk.

A final observation: In my estimation these are not tea party people. They are run-of-the-mill mainstream small town Republicans. I've been to Texas tea party meeting. The Texas tea party folks despise the type of mainstream establishment Republican Party members gathered here for being too moderate in their views and actions.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Same Sex Marriage Support Growing With a Surprising Group

A recent ABC News / Washington Post poll show that 53% of Americans support same-sex marriage, and surprisingly even a higher percentage of African Americans, 59%, now support same sex marriage. That is a MAJOR change in the African American community in just one month, thanks to President Obama, Colin Powell, and the NAACP all coming out in favor of it. This is what leadership can do (thank you, Joe Biden:-)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Economist Explains Why Climate Change Skeptis are Wrong

A really great summary, from an economist who was quoted by climate change skeptics, on why they are wrong on all their points.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yochai Benkler on the new open-source economics

In this TED Talk given back in 2005, Yochai Benkler talked about how the development of "social production" is the long term shift caused by the Internet. Examples of this include
  • Linux - note that 70% of critical web servers are controlled by Linux
  • Wikipedia (of course)
  • Google - in the sense that they have esentially outsourced the decision of what is relevant to the web community as a whole in its page rank algorithm.
  • Seti@home - which was for a time the most powerful supercomputer cluster in the world
Why is this happening? Yochai says that for the first time in history, the capital for generating and distributing information is cheaply available to everyone. Previously it was too expensive to have decentralized production. What we're seeing now is the emergence of social sharing and exchange that in some contexts it is more efficient than markets or firms. It is sustainable and growing fast.

Yochai also makes the amusing observation that money is not the greatest motivator. If you leave a $50 check after dinner with friends, you do not increase the chances of being invited back. If the dinner example is not obvious, think of sex.

The biggest disagreement I have with his view is that this is not the first time this is happening. Open source collaboration is in fact the fundamental operating model of the scientific method. Applied science and engineering is often done for economic profit and protected by patents. Basic research however is freely shared with everyone, and done more for social status and personal enjoyment than to achieve large monetary gains.

Developeronomics and the Rise of the Internet and Software

There was an interesting article recently in Forbes titled The Rise of Developeronomics by Venkatesh Rao. It talks about software developers and how important it is for companies to hire and hold on to the best ones.  One interesting claim is that good software developers are not just somewhat better than the average developer, they are often 10x better than the average one, and can make a very big difference to a company.

The most interesting quote, however, is how the development of software has been changing much of the economy, especially once the Internet was developed:
Speaking of history, let’s put all this in perspective for non-software-industry types who still don’t understand just how epochal the birth of the software industry is for the rest of the economy.

As Alan Kay, a major pioneer of today’s software-eaten planet,  pointed out recently, the Internet doesn’t have stop, shut down, or rewind buttons. Once it was turned on,history was essentially rebooted. Software began eating away at the pre-software layers of civilization on the planet, and depositing software-infused layers instead. 
One of these days, we’ll recognize the enormous significance of what’s going on and replace the BC/AD distinction with BI/AI (Before Internet/After Internet), with January 1, Year 0 reset to October 29, 1969, the day the Internet was turned on (if you want to start right, 2012 is actually Year 43, AI).
And yes, this time, there will be a Year 0, if programmers have anything to do with it.
This type of argument suggests that the technological singularity is happening now, and we're living in the middle of it. It's taking a few decades, but that's a blink of the eye if you take a longer term historical perspective.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mental Enhancement Drugs

"The bottom line is that cognitive-enhancing pills are a reality and people are using them. "   That quote came from an article titled The Dope on Mental Enhancement in New Scientist magazine. According to the article, a recent survey showed that 38% of the people responding have already tried various mental enhancement drugs ( well, actually the numbers would have been much higher if they were honest and included caffeine in the list of such drugs).   Such drugs are a reality now, they benefit people and society when properly used, and I'm sure that the mental enhancing drugs in the research pipeline are much more effective than the ones currently available.  Adjusting to this will take some shifts in cultural attitudes though.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

David Korten message to the Occupy Wall Street movement

David Korten, an economist, author, and former Professor of the Harvard Business School, was asked why the Occupy Wall Street movement is striking such a strong chord with such a broad base of our society.  He replied with some verysobering words "The problem is deeply structural.  There's not going to be an economic recovery, and the politicians are not going to take the actions that are necessary.   The leadership is only going to come from the people".  To the protesters he would like to say "The future depends on you.  Have the courage, the world is watching"

He also points out that the income of the middle class has been declining for some time.  We should note that this has been masked for the last two decades by the rise of two income families and a huge increase in personal debt.  These coping mechanisms have reached their limit though, which suggests that we are not going to return to the way things used to be.  Perhaps some people are beginning to realize this.  For others, this goes against their economic ideology and that makes it very hard to accept. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's End the Hero Worship of Steve Jobs

Roles models can be a good thing to have. Hero worship can be problematic though. Now that the hero worship of Steve Jobs has died down, let me offer a different perspective. In reality, Steve Jobs sometimes acted like a jerk in his personal life, he abused and mistreated his fellow employees, and he has no public record of ever donating any of his massive wealth to charity. He didn’t invent much of what Apple is known for. The mouse, graphic interface, MP3 song player, smart phone, and tablet computer were all first introduced by other companies. Steve Jobs – no, make that the engineers at Apple, took those innovations and produced better versions of them. Steve Jobs never embraced the open source movement, and Apple remains one of the prime examples of complete corporate control over anything having to do with their products.

As far as Steve Jobs changing the world – really? In any way that qualifies as important? When the long term history of the computer industry is written, his impact will be much small than someone like Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and then refused to patent it so that it could be more widely shared in an open manner by everyone. Or what about another serious role model who recently died, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. She was personally responsible for starting major environmental and women’s rights movements in Africa, movements that have been causing major improvements in the lives of people all over Africa. When CEOs become more idolized then these people, you again have to question the priorities of our culture.

The fact that Steve Jobs’ death was announced by Apple Corp., and not by his family or friends, should be something that strikes people as strange and a little sad.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The History of Same Sex Marriage Support

I've read various predictions that the majority of Americans will finally approve of same sex marrige sometime before 2020, with the year varying depending on who was making the prediction.  To my surprise and delight, I found that the crossover has apparently already happened.  The majority of Americans today now support same sex marriage.   The following chart on the legality of same sex marriage is from the 2010 edition of the General Social Survey.  Andrew Sullivan calls it "one of the most successful political, social and cultural movements in history".


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Radical Transparency

I attended a small public discussion about WikiLeaks and the benefits of transparency.  Many of the people hadn't previously given these topics much thought, but once the discussion got going they really got into the topic.  One person expressed a concern that our government might be at a disadvantage because it was so open compared to the governments in some other countries.  But the following counter argument was made.

In economics, it is generally agreed that the more information people have, the better decisions they make and the more efficiently the economy runs.  That's why there are laws requiring a certain degree of financial disclosure by all public corporations, and that's why processed food packages must contain a list of ingredients and the fat and calorie content.  More information results in a better decisions and a better running economy. 

The same thing applies to a democratic  / representative government.  The more information people have, the better they are at electing representatives or demanding that poor policies be corrected.  Our openness is not a vulnerability, but a strength.

One person objected, "Didn't WikiLeaks just publish a list of our greatest vulnerabilities to terrorism?  That surely didn't make us stronger."   Another person quickly stated that if such a list was indeed published (and we're not sure it was), the terrorist organizations almost certainly were aware of these vulnerabilities long ago.  It was only for the American public that this was new news.  This news also shed light on the fact that very little was done to increase the security in these areas since 9/11, which will hopefully generate enough public outcry for something to be done.  Openness is a strength.

There was general agreement that WikiLeaks should not be viewed as a single unique event, but an example of what will become very common from now on thanks for the ability to share information on the Internet.  This brought up the idea of Radical Transparency.   The term was originally developed to describe the idea of complete transparency on the environmental impact of products, so that people could make more informed and responsible choices about what to purchase.  This can easily be extended to the social impact of the way the products are produced and distributed, as well as to the other policies of the company producing the products.  This is being implemented in a haphazard way now as various groups attempt to spread information about operations at various companies in order to influence people's purchasing decisions.  To date it seems to have some real but limited impact on reducing some of the worst practices on environmental destruction or abusive child labor practices in foreign countries.  I can see this movement as an alternative to government regulations, one which is considerably more effective in the global economy where individual governments have limited jurisdiction.  If only it became a more organized movement...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Evolution of Life on Earth

I recently attended a book discussion of "Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins.  The book is an excellent discussion of the evolutionary history of life on earth and how different species are related.  As the discussion developed, several people repeated the theme brought up in the book that humankind is NOT in any reasonable sense the "culmination of the evolutionary process". 

Part of the argument for this is that evolution is not directed towards a specific goal.  If you were to replay the tape of evolution starting with just minor changes, it is very unlikely that it would end up producing the human race again.  We are a somewhat random production of evolution.  There is a good argument that evolution would have probably produced some sort of intelligent creatures at some point.  After all, it also produced dolphins, parrots, and squids - three other species that show some signs of developing reasonable intelligence.  Whether it would have produced any species that had the physical ability to grow much larger brains, plus the physical dexterity to manipulate tools easily, and that lived in an ecological niche that was suitable for developing advanced societies similar to humans is an open question.  Perhaps most species that evolve some advanced intelligence end up limited by physical factors from taking that next step of creating advanced technological societies (?)

It occurred to me that we are not the "culmination of the evolutionary process" in a different sense though.  Life has been evolving on Earth for maybe 3.5 billion years.  We are probably only somewhere near the midpoint in the history of life on Earth.  In fact, since evolution appears to be speeding up (both biologically as well as culturally), we are probably still early in the "story of events" in the evolutionary development of life on Earth. 

This is something to think about that perhaps makes you a little more excited and humble at the same time.  It's also an excellent example of what some people refer to as the "feelings of awe and spiritual wonder" produced by a fuller scientific understanding of the universe around us and our place in it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just How Inefficient is Our Society?

I was listening to a conversation about efficiency in the U.S. economy the other day. It’s actually amazing how far below our actual capabilities we are right now when you stop and think about it. I’m thinking in terms of fully utilizing our human resources.

I recently spent 11 months unemployed. I went from being an experienced and productive computer engineer to someone who produced zero net contribution to our economy for those months. I worked hard every day, but that effort was devoted to my job search routine, filling out job applications, preparing for interviews, etc. (I also did volunteer work and spent more time with my family, but I’m not counting that here.) Fortunately I have a job that allows me to be productive again, but when I look back at that time I spent unemployed I shake my head at the waste of time and effort that could have been put to much better use.

Today we have about 10% of our workforce in this situation – representing maybe a 10% waste in our productivity.  It’s hard to estimate what portion of the potential workforce is not counted in that number because they have given up or see no opportunity for a meaningful job. Some people estimate that the real number when these people are taken into account is closer to 20%. Then add a few percent more cover the people currently in prison. We can argue about adding the number of people in the military to this amount too, but that’s a relatively small number compared to other factors.

The next big factor, and potentially the biggest factor of all, is the number of people underemployed. These are people who are working at jobs that, for whatever reason, do not allow them to fully contribute to society what they are capable of. By the time you add all these factors in, our human workforce as a group is almost certainly contributing less than half of what they are capable of.

You could spend considerable time debating what portion of this is due to personal choices, cultural factors, or inefficiencies in the market. I don’t know the correct answer here. I’m sure of two things though: (1) We as a society are doing a fraction of what we are capable of and there’s room for considerable improvement, and (2) we are in a situation where there’s a considerable need for that extra human potential to solve a growing list of problems.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Positive Feedback is Making the Stock Market Increasingly Unstable

On May 6th 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the NY Stock Exchange dropped by 1,000 points in a matter a minutes in an event than has become known as the “Flash Crash”. Fortunately for people invested in the market, the Dow regained most of that loss very quickly. This was an unprecedented case, and a warning – how could the stock market change so much so quickly?

It turns out that the flash crash was caused by a single large stock trade, and the series of high frequency computer trades that quickly followed. This should be taken as a very serious warning of how unstable the market has become.

Stock markets are inherently unstable because of positive feedback. Positive feedback is a basic phenomena in control theory in which parts of a system function to increase the size of any change in either the positive or negative direction (negative feedback works to reduce or dampen any change). The market is full of positive feedback loops . Increasing stock prices attract more investors which produces even greater increases in stock prices. Falling stock prices scare away investors which causes even greater reductions in stock prices.

It is a basic principle of control theory that when positive feedback becomes large enough, the system becomes very unstable and begins to experience wild oscillations. The loud squealing you sometimes hear when there is too much feedback in a sound system with a microphone is closely related to this.

Unfortunately, the amount of positive feedback in the stock market is increasing in size and speed each year, being driven mainly by very high speed computer trading. There was a recent story about a new transatlantic cable being laid between England and the US primarily to allow faster computer trading on the NY stock exchange by firms in London. The current cables have a 65 millisecond delay, and the new cables will reduce the delay to under 60 milliseconds. I’ll save the commentary about the tremendous amount of waste in physical resources and intellectual talent that is going into this for another time. For now, I’ll just point to it as an example of the increasing speed and strength of the positive feedback effecting stock markets, bringing them ever closer to the point of wild instability.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Relativity Denial Returns

When I was much younger, I recall that refuting the Theory of Relativity was a favorite pastime of various crackpots and clowns. The Nazis even derided it by referred to it as foolish “jewish science” and obviously inferior to proper “aryan science”. (Einstein was a Jewish German if you didn’t know). In reality, most aspects of Relativity have been experimentally confirmed, some in extreme detail. The current GPS system even has to take into account the effect of relativity in order to achieve the accuracy it does.

In more recent years, the attention of the crackpots seems to have become focused on refuting evolution and more recently global climate change. Have people given up battling against the Theory of Relativity?

Thanks to a recent article on Talking Points Memo, I found out that the answer is a definite “no”. Conservapedia (the alternative to the reality based and thus liberally biased Wikipedia) has a detailed article on Relativity. It’s initial criticism states that “…unlike most of physics, the theories of relativity consist of complex mathematical equations relying on several hypotheses.”

It gets worse. It’s accompanying article Counterexamples to Relativity describes Relativity as “heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world”. It states that Relativity denies action at a distance, which clearly contradict the miracles that Jesus performed according to the Bible, so Relativity must be wrong.

The closing arguments in the original Conservapedia article include the following whopper of a paragraph:

Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of "curvature of space" to promote a broad legal right to abortion. As of June 2008, over 170 law review articles have cited this liberal application of the theory of relativity to legal arguments. Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common. Moreover, there is an unmistakable effort to censor or ostracize criticism of relativity.
Relativity denialism appears to be more alive and well than I thought, and the battle against science continues. By the way, the main contributor to the Conservapedia articles on Relativity was Andy Schlafly, son of the right wing activist Phylis Schlafly.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

BP's "Top Kill" Effort Fails - This Could Be Big

This could be really big.

I just heard the word that BP's best hope at stopping the oil flow, the "Top Kill" method, has failed. I wonder about the long term consequences now. I think it is misleading to think of this as a "spill", it's way beyond that. There is now a real possibility that the flow of oil could continue for years until most of the oil in that entire oil field has been emptied out into the gulf. People who have depended on catching fish and shrimp for generations in that area now say it is unlikely that they will be able to go back and resume their livelihoods at anytime during the rest of their lives. These are some of the same people hit hard by Katrina. And this is predicted to be another bad year for hurricanes. My heart goes out to these people.

What to do about BP? Traditional fines don't seem adequate in this case. I would support a permanent ban on BP doing any more offshore drilling off the coast of the U.S. They have demonstrated that they are not capable of doing this safely. That would make the rest of the industry think more seriously about safety. What if in the end it becomes apparent that no "for profit" corporation can drill for oil with adequate safety in water that is a mile deep or more? That is a real possibility that we must be prepared to accept.

There is an argument that BP is not a "bad company", it is just doing what all companies are chartered to do under the current system - maximize their short term profits. In this argument, there are no bad or good companies, there are just companies that do what companies are designed to do. Don't expect anything else to happen when we have set up the system to produce these results.

What is the long term impact of this? Instead of thinking about this as "Obama's Katrina", perhaps it is better to think about it as "Obama's 9/11". It's an unexpected event that could end up defining his presidency and shaping his policy focus in unexpected ways. This could have implications to national policy related to energy, the environment, and possibly to the way corporations are chartered and regulated. This could be big.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The End of Democracy As We Know It? - Part 1

I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the recent Supreme Court Decision involving Citizens United. I’m not one to typically give in to rash statements, but this does seem to put in place the mechanism for the almost complete control of our government by wealthy corporations. We already have a situation where Rupert Murdoch and his FOX network effectively set much of the strategy for the Republican Party. Alumni from Goldman Sachs have a dominating influence on Obama’s financial policy. And both parties are heavily influenced by corporate donations and lobbyist. This ruling enables the takeover to be complete.

The first shoe to drop was the end of the Fairness Doctrine. This Supreme Court decision was the other shoe. I don’t claim that corporations will completely decide who will win elections. Rather, in practice they will have more like a veto power over candidates they don’t like thanks to the ability to unleash tremendous negative advertising campaigns, and a similar veto power over legislation they don’t like. Special interest will now be in a position to effectively prevent any change that will negatively impact them, regardless of the long term benefits to society as a whole. The long term impacts of this are quite substantial as we enter a period of rapid changes in the global society.

If that isn’t troubling enough, consider this: The ruling apparently applies to foreign based corporations too. There’s some uncertainty over this, but my understanding is that foreign corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money to influence American elections just like US based corporations.

What can be done to fix this situation? There is a lot of focus on creating a new constitutional amendment that will explicitly state that corporations are not people and do not share in the same rights as people. I fear this is a misguided effort to focus on. First, it will take many years and has only a small chance of actually passing in the end. More importantly though, I don’t think it will actually cause the changes people are hoping for. It is my understanding that the Supreme Court decision is not based on the view that corporations are people. Instead, it is based on the argument that people have the right to organize in groups and speak out on political issues, whether those groups are non-profit organizations, labor unions, or corporations.

The real problem here, and the one we need to address to fix things, is that concentrations of money can have a significant influence on our government process. The idea that very wealthy individuals can exercise excessive influence on our government is also a problem that tends to get overlooked. I’ll give some thoughts on possible ways to address this in my next post.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Economic Recovery or Continued Addiction?

I recently came across a commentary written by Brian McLaren about the concept of economic recovery. He brings up some interesting questions about what we mean by the term “recovery”. When a drug addict hits rock bottom and starts on the path to recovery, we usually mean that this person is reforming their ways, learning from their past mistakes and moving forward to a better life without their former addiction. We don’t mean that they are trying to reestablish their more tolerable state of drug dependency similar to what they were experiencing a few months before hitting rock bottom.

Yet when we talk about economic recovery, there is disappointingly little talk in the national media about learning from our past mistakes and moving forward to a better life without the former addiction to the illusory phantom wealth from complex risky financial mechanisms, excessive debt,and unsustainable speculative bubbles. Instead, the goal of economic recovery seems to be to return to how things were a few years ago before the bubble bursts, plus or minus a few minor regulation changes. It has become a call to get back to our former addictive economic high without addressing the root problems with our addictions, with the hope that we won’t end up back in the gutter again next time. Brian McLaren goes on to discuss some of the addictions we need to face and recover from: material greed, weapons, carbon fuels, quick and easy answers, etc. This struck me as an interesting way to frame these discussions in the national debate.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Green 2010 Conference and the Status of the Green Economy

I recently attended the “Green 2010” conference at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook NY. It was the latest in a series of regular conferences dealing with the status of the “Green Economy” in upstate New York. The conference as a whole shed some interesting light on the current status of green jobs, education, and attitudes that probably apply across much of the nation.

The first observation was that the conference was well attended – a sellout crowd of about 150 people by my estimate. The crowd consisted of a wide spectrum of ages, from high school students to senior citizens. Certainly there was a strong interest in the green economy, which should not come as a surprise given the current state of the rest of the economy in upstate NY. There were several non-profit organizations trying their best to bring green jobs, and solar technology in particular, into the area. Given that there are many groups trying to do the same thing all across the country, you have to wonder how much any given area can rely on this as a big driver of future growth in their local economy. While the dream of becoming a national center for green technology is not realistic in most cases, it can be argued that the transformation to a non-carbon economy will have such a pervasive impact on society in the next few decades that there will be plenty of work to go around. The goal is to not be left out entirely.

There was a good deal of progress in education and training for green technology jobs in the community colleges and local trade school institutions. Unfortunately, even the people running these programs had to admit that at this time there were very few jobs available for the graduates of such programs. The region already has more people trained to install solar panels than the job market can support.

Clearly the most discouraging comments had to do with environmental education in general. Everyone was used to hearing that students in America were falling well behind other advanced countries in terms of math and science education. I terms of knowledge about the environment though, we are falling behind many thirds world countries too. I’m talking about very basic knowledge here – such as explaining the steps necessary for water in the ocean to end up falling as rain on the land. The majority of American grade school students could not answer this properly. Worse yet, the racial gap within American society on this topic seemed to be even bigger than with other subjects. White and Asian groups did comparatively well, but black and Hispanic groups really struggled. This racial difference even showed up in graduate studies. Based on the lack of minorities getting PhDs in environmental studies, this seemed to be one of the most segregated of all major subjects in our universities. Indeed, I took a quick informal look around at the conference attendees and found two African Americans, no Hispanics, and no Asians. The excellent work of Van Jones notwithstanding, environmental issues often seem to remain a narrow and almost cliquish concern of the white middle and upper classes. There is much work to been done.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What Are Our New Big Mega-Projects?

A recent article in the NY times commented on the lack of any big mega-projects being undertaken. The article points out that in the past we had “The Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad.. the Hoover Dam, the Interstate System, the subway networks in San Francisco and Washington, the Big Dig in Boston ... and the list abruptly stops. For the first time in memory, the nation has no outsize public works project under way.” Such big projects, the article suggests, can have transformative effects and create significant long term improvement for the economy.

Ok, an interesting observation. But do we really have no big mega-projects under development at this time? Or are the current really big projects just somewhat different than those of the past? I would argue that the biggest development project for the last decade was the build-out of the Internet. This required enormous investments in effort and money, generated significant wealth, and is having an incredibly transformative effect on our economy and our society. I will argue that the long term transformative impact of the Internet and related technologies will transform society much greater than the transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system. It was government funded, at least at the beginning, though private funds have taken over the still on-going build-out. The current focus now seems to be shifting to the phase of integrating the rest of our communication and business structures into the Internet infrastructure. This is also different form the past mega-projects in that it is global in scope.

What other major mega-projects are now underway? It could be argued that transforming our health care system is one such project. This also suggests another big scientific mega-project that we are in the middle of – understanding and learning how to manipulate genomes. Understanding how DNA operates and controls living organisms, and how to manipulate it is certainly a major effort that will eventually have long lasting economic and social transformative effects on our society.

If we want to focus on more physical projects though, the biggest mega-project we have just started is clearly the transformation of our energy system away from a fossil fuel based system to one that is based on less carbon intensive and more renewable fuels and overall greatly improved efficiency. Government has an important role to play in this, but like the Internet, private funding will eventually have to provide most of the funding. I’d like to think of this as the great physical mega-project of the next 20 years for our society. Its effect on the economy and our society are likely to be profound. It's something we can rally around that should be generating much more enthusiasm and pride than a comparatively limited project like the transcontinental railroad ever could.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Difference Between Capitalism and Free Markets

When people discuss the characteristics and possible reforms of capitalism and free markets, they have a tendency to use these two terms interchangeably. In reality the two are quite different things. Let me explain.

Capitalism is defined as a system of ownership of the means of production, specifically the non-labor means of production, which includes factories, tools, equipment, etc. In a capitalistic organization, these means of production are privately owned. Labor is paid a wage for their efforts, and any profits go to the owners of the capital.

A free market system is simply defined as one in which everyone is able to freely sell their goods and services with prices determined by supply and demand.

It is possible to have capitalism without a free market in specific situations. Examples include organizations that have an effective monopoly on a market – they can prevent competition from entering the market and can set prices to maximize their own profits instead of being restricted by supply and demand. Another example is the awarding of government no-bid contracts to capitalistic organizations.

It is also possible to have a free market that does not involve capitalism. Examples include the traditional farmers market or co-ops competing with each other. In both cases, the clear distinction between owners and workers that is characteristic of capitalism is gone, yet there is still a free market competition that sets prices based on supply and demand.

It’s important to keep these distinctions in mind when discussing future economic possibilities. It is possible to reform some of the major problems of capitalism while maintaining the benefits of a healthy free market, and vice versa.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Placing Palin's Book in the Appropriate Section

A friend of mine "went Rogue" in a local book store recently, and as a public service decided to re-shelve Sarah Palin's book into what they thought was the more appropriate fiction section. I wonder if this is a fad that has been happening (or will now start happening) elsewhere around the country?

While not exactly consistent with supporting more rational civil discussions, I can see such acts happening as the frustration grows within the progressive community. Think of it as a very modest little left wing version of the "tea party" movement.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Living In Ordinary Times?

I attended Catholic Mass while visiting family members this weekend, and I was intrigued by the following statement from the pulpit: “this is the 33rd Sunday in ordinary time”. The phrase ordinary time as used here refers to a particular segment of the church calendar year (i.e. It’s not advent, lent, etc.). But it raised the bigger question about whether we’re living in "ordinary times” in a larger historical sense. Would we classify the last 6 months as an extraordinary time in history, or as more of an unremarkable ordinary time? Have we lived through a temporary lull this summer between recent storms of change, and what will come next? Perhaps. How would you classify the last half of this decade?

The people I discussed this with typically thought we were living in extraordinary times in general, and have been doing so for their entire life. That led to the humorous observation that we often believe an extraordinary period of human history began roughly at the time of our own birth. Such is human nature.

This is characteristic of exponential rates of change. The most recent period of history will always seem to be experiencing much more substantial rates of change than previous times, and will therefore seem to be an extraordinary time. Make no mistake about it; we are living in a time of exponential growth, exponential rates of scientific and technological development, and perhaps exponential rates of social change as well. We are living in an extraordinary time. There is an important aspect of exponential curves that we cannot forget though. If they continue, the rate of change in the coming decades will be even greater than it is today. There is every reason to believe that this in fact will happen. So while we are living in extraordinary times compared to previous history, it is likely that the historical impact of the coming decades will be even more significant than what we’re experiencing now.