Search This Blog

Friday, September 19, 2003

Late Night response to Bret's universal skepticism

Well, now you've done it, Bret. I have so many points to make as a result of reading your thoughts as well as those of the references you cited, I may have to write a book. But, let me at least spew some of my points here without even trying to defend them.

- All systems deteriorate constantly and must be patched or replaced. Over time patching becomes inefficient (for governmental systems, think complicated regulations). On the other hand, replacement is difficult because everyone is used to the old system which, by definition, has not yet killed them. Replacement of old systems can be driven by innovation, but it is unpredictable, because it depends on technology locking onto some major economic or social dynamic (or both). Innovation often bails us out. (For example, we might have a huge urban horse-shit accumulation problem if we hadn't harnessed free-wheeling automotive power.) Unfortunately, government systems, which deal with highly complex social systems rather than finite equipment or instruments, are among the least receptive systems to innovation. Plus, there is an additional logic to this bias -- with governmental innovation (e.g., from that of a strong-willed president) comes risk of an immediate nature which most people wish to avoid when it involves the entity that is responsible for so many of their basic services. But they are not concerned about innovation of the consumer goods they now buy. That's because systems that are driven to increase profit will respond to nearly every economic demand. However, systems that, at least on the surface, are intended to deliver broad social empowerment (i.e., governments) don't have such a convenient measure as profit. In general, people are skeptical of changes because they have a natural tendency (recently well-documented) to irrationally overvalue the loss of what they now have and undervalue those things they might gain -- this is true even in the case of economic assets, and I believe much more so in the case of lagging, inconclusive measures of social improvement. (Of course, by projecting the advantages of free choice over CNN airwaves, we have helped people living under repressive governments to better understand the value of governmental change. This has created unrest in many countries that governments have either had to adapt to or repress even more brutally. It is not apparent to us in the U.S., however, that there is a proven better governmental choice.)

- From what I can tell, because of the natural resistance to innovation in governmental systems, innovation of these systems has tended to follow crises, which have acted like catalysts for change because enough people finally get fed up. In fact, in the past fifty years, the only innovations I can think of that were not spurred almost exclusively by crisis are the Great Society programs of Johnson. Even that is arguable, of course, given the rising racial tension of the time. But, I think, Johnson could have resisted any influence from this had he been against such change. So, I don't consider the implementation of these programs exclusively a response to crisis. Regardless of the value of these programs, I have a respect for Johnson's ability to force through innovation based on vision rather than crisis. (Of course, a cynic might argue that the real crisis of the time was Vietnam, and the programs of the Great Society were a useful distraction. To the extent this is true, these innovations also would be considered crisis-driven.) Some might argue that Nixon was innovative with China, but I would put those efforts more in the domain of politics than government. Certainly, Clinton was not a governmental innovator -- welfare reform is a pretty weak case. I could only call George W. governmentally innovative in his ability to find new ways to bolster status quo trends.

- I agree with Krugrman's analysis of the economic direction the country is heading. I disagree, however, with Krugman's vision of a country full of poor old people and a massively uneducated underclass. Crisis (or unprecedented technical innovation -- always a possibility, but I wouldn't count on it in the short-term) will cause us to change before we reach this situation. I also disagree with his assertion that there is actually a plan by the rich and powerful to "achieve" this Dickensian vision. That's a bit of hysteria if you ask me. (I never said I agreed with all his political views. I admire his understanding of economic systems.) The reason it looks as if the rich and powerful want this is simply because they are the economic winners in a system set up to yield the result we're getting. Because it comes out fine for them, they are not necessarily inclined to closely examine what the system is doing to others and to the environment. It is more a case of neglect and rationalization in favor of the status quo than a conspiracy to drive toward some evil result (whether or not that will actually be the result).

- As for the generational injustices associated with our massive deficits and debt and the root causes of them, I agree that part of the challenge is to rethink the systems for health care and social security, but that's not enough. While these sources of expenditure consume large and growing portions of our national budget, there is still a huge amount of money and productive capacity being spent for military and security purposes. While this does provide income to many people, the main effect is the creation of several hundred billion dollars per year of military goods that not only do not produce economic benefits, but, in fact, propagate vast additional expenditures around the world as peoples and economies must recover from the destruction they sow (e.g., around $80 billion per year in Iraq alone; of course, in Afghanistan, we are not even trying to overcome the military destruction that country has suffered; a mere $300 million or so a year is going to civil projects there). And, hey, it all comes from the same pool of government money. Of course we cannot immediately redirect most of the half trillion dollars a year we spend on defensive and offensive capabilities, but it must be our stated goal to do so over time. In this regard, we are completely without vision. Our government's myopia is amazing to me because I'm quite sure that a peaceful world that has transitioned itself away from massive military expenditure would be one of enormous economic prosperity. If nothing else, just imagine all those bright engineers now working for defense companies doing something that benefits society (like building robotic appliances that give people more time to produce other things).

- Last but not least... Vote for Boot in 2016! (I wonder if the world can wait that long.)

No comments: