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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Question Time!

I'm interested in fomenting debate around tough questions that don't have an absolutely right or wrong answer. In the process of all of us writing our thoughts, maybe we'll learn something.

I've got two question areas I'm interested in exploring. Here's the first one:

Is economic growth a panacea? What problems are left unaddressed or are exacerbated by growth? Is it possible that growth is nearly a panacea for a developing economy, but that a mature economy might find a different driver to be more appropriate? If so, what would the measure be? Can investments in stock markets in a no- or low-growth environment possibly pay off over the long term? What policies or market mechanisms would need to change for the citizenry to prosper in a no-growth economy? Since U.S. immigration rates are still high, this probably won't be an issue for us for several decades. But, by 2050 or so, the population of the world is expected to level off - then actually fall. Lacking a net increase in consumers, growth then becomes dependent on individuals consuming more and more value (though not necessarily more weight in goods). But, is this sustainable? I'm beginning to wonder if people may not be insatiable when it comes to things. I, for one, have no significant unmet material needs any more. I'm not saving for more goods; I'm only saving now so I don't have to work. When I retire I'll consume more free time, and even fewer goods, and will be a net drain on growth.

If this question doesn't interest anyone, that's OK. Just ignore it. I'll ask another one that may get more traction.

By the way, for those who haven't read last week's Economist special section on the global economy, I recommend you check it out. The obvious message is that there are major structural problems, and that the likely outcome is a dramatic fall in the U.S. dollar because there are no other large economies poised to bail us out with high demand for our products. Shortly, I'm planning to move substantial chunks of my 401(k) to international funds. An economic cataclysm is likely to negatively affect them as well, but at least they'll be buffered in U.S. dollar terms due to relative appreciation of foreign currencies. Howie, I'd appreciate any thoughts you might have on this issue.

Monday, September 29, 2003

I Question Therefore I Answer

Once upon a time, long, long ago, this dude named Faraday noticed that if he wrapped a coil of wire around a magnet and spun the magnet, current would flow in the wire. At the time, nobody had even a vague clue about why this emergent phenomenon occurred, but they were all sufficiently amazed and impressed that they named the phenomenon Faraday's law.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a dude named Eben Moglen proposed Moglen's Metaphorical Corollary to Faraday's Law: "If you wrap the Internet around every person on the planet and spin the planet, software flows in the network." In this corollary, software can refer to virtually any bitstream and includes music, movies, writing, news, analysis, and algorithms in addition to what would come to mind when you usually think of software. Just as nobody knew what current flowed when Faraday performed his experiment, most people are generally clueless about why software emerges on the Internet. Why does the major and free operating system called Linux exist? Why does Apache, the world's most popular http server, exist for free? Why does the free music website, mp3.com have over 750,000 free tunes from over 250,000 artists? Why are there tens of thousands of bloggers, all producing news, opinions, and analysis?

You can't quiz the electrons that cause the current to flow in the wire. So it took physicists awhile to figure that out. On the other hand, you can ask the electrons/people who cause the software to flow in the network why they do it. Since I'm one of the electrons, you can ask me. Even if you don't ask me, I'm going to tell you anyway.

I've written a few patches and extensions for various utilities and drivers for Linux. Linux was the best choice for the applications I was working on at the time and the patches provided functionality that I needed. Since I was planning on upgrading to new versions of Linux and its supporting software, it made sense to submit the patches so I wouldn't have to fix the same bug again in future releases. It makes perfect economic sense to do so, especially since it took only minutes to submit the patches.

I'm one of the mp3.com musicians. I enjoy composing music and produced two CDs to see what they'd sound like. Once produced, since I wasn't planning on selling the music, there didn't seem like any downside to publishing it on mp3.com.

Now I'm participating in a blog. My main motivations are entertainment and learning to write. I'm feel quite lucky to be able to participate in a blog with very smart people with significantly different viewpoints. I find it more interesting to debate with those that don't generally agree with me as opposed to "preaching to the choir".

The reasons for producing the free software are as varied as the people who do it.

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, worries about who will pay for news and other articles if people come to prefer blogs to major media sources. He asks "who will generate the underlying legwork behind the stories, and how will that commonly-shared infrastructure be paid for?" He has essentially answered his own question just by the act of publishing it for free. This looks to me to be a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Here he is, producing material on the web for free, but at the same time unable to imagine that other people will produce other information, and specifically other types of information, for free.

Once there are enough bloggers worldwide, they will just look out their windows and when something newsworthy occurs, they will blog it and that information will propagate rapidly to everybody else. This is already happening. Instapundit and Salam Pax in Iraq during the Iraq war are two out of many examples.

Economic Benefits of Iraqi Oil

Update: In this post that I wrote almost 4 years ago, it was recently pointed out that I mistakenly attributed a quote ("retort") to the wrong person. It is now fixed.

On the tscobb email list, there's been a discussion regarding the economic costs and benefits of the Iraq war. It seems to me (but I'm not sure) that it has degraded out of the rational realm with Tom Sullivan retorting:

Another perspective is that those "savings" may just go to enrich
Georgie boy's buddies and not really get passed on to us!


My reply follows...

I'd like to understand the mechanism by which Georgie boy's buddies (herein called "The Buddies") will redirect the economic benefits into their own pockets while totally eliminating all benefits to everybody else in America. I don't like Bush either, and could possibly believe that they would like to steal massively from their fellow citizens, but short of vast conspiracies involving millions of people, I'm at a loss to explain how they would pull something like that off.

The benefit to the US is only partially directly related to lower oil prices. Iraq will not pump even 1 billion barrels this year and at approximately $20 - $25 per barrel the total revenue generated by that oil will be less than $25 billion. So even if we got that oil for free, that'd be nice, but that's not where we'll derive most of the benefit.

The real benefit stems from the additional Iraqi oil increasing the supply and thus putting downward pressure on ALL oil prices worldwide. The lower oil prices stimulate economic growth by increasing consumer demand in non-energy sectors (since less money needs to spent on energy) which significantly increases per capita GDP. It is estimated that the increase in U.S. GDP will be an additional 1% relative to what it would have been had we not freed Iraq from Saddam Hussein. As an example, this Time Magazine article states "lower oil prices would generate 2003 growth of nearly 3%, compared with the 2% currently forecast by many economists."

Since the U.S.'s GDP is approximately $10 trillion, that addition 1% represents an additional $100 billion. Since GDP growth is
cumulative, that is an additional $100 billion every year going forward (and in fact in compounds so it would actually be even more). The Net Present Value of $100 billion using a discount rate of 3% for the next 20 years is about $1.5 trillion.

Even if The Buddies steal all of the Iraqi oil, in order for them to gain any benefit, they will still have to sell it ('cause I don't
think they can eat it). When they sell it, it will still have the GDP related benefit described above. While it would clearly be less than optimal for the Iraqis to have their oil stolen, it will still benefit us. It seems unlikely to me that France and the rest of the world would turn a blind eye to The Buddies stealing Iraqi oil. However, it's still plausible since even though France is dead set against ever deposing horrible dictators, they're much more accommodating to general corruption, especially involving oil, as shown by the recent TotalFinaElf scandal. Again, whether or not the Iraqis benefit from their own oil, we will.

I can also imagine numerous ways that The Buddies will otherwise try to rip America off. However, none of these are particularly related to the Iraq war and could be done even if there had been no Iraq war. Thus, I contend that the Iraq war is still a substantial benefit economically to America.

Bush has just over one year left in his presidency. I am having a hard time thinking of a way that The Buddies will derive the $1.5 trillion dollar benefit in this short period of time. Except, possibly with a really vast conspiracy involving all of Congress (Democrats and Republicans alike), including congressmen and Presidents to be elected in the future. But even if such a conspiracy exists, I can't see why they'd focus exclusively on the spoils of Iraq. There would far easier ways to rip us off.

So please enlighten me to the basis of your perspective.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Why can't government experiment more?

Bret, I agree with your point about the need to experiment, get feedback, experiment again, until the right solution is hit upon. I believe this could be done in government, but, by and large, it's not being done, especially at the national level. Most experimenters accept the scientific method as a reasonable approach -- which starts with a hypothesis based on logic. I don't see any of this in the Bush administration. I also don't see any desire for change, rather a love of the status quo -- or perhaps even a retrograde status (just ask Trent Lott) -- which they are willing to defend with military might.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Sitting in the Dark

First a comment on the Howard's statement "Most human progress does not occur directly from intentional design." I probably wouldn't have written it exactly that way and I don't want to speak for Howard, but I think the point is that there has been a heck of a lot more "intentional design" than human progress and much of the human progress that has resulted from "intentional design" ended up being progress that was completely different than that which was intended. In other words, people have tried lots of stuff, most of it wasn't beneficial, and some that was beneficial had nothing to do with what the people had set out to accomplish.

Ironically, I almost used a Thomas Edison metaphor to help illuminate (no pun intended - alright, so maybe the pun is intended) my incrementalism post. Since Jim has mentioned Edison, I might as well unveil it. Edison tried thousands and thousands of filaments before coming up with a viable light bulb. This experimentation occured after solving numerous other problems (such as getting a sufficient vacuum in the bulb).

All this effort required by a super genius trying to make something as simple as a light bulb.

A human brain is numerous orders of magnitude more complicated than a light bulb and the US has 300 million of these human brains interacting. I estimate that the entity consisting of these 300 million human brains interacting has a complexity at least 20 orders of magnitude greater than that of a light bulb.

Now imagine someone with the IQ of oh, I don't know, say George Bush, or even Bill Clinton, designing and implementing a major policy change, and we have to count on the first design working.

If mankind had been forced to give up candles and gas lamps for Edison's first (or 2nd or 3rd...) attempt, we'd all be sitting in the dark. And that is almost literally what North Korea is experiencing because they attempted to implement Marx's first design without sufficient experimentation. Check out this night time map and scroll over to Asia. You can see the lights in Japan, South Korea, and even Russia, but there are very few in North Korea. North Koreans are sitting in the dark.

Now Jim certainly has a good point when he writes "Nonetheless, for those changes that do get through, the consequences -- both expected and not -- are usually managed within bounds, and if they cannot be managed, the causal activity is discontinued". For sure, Russia has begun to undo the effects of communism after a mere 75 years of misery. Germany recovered from Facism much more quickly, only a couple of decades or so, though the price of recovery included 20M dead Germans (including most of their jewish population). Even the advancement of western civilization was only delayed a thousand years after the barbarians burned Rome. So yes, humanity will no doubt recover from virtually any set of policies our leaders foist upon us. But I'd rather not be foisted upon until sufficient experiments are done.

Just for the Blog of It

Thanks, Howie, for joining the blog. En garde.

First, let me say that I loved the Whitehead quote (I may use it in my next book). But, your arguments against simple solutions are unconvincing. Oh, I agree that things are complex. But, these complex systems are subject to change through application of a few, simple ideas. This seems to me to be the underlying message of the quote -- choose the right ideas because you don't get many chances. One of your heroes, Ronald Reagan, was a genius of simplicity. I wasn't a big fan of his policies, but I give him credit for accomplishing many of the things he set out to do. His message was always imminently repeatable, and the way he delivered it made it seem like it was based on some basic American principle of freedom. The Soviet Union restricts freedom; the Soviet Union is evil. If we grow the economy (with supply side policies), all boats will rise. There ya go again (restricting our freedom with your policy-wonk gobbledegook).

But, hey. Howie. My friend. How. You've convinced me that Bernard Lewis is brilliant when it comes to the Middle East. But the article you sent us was mostly a paean to the man rather than a thoughtful presentation of the man's ideas. So, tell us a little about what you've learned from reading his articles and books. Link us to an article if you can. I admire your literary voracity, but find that I barely have enough time to keep up with Tech Review, The Economist, and some online articles. When Jane and I went to Maui in June, I chose to read a couple novels. I recommend "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo.

How and Bret, I must take issue with your contention: Most human progress does not occur directly from intentional design. I don't disagree that there's a lot of trial and error along the way. But, it's against common sense to think that there is no correlation between what we envision and what happens. Try telling that to Thomas Edison or Leonardo da Vinci. Problems crop up with any change -- whether technological or social -- when unintended, and often unforeseen, consequences are expressed. That, by the way, is the problem with incrementalism, too. If things take too long before benefits are realized, the negative unintended consequences (including the formation of naysayers) pile up and kill the change. Think of Clinton's 1st term attempt to reform healthcare. (This is an argument for speed of execution, with plans long ago worked out in private.) Nonetheless, for those changes that do get through, the consequences -- both expected and not -- are usually managed within bounds, and if they cannot be managed, the causal activity is discontinued (or at least that's how it seems to have worked so far, although one might question whether we could have gotten ourselves into even deeper shit on the CFC fiasco - lasts for 50 years in the ozone layer - what a great innovation that was).

The point is, many people on this planet live more fulfilling lives than their ancestors lived because people have had a great desire for things to be better in fairly specific ways. Most of them waited, but enough of them, thank god, took matters into their own hands. A number of them have had an effect. Scientists, inventors, statesmen, generals, home economists. Have there been bold political actions of generally salutary result in our American history? Of course. There have been purchases of vast lands, the end of slavery, women's suffrage, the crushing of fascism, the Marshall Plan, civil liberties. I wouldn't chalk any of these up to the spoils of incrementalism. They all took vision, intelligence, and patience. And, underlying them all -- values. Even before vision, what are the values that will sustain it?

If only, all along, Reagan-like, Bush had said that the only reason to get Saddam was to free the Iraqi people from repression, then I might have bought it. But, no, Saddam had to go --because he was cheating on inspections, because he was an imminent threat to our country, and because (and I really do think this is the main reason for George W) he threatened the president's daddy. (Remember when he actually made the idiotic comment about that!) The bottom line is that Saddam, harboring few capabilities relatively-speaking, was defying our will and shooting us the bird, and the people in our adminstration decided it was time for him to be dead. Freeing the Iraqi people was only an incidental justification, at best. Unchallenged stability seems to be the primary goal of the Cheney gang. Correcting injustice is far down the list. Further, I'm doubtful that current strategies will achieve the stability desired. The values are too obscure in every moment of the situation, including on the ground when a frightened GI opens fire on a group of innocent people.

Bret, in your praise for the rule of the majority don't forget that changes to the Constitution require 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states' ratifications. There may be many good reasons why the pulse of the majority shouldn't drive all action.

Finally, I, like Bret, am an optimist at heart. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet threat abated. These are proof that good things do happen through unpredictable incrementalism as well. These examples of incrementalism were associated with an eroding governmental system based on flawed values. Values of justice and freedom can be repressed, but like tree roots against a sewer line, eventually they break through.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Five Out of Eight

Five out of eight of the great guys have now signed up ( Boots, Pode, Hunersen, Seidler, Wallach). Drake's invitation email bounced and he is currently traveling, but plans on signing up when he gets back. That leaves the Eigner boyz. I'll assume their email didn't get to them either and try their MIT email addresses shortly.

Welcome to all!!!

Andrew Sullivan* is on a Roll Today

First he points us to this hysterical "Separated at Birth" blurb.

He then follows bu excerpting the following "philosophical" conversation.

Borridori: September 11 [Le 11 Septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?

Derrida: Le 11 Septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, "September 11." We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say "September 11" you are already citing, are you not? Something fait date, I would say in French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history. "To mark a date in history" presupposes, in any case, an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are - and I want to insist on this at the outset - only suppositions and presuppositions. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. The telegram of this metonymy - a name, a number - points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

Apparently from "Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida"

Do philosophers really talk like this? Remind me never to try and read anything by these two incomprehensible luminaries.

*Andrew Sullivan's website is here

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Should the Government Have a Vision?

I ask this question because at first glance I find the idea of my government having a vision quite appealing. In fact, I may well have an unconscious assumption that it should or does.

But as I think about it a little more, I find the concept troubling. For example, when I think of well known political visionaries, I don't like what I come up with. Caesar had a vision (he came, he saw, he conquered), Mohammed had a vision (as Osama will tell you), Hitler had a vision (nothing much - other than world domination and ethnic cleansing), Mussolini had a vision (well, the trains did run on time), Marx had a vision (and I don't mean Groucho), Stalin had a vision (but at least he helped us beat Hitler), Saddam Hussein has a vision (though things aren't going well for him at the moment), etc.

There seem to be very few leaders who: (a) had a positive vision (b) were able to effect significant change toward that vision; and (c) the vision actually turned out to be significantly positive in retrospect. And most of those leaders appeared in time of crisis. There are some notable exceptions, of course. There really was no serious crisis when the founding fathers of the US got together, they did effect positive change, and I'll bet the outcome will be a political case study for millenia. But even their vision involved war.

Secondly, I think I prefer the perspective of the government working for the populace. I don't think the leaders of the country, state, or community necessarily need to be in the government. Many people complained when Clinton frequently used polls as a significant input to his policy decisions, but I actually rather liked that. I think our president and other elected officials should ask us what we think. That's not to say they can't lead at all. The president can use the bully pulpit to try to convince us that some policy is best. But if we still don't like it, he should listen and not do it.

Lastly, I would like it if the President had a vision that matched mine. But I would hate it if it didn't match mine. And I'll bet that more often than not, the vision won't be something I can buy into. As a result, I think I'd rather that the government stay out of the vision game.

Iraq and Middle East

If you have not read any books or articles by Bernard Lewis then get on the stick! This is a link to an article in opinionjournal.com. Approaching 90 years of age(87), he is as lucid as anyone you'll ever meet, simply brilliant.

A Complex World

The world is so complex and we start out knowing so little. How do we cut the Gordian Knot of our ignorance? Do nothing, just live to be happy and remain blissfully ignorant. This is a very popular option. Another popular approach is to adopt the views of people around us when we are young. In addition, as we encounter other views of things simply adopt the ones that are appealing (they feel good). A third approach is to be ceaslessly curious. This could lead one to observe, think, question. You could study data, conduct thought experiments and read,read,read. (Quality of what you read counts even more than quantity, but that can take time to sort out). One lifetime is barely enough to scratch the surface of a complex world through direct observation alone. Most people reject this approach as being too much work.

Even after intensive study we are still limited to making simplifications. The simplifications may illuminate or obscure further understanding. Starting assumptions are just as important as the line of reasoning that lead to any conclusion. You know the problem, garbage in - garbage out. Actually, different starting assumptions are at the core of many disagreements. Also, once you study an issue intensively enough to draw some firm conclusions, it is good to remember the many accepted truths (scientific and otherwise) replaced what were previously accepted as truths.

Another point worth remembering is that in making simplifications we often reduce ideas into single subjects. That is fine for a first step but in realworld application everything is intertwined. Politics(power), economics, social conditions... all effect and feedback upon each other.

Now on to some specifics. Most human progress does not occur directly from intentional design. As Bret already mentioned, an evolutionary trial and error process is at the heart of progress. Our ancestors were the unwitting guinea pigs who had adopted customs, habits and traditions which enabled them to thrive in favor of groups following other practices. They're practices selected them. This is a notion largely overlooked if not actively rejected by the hyper-rationalistic thinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. This misconception is understandable since they were absorbed with rebelling against the traditions and constraints of religion. (They had not yet contemplated Bootism). Think of the strength and robustness of our civilization which has emerged from this process. Everyone in this society benefits from the knowledge of how to live which is embedded in habits, practices and institutions. This is a knowledge gained from the sifting and winnowing of practices over many millenium.

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle - they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. A.N. Whitehead

An incremental, limited experimental approach to change is an attempt to avoid a major mistake. I'll agree with Bret that the choices of millions of people both in their individual decisions and collectively in the political arena, are less likely to persist in disasterous error than an anoited elite. As for a vision of the anointed, no thanks. Democracy limited by constitutional constraints (assuming a half-way decent construction) is even better at avoiding persistent error. Another way of avoiding the destructive tranny of absolute power is having systems of checks and balances within governmental institutions. Yet another check is to have constraints that cause governmental, commercial, religious and civil entities compete for influence without the ability to totally dominate. My view is that if you do not have a basic understanding of the many facets of power, it's hard to understand the real world. Man is a social animal, but also a political animal.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Democratic Incrementalism to Benefit Society (DIBS)

I have a basic framework with which I view the world. I call my fundamental principals on both how to address the world's problems and even push successes further “Democratic Incrementalism to Benefit Society”.

I'll start with the “Benefit Society” part first. I believe that the primary goal of all policies, laws, morals, and ethics should be to benefit society as a whole going forward. While it often also greatly benefits society to give individuals rights such as free speech and it may possibly benefit society to give certain groups advantages, those concerns should be secondary.

Until recently, I thought that virtually all rational people subscribed to this concept. However, I was mistaken. For example, a friend of mine feels that the copyright of a book should be granted in perpetuity, even if it could be shown that society as whole would be worse off. His logic is that if you create Intellectual Property, it should be subject to the exact same rules as tangible property, because otherwise people were stealing something from you if they copied it. My view is that tangible property rights benefit society as a whole, whereas it's far less clear that long term copyrights have any benefit for society (and in fact impose a significant cost).

I'd like to comment on what I mean by the “going forward” part of benefiting society. There seems to be a growing, but not yet mainstream movement that believes there should be reparations for slavery. The basic idea would be that each black person would be paid something like $200,000 from a pool created by taking the required amount from each white person. While in some sense this could be said to benefit society by helping to right the wrongs of the past, this is not a forward looking approach to benefiting society. The distant past is gone, we need to live with it, and move forward from here.

So who gets to decide what benefits society? Well, that's where the “Democratic” part comes in. The masses get to decide what it means to benefit society. I consider our representational government adequately democratic for this purpose. A question that has been constantly asked through the ages is whether or not the masses are smart enough to know what's beneficial to society. Being one of the masses I'm pretty convinced that we are. Nearly 80% of Americans now attend college. There is information everywhere and I think the masses are very good at forming adequately sophisticated opinions. I'm thoroughly convinced that 300 million Americans are far better at deciding what's beneficial to them, their families, their communities, and this country than any possible alternative such as a group of elite telling us all what to do.

In a democracy, the majority opinion rules. Period! Well, except for little details like Bush being president when clearly he did not have the majority vote. So let me rephrase that by saying that in a democracy, the goal is that if there is a substantial majority opinion on some issue, then that opinion should rule.

One thing the rule of the majority means is that even if the world's experts form an opinion that they would like the majority of us to adopt, but that doesn't happen, then that's not the policy we should follow. For example, if the majority of Americans think that the Kyoto environmental treaty is bunk, then so be it, don't ratify it. Those who disagree can of course attempt to convince the majority, but until they do, things like Kyoto will slowly slide into obscurity.

The last part of DIBS is incrementalism. And the best example of why I think incrementalism is important is communism. Communism is, in my opinion, the single most elegant, powerful, non-religious idea ever. When I first learned about it in high-school I was totally taken in by the concept. Heck, I still am, except for one minor detail: it doesn't work. It has at best worked poorly and in many instantiations has been utterly catastrophic. Tens of millions of people were slaughtered in its name, and billions were oppressed and impoverished.

The point is not that experimenting with communism was a bad idea. On the contrary, the potential benefit in social harmony was enormous, so it had to have been tried. The bad idea was trying it on such a large scale, involving dozens of countries and billions of people. If the US and western Europe had also gone over to communism, the world may have plunged into a 2nd dark age, possibly for centuries.

If, on the other hand, only one or two countries had given it a try, the rest of the world could have watched, seen that it wasn't working particularly well, and moved on. Sure, the people of those two countries would still have been miserable, but they would've given up on the experiment after a while, with the rest of the world willing and able to help.

Looking at other potential grand projects, National Health Care comes to mind. The Clintons' program might have been (might still be) a good idea. I don't know. But what I do know is that to try that experiment nationwide would be mistake. If it doesn't work, we could all end up with really crappy health care (far worse than what we have now). I think that we should experiment with the concept in one or two states to start. In order to incent the states to take a risk, we could use federal funds to subsidize the experiment or otherwise benefit the state. Then measure, measure, measure. If the state, say Wisconsin, has a mass exodus of doctors, we might guess that the program needs some tweaking. If people and businesses flock to Wisconsin, and the costs aren't more than offsetting, it might be a deemed a success and more, larger experiments would be in order. Most likely, the indicators would be far more subtle, but they still might be measurable and quantifiable.

My enthusiasm for incrementalism begins with the question: how did the world end up where it's at? I don't mean relative to 9/11, or this specific government. I'm asking the question on a much greater scale. Did some great guru, tens of thousands of years ago have a vision that somehow planned our trajectory along the space/time continuum to the current state of affairs? I don't think so. We got here by trial and error. People over the millenia trying different things, by sheer chance, some of it worked, some of it didn't. That which worked was kept, that which didn't was forgotten.

If you loathe the current state of the world, it would make sense to assert that chance and evolution are bad, vision and planning are good (or at least it might be good if given the chance). On the other hand, I look at the world and I am awed. From my perspective the world, especially this country, especially San Diego, is complicated, fascinating, mind-boggling, stimulating, and just plain amazing. So as far as I'm concerned the trials and errors of the millenia, from which the mores, customs, legal framework, ethics, and productivity evolved all around me is simply miraculous. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

At Least We Attempt to Apply Logic

Bret, thanks, once again, for responding provocatively. I love the stimulation. Unfortunately, it seems that only you and I are active in this blog. Let's hear from you other great guys! Anything from satire to sermons to talk-show one-liners would be appreciated. I don't think that forging agreements is the goal here. Mental gymnastics, that's the name of the game.

Bret, I like your point about dire predictions rarely coming true. I'm not so sure, though, that they never do or will. For example, a few people predicted the dot-com bust which was a small to medium-sized disaster. Not many people listened, though.

As to the philosophy of the Romans, I don't see much relevance. I'm not a Roman historian, so I could be wrong on this one, but, based on my in-depth learning from the movie, "Gladiator," I think the Romans won battles mainly because of superior strategies, tactics, and discipline, with only a little help from superior weapons. Today, in terms of weapons, we are like King Kong in a world of chimps. Ironically, as we gorge on weapons, many crumbs fall off the table into the hands of those who will hurt us. These weapons, now widely dispersed, make us massively vulnerable to the point that no amount of spending on security will stop those bent on some pretty significant destruction. Intelligence can only help to a point. Our current self-reinforcing system is all about the weapons. We are so prepared for war, it's not even funny. And we are preparing our enemies as well. I'm basically of the opinion that if you invent a weapon, you'd better be prepared for it to be used on you someday.

I hate to say this, but I think there are many people associated with our current administration who do not want peace at all -- at least not until every country bends to our will -- and maybe not even then. What is our will? Is it a guarantee of cheap consumer goods, including gasoline, for our mindless citizenry, forever? Could be. There's no way I can tell because, like his father, I've never heard George W. expound anything that even remotely resembles a vision.

Which is my main beef with everything. What's the vision? If you don't know what you're trying to achieve beyond this year's military action, how can you possibly expect to achieve anything except by chance? There's certainly nothing coming out of America now that inspires people -- except, of course, those who are impressed by our endless consumerism (another "ism," which really may be the basis for our system of government). Don't get me wrong, I'm not against people buying what they want to buy with minimal government interference. But, I don't see the need to put our military might to work to make sure the prices never rise at Wal-Mart.

OK, I'll grant you, vision is a tough thing. But, at least we might ask for engagement by our leader on the world stage with other leaders. Then, just maybe, a vision for the world, which we have an unprecedented opportunity to shape, would eventually emerge. Why isn't Bush constantly meeting with leaders of other countries, one on one and in groups? Even with Kim Fucking Jong-Il for Chrissake! (I know that's not the way it's worked before Bush either, but that's no excuse.)

Here's the geopolitical aspect of the vision I would put forth:
- Peace between and within countries (this does not include common crime which, unfortunately, may be with our species forever)
- Universal self-determination for women
- Free trade (which we should lead the way on by immediately eliminating all farm and apparel subsidies; let the Europeans stand out as the only schmucks depriving poor countries from getting an economic foothold at the bottom of the productivity ladder)
- A few common principles for all justice systems (which would exclude capital punishment; there's really no value in it)
- An aggressive program to eliminate deprivation of children (food, medicine, education)

Most people would say that this vision is not realistic. But, it is certainly much less so if it is never stated. I believe it is realistic within less than two decades. The world peace part is actually much easier than people realize. Why? Because peace and cooperation, once the dynamics of violence and injustice are rooted out, is so compelling. There's a ratchet effect. For example, Western Europe, Japan, and the U.S. are very, very unlikely to go to war again (at least not under world circumstances even remotely like we have now).

With regard to a vision for our own country, perhaps I'll go into that later. But, one thing is certain, if the vision for the world is achieved, a whole lot of our domestic problems will go away.

Why are visions scoffed at? Because they are not action-oriented. Well, that's the next step. While communicating the vision -- again and again and again -- you must accurately assess the obstacles, develop measures of progress, forge plans and policies (many of them, as you've suggested Bret, initially on a small, experimental level), then implement, monitor, and adjust across relatively short cycle times (otherwise people lose track of what's going on). Not much different than the Apollo program.

The obvious argument is that the Roadmap to Peace for Israel and Palestine was a vision, and it didn't work. Why? Because it wasn't backed up by the engagement necessary of our leader to overcome all the complex obstacles. Why? Because he's an idiot who can't possibly lead people through the problems that are bound to arise. That's probably why he avoids the whole vision thing to begin with.

So, as a country, we can just keep jacking off, and hope that everything works out despite our worthless leaders.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Skepticism Regarding Universal Skepticism

I have to say that I'm skeptical about the comment that I'm universally skeptical. Nonetheless, that reminds me of a right-wing alternate verse to Imagine by John Lennon (some friends and I played the original version at a musical get together recently).

Imaging no possessions. No food or water too.
No children's toys or comforts. And there's not much to do.
Imagine all the people living in the dirt.

You may say I'm a cynic, yeah I'll admit I'm one,
I've seen great ideas ruin millions of lives, and this is just another one!


I agree with most of Jim's points, but want to add some comments (Jim's stuff in quotes):

"I may have to write a book".

Yeah, this stuff is all so complicated that to really comment in depth requires an amazing amount of effort. I'm hoping to write some mini-essays describing my basic approach which will hopefully reduce the length of my comments because I can then just refer to the background stuff. In addition, by writing, I hope to clarify my own thoughts for myself.

"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"

I might add that in addition to irrationally assigning too much value to the current system and not enough to the new, there might also be a rational component. For example, many of the "isms" of European origin (communism, fascism, etc.) promised huge social benefit but ending up being total catastrophes due to unintended consequences. Applying that difference between expectation and result to virtually any large program could cause somebody to rationally oppose it.

I'm a strong believer in incrementalism (I know, yet another "ism" but at least I wasn't born in Europe). In other words, I think we should encourage lots of small experiments to try policies out on a small scale first, and then scale them up slowly before they are tried at the national level.

"I agree with Krugman's analysis of the economic direction the country is heading."

Too much gloom and doom for me to get behind it. I feel I've been inundated with gloom and doom predictions my whole life. World War III in the 1960s (remember air-raid drills in elementary school to get ready for nuclear attack?), heading into an ice age (late 60s remember that?), American competitiveness (70s), running out of oil and other natural resources (70s), deficits (80s), river of American blood (Gulf War I 1991), quagmires (Afghanistan and Iraq), to name a few. None of them ever happened. Instead, different catastrophes happened (e.g. 9/11/2001). It's almost as if once someone (like Krugman) predicts it, it's guaranteed not to happen. Only things that aren't predicted seem to happen.

"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."

I think we're just going to disagree on this one. I believe in the old (roman?) adage: "If you want peace, prepare for war." Obviously, we didn't quite succeed at the peace part of the adage. But 9/11 was possibly partly because bin Laden didn't think we were prepared for war.

Now, I'm not claiming we should keep the defense budget at $.5T. I have no idea really what it should be.

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

I didn't see you on the California recall ballot. How come? I would've voted for you there for sure.

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.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Paul Krugman's New Book

Since Great Guy Jim Boots calls Paul Krugman the "smartest economist around", I'm looking forward to buying Krugman's new book, The Great Unraveling. It'll be a while before I get to it, but in the meantime, here is an interview with Krugman describing parts of his new book. Also, to provide some balance, here is an article criticizing the book.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Music Copyright

One of my pet peeves is that I think intellectual property laws have simply got out of hand, especially copyright and especially for music. In a recent article the economist tyler cohen writes:

"But without copyright income the artists would be deeply, deeply in debt, or more realistically would never have the chance to record in the first place."

Not strictly true for the following reasons:
1. It can cost less than $2,000 to record, mix, and master a CD, and then about $.20/copy to create the actual CDs. (I know this because I'm an "artist" who has recorded/produced 2 CDs). Thus the cost is not in the recording/producing.

2. Virtually every aspiring group records prior to having a recording contract. Do you think it's like the old days where you go in and play live for a recording industry executive and then he gives you a contract? Not how it's usually done, you get a CD to him, then they decide to see you play live. So every group records, only very few groups get the contract and get promoted.

3. Most artists are musicians and make their money playing music (that's why they're called musicians). Recording income is non-existent or a tiny fraction for all but a few groups.

Tyler also wrote:
"But if there were no copyright, it would be hard to fund a music industry at anything close to current levels."

Sure, of course, pretty much by definition. But the question is whether or not the current levels of music industry funding is providing maximum benefit to society or whether or not by modifying existing copyright law there could be greater benefit at less cost. The current costs have to include arrests of college students who illegally download music (this is very, very expensive to society any time a new class of otherwise productive citizens are labeled criminals), the impact on the development and discussion of encryption/decryption algorithms because of the DMCA, and the profits and inefficiencies of the current recording industry.

I don't think we can go to having no copyrights, but I also think that the current system is quite detrimental to society. I would like to see economists such as Tyler figure out how to measure the costs and the benefits of current Copyright law and propose experiments that could incrementally and measurably provide more benefits to society.

Bootism vs. Buddhism

Bret, thanks for doing this! While Bootism is not related to autism, it is intended to be confused with Buddhism. In fact, confusion is one of our most important products.

I will shortly respond with my rebuttal to your rebuttal of The Economist article.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Welcome to Great Guys

This is a new blog that I've created hoping to entice the Great Guys to join and add comments to. The Great Guys subscribe to "Bootism", which is an advanced yet grounded but never before revealed philosophy not at all related to autism.