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Monday, October 27, 2014

Paying for immortality

My latest at Research magazine involves how long people will live in 2030 and how long their money will last. I interview Joel Garreau about his four scenarios for longevity. Excerpt:
Small Change. In this scenario, technological advances have only modestly altered current trends in lifespans and health outcomes. Leading-edge baby boomers alive in 2030 are octogenarians and often infirm. Their kids who are in their 40s can expect to live into their 80s but face a familiar decades-long decline in health. Medical costs continue to skyrocket. According to Garreau, this is “the official Washington future regarding aging—the one many policymakers expect.” 
Drooling on Their Shoes. In 2030, under this scenario, technological advances have increased lifespans while doing far less to improve health in later life. Octogenarian boomers face decades of frailty and dementia; suicide rates among the aged have jumped. Health care costs are even more burdensome than in Small Change, increasing budget turmoil and intergenerational tension. 
Live Long and Prosper. Information technology has revolutionized health care while reducing its costs, in this 2030 scenario. Octogenarians remain active, thanks partly to what Garreau calls “Google Medicine,” a toaster-sized home appliance that analyzes spit samples to detect health changes. The first person who will live robustly to 150 is entering adulthood. Hospitals have become primarily for the less affluent, and tech-driven obsolescence threatens many health care institutions. 
Immortality. In his last scenario, Garreau raised the possibility of lifespans of indefinite duration. “Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds,” he wrote. Sufficient tech advances could boost life expectancy by one year each year, and “you have something that looks like immortality for some people.” Boomer octogenarians in 2030 have “too many hard miles on their chassis” to fully benefit, but younger people may have trouble imagining the onetime prevalence of sickness and death.
Whole thing here. My review of Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human is here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Superintelligence, simulations, etc.

There's an interesting review of Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies at the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, by piero scaruffi (whose name appears in lower case). I haven't read Bostrom's book, though I have been keeping tabs on the subject (see here and here) and found scaruffi's skeptical take on the dangers of AI intriguing. I then went to scaruffi's own site, and from now I will no longer worry, as I sometimes have, that my own blog incorporates an unduly broad range of interests; it's nothing compared to scaruffi, and I say that respectfully.

On another Bostrom-related note, I was a bit disappointed by Seth Shostak's piece "Is Life an Illusion?" which is an uncritical take on Bostrom's ideas about living in a simulation. I would've expected Shostak, who's spent decades contemplating probabilities involving alien life, to have something more sophisticated to say about efforts to calculate whether we are characters in a computer game. Years ago, I expressed some reasons for skepticism about that subject, which strike me as still making sense. (I don't, however, claim to be up to date on the technical debate over the simulation argument, and I see that Bostrom in 2011 co-wrote a "patch" for his original case.)

UPDATE: "Elon Musk: Robots Could Delete Humans Like Spam." Strikes me as not a compelling analogy, given how difficult it is to get rid of spam.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cosmic books

Current reading: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, by Caleb Scharf. So far it's quite interesting, and I have high expectations based on Scharf's work that I've read previously.

I also recently ordered and received Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, something I ought to have done a year ago and was reminded to do now by Billings' winning of a 2014 AIP Science Communications Award.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Clinton history travels

Here are my son DeWitt and my wife Brooke at Fort Montgomery, in upstate new York, today, watching a reenactment of the battle where their direct ancestor James Clinton and his brother George Clinton fought against their distant relative Henry Clinton. Grant Miller, manager of the Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, is narrating the action.

Fort Montgomery 10-5-14
And back in August we visited the Syracuse area, where I continued my Erie Canal book research. Dan Ward, curator at the Erie Canal Museum, showed us around the museum as well as Camillus Erie Canal Park, which has impressive remnants of Clinton's Ditch as well as the Enlarged Canal. We also made a preliminary visit to the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum.

DeWitt Clinton portrayal at Erie Canal Museum

Sign at Camillus Park
1842 Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, restored in Camillus Park
Dry dock at Chittenango



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Climate-related readings

Recommended: a Bloomberg View series of editorials on carbon taxes, summarized here: "Doubt Climate Change? Then Support Carbon Taxes." Also recommended: "How to love uncertainty in climate science," by Tamsin Edwards, a particle physicist turned climate scientist. And: "The Left vs. the Climate," by Will Boisvert, at The Breakthrough (published by the Breakthrough Institute). Also see: "The Musk Family Plan for Transforming the World's Energy," by Christopher Mims at WSJ.

We're in the early stages of the long-term climate politics turnaround I predicted some months ago. That's when the technological and market-oriented measures that would actually reduce climate risks become anathematized by the left as too large-scale and industrial, and are picked up--albeit all too hesitantly and reluctantly--by the right; I began scribbling out how an astute GOP politician might talk about all this a few years ago at the often-ahead-of-its-time FrumForum.

NJ Senate race revisited

Some time ago, I mentioned Jeffrey's Bell's emergence as GOP Senate candidate in New Jersey, expressing approval of his credentials as policy wonk but wariness of his apparent intention to advocate a gold standard and make it the centerpiece of his campaign.

He has indeed done so, as evidenced by this WSJ piece, "Jeff Bell Takes on Cory Booker and the Fed." If we were living in a time of high and rising inflation, such as the 1970s, I could understand the focus on extremely tight money and how to impose a straitjacket that could keep policy tight. Given that this bears no resemblance to the current situation, I can only see it as an example of a time warp in the thinking of some conservatives and free-market types. However, I take issue with Cory Booker's riposte that Bell "wants to take us back to the '70s," when as the same article points out the last vestige of the gold standard was abandoned in 1971.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Expecting more of Neil deGrasse Tyson [updated]

I'm a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and plan to be in the audience watching him speak at a conference in November. In the conflict of "conservatives vs.nerds," in which he is an extremely high-profile representative of the latter, I have stated my overall sympathy for the nerds. With regard to many of the recent complaints, mainly emanating from The Federalist, about inaccuracies by Tyson, I find most of the allegations of minor significance (about headlines involving averages, or exact numbers of grams discussed in some jury duty). But Tyson's evidently fake story about a supposed George W. Bush quote in 9/11's aftermath requires an explanation and, if it is fake as it strongly seems to be, an apology. Tyson's silence on this matter so far should be discouraging to anyone who admires him.

UPDATE: The video of the Bush story.


UPDATE 9/25: A crock of a piece by John Aziz at The Week: "Earth to climate-change deniers: Neil deGrasse Tyson's errors won't help you." Includes this gem of a "to be sure" statement:
To be sure, science is about facts, and a public advocate for science shouldn't play fast and loose with the facts, even in the interests of a snappy presentation. This will inevitably invite criticism. Tyson needs to check carefully, in the future, that the quotes in his anecdotes are factual and not a figment of his imagination. And he should apologize to those who he has misquoted.
Me: How nice. Followed immediately by this:
But at the same time, it should be said that none of Tyson's errors amount to methodological or factual errors in published scientific papers.
Me: It should be said! And what a fantastically low standard for well-known scientists to follow! And how does Aziz know that Tyson's Bush story was an "error" as opposed to a deliberate fabrication, especially when Tyson won't address it? A defense like this makes the defended look worse.

UPDATE 1:06 PM: And I just noticed this tweet from Aziz:

Which accentuates my view that Aziz's article is disingenuous posturing. When you "concede" something by wrapping it in an attack on the critics you're supposedly conceding to, and trying to downplay the significance of what you're conceding, you are engaging in the empty tribalism that passes for so much of political discourse these days.

UPDATE 9/28: An admission of error, to a degree, by Tyson, made in the comments of two Facebook posts. He says he "transposed" the quote from just after 9/11 to after the shuttle Columbia disaster. He doesn't mention that he changed the wording of the quote as well as its context and gave it a meaning it did not have. But it looks like this is far as he's going to go. A disappointing performance. Case closed.

UPDATE 10/2: Tyson's statement on this matter. While it still seems like an attempt to downplay it, there is an apology in there. It'll do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Space mining update

Recommended: "Mining in the Last Frontier," by Glenn Reynolds, about a bill now under consideration, known as the Asteroids Act. Excerpts:
The Asteroids Act is short and simple. After instructing the president and all agencies of the U.S. government to use their powers to facilitate space exploration and exploitation, it provides that "Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of federal law." In other words, if you mine it, you own it.
...
Things here on Earth aren't going so well at the moment, but we're actually in the midst of tremendous progress — most of it by private companies — with regard to human activity in outer space. The Asteroids Act is a significant step in taking things to the next level. I hope that Congress passes it.
Me: Here's hoping. I've been interested in this sort of thing for a long time, since well before this Reason piece I wrote in 1998. Sooner or later some broader framework will be needed (as I sketched out in Reason), when it comes time for, say, building hotels on the moon or other things that are not just about extraction and asteroids. Still, the Asteroids Act is a good step in the right direction (up).

UPDATE: For a different perspective (though not specifically about the Asteroids Act), see "Moon First—Mine the Asteroids Later," by Paul D. Spudis.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mideast hall of mirrors (updated)

Who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true? As in this:
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Iranian state television, said his government privately refused American requests for cooperation against the Islamic State group, warning that another U.S. incursion would result "in the same problems they faced in Iraq in the past 10 years."
Or, to get it more directly:
If true, it's a failure for U.S. diplomacy, but also not very smart on the part of the Iranians. Not just because ISIS poses an obvious threat to Iran's interests, but because there's a whole other war waiting to happen sooner or later, and here was a chance to help avert it. Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry argued a few days ago that war between Iran and Israel is all but inevitable (and put the blame largely on the Obama administration, for its actions in Libya that showed that giving up your WMD is a mistake).

I don't tend to believe in things being "all but inevitable" but certainly that Israel-Iran war scenario is only made more likely by Iranian unwillingness to cooperate even against a common, profoundly evil enemy. It undercuts the "rational actor" theory that's offered for not worrying too much about Iranian nukes. Then again, who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true?

UPDATE 9/18: Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad, speaking in New York yesterday. I've only had time to watch part of it so far, and will watch more later.


UPDATE: Watched much of it, including the end. Many interesting things, but the ending wasn't particularly in keeping with his "new thinking" theme:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The climate-foreign policy nexus [updated]

Here's some dreary news:
Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose at a record-shattering pace last year, a new report shows, a surge that surprised scientists and spurred fears of an accelerated warming of the planet in decades to come. 
Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans, according to data released early Tuesday by the United Nations’ meteorological advisory body.
Such information gets only a fraction of the attention it deserves, in no small part because many people have convinced themselves there's no problem. Amid the current international turmoil, climate change will probably get even less attention than it typically does. There is a tragic irony there, in that foreign policy problems and environmental problems are not unrelated; on the contrary, they are intimately connected by the nexus of fossil fuels.

Civilization's heavy reliance on fossil fuels is a key contributor to climate change, through the mechanism of the greenhouse effect--and at the same time is a key contributor to geopolitical trouble, through the mechanism of revenues to trouble-causing states and terrorist groups. Putin's Russia and socialist Venezuela are buoyed by fossil fuel revenues, as are numerous bad actors in the Middle East. (Fossil fuels also cause environmental and geopolitical problems in other ways, ranging from oil spills to the need to keep supply lines open by policing the Persian Gulf with aircraft carriers.)

Reducing fossil fuel reliance would make sense even if there were no climate change problem; and is an imperative given the climate issue. Lamentably, recognition of the interrelated nature of these problems is scant across the political spectrum. On the right, objection to supposed "alarmism" about the climate blinds many to fossil fuels' relevance to national-security threats that are otherwise perceived as pressing. On the left, environmental alarm is intense, but expressing concerns about fossil fuel revenues to malefactors tends to be avoided as so much saber-rattling. (The concern that climate change itself is a national security threat gets play instead, and while it is valid, it is by and large a longer-term consideration than what enemies are doing with fossil fuel revenues right now.)

Occasionally, there are hints of some concordance between "national security hawks" and "climate hawks," as they have been dubbed, but the friction of divergent world views has prevented anything like a meaningful coalition from developing. Such a coalition might press for a carbon tax and stepped-up renewable energy research, citing the full range of reasons such things make sense (including fiscal ones). Thirteen years after 9/11 and facing a new Middle East war, even as carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere and oceans, it's high time for such a coalition to take shape.

UPDATE: An interesting piece: "The Republican Party's Secret Stance on Climate Change."

UPDATE 9/10: Just came across this from a few days ago: “I don’t think we really want a commander-in-chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism.”-- Rand Paul. Note to self: Never vote for Rand Paul. UPDATE: All the more reason.

Foreign policy update

I read this Robert Kagan piece "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict" with initial interest, followed by growing boredom. Analogies to the 1930s are such a stock part of conservative foreign policy rhetoric that it's a wonder there's no app for them. Some wording about Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy being "fatalistic" also struck a tinny note. (That policy was in fact quite activist and creative, which is basically the opposite of fatalistic.) I recently expressed my disagreements with the ill-considered and poorly argued non-interventionism at Reason, but Kagan's essay is a good reminder that neoconservatism has its own formidable blinkers, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out.

What the U.S. needs is to be smarter than its enemies, or at least not manifestly dumber, and to have what's sometimes called, a bit pretentiously, "grand strategy." That strategy should include, sometimes, making common cause with enemies, against worse or more pressing enemies, and thus making judgments about which enemies can potentially be given a more benevolent status. Insofar as the U.S. is now working with Iran, or will do so, that reflects a belated recognition that sometimes governments that hate each other still have reason to work together. In the aftermath of 9/11, that recognition went by the wayside, with unfortunate consequences spilling down to the present.

Inasmuch as we do live in a period remotely similar to the 1930s, that's all the more reason why we need to be building up alliances, de facto and de jure, including in some cases with traditional enemies. If there's anything that's "fatalistic," it's assuming that this can't be done.

UPDATE: "Obama Should Play Nixon and Go to Iran."

UPDATE: "2014 Is Not 1931," though it is true, as has been noted, that Chamberlain wasn't PM in 1931 either.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Contemplating foreign policy at Reason

I've been reading the non-interventionists at Reason magazine, trying to assess what their preferred non-interventionist foreign policy would actually consist of. Here's Sheldon Richman: "Let's Have Some Honesty and Realism at the NATO Conference," explaining that the fault for the Ukraine crisis belongs to the U.S. and the West for having expanded NATO years ago, and concluding:
Yet another manufactured crisis — costing over 2,000 lives. It could be brought to a speedy end if Barack Obama would give the word.
Me: What word? What is Richman asking Obama to do? It's only implied, but apparently the answer is to expel Eastern European countries from NATO. Or is it to disband NATO altogether? (The latter would effectively follow from the former at this point anyway.) And if that means more countries would fall under the domination of an aggressive dictatorship, we should be willing to accept that, because--libertarianism. But how come a piece demanding honesty avoids saying any of that?

Also, here's Jacob Sullum complaining--rightly--that Rand Paul has flip-flopped on confronting ISIS. True enough, and one of the many dispiriting things about a Rand Paul presidency would be watching him engage in endless cartwheels between his father's positions (on domestic and foreign policy alike) and political expediency or, I would argue in some cases, sanity. Sullum states plaintively: "Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the U.S. has to solve."

What exactly would have been involved in the U.S. deciding it wasn't going to participate in a response to that problem? (It's a strawman to complain the U.S. is trying to solve that problem singlehandedly, though admittedly some hawkish rhetoric plays into that misconception.) Let's see. In early August, the U.S. could have done nothing to help the Yazidis, beseiged and starving on a mountaintop, or to arm the Kurds, whom ISIS was attacking, or to prevent ISIS from controlling the Mosul Dam (and breaking it to cause a massive flood if they so chose). Humanitarian disaster on a vast and growing scale? Not our problem, because--libertarianism.

If that policy had been followed, perhaps ISIS would've been too busy slaughtering its local enemies to turn its attention to the U.S. anytime soon. Perhaps they would have refrained from murdering two U.S. journalists who were already in its captivity. Why is murdering Americans even a casus belli?, Sullum asks. I would suggest that every U.S. administration since that of George Washington, who warned against "entangling alliances," would regard it as such, though it is true that not every murder by some despicable group begets a U.S. military response. Some contextual thinking is required.

In this case, for example, we are talking about a terrorist group and rapidly growing self-declared state that is an even more brutal offshoot of a terrorist group that has already attacked the U.S.; and which controls a large swath of territory and has major funding, including oil revenues; and exerts an ideological appeal over alienated Western thugs and sociopaths and attracts recruits with each battlefield success. Imagine if, say, in 1944 some new Nazi movement had arisen, dismissive of Hitler as not aggressive enough, and retaken the Germany-France borderland after our troops had moved through. Would that have been not our fight?

And here's Nick Gillespie a few days ago:
Despite the claims of hawks and ISIL itself, the terrorist group is hardly an existential threat to the West any more than al Qaeda was. It can and should be contained and squeezed down everywhere as much as possible (this is not something that mandates either an interventionist foreign policy or expansive security state at home).
Me: How do you contain them and squeeze them down? The non-interventionist way of doing that remains unclear to me. And if they're not an "existential threat," are they some other kind of threat? And if they become a larger threat--with say multiple cells in the U.S.--will we then be hearing it's too late to do anything about it?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fossilized dinosaur eggs or pebble bed nuclear reactor left by aliens?

Contractors laying down drainage beside our house (which is in northern New Jersey and was probably built in the 1940s) dug up hundreds of white spheres, each approximately 3/4 inch diameter.


They are of hard material and not easy to break, though we did split one with a sledge hammer. They seem to be stone, all the way through.


Folks at the Bergen County Historical Society were kind enough to give me an opinion, based on a photo and description, that these are white marbles. What do you think, Ray Haupt?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Troubled world watch

I suggested last March, as I had before amid growing international problems, that the U.S. needs a "foreign policy president," i.e., someone who knows what he or she is doing in foreign policy and who is highly focused on the subject. By 2016, I predicted, the world would be troubled enough that foreign policy will be a crucial factor in the choice of the next president.

My friend and colleague Gil Weinreich weighed in that America's culture and its academic culture in particular make it unlikely that such a president, however needed, will emerge. (Note: As always, here on my blog, I write in a personal capacity and not as a representative of any employer.) I thought he had an interesting point, but in any case I underestimated just how fast and far the world situation would deteriorate. As snapshots of such, I recommend Gil's article "U.S. Sleeps as 9/11 Approaches" and Anne Applebaum's "War in Europe Is Not a Hysterical Idea."

In fact, I have not seen the world situation ever look as dangerous and bleak as it now does, which is to say in decades. I can pinpoint the moment that I first started paying some attention to what was happening in the world: I was a kid who regularly read the sports and comics page of the New York Daily News, and then one day out of curiosity I turned to the paper's front to see what was there; it was an article about the U.S. Embassy being evacuated in Saigon.

As any readers of this blog can attest, I have not been a fan of my own party, the Republicans, in recent years, and I have tended to be averse to knee-jerk GOP criticism of President Obama. I was put off some days ago by William Kristol's complaint that Obama was doing "nothing" about ISIS when in fact Obama had ordered a bombing campaign against that metastasizing group of murderers and scum. However, in light of the vacillating and inept behavior of the president and administration in recent days (see here and here), on top of previous vacillation and ineptitude, it is evident to me that it's not just some spate of bad luck that has made the Obama second term a foreign-policy nightmare.

There can be little certainty about how things would have gone if something else had been done at some point in the past. It is an open question to me as to whether the situation in Iraq would have been better if the U.S. had negotiated an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay in Iraq (how many troops? And would their presence have meant more--or possibly less--leverage over what happens there?). Arming the Kurds and working closely with them, our most reliable allies in Iraq, seems to me a key element of what was needed, and is very belatedly happening.

Moreover, here is a consideration that should have been obvious: Once you start bombing somebody, especially vicious terrorists such as ISIS, you don't then revert to your nuanced deliberations and take the pressure off. Obama's failure to kill those bastards on both sides of the Syria-Iraq non-border, and to do it fast and relentlessly, was a misstep that will have ample opportunity to evolve into a great tragedy. The lesson should have been that if you join those thugs, there will very soon be nothing left of you. This president, it is clear, acts when circumstances force his hand. May circumstances do so, now.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Glamour update

Some time ago, I reviewed Virginia Postrel's The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. In the current issue of Research magazine, I interview Virginia on related topics for a Wall Street audience.

Monday, August 18, 2014

GOP future possibilities

A terrific article by David Frum in Foreign Affairs: "Crashing the Party: Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win." Read the whole thing if you're interested in U.S. politics and, especially, a Republican contemplating the future of your party. Excerpt:
Any aspiring center-right party hoping to succeed today must match its core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges -- and open up new possibilities.
As David later points out, in a paragraph that opens with "Conservatism should be thriving in the United States" and lists several Obama administration failings:
Instead of market mechanisms to deal with climate change, the Obama administration has ordered up a new system of bureaucratic regulation of carbon emissions.
Me: Speaking of new possibilities, there would be, in Obama climate policy, a suitable target for the GOP if the party had not become so invested in denying there's a climate problem in the first place. Perhaps more Republicans will start listening to Eli Lehrer, whose advocacy of a carbon tax is the subject of a savvy Bloomberg View piece by Christopher Flavelle. Otherwise, we'll just have to see if the coming Naomi Klein phase of the climate debate helps center-right types define themselves against the hard left, or just gives hard-right types an excuse to continue dismissing the whole subject.

In any case, I highly recommend Frum's piece, including an apt point about Bob Dole's 1996 rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Climate minus capitalism

Every once in a while I think there's some prospect that a reasonable degree of consensus will form on climate policy such that effective action can be taken. Such action, in my view, likely would consist of some combination of a carbon tax (accompanied by cuts in other taxes, but not necessarily revenue-neutral) and (partly as a consequence of that tax) stepped-up public and private research and development of advanced technologies that would reduce or counteract greenhouse gas emissions. Further, a combination of taxes on carbon-intensive imports, and international competition to be at the forefront of profitable new technologies, would spur international action along similar lines, in my hopeful vision.

Every once in a while I see signs that conservative and libertarian circles that have resisted such ideas are coming around to the imperative of taking action on climate change, as with the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and the Risky Business project. Resistance to climate solutions and to acknowledgement of human-caused climate change as a problem, is a prime reason why have I been a disaffected escapee from conservative and libertarian circles in recent years. Looking ahead, I have considered the possibility that climate politics will undergo a shift whereby the right is more willing to take action (and the left possibly becomes less willing to do so, though in my optimistic view I hope that reluctance can be overcome) as such action comes to include large-scale energy technologies and possibly geo-engineering.

But lest I get too optimistic, there's always some counter-evidence to suggest that human folly and ideology will persist far too long and far too strongly to enable the climate problem to be addressed with even a minimum of adequacy. Often, such counter-evidence comes from the right, but sometimes it comes from the left. Case in point is this post, "Everything Changes," by D.R. Tucker, which anticipates an upcoming book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Klein apparently argues, as her subtitle suggests, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between capitalism (or even more fundamentally, economic growth) and sound climate policy, and Tucker is excited to see her impact on the debate, with Klein set against people like Henry Paulson, Bob Inglis and Paul Krugman, who all take what we may call a "compatibilist" view. Tucker:
The question of whether the climate crisis can be resolved by fixing flaws in capitalism or fixing the flaw of capitalism is the most compelling political, ecological and economic question of our time. Only a debate between Klein and an advocate of the Krugman/Paulson/Inglis view can provide an answer. That debate will indeed change everything. 
Me: The "incompatibilist" view that to avoid climate disaster we must scrap capitalism and economic growth is not new (see for example this 2012 Grist post) but it is likely that Naomi Klein's book will give it a visibility it has not had previously. Probably this in turn will have some effect of hardening right-wing opposition to climate action on such grounds as "look, the greens have now acknowledged that their aim is to impose socialism and/or a reversion to a pre-industrial society without refrigerators."

Leaving aside its unfortunate impact on climate messaging, the deeper problem with the incompatibilist view is that it's wrong. It is wrong because it fails to see the disastrous record that non-capitalist and low-or-no-growth societies have compiled over the decades, centuries and millennia in managing their environmental impacts, from mammoth hunters in the Pleistocene to the Soviet treatment of the Aral Sea. It is wrong because it fails to take into account the human misery that would be involved in a deliberate suppression of economic growth, and how such a suppression would undercut prospects for remediation or adaptation in the face of climate change. (See Bangladesh.) It is wrong for thinking that a no-growth regime could be imposed by anything short of totalitarian methods and that it wouldn't ultimately be overthrown. (See Nicolae Ceaușescu.)

On a brighter note, the comments under Tucker's piece suggest that the putative incompatibilist Klein view and Tucker's provisional enthusiasm for it generated some healthy skepticism among readers at the liberal Washington Monthly, so maybe my optimism isn't misplaced after all.

Film note: The Unknown Known

This was a notably disappointing movie. Errol Morris thought he could make another The Fog of War and instead he got hours of Donald Rumsfeld saying basically nothing.



It's hard to imagine what's in the many hours of footage Morris didn't use. The filmmaker has said that he knew more about the decision to invade Iraq before interviewing Rumsfeld than after, which strikes me as plausible. I had a review of a worthwhile book about Rumsfeld here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Film note: Captain Phillips

Got around to watching Captain Phillips, which had been on the list for some time.

 

I found it impressive, though I was wondering about historical accuracy. Afterwards, I was struck by the negativity of this New York Post article "Crew members: ‘Captain Phillips’ is one big lie." This History vs Hollywood piece helps put that in somewhat better perspective; besides the good casting (a lot of these people look like the actors), it seems that the film presented a reasonable picture of what happened, even if it underplayed some of the captain's failings and overplayed his virtues. Anyway, Somali pirates in reality seem to have jumped the shark, so fortunately there may not be too much material for future movies in this vein.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Libertarian moment again [updated]

A long and reasonably interesting piece in the NYT: "Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?" I tend to doubt it, and have written on the subject from the standpoint of a fairly disaffected onetime more-or-less adherent. See, in particular, "How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?" and also "Libertarian Revolution? Not Exactly," along with David Frum's "Were the Founders Libertarians?" I have quite a few disagreements with the various strands of libertarianism today, and anticipations of a "libertarian moment" remind me of the old saying about nuclear fusion; that it's "the energy of the future--and always will be."

UPDATE: This Salon rejoinder "Ron Paul’s no Nirvana, and this isn’t the 'Libertarian Moment'" makes apt points that economic insecurity is not conducive to libertarianism and that there's no sense conflating libertarianism with disenchantment toward the two parties. Surely, some people are fed up with the Republicans because they don't like some of the more libertarian-friendly aspects of the GOP: the yearning for "hard money," for instance, or belief in making Kansas bloom with tax cuts.

UPDATE 2: Also see Chait, "No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian," which includes a dead-on rewriting of the original article's description of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

UPDATE 3: To get a sense of the repetitive and clichéd nature of "libertarian moment" prognostications, I recommend Googling "libertarian moment."

UPDATE 8/10/14: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then … well, I don't know that happens then. Here's Nick Gillespie on why non-libertarians shouldn't scoff:
It's because something new and different is in the air. You can see it in the bizarre, black-swan cashiering of politicians as varied as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the sitting Democratic governor of Hawaii (who just lost his primary). You can see it in historically low ratings not just for Congress as an institution but in the way people feel about their own representatives. Mostly, though, you can see it in the way people are living their lives beyond the puny, zero-sum scrum of politics, where people as different as Glenn Beck and Glenn Greenwald are building new forms of media and storytelling and community. Whatever else you can say about politics as bloodsport, Obama sucking even worse than Bush, etc., this much is true: People are also getting on with their lives and building new businessess, communities, and worlds in ways that are pretty damn amazing.
Me: I am highly averse to my congressman, Rep. Scott Garrett, who was an enthusiast of debt-default confrontation. There's no clear basis for assuming that if people don't like their representatives, it's because the representatives are insufficiently libertarian. In my case with Garrett, the final straw was more the opposite. I don't admire either Glenn Beck or Glenn Greenwald, but their inclusion here strikes me as suggesting that a very wide range of phenomena are being adduced as evidence for a libertarian moment or era or whatever. Also, saying there's something "in the air" makes me snort.

UPDATE 8/11/14: I'll give the final words in this post to David Frum: "Why the 'Libertarian Moment' Isn't Really Happening." An excerpt:
Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans' post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

Nor is it the strength and truth of libertarian ideas that explains their current vogue within the Republican Party. Libertarians have been most influential inside the GOP precisely where they have been—and continue to be—most blatantly wrong, such as when they predicted that the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve would incite hyperinflation or that the United States teetered on the precipice of a debt crisis.
 And another:
Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands. It synthesizes the classical liberalism of the 1860s with the human-potential movement of the 1960s. It joins elegant economic theory to the primitive insistence that only metal can be money. It mingles nostalgia for the vanished American frontier with fantasies drawn from science fiction. It offers three cheers both for thrift, sobriety, and bourgeois self-control and three more for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.  It invokes the highest ideals of American constitutionalism—and is itself invoked by the most radical critics of the American state and nation, from neo-Confederates to 9/11 Truthers.
Me: I could not agree more. You can't take the wheat with the chaff when the chaff has spread out of control. When I saw the continued and even stepped-up libertarian insistence on a gold standard in recent years in economic conditions that gave no indication whatsoever of the desirability of a gold standard, I knew that I was watching an ideology that had become divorced from "epistemological humility."