August 25, 2009
What Is The Price?
His first words are "How much time do I have?"
August 13, 2009
The Health Care Meltdown
I've been an independent contractor for the past year, and my boyfriend's been unemployed. So I've been getting acquainted with the intricacies of the US health care system outside of employer-provided care, the universe affectionately known as the Wild West. Firsthand familiarity led me to seek a bit more policy familiarity - reading some books and think tank reports, following the health reform battle as it wends its way through Congress. And I've been itching for a while to create something that I hadn't been able to find - a stark, straightforward overview of why health reform is happening and where it's heading.
This week, when the hysteria seemed to reach a fever pitch, seemed like the right time to get this project done. So starting Tuesday night, I put together a quick little site, on the order of The Money Meltdown: DeathPanels.org.
Hope you enjoy it. Please send it to your crazy grandpa.
August 5, 2009
Beyond Starbucks: Physical APIs
Some great ideas are sparking here, helped along by Robin's notion of a "Starbucks API." Noah Brier calls it a "physical API" (see also the smart comments) and Kit Eaton at Fast Company extends the concept (tongue-in-cheek) to Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter. But I like Drew Weilage's proposal at Our Own System the best:
The idea: create a "physical API"... of the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic. Copy their entire way of doing business and paste it into hospitals around the country. In a nicely wrapped package deliver their systems for decision-making, integration, coordination, and expertise. Include their human resources practices, innovation efforts, and technology. Import their employment model, their bargaining power, and of course brand recognition. This is a beta release so if anything is left out, it can be included in a later version.
Mix with water. Implement. Poof! Great health care!
Just think about it, Local County Hospital, powered by the Mayo Clinic or Our Lady Health Care System, supported by the Cleveland Clinic; it's a definite brand extender.
Seriously -- this has, potentially, amazing public policy implications. My dad, who's worked in the government for-practically-ever in Wayne County/Detroit (first at the jail, then in public health, then in lots of places), always used to stun his bosses, co-workers, everybody, because whenever they ran into a persistent problem or one they couldn't solve, he would get on the phone to people he knew in Oakland County, or Chicago, or Denver, to see how they handled it, who would in turn refer him to other people, etc.
You can get these information bottlenecks even when there's no competing interests, and nothing proprietary -- it's just hard (without an API) for people to know where or how to look.
July 15, 2009
Two Different Ways of Looking At "Simple"
Two different blog entries about health care ended up in my RSS reader at the same time. They argue for diametrically opposite positions based on what appear to be identical principles.
The worst thing about "comprehensive reform" efforts are that they shut the average citizen out of the legislative process by making bills so complicated that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen to properly evaluate whether on balance it is a wise or unwise measure. Who can predict all the effects of a 3,000 page bill spanning all manner of issues? Often times not even the legislature itself. Certainly not the press, which often focuses on bits of the legislation that won't actually have the most impact, sometimes because legislators themselves are deliberately obscuring what's actually at stake.
It's a conservative lesson: we should make "small, piecemeal improvements to public policy, rather than the kind of sweeping efforts that flatter vanities but fail citizens."
And here Ezra Klein presents an argument from a reader named Lensch, who compares the current reform bill being considered to the old Ptolemaic epicycles in astronomy:
We want a "uniquely American solution." So we have weak plans, strong plans, coops, exchanges, individual coverage, community ratings, etc., etc., etc. I still haven't seen we are going to handle the problem of people with pre-existing conditions. If we cover them, people will take out minimal insurance until they get sick and then switch. We need some more epicycles.
If Copernicus were alive today, I am sure he would say, "If you simply give everyone Medicare, you wouldn't need all this complication, and I'll bet it would be cheaper, too."
The practically radical answer turns out to be intellectually conservative; it's a back-of-the-envelope solution.
I don't think one answer trumps or refutes the other. I think there's another meaning of "simple" here, which both arguments ignore. The health care proposal floated in the House, is intellectually complex not only because it's designed to please different legislators and constituencies, but because it's designed to have a minimal impact on most people, particularly those who already have some kind of health care. If by a stroke of law, we switched everyone from private insurance to Medicare tomorrow, it would be chaos. That's why you get epicycles - because it turns out that asking the earth to move in this case might actually make it change its orbit.
And really, the same thing could be said about the plan to make Congress read their bills out loud and then take a day to deliberate about them. It would actually introduce a great number of brand-new complications into the legislative process, not just for them, but for us, particularly if we actually cared enough to pay attention. You mean, my politicians actually want me to pay attention to what they do and weigh in on complex issues and hold them accountable? Wouldn't it be easier just to complain that they're all crooks who don't represent my interests?
July 13, 2009
Ferguson/Fallows on China
This 75-minute dialogue between Niall Ferguson and James Fallows, about China and its relationship with the U.S., is nuanced, detailed, and thought-provoking.
(My view here is colored by the facts that a) James Fallows has been my favorite journalist since I started reading his Atlantic articles back in college and b) I want to somehow, somehow, learn to speak like Niall Ferguson. Scottish accent and all? I think so.)
Anyway, Ferguson and Fallows really argue here—in the way two smart people argue over dinner, not in the way that people argue ("argue") on cable news. It's always surprisingly thrilling to see people actually think on camera.
To set it up, the point they don't dispute is that, right now, the world's most important entity is "Chimerica"—the blended economies of China and America. At this point, even after the economic shocks of 2008 and 2009, they are still inseperable, and incoherent without each other.
Ferguson and Fallows disagree on what happens next. Ferguson says Chimerica is doomed, and get ready for a painful disruption. Fallows, fresh off of three years living in China, is more optimistic—he thinks the relationship is flexible, durable, and many-faceted.
I saw Niall Ferguson debate Peter Schwartz here in San Francisco, and all I gotta say is: I wouldn't want to face off with this guy across a stage. He is erudite, to be sure; but he also carries and deploys his erudition in a particularly cutting way—like an Oxford don James Bond.
Anyway, I emerged from the 75 minutes mostly on the side of Fallows—but I always appreciate Ferguson's gloomy, ultra-realist point of view. Also, Fallows follows up here.
Ordinary Everyday Crisis vs. Cartoonish Super-Crisis
California, strapped by an insane budget crisis, is issuing IOUs to its employees and creditors, and will soon likely be willing to accept these IOUs as payment for taxes and other state obligations. Nothing like a little extra-constitutional currency creation to spice up the economic picture of the U.S.A!
The Economist's Free Exchange offers this take on the consequences:
The highly uncertain long-term value of the IOUs may make anyone reluctant to accept them, preventing them from rising to de facto currency status. On the other hand, if enough people and institutions begin accepting them, Gresham's law may apply. Consumers may be anxious to hold on to dollars and spend their funny money wherever they can, until circulation is dominated by the IOUs.
But then, of course, economies that do business with California would have a demand for the IOUs, and other states—Nevada, and Oregon, say—or countries might begin accepting them. A constitutional challenge likely wipes all this out, but it is interesting to consider.
Another question—what to call them? I nominate the term "props", in honour of the ballot initiatives which landed California in this mess in the first place.
July 3, 2009
Free Book Idea: Too Big to Succeed
Tim and I had a fun Google Chat back in March about a concept for a book called "Too Big to Succeed." The window for a book on this theme to become a blockbuster is almost closed, so I figure it's time to stop hoarding the idea and make it a blog post.
The phrase "too big to succeed" has already infected the cultural lexicon this year. A quick sweep of Google shows it being applied to the banking industry, the auto industry, Twitter, big Pharma, China, and Washington, among other things.
It's a good phrase, springing up (as best as I can tell) in response to an even-more-popular recent construct: "too big to fail."
The concept of an entity or industry being "too big to succeed" deserves an extended riff. Do industries just have to congeal into tiny networks of giant institutions over time? And if so, does that tendency pretty much force the massive flameouts and market inefficiencies we've seen all over the economy recently?
I don't think this does have to happen, and therein lies the thesis of the book.
I think the era where every industry has to become an oligopoly is nearing an end. I don't think the shift towards mass institutions was a natural, inexorable network characteristic. If we look at the tape, I think we'll see that the oligopoly era was a network distortion produced by our industrial-age regulatory framework. And it's time to leave these things to a quiet rest.
In industry after industry, I think we've got an opportunity to shift our policies towards supporting nimble, durable markets that mimic real networks: diverse collections of nodes with a few particularly well-connected hubs. Let's look at a few examples:
The news industry
Over the past century, the news business went right past oligopoly into monopoly and got stuck there. Today, most of the journalism produced in every American city is an accidental byproduct of a giant, dying media conglomerate. As with all these other oligopolistic industries, the news titans are clamoring for a bailout, asking the government to prop them up and regulate away their competition.
But we can imagine a system of better, more sustainable journalism built on a robust network of independent newsrooms threaded throughout every neighborhood. Networks of editors could package this work for diverse sets of overlapping communities. In places like the Bay Area and Seattle, we're seeing the beginnings of this new model, but to thrive, it will require at least as much regulatory support as the big dogs got when they were buying their presses back in the day.
The medical industry
This was what got Tim and I started. Today, most health care is provided by big, unwieldy hospitals. They tend to cluster in these giant office parks, often far away from the inner city, where they're needed most. You walk in and have to navigate a maze of rooms, bouncing back and forth between receptionists and nurses and physician's assistants and doctors.
But the vast majority of medical care people need on a daily basis doesn't require a hospital to provide. As Tim said in our chat (punctuation mine), "There should be as many clinics as there are coffee shops, pharmacies, or copy stores. Universities do this (at least Penn does). We have a student health center; they have walk-in and appt hours, you pay a fee and it's free. They see you and administer standard care, run tests, give physicals and vaccines and such, and then refer you to the hospital or a specialist if it's more serious. You HAVE to go to the clinic if you're in Philly and it's not an emergency. And in part b/c it's a tailored operation, geared towards younger people, it's tremendously efficient."
The food industry
I just saw Food, Inc., yesterday, which might be what got me off on this riff again. If you read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, you know that Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan both identify monoculture (i.e. oligopoly and monopoly) as the primary villain in our awful global food situation. The last century saw food production shift from the local farmer to the multinational factory conglomerate. That shift is ruining our health, our environment, international diplomacy, and perhaps worst of all, our food. Meanwhile, the unbelievably obese food lobby has taken control of our government, writing intrusive laws to ensure its survival even as it crumbles under its own weight.
The movie industry
At this point, Hollywood basically exists to churn out quarterly blockbusters that each aim to repeat the formula for one blunt, universal emotion: love ("The Proposal"!), fear ("Saw XI"!), excitement ("Transformers!"), humor ("17 Again"!), etc. Nuance is lost, and art suffers. Like the food titans, the news kingpins, the health care lobbyists and others before them, the movie moguls are descending on Washington to seek protection as the twin forces of distribution implosion and supply explosion shred their profits.
But when my nephew is cooking up mindboggling special effects on his laptop, who needs Hollywood? The industry's product is unsustainable. You can't flog the formula forever. Let a universe of independent artists flourish, and overhaul the laws to help them make their magic.
We can lay this pattern onto the energy industry, the publishing industry, banking (of course), transportation, post-secondary education, you name it. If I were editing this book, I'd make that the first third, in fact: spend the preface and first chapter making the overall argument, then spend a few chapters exploring how it plays out in all these different industries. Follow up this part with a chapter laying out the history -- how this screwed-up oligopoly system took root in the first place. Trace it back to the industrial age and beyond.
The middle third of the book (I'm taking this straight from the gChat) could be about the rules of a new, more natural network system. The role of big companies in this ecosystem, what differentiates successful lean businesses from unsustainable niche businesses, how a network of microbusinesses can collaborate and compete effectively.
The last third might address how society generally would benefit, and how it would have to evolve to support this. This is where you explore the policy piece -- how our laws have to change. It's also where you talk about the Richard Florida stuff -- our evolving understanding of how properly organized urban environments should function -- and how this shift facilitates that.
Of course, as I said, I think the moment for this book is almost gone. From last September to this past January, we had a brief interlude of just transcendent possibility. Monumental shifts in our society seemed graspable. People talked about spending a trillion dollars over just a few years to fundamentally remake our economy, and we actually passed a stimulus package that got closer than anybody imagined.
But we're seeing that ambition melt quickly. We're on the verge of historic health reform legislation, sure, but now we're choking on a price tag of $1 trillion over 10 years, regardless of how much it saves us over the long term. Our chance to achieve forceful climate change legislation is dimming by the day. And our September lust to reform the banking industry has molded over into a desire to, er, re-form the banking industry, in much the same shape as it was in 2001 or so.
There was a window where a big, Gladwellian book selling this notion of industrial transformation -- not as some sort of hippie anti-corporatism but as a breakthrough business idea -- might have made some traction. But I think that window's almost shut. So this book is, for now, a blog post.
File under: Business, Cities, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture
June 8, 2009
SimCity... Actually a Terrible Simulation
The blog Human Transit outlines the ways in which the original SimCity -- the one I spent the most time playing -- codified a now-outmoded planning orthodoxy:
In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing -- in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning.
But, let's not not pick on a decades-old video game. Let's imagine a new Sim-something instead -- one that codifies the values we thing are important today, in 2009.
How about SimRegion? It would be all about region-wide transportation infrastructure, water management, food production (big emphasis on that), migration, and more. Hmm. That sounds educational. And boring.
Maybe SimSocialNetwork. Forget geography. This one's all about tending an online garden of weak ties and attention-feeds. (I'm not being sarcastic. I think, abstracted in the right way, this could actually be fun and instructive.)
Or how about some kind of bifurcated simulation: SimHealthCareSystemAndIndividual. One side's macro, the other's micro. You play both, and see how decisions on one side affect the other. I like the sound of that, actually. The trick with any social simulation is that, inevitably, the way you design it says a lot about how you view the world. So the micro/macro sim would play up that tension; the models might even be designed to sort of "fight" each other. SimBourgeoisAndProletariat.
(Via Noah Brier.)
File under: Snarkonomics, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Video Games
May 25, 2009
The Soul of American Medicine
If I ever meet Atul Gawande, I'm giving him a high-five, a hug, and then I'm going to try to talk to him for about fifteen minutes about why I think he's special. From "The Cost Conundrum," in the new New Yorker:
No one teaches you how to think about money in medical school or residency. Yet, from the moment you start practicing, you must think about it. You must consider what is covered for a patient and what is not. You must pay attention to insurance rejections and government-reimbursement rules. You must think about having enough money for the secretary and the nurse and the rent and the malpractice insurance...
When you look across the spectrum from Grand Junction [Colorado] to McAllen [Texas]—and the almost threefold difference in the costs of care—you come to realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. Somewhere in the United States at this moment, a patient with chest pain, or a tumor, or a cough is seeing a doctor. And the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.
There is no insurance system that will make the two aims match perfectly. But having a system that does so much to misalign them has proved disastrous. As economists have often pointed out, we pay doctors for quantity, not quality. As they point out less often, we also pay them as individuals, rather than as members of a team working together for their patients. Both practices have made for serious problems...
Activists and policymakers spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about whether the solution to high medical costs is to have government or private insurance companies write the checks. Here’s how this whole debate goes. Advocates of a public option say government financing would save the most money by having leaner administrative costs and forcing doctors and hospitals to take lower payments than they get from private insurance. Opponents say doctors would skimp, quit, or game the system, and make us wait in line for our care; they maintain that private insurers are better at policing doctors. No, the skeptics say: all insurance companies do is reject applicants who need health care and stall on paying their bills. Then we have the economists who say that the people who should pay the doctors are the ones who use them. Have consumers pay with their own dollars, make sure that they have some “skin in the game,” and then they’ll get the care they deserve. These arguments miss the main issue. When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no more difference than changing who pays the electrician. The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes.
File under: Cities, Recommended, Science, Snarkpolicy
April 27, 2009
Google: The World's Medical Journal
A good anecdotal lead. Carolina Solis is a medical student who did research on parasitic infections caused by contaminated well water in rural Nicaragua.
Like many researchers, she plans to submit her findings for publication in a medical journal. What she discovered could benefit not just Nicaraguan communities but those anywhere that face similar problems. When she submits her paper, though, she says the doctors she worked with back in San Juan del Sur will probably never get a chance to read it.
"They were telling me their problems accessing these [journals]. It can be difficult for them to keep up with all the changes in medicine."
Washington recently got involved. Squirreled away in the massive $410 billion spending package the president signed into law last month is an open access provision. It makes permanent a previous requirement that says the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research free of charge in an online archive called PubMed Central. Such funding comes largely from the National Institutes of Health, which doles out more than $29 billion in research grants per year. That money eventually turns into about 60,000 articles owned and published by various journals.
But Democrats are divided on the issue. In February, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., submitted a bill that would reverse open access. HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, would prohibit government agencies from automatically making that research free. Conyers argues such a policy would buck long-standing federal copyright law. Additionally, Conyers argues, journals use their subscription fees to fund peer review in which experts are solicited to weigh in on articles before they're published. Though peer reviewers aren't usually identified or paid, it still takes money to manage the process, which Conyers calls "critical."
And cultural/generational change:
The pay-to-play model doesn't jive with a generation of soon-to-be docs who "grew up Google," with information no farther than a search button away. It's a generation that never got lost in library stacks looking for an encyclopedia, or had to pay a penny for newspaper content. So it doesn't see why something as important as medical research should be locked behind the paywalls of private journals.
Copyright issues are nothing new to a generation that watched the recording industry deal its beloved original music sharing service, Napster, a painful death in 2001. Last October, it watched Google settle a class-action lawsuit brought on by book publishers upset over its Book Search engine, which makes entire texts searchable. And just last week, a Swedish court sentenced four founders of the the Pirate Bay Web site to a year in prison over making copyrighted files available for illegal file sharing. And now the long-familiar copyright war is spilling over into medicine.
There's even WikiDoc
And, the article doesn't mention this, but I'll contend there's a role for journalism to play. Here's a modest proposal: allow medical researchers to republish key findings of the research in newspapers, magazines, something with a different revenue structure, and then make it accessible to everyone. Not perfect, but a programmatic effort would do some good.
Speaking of which -- what are the new big ideas on the health/medicine beat? This is such a huge issue -- it feels like it should have its own section in the paper every day.
File under: Journalism, Science, Snarkpolicy, Worldsnark
April 26, 2009
Finding Würde in America
Been recently fascinated with learning more about health care, reading a lot of Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn, catching up on essays by the likes of Paul Krugman and Atul Gawande. And the best thing I've read so far is this wonkish-but-accessible interview with health care policy super-couple Uwe Reinhardt and Tsung-mei Cheng. The interview teases out a number of distinctive policy critiques and ideas that aren't surfaced in most of the layperson-friendly health policy lit I've come across, like this point about the oft-derided drug company profiteers:
If you look at total drug company profits in a given year, of every retail dollar sale, drug companies who manufacture the stuff get 75 cents. And of that, they make 16, 15 percent profit. So if you multiply that out, we have about $220 billion in drug sales; that's about, say, $25 billion in profits. Now, that is a lot; you can buy two Princetons for that. However, if you then divide $25 billion through $2.2 trillion in national health spending, you get 1.2 percent; that is, drug company profits are 1.2 percent of total national health spending.
This was from Frontline's excellent "Sick Around the World" documentary, where they profiled the health care systems of five developed countries and compared them to the US system. See also: Frontline's follow-up, "Sick Around America." (Note: T.R. Reid, the correspondent on "Sick Around the World," refused to participate in "Sick Around America" after he found that the producers shafted the option of single-payer health care in the final edit.)
April 1, 2009
Every Library Is A Lighthouse
Bad times do strange things to free, public places, especially those with internet access:
Urban ills like homelessness have affected libraries in many cities for years, but librarians here and elsewhere say they are seeing new challenges. They find people asleep more often at cubicles. Patrons who cannot read or write ask for help filling out job applications. Some people sit at computers trying to use the Internet, even though they have no idea what the Internet is.
“A lot of people who would not normally be here are coming in to use the computers,” said Cynthia Jones, a regional branch manager in St. Louis.
“Adults complain a lot about kids just playing games and you know, ‘I need to do a résumé, or ‘I need to write, I need some help,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “There’s a bit of frustration.”
Ms. Jones instructed her staff to tread carefully. “You don’t want to upset people,” she said. “You don’t know what might set somebody off.”
Philadelphia recently had a long and torturous go-round over proposed library closings. The idea I floated among my small and relatively uninfluential circle was to keep the libraries open and move other public/social services into space at the libraries and close THOSE buildings.
I still think this is a good idea, especially once you grant the notion that libraries are a place to access public information of all kinds, not just those found in books. If libraries are where people are coming for help, then that's where we should go to reach them. Every library is a lighthouse, a city's or town's beacon to guide the way in the night.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Snarkpolicy
March 23, 2009
There's Solitary and Then There's Solitary
The other day, a group of my friends, including two other PhDs, discussed the high rate of depression among graduate students. "It's the stress," one said; "the money!" laughed another. But I made a case that it was actually the isolation, the loneliness, that had the biggest effect. After all, you take a group of young adults who are perversely wired for the continual approval that good students get from being in the classroom with each other, and then lock them away for a year or two to write a dissertation with only intermittent contact from an advisor. That's a recipe for disaster.
So I read Atul Gawande's account of the human brain's response to solitary confinement with an odd shock of recognition:
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the 'soul-destroying loneliness,' as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact...
[After years of solitary, Hezbollah hostage Terry Anderson] was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, "The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There's nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind's gone dead. God, help me."
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he'd made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
But here's the weird part -- all of this isolation actually serves to select for a particular personality type. This is especially perverse when solitary confinement is used in prisons -- prisoners who realign their social expectations for solitary confinement effectively become asocial at best, antisocial generally, and deeply psychotic at worst.
Everyone's identity is socially created: it's through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can't handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. "And those who have adapted," Haney writes, "are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting."
I think we just figured out why so many professors are so deeply, deeply weird.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Recommended, Science, Snarkpolicy
March 17, 2009
Twelve Angry iPhones
Pretty sure this is what you call a conceptual scoop:
The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country, upending deliberations and infuriating judges.
Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment against it after a juror used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.
Suuuper interesting. Great work by John Schwartz and the NYT.
January 30, 2009
Smart Growth vs. Dumb Growth
I'm a sucker for a big reframing, and this is about as big as they come: Umair Haque says everybody's wondering how to re-ignite economic growth, but that's the wrong question. We need to be wondering how to re-invent economic growth.
December 29, 2008
Tim reminded me that Bangladesh is having elections again after a long hiatus from democracy.
Ah, Bangladesh. The candidates this time around are the same two candidates they've had for about 20 years: one the daughter of a murderer Bangladeshi politician, the other the wife of a murdered Bangladeshi politician, each now a titan in her own right.
It'd be great real-life Shakespeare if it wasn't such a drag for Bangladesh: Neither has proven to be much good for the country.
Can somebody put BRAC in charge already?
December 11, 2008
The 21st Century Capitalist
For years now, Umair Haque has been arguing that the core of the global economy is bad -- and that it's much deeper than sketchy mortgages. It has to do with decades-old assumptions about strategy and even older delusions about value. (Here's a good example of how he thinks.)
It's always cold comfort to be proven right when your argument is so apocalyptic -- but Haque is more than a Pandora. He's got prescriptions, too.
Whether Haque has got all the answers, I can't judge; but man, I really appreciate the fact that he is thinking about things in such an original way -- using different language, and fighting for a different conventional wisdom.
December 3, 2008
Health Care Reading
All posted by Ezra Klein at some point or another:
- The Health of Nations: Klein's 2007 round-up of European health care systems.
- The Evidence Gap: "The institute, known as NICE, has decided that Britain, except in rare cases, can afford only £15,000, or about $22,750, to save six months of a citizen’s life."
- Our Invisible Poor: The essay that inspired JFK to declare war on poverty.
November 3, 2008
The Politics of Food
We all know I'm a giant fan of Michael Pollan, and his recent NYT Magazine piece is no exception, containing a bevy of ideas for how the next President can transform U.S. food policy. But it seems to me his locavore-cheerleading and attacks on factory-farm monoculture are in direct conflict with the claims Paul Collier makes in this month's Foreign Affairs.
Two parts of Collier's thesis - that we should promote factory farms in developing countries and work to overcome Third-World opposition to GM foods - seem to run counter to Pollan's ideas. (They agree on a third argument - that US farm subsidies are wack.) Re-reading Pollan's article after reading Collier's, I'm struck by how quickly Pollan glosses over the effects of his policy recommendations in the developing world. (A characteristic line: "To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t.")
Where the two seem to be especially in conflict is in Collier's total disdain for what he calls "peasant agriculture," or what Pollan might call "sustainable farming."
As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.
The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture. With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. ... But [...] given the chance, peasants seek local wage jobs, and their offspring head to the cities. This is because at low-income levels, rural bliss is precarious, isolated, and tedious. The peasant life forces millions of ordinary people into the role of entrepreneur, a role for which most are ill suited. In successful economies, entrepreneurship is a minority pursuit; most people opt for wage employment so that others can have the worry and grind of running a business. And reluctant peasants are right: their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source. Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families.
I'm tempted to call it a wash and seek some sort of half-hearted journalistic middle ground, but I sense there's some nuanced truth somewhere in here that should be sussed out, and I'm not sure who to believe. I've gotta say Robin was right, a "great reconciliation" is in order.
Anyone got a link to the equivalent of a Pollan/Collier online cage match I could read?
October 1, 2008
The Money Meltdown
August 30, 2008
If you haven't already, definitely check out Josh Marshall's recently [re?]posted interview with Joe Biden from summer '04. Fascinating. A snippet, from when Biden describes meeting Qaddafi shortly after the announcement of the dismantlement deal:
I said, "Yeah, why, why the change of heart?" And he says, "The real question is" -- through an interpreter -- "The real question is, why did we get off this way, why did you sanction me in the first place?"
I looked at him and said, "That's easy. You're a terrorist." I didn't mince, I said, "You are a terrorist." I said, you know I leaned to him and said, "You've engaged in supporting terrorists. Matter of fact, you blew up 35 of the kids who went to my alma mater along with another hundred or so people. You're a terrorist, that's why."
He sits there and he goes like this, he goes, "That's logical." (laughs) I mean the guy was great! And I said, "So, Okay. Tell me why." And he went, Well -- I'm paraphrasing -- "Nuclear weapons didn't help you very much in Vietnam, they didn't help you in Iraq and if I ever used them you'd blow me away."
August 24, 2008
Richard Just's lengthy explanation of why Darfur is still engulfed in genocide five years after it caught the world's attention is the most spellbinding, heartrending thing I've read in quite a bit. A surprising brew of circumstances have paralyzed us from stopping this tragedy, departing from the Problem from Hell template in a few key particulars. Do take a look.
July 15, 2008
It's the Ecosystem, Stupid
Enjoyed the new post from Umair Haque about corporate strategy. Here's the salient bit:
Perhaps the meaning of competitive advantage, when all the games have been played and the gears of the economic machine have finally stopped moving, is this: privatize benefits and socialize costs.
That might have been sustainable in a disconnected, asset-heavy industrial economy. But it cannot hold in a hyperconnected edgeconomy. When all of us can trade ten billion times a day, if everyone's simply trying to claim benefits from everyone else, while shifting costs and risks to everyone else, the result is economic implosion.
One of the big deficits implicit in Umair's critique is long-term thinking. This is almost a cliche by now -- the tyranny of quarterly earnings statements, etc., etc. -- but that doesn't make it any less true. Zero-sum strategy gets a quicker return, and often, it feels more like progress. Non-zero-sum strategy takes longer, feels riskier -- because you see other people growing too! Jeez! Are they winning? Why aren't we winning? -- but pays out better for everybody in the end.
So the question (which I have not even a single speculative answer to) is: How could we craft markets to better reward long-term, non-zero-sum strategy?
June 24, 2008
Monthly Payments on the American Dream
I want to talk about home ownership!
Paul Krugman is back in top form with a column that reminds me why I'm a Krug-fan in the first place.
It's about the huge preference that U.S. policy expresses for home ownership vs. renting. Krugman goes through all the micro-scale concerns -- including a great comparison that likens buying a house to buying stocks on margin -- but then there's an interesting macro-perspective:
Owning a home also ties workers down. Even in the best of times, the costs and hassle of selling one home and buying another -- one estimate put the average cost of a house move at more than $60,000 -- tend to make workers reluctant to go where the jobs are.
So at the societal scale, do strong policy incentives for home ownership create, on the whole, a less mobile workforce? I think that's interesting and worth talking about! On one hand, it's obviously good to support people as they put down roots and become a more permanent part of a community. On the other hand, it's 2008, and the economic map of the U.S. is changing fast!
Very curious about any questions, ideas, rants, links, etc. on home ownership out there. (Living in San Francisco, the issue is entirely academic, so my aim is to live vicariously through the snarkmatrix.)
February 4, 2008
Just Because We Can ...
danah boyd writes a typically thought-provoking post on the prospect of exposing users' "Social Graphs," a meme that's been heating up recently. Quick backstory in case you didn't know: Google and a bunch of techy types want to make it so you can easily port your identity and contacts to any application on the Web. The advantages include easier sign-ups for different Web applications, no longer having to maintain the same information in a bunch of different places, quickly finding any contacts who are using an application you just signed up for, etc. Those of us with MySpace/Facebook/Friendster/LinkedIn/Flickr/vita.mn/etc. accounts are planning to be, for the most part, happy.
But danah makes the good point that those stumping for this move are all tech-savvy people who mostly have no idea of what the repercussions will be for some of the most vulnerable heavy users of the Web -- teens. A typical argument in favor of more open data refers to what Tim O'Reilly calls "security by obscurity" -- i.e. we have the illusion we're secure just because all our data is usually tucked out of the way, but this is patently false, as any reporter could tell you. Exposing public data more commonly means fewer people will harbor this false sense of security, ostensibly making them more directly conscious of how they manage their personal data. But as danah points out, it could be an awfully risky way to make a point.
October 23, 2007
A Good Hour
So I've mentioned Larry Lessig's new ten-year project on corruption before. Now I just finished watching his inaugural "alpha" lecture on the topic and it was terrific. An hour long, but well worth it, both for a glimpse of Lessig's cool, patchwork presentation style -- I'd heard it was great but never actually seen Lessig-slides in action -- and also for the framework he provides. He is an A+ presenter and an A++ thinker, and this is an A+++ subject.
September 29, 2007
American Stakeholders, Part II
Remember this spring, when I was gushing about the American Stakeholder Act ($6,000 given to every child at birth for capital investments)? Apparently, no less bright a light than Hillary Clinton is all over the idea. Awesome. I wonder if the New America Foundation is working some kind of Manchurian Candidate-fu?
September 12, 2007
China and Taiwan
Tim Johnson has notes on some new developments involving a proposed referendum in Taiwan.
He links to a speech by Thomas Christensen, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. I actually found it a fascinating read: pure diplomacy, totally scrubbed clean, and yet with a surprising amount of frank realpolitik. (Frankpolitik?)
September 11, 2007
We Can Imagine a Better Democracy
Sure, they're just words, but even so: Nice words. From UK prime minister Gordon Brown, via the civic-minded Peter Levine:
At this point, Brown begins to outline practical ideas for increasing citizen voice in policy. "We have already taken the step of publishing the legislative programme in draft, inviting comments and views, and for the last six months I have been discussing and working through how to do in a more consultative way that involves people in debating the issues that matter -- drugs, crime, antisocial behaviour, housing development or even foreign policy issues like Iraq where there are public discussions."
The first step will be to "hold Citizens Juries round the country. The members of these juries will be chosen independently. Participants will be given facts and figures that are independently verified, they can look at real issues and solutions, just as a jury examines a case. And where these citizens juries are held the intention is to bring people together to explore where common ground exists."
Brown explains that "Citizens Juries are not a substitute for representative democracy, they are an enrichment of it. The challenge of reviving local democracy can only be met if we build new forms of citizen involvement to encourage them in our local services and in new ways of holding people who run our services to account. So we will expand opportunities for deliberation, we will extend democratic participation in our local communities."
The Citizen Juries sound similar to deliberative polling, an idea I've always liked. Honestly though, we don't even need anything as formal and involved as all that to get better at democracy. A little more openness would go a long way, along with a corps of legislators more interested in communicating than... whatever it is they're interested in now.
It's totally possible, especially if the internet keeps sort of reformatting social assumptions at the same rate it has been, but it is a project on the scale of a generation. Things won't magically get better in 2008. (Well: No, actually they will. But that's only because things are so bad right now. There will still be lots of work to do. Insert analogy about a house with leaky plumbing and bad insulation, but also, the roof's on fire, etc.)
September 5, 2007
Measuring Development (Maybe Defining It First)
Apropos of a few email threads lately, here's a passage from Charles Mann (who wrote the book "1491") quoted by Matt Yglesias (emphasis mine):
David Aviles, Ian Ebert and Lauren Tombari all ask (to quote Mr Aviles), "If [Indians] had such a large population, why hadn't they developed as much as other countries?" The answer to this very important question is complicated, but part of it surely is that evaluating relative levels of technological development is not so easy, and that it isn't at all clear that native peoples were less developed in this area than Europeans or Asians. As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure "progress" in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them -- Indians didn't have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It's hard to say which view is correct.
This is a really good point, and I am guilty as charged re: judging development in terms of the things we're good at.
But seriously, I am really guilty, and I can't even think of kinds of technology other than ours (computers, hybrid cars, plasma TVs, DNA sequencers, etc.) worth having or developing in the world today. The best I can muster is something about the ingenuity of the billion-or-so slum dwellers the world over -- e.g. they can make water purification systems out of rusty buckets and plastic tarps! -- but I don't really believe it deeply. Or rather, that stuff is cool, but I think they ought to (and do) ultimately aspire to computers and DNA sequencers too!
So whatcha got for me, Snarkmatrix?
September 3, 2007
The Sheltered Star
To a nation hitherto self-contained and confident, the new responsibilities do not come easily. We have never bothered to understand alien ideas ('isms' were something to fear or deride), and 'selling America' had simply meant dispensing American largesse. We now see the extent of our involvement and the vulnerability of our talismans: natural resources and 'know-how.' We see that world problems are not merely American problems writ large, that it will take more than a little common sense and a few 'man to man' talks with the Russians to solve them. Finally, we can appreciate the degree to which our strengths and weaknesses as a people have been conditioned by the American past, how we have been blessed and victimized by our history. Because of our wealth and isolation and our vast inland empire, because of the advantages we have enjoyed as a result of European rivalries, we did not develop some of the qualities and abilities we now so desperately need.
Written in 1952.
It's just one salient bit from the latest edition of David Warsh's Economic Principals -- definitely worth a read. The last two grafs in particular are pretty tremendous.
August 30, 2007
The Arc of the World
Dan just emailed me a link to this video of Hans Rosling from TED. I'd seen his Gapminder data visualizer before, of course -- but his actual talk is really really good, and made me want to go play with it again. Which I just did.
Dark, Ethereal, Floating Heavenward
A major challenge in economic policy is figuring out how to make people "see" externalities -- the costs of their decisions that they don't directly pay for, but instead pass on to society as a whole.
Well, what if every externality was a black balloon?
August 27, 2007
Contingency and Counterfactual
Dani Rodrik, in the closing of a post on historical determinism and development:
This may seem discouraging if you are interested not only in understanding the world, but also in changing it. On closer look, though, [Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson]'s historical determinism leaves plenty of room for human agency and policy choices to make a difference, as I have argued here. Statistically, plenty is left unexplained by historical factors.
Ha. Neat. I sort of like that: We get to be the error term.
Related: My train reading these days is Virtual History, a collection of counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson. Fun discovery: To spin an even mildly convincing counterfactual, you have to make sure the fundamental facts leading up to your branch-point are really solid. So oddly it's in the fake-history book that I'm learning about all these real events (a lot of World War II stuff, etc.) in more detail than I ever have before. I think Ferguson and other fans of counterfactual would say yes, that's the point.
Just discovered: Philip Tetlock, the terrific Berkeley researcher I saw give a Long Now talk on experts and forecasting earlier this year, also has a book of counterfactuals! Why was I not told of this earlier??
Psst: Any favorite what-if scenarios?
August 19, 2007
On the Ground
Seven U.S. infantrymen and non-commissioned officers finishing up a 15-month tour in Iraq have written an op-ed describing the situation there as they see it. It's a must-read.
August 11, 2007
The Challenge of Authoritarian Capitalism
Argh! Must read this Foreign Affairs article! But it is available only to paying subscribers! Oh well -- the blockquote's pretty good on its own:
Today's global liberal democratic order faces two challenges. The first is radical Islam -- and it is the lesser of the two challenges. Although the proponents of radical Islam find liberal democracy repugnant, and the movement is often described as the new fascist threat, the societies from which it arises are generally poor and stagnant. They represent no viable alternative to modernity and pose no significant military threat to the developed world. It is mainly the potential use of weapons of mass destruction -- particularly by nonstate actors -- that makes militant Islam a menace.
The second, and more significant, challenge emanates from the rise of nondemocratic great powers: the West's old Cold War rivals China and Russia, now operating under authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, regimes. Authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945. They have been absent since then. But today, they seem poised for a comeback.
Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy's ultimate victory -- or future dominance.
The EU is also a noteworthy model. It's of course not authoritarian by any stretch, but it's not exactly democratic, either.
The question will soon be posed: Do we favor democracy simply because it is effective? Or do we favor it because it is, in some deeper sense, right? And are we willing to defend the latter proposition even if the first is subverted -- that is, even if nondemocratic systems demonstrate equal or greater effectiveness?
Not well-worded, but perhaps you get the idea.
My answer to the latter question, for the record, is yes. And you?
August 6, 2007
Law ~ Code
This is blowing my mind: Here's what it looks like when you apply the same visualization scheme to Project Gutenberg, the Windows kernel, and the U.S. Code.
Guess which two look the same?
Terrific conversation in the comments, too.
July 20, 2007
The Google Grid, Broadcasting at 700MHz
Google has committed to bid for wireless spectrum -- as much to influence the direction of the market as to, you know, own spectrum (or so it seems).
And, good news: The direction they want to push it is towards openness.
These days, I find myself less worried about Google's techno-titanic mastery of all data and more excited about its potential as a force for change in public policy and markets. I'm actually really glad they're getting into that game.
Subscribe to Dani Rodrik
It is stretching my undergrad econ to its limits to understand this post on African economic growth from Dani Rodrik -- and I am using that as an excuse to remind you that he is now writing a blog. His is really a terrifically smart, sane voice to have available unfiltered.
July 11, 2007
From a tipster: Peripheral Landscapes, an exposition -- in hot motion graphics format -- of Mexico City's recent history and informal economics. Starts out better than it ends, but pretty rad all the same.
Compare/contrast: the Pulp Fiction typography video.
The Carbon Tax
Because, you know, everyone has been emailing me asking what I think about a carbon tax. Um.
July 3, 2007
China: Holy shmoley.
I'm no Bill Kristol and a fax machine but honestly I'm kinda weirded out by the vision of a world where America is not le hyperpuissance. Not because I think it's bad... just because I think it's weird.
Update: James Fallows has some good China notes. Favorite part:
A few months ago in his annual press conference for foreign journalists, Premier Wen Jiabao indeed said that democracy was the inevitable future for his country. He just said it might take a century or so to arrive.
June 28, 2007
Down With Values
Props to Ezra Klein for coming out swinging:
I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon "the idea that is America." I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.
In fact, I'm fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse.
His column is keyed to a new foreign policy book by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It's all about the responsible application of American values to world affairs; but Klein says:
The problem with Slaughter's vision, which I generally found myself in enthusiastic agreement with, is that the only one I trust to carry it out is, well, Slaughter. And possibly me.
What Klein wants is foreign policy proposals that focus on material outcomes -- not moral origins. We've had enough of the latter lately.
What timing! I'm going to see Francis Fukuyama speak tonight. He's going to revisit and re-appraise his argument from The End of History and the Last Man -- parts of which formed some of the deepest framework for the neocon misadventure. Expect a full report.
June 27, 2007
Greenwich Office vs. Palo Alto Garage
Interesting pair of posts here.
In response to a student's question about the social value of a Wall Street career, economist Greg Mankiw argues replies that yes, investors make a big contribution to society by making the economy more efficient.
The comment thread that follows is insanely good. Very long, and very detailed, but worth a look. I thought this was the gem:
The "invisible hand" works great when it is forcing productive firms to be more efficient.
However, some activities in our complex economy don't directly produce anything -- some portions of litigation, advertising, lobbying, and stock analysis simply shuffle existing production. In these cases, profit maximizing firms aren't automatically controlled by the invisible hand.
Prof Mankiw's student is correct in asking whether one more worker in those areas will really help grow the economic pie.
Economists can find positive externalities in any of these activities. Probably the first million hours of stock analysis (or litigation, or ...) provides an efficiency gain that justifies the deployment of those talented individuals. But that doesn't guarantee that the last million is a net positive.
The "deployment of talented individuals" angle is important. Over on his blog, Robert Reich also hits it (I feel like he must have read Mankiw's post, though he doesn't mention or link to it, so, uh, maybe not):
America is the greatest entrepreneurial nation in the world. But there are really two kinds of entrepreneurs here – product entrepreneurs and financial entrepreneurs –and only one of them truly builds the economy. Product entrepreneurs find new ways of satisfying customers. Financial entrepreneurs find new ways of ... well, making money off money.
Problem is, financial entrepreneurship is becoming more and more dominant in the economy. Thirty years ago, finance was the handmaiden of American industry. Now industry is run by finance. For every budding Steve Jobs or Bill Gates there are now thousands of aspiring private equity or hedge fund managers. That’s because this is where the big bucks are. Which means, it’s where some of our most talented young people are going.
The problem isn’t just the brain drain. It’s what the brains are being used for. Competition in the real economy generates better products. But competition in the financial economy is often a zero-sum contest.
"Now industry is run by finance" -- that's an interesting claim and takes the conversation into (I think) more useful territory.
Note that I have no smart ideas or opinions about this. Just starting to wonder about it.
P.S. The next post is about Muppets.
June 24, 2007
- Chinese Mirrors by Rick Perlstein in The Nation. Multi-book review (the best kind) with a special focus on James Mann's new book The China Fantasy. Mann's last book, The Rise of the Vulcans, about the original Bush/Cheney foreign policy team, was almost unbelievably good, so I am excited to read this one at some point.
- China Makes, The World Takes by James Fallows in The Atlantic. I know it's lame to link to a subscriber-only article, but... I don't know... email me and I'll send you a copy or something. It's reporting in the truest sense: Rather than refer to GDP statistics, or talk to "experts," Fallows goes to Shenzhen and hangs out in Chinese factories. He describes characters and scenes I'd never have imagined. Any time somebody actually does this, it reminds you how, er, rarely it gets done. Worth noting that Fallows comes away from his investigation with a fairly positive view.
(I have a special fondness for Fallows, as his pieces in The Atlantic were some of the first "Big Ideas journalism" I ever read, and pretty much cracked my head wide open circa 1998-99.)
- My Time as a Hostage, and I'm a Business Reporter by David Barboza in the NYT. The lead:
AS an American journalist based in China, I knew there was a good chance that at some point I'd be detained for pursuing a story. I just never thought I'd be held hostage by a toy factory.Via Dani Rodrik's excellent blog.
June 22, 2007
A New Star to Follow
Larry Lessig has a post up where he announces a new direction for his research and activism. The substance is super-interesting -- he's going to focus on corruption of the political process, in a broad sense, rather than copyright policy -- but so is the format.
I love the idea of so consciously staking out a direction -- of so publicly announcing a new set of questions. His post has this almost odd specificity to it:
[...] I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues: Namely, these. "Corruption" as I've defined it elsewhere will be the focus of my work. For at least the next 10 years, it is the problem I will try to help solve.
He explains that he's been doing copyright policy for ten years; he feels he's learned all he's going to about that set of questions, and kicked off a powerful movement; and now it's time to start over.
As Lessig defines it in his post, corruption is the central problem in our political system today: Its inability (our inability?) to acknowledge broadly-agreed-upon facts and act appropriately. See: "An Inconvenient Truth, "The Assault on Reason." (Indeed, Lessig says Al Gore is one of the people who inspired this new direction.)
But I lost track of my original point: Even if his new focus was milkshake policy, I'd be impressed by the sharpness of his shift, by the stark statement of new goals. For those of us with a million thoughts and links buzzing around in their brains, all mostly just looping in on each other (clearly I am talking about Matt here), it's a good model to consider.
June 12, 2007
US Map of the World
This map displays US states renamed as foreign countries with similar GDP. California, for example, is re-christened France (whose GDP is $2.15 tril), Michigan becomes Argentina, and Texas becomes Canada. As the footnotes on the map indicate, it's not a straightforward comparison, because it doesn't include population. But it's a pretty darn interesting visualization nonetheless.
May 31, 2007
No, Not That Vista
Okay, see if you can guess what this refers to:
VistA stands as perhaps the greatest success story for government-developed information technology since the Internet itself.
Wow, right? The answer lies in Thomas Goetz's NYT op-ed.
(His blog Epidemix is subscription-worthy as well!)
April 25, 2007
The Spy in the Aisles
Here's a question for you: Does Wal-Mart have it's own security force? An actual division of the company? Or do they contract a Blackwater-type? Anybody know? I feel like that would be a solid next step. Then would be buying an island.
Except in Wal-Mart's case I feel like the island would be... Australia.
March 8, 2007
God, I'm So Glad I Live in the Year 2007
Robert Reich's first videoblog. It's actually interesting: He talks about the experience of being a guest on big-time TV vs. being a videoblogga.
November 15, 2006
The Yield Curve
Okay, this is cosmic: Ben Hyde explains the yield curve (in short: it's a map of interest rates for various points in the future, and is a rough measure of investors' optimism) and links to a super-cool animation that shows its fluctuations from 1977 'til now.
It takes a bit of reading to understand exactly what it is what you're looking at, but once you do, it's pretty amazing.
For instance, here's the yield curve for December 1979:
And for January 2004:
And based only on what you know about those two moments in time, you can probably begin to guess how to interpret the curve. So what do you think today's looks like?
October 13, 2006
Insurance and Opportunity
If you are a reader of one or more policy blogs, Jacob Hacker's proposal for a new kind of social insurance will be old news. If you are not, then check it out. And subscribe to a policy blog why doncha!
August 27, 2006
No Surprise This One's Online
At this point, blogging software should probably just include a button that says "link to latest Malcolm Gladwell article." Because, well, yeah. It's about pensions and is, of course, illuminating and eminently sensible. And, bonus! -- the article continues on Gladwell's blog.
August 24, 2006
Ezra Klein points to video of Stephen Lewis's speech at the close of the big AIDS conference in Toronto. He's right, it's great (control-F for 'lewis' on the page). Lewis is a Canadian diplomat and, it turns out, a bracing speaker.
June 29, 2006
There's Oil in the Water
Google's Chris Sacca posts a brilliant visual representation of the energy cost of shipping in bottled water from abroad. Ick.
June 28, 2006
Strategic Advice from Grand Moff Tarkin
Current U.S. foreign policy straight out of Star Wars, sez Yglesias. Truth-value of claim irrelevant as it is appealing mix of policy and pop culture.
May 24, 2006
An Inconvenient Truth
File under Dept. of Effusive Praise: Larry Lessig calls Davis Guggenheim's doc on global warming and Al Gore "the most extraordinary lecture I have ever seen anyone give about anything."
Added bonus: There's actually some rise of the image fall of the word mojo happening with this movie; both it and the slide show it's based on use images, moving and still, to communicate complicated ideas in an extraordinarily efficient way.
May 8, 2006
It Was a Dark and Nerdy Night
New genre: wonk noir. Sample line: "She was Milton Friedman with the body of Scarlett Johansson."
April 26, 2006
Peacemakers for Hire
Whoah! Dystopian foreign policy idea of the week: Forget U.N. blue helmets in Darfur. Why not send in a private mercenary army to keep the peace?
Probably because it's hella Snow Crash, per Matt Yglesias. I mean come on: These are companies with names like "Blackwater"... "Aegis"... "Dyncorp" (!?)... and "Executive Outcomes" (!!?). Let's leave this plotline to the novelists.
GI-Net quickly concluded that going with mercenaries was a bad idea. But, as their search dragged on, the group's members became increasingly frustrated that they were sitting on a pile of money when, seemingly every day, there was some new horror in Darfur. Finally, in January, GI-Net had a breakthrough. An African NGO was willing to take GI-Net's money and, in tandem with the AU, train a contingent of female escorts to protect Darfurian women when they leave their refugee camps to search for firewood. This week, Smith is in Addis Ababa putting the finishing touches on the deal.
April 25, 2006
Subscribe to this page to get all the latest news about Iran and nuclear technology. Hoo boy.
April 12, 2006
Welcome to My Bloglines Account, Foreign Policy
March 28, 2006
Three years ago, in a spectacular issue of The Atlantic Monthly ("The Real State of the Union," done in partnership with the New America Foundation), Ray Boshara wrote a fascinating proposal. What if we gave $6,000 to every American citizen at birth, and invested that money in a safe portfolio until the citizen grew old enough to use it?
Wealth inequality in the US, Boshara pointed out, is much greater even than income inequality:
By the close of the 1990s the United States had become more unequal than at any other time since the dawn of the New Deal—indeed, it was the most unequal society in the advanced democratic world. The top 20 percent of households earned 56 percent of the nation's income and commanded an astonishing 83 percent of the nation's wealth. Even more striking, the top one percent earned about 17 percent of national income and owned 38 percent of national wealth. In nearly two decades the number of millionaires had doubled, to 4.8 million, and the number of "deca-millionaires"—those worth at least $10 million—had more than tripled, from 66,500 to 239,400.... Read more ....
March 19, 2006
To Get Ahead in China... Become a Geologist?
For the longest time I have wondered: Who runs China? How do you come to be the leader of a quasi-communist autocratic state? George Bush's path to power I get. Kim Jong-il's I get. But this guy? It's not election... it's not family succession... what is it?
I finally found the book with all the answers.
And it turns out China is basically like... General Electric? The current crop of leaders are all engineers. China has put the cult-of-personality thing behind it, and is now deep into an era of enthusiastic technocracy. The rising generation is made up of people whose young lives were bisected by the Cultural Revolution -- people who value education because it was denied to them. And they've advanced through the government based on connections made at school. Simple corporate politics -- but this corporation is a country.
And China really is organized like a classic Death Star megacorp. This month's Foreign Policy (favorite magazine!) has an article enumerating all the ways in which the country is still incredibly centralized. For instance:
In 2003, the state controlled $1.2 trillion worth of capital stock, or 56 percent of the country’s fixed industrial assets.
There are only 40 private firms among the 1,520 Chinese companies listed on domestic and foreign exchanges.
It's a parade of startling statistics. Bottom line: No surprise that China is nervous about the internet. The radical decentralization of the web is like antimatter to China's almost unbelievably centralized government. Which is basically composed entirely of former nuclear physicists and civil engineers. Now you know.
January 16, 2006
Who's In Charge Here?
It reminds me of a question I have had for some time: Just who exactly runs China? I mean, I know the names. But where do these guys come from? How does one rise to the Chinese Politburo? I just have no concept of the way it works. All I see in Hu Jintao's bio is a string of bureaucratic jobs... the logic of advancement eludes me.
Also, check out this WorldChanging post on "The Beijing Consensus." Particularly interesting:
The second Beijing Consensus theorem is that since chaos is impossible to control from the top... you need a whole set of new tools. It looks beyond measures like per-capita GDP and focuses instead of quality-of-life, the only way to manage the massive contradictions of Chinese development. [...] China’s new approach to development stresses chaos management. This is one reason why academic disciplines like sociology and crisis management are the vogue of party think tanks at the moment.
How fascinating is that? And doesn't it sound like you could swap out some giant corporation for China and the paragraph would still kinda make sense?
I really want to know who these guys are. If anybody knows any good books on the subject of China's leadership, or reporters that do a good job tracking it, leave a comment.
January 2, 2006
Demand for Education
WaPo global-issues rockstar Sebastian Mallaby goes to India and finds the market for private education -- K12 and college alike -- absolutely booming. For instance:
What's made this engineering takeoff possible is not an increase in the supply of universities financed by taxpayers or foreign donors; it's an increase in demand for education from fee-paying students -- a demand to which entrepreneurs naturally respond. More than four out of five Indian engineering students attend private colleges, whose potential growth seems limitless. In 2003 the Vellore Institute of Technology received 7,000 applications. In 2005 it received 44,000.
Mallaby's analysis: Conventional wisdom is that education leads to development, but it looks like the arrow points the other way, as well. Okay, maybe that's not so surprising, but still.
Also: Saheli's in India!
December 27, 2005
Micro vs. Macro in a Duel to the Death
Get ready: I am about to compare Wikipedia to Wal-Mart.
Chris Anderson says the magic of Wikipedia (and other internet systems, e.g. Google) is that they work on hugely macro "probabilistic" scales. Think of it like this:
To put it another way, the quality range in Britannica goes from, say, 5 to 9, with an average of 7. Wikipedia goes from 0 to 10, with an average of, say, 5. But given that Wikipedia has ten times as many entries as Britannica, your chances of finding a reasonable entry on the topic you're looking for are actually higher on Wikipedia. That doesn't mean that any given entry will be better, only that the overall value of Wikipedia is higher than Britannica when you consider it from this statistical perspective.
OK, but what are the broader consequences? Might not this statistical optimization of "value" at the macroscale be a recipe for mediocrity at the microscale -- the scale, it's worth remembering, that defines our own individual lives and the culture that surrounds us?
So here goes: This seems analogous to the debate over Wal-Mart.... Read more ....
File under: Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Technosnark
December 15, 2005
Global Stories You Missed
Foreign Policy rounds up ten big stories that fell through the cracks in 2005. Take a spin and get re-acquainted with what's actually happening in the world.
December 12, 2005
More on Chinese Unrest
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has watched the "color revolutions" in Georgia (rose), the Ukraine (orange), Azerbaijan (rose/orange), and elsewhere with great trepidation. But if such an event were to happen here it is unlikely to come in the warm hues favored in the former Soviet bloc, and it would certainly not be red like the revolution of 50 years ago. No, the revolution the CCP is increasingly worried about is green.
More on China and the environment follows. It's interesting stuff.
P.S. In good ol' Civilization IV the ultimate economic system is... environmentalism. At first I thought that was odd, but upon reflection it might just be prescient.
December 3, 2005
Okay, I am at the Regulating Search conference at Yale, and will post notes in this entry as the day progresses.
Just got done with the first panel, which I was on.
Andrei Broder from Yahoo has a neat high-level outline: Search is transforming from syntactic (e.g. matching keywords to text on a page) to semantic (e.g. understanding what it is you're actually talking about), and will continue on to "information supply" (e.g. no explicit searching -- information just appears as you need it).
Now, the panel on regulation.
Barbara van Schewick drops an interesting factoid: In terms of eventual transactions, there's a drop-off of more than fifty percent from the first search result to the second! Wow.
Renata Hesse, from the antitrust section of the Department of Justice, responds briefly to the idea of Google FOIA... with horror. Just because it has the potential to create so much work! (Conference attendee Michael Zimmer thinks it's interesting, though.)
In response to a question, Yahoo's Andrei Broder distinguishes between "navigational searching" (e.g. I am looking for the University of Chicago law faculty blog, but don't know the URL) ) and "informational searching" (e.g. I am looking for a good constitutional lawyer). Apparently about 25% of all searches are the former.
Lunch break! And the entry break as well. Read on.... Read more ....
November 28, 2005
The New Procrastination
So I'm going to this conference on Saturday. Looks to be a room full of super-smart academics, lawyers, and technologists. And me.
We're all to write a short position paper ahead of time, so as to facilitate a running start on the conversation; it's only a day-long event. The papers were due today, and I got mine in, but without leeway to do what I really wanted to: post it here ahead of time.
That's the new procrastination: not waiting until the last minute (although I did that too), but specifically waiting until it is no longer reasonable to call on your blog readership for comments and critiques.
Anyway, at the conference, I'm on Panel 1, which aims to
review the wide range of what search engines do and their importance in the information ecosystem.
industry participants, computer scientists, and analysts will flag major trends in search engine technology and try to predict future developments, with the goal of pointing out those trends that will create new conflicts and new litigation.
I actually had a tough time with this; I didn't want to just make a bunch of random, breezy predictions about video search or super-cool maps or whatever. So I spent the day on Saturday trying to come up with something that really got me excited.
Position paper after the break. It's already turned in, but of course I'll have to talk about it (and other things) on Saturday, so comment! Comment!... Read more ....
November 17, 2005
Mo' Laptops, Mo' Problems
Hey, they unveiled the prototype of those $100 laptops we've blogged about before.
In the Washington Post, Seymour Papert says: "It will change ... the way children everywhere think about themselves in relation to the world."
CNN's story quotes Nicholas Negroponte like this: "One laptop per child: Children are your most precious resource, and they can do a lot of self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching. Bingo. End of story."
But Ben Vershbow at if:book says:
Sorry to be so snide, but we were watching the live webcast from Tunis yesterday... it's hard not to laugh at the leaders of the free world bumbling over this day-glo gadget, this glorified Trapper Keeper cum jack-in-the-box (Annan ended up breaking the hand crank), with barely a word devoted to what educational content will actually go inside, or to how teachers plan to construct lessons around these new toys. In the end, it's going to come down to them. Good teachers, who know computers, may be able to put the laptops to good use. But somehow I'm getting visions of stacks of unused or busted laptops, cast aside like so many neon bricks.
There is a grain (maybe several grains) of cagey wisdom there, and some useful caution. All the same, I'm excited to see what happens with these things.
(if:book features some of the most thorough thinking around. I totally recommend the feed.)
Update: Great, detailed on-the-scene interview with the CTO of the $100 laptop project by Andy Carvin. I love the internet!
October 30, 2005
Economic Development 2.0
Perhaps you have heard of microlending. The idea is, hey: There are lots of people in countries like Bangladesh or Bolivia who could do something useful with $20 or $200 -- buy some livestock, make some baskets, start a little shop. Those are all productive enterprises, and if these people could get loans to start them, they'd be able to pay the money back. Buy it's not worth it for "real" lenders to bother with that. A $20 loan? In a place with no financial infrastructure? To somebody with no collateral? Wait, seriously, a $20 loan? No thanks.
Enter organizations like the Grameen Bank and FINCA. There are many more; microlending has been picking up steam for about two decades now. Most organizations give loans in the tens or hundreds of dollars, and most couple the loans with interesting social schemes: Grameen, for instance, requires that women apply for loans as a group. One woman gets hers first; she must pay Grameen back before her friends can get theirs. Voila -- a little productive peer pressure.
Microlending isn't a silver bullet. In fact, it's doesn't do much at all for the very poorest of the poor. But in terms of general economic development it works about as well as other strategies and, in addition, it confers an interesting aura of accountability and sustainability. It's development aid perfectly in sync with the zeitgeist.
So, all of that is setup for Kiva, a tiny, brand-new microlending organization that adds another element of now-ness to the mix: the internet!... Read more ....
October 20, 2005
Let's Be a Multiple-Planet Species, Shall We?
I know some of us here on this blog aren't too keen on funding space science, but you gotta admit there's something compelling about the NASA chief's argument in this WaPo interview.
Or maybe he's wrong to be worried about 'mass extinctions.' Are we sufficiently advanced and resourceful that we could survive a cataclysm here on earth?
September 18, 2005
Blogging the United Nations
There is something awesome about the way openDemocracy's Solana Larsen is blogging the big UN summit... I think it's that she's just doing it like any normal person would:
I am sitting in the General Assembly hall, where the UN has conveniently provided wireless internet. The president of Georgia is speaking and no one is listening (sorry Georgia).
There's some really excellent details in there -- go check it out.
September 17, 2005
A neat little two-pager on John Roberts and the right to privacy in the NYT's Week in Review. It really is interesting that we, as a society, take it so seriously, isn't it?
September 10, 2005
U.S. Census data on a Google Map, with a simple interface.
I think I might have just found my religion.
September 3, 2005
Logistics and Leadership
Saheli breaks it down in a post titled, aptly, "WTF":
And even if it isn't about race, why the hell is it about poverty? What the bloody hell is up with this? What is up with our system wherein if you are poor you get left behind? The message we're sending the world is that in America, if you are poor, if you don't have a car, if you can't all fit into your car, you will get left behind to die in sewage. As I wrote Tauscher and Boxer and Feinstein--I've never been so ashamed and so dissapointed with my government.
August 25, 2005
When's the Tikrit Tea Party?
Ha! Matthew Yglesias takes a look at the rough road to democracy:
The fact that Iraq will have a democratic constitution that honors women's rights, the rights of minorities, is going to be an important change in the broader Middle East. So says the President of the United States. But let's take this analogy seriously. Iraq is maybe going through something like its Articles of Confederation stage -- you've got your Whiskey Rebellion, your disorder, your confusion, etc.
But in a few years, they sort things out and the elite members of the nation's dominant ethno-sectarian group will work out an agreement establishing order throughout the country. The Sunnis, naturally, will be held as chattel slaves. Kurdish land and natural resources will be slowly expropriated via a series of genocidal military campaigns.
Some decades down the road, the conflicts papered-over in the initial constitutional compromise will break out into the open leading to a horribly destructive Civil War.
August 23, 2005
The Moral Hazard Myth
I'm on a tear! I found this New Yorker piece on the ideas behind health insurance by Malcolm Gladwell (he of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink") lucid and enlightening. This is my favorite kind of journalism.
Holding Colleges to a Higher Standard
I had kinda forgotten about The Washington Monthly and its spunky spirit -- their new college rankings are a reminder. Way cool.
August 22, 2005
United States of RSS
August 14, 2005
Absolute, absolute must-read: The Washington Post's special report on al-Qaeda's online organizing. The video features are interesting, but it's the text pieces by Steve Coll and Susan Glasser that are truly illuminating. Print these articles out and read them this week; it will seriously help you understand the world better.
An excellent indictment of NASA's manned spaceflight program, which y'all know I love. (Via Collision Detection, which also features a great post on babies learning with toys.)
August 7, 2005
Report on Iraq
Honestly, I have basically zoned out on the whole Iraq thing. But this report from General Barry McCaffrey on what's up is pretty interesting. Maybe I'm just a sucker for stolid militarese but it seems to have the whiff of even-mindedness about it. (Via.)
August 4, 2005
Here's the best commentary I have seen anywhere on South Korea's cloned dog.
July 25, 2005
Sleepless in Sudan
Here's a good blog by a "dazed and confused aid worker in Darfur."
June 3, 2005
Peak Oil Primer
Kevin Drum just wrapped up an excellent five-part series on peak oil and its portents. If your eyes aren't already glazed over, take a read.
March 31, 2005
Just for Tim
A new literary magazine hopes to bring the long tail of blogging to the world of scholarly criticism. May it fare well, and may it all be much, much shorter than this ridiculous inaugural post. (Glossary: Long tail.)
March 30, 2005
Even More Scenes from the Drug War
The RAND Corporation has released a report taking a comprehensive look at the effectiveness of US anti-drug policies. Asking, specifically, "Why do they suck so much?"
Short answer? 'Cause we mostly apply one solution -- incarceration -- to a thousand different problems. But that's not news. Here's some stuff the RAND study points out that struck me as enlightening. (I've also gotta plug the Mark A. R. Kleiman book Against Excess, available in its entirety online. It was prominently cited in the RAND study, so I searched for it, and there it was.)... Read more ....
March 12, 2005
News from the Front Lines
March 7, 2005
The People's Budget
The above graph shows how Americans would reallocate the federal budget if given the chance, according to a PIPA survey of 1,200 adults (PDF). Kevin Drum, who pointed this study out, warns social-spending-happy liberals to chill, because if they actually proposed cutting the defense budget by a third and spending all that cash on education and renewable energy, they would quickly discover the heat of this country's fury.
It's unfortunate that "space program" and "science research" are lumped together on this graph (and nowhere to be found in the accompanying PDF). Because clearly, if I'd gotten my grubby little hands on this survey, NASA would become the NAA, and its budget would be approximately $959 million.* And the National Science Foundation would find its budget mysteriously expanded by about, oh, $14.5 billion or so.
I mean, take this page and multiply its coolness factor by 4. Is your mind blown yet?
Speaking of the NSF, check out the Digital Promise Project, a foundation that wants to create a sort of NSF for education. Together with the New America Foundation, Digital Promise is pushing a piece of legislation that would use the money from selling and licensing the public airwaves to create a trust fund devoted to R&D in the field of education.
I'm inclined to think that's pretty cool. Critics of the legislation launch their broadside with the question, "Must the government establish what amounts to a new Public Broadcasting System for the Internet?"
Treasury Secretary John Snow on Sunday would not rule out the idea of Irish singer Bono, an activist on debt relief and AIDS, making the short list of potential candidates to lead the World Bank even though an American is expected to get the job.
Okay, this is never going to happen, but if it did, let me just say for the record that I would be so behind it. Seriously.
In reality I think the next World Bank prez is going to be Peter McPherson, former president of MSU and, before that, Bank of America honcho and chief of USAID, the foreign-aid divison of the State Department. (He's also the one not paying attention in this picture.) Recently he served as interim finance minister for the first-wave American government in Iraq. McPherson is a super-smart administrator but frankly not a strong public presence, which I suspect is fine by the Bush administration for this role.
February 25, 2005
What It Costs to Keep the Gays Out
An interesting study from the Department of Defense (PDF). About 9,500 servicemembers have been "separated" from the U.S. military (read "discharged," although that's one of English's Official Nastiest Words) in the past 10 years for being gay or lesbian. The D.O.D. commissioned this study to see how much their fear of the gay was costing them to recruit new servicefolks. For the Army, Navy and Air Force, the cost turned out to be about $95 million, over the past decade. (The total for the Marines couldn't be counted.) Eh, not so much $$. Discriminate away!
February 14, 2005
Geo-Greens, Take Action
... I would like to see every campus in America demand that its board of trustees disinvest from every U.S. auto company until they improve their mileage standards. ...
Paris Hilton voice: That's hot.
January 15, 2005
Hacking the NYT
If anyone has an immediate urge to read this week's NYT magazine cover article on Social Security (it'll appear on-site tomorrow), knock yourself out. I was eager to read this one, so I went hunting for this one, and managed to dig it up, oh, two hours early or so.
The best arguments I've heard say leave Social Security alone for the moment until we've a) got money, and b) can figure out exactly how best to improve it. Kevin Drum says, simply, don't worry your pretty little head about it. But even the Weekly Standard is urging against any rush to action.
But the tremendous momentum President Bush has given to privatizing Social Security means that, like it or not, something's probably going to happen to the program very soon. The NYT article is a good run-through of what has happened to it since its inception, of the players involved in the debate now and how they came by their positions, and looks at some of the possible treatments.
The author ends, though, with a philosophical question that frames the issue in a way I like: To whom do we owe a greater debt -- generations of the distant future, or of today and tomorrow?
January 10, 2005
Constellation of Cash
Check out this excellent visualization of the federal budget. It's the discretionary part only, i.e. Social Security's not included.
Guess before you look: Which is bigger, the Department of Education or NASA?
Department of Homeland Security or Department of Transportation?
Department of Defense or everything else combined?
October 23, 2004
So... Yeah, Sudan
The New York Times has yet another excellent article on the genocide--but what difference does it make? We are participating in the world's first post-modern genocide--where the whole world watches, argues over details of coverage, and takes no action. This has been going on for 18 months in Darfur, and a decade or more in southern Sudan.
If you haven't seen this blog before, now's the time to tune in. It's sort've freakishly good and deep and complete. A bummer that it's penned anonymously, but oh well. Check it out.
October 8, 2004
Parking Lot Primer
I mean, sub-urban design.
I'm particularly struck by this image because I've been driving in San Francisco this evening, and am amazed by the life on (some of) the streets.
Of course, in S.F. there are no parking lots anywhere, so never mind.
Good comments on both blogs.
September 28, 2004
Get Your Spheromak On
The history of our society has, in many (most?) ways, been the history of our energy. Everything hinges on it, in a sense more crucial than politics or policy: It's physics, man! You wanna have cool stuff? You wanna make things happen in the world, like overthrow Middle Eastern dictators or move coffee beans across oceans or make shiny iPods? You need energy!
So this long-ish but very clear, very engaging piece by Caltech professor David Goodstein is required reading. He explains "peak oil," a concept I hadn't ever heard of before; he argues that an oil crisis is inevitable, and may happen soon-ish; he lays out the energy options before us, again including many I hadn't ever heard of; and finally talks about the future:
As things stand today, the only possible substitutes for our fossil-fuel dependency are light from the sun and nuclear energy. Developing a way of running a civilization like ours on those resources is an enormous challenge. A great deal of it is social and political -- we're in the midst of a presidential election, and have you heard either party say a word about this extremely important subject? But there are also huge technical problems to be solved. So, you might well ask, what can Caltech do to help?
And the answer to that question may lie... in the spheromak.
Goodstein also mentions that Caltech's provost recently stepped down to become Chief Scientist at BP. And that just seems somehow totally awesome to me, you know?
Thanks to worldchanging for the link.
July 12, 2004
Policy and Polemic
At the same time, a simple (and frustrating) truth is that it is not people like Brad or me who change the world, it is people like Barbara Ehrenreich. Policy wonks then sigh, pick up the pieces, and try to convert the Ehrenreichian emotion of the moment into lasting programs. But without that emotion, we never get the chance.
From where I sit, policy wonks can do Ehrenreichian emotion pretty darn well sometimes. Am I the only who remembers the Declaration of Independence? (A quick refresher: that's the one that accused the King of England of sending "swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance." Oh, and also: "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.")
Ehrenreich recognizes that sweeping rhetoric used to be a big part of official policy, and she also uses the Declaration to make that point.
Drum's contention that good architects of policy are just tremble and reserve gets at what I think is one of the biggest problems with our policy-makers today -- no boldness. It's partially because the country's split on a partisan razor-edge, and any lurches left or right could be disastrous for a party. But the effect is that politicians make their trade in these sly, sneaky little slivers of policy to which the public pays no attention, but corporations love. FDR's New Deal could never survive in this climate.
Historian H.W. Brands has made this argument much better than I could:
But Franklin would be dismayed by the popular denigration of politics, and exceedingly impatient with us for acting helpless in the face of problems that the Founders would have tackled at once. To take one example, arguments over the Second Amendment, with its almost certainly inadvertent ambiguity about the relation of militia service to gun ownership, would largely cease if we simply rewrote it. Gun advocates already treat the militia clause as a nullity; let them erase the clause—or try to. Gun opponents want the clause to govern gun ownership; let them rewrite the amendment—or try to. But almost no one suggests such an obvious solution to the problem. Instead we treat the Constitution as holy writ, to be parsed and glossed but not otherwise tampered with. We agonize over "original intent" as if what the Founders believed ought to determine the way we live two centuries later. They would have laughed, and then wept, at our timidity.
The one trait the Founders shared to the greatest degree is the one most worth striving after today—but also one that is often forgotten in the praise of their asserted genius. These men were no smarter than the best their country can offer now; they weren't wiser or more altruistic. They may have been more learned in a classical sense, but they knew much less about the natural world, including the natural basis of human behavior. They were, however, far bolder than we are. When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they put their necks in a noose; when they wrote the Constitution, they embarked on an audacious and unprecedented challenge to custom and authority. For their courage they certainly deserve our admiration. But even more they deserve our emulation.
January 15, 2004
Another Scene From the Drug War
Writing my prior post on the drug war, I cited a statistic given by Eric Schlosser in 1997, that more people are in prison for marijuana violations than for manslaughter or rape.
But five years is a little while for stats like that, and I wondered when I posted it if that amount had changed. Well, according to AlterNet, last year's stats actually paint a starker picture.
The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report reveals that police arrested an estimated 697,082 persons for marijuana violations in 2002, or nearly half of all drug arrests in the United States. This amounts to one marijuana-related arrest every 45 seconds.
The total number of marijuana arrests far exceeded the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Of those charged with marijuana violations, 88 percent were charged with possession only. The remaining 12 percent were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes cultivation for personal and medical use.
January 11, 2004
Scenes from the Drug War
From "More Reefer Madness," by Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic:
In California thirty-one state and federal drug agents raided Donald P. Scott's 200-acre Malibu ranch on the pretext that marijuana was growing there. Scott was inadvertently killed during the raid. No evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered, and a subsequent investigation by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office found that the drug agents had been motivated partly by a desire to seize the $5 million ranch.
If you haven't read the article that begat the book, give it a whirl. It's a catalogue of hypocrisy, futility, ruined lives, and government corruption, all borne out of an initiative that cost $10 billion for law enforcement in 2003, and $19 billion overall (PDF).
So far, in 2003, 50,342 people have been arrested as part of the War on Drugs, reports the War On Drugs Clock. Oh wait, make that 50,346. Almost half of these arrests are for marijuana offenses. "More people are now incarcerated in the nation's prisons for marijuana than for manslaughter or rape," said Eric Schlosser in 1997.