- Don't Reinvent the Wheel
- Code Well
- Be Your Own User
- Be Transparent
- Be Simple
- Don't Be a Perfectionist
- Nurture and Grow Your Community
- Promote Your Project
- Find Sponsors
- Science First: yield control to the community to keep room for research
I've noticed a two additional factors that discourage open sourcing of research code. Research code is often low quality 'Spaghetti code', and researchers do not physically have time to bring the source code up to standards for public release. Additionally, ( and this may be paranoid speculation ) some researchers would rather keep private fast implementations of novel methods to maintain a competitive advantage, leaving other scientists to rebuild the algorithms from scratch.
The article is almost as short as this summary, so head over and check it out.
Previously on this blog, I critiqued
Science Fiction Prototyping, and talked about how
role-playing games work. Today, I’d like to bring those two themes together
to talk the design of my scenario planning role-playing game, Thinkering
Tomorrow. The goal here, in the words of
Brian David Johnson, is to help
people change the future by changing the stories they tell about the future.
The base level explanation from official Israeli sources is that “Israel has the right to self-defense, and they shot first.” A higher level explanation is that this is all about reminding the Arab world to take Israeli deterrence seriously. Above that is the theory that this is about reminding Hamas of its obligations to control Gaza. And in the realm of the conspiracy theory is that Netanyahu is doing this to solidify his re-election chances or prepare for a strike on Iran.
(from Nina Paley)
The key issue is not the government we see, but the government we don't, the vast tangle of tax breaks, public-private partnerships, and incentives that Mettler deems 'the submerged state'. The size of the submerged state is astounding, 8% of the GDP, and fully half the size of the visible state: Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, defense, servicing the debt, and the relatively minuscule discretionary funding that covers everything else the government does, from welfare to transportation to education to NASA and foreign aid.
Mettler deploys economic and social statistics to show that for all its expense, the submerged state is a failure on every level. Whatever your politics, there is something to despise about the submerged state. It represents a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, when most Americans abstractly support reducing inequality. It is a distortionary government influence on the workings of the free market, without the relativity clarity of direct provision of services or regulations. It fails to accomplish its stated policy goals of improving access to education, healthcare, and housing. It leads to civic disengagement, as those who benefit fail to see how the government has helped them, or how they can meaningfully impact politics through voting. And above all, it institutionalizes corruption, as broad public participation is replaced by the lobbying of narrowly constituted interests groups.
This book is not perfect. Mettler is a political scientist, and she has the biases of her profession: that conservatives are responsible for much of what's gone wrong with
Conservatism struggles with the reality that we no longer live in separated communities. We have one global economy, one atmosphere, one water cycle, one planetary oil supply, one nuclear Armageddon, etc. Haidt faults liberalism for damaging American moral capital in the 60s and 70s, but he doesn't explain how conservative politics can govern effectively without infringing on liberty, or coalescing to gridlock.
Of course, just because I'm decided means that I can't have an opinion. And ((spoilers ahead)), that opinion is one of cynicism and disengagement.
I supported Obama [in 2008] because I believed that he could articulate a vision for American democracy in the 21st century. I thought that the author of Dreams from my Father, the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote, and the speech on Reverend Wright, would be somebody who could inspire America in the same way that Kennedy and Reagan did. We needed, and still need, inspiration more than any specific policy solution. I believed that roused to action, the American people would find their own solutions to major problems, like healthcare, energy, education, and the war.
Instead, Barack Obama has presided over an ugly and secretive government. It is a government that uses drones to kill terrorists on the other side of the world, while making the absurd claim that “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” (according to senior counter-terrorism official John O. Brennan) despite ample evidence to the contrary. It is a government that has failed to address basic concerns about hidden risks and ‘shadow banks’ in the financial system. And while the rancor and insanity of the 112th Congress is not Obama’s fault, the White House is little better. On the Keystone XL pipeline, and Plan B birth control pill, the Obama administration has given the impression that it does not make decisions based on evidence, or what he believes would be right for the country, but what is most politically expedient.
“The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn't work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people.”
Recently, ASU launched the new Center for Science and the Imagination to use science fiction in serious ways. Things like CSI are literally unbelievable; they could only happen at ASU, and it’s why I’m a grad student here. I’m look forward to working with the new center, and I have some ideas.
Our mission is to foster creative and ambitious thinking about the future. We want to bring writers, artists, scholars, scientists and many others together in collaboration on bold visions for a better future. But more than this, we want to share a sense of agency about the future, to get everyone on the plane thinking about how our choices inflect the spectrum of possibilities before us.
(1) Humans are essentially story tellers; (2) the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is “good reasons” which vary in form among communication situations, genres, and media; (3) the production and practice of goods reasons is ruled by matters of history, biography, culture, and character… (4) rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings-their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives… (5) the world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.
In short, good reasons are the stuff of stories, the means by which humans realize their nature as reasoning valuing animals. The philosophical ground of the narrative paradigm is ontology. The materials of the narrative paradigm are symbols, signs of consubstantiation, and good reasons, the communicative expressions of social reality.
(( This figure comes from a document on arXiv, which is not peer reviewed. Documents on arXiv should be viewed as "entertainment only, any any resemblance to real science or mathematics, living or dead, is purely coincidental" until the documents have been vetted by the community. That said, this flowchart of formal systems amuses me. I also find the notion that the existence of a mathematical description of a physical system somehow, philosophically, implies the existence of such a system, entertaining, in an almost religious sense. ))
The New York Times has had a series of articles recently that touch on one of my sore points, the idea that organic food is somehow better for you and the planet than conventional agriculture. This is problematic, because A) it simply isn't supported by the evidence and B) it replaces critical thinking about food policy.
First, from September 3rd, 2012.
"[Stanford University Scientists] concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.
The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.
Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.
“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of the paper, which appears in Tuesday’s issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. “I think we were definitely surprised."
This study prompted some self-doubt from the usual suspects I know on Facebook, but they rapidly recovered and decided that organic food wasn't about nutrition, or chemical exposure, but about sustainability and the environment.
Of course, organic agriculture is still agriculture, and used land, water, and other resources. From December 30th, 2011.
"Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.”...
The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming."
And then today, Nicolas Kristof got to the heart of the matter.
"Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul.
As long as I’ve known him, Bob has had names for every one of his “girls,” as he calls his cows. Walk through the pasture with him, and he’ll introduce you to them."
This is what organic is really about, not any kind of health or environmental virtue, but the belief that you can have a personal relationship with your food, and thence the land by buying organic. Milk doesn't come from a store, it comes from Farmer Bob and his happy cows. The organic label on your granola bars and cage-free eggs are link to the Jeffersonian yoeman farmer of yore.
This is utter bunk. What percentage of organic consumer actually go back to the farm? How much of what is on organic labels is faux-folksy marketing verbiage from big business? Perhaps my favorite reductio ad absurdum of the local-organic food movement was an article I saw in a magazine (that I sadly can no longer find) about a service in San Francisco that dispatches hipster farmers on fixies to take care of your urban garden if you're too busy to weed, water, and harvest it yourself for the low price of ~$30/hour.
Why does this annoy me? Food is serious business, everybody on earth depends on agriculture to survive, and the fights over organic-vs-conventional are an elitist distraction that prevents progress on real issues relating to global food justice, sustainability in the face of climate change. There's a reasonable argument to be made that the 2009 Russian drought triggered the Arab Spring, as authoritarian regimes could no longer buy off their restive populations with subsidized bread. This year's American corn crop is pretty much also a write off, with unpredictable but not good effects.
I'm not a food policy expert by any means, (for that see www.shapingsciencepolicy.com), but tangling up naturalistic values with the basic infrastructure of survival is not a winning strategy. If you really care about minute levels of pesticide exposure, get the FDA to draft new rules based on solid studies. If you think that the food pyramid is bunk, and most food is toxic junk, develop a deep base of credible experts to run a more independent USDA. Politics is slow and frustrating, full of compromises and delays, but if your not involved, it'll be left to the hucksters and the sharks and the industry representatives.
I get that people feel lost and disconnected from traditional values and from the land, but guess what. You're not a farmer, and unless you spend a significant amount of time working in the dirt, you won't be. You're just another anonymous 21st century consumption unit like the rest of us, and putting different food in your maw won't give you the values you seek. Changing the world by buying the right stuff just makes new categories for the ad men to use to divvy us up.
Strategy is not an American strength. Strategic plans are written to serve the interests of political parties and the election cycle, factions within the Pentagon and military industrial complex seeking billions of dollars for next-gen weapons system, or at best a small group of dissident colonels seeking promotion or post-retirement sinecures. Everybody has an agenda, and almost nobody is conducting honest analysis in search of the truth. The authors of Unrestricted Warfare are coming from outside the Beltway; way outside the Beltway, as they're officers in the People Liberation Army. With no DC career to worry about, there's at least the potential of some candid truth about the future of warfare, and besides as a Chinese strategic plan, reading this has the same kind of vicarious thrill as reading Guderian's Achtung-Panzer! in 1938.
The book begins promisingly enough, with chapters like "The War God's Face Has Become Indistinct" and "What Do Americans Gain By Touching the Elephant?". The introduction offers as a sensible reframing of modern warfare as I've ever seen. "We acknowledge that the new principles of war are no longer 'using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one's will,' but rather are 'using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests'"
The authors take as their key examples Operation Desert Storm, the 1997 Southeast Asia Financial Crisis, and the unlimited potential of cyberattacks carried out by hackers. Their analysis of Desert Storm is perhaps the most conventional section, examining in detail the successful organization of the operation under Norman Schwarzkopf, and the use of precision air power as the preeminent aim. Unfortunately, the financial crisis and the role of George Soros fails to illuminate what I can only describe as the 'Soros Conspiracy Twilight Zone.' While several Asian economies suffered massive reverses, and George Soros made a lot of money in the process, the accusation that he was responsible is not sustained (or unsustained for that matter. The issue remains open, as far as I can tell). Given the centrality of financial, economic, and media warfare to the concept of unresistricted warfare, this section deserves better. Finally, cyber attacks are treated mostly anecdotally, without a rigorous idea of the linkages between cyberspace and physical systems, or virtual attacks and real damage.
That said, there are some very clever insights into the strengths and limitations of America's high-tech Battlespace model of combat, where every soldier is networked into a regional grid that can cause any location to precisely explode at short notice (the deadliest environment on Earth, short of a nuclear firestorm) in terms of it's cost and inability to counter low-tech insurgent forces. For a pre-9/11 work, this book is horrifically prescient in linking Al Qaeda and airplanes. Conversely, key topics in strengthening local governance and legitimacy and fostering robust innovative economies not vulnerable to unrestricted warfare are mostly left out.
The original lacks the hyperbolic and inaccurate subtitle 'China's Master Plan to Destroy America' (my copy is from the nice folks at www.c4i.org). The examples are American, because America is the world's premier power, and are fairly critiqued on their strengths and weaknesses. While some parts of China's military are clearly aimed American capabilities, the ideas advanced here are seem to be more about countering and emulating American power, rather than crippling it.
As a guide to the future, Unrestricted Warfare will probably not have the impact of Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, or John Boyd. While it offers a important alternative perspective to the conventional wisdom, it's too foreign, too abstract, too hard to apply. By the standards of this book, the last 10 years of American foreign policy have been an unmitigated disaster, but I don't think the American government could ever act in such an integrated manner without a clear existential threat. I think the most trenchant critique of this book is that more than 10 years later, it's difficult to detect a coherent unrestricted warfare strategy behind China's domestic policies, provocations in the South China Sea, and African development projects. For now, unrestricted warfare is more theory than practice.
Summertime and the research is easy. Which means I’ve been spending a lot of time in virtual places, namely the shattered New York of Crysis 2, the sandstorm blasted Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line, the sundrenched resort from hell of Bulletstorm... well, you get the point. Summertime. They’re similar games: AAA titles released in the past few years, shooters with ambitions, and of course the use of a major city as a playground for destruction. But even if I’m deep in distraction, I can’t turn my brain off, and if you’ll forgive me going a little Cyborgology/BLDGBLOG here, I’d like to talk about the ethics and aesthetics of ruined urbanity in contemporary video games.
I’m not using ethics according to its commonsense definitions, and I apologize in advance. By ethics, I mean a rather literal definition of ‘right action’; what can be done and what should be done in any given situation. Ethics in video games are rather constrained compared to the full set of moral possibilities in the physical world, but designers and players still have certain codes of conduct, or at least stereotypical patterns of action.
I’ve been playing shooters since shareware copies of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom up through pretty much every major title since then, and it’s completely uncontroversial that while the games have gotten better looking, the level design has gotten a lot simpler. It used to be that you could (and frequently would) get lost in levels, circling endlessly while looking for the keys to the exit. In modern shooters, there is only one path, and it comes with one-way doors to make sure you don’t get turned around.
(Image from Kotaku)
The graphical technology of these early games wasn’t particularly advanced. Enemies were crude sprites and level geometry limited to simple polygons and textures, but the level design was baroque. The environments of Doom and its generation was the dungeon: a maze of twisting corridors, locked doors, hazardous floors, bottomless pits, and wandering monsters. Some of the dungeons were industrial themed, other medieval or fantasy, but pretty much all FPS games were linked dungeons. Aesthetics was secondary to ethics. The Doom comic is practically Dadaist in its approach to the subject matter, but it makes a worthwhile point about the absurd omnipresence of radioactive waste in the demon-infested Mars base. The presence of toxic waste is irrelevant to the game. What matters is that there are floors that cannot be walked on.
The ethics of the dungeon are simple: Survive. The ethical course carries you through the level as fast as possible with a minimal expenditure of limited resources like health and ammo for the room clearing weaponry. Looming over the game was a fate worse than death (which after all merely required reloading); winding up in a situation where due to unwise play, further advancement was impossible.
From a design standpoint, the goal is therefore to create dungeons that reward smart play, noticing patterns, having a good instinct for layout, and creating games that can be learned. But there’s a fine line between making dungeons that are predictable and boring, or insanely punishing and frustrating. Nobody appreciates a good dungeon these days.
AAA shooter gameplay has converged to a single gameplay model; linear advancement along a corridor full of cover, with movement limited by the presence of enemies. Performing a moderately tricky hand-eye coordination task of matching wavering crosshairs with a small greyish-brown target on a brownish-grey background allows the player to advance to the next piece of cover. Taking too long to perform this task is punished with delay, either a few seconds crouching with a blurry red screen, or a few minutes restarting from the last checkpoint after ‘dying’. Beating the game mostly takes persistence.
As you can tell, there’s not much to this gameplay, but it sells and it’s a decent way to kill a few hours. The only thing that distinguishes AAA shooters these days is the spectacle. And this spectacle, more often than not, is of the destruction of cities? What ethics does this aesthetic imply?
I believe the destruction of cities is used to inculcate a sense of amorality, allowing players to experience the vicarious thrill of breaking ethical rules in a familiar location. The breakdown of the city is a visual representation of the breakdown in society that makes it acceptable, nay required, to machinegun endless hordes of enemies.
Spec Ops does this the best of the games in the introduction. It has been critically praised for the ethical complexities of its plot, and the slow descent into madness of its protagonist. The march through Dubai, buried by endless sandstorms and inhabited by half-mad mutineers and refugees, is a perfect match for the progress of the player towards the end. Geometry and gameplay become one and the same, in a shattered wonderland that makes us question our lust for violence
Crysis 2 does this far less adeptly. New York is infected with an alien biological weapon, leaving bodybags and blistered corpses strewn in offices and Subway tunnels. Creepy Private Military Contractors hunt you down for crimes that you didn’t commit. And the ground itself is broken by alien lithoships that lurk in Manhattan’s bedrock, lifting chunks of the city into the sky in anti-gravity fields. But where Spec Ops was laser focused on the psychology of the characters, Crysis 2 is all over the place. The ruined city does nothing more than make us feel discomforted and vaguely patriotic as it bombards us with post 9-11 schmaltz. Like summer blockbuster The Avengers, the game plays on our sentiments rather than make a statement.
Bulletstorm is the purest of the games, boisterous and relentless testosterone fueled parody of the genre. But Bulletstorm is at least honest, and has a few gameplay innovations. Your most powerful weapon is the environment itself. Guns are an inefficient way to lay waste to the various mutant gangs. Rather, enemies can be kicked into spikes, giant cactuses, electrified wires, exploding barrels, etc for bonus points with The Mighty Boot. The skillshot system inspires a more daring, and a deeper appreciation of the game’s environment compared to most shooters.
What’s the point? I’m a fan of good games, and I don’t want to inhabit dungeons or view senseless spectacles. The Call of Duty series’ Bruckheimer-esque world tour of destruction (New York, London, Berlin, Prague, Paris…) does its job of supporting a narrative of empty jingoism, but games with literary ambitions need to have an equally strong theory of space and destruction.
This is not just empty blabber. Real soldiers think about space and destruction all the time. I want to quote Israeli Paratrooper Brigade commander General Aviv Kokhavi, from one of my favorite papers, Weizman’s Lethal Theory.
“‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is: How do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place that is forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.
This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. . . . I said to my troops, “Friends! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!”’
Some of the best contemporary games let us play with space. Portal makes puzzles fun again with addition of a single wormhole. Mirror’s Edge invites us to see rooftops as spaces for momentum and the flow of parkour. Bulletstorm is about aligning enemies and fatal terrain. Minecraft takes mastery of the dungeon to its logical conclusion, allowing adept players to construct their own labyrinths and monuments. Is it too much to ask our game designers to do something interesting with their virtual worlds, to let us walk through walls as well?
Last week I had the pleasure of going back to the Bay for the second Breakthrough Dialog. It was wonderful to get some cool air, to see all my friends (with the notable exception of Jesse Jenkins, who is too busy going to MIT, testifying before Congress, getting married, and going on a honeymoon in Italy to put in an appearance. The dialog was 17% less credible due to his absence), and meet the 2012 BTGeneration Fellows, who are incredibly intelligent and well-qualified. I can't wait to see what they'll do. Of course, the fact that my friends are wonderful, and that the Bay Area is a great place to be a hedonist are not very bloggable. What follows is my (scattered, disorganized) thoughts on the Dialog. This is by no means complete, but it should be a partial picture of what I thought was interesting or provocative.
The main subject of the dialog were "Wicked Problems", areas of political and scientific controversy where even basic facts are determined by how the problem is framed and preexisting biases of the involved parties. Steve Rayner started the day by observing that a good heuristic for wickedness is that whenever government declares war on a noun, there's is probably a wicked problem. Wicked problems are not problems so much as persistent and insolvable social conditions, and the way we attempt to tame them is mostly a matter of our preferred method of arriving at solutions. Using Mary Douglas's Cultural Theory of Risk, Rayner elucidated the ways in which hierarchical, competitive, and egalitarian institutions attempt to organize themselves while disorganizing other ways of resolving the wicked problem. He suggested that we should try to keep all three methods in play, what he called "The Law of Minimum Requisite Priority".
Mark Sagoff and Nico Stehr followed. To paraphrase, both of them offered the hypothesis that wicked problems arose in the 1960s, as the credibility and power of the state weakened, and the levee en mass of Napoleonic battles was replaced by the technological style of the Cold War. An increasingly pluralistic and open society diminished the ability of anybody to exercise power.
Nobody will ever criticize The Breakthrough Institute for a lack of ambition. Wicked problems are by definition big and almost insoluble. I am personally aligned with Steve Rayner when he argued that the phrase might be a misnomer, orienting people towards trying to find an illusory solution rather than the persistent work of maintaining our industrial society. Much of the political process these days seems to be about gaining a permanent majority, the institutionalization of political programs, and trying to use coercive and apocalyptic rhetoric to force permanent closure of controversies. Deeming something "wicked" is not yet a sufficient weapon to halt groups who claim to have a solution. I'm also doubtful that there's enough similarities between different types of wicked problems that something is gained by treatinTg them as a common class. But recognizing the contingency and stickiness of these issues is probably better than the alternative.
The next panel, "Beyond Parks and Recreation" focused on the future of conservation, using lessons from the quickly developing Amazon Rainforest and Mongolia. Probably the most shocking part of this panel was delivered by Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservatory and one of the leading conservationists alive today, who argued for a deeper engagement between environmentalists and global corporations. Global corporations are like keystone species, they control the flow of energy and material at a high level, and while they all do environmental impact assessments, most of them are superficially focused on energy efficiency. Only deep knowledge of both conditions on the ground and the engineering processes of the corporation can improve ecological outcomes. And finally, big multinationals are frequently easier to work with, because they have a public reputation that they care about, and they'll modify policies to avoid being exposed. Some valuable unconventional wisdom from Kareiva.
The third panel, on "The Future of Nuclear", featured a fight between Tom Blees, a proponent of the Integral Fast Reactor, and Burton Richter and Oliver Morton, two conventional nuclear experts. Blees argued that the IFR is a technically sweet solution to supply the world's energy, while Richter countered that while nuclear energy is safe in public health terms, it is profoundly distrusted, and Morton said that historically, nuclear agencies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and that plants must be expensive to be safe. Nuclear energy could be competitive, at prices two to three times what we pay today. There were a lot of technical arguments about the cost per kilowatt of given plant designs, and their actual safety. At the end of the day, I think that Richter and Morton are closer to being correct. Real nuclear plants are complex and expensive, and the kinds of investments required to improve nuclear would require handing billions of dollars over to nuclear scientists and investors who face a profound deficit of public trust for good, historical reasons. Barring a seismic cultural shift or a demonstration project that blows all expectations away, nuclear has a steep slope to climb.
The next day started with a panel on "Hamiltonian Liberalism" by Michael Lind and Roger Piekle Jr. Lind summarized the arugments of his book Land of Promise which links a Schumpeterian/Kondratiev reading of economic history based on cycles of growth around major technologies like steam, internal combustion, and computers, with political cycles between Hamiltonians who want an active federal government, and Jeffersonians who fear a dependent citizenry. American history alternates between Hamiltonian resolutions to majors crises and Jeffersonian backlashes. Pielke, while largely agreeing with Lind, argues that the dramatically larger size of the economy today makes historical examples problematic. "In 1800 the size of the entire US economy (GDP in 2005 dollars) was the same size as the GDP of Pascagoula, Mississippi in 2005. (Data from here and here.) By 1850 the US economy had grown to the size of Rhode Island's 2005 GDP, by 1900 it was Virginia, and 1950 it was the size of California's 2005 GDP." Even now, we're not sure where jobs come from, and certainly, neither Obama nor Romney know.
I found this panel both satisfying and depressing. Satisfying, because apparently I know about as much about innovation as the experts (I guess getting a PhD in this stuff is good for something), and depressing because they don't have any better answers than I do. One thing I do want to note is that big infrastructure projects can't be separate from failure and cronyism. Railroads in the 19th century looked a lot more like the right-wing depictions of Solyndra than the heroic construction of America.
The next panel was on "The Future of the Welfare State", featuring Bill Voegeli and Mark Schmidt. Bill is a card-carrying conservative, and for the benefit of the overwhelmingly liberal/progressive audience explained the Republican opposition to the welfare state. Conservatives see many costs to welfare. It attentuates the thick bonds that bind a community together, replacing them with thin financial links between government agents and dependent welfare citizens. It leads to a waste of human potential, as people live the life of a perpetual grad student-minus the scholarship (personal note: ouch). The communitarian values expoused by liberals are fundamentally anti-American. On an economic side, high taxes reduce competitiveness and government spending is filled with waste. And finally, it reduces politics to a clamoring of interest groups looking for a bigger handout, destroying democratic self-governance and inspiring limitless commitments. Mark Schmidt offered a much less spirited defense, saying that liberals need to reconstruct the social contact and figure out what programs do we need provide people with the resources to make the most of their potential. In particular unemployment insurance lets businessiness adapt to the business cycle.
I'm going to have to get on my soapbox here, because this issue really bugs me. I disagree with Voegeli but he did a much better job of advancing his argument that Schmidt, which mirrors how conservatives have been kicking that crap out of liberals at the ballot box. Empirically, welfare spending is about 50% of the budget (infographic) and only going up as the Baby Boomers get older and sicker. It will eat the entire budget in a few decades. But the liberal reconstruction of welfare has been feckless and irrelevant, abandoning the field to jerkwads like Paul Ryan.
The future of the welfare state is intimately tied up with state power , the body politic, and how we conceive of it and what it does in the world. Sovereign state power is based around the defense of the state in the person of it's ruler. The sovereign state is literally a man with a shiny hat and sword who kills anybody who threatens him, or by extension his land and citizens. This pre-modern notion of the state is durable, but has in practice been replaced by a different state, one that measure, monitors, and intervenes to encourage or discourage the flourishing of its citizenry.
We need to be asking, "Does this program make us flourish as a people? Does it make us stronger as a nation?" A nation that lets the elderly freeze on the street is one that demands a hard-hearted citizenry, one that is low in trust and therefore weak. Conversely, a nation that gives hip replacements to 80 year-olds while cutting education is one that is not investing wisely, and is also weak. Now, I can't make everybody read The History of Sexuality Vol.1, let alone interpret it the same way I do, but I believe that this biopolitical notion of the state is firmer foundation for welfare than some vague notion of justice, fairness, or the social contract. Conservatives are winning because they have an actual theory about the state and liberty, and liberals need one as well. This, at least, moves the debate inside political boundaries where liberalism can win on the merits, rather than "death panels" and "mah freedoms!"
The final panel, "Left Behind", featured Scott Winship and Susan Meyer, talking about inequality and opportunity. This was some fairly technical inequality, and at this point my attention was thoroughly burned out, so all I can say is we're less equal and less mobile than ever before, and it's not getting any better.
So, that was the Breakthrough Dialog. Not sure what I learned, or what wicked problems were resolved, but we're trying, and at this point in time, trying is a lot more than most people are doing. Now, about that election...
(image credit to Matt Bors)