Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Demography and Productivity

The Economist blog says that
there is substantial evidence that in modelling the welfare state, fertility is an endogenous variable: the more secure the safety net, the less likely people are to have children. Governments have largely nationalised the traditional functions of the family, but they have not eliminated the need for future generations to care for the current ones in their dotage. Unfortunately, the assumption of family duties by the state allows people to free ride on the fertility of others—which they seem to be trying to do in massive numbers. As we've mentioned before, a society where everyone tries to free ride on everyone else is headed for disaster. Europe's safety nets, or at least the pension systems, may contain the seeds of their own destruction.
Yes, but why don't family-care (child-care, etc) increase fertility by lowering the cost of child-rearing? I would have expected that this would compensate for the increased end-of-life independence. Two thoughts: (a) Maybe the breakup of extended family (due to independence from increased wealth, we don't have to live with parents and cousins) increases the effective cost of child-rearing more than the welfare state decreases it. (b) Maybe a whole lot of people just want to live alone. [tapping away in a silent room, thinking of my adult children in their various apartments in their various cities, looking across the room at Tom Myers with family around 1900, and at a very large painting of several uniformed servants contemplating a baby as they have tea, probably also around 1900.]

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Plan for Victory: Part I (Problem Statement)

When people on the web talk about plans for victory, lately, they mostly seem to mean victory in Iraq -- that's the War, for them. Not for me; I'm concerned with the Long War. This post is mostly a response to Tom Barnett's second book, Blueprint for Action, a book which I think is very interesting, very insightful, but less than completely convincing. Rather than a review or a direct commentary, I'm just putting my own mistakes on record. Here's the way I see it.

We're not in trouble yet. 3000 dead American civilians; 3000 dead American soldiers; maybe half a million or so dead Iraqis (maybe many more, maybe many less, but a lot.) Armed Liberal points out the Jerusalem Post report that

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported this month that at least 914,000 Iraqis have left their homes....
The situation is bad. Still, I don't think we're in trouble yet. Trouble is when we have half a million or so dead Americans and a tens of millions dead around the world. Big trouble is lots, lots worse than that. You don't think it can happen? You think terrorism is an overhyped nuisance? Well, I sort of agree: it can't happen now, at least I don't think so, and terrorism now is in some ways an overhyped nuisance. I'm talking about a timeframe that probably doesn't start for ten years, and might not start for thirty. But it will start. In the thirty-one years since I started working on my PhuD in computer science, Moore's Law has increased computer bang-for-the-buck by a factor of approximately one million: 20 doublings. People haven't changed. In the next thirty years, technology will go on getting more so, and up to a point (past which I have no predictions) people will go on not changing. That's the problem.

Defense Tech: Tomorrow's Insta-Weapons says of CNC and of course more general FabLab developments that

In the CNC world, proliferation becomes a matter of design, software, and materials, rather than finished systems. What happens when North Korea or Iran starts selling missiles as digital files rather than on ships which can be intercepted? When private designers and companies create designs which anyone can produce? Two words: Watch out.

Of course I'm not just concerned with designer bombs or missiles, even the nuclear kind; we also have designer diseases coming down the pipeline. I assume that you'd have trouble getting smallpox replicated by DNA 2.0 Inc., which advertises

DNA 2.0 Inc. is a leading provider for synthetic biology. With our gene synthesis process you can get synthetic DNA that conforms exactly to your needs, quickly and cost effectively.

Well, I hope they'd be reluctant. But in fact I'm expecting that somewhere early in that ten-to-thirty year period it will be possible for a Kim or a Khameini to generate fun crossbreeds of smallpox and influenza with very high mortality rates (and enough variation in the crossbreeds to make it unlikely that any single vaccine, or even any dozen vaccines, will do much good). Later on in the development, we'll see privately owned prototyping/fabrication labs which can generate robots far beyond the levels discussed by Defense Tech: Attack Of The Genius Robot Cockroach Swarm:

are we really ready for killer robots yet? “There is a reluctance to entrust lethal missions to autonomous robots,” says Thaler. “However, the bad guys may not share the same reservations. The escalation is inevitable."

My own imaginings have less to do with killer robots; killer robots have to work against opposition, under high-stress conditions that can't easily be simulated or tested out in secret. Killer robots will come gradually from testing out developments like Samsung's $200K machine-gun sentrybots. The most effective secret developments will be systems whose high-tech components have to do with production rather than combat, so they can be debugged without bangs. There will be swarms of robot miner-fish, for example, collecting uranium ore from undersea sites, and then other swarms which build nuclear and thermonuclear bombs -- 1950s technology. We're moving that way already: Winds of Change reports on "Fibonacci's Nukes" as The Road to Atomic Perdition:

In Britain's The Times Online, Richard Beeston reports that 4-6 Arab states announced that they were embarking on programs to master atomic technology...

Well, maybe we'll have killer robots too, created by robot fablabs, but here I'm concentrating on things which we know can be done because they have been done already; I'm just saying they'll be done more cheaply, by small groups, hiding in what Tom Barnett calls the "Gap": countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, Burma and North Korea, and so on and on and on. The Gap is a big hiding place. Barnett's Gap is basically defined in terms of disconnectedness (and recent military events) which more or less automatically makes it a big hiding place. My view of the Gap is slightly fuzzier -- I see corruption, authoritarianism, and kleptocracy as providing Gapacity even where we have not lately been shooting people. So I'm a bit more worried about Russia and China (and the US, for that matter) than Barnett is. Still, I'm much less worried about Russia and China than about Iran. Barnett wants to deal with Iran, saying essentially that Iran should

abandon terrorism and their support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, shut down the nuclear-weapons program, and then the West will treat Iran as a strategic partner in the region.

Unfortunately that's not a quote from Barnett; it's a quote from the conservative Captain's Quarters blog, which continues with

That's hardly a policy shift -- it's the carrot we've been offering Iran for years.

Barnett knows that, but I don't see that he really deals with it; [update he wants to accept Iran's inevitable nuclearization, which I see as accepting an inevitable nuclear arms race within the Middle East to be followed by inevitable nuclear, umm, incidents.] His interpretation seems to be that the Iranian government is basically rational, and can be dealt with by improved connectivity in itself. I believe that he's overestimating the rationality of the human animal -- himself and me definitely included. Barnett notes the triumph of South Vietnam:

North Viet Nam has won the war, and Saigon the peace ! ... Our stuff simply sells.

Yes, that's true, if you remember that a non-nuclear North Vietnam needed a couple of million boat people and hundreds of thousands (millions?) dead in order to finally close the deal. Iran in the immediate future will have far greater (nuclear) destructive power, far greater (oil) wealth to spread its destruction, and an arguably far more destructive ideology, one that glorifies death rather than wealth. Closing the deal with Iran will not be impossible (I hope), just proportionately more expensive. Our stuff simply sells -- but some who are exposed to Western culture, well-educated within that culture, simply feel alienated by it. Call them sales-resistant, because they've been sold on something else. As Tawfik Hamid points out,

There are millions of passive supporters of terror who may be poor and needy but most of those who do the killing are wealthy, privileged, educated and free.

And yet -- we're still not in trouble, yet. [upd And the solution is definitely connectivity.] I'm not that far from Barnett.

I consider big trouble, cataclysmically big trouble, to be essentially inevitable -- unless the Gap is gone. If the Gap is gone, if the Core includes the whole world, then the problem reduces to a nuisance where we clarify the relationship between liberty and privacy, and we lose some privacy so that groups of bad guys get caught before they do bad things. Technology can do that, with help from the law. (Maybe I mean the law can do that, with help from technology? Something like that.) This will not create a utopia: civil libertarians will fuss, and they'll be right to. There will be lots of nuisances, including people killing people. Overall, however, it will be survivable. That will be victory. That victory is what we need a plan for. The Gap has to go, being replaced with free minds and free markets. (No, I'm not a libertarian.)

We don't need all countries to be democratic, although we might get that. We do need governments which are moderately transparent, moderately consensual, moderately willing to back off from private lives and even property. If we get them we're sort of okay; we can move on towards some version of a Singularity. If we don't get them, I expect big trouble in less than thirty years, less than the next millionfold improvement in computer power. Maybe a lot less than thirty years. Hmmm -- I'm fifty-four, my grandparents all died in their eighties. My youngest child is ten.

Update: I see I was quoting the more aggressive version of Moore's Law: 18-month doubling. I should have used the 24-month, which is a mere 32,000-fold increase in 30 years. So far as I can tell, this makes no difference to anything else I was saying.

Update2: The pieces of the "plan" are at IIa-Basics, IIb-Sinews of War, and IIb(ii)


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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

How will they do?

I'm hoping, of course, that the new majority says:
  • We Won! Yippee!
  • We're a majority...we're in charge!
  • There are people in the Gap, almost defining the Gap, who want to kill us!
  • They're developing nukes and bioweapons!
  • They're developing delivery systems (including suicide bombers)!
  • They will eventually succeed, if they last that long!
  • We need a SysAdmin force!
But I don't expect them to say that, or I'd have voted accordingly. I expect them to be just as responsible as certain Republicans were about Clinton. However, I admit that I did vote for H.Clinton as Senator yesterday, not that her re-election was in any doubt, but because I think she'd be a less disastrous President than a lot of Republicans (or almost any Democrats) I could think of. I think she does understand the line of reasoning above (except maybe the last step.) Hmm.... The Economist says that the new Democrats may be centrists:
The new crop of Democratic seats is heavily larded with conservative and moderate Democrats who are well to the right of their leadership.
I get the same view from Tom Barnett:
the centrists and conservative Dems being the new faces in the House...
Ed Driscoll reports on Galloping Towards The Center:
several individual conservative Republican candidates didn't win--but most far left anti-war types like Ned Lamont didn't clean-up, either. ...Democrats win when they move towards the center (just ask Bill Clinton), and right now, the center is where the action is.
I hope that's true. However, I see that Tom Schaller of TAPPED says the opposite:
* the vast majority of House Democratic nominees are pro-choice progressives running on anti-war, anti-Bush themes. Of the Democratic nominees in the 58 most-competitive House seats, only nine were self-described pro-lifers, according to research compiled by Media Matters. All supported embryonic stem cell research, all supported increasing the minimum wage, and all opposed privatizing Social Security.... Any suggestion that Democrats are winning by acting like conservatives or “Republican lite” candidates is simply false. Indeed, the big irony of this election is that the more conservative elements of the Republican congressional caucuses will survive, while GOP moderates pay for their party’s rightward shift.
Mudville Gazette does part of the data collection I'd like to have. Well, we'll see. Divided government is Good, as far as that goes. And the House has been way, way to my right. And I can take some pleasure in contemplating some Republicans who definitely deserved to lose. (But...some are still there that I would have liked to see gone.) And I don't much care about the minimum wage, and I don't see either side being serious about SocSec/Medicare (but I question the assumptions for the long-term disaster projections anyway), and I don't see either side being serious about free trade, though I think we lost a little ground in this election. Indeed, Jacob Weisberg says in Slate that
free trade has definitely left the building.
Still, I note Brad DeLong's rejoinder to Mankiw:
free trade does not appear to be a priority for the types of Republicans who get elected president--and definitely not for their staffs, a solid majority of whom understand neither the economic nor the foreign policy arguments for free trade.
Typical DeLongianism, but as so often I think he has a point there. Well, all I personally can do is go on giving to Spirit of America, which as I've mentioned tries to help the US military look more like a SysAdmin force; volunteer to help with Kabul U computer science courses (though I don't know that Hassan Adelyar actually used my solutions to his coding problems, etc.); and work on multimedia stuff for self-taught intermediate-level English language-learning. Possibly using Friedman's Free To Choose lectures as a base, which reminds me I'd better get back to work on the demo.

Update: Doc Searls quotes John Robb reviewing Fred Ickle:

The global order we enjoy today is unravelling. The reason is simple. Technological change is moving forward faster than social/political change. Eventually, ubiquitous access to rapidly advancing technology will make it possible for small groups to confront status quo political and social structures with weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological, and other unknown new technologies.
Well, that's the anti-Barnett view. My feeling right now is that yesterday's vote brought this vision just a little closer.

But maybe not.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More Election Thoughts

I was just looking at Michael Kinsley's summary of "Pelosi's Platform" in Slate:
Regarding Iraq specifically, the Democrats' plan has two parts. First, they want Iraqis to "assum[e] primary responsibility for securing and governing their country." Then they want "responsible redeployment" (great euphemism) of American forces.
And I looked back at the plan. And Pelosi's way-back-when press release, and the USA Today report:
"The American people need to know, if you win, what are your priorities," she said. Reid said the party is standing "with the people we have always stood with: seniors, students and the hardworking families of America. We intend to tackle the issues that matter most."
The issues that matter most. Yup:
The Democrats' plan would increase the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour from $5.15, grant authority to the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices with pharmaceutical companies for those in Medicare's drug program and cut student-loan interest rates — rising to 6.8% in July — by half.
Yeah. That really is the top of the list. The issues that matter most. Well, the minimum wage is a small tax on the legal use of unskilled labor; businesses will pay it in the short run, while in the long run it increases the profits available to those who can figure out how to replace laborers with gadgets. (Think about the automation behind the counter at McDonald's.) I have mixed feelings about it, but I really don't much care. Unlike Michael Kinsley, I do have a plan for victory: it's a Barnett/De Soto/Grameen Bank sort of a plan, with a whole lot of geeky add-ons because I'm not just a geek but a true believer in the saving grace of geekery. And what I do about it each year is give a whole bunch of money to Spirit of America, very slightly pushing the Armed Forces to develop their SysAdmin components -- even though this is not the way I'd go if it were up to me. And even though Barnett thinks (prev post) that his kinds of plans will be best pushed by a divided government, and even though I would love to support a divided (also hung, drawn, and quartered) government, and even though I am demonstrably near the opposite political pole from my Republican Congresscritter, I guess I will shortly go out and vote for his re-election because the kind of horrible mismanagement that he supports is not as bad as the dropping-out that I fear from a Democratic House; it leaves more SysAdmin options open. Also there's the protectionism issue, which I would still rank as far more important than the minimum wage. It happens that I favor explicitly redistributionist taxation, to some degree -- but I want a system to generate some wealth to be distributed. oh, dear.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Election issues

Election issues? Well, maybe Orson Scott Card is right:

There is only one issue in this election that will matter five or ten years from now, and that's the War on Terror. And the success of the War on Terror now teeters on the fulcrum of this election. If control of the House passes into Democratic hands, there are enough withdraw-on-a-timetable Democrats in positions of prominence that it will not only seem to be a victory for our enemies, it will be one.
Maybe. Or maybe Tom Barnett is right:
United we stood, but divided we'll stand taller Whatever your political affiliation, you should be pulling for the Democrats' return to majority power in both houses of Congress. I offer no partisan plea. I'm just convinced that a split government would be better for President Bush, our troops overseas and the world.
It happens that I disagree with both of them about a lot of stuff. Barnett has thought more about the SysAdmin concept, his pistol-packin'-Peace-Corps, that I think is central to the War on Terror...but Barnett is much more optimistic than I am about working with Iran, and substantially more optimistic than I about working with China. Maybe more important, it seems to me that neither Republicans nor Democrats are talking about SysAdmin development, but as Barnett himself has noted, there have been developments in that direction within the US military. Those have seemed to me to be the most hopeful developments we've had. Will this election affect them? Yes, I think it might: if Rangel becomes chair of Ways and Means, we do have evidence of how he'll try to use it: Anxious Dems eye power of the purse on Iraq:
But when pressed on how he could stop the war even if Democrats control the House during the last years of President Bush’s second term, Rangel paused before saying, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?”
Would Murtha become Majority Leader? Murtha's the guy whose seriousness on Iraq policy was established on Meet the Press:
we don’t have to be right there. We can go to Okinawa. We, we don’t have—we can redeploy there almost instantly.
This was not encouraging, and his comments afterwards didn't encourage me much either.

I suspect that we'll have a major shift in foreign policy two years from now. I hope it will be in the SysAdmin direction. If Congress stays Republican, then many bad things will happen and the current little bits of SysAdmin will go on, serving as a basis for future developments. If the Congressional majority is Democratic, then many bad things will happen and...well, I don't know.

In my own Congressional district, I've disagreed with Republican rep John McHugh about nearly everything, ever since redistricting brought him to us. I want to vote against him. But challenger Bob Johnson believes a whole lot of stuff I don't believe -- and his plan for Iraq is withdrawal.

Whenever I look at a website for one side, I want to vote for the other.

Update: On the same orientation quiz scale I checked out on recently, I see that John McHugh is a "hard-core Conservative", almost diametrically my opposite, and going down the list I've got to say: yup, he is almost diametrically my opposite. Is it possible for Johnson to be even more opposite than that? I dunno. I really, really, really dunno.