Sunday, March 24, 2013

Is It Just Me?

Every generation tends to see the world as beset by unprecedented crises.  And it's certainly true that there have been times fraught with great social upheaval coupled with accelerating technological change.  So I'm not sure how I should interpret my perception of global events in 2013, but by every objective measure we're all - humanity and human society - in a situation we've never faced before.  It's just too many things, happening altogether too fast, either without solutions or without the will to implement the necessary solutions.

We have climate change, the big impending crisis that will alter the ability of the earth to sustain large human populations within 100 years, a mere tick of the ecological clock, and despite the solutions being available and obvious to all, virtually nothing being done.  But we also have eliminated our ability to treat bacteriological illnesses with antibiotics.  The simple process of mutation-driven evolution - a process denied even today by a large number of people due to a preference for primitive mythology - is creating antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria before our very eyes.  In some cases, we are down to one, or even NO effective treatments.  And it should be recognized that the antibiotics in use for the last century were derived from naturally occurring compounds, essentially the 'low hanging fruit' of the anti-bacterial world.  Now we just have to try to guess what might work - and the answer might very well be nothing.

Politically and economically, the world is unraveling at an even faster rate.  The great European economic integration project is collapsing under the weight of nationalist resistance to community responsibility.  In the United States, a bizarre strain of tribal radicalism has overtaken one of the two political parties, supported whole-heartedly by the most virulent expression of institutional corruption in modern memory.  The result is an utter inability to govern the largest economy in the world at this critical time, with what policies that are being implemented exactly the wrong ones practically, but implemented nonetheless for ideological and political reasons.

The shift of the global economic center of mass eastward has begun, but neither China nor India appear to be positioned for sustainable growth, or even the maintenance of the status quo.  India has huge infrastructure and economic problems and is faced off against both China and Pakistan, and China has a huge, diverse, ultimately un-governable population and an immediate ecological crisis of unprecedented toxicity and magnitude.

A century of corruption and institutional kleptocracy, coupled with a cold war legacy of unlimited supplies of arms and ideologies has left Africa increasingly in violent tatters. From Libya to Mali to CAR, Congo and Rwanda to Sudan, South Sudan and Nigeria, the fighting over political, tribal and sectarian ascendancy and access to resource wealth is accelerating and spreading like wildfire.

In the Middle East, Iraq and Iran have evolved unsustainable political structures that cannot survive intact, Syria and Egypt are in different stages of the same kind of endless civil war, Israel is starting to pay a real global price for the brutal occupation of Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan are nothing but battered proxies for their larger neighbors

It just seems like too many tipping points. All of which are exacerbated by the power of instantaneous global communications and the easy availability of powerful weapons. Unstable populations, failing governance, wealth inequality, food water and resource shortages, nuclear weapons and radical ideologies all coming together at once to...what?  That's the real question.  It certainly seems like the status quo cannot last, that we're seeing a sea change  in the way the world works. The conflicts are endless, the powerful, despite their wealth have less ability to influence the world, violence and revolution seem contagious and governing institutions are crippled - all at a time when humanity needs to work together to avert the problems we've created for ourselves.

Who knows?  Maybe it is just another generational set of challenges.  Maybe it's not leading to some kind of major upheaval.  Maybe we'll all just struggle along the way we always have.

But I wouldn't bet MY money on that.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Rise of the Robots - Golden Gate Bridge Edition

To recap, American labor force participation rates are in free-fall.  A lot of this was sort of obscured by the recession, but now, with unemployment stubbornly holding at very high levels and the ranks of the long-term unemployed and unemployable growing every quarter, it is becoming painfully clear that this is not a trend that will be reversed, even if we can somehow sustain a robust recovery in the face of Republican austerity.  It is still being debated, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that a lot of this decline in working humans can be attributed to skyrocketing numbers of jobs being taken by intelligent machines.  As computers become more powerful and much cheaper, sensors become far more capable than human eyes and ears and hands and software becomes more complex and intelligent, there are more and more jobs that can be done better, faster and cheaper by robots, machines and computers.

But in some cases, the rush to replace costly, fragile humans with machines can overlook some challenges.  The old adage that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it seems worth deep consideration.  The fact is, the robots can do a better job from the standpoint of the business unit, but may have inherent limitations when that job faces the public.

Which brings us to the Golden Gate Bridge.  No, not to jump.  March 26th, next week, will be the last day that there will be human toll-takers on the the famous red suspension bridge.  Now, in one sense, the job of toll-taker is an ideal one for machines to take.  Tedious and repetitive, the entire job consists of moving currency back and forth between a driver and a drawer.  And the FasTrak automated toll payment system, utilizing RFID transponders and a camera-based enforcement mechanism works very well indeed.  Despite the fact that I cross the bay area bridges only rarely, I have been a FasTrak user for years, and find it to be a much better system than one could have hoped.

But here's the thing - for those times when the customer chose, there was always the alternative option of stopping and paying the toll with cash.  As of Wednesday, that option will no longer exist.  Everyone will pay using FasTrak, a credit card deduction system or will receive a bill in the mail.  No accommodation for kids, tourists, rental cars or borrowed cars will exist.  And, of course, if you have a new car that still has the paper license plates on it, crossing the bridge is effectively free.

This is going to be a huge problem for a few weeks or months.  But it's going to be an ongoing problem for much longer than that.  I'm certainly no Luddite  and I don't think we should preserve jobs just because the incumbent job-holder is a human - although we are, at some point, going to have to figure out how to take care of millions of people who will never hold gainful employment again - but the withdrawal of ALL the human-toll takers and the removal of any non-automated payment solution seems premature at best.  Just as companies have in some cases decided the cost and inefficiency of human receptionists far outweighs the cost in goodwill engendered by an automated phone system, it seems likely that we have not truly seen the last human toll-taker on Bay Area bridges.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Lost Decade - Lessons From the Debacle in the Desert

Sometimes y'just gotta turn Mother's picture
to the wall
A lot of consideration of the invasion and occupation of Iraq on the 10th anniversary of the event.  Not a few mea culpas from otherwise stalwart liberals who were taken in by the whole mythology, and the same mindless, unreflective and wildly unrealistic chest pounding from the so-called Hawks on the right.  For what it's worth - essentially a bucket of warm spit - I was very vocally and strenuously opposed to the invasion.  This was predicated on two certainties - not beliefs, not constructs, but concrete certainties.  First, that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with or without various types of unconventional weapons, did not represent even the slightest, most fanciful threat to the United States.  Even without absolute compliance with the IAEA inspection regime, there was enough international observation and military power in theater to prevent the Baath government from doing anything of consequence.  Second, and by far the most profoundly, aggressive war is always wrong, and always fails.  This is not the same as the old "the good guys always win" trope, but rather a case where starting & winning a war in the modern world are almost always mutually impossible.

There is a reason why starting wars is usually frowned upon, and is historically an ultimately unprofitable undertaking.  America is rightly proud of her earlier commitment to ending wars rather than starting them.  As children, we were taught that events like the German invasion of Poland, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the North Korean invasion of the South were not just wrong, but acts of comprehensive evil that led to utter destruction and ruin.  Invading a nation with whom your nation is not at war is by definition a desperate bet-the-farm move, because you will have to use such overwhelming force and such brutal tactics to control the population, the borders and prevent other nations from working together to roll back your aggression that the days where such an undertaking could actually have a definitive outcome are long past.

If there is any single overarching lesson to be learned from the hubris and horror of the American experience, it may be that the world is a very complicated place, and he who over-simplifies a problem and therefore doesn't think hard enough about his response is guaranteed to fail.  There is more than one kind of war.  There is more than one kind of peace.  There is more than one kind of revolution.  There is more than one kind of democracy.  There is more than one kind of dictator.  The invasion was morally and ethically wrong, and what's worse, it was utterly unnecessary.  But the people who ordered it were right about something - there was never any doubt that the US military could quickly defeat the Iraqi armed forces, go to Capitol and depose the Baath government.  The blunders that followed were all based on calculations of what the US should do next.

Had the forces imposed a 90 day limit on their time in - country, overseen the creation of a transitional government, maintained the Army and police forces and sought to get Iraqi civil society up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible, we might have seen a different history.  Certainly there was going to be Sectarian violence - the minority Sunnis had brutally dominated and oppressed the Kurds and Shi'a for decades, and after they lost their absolute grip on power, blood was going to spill.  But without the occupation by foreign troops to focus the hatred and violence, perhaps cooler heads and some kind of rational process might have prevailed.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because attacking Iraq was a horrific crime in the first place, and to think anything good might come from something like that leaves the world in a very precarious position.  It is necessary to understand that in the 21st century, there is nothing to be gained by any nation from warfare.  Military force must be reserved for defense - of nations, of civilians, of humanity.  In a time in the near future when wars will be fought over things as basic as food and water, there is going to be a whole new set of rules.  We'd be well served to start thinking about them now.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Eurozone Calvinball

And no, you don't get a toaster
Headwinds.  That's what economic analysts called the Sequester's effect on the American economy.  The US economy appears to be consolidating its gains and beginning what could represent a real, accelerating recovery.  The only real threat to that are 'headwinds'.

Taking 85 billion dollars out of the economy in a sudden and altogether ham-handed fashion is definitely a headwind.  Logic, history and basic macroeconomics tell us that we should be shoveling coal on the fire, borrowing at virtually no cost to drive the recovery at least until unemployment falls to around 6% and inflation tops 3%.  Reducing spending at this point, people who don't have an ideological or political ax to grind agree, is risking the best chance we have at improving the biggest challenge to American economic stability - long term unemployment and the precipitous fall in labor force participation.

Of course the Republicans in Congress represent a Headwind all by themselves.  Although it isn't polite for the media to say it, there is no doubt to any more-than-casual observer that the Republican party has made a political calculation to keep the US economy mired in recession to whatever extent they can, in order to then try to blame the despised Obama for the electorate's economic miseries.  Taken together, these headwinds don't appear to be capable of derailing the recovery, although they will by definition reduce the robustness of the rebound and make the entire economic environment that much more fragile and vulnerable to external shocks.

Which brings us, this weekend, to Cyprus.  Cyprus is an international banking hub, used extensively by Russian mobsters and Eastern European criminals as a safe place to stash and launder their large piles of ill-gotten cash.  As a result, the Cypriot banking sector is very large compared to the rest of the Cypriot economy.  And now, that banking sector needs a bail-out.

Up until now, the one key premise underlying all the Eurozone economic interventions, by the ECB, the Bundesbank and even the IMF, was that in every bailout the banks creditors - in banking, that means the depositors and investors - would be kept whole.  Nobody was going to have to take a haircut.  That way, people, corporations and investment funds would be willing to continue to put money into even troubled Eurozone banks, knowing those funds were not at risk.

But the Germans are increasingly tired of funding the less robust of the Eurozone economies, and there is a moral sense at the ECB that the Russian mob shouldn't be the beneficiaries of their largess, so in an abrupt and unexpected reversal, the bailout includes an across-the-board haircut for depositors.  A one-time levy of 9.9% will be extracted from all deposits over €100,000.  That isn't actually all that surprising, because of the German resistance to bailing out Russian criminals.  But it doesn't stop there - there will also be a one-time levy on everyone else of 6.75%.  That means even the poorest bricklayer and fisherman will be asked to take a haircut in order that the banks holding their money get a bailout.  Tellingly, those banks' bondholders will not see their returns impacted - many of them are investors in Germany and Greece, and the central banks will protect their profits over the savings of individual Cypriot citizens.  No one should find this at all surprising.

The Bundesbank and the ECB like this solution - so the bankers in Italy, Spain and especially Greece are now looking over their shoulder. The genie is out of the bottle, and the big question is why would anyone leave big deposits in troubled banks now that, for the first time, depositor and investor haircuts are a reality?  As I write this, it's Sunday evening in Western Europe.  In Greece, Italy and Ireland in particular, people have to make a decision - either to have confidence that "it can't happen here" or to play it safe and withdraw their money from the local banking system.  If tomorrow morning sees lines of panicked depositors, we could see large capital shifts through the week and a full-on financial crisis by the weekend.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Manning Up

Brave, Committed, Important, and
a Criminal
I am, like most people on the ideological left, not a fan of the right wing press and blogosphere.  The reason for this is well known, and widely, if not universally acknowledged - they do not discuss the issues of the day honestly and critically, but rather work to make events conform to political and ideological preference no matter how absurd that effort makes them appear.

As such, I like to think of the liberal media as much more "reality-based", willing to discuss issues in an honest and factual way, accepting that not all outcomes will be favorable and not all the people in my tribe will do the right thing 100% of the time.  The fact that this biased behavior and disingenuous reporting is something we have come to accept from the right only makes it that much more cringe-worthy when I see it from the left.

Which brings us, sadly, to Bradley Manning.  The liberal media, particularly the blogs, want to portray him simultaneously as some kind of innocent, unwitting dupe and as a great hero of American democracy.  But, quite obviously, both are not, and cannot be, true.  The demands to "Free Bradley Manning" are both silly and utterly hopeless - missing the whole point of the exercise while denying the most basic, salient facts of the case.

Let's start with a premise: Bradley Manning is a criminal.  He broke the law, a law he was fully aware of, and chose willingly to violate.  Indeed, if there was not the risk of prosecution involved, it would be impossible to portray any of his activities with Wikileaks as heroic.  If the information was available in the public record, there would be nothing noteworthy about its publication.  It is fair to say that his current situation is the very thing that allows him to be presented as a man of courage.  It has always been a crime to release classified information, and in the course of the security clearance process this is made quite abundantly clear.  It is important to remember that Daniel Elsberg was prosecuted for releasing the Pentagon Papers.  The key difference between his case and Manning's is that Elsberg was a civilian and was therefore prosecuted in regular civilian court, and due to the government's dishonest and illegal acts (remember, this was in the time of Nixon) the case ended in a mistrial, with all charges dismissed.

As a member of the active duty military, Manning is rightly being prosecuted by a Court Martial under the UCMJ.  You and I might find the way he has been treated in custody to be offensive and deeply un-democratic, but in the end there is very little likelihood that his conditions of incarceration will be dispositive in this case.  On the other hand, people are absolutely correct to speak out on these matters.  Both the nature of the charges and the matter of his gross mistreatment at the hands of military prosecutors are topics that should be discussed, and challenged.  It is, once again, a case of the decline of American values at the hands of the very American system that was charged with preserving those values.

But that's where the purveyors of opinion should stop.  Manning is going to prison - he committed a crime and he understood the potential consequences.  It is not a matter of "Free Bradley Manning" - there is simply no mechanism for that.  It's time to stop acting as if prosecuting him for the crimes he committed is, itself, some kind of crime or injustice.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sequestration - Political Doomsday Device

Government-By-Crisis.  How's it working out for you?
I don't worry much about the Sequestration cuts.  Oh, make no mistake, I am fully onboard with Krugmanesque Keynesian Economics, and I fully believe that we should be borrowing and spending trillions now, while the money is so cheap it's actually free, in order to stimulate aggregate demand and create conditions that would support real domestic economic growth.  But I can't help but enjoy watching indiscriminate cuts to military spending, goring the ox of very serious people who believe federal government spending of the poor and elderly should be cut to pay for ever more investment in weapons and wars.  But my general comfort with these radical, poorly designed and clumsily executed across-the-board cuts to discretionary programs goes well beyond my pleasure in seeing the catastrophic predictions of American national peril as a result of a 5% cut to military spending proven utterly unfounded and patently ridiculous.

Sure, cutting 85 billion dollars in spending will certainly serve to reduce GDP growth this year, but GDP growth was anemic to start with, and the impact will be a kind of "Tears on a River" sort of thing.  And while it most certainly will not help the unemployment situation, most of the reductions in unemployment over the last year have been illusory, with very little improvement in the hardest-hit sectors and regions, while the problem of long-term unemployment just keeps getting worse.

But here's the thing.  Republicans and movement conservatives like to shriek about the deficit and the debt, but you'll notice they never DO anything about it.  Ever since the Reagan 80s, when the Republicans were in power they always increased the deficit, essentially never paying for any of the programs they instituted.  Deficit reduction was always left to those times when the Democrats were in power, and was therefore limited in scope and impact.  The Clinton administration, for example, balanced the budget and actually produced an operating surplus, but at a time when America was at full employment and personal incomes and wealth were, for the only time in a generation, actually rising.  This time, despite the fact that there is a Democratic President in office, will be significantly different.  The cuts are deeper, the economy is depressed and fragile, and real unemployment is in double figures, so the impact of the cuts will be obvious, and the suffering will be pushed down to the neighborhood level.  All while the arguments at hand clearly leave the Republicans in Congress, not the Obama White House, holding the bag for all the suffering.  They're demanding an all-cuts strategy for deficit reduction, but the Sequester IS an all-cuts strategy for deficit reduction, so people are going to actually see what that kind of blind, ideologically driven policy will produce in the real world.

So for the first time, people on Main Street are going to see what the America being demanded by Republicans in Washington and their corporate paymasters looks like.  What spending capped at 18% of GDP would bring.  What the Paul Ryan budget would create.  People in Boston and Chicago and San Francisco will suffer, but so will people in Tulsa and Lexington and Houston.  And in the 2014 mid-term elections, Democrats are going to be able to hearken back to these events, and say "That is the vision they are offering you.  An America that cannot afford to care for it's own citizens, one that creates suffering for the middle class and the poor in order to protect the riches of a tiny percentage of wealthy Americans".  And this time it won't be rhetoric.  There will be facts on the ground, experienced and cataloged by those to whom the Republicans will have to explain.  They will justify their actions, but the damage will be done - people will see where these policies actually lead, and while the result may well not be a mass conversion to a liberal ideology, it will certainly lead people to demand sanity, pragmatism and even honesty from their political leadership.

America is a modern, technologically and industrially advanced nation.  We live in a twenty-first century characterized by intelligent devices, high-speed travel and a global economy.  America cannot survive with an underfunded government - dependence solely upon for-profit undertakings will eliminate all the benefits that created the modern American economy, from education to infrastructure to Big Science R&D.  The Republican dedication to protecting all the wealth of America's richest citizens and corporations comes at a catastrophic cost, and will result in a place where wide swaths of people are suffering.  And while I often note that Americans are too divided by pointless ideology to unite at the polls and too comfortable to take to the streets to demand the restoration of democratic governance, if there is one direct path to that outcome, it is to take away their last vestiges of comfort and security.  And THAT is the lesson of the Sequester.