Monday, December 26, 2011

Vignettes of North Korea

by Richard Crews
If you live in North Korea, the chances are you are either in the military (42% of the population is active duty, paramilitary, or reserves), or hungry (callory intake average is less than half that in the "West"; 45% of the children are stunted by malnutrition).

If you are lucky enough to live in some sort of a house, there is no TV or Internet, but there is a radio speaker on the wall (that cannot legally be turned off) that wakes you up in the morning with political propaganda, and continues until your required bedtime at night.

You probably work in industry or agriculture--those are the two economic sectors that are created, run, and subsidized by the government. You probably also take part in the rich underground network of black market activities; otherwise you and your family could not survive.

You know that Kim Jong-il, officially called the "Great Leader," died December 17 and was succeeded by his 20-something-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, officially called the "Great Successor" or "Wise Leader."

You probably don't know that Kim Jong-il passed over his two other sons, Kim Jong-un's two older brothers, because they were simply too irresponsible to run the country. Or that their uncle, Jang Song-thaek, pretty much runs the country and probably assassinated Kim Jong-il (according to South Korean intelligence sources).

Two items of good news in this bleak landscape: One is that the southern half of the Korean peninsula, South Korea, is doing well economically and socially, and is ready and willing--at the drop of a coup d'├ętat--to run massive military forces north, with food supplies, etc. The other is that there is a Demilitarized Zone between the North and South, a corridor 2 1/2 miles wide and 160 miles long, that has been forbidden to human passage for several decades, and therefore has come to represent one of the most pristine and precious natural habitats on the planet.

Signing Statements

by Richard Crews
Isn't it wonderful the way Presidential Signing Statements--largely invented by Ronald Reagan but raised to an art form by G.W. Bush--have come back, in Obama's hands, to bite the Republicans in the ass?

Signing statements, written when a president signs a bill, indicate the president's objections--constitutional, political, or just rhetorical--to sections of the bill. It means that the Executive branch of the government--the only branch with any significant "just do it" ability--is not going to "do" much of anything about that particular wrinkle of the legislation.

As the New York Times said in March, 2009, "Mr. Bush ... broke all records, using signing statements to challenge about 1,200 sections of bills over his eight years in office, about twice the number challenged by all previous presidents combined...."

But Obama definitely got the message. He's issued quite a few signing statements: "Well now, let's see...I think that provision...and that provision...and that provision in this bill are unconstitutional, so I'll tell the Executive Branch to hold off on implementing them. Of course, if the Supreme Court decides (over the next several years) that any of those provisions ARE constitutional, I'll reconsider."

This is just another example of why we need a serious revamp of the federal government. For example, we should get rid of--
(1) lobby-driven legislation,
(2) the filibuster,
(3) the electoral college,
(4) campaign finance by corporations and the richest 1%,
(5) congressional graft (pork, insider trading, lobbying "retirement," etc.),
(6) convoluted revenue stream (the Income Tax Code represents "institutionalized corruption"),
(7) ad hoc accounting (for, example, during the G.W. Bush administration over a trillion dollars of spending--like two expensive wars--didn't make it onto the government's books)
(8) excessive government secrecy ("sunshine is the best disinfectant")
(9) legislated morality (including a "war" on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences--the U.S. locks up a higher percentage of its citizens than ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, including Russia, China, and Iran)
(10) and--last, but not least--signing statements.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Obvious Solutions

by Richard Crews
Many of the problems vexing the U.S. and the world have obvious solutions, solutions that are not politically easy, but are clear and simple.

The graying of the population and the consequent disastrous rises in the costs of Medicare and Social Security (and of corresponding programs in other countries) present one such series of problems.

For Social Security, the retirement age should be raised. When the current age limits were set, the life expectancy of U.S. citizens was 20 years younger than it is today. The allowable retirement age should be raised by one year every three years for the next several decades. In addition, Social Security should not be paid to people who don't need it; no one with an income over $100,000 a year or a net worth over a million dollars should be eligible to receive Social Security. These two steps would render Social Security solvent indefinitely.

Similarly, disallowing the wealthy who can afford to pay their own medical expenses from eligibility for Medicare would save the U.S. government tens of billions of dollars a year. But a more important factor that would reduce Medicare costs is eliminating fraud and abuse which currently account for over 10% of Medicare expenses. This could be accomplished cheaply and simply by contracting with American Express, VISA, or MasterCard to police the Medicare program. These private organizations have fraud and abuse threats similar to those of Medicare, but have losses due to these factors of about 0.1 %.

Greed and payment bonanzas in the financial industry could be curtailed by beefing up and enforcing reasonable regulations. This approach plus raising taxes on the wealthy could also solve the wealth and income inequity problems in the U.S., and the consequent advance of poverty and stagnation of the middle class.

Looking beyond finances, the energy dilemma--in simplest terms, pollution versus industrial stagnation--could be solved by worldwide development of Thorium-molten-salt nuclear reactors. This is a safe, clean, sustainable, proven technology whose main limitation is the popular prejudice against anything called "nuclear power" because of Uranium fission disasters like Chernoble and Fukushima.

And with cheap, abundant power, the world's water shortages become solvable through desalination--removing the salt from ocean water. Then with modern agricultural technology and frugal, fair distribution, the world's food crisis would be manageable as well.

The solutions to these--and certain other--U.S. and world problems are clear and simple. Their implementation is only impeded by short-sighted politics.

But there is one series of problems for which there is no evident solution: the problems raised by the dramatic advances in technology. These are not just the plague-prone globalized community (plague-prone because new, deadly viruses and bacteria can be transported around the world in a few hours--far out-pacing medical constraints) and the hyperinflation of tech-driven healthcare costs. More significantly, there is a technological "singularity" only a few years in the future; there is a mist into which no prognosticators car peer. New technologies proliferate and spread so rapidly and cause such dramatic changes in our activities, lifestyles, and environments, that it is impossible to know what disasters (as well as delights) lie just ahead.

And you can't solve problems you can't see coming--especially when they are coming at a million miles an hour.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Entrepreneurial Versus State-Run Capitalism

by Richard Crews
There is a great social experiment afoot in the world today. On the one hand, entrepreneurial capitalism--throwing the bait in the middle of the pool, and letting the sharks fight for it--appears, by clear historical evidence, to be the greatest societal wealth-generation system the world has ever known. It clearly beats out, on the one hand, both feudalism and its various derivatives and, on the other hand, centralized, politically manipulated government control of industrial-age wealth generation (the fall of the U.S.S.R. punctuated the end of that sentence).

But entrepreneurial capitalism cannot function unfettered: adult supervision appears to be essential. From Teddy Roosevelt's anti-monopoly oversight of the Robber Barons (in the first decade of the 20th century), through the excessive exuberance over public ownership that led to the Great Depression (in the 1930s), to the secretive and inventive greed of financial institutions leading up to the Great Recession (in the first decade of the 21st century), it seems clear that a strictly "boys will be boys" approach to swimming in shark-infested financial waters leads to severe distortions and disruptions of the engines of societal wealth generation.

But a different experiment is now afoot, one that is based on the question, if entrepreneurs and boards of directors (with some adult, government supervision to assure equitable, social-democratic wealth distribution) is so good at generating post-industrial wealth--particularly as the corporate units get bigger and bigger--why not have one vast state-run "corporation"? This seems reasonable. And China is trying this out. Business strategies in China--from price gouging to various methods of undercutting competitors--are evaluated and implemented on a national level. For example, the Chinese government, through the use of hundreds of billions of dollars of government subsidies, successfully cornered the world mining and production of rare-earth minerals; China simply put the rest of the world out of business by undercutting prices. For another example, displacing 1.3 million people and destroying irreplaceable ecological and archaeological treasures to build the Three Gorges Dam required only board-room type decisions; it did not require dealing with legally and politically sensitive eminent-domain issues or with complex regulatory and licensure constraints. For a third example, development of safe, efficient, Thorium-molten-salt nuclear power reactors is proceeding apace in China (and in Russia and India) but not in the U.S. or in any Western country because of political pandering to irrational public worries in the West.

So far the Chinese experiment seems to be going well. For example, government intervention to protect the Chinese economy from the burst of the worldwide housing and credit bubble in 2008 was quick and massive--and, unlike in the U.S. and Europe, effective. For another example, China has enormously expanded a consumerism-dedicated middle class. Thirdly, last year China passed Japan to become the second largest national economy in the world--behind only the U.S. And many economists and political savants predict that within the next couple of decades China will pass the U.S. to become the largest national economy in the world. Meanwhile, China has amassed trillions of dollars in board-room war-chest funds. (It could bail out the Euro-zone sovereign debt crisis if it chose, but the international political implications are horrendous.)

What seems to attract little comment is one profound historical observation: boards of directors make mistakes. The Chinese model has inadequate internal (or external) correctives. Sooner or later the "board of directors" that is China's centralized political governing authority will make a colossal boo-boo--they will produce an Edsel, introduce alcohol prohibition , bankrupt Lehman Brothers, or otherwise have a Alan-Greenspan moment on an unimaginably vast scale. (Perhaps they already have--there may already be such a boo-boo percolating up through the system.) And the world will go back to muddling along as best it can with the evolving fits and starts--the successes-failures-corrections process--of Western, social-democratic-regulated entrepreneurial capitalism.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Education Reform

by Richard Crews
In an Op Ed in the N.Y. Times today (Dec. 6, 2011), the authors (Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford) write that there are four--and only four--areas of education in which the federal government can usefully intervene.

"First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending.... States should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement."

"Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations--like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families--are doing."

"Third is supporting basic research...[for example:] brain science, language acquisition, or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring."

"Finally [is providing] voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders, and others to throw off anachronistic routines."

All else, Hess and Darling-Hammond claim, deteriorates to confusing, counter-productive micromanagement.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Higher Dimensions and Multiple Universes

by Richard Crews
Theoretical physics used to talk about sensible things like billiard balls knocking each other around on a billiards table and baseballs arcing through the air. Then along came the 20th century with Relativity for very big stuff and Quantum Physics for very small stuff. Things didn't seem quite so reasonable: time slowed or sped up depending on gravity, nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, infinitesimal particles harbored whopping big amounts of energy, something could be in two different places at the same time, and more.

We couldn't really imagine such things. Our brains, after all, grew up dealing with wolves and trees and edible berries, all of which live in the "sensible" middle world (the "reasonable" world of Goldilocks--neither too hot nor too cold, too big nor too small). But we came to accept them--unimaginable as they were--because of two things: for one thing, smart people talked about them all the time as if they were so, and for another, we could see their results from atom bombs to computers, from worldwide air travel to watches that were accurate to a few seconds a year and ran forever on light or invisibly tiny batteries.

Yes, the 20th century presented some severe challenges to straight, reasonable thinking. But hold on, here comes the 21st century and theoretical physics is making things even stranger. It seems that quarks (that make up neutrons and protons, which make up atoms and molecules, which make up all the things we see and touch in the world around us) are not the ultimate building blocks--they are composed of even smaller entities, vibrating strings. And--hold on even harder--these tiny strings vibrate not just in the four dimensions we know and love, but in eleven dimensions.

How on earth can there be eleven dimensions around us? How come we don't see and feel them? Here's an analogy: You are sitting in a movie theater watching a film of a car racing down a highway. Three dimensions (plus time), right? Nope, just two (plus time)--it's all on the two-dimensional surface of the movie screen. The third spatial dimension is an optical illusion.

Then the car crashes into another car, and thanks to slow motion the action seems to slow down. The parts of the two cars sail slowly and gracefully away through the air. There's a distortion of the orderly tick-tock progression of time. Although you are still watching this in "real time," the time dimension on the screen has slowed considerably. It could even stop--or reverse. Yes, distortions in space and time dimensions can be quite taken for granted.

A universe of eleven dimensions with seven of them hidden from view is hard to imagine--well, OK, impossible to imagine. But if you want to live in the 21st century, you have to learn to smile and nod wisely when people talk about them.

But that's not all--try to imagine this: huge, high-dimensional structures (called membranes or "branes") having, say, six or eight dimensions and drifting around in still higher dimensional space (with, say, eight or ten dimensions). Two of them bump into one another releasing a tremendous amount of energy in three or four of their mutual dimensions. There's a big bang--in fact, a "Big Bang"--a universe is born. And, with another collision, another universe is born--and another, and another.

As theoretical physicists have untangled the mathematical implications of string theory, they have been forced to admit that there may be many, many universes--perhaps, the mathematics says, ten-to-the-five-hundredth (that's a ten followed by 500 zeroes)--perhaps more--perhaps an infinite number. Most of them are quite different from our universe--they have different physical constants, different properties; many cannot form any atoms, any matter, any life. But some (well, perhaps many--perhaps even an infinite number) are very much like our universe.

Could there be intelligent creatures living in parallel universes a fraction of an inch away from us? Yup. Could we communicate with them? Probably not; nothing gets across. Well, maybe gravity waves do. But that's 22nd century stuff. I'll leave that for another essay a hundred years or so from now.