Monthly Archives: July 2012


New home

Dear Readers,

The blog has moved to its new home,

We’ll see you there!


Local communities vs vampire squids– will rule of law win?

From Matt Taibbi’s 20 July blog post in Rolling Stone, with reference to Rep Brad Miller’s July 11 article in American Banker. Miller’s article provides more heft, Taibbi adds poetry and context.

The fundamental idea is for local communities to use eminent domain to seize underwater or foreclosed properties at current market value, and then sell them back to the residents at that value.

Wall Street’s power in Washington may be as useless in defeating a proposal in San Bernardino County as strategic nuclear weapons are in fighting an insurgency. No wonder Wall Street is panicked.

concludes Miller.

The US is losing its urban forests to concrete and cement.

Tree and impervious cover change in U.S. cities, by David J. Nowak and Eric J. Greenfield. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening Volume 11, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 21–30

The authors use before and after aerial photography to track land use/tree cover in 20 US cities, and find an alarming decline

Paired aerial photographs were interpreted to assess recent changes in tree, impervious and other cover types in 20 U.S. cities as well as urban land within the conterminous United States. National results indicate that tree cover in urban areas of the United States is on the decline at a rate of about 7900 ha/yr or 4.0 million trees per year. Tree cover in 17 of the 20 analyzed cities had statistically significant declines in tree cover, while 16 cities had statistically significant increases in impervious cover. Only one city (Syracuse, NY) had a statistically significant increase in tree cover. City tree cover was reduced, on average, by about 0.27 percent/yr, while impervious surfaces increased at an average rate of about 0.31 percent/yr. As tree cover provides a simple means to assess the magnitude of the overall urban forest resource, monitoring of tree cover changes is important to understand how tree cover and various environmental benefits derived from the trees may be changing.

Fixing broken government — Philip K. Howard at the Long Now

Philip K. Howard has been active in public affairs his entire adult life and has advised national political leaders on legal and regulatory reform for fifteen years. Philip writes periodically for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times

Philip K. Howard gives his diagnosis and prescription for fixing government in the US at the Long Now.

People feel powerless in the face of government. The reason is simple: they are.

It isn’t just citizens. Govnt employees are equally shackled. We as a nation have become strangled in a dense and growing jungle of regulatory constraints.

The root is that we have changed the nature of law. Instead of laying down timeless general principles it now specifies exactly what actions are or are not allowed. Individual discretion has been removed from the system. Worse, the laws don’t sunset, they just continue to pile up on top of each other. Simple example: OSHA regs specify that a hammer used in a business must meet certain standards which may make sense for a construction site, but not for a guy in an office who puts up a picture once a year (and got fined for not having the right kind of hammer).

The solution is not the end of regulation. Regulation is needed to manage our increasingly complex society. Government is necessary to safeguard the common good, especially in an increasingly interdependent yet anonymous society.

The needed change is to once again allow human judgment to determine appropriate action.

The proposed change is threefold, which each change requiring the sacrifice of a sacred cow.

  1. Spring cleaning of the law, or at a minimum any law with budgetary implications. Force legislators to review all existing law, removing that which no longer makes sense, and revising that which does according to principles 2 and 3, below.
  2. Simplification. Law must be comprehensible to laypersons, not just specialists. The purpose of law is to set goals and objectives, not to specify exact procedures. For example, a workplace safety law could require just that equipment be appropriate to the job and in concordance with industry norms.
  3. Accountability. The counterpart to relying on human judgment is to make the person who makes the call accountable. If they consistently make bad judgment, they loose their job. If they make really bad judgments, they go to jail.

This is difficult. Special interests will fight to keep regulations complex and written as they are. Accountability requires trust, and neither political party is willing to extend this to the other.

But such changes have happened before. The progressive era saw the end of laizer faire capitalism as people realized that business left to itself quickly becomes exploitative (child labor, etc). The New Deal saw the creation of a safety net because our farmers were starving due to forces well outside of their control. The rights movement resulted in sweeping changes to society.

Normally these movements run for a long time, building up momentum, but with little “outward” signs of progress. Then, when they are ripe, they spring up “overnight” with incredible force. The change happens quickly.

He also notes that major legal reforms, such as he proposes, are universally followed by massive increases in economic growth.

One place to start would be reforming public schools. Give power to the principles and teachers to do what they think is best in a given situation.

The Attention Economy — a radical theory of money

From Michael Goldhaber (interesting name to be writing about money)’s article in Wired

Goldhaber proposes that attention be the new currency, or at least the base item.

Attention is a human need, and intrinsically limited in supply.

Unlike money, it comes in many forms, some negative.

The attention economy is also a star economy.

in The Winner-Take-All Society, a book by economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook. The authors note that the star system we are accustomed to in sports, entertainment, and the arts has migrated to the professions. As a September 3, 1997, front-page headline in The Wall Street Journal announced, “CEOs are stars now.” That’s how they are paid, hired, utilized, and dismissed. They operate within their companies more as attention-getting motivators than bosses. The same goes for rainmaking legal partners, high-powered lobbyists, and academics.

And how does attention turn into material goods, say a car?

The car is no longer assembled from parts on one long assembly line; rather, subassemblies are often put together in different locations first. At every stage, more and more tasks are automated; that means more of the attention required to make a car occurs upstream as part of design and production planning.

It is not difficult to foresee a time when it will make a lot more sense to speak of a complex carmaking community [than a corporation] made up mostly of entourages surrounding thousands of stars and microstars. As is common among entourages, much participation would be less than full time, and the majority of members would belong to other communities as well, and even to other entourages.

Thus many people in the broad car community will also share membership in some of the same communities of attention as anyone who might want a car. As long as the person in question gets enough attention, she would almost certainly be able to draw enough from overlaps between her primary communities and the car community to arrange to be put into the driver’s seat she craves. Assuming automation keeps cutting the total amount of actual attention needed to make each individual car, less and less stardom will be required to end up with one.

In cyberspace, there is nothing natural about large-scale divisions like cities, nations, bureaucracies, and corporations. The only divisions, and rough ones at that, are among audiences, entourages, and what could be called attention communities. Each community is centered on some topic and usually includes a number of stars, along with their fans. Attention flows from community to community. Below this primary exchange will flow the less important exchange of goods and materials.

Reductive ontologies

Musing on what our increasing computerization means, inspired by David Auerbach’s The Stupidity of Computers in issue 13 of n+1. (possibly this DA?)

He sees two pathways:
First, we will bring ourselves to computers. The small- and large-scale convenience and efficiency of storing more and more parts of our lives online will increase the hold that formal ontologies have on us. They will be constructed by governments, by corporations, and by us in unequal measure, and there will be both implicit and explicit battles over how these ontologies are managed. The fight over how test scores should be used to measure student and teacher performance is nothing compared to what we will see once every aspect of our lives from health to artistic effort to personal relationships is formalized and quantified.

We will increasingly see ourselves in terms of these ontologies and willingly try to conform to them. While in the 20th century people came to see themselves as empty existential vessels, without a commitment to any particular internal essence, they will now see themselves as contingently but definitively embodying types derived from the overriding ontologies. This is as close to a solution to the modernist problem of the self as we will get.

Second, we will bring computers to us, not semantically but physically. Computers will be able to interface more and more directly with the real world. They can be embedded into everything: roads, paper, clothing, skin, organs, medicines, food. Computers that are able to absorb the world at a sufficient level of detail—sights, sounds, textures, touches—can begin to construct a model of the world from the ground up, one not based on verbal or logical representation of concepts, but on basic sense data.

Why the West rules for now — Ian Morris at the Long Now

Geography shapes history, history shapes geography.

Geography determines which societies will do well, yet culture determines what aspects of geography are relevant. Shifts in what is relevant make the fortunes of cultures.

Agriculture started where it was easy. But the development of irrigation allowed river societies to take off. Rivers then become trade routes.

Then the Med, then ocean going ships conquered the Atlantic, etc.

Talk is here.

Supported by Niall Ferguson (The Ascent of Money) and Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Let’s get this country working again!

The US, my beloved country, has so much positive, so much to hope for, so much to give.

In a sense, I am glad we are loosing it now. Glad, because this can wake us up. It can remind us that greatness cannot be taken for granted, but must be continually earned. We need another FDR.

Elliot Gerson, The American Secretary for the Rhodes Trust

A summary of Elliot Gerson’s article in the Atlantic.

When Americans travel abroad, they are often surprised at how well other countries do the things we used to think America does best…

When it comes to student performance in mathematics, we are now 25th among the 34 advanced economies, and behind many developing countries as well. In college attendance, we are now 12th in college graduation rate. In health, we are 37th in infant mortality and equally low in life expectancy. In environmental performance, we are 61st. In the percentage of people below the poverty line, we are 21st. Even when it comes to the “pursuit of happiness,” enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as one of the noble goals of government, our citizens are only the 15th most satisfied with their lives.

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 17 percent of Americans believe our national government possesses the consent of the governed.

One of the strongest indications of American democratic dysfunction is pervasive and expanding poverty. It is not just its existence in the richest country on earth that is shameful, but its utter absence from political discourse… America is moving toward the kind of bifurcated society we used to deride in banana republics–rich getting richer in gated communities, while the poor grow poorer, barely seen in segregated urban ghettos and hidden rural decay.

Over 20 million Americans live in extreme poverty. One in 50 Americans’ only income is food stamps. Add the poor and the near-poor–that is under $44K for a family of four–and you have more than 100 million people.

Gardenbrain — @EricPLiu and @NickHanauer in the NYT

“WE are prisoners of the metaphors we use, even when they are wildly misleading.”

Nick Hanauer

An economy is not a machine; it is a garden. Fruitful if well tended, overrun by noxious weeds if not.

Markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off.

The new analogy changes the way we see regulation, taxes, government spending, etc.

See also this interview at NCOC.

Mutual responsibility, a willingness to put to the long term over the short term, and an ethic of contribution before consumption: these are some of the foundational values of great citizenship.

And buy the book.

The Gardens of Democracy, now in print

FDR’s 1936 speech before the Democratic National Convention — definition of greatness

Here, my friends, are the thoughts of a great man.

That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy – from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.

And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution – all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital – all undreamed of by the Fathers – the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small-businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor – these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age – other people’s money – these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.

Source is here