Blog Archives

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.


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).

Matt Ridley — deep optimism at the Long Now

Matt Ridley explains why he is such an optimist at the Long Now.

Humanity’s lot has been improving for the last 10,000 years and he sees no reason this will stop, despite everyone’s claim that the world/civilization is going to heck in a handbasket.

He was a pessimist when he graduated college. He marks his conversion to the day he realized acid rain was not a problem.

Trade as the key thing which separates man from beast, and which powers all of our cultural growth.

His greatest concern is that religious fundamentalism will shut down trade and innovation. He is an athiest, though raised as an anglican. He considers this the mildest form of the virus, practically a vaccine.

The world’s oldest living organisms — Rachel Sussman

jomon sugi japanese cedar, the tree that launched the project. Photo by Sussman.

Rachel Sussman gives her talk at the long now. It might be easier to get the graphics from the TED version, then go to the LN version for the questions, which start from minute 41:15.

She finds three stratifications of organisms, by age. 2-5K, 10-20K, and 40K+ years.

Long-lived organisms tend to be extremophiles. Plants are heavily represented.

Ms. Sussman sells her prints via her website. I think she is also on kickstarter, but haven’t searched yet

How Language Shapes Thought — Lera Boroditsky

Lera Borodistsky gives a fun talk with illustrations of how language shapes thought. Fundamental thesis: language is how we make sense of our sensory impressions; of course the form we give them changes the way we deal with them.

I am always surprised that this is a debate. Maybe it is because “how we think” is so completely undefined. I also note that the debate is very western, and suggests that the individual is the key element, as if the thinking does not take place in the context of a culture. Thinking is only a part of communicating, i.e. HELLO, LANGUAGE!!

Too busy to list examples in detail, only some subjects:

  1. verb conjugation
  2. color perception
  3. gender
  4. flow/direction of time
  5. agency

And of course the famous example of the Guugu Yimithirr aboriginies, who continually track orientation. Instead of “Hi, how are you,” the opener is
“Hi, where are you going?”
“Oh, north-northwest a half days walk. And you?”
No surprise, these people are extremely good navigators. Interestingly, to them, the landscape is the central element, not themselves. They have no concept of “left” or “right”, but rather place things on the compass. “A mosquito bit my southeast leg” (I wonder how the canonical example always involves and ant). Even time flows east to west, following the sun.
side note- these are the people who gave us the word Kangaroo.

World Without Us, World With Us — Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman discusses his book, World Without Us, at the Long Now.

He is mostly surprised at how quickly things would fall.  Manhattan, for example. The sewers would totally flood in 36 hours. This would corrode all the supporting structures (which are not designed to be wet), leading the streets above to collapse within, say, 20 years. The skyscrapers wouldn’t last much longer.

Weisman’s website has a slideshow offering a 15,00 year tour of Manhattan.. I prefer the version at urbanghostsmedia, which also includes text.

Picturefest clipped from various posts. All images linked to source article, though most appear to originate from the above mentioned slideshow.

daily mail (Canada)

urban ghosts (more images on the site)

Five Ways to Use History Well — Frank Gavin

Gavin is the Director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the first Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs at Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Frank Gavin gives us five ways that a historical perspective can improve policy decisions:

  1. Vertical history. How events unfold over time.
  2. Horizontal history. How events unfold over space.
  3. Chronological proportionality. What news items today will be important in 20 years?
  4. Unintended consequences.
  5. Policy insignificance. Have the courage to do nothing.

As an example of #5, he claims the world of today was born in the late 1970s. The US was mired in what seemed like permanent decline and things were otherwise going to hell in a handbasket. He picks three events from that time which presaged the great thirty year boom which started near the end of that decade: Apple computer (personal computing), the Star Wars movie, and the Judgement of Paris (when Napa Valley beat France).

He suggests humility, as predicting the future is impossible. He is especially wary of hedgehogs, those who have one model of how the world works and think it can predict 10 years out. He also notes that these are the people who get media attention, because they can deliver certainty.

Deviant Globalization and moral arbitrage — Nils Gilman

Deviant globalization is the vast world of grey and black market businesses whose main source of profit is moral arbitrage.

Example: 15-30% of all cigarettes sold in Europe are smuggled in, tax-free, via the Balkans, to take advantage of the high tax rates on licit purchase options.

Deviant globalization is a confluence of inequality, moral lumpiness, and globalization. Often these businesses are run by criminals.

Drugs, yes, and also sex, weapons, human organs, exotic animals/woods, toxic waste disposal, … a long list of goods and services which the “global north” considers immoral.

Money laundering accounts for 4-12% of world GDP—$1.5 to 5 trillion dollars a year.

Deviant businesses flourish in the so-called failed states. In these cases, the state might have failed, but it is wrong to assume that the society necessarily organizes itself around the state. In many of these territories, the deviant businesses supply necessary social services.

Politically, the deviant entrepreneurs don’t want to take over the state, just undermine it. For their own communities they often provide state-like services of infrastructure, health care, and even education. They are “post-modern, post-revolutionary, and post-progressive.” They resort to violence against the state only when the state suddenly attacks them—as is playing out in Mexico now.

Listen to the talk at the Long Now.

Wade Davis: Wayfinders, why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world

Wade Davis in 2008, at his home (from Wikipedia)

Wade Davis speaks at the Long Now.

Take-home message, from 1:10:50, transcription by myself.

The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being us, they are unique answers to a fundamental question “What does it mean to be human?”

And the reason this is so important is that culture is not trivial. Culture is not decorative. It is not the songs we sing, it is not the robes we wear. Fundamentally culture is about a body of ethical and moral values that every culture places around the individual to keep at bay the barbaric heart that history so sadly teaches us lies beneath the surface of every human being. It is culture that allows us to make sense out of sensation, to find order and meaning in the universe. It is culture which allows us as Lincoln said to always seek the better angels of our nature.

And if you want to know what happens when culture is lost, when through evolution or coercion, the individual turns their back on the constraints of tradition, often to be cast into a world of disaffection and alienation, perhaps in pursuit of a world of affluence that the individual may aspire to but rarely achieve, and instead finds him or herself on the lowest rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere, you simply have to look around the world to the points of chaos.

Culture is not trivial. Culture is the glue of civilization. It is culture that allows us to be human,

Wade presents so many stories of other cultures, other ways of being. I prefer Steward Brand’s summary to my own, which I quote in its entirety, below:

What does it mean to be human and alive?

The thousands of different cultures and languages on Earth have compellingly different answers to that question. “We are a wildly imaginative and creative species,” Davis declared, and then proved it with his accounts and photographs of humanity plumbing the soul of culture, of psyche, and of landscape.

He began with Polynesians, the wayfinders who mastered the Pacific ocean in the world’s largest diaspora. Without writing or chronometers they learned 220 stars by name, learned to read the subtle influence of distant islands on wave patterns and clouds, and navigated the open sea by a sheer act of integrative memory. For the duration of an ocean passage “navigators do not sleep.”

In the Amazon, which used to be thought of as a “green hell” or “counterfeit paradise,” living remnants may be found of complex forest civilizations that transformed 20 percent of the land into arable soil. The Anaconda peoples carry out five-day rituals with 250 people in vast longhouses, and live by stringent rules such as requiring that everyone must marry outside their language. Their mastery of botany let them find exactly the right combination of subspecies of plants to concoct ayahuasca, a drug so potent that one ethnobotantist described the effect of having it blown up your nose by a shaman as “like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing in a sea of electricity.”

In the Andes the Incas built 8,500 miles of roads over impossibly vertical country in a hundred years, and their descendents still run the mountains on intense ritual pilgrimages, grounding their culture in every detail of the landscape.

In Haiti, during the four years Davis spent discovering the chemical used to make real-life zombies, he saw intact African religion alive in the practice of voodoo. “The dead must serve the living by becoming manifest” in those possessed. It was his first experience in “the power of culture to create new realities.”

The threat to cultures is often ideological, Davis noted, such as when Mao whispered in the ear of the Dalai Lama that “all religion is poison,” set about destroying Tibetan culture.

The genius of culture is the ability to survive in impossible conditions, Davis concluded. We cannot afford to lose any of that variety of skills, because we are not only impoverished without it, we are vulnerable without it.

PS. Wade Davis’ SALT talk was based on his five Massey Lectures in Canada in 02009, which are collected in a book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

Social Collapse best practices — Dmitry Orlov

Orlov advocates seasteading, and many other things on his blog

Dmitry Orlov explains why the USSR was better prepared for societal collapse than the US is, in a talk at the Long Now. The talk was reminiscent of an earlier talk of his, the slides of which are available here.

The SU collapsed in circa 1990. The US will too, someday, for many of the same reasons:

  1. unwinnable wars/out of control military budgets
  2. declining oil
  3. unsustainable deficit/foreign debt
  4. balky, corrupt political system
  5. Delusions of grandeur

The recent article on speciation seems fundamental here, as does v.d. Leews’s talk. We don’t know when the shocks will come, but they will.

The key things which need to be managed are

  • food
  • shelter
  • transportation
  • security

Dmitri argues that our system is very brittle (so do others, including the GAO, according to Pollan).

So, what comes out of the mess? Subsistenence/barter economy, asset stripping, new power structures.

The US’s success makes it especially vulnerable. Running a huge inventory is regarded as not smart when times are good (since you must pay to obtain and warehouse it), but critical when times are bad (since you cannot replentish it). Tons of other examples, which I leave to your imagination.

What happens when transport breaks down? How do you get to the grocery store? How do the groceries get to the grocery store? How do people handle the psychological shock, especially given a mindset of entitlement?