Minutes to midnight….

“My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will. The “Titanic Effect” is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.”


Arendt on Totalitarianism …

Noteworthy quotes from this WaPo piece on Arendt’s work:

The lesson: Freedom is fragile, and when demagogues speak, and others start following them, it is wise to pay attention. …

The political party system, and parliamentary government more generally, were regarded as corrupt and oligarchic. Such an environment was fertile ground for a “mob mentality,” in which outsiders — Jews, Roma, Slavs, gays, “cosmopolitan intellectuals” — could be scapegoated and a savior could be craved: “The mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.” …

“What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part . . . Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction . . . [and] can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.” Cynicism. Contempt for truth. Appeal to the craving of the masses for simple stories of malevolent conspiracy. …

“Representative government itself,” she writes, “is in a crisis today, partly because it has lost . . . all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody but the party machines.”


Politics as serious business…


There were a lot of phrases that Cuomo liked to repeat, and most had a melancholy cast. “You go from stone to stone across the morass” was one. “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” was another. Cuomo’s dark broodiness, his affinity for suffering, lent him moral gravity. His great gift—and it was an important one at the time—was to make listeners feel that politics was a serious business and that civic life matters.

Corruption, Governance, & Innovation

This is a clear, well researched piece on the relationship between corruption, governance and innovation. The author’s references to meritocracy are interesting but I would be interested to read more about how corruption has hijacked meritocratic systems. Is such decay of meritocracy a crime of omission, commission or both, and by whom? How can we manage the subjective assessment of merit so as not to facilitate corruption or other systemic pathologies?

Simply, where advancement based on merit is the rule and favouritism the exception, governments and markets alike promote value, and prosperity results. In places where such a system fails to take hold, social allocation is directed preferentially rather than ethically. In these contexts, science and research are marginalized because those in power fear that talent threatens their main aim — controlling access to public and private resources.

Governments that buy political support do not invest much in education and research — the returns are seen as too general. A sports stadium or a new airport woos the companies chosen to build it (which may contribute to the next election campaign) and the many voters who use it. A thousand science scholarships are much less profitable in these terms — they cannot be awarded to cronies with no scientific aptitude.

That is why more-corrupt EU states spend more on big projects such as roads and high-speed trains than on health, research, education and development (see ‘Single bidding‘). When — with the best of intentions — Brussels promotes austerity policies, which funds dry up first in corrupt countries? Investment in education and science.


Demography is destiny?

While one may not agree with everything that Zeihan says, this section of his interview is worth pondering over:

“Number two is demography. People of different ages act differently. For those in their twenties and thirties, it is all about consumption. Their incomes are low; it is house loans, car loans, college loans. High growth, but high debt. For your mature workers in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, they are preparing for retirement and their incomes are very high. This is all the investment capital that makes the world move. This is the tax base. Young folks do the consuming. Older folks take care of the investment capital. Finally, once they retire they start drawing more from the system than they put in. Pensions and health care start to overwhelm their finances and that becomes a problem for governments.

In a traditional demography, the elderly are the smallest group. The folks in the middle group are larger and the young workers make up the bulk. It is a pyramid. But with urbanization and the post-World War II experience, we have had a collapse in birth rate throughout most of the world and now the demography is completely inverted in a lot of the world: the big bulge in the demography is not the young worker but the mature worker who is socking away a lot of capital for retirement and paying huge taxes.

By the time you get to 2022, the majority of the baby boomers will have retired, and they will take all that investment capital and all that tax money with them. Every government on the planet is going to have to get along with a lot less income while they have to dish out a lot more payment for the retirees. There is only one country in the world that is an exception to that: the United States, because we are the only place where the boomers actually had kids. We come out on the other end all right because the millennial generation is large and by the time they are in their 40’s and 50’s, our demographics will have more or less fixed themselves. That does not happen anywhere else. Everywhere else, the population gets older every year, the population gets less skilled every year, and financial costs go up every year. The European financial crisis, the Japanese financial crisis—these are as good as they will ever be right now. It is all downhill from here.  While the United States is losing interest in maintaining the global system, at the same time the global structure breaks down, the United States is becoming the only market in the world. And it is going to be keeping to itself. That is a triple hit to every economy in the world. If you are a trade-based economy like Korea or China or Germany, you get hit from every possible angle at the same time.”


Deep Work by Cal Newport (some quotes)

We all desire to be more productive in some way or another. To get into the holiday spirit, I have listed some notable quotes from a fascinating book about working productively in an increasingly distracted world:

14: The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

40: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) X (Intensity of Focus)

58: The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

67: Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new probelms introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.

68: It’s this propensity to view ‘the Internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a faily uninteresting set of cables and network routes into a seductive and exciting ideology.

69: Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological.

82: A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.

84: The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is strentched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. …. Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong: Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they ahve built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose onself in. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

201: The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.

212: Every available trick of human psychology, from listing titles as “popular” or “trending,” to the use of arresting photos, is used to keep you engaged….These sites are especially harmful after the workday is over, where the freedom in your schedule enables them to become central to your leisure time. … they provide a cognitibe crutch to ensure you eliminate any chance of boredom. … such behavior is dangerous, as it weakens your mind’s general ability to resist distraction, making deep work difficult later when you really want to concentrate. …. Arnold Bennett identified the solution to this problem a hundred years earlier: Put more thought into your leisure time.

236: I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.




Syria: The problem of dirty hands?

“Saints can be pure, statesmen must be responsible.” ~ Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Pillar’s piece on the Syrian tragedy is worth pondering:

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for bearing the burden of formulating and implementing policies that do reflect adequate attention to costs and risks to the United States and to what realistically would make things no worse for Syria.  The rest of us get to moralize and express anguish over the suffering people of Aleppo; the president has to go beyond moralizing, and in so doing he has to put up with being mentioned in the same paragraphs as Auschwitz.

Looking beyond Mr. Obama, the prevailing treatment of the Aleppo episode threatens to inculcate damaging “lessons” to be applied to future civil wars.  It is interesting that several of the critics of current policy mention Rwanda as such a lesson, because Rwanda was cited (including by the self-described “genocide chick” who is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) as a reason to intervene in Libya sufficiently to topple the incumbent regime there in 2011.  We now have five years of results.  Those results include a still-chaotic situation and continuing civil war in which the human suffering, including deaths well into the thousands, is far more than the genocide-in-the-making that supposedly was going to occur in Benghazi.

By all means sympathize with the people of Aleppo.  We should feel anguish over their suffering.  But don’t confuse anguish with policy analysis.