Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King

With the constant barrage of stories in the media about war, recession, terrorism, swine flu, natural disasters, and various other tragedies, one could easily conclude that the world is a horrifying place. But instead of looking at the latest headlines, we should instead contemplate the broad trends of history. The world is a far better place to live today than it ever has been before, and all indications are that the quality of life will continue to improve. This is not just Panglossian optimism; the world is empirically a better place to live by almost any metric one chooses, compared to almost any other historical era one chooses. The arc of human development is long, but it bends towards a better quality of life. And for that, we should be thankful.

For most of human history, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes described it. The average life expectancy in most major civilizations – including ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and medieval Britain – hovered around 30 years. And these were among the leading civilizations of their era. Today, even the least developed countries on earth typically have life expectancies far higher than that. The advent of the Germ Theory of Disease has revolutionized the way we think about infectious diseases, and has increased the global life expectancy to 69 years. In many developed countries, life expectancy at birth exceeds 80 years.

Education is now ubiquitous in a way that it never has been before in human history. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, universal education was a completely unknown concept. Education was the province of the elite, designed solely to teach young people how to be the future leaders of the world. Although the American education system is rightly the target of much criticism today, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a crowning achievement of our history. Universal education has enabled people from all walks of life to apply their talents to make the world a better place in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED Talks, proposes this thought experiment: “Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician, or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, the France of 1200 or the Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the same contribution they did make? Of course not.” The ubiquity of education in our society is something for which we should be truly thankful, since it has allowed many more people to solve societal problems than were previously able to do so.

But even many of those who readily acknowledge that life today is much better than in the distant past may wonder if we have run out of steam in recent decades. Stories about the decline of Western civilization are not hard to find in the media, nor are dire warnings about how abrupt climate change could cause widespread famines and wars. If only we could return to the good old days, they wish. But the fact is that the world is much better now than in recent decades as well. Although many people might like to turn back the clock to 2007, before the recession, in the grand scheme of things the recession will be a small blip on the radar screen. If you turn the clock back much farther than just a few years, it becomes obvious that the world is a much better place today than in the past. Over a billion people have been lifted out of grinding poverty in China and India in the last 20 years. The World Wide Web – a strong contender for the single greatest invention of mankind – is less than 20 years old. In the United States, women and minorities have had equal rights for less than 50 years. The Cold War no longer enslaves half the world, and no longer carries the credible threat of a nuclear apocalypse. The overall number of humans per capita killed in warfare is at its lowest level since at least World War II, and possibly all of human history. The “good old days” were never that good. The quality of life today is staggeringly better than even the recent past.

But the most important thing for which we should be thankful is the hope for an even better future. The 20th century was by far the most disruptive century since the dawn of civilization, and there is no reason the 21st century can’t be just as important for radically altering the way humans live. Some of the transformative technologies that are now on the horizon include self-driving vehicles, stem cell therapy, lab-grown meat, ubiquitous computing, genomics, 3D printing, solar energy, and mature nanotechnology. These all offer the potential to dramatically improve our quality of life for the better, just as sanitation and education did in the 19th century, and as plumbing and electricity did in the 20th.

Let us give thanks for the fact that we live in the best epoch of human history – relative to both the distant past and the recent past. Furthermore, let us be grateful that the technological revolution of the last 150 years shows no signs of slowing down, and will continue to unlock the true potential of human beings by freeing us from menial tasks and unpleasant maladies. We live in interesting times. Let’s treat that as a blessing, not a curse.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Political Issues on the Horizon, Part 3

In my last two posts, we explored four political issues that are likely to be important in the next decade. To wrap up this political trilogy, I’m going to talk about two issues that are often discussed as vitally important for our future…which I nevertheless think will soon fade from the political landscape.

Cap and Trade. For the past decade, the climate change debate in the United States has focused on the wrong issues. One side of this debate has tended to overhype the worst-case climate change scenario, arguing for immediate, draconian carbon cuts which would harm the economy while doing almost nothing to avert climate change. The other side has flatly denied climate change even exists, despite a huge amount of scientific evidence indicating otherwise.

Yet technological advancement, not political decrees, will determine the fate of our climate. As it becomes clear that none of the common prescriptions for climate change are politically feasible and scientifically plausible, we can and must stop focusing on policies like cap-and-trade and instead turn to the real solution: technology.

Fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 96.5% of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Addressing the need for fossil fuel combustion is of paramount importance to stop clogging our atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Fortunately, solar power will soon supplant fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. Any political policies to fix climate change must instead focus on making this happen as soon as possible, through subsidies and tax credits for solar energy pioneers.

Furthermore, research into geoengineering must be heavily funded to determine if there are any plausible ways to counteract the harmful effects of carbon dioxide, without unleashing even worse environmental damage in the process. Some of the more promising ideas include stationing powerful underwater turbines in the ocean to spray water high into the atmosphere, injecting chemicals underneath large glaciers to prevent them from sliding into the ocean, seeding the ocean with iron flakes to encourage carbon-eating plankton to grow, and spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effects of volcanoes. Any of these solutions would cool the earth, but they carry environmental risks of their own that may make them unpalatable. In many ways, we would be picking our poison: do the risks of geoengineering outweigh the risks of climate change, or vice versa? Governments should commit to researching these geoengineering techniques in depth to determine the answer.

Ultimately, political debates over cap-and-trade or possible successors to the Kyoto Protocol are a dead-end. They are unproductive and unlikely to succeed. I expect them to disappear from the political landscape in the very near future, as more voters realize that a more practical approach is necessary to truly combat climate change.

National Debt. In 2006, the Democratic Party gained control of Congress, in part, by campaigning on deficit reduction. In 2010, the Republican Party did the same. Yet there is no evidence that either party in the United States has any actual interest in reducing the debt. Both parties value their other priorities – cutting taxes in the case of Republicans, and increasing spending in the case of Democrats – much more highly than deficit reduction.

And that is not entirely a bad thing. For all the hype that surrounds our debt, it is still not at dangerous levels. Even after the worst recession in recent history, our debt stands at about 94%. This is high by American standards, but still much lower than many other developed nations which are at no risk of defaulting. The interest rate on treasury bonds is at an all-time low, meaning that the idea of the US government defaulting on its debt is barely even in the minds of investors.

To be sure, we cannot continue running large deficits forever. We need a medium-term plan to get our deficits under control, but even so, we don’t need to balance the budget entirely. Running a small annual deficit is fine. Between 1940 and 1980, the United States cut its debt-to-GDP ratio from 120% to 35%, despite running an annual deficit for most of the intervening years. There is no reason we cannot do this again in the next few decades. As long as our economy grows faster than our debt, our debt-to-GDP ratio will fall, eventually returning to more typical levels.

Although the national debt will probably continue to be a complaint of the out-party, I am skeptical that it will be more than a political tactic anytime soon. Neither party has shown any interest in seriously addressing the debt, and as long as we can get our deficits down to a more reasonable level once the economy picks up, neither party will need to.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Political Issues on the Horizon, Part 2

In my last entry, I explored two political issues that I expect to grow in importance in the United States over the next decade: privacy and bioethics. Today the focus is on two issues which already have a firm hold on the political landscape, but will nevertheless continue to evolve and grow in importance.

Terrorism. Ever since 9/11, American political discussions about terrorism have tended to boil down to two main components: Airport security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that either component has actually done anything to prevent terrorism. Changes in airport security have been less about improving safety than creating the illusion of heightened security for travelers. And the grossly mismanaged wars have succeeded only in pushing terrorism across an arbitrary national border (in the case of Afghanistan) or actively creating terrorists where they were not previously a problem (in the case of Iraq). With these issues so completely dominating the discussion of how to fight terrorism, little attention has been given to important questions, such as how to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, and how to quickly respond to a WMD terrorist attack to minimize the devastation.

In the future, the United States will not have the luxury of being able to ignore these questions. Today’s terrorists typically have access to only the crudest weapons: bombs capable of killing, at most, a few hundred people. Spectacular attacks like 9/11 are vanishingly rare, making the current level of funding, military commitment, and political capital spent on terrorism vastly disproportionate to the actual problem. But it remains to be seen how long that will be the case. Weapons of mass destruction may soon be available to terrorists, which could pose a much more serious danger than traditional terrorist attacks. The most worrying threat in the near future is nuclear proliferation, as a growing number of unstable regimes acquire nuclear weapons. In the slightly more distant future, biological weapons may pose an even greater danger to the world, as the necessary ingredients and know-how will be available to nearly any university student. Governments need to begin developing serious plans for how to minimize the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or failing that, rapid response plans after a massive terror attack. To date, the United States has done neither.

As a political issue, I worry that debates over terrorism will continue to be dominated by those seeking to eliminate "terrorism" as a concept, with conservatives favoring an aggressive foreign policy to combat known terrorist havens, and liberals preferring more targeted nation-building efforts to eliminate the conditions in which terrorists typically arise (e.g. poverty and lawlessness). While this debate is not entirely unproductive, it is of secondary importance since terrorist attacks are relatively rare anyway. My hope is that the debate will shift from how to prevent "terrorism" as a whole, to how to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This is a much more focused and achievable goal. But regardless of how the debate evolves, terrorism does not seem likely to disappear from the political landscape anytime soon.

Globalization. 20 years after the end of the Cold War and 15 years after the birth of e-commerce, it is almost a cliché to say that the world is becoming more interconnected. The nations of the world depend on one another more than ever. Wars between national governments are on a terminal decline, as the cost of waging these wars (in terms of being cut off from neighboring markets) continues to grow relative to the benefits. Many developing countries have found that globalization is the quickest path to economic development, with many hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese escaping poverty in the last 20 years.

Many nations are seeing strong political backlashes against globalization. In the United States, this has manifested itself in debates over immigration and outsourcing. There does not seem to be any clear-cut ideological division on globalization. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been friendlier toward immigration, and the Republican Party has been more receptive toward free trade, despite the fact that these policies are two sides of the same coin, pitting globalists against nationalists. However, even within these policies, the partisan lines are blurry: some Democratic politicians have been staunch supporters of free trade (including President Bill Clinton) and some Republican politicians have been ardent defenders of open immigration (including President George W. Bush).

As developing countries open up their markets and continue to grow richer, and rich countries become more dependent on economic rivals like China, the debate over globalization will continue to grow louder. The specific objections will vary depending on the specific policy: In some cases the opposition will be fueled by concerns over environmentalism, and other times by fears of rising income inequality. In some cases, nations may not like the fact that their economic well-being is so dependent upon their trading partners' policies, with economic problems in one nation spilling over to others. In 1999, labor activists in Seattle successfully disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organization, largely motivated by fears that their jobs would be outsourced.

As globalization grows in importance as a political issue, it is likely that the advocates and opponents of globalization will firmly drag the political parties toward opposing viewpoints. One party will probably come to represent open immigration and trade, while the other becomes more nationalistic and inward-looking. At the present time, it is difficult to determine which party will be which.

In my next entry, I will look at two political issues which I think will fade in importance over the next decade.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Political Issues on the Horizon, Part 1

Americans went to the polls last Tuesday and, for the third time in as many election cycles, delivered a sharp rebuke to the incumbent party. No doubt concerned that the economic recovery seems to be stagnating and that unemployment remains high, the voters gave the House of Representatives back to the Republican Party. In the wake of the midterm elections in the United States, this is a good time to consider political issues on the horizon.

I generally shy away from making specific predictions about politics or the economy. Voters are fickle and economies are unpredictable, especially compared to the relatively simple trends that scientific and technological developments usually follow. However, I think we can at least speculate on the types of issues that are likely to become important, if not the precise way that they will be resolved by the voters and the government. In my next few blog posts, I’m going to explore some of the political issues that I think will grow in importance over the next decade, as well as a couple of oft-cited (and perhaps overblown) issues which may soon fade from the American political landscape.

Privacy. For the past couple decades, whenever a political gasbag has asked a judicial appointee about his or her views on “privacy,” it has typically been a code word for abortion. However, I believe privacy will soon become a political issue in its own right, spurred on by technological advances which encroach more and more on our privacy and demand access to sensitive information. Already, there have been court cases to determine if police can tag an automobile with a GPS tracker without a warrant, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come. RFID chips, which will soon replace bar codes on products, will be embedded in nearly everything we buy, allowing for constant surveillance and tracking of products (and by extension, of customers) from their point of manufacture to their point of disposal.

Additionally, we are probably no more than a decade from the point where sensors and face-recognition technology are commonplace in many public establishments, as in Minority Report, making it virtually impossible to step out of our own homes without appearing in a database somewhere. In the slightly more distant future (probably 10-20 years), insectoid-sized robots are on the horizon. DARPA is already designing them for use in military and spying applications, but eventually their spread to the general public is a virtual certainty as the cost of computing drops, allowing for practically anyone to monitor practically anyone.

In light of all of these emerging technologies, some erosion of our privacy seems almost inevitable. The extent of it remains open to debate. Will our governments pass privacy laws regulating how all of this information can be obtained and used? Or will our governments be part of the problem? Only time will tell.

Bioethics. The first decade of this century saw two important bioethical debates in the United States and Europe. In the United States, stem cell research was hotly debated in the first few years of the Bush presidency, but now seems to have decisively concluded in favor of scientific progress, as the huge benefits of stem cells become more obvious and the moral objections have fallen by the wayside. In Europe, the main bioethical debate of the past decade – genetically modified foods – is still ongoing. Many Europeans are concerned about the possibility of genetically modified foods wreaking unintentional havoc on the environment and public health. Although these fears do not have much scientific support, the controversy has nevertheless succeeded in quashing the industry in Europe, at least temporarily.

These are merely the first of many bioethical debates we will face in the 21st century. Some will be relatively trivial. For example, concerns about athletes on steroids may soon give way to concerns about professional athletes with enhanced body parts. A few years ago, Tiger Woods opted to get superhuman 20/15 vision through Lasik surgery, and the range of upgrades available to those who can afford them will soon be much wider. If athletes are able to buy improved bodies, it will make it difficult for “natural” athletes to compete. Will we have separate leagues for enhanced athletes and natural athletes? Will we ban these superhuman enhancements entirely, and if so, what qualifies as a superhuman enhancement?

Other bioethical concerns will be much more profound, and the government will have to take a stand. For example, if the technology exists and is widely available to screen for genetic abnormalities, would it be child abuse to not tinker with a fetus’ genome to prevent birth defects? And if preventing birth defects is morally acceptable (indeed if it is the ONLY morally acceptable option), why not preventing other undesirable traits like ugliness, propensity to violence, or low intelligence? Where does one draw the line? Eugenics, long discredited due to its ties to Nazism, may make a comeback in a world of easy access to genetic therapy.

Many of the questions related to human augmentation and genetic engineering have no easy answer, and any government decision is bound to leave many people feeling morally queasy. Look for political parties to become increasingly divided along the lines of these bioethical questions, with conservatives preferring a more restrictive approach to avoid creating ghastly new moral quandaries, and liberals favoring a more open approach to improving humanity through reengineering our own biology.

To be continued in another blog post…