News — At The Edge — 3/18
Two sets of articles this week — economic and political — and a science one. The economic and political articles speak to increasing public confusion about what is actually going on in the world.
The fact is we’re in an exceedingly strange period of history, straddling two worlds — one dying and the other emerging. This makes much of the contemporary rhetoric dangerous. A new Medium article of mine called, How Intelligent Are We?, alludes to this danger. Articles included are:
- Why Americans need to beware of becoming complacent
- Improving economic data do not necessarily indicate underlying health
- Latest indication of a disturbing trend to quash debate and erode trust
- The Never-Ending War in Afghanistan
- Facts Are Enemies of the People
- Can your smart home be used against you in court?
- A big step towards an artificial yeast genome
Economic Issues —
“[T]he land of opportunity…ideal is self-indulgent nonsense…[as] America is losing its vim…[and] settling into stagnation…[with] crossing state lines at around half the average…between 1948 and 1971, and…longer in their jobs…[markets] more concentrated….[and] technology sector…creation and expansion of new firms peaked in 2000. Sluggish growth in productivity and living standards is making America more like Europe and Japan….
[While] consumers have never had it so good….Segregation by income has risen dramatically in the past few decades…[which] shuts off growth and stymies innovation….Poorer states used to be able to attract talented people by offering…job opportunities and cheaper housing…[but now] expectation that they will not catch up makes it harder….[Also] market forces are not helping…with restrictions preventing the construction of more low-cost housing….
[Inevitably] financial stability would breed overconfidence, sowing the seeds of future instability….[Thus] America’s strength is undermined by its divisions and by a willingness to protect the powerful…. In a crisis, the system’s creakiness will leave it ill-equipped to cope….
[A]n optimistic scenario…[has] driverless cars…to overcome the pain of having to commute over longer distances, or…global crises convince them [to]…live for the moment. Artificial intelligence, clean cheap energy and alternatives to…opioids could all return America’s lost dynamism….
[The] likelier forms of chaos include populist politicians bent on sowing division, or even international violence. The path from those to a restored, vibrant America seems longer and rockier. In cycles, things often go down before they go up.”
“[What’s] ‘secular stagnation’: a nasty condition that dooms its victims to chronically weak growth…[where] the normal relationship between saving and investment goes haywire…[so] interest rate needed to balance the two drops, ultimately to below zero…[chronic] low growth, low inflation…and the constant threat of recession.
Several years ago those symptoms could be found across much of the global economy. No longer….[T]he most devilish aspect of the secular-stagnation story is that good times do not necessarily indicate underlying health… owing to an ageing population or a slowdown in technological progress…the concentration of income among [wealthy]…[and] leaving a shrinking share of income in the hands of the poorer…most like to spend….
[The] secular stagnation may temporarily be broken by a period of financial excess…[as] speculative investment…[or] borrow from those with savings….[We’ve] been in such circumstances before, only to watch it end in tears. In the late 1990s…[then] soaring property prices, fuelling an economic boom that ended disastrously….
[Now] stock-market [is at]…new heights…household debt is rising again, driven by loans to students and for cars. Across advanced economies, private debt as a share of GDP is above the pre-crisis level and rising fast…[especially] China, where private debt as a share of GDP has nearly doubled since 2008….
[T]here are ways to escape the trap. Firms might suddenly find new capital projects in which to invest…the rich could be taxed and their wealth redistributed…[or] massive public-investment…in new roads and railways, electric grids and broadband. If the secular-stagnation idea holds, central banks face a stark choice until politicians do some of these things….
Just what sort of story best describes the state of the economy — and how scary it is — will become clear this year, one way or another.”
“[In] both global politics and economics…[there’s]almost chronic inability to accept political disagreement in good faith…[only] some sinister ulterior motive…for someone disagreeing…is malice or greed….[Trump] attacking the motives of anyone who opposes him, including denouncing the media as ‘enemies of the people.’
Rancorous debate has occurred for centuries…[but now] facts are no longer accepted as evidence. This makes economic debate all the harder…[like] the Congressional Budget Office to assess the new health-care plan….
If society continues down that route, rational debate becomes impossible….[because] motives of others are suspect..[so] have no trust. And trust is the glue that ties international relations, and the global economy, together….Economists have shown conclusively that societies where trust is low perform poorly….
A world where nationalists take power is a world where disputes flare easily, and governments are reluctant to back down because this makes them look weak. Indeed, they may relish confrontation as burnishing their populist credentials….
[The] point is that the extremists drive out rational debate and drown out all other voices. In turn, they can ‘capture’ the government and [it]…only erodes trust further. This process, once started, is hard to stop…a canary in a very dark coal mine.”
Political Issues —
“The longest war in American history…[and] forgotten while still underway…[as] Trump’s Inaugural Address included no mention of Afghanistan…[nor at] joint session of Congress…..Congressional oversight has become pro forma…..[yet] Pentagon would probably need more troops…[and] conceding that the conflict is stalemate….[with] no guess on when the war might end….
Despite appropriating over three-quarters of a trillion dollars on Afghanistan since 2001, Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by the problem of inflated rolls, with local commanders pocketing American-supplied funds to pay for nonexistent soldiers….Adjusted for inflation, American spending to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total expended to rebuild all of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan….
Though the United States has spent $8.5 billion to battle narcotics in Afghanistan, opium production there has reached an all-time high. For this, over the past 15 years, nearly 2,400 American soldiers have died, and 20,000 more have been wounded….[Why?]
Once, the avoidance of war figured as a national priority….[Now] war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible.
Like other large-scale government projects, war now serves as a medium through which favors are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied….[Neither]Trump nor anyone else in Washington seems troubled that wars once begun drag on in perpetuity is beyond worrisome.”
“America is now governed by a president and party that…don’t accept the idea that there are objective facts…[and] want everyone to accept…reality is whatever they say it is…[like] inauguration crowd was the biggest ever…millions of votes were cast illegally for his opponent…with no evidence, that his predecessor tapped his phones….
[Then] consider the state of play on health care reform…[and] denial about recent gains….Vice President…[says] ‘Obamacare has failed [Kentucky]’…[yet] percentage…without insurance fell from 16.6 to 7 percent….Republicans rammed Trumpcare through key committees, literally in the dead of night, without waiting for the C.B.O. score…[14–24] millions to lose health coverage….
[T]his isn’t really about [reality]…[but] attacking the legitimacy of anyone who might question their assertions….[like] the news media, which…Trump has declared ‘enemies of the people’…because they dare to challenge him on anything. ‘Enemy of the people’ is, of course, a phrase historically associated with [tyrants]….
Trump isn’t a dictator — not yet…but he clearly has totalitarian instincts…[and] his party is happy to go along, accepting even the most bizarre conspiracy theories….[So] what’s really at stake is whether ignorance is strength…[and Trump] is the sole arbiter of truth.”
“[With] Echo or Google Home…[do we] effectively surrendered a…right to privacy from corporations and the government by bringing…into our home…always listening [and]…data they collect?….
’[Legally] it’s unresolved…[and] worries us’…[with] the possibility of collecting unintended information…from across the room…[or] at a friend’s dinner party….’It is exactly this kind of self-consciousness and chilling effects that…even the most remote threat of surveillance…casts over otherwise freewheeling private conversations, and is the reason people need ironclad assurance that their devices will not — cannot — betray them’…[familiar] to anyone who’s…covered a webcam…for fear of snooping….
’You are trusting that third-party to assert your rights, to notify you when your information is being sought….[But] ‘not entirely clear whether companies are legally bound to notify users about the manner of information they gather or how they ultimately act upon it….’It’s pretty much the Wild West’….
The laws governing precisely what access the government has to information collected on smart home devices is similarly up in the air….[But] ‘fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights’….[A]s companies increasingly battle with privacy backlash…it may ultimately be incumbent upon companies to wage those battles on behalf of the user….
[Clearly] law enforcement understands…devices are a rich source of information..[and] a legal regime…will be put in place when law enforcement gets access’….But do voice recordings gathered by a piece of technology…belong to the user or the company? And what if that information is stored on an off-site server, rather than locally? What about when it’s recorded outside of the home?….
[If] reasonable expectation of privacy has been given up to the third party…and with a lawful subpoena, it makes it difficult for the individual defendant to claim their Fourth Amendment rights were violated…[and] current constitutional protections are not adequate to protect us from these new smart devices that collect information from us’….
[T]he fight over the information is clearly only beginning….’[Increasingly] people use technologies that are troubling from a privacy point of view…[and] risks is that we end up in this twilight zone where everyone knows that their privacy is not being protected but also tries to adapt and live in the real world. We can do better than that’….[But] it’s important to be mindful of every piece of new equipment you make room for in your home.”
Science Issue –
“BIOLOGY’S biggest division is…between prokaryotes…bacteria are the most familiar…[with] 500,000 and 10m genetic ‘letters’ long…[and] fairly easy to replicate from off-the-shelf chemicals…[and] eukaryotes — animals, plants, fungi and so…[with] hundreds of millions, even billions, of letters….far harder [to replicate]….
[Now] Synthetic Yeast Genome Project…[has] created a single artificial yeast chromosome…8% smaller than a natural one…The aim of all this is twofold. One goal is to make a genomic ‘platform’ that can be adapted to do useful things. Genetically modified yeasts already make vaccines, drugs and specialty chemicals….
[Other] is to test techniques that could then be used on other eukaryotes…[so] whole genomes could be manipulated at will…from scratch. The results could be awesome. To make sure they are not also shocking, people should start thinking about them now.”
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