First draft chapter is available

I’m at the point where I can comfortably start posting draft chapters of my book here, with the intent of soliciting comments and constructive criticism.  As such, I’ve added a new page at the top, “Rethinking America,” which will house any material from the book that I post here.

The first chapter I’m posting is 17, Tax and Welfare Reform.  It’s accompanied by a primer on the secure ID and banking system that is a prerequisite for the reforms in Chapter 17 to work.

If you have any feedback on these, or any future chapters that are posted, please leave a comment or send me an email!

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Lethal Aid: the Case for a Kill Switch

I wrote this eighteen months ago as an op-ed piece, but the international situation had cooled off a bit by then and it wasn’t published.  With the situation in Ukraine and Syria and the ISIL invasion of Iraq, it seems more timely now than ever.

Lethal Aid:  the Case for a Kill Switch

According to their Congressional testimony, multiple members of President Obama’s cabinet recommended that the US give arms to the Syrian rebels.  These recommendations were made with clear reservations about the risks involved, but top officials including the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs still favored arming the rebels.

They recommended aid because the worst and bloodiest wars are inconclusive wars between determined foes, particularly long, drawn-out civil wars.  In such cases, giving one side a substantial advantage in firepower can, paradoxically, often result in a much quicker resolution to the conflict, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

But Obama rejected the recommendation for the same reason that his advisors had reservations about it:  sending arms and munitions into a civil war in the Middle East involves a significant risk that those same weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists.

We’ve seen this in Libya, where many weapons (mostly stolen from Gaddafi’s warehouses, but also including those given to the rebels by outside sources), ended up in the possession of terrorists.

In Syria, we’re already seeing small-arms shipments from the Saudis and Qataris going to men who, while they are fighting Assad currently, are very likely to take their new guns and point them at other targets in the region.  Given recent history and the instability of the region, President Obama’s concerns that any heavier weapons we give to Syrian rebels will end up in the hands of terrorists are well founded.

It is these heavier weapons that would have made the biggest real difference in the Syrian conflict, the ones that would have increased the rebels’ lethality and combat effectiveness the most:  anti-air missiles, RPGs, and other similar systems.

These are, of course, precisely the kind of weapons that President Obama was most worried about.  No US president wants to contemplate the idea of al-Qaeda or other extremist groups using American missiles to shoot down airliners, or using American RPGs to blow up buses full of tourists or limos carrying important leaders.

That’s the basic dilemma in providing “lethal aid”:  the more powerful the weapons, the greater the danger of misuse in the wrong hands.  This is unlikely to be the last time we would like to support the overthrow of a murderous and illegitimate regime, but are inhibited by the real dangers of introducing sophisticated weapons into a fundamentally chaotic situation.

Is there anything that can be done to resolve this dilemma?

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Security Implications of Self-Driving Vehicles

A car that can drive itself to its destination more safely than a human driver.  A car that can drop you off at the door and then go park itself, only to be summoned back to meet you at the door again when you are ready to leave.  A truck that can find it’s way through a crowded city and back right up to the loading dock at its destination, without any driver on board.  Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Google and a host of other companies are determined to make it happen.  The Economist and a lot of pundits are convinced it will be one of the biggest innovations in modern life, transforming the way we get around and the way we live and work.

But will it also create irresistible temptations for terrorists and a terrifying security problem?

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Why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post

In two words:  paywall consolidation.

Of course there’s no way to know for sure what he has in mind, but the potential should be obvious.  There’s a business opportunity here and the analysis behind it is very similar to the analysis that led him to create Amazon in the first place.

Consider the situation we currently have.  People who want to read the contents of the WSJ, the NYT, the WaPo, and other publications that have paywalls have to sign up separately and pay for all of them individually even though that involves ridiculous duplication of content and redundant expense.  Most customers don’t want more news. They typically have only a certain, very limited, amount of time for reading news.  What they want is more choices and better quality.

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A Viral Carbon Tax Strategy for Dealing with Climate Change

This post was inspired by the 2013 Economist article “Carbon Copy,” which discussed the internal prices that businesses are assessing on carbon emissions for their own projects.  This isn’t a universal thing, yet, but the fact that many large firms are actively thinking about what a price on carbon will do to their future business is immensely heartening – and gives me hope that we’ll eventually see the US and the international community actually place a price on carbon in order to keep climate change from getting worse than it already will.

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Waging War On Ourselves

I’ve been working on a research project I call the Interlock Project.  At its heart, it’s an attempt to describe all the ways in which the major problems facing the US are interconnected, and how each of them makes the others harder to solve.

I think that this is important for people to understand, because while most Americans who think about it will realize – intellectually – that our problems interact with each other and make each other worse, there is little appreciation of just how much this is true.  There is a tendency to see each problem as a mostly self-contained issue, rather than as a piece of an enormously complicated interdependent system, despite the abundant evidence that it’s nowhere near that simple.

I began by identifying approximately 60 major problems that have a long-term impact on the future of the US.  Each one is a long-standing problem that has resisted obvious solutions and that has a high degree of linkage to other problems.  Figuring that keeping track of that many individual problems would be a bit… mind-boggling (i.e., nobody can keep track of that many moving pieces all at once), I grouped similar ones together until I had reduced the list to a more manageable set of 12 domains.

One of the original problems, the slowdown in the long-term growth rate of the economy, has such a large influence (directly and indirectly) on all of the others because it determines what resources we will have available for fixing other problems, that it really constitutes a domain of its own.  Starting from that point, the remaining problems clustered fairly naturally into three categories, with three or four domains in each of them:

  1. Issues involving demography, education, poverty, and health, which have an influence on the quality of our human capital.
  2. Issues affecting natural resources, infrastructure, and the environment, which are areas of concern within our physical capital.
  3. Issues of corruption, justice, taxes & spending, and foreign relations, which have an impact on our social capital.

Each problem domain is affected by some (or all) of the others, and each in turn creates its own impacts.  Linked together, they form a complex web of interconnections – something like this:

Interlock colored 10-29-13

Take that in for a minute, keeping in mind that a single domain can represent half a dozen different problems.  You may disagree with my placement (or non-placement) of some links, but I don’t think you’ll disagree with me about the sheer complexity of the tangled web we’re dealing with.  Because of the haphazard way our political system works, we typically try to fix specific problems with (comparatively) small and direct initiatives that assume that the pieces are isolated from each other.  And then we’re surprised when those “fixes” don’t actually work … or, more often, cause even worse problems.

So, bearing all this in mind, I had four goals when I started the project:

  1. Define the most important and most intractable problems.
  2. Detail the links/interconnections/impacts between the problem areas.
  3. Determine how important the interconnections are, with regards to how much they actually contribute to the problem(s).
  4. Try to identify some promising and achievable first steps that would help unsnarl the whole mess.

It’s that fourth goal that I want to focus on here.

When I started the project, I worried that there would be no starting point, that the problems facing American society had truly become a single, massive, interlocking mega-problem that had to be solved all at once or not at all – and that an “all at once” total overhaul was far beyond both our political will and our resources.  History has shown repeatedly that societies that get themselves in that kind of trap are on a path that eventually leads to either prolonged decline, or collapse, or painful revolution.

However, spelling out the nature of the interconnections in our current mess suggests that we are not yet in such a bad situation, and that there are several achievable starting points.  This is very good news, because the nature of the Interlock is that it mostly works to prevent any meaningful reform.  Trying to fix A without first fixing B and C will fail, but solving B depends on solving D and E and making real progress on F, and so on.  My concern was that it would all loop back on itself with no entry point, but fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

The big surprise, at least for me, was the nature of one of the best candidates for a starting point:  ending the War on Drugs.

Drug use, addiction, drug trafficking, and drug-related crime are clearly problems for all modern societies, and they clearly have impacts on many parts of the Interlock, including health, education, justice, corruption, and government finance.  But I think most people assume, as I did, that this is essentially a law enforcement issue, not a major contributor to why we seem to be on the wrong track and unable to solve major social and economic problems.

As I have worked on analyzing and documenting the interdependencies in the Interlock, I’ve slowly come to the realization that this seriously underestimates the harm we are doing to ourselves.  The strategy we have followed for dealing with the drug problem has not only failed utterly to solve the problem, but has in fact become a major contributor to almost every part of the Interlock.

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The Risk of Deflation in the US Economy

I was asked to explain deflation, and why there was a chance that it would become a serious economic problem for the U.S.  I thought my answer would make a good christening post for this blog:

KEY POINTS:

  • Deflation is a self-reinforcing decline in average prices across a whole economy.
  • Once started, it is very difficult to stop, because customers and investors hoard cash instead of buying and investing, causing demand to drop and the economy to spiral downward.
  • The US is flirting with deflation or is now experiencing mild deflation.
  • Because the US is the largest economy and the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, if deflation gets out of hand in the US, it will trigger a global depression.

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