Archive for July, 2013

Weiner, Spitzer, and Other Shameful Characters

July 30, 2013

OK, so I can’t pass up this topic.

For my extraterrestrial readers, Eliot Spitzer, former governor who resigned in a prostitution scandal, and Anthony Weiner, former congressman who resigned in a sexting scandal, are now running for New York City comptroller and mayor respectively. (And Vito Lopez, finally forced to resign as state assemblyman for serial sexual harassments, is running for city council.)

Weiner's weiner

Weiner’s weiner

And now it comes out that the married Weiner (a/k/a Carlos Danger) engaged in even more and even dirtier stuff with even more women, since his resignation. (Alas, Spitzer may now seem almost clean by comparison.)

I never liked any of them. Spitzer and Weiner were both “progressive” blowhards. Spitzer was acclaimed as the “Sheriff of Wall Street;” I thought him a bully who abused his position and the law to curry popular favor shaking down unpopular targets. His governorship was a disaster even before the sex thing because he foolishly continued to act the bully. Weiner was no legislator, just a self-promoting publicity hound.

Neither man’s prior accomplishments merited the “redemption” implicitly sought by their new campaigns. Neither did anything to earn restored trust. In Spitzer’s case, his failed governorship was followed by a failed stint as a political pundit. In Weiner’s, nothing except his (ahem) naked ambition.

And speaking of political pundits, Dr. Alan Chartock, head of WAMC, the local National Public Radio station, has been on the air relentlessly insisting (with typical insults toward contrary opinions, e.g. by Rex Smith, Albany Times-Union editor) that calls for Weiner to quit the race are wrong, and voters should decide. That’s almost as loopy as Weiner’s behavior itself.

San Diego Union-Tribune

San Diego Union-Tribune

True, he has a right to run, and voters a right to back him. But Anthony Weiner is one very sick puppy, whose conduct shows deranged detachment from reality. “Let voters decide” makes no sense; entrusting high office to such a man is out of the question, and his quitting would not somehow wrongfully deny voters an opportunity to elect him.

And speaking of detachment from reality, Chartock also says Weiner’s quitting would destroy his political future. What political future? While Chartock cites Weiner’s leading the polls – with twenty-something percent in a fractured field – that predated the latest blow-up. Any fool would know Weiner is finished. (A new poll shows him running fourth.)

Furthermore, in criticizing newspaper calls for Weiner to quit, Chartock implicitly impugns the whole idea of editorializing. As the ever polite Rex Smith patiently observed, it would mean newspapers never endorsing candidates – just “let voters decide.”

images-2Chartock denies this, insisting his point is rather that the media has been too eager – or is too infuriated by Weiner’s disobedience – or something. But no matter how it’s parsed, it amounts to saying the media has no business saying what it’s saying.

Surely newspapers have a right to weigh in on such matters. Just as Chartock himself has the right to state his opinion.* But such a bizarre, nonsensical opinion shreds his credibility as a political pundit (professor emeritus of political science though he may be). He too should quit.

*However (as I’ve said before), Chartock’s blatant on-air partisanship is indefensible for a radio station receiving public money through both direct grants and tax deductibility of contributions.

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How We Can Be Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise

July 26, 2013

imagesEach month’s employment report tells us which economic sectors show job growth. And usually leading the pack is healthcare.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Maybe that healthcare costs are eating us alive, and ever more jobs in healthcare is a symptom?

A growing healthcare sector is not per se bad. Once, we needed most people employed in farming just to feed us. Improved agricultural productivity freed them to work instead in factories, producing other goods, making us richer. Then industrial productivity gains freed many of those people to work in services, making us richer still. One such service is healthcare, which improves our lives, so if we choose to spend more on that, fine.

But – there are some big buts. First, regarding productivity, the health sector’s record is atrocious. Whereas greater productivity enabled us to shift manpower out of agriculture, then manufacturing, and now even many non-healthcare services, in contrast healthcare employment continues to rise because healthcare is a productivity sinkhole.

Second, my phrase “choose to spend” is misapplied when it comes to most healthcare. images-1Instead healthcare spending is an out-of-control juggernaut carrying us along, with a high proportion going to proliferating tests and procedures because providers get paid not for results but for tests and procedures, useful or not; and to end-of-life care (or torture?) we can’t seem able to limit, even though it doesn’t add real value.

Steve Brill had a much-noticed Time magazine piece recently, examining what determines healthcare pricing. The answer, too often: whatever providers think they can get away with. And that tends to be a lot, because actual recipients of these services aren’t normally who pays. Often government pays, or else insurance. This is a big reason for poor healthcare productivity; there’s no incentive for it.  And so, again, it’s not that we, as a society, are choosing to spend ever more on healthcare.

In fact, we have gotten into a bizarre mindset that we shouldn’t have to pay for it at all – that it should all be “covered” (so someone else pays). images-2Worse yet, that “someone else” is not paying for it either, because government is borrowing a big chunk of the money (since we’re willing to pay neither our medical bills nor the taxes to cover them). This will blow up in our faces. Another reason why the seemingly cheery monthly healthcare sector jobs report should give us pause.

I’ve said this before: the root problem is that healthcare doesn’t work like a market, where customers shop for services. Lefties like to mock free-marketeers as supposedly believing the market solves everything. Well, in healthcare we see how the lack of a market screws up everything. A market wouldn’t solve it all, but sure would solve a lot. The tragedy of Obama’s “Affordable Care Act” is its doing nothing about this fundamental problem – so it certainly won’t make healthcare “affordable” for us as a nation.

The Economist recently reported on a new phenomenon in Britain: private for-profit walk-in health clinics providing basic services like gynecology, dentistry, pediatrics, etc., with the (non-reimbursable) charges clearly advertised upfront. Originally started to serve Polish immigrants particularly, now they’re expanding as many other customers flock to them,

images-3Why would they? After all, Brits famously get treatment free through their sacralized National Health Service. But the answer is obvious. People must prefer the expeditious, personalized, non-bureaucratized care they get by paying at these clinics. It really tells us something when you can actually make money competing against a free service!

I was glad to read this, because I’ve often thought this very kind of thing would be great for America – clinics in shopping malls where you can just walk in and get basic care, for a reasonable fee, bypassing the whole insurance and governmental quagmire. We do have some like this, but not enough. If it became widespread, we’d be a lot more healthy – and wealthy – and wise.

Subluxation Poetry

July 24, 2013

dislodgedI am pleased to report that my beloved wife, Therese L. Broderick, is the author of Dislodged: Poems for My Mother’s Weeks of Subluxation.* It is a lovely production, enlivened by charming botanical art. And while it is a small book, issued by a small press, unlike most such it is not self-published or subsidized! So I am very proud of her achievement.

Now, Therese and I have had some intensive debates over issues of poetics; and the chief point of difference between us is that she knows what she is talking about whereas I do not. Nevertheless, I am sure her work is very good.Unknown

Indeed, there is one poem in the book which I consider to be of the highest merit, the one about sock removal. I can state without hesitation that this is the finest sock removal poem I’ve ever read. By a considerable margin. This one poem is worth the price of the book (though the book is literally priceless).

For more information, please see Therese’s blog, Poet Apace.

* Subluxation refers to dislodged vertebrae; the poems concern Therese’s interactions with her mother during the latter’s recuperation from this injury.

Citizen Windsor

July 22, 2013

We heartily extend congratulations and good wishes to William and Kate on the birth of their son, heir to a throne on which we pray he’ll never sit.

images-1As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The mass of Mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them.” Hereditary monarchy and nobility is an abomination in the modern world.

We Americans got rid of kings, queens, princes, dukes, earls, counts, lords, and all those other noxious vestiges of feudalism in 1776, and it’s long past time the Brits did likewise.

True, today’s royal family is little more than a tourist attraction. imagesAs such, its members should be confined in a museum where people can gawk at them and rejoice at humankind’s rising from subservience to their like. Save for any family members who will renounce their pretensions and take instead a far more honorable title:

Citizen.

Giddy Up

July 20, 2013

That’s the name of a new local bus company, profiled in our paper’s business section. Not the kind of story I’d normally read, but it was a lazy day. And this gave me an emotional lift!

The Saratoga race track is around an hour from Albany; and of course parking is a hassle. Comes young Tracy Cornwell wondering, “why isn’t there a better way?” You might think some bus company would be running shuttles. But no. So Cornwell decided to.

Photo by John Carl D'Annibale, Times-Union

Photo by John Carl D’Annibale, Times-Union

She’s a college grad who spent two years working on cruise ships. Her venture into the bus business was no mere lark. Cornwell raised $25,000 to $30,000 in start-up capital, attended a ten-week “entrepreneur boot camp,” researched her market carefully, made deals with some hotels as pick-up points, bought a bus and refurbished it to be a festive “party bus,” and hired drivers. Ticket prices are a down-to-earth $10 each way.

While reading, I was (as often) asking myself, “can she actually make money?” at that price point – considering all the investment, running costs, wages, insurance, promotion, etc. But Cornwell does seem to have scoped out her business plan intelligently. Her bus is mostly running full.

We keep hearing how bad the economy is, how tough for young graduates. So it’s great to read about a young gal who seems to have all the old fashioned virtues, a go-get-‘em entrepreneurial spirit, and to be headed for success.

I’m sooo sick of hearing “capitalism” and the market economy badmouthed. Tracy Cornwell epitomizes what it’s truly all about: improving people’s lives. Cornwell saw a way to provide a service people would want. If she can make a profit providing it, that’s great, because otherwise would it be provided? Profit is not a dirty word.*

Tracy Cornwell: my tip of the hat to you. May you have all the success in the world.

(Click here for Giddy Up’s website.)

images* I recently met a women who was all against capitalism; she favored instead a barter economy. I wanted to ask her, how did you get to this party? By car perchance? Do you think a barter economy could produce cars? But I held my tongue and smiled. (Well, possibly I rolled my eyes.)

Charles Murray, “Real Education,” and Inequality

July 16, 2013

Charles Murray co-authored the controversial book, The Bell Curve. In Real Education, he criticizes the whole “no child left behind” idea as harmful romanticism. Some children, he says, are just lost causes. We don’t live in a Lake Wobegon where they’re all above average.

UnknownBut, Murray argues, education policy wonks do live in worlds populated by much above average people, and thus have no real idea what below average actually means. Mercilessly, he tries to show us, using actual questions from eighth grade exams.

His first example: if a company has 90 employees and increases that by 10%, how many does it now have? Sixty-two percent got this multiple choice question wrong. Indeed, inferring that some who didn’t were merely guessing, Murray posits that only around 23% actually knew the answer.

Call me a romantic, but I don’t think most American eighth graders are this dumb. They probably even have better social intelligence than me. While Murray is persuasive that cognitive ability measured by IQ tests does matter, it’s far from the whole story. imagesRecall again the marshmallow test. And if 77% of kids don’t know that 90 + 10% = 99, I suspect it says more about the teaching than about the kids. Surely if schools were doing their job properly, a normal kid would learn such simple math. (Murray does not agree.)

images-1What Murray fails to take into account is – oddly enough – the bell curve. He writes as though below average and above average students are two species apart. But intelligence falls along a classic bell curve – that is, a few people at each extreme, but most bunched near the middle. So while those in the highest tenth are a lot smarter than in the lowest tenth, in the broad middle range a student at, say, the 66th percentile is not actually twice as smart as someone in the 33rd. Their test scores are probably not that far apart. Both can be considered typical and average, and generally similar. So even if Murray is right that those at the very bottom are no-hopers, that surely isn’t true of the entire half who (by definition) are “below average.”

Murray is more persuasive in his critique of American educational practice. We place ever more weight on something with ever less true meaning: the college degree. Its recipients join the elite; others are consigned to loserdom. Fine perhaps if the degree really represented educational attainment, but we know how hollow that rings in an era of images-2gradeflation, dumbing down, student entitlement demands, and degrees filled out with fluff courses like the “History of Comic Book Art” (Indiana University) or “Campus Culture and Drinking” (Duke; which spotlights another point about what the college experience actually entails). Yet still the BA degree functions in society like railroad tracks used to: as a dividing line. You didn’t want to live on the wrong side of the tracks. We are becoming a nation riven between the BAs and non-BAs. (As well as between the “progressive” cult and the “conservative” cult.)

I have repeatedly stressed that education is increasingly vital for people to prosper in the modern global economy. But that doesn’t mean herding everyone willy-nilly to get BAs, as Murray argues, because there’s little call for comic book art historians. While doctors, scientists, engineers and, yes, college professors, can only get the necessary training via college, that’s not true for many kinds of skilled technicians we also need. America doesn’t have much of a system for producing them (unlike Germany, notably). We do need more education, but not the sort we’re doing now.

And for people who are not going to become BA-holding professionals, the non-academic skills are even more important. Like the ability to pass the marshmallow test. A positive attitude toward work. Cooperativeness. Showing up on time. But maintaining the idealistic notion that all kids should target college, and giving up on those who don’t, again consigns too many to loserdom.

images-3Inequality fetishists stress the wealth of the top 1%, but that’s the wrong focus. It’s untrue that they get their wealth at the expense of the rest, and sociologically a 1% population segment is irrelevant. They might as well be Martians, so little do they actually affect the lives of the 99%. The real inequality, that does matter, is between the meritocratic college-educated elite and the rest of the country with a very different culture. That societal division is far more consequential than the 1%-vs-99% wealth divide. (Murray has written about this too, as I’ve discussed.)

One increasingly important issue Murray does not address is the cost of higher education. Too many come out with $150,000+ of debt. Just like health care providers, universities charge what they charge because they can. And asking government to pick up more of the tab is not the answer because government money in the picture is itself a key reason why universities are able to charge so much. They’re milking taxpayers.

Lately there’s also been some discussion of how there’s too much emphasis on math and science and career-oriented education, to the detriment of humanities. Murray makes the point that while our system does succeed in turning out, say, biologists who know their biology, they become part of the intelligentsia running the country; and, for that role, their education should be broader, to give them the breadth of view and cultural grounding that a classical liberal education should ideally provide. images-5But, again, a grounding in comic book art history doesn’t quite cut it. We are hardly educating anyone anymore to be citizens of the world.

Well, maybe a few. Elizabeth, are you there?

Our Depraved Sick Society, and the George Zimmerman Verdict

July 15, 2013

Following is a complete verbatim AP story from our 7/12 local paper:

POLICE: MAN CRASHED KID’S PIZZA PARTY

imagesSEATTLE – Seattle Police say they arrested a man who crashed an 8-year-old child’s party, ate several pieces of pizza and took two balloon animals.
Parents told police they asked the 28-year-old man to leave after he joined the children’s party at Green Lake on Wednesday evening. However, police say the shirtless, shoeless man refused and got into a “very heated” exchange with the families at the party. The families called police.
In a release on their website, police say the man appeared to be under the influence of a “potent relaxant of some kind.”

I’ve reviewed Pinker’s book on the decline of violence. Now I guess his whole theory is out the window.

Seattle police evidence photo

Seattle police evidence photo

What kind of sick society is this where a man – shirtless and shoeless no less! – can come to a party uninvited! And eat “several” pizza pieces! (Was there no stopping him after the first?) And take two balloon animals! As if one was not enough to slake his depraved lust. And then there was not just a heated exchange but a “very heated” exchange! Police had to be called!

What’s really so revolting is that tender little children had their innocence brutally shredded. Imagine the emotional scarring. Therapists will have employment for decades to come (on our taxpayer’s dime, probably).

The story says the perp seemed to be under the influence of a “potent relaxant.” I feel I need a pretty potent relaxant myself to calm my shattered nerves after exposure to such upsetting reportage.

* * *

images-2On a more serious note, we also had the George Zimmerman acquittal. We must remember that our rule of law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt; and if ever there was a case full of doubt about what exactly happened, this was it. On the other hand, it did seem surprising that Zimmerman was not even convicted of some lesser offense, since it appeared obvious that the whole episode resulted from his going looking for trouble.

But the real news here was the dog that did not bark. While there was inevitable protest at the verdict in this racially charged case, there has been – with only very minor exceptions – an absence of violent backlash or rioting, with instead mostly decorous civilized demonstrations. I was quite impressed with the dignified restraint of one protester, interviewed on the news. Yet again we see that we do learn lessons from the past; we do grow better; we do make progress.

Notwithstanding the occasional episode of unauthorized pizza consumption and balloon theft.

 

Christopher Hitchens: The Man Who Left the Left

July 11, 2013

images“Left-wing,” “socialist,” “Marxist,” and “Trotskyite” are not words that ordinarily endear a memoirist to me, and Christopher Hitchens so described himself in his Hitch-22, published prehumously in 2010.

He was most notorious as the atheist author of God Is Not Great. But Hitchens’s writing career, and this book, mainly concerned politics and public affairs.

While he got into British leftist politics by way of youthful iconoclasm, from the start he was also an iconoclast within the left. Distinguishing him from that herd was his absolute intolerance for any abuse of human rights; and one who can apply the phrase “moral imbecility” to the left is my kind of leftist.

There was an epiphany in his twenties, realizing that too many on the left, for the sake of some avowedly greater goal, willingly sacrifice values like freedom of the press and expression, pluralistic tolerance, and other forms of personal liberty – whereas those are themselves the first-order goods, never to be sacrificed.

I recently quoted Turkey’s Erdogan likening democracy to a train – you get off when you reach your destination. Hitchens understood that democracy is the destination.

images-1Thus, visiting Cuba, at 19, in 1968, when lefties were still entranced by romanticizing Castroism (indeed, some still are, to this day), Hitchens quickly abandoned such illusions, and got Castro’s number pretty clearly when the Cuban dictator fell in line endorsing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

I previously reviewed Hitchens’s fat book Arguably (a collection of essays), where this basic issue of human rights loomed large, and scarcely a word did I disagree with. I’m coming to see the true political divide as between devotees of liberty and devotees of equality, each willing to sacrifice the other thing for their preferred sine qua non. (But sacrificing liberty for equality gets you neither.)

images-3I also lauded Hitchens’s pithy and droll writing style, and that’s on display as well in Hitch-22. He mentions working for a certain publication, until the time when its editor spoke some words to him that made his continuing service there impossible. A footnote reveals the words in question: “You’re fired.” Then he got caught in crossfire in Northern Ireland’s conflict; upon finally managing to convince the police he was harmless, Hitchens says he was advised to “fuck off” – “and off I duly and promptly fucked.”

However, one quibble: Hitchens was infected with the modern “myself” virus, mis-use of that word (in place of “me”) repeatedly scratching at this reader’s eyes.

But Hitchens’s own eyes were impervious to ideological smoke, as exemplified by his refusal to vote Labour in 1979, despite long membership in that party. Much as he sympathized with the idea of the movement, he could see Britain’s Labour government for what it was: corrupt, feeble, and entombed by a deadening status quo. images-4And he was not all against Margaret Thatcher – even though she had once literally spanked him. Unlike most of his lefty pals, he cheered on her Falklands counter-attack.

This returns us to the main theme: intellectual though he was in spades, Hitchens’s hatred for all things tyrannical was not just intellectual, it was visceral. You can just see him quivering with rage as he relates, for example, the atrocities of the Argentine junta involved in the Falklands episode. I share that rage when it comes to the world’s Assads, Mugabes, or Chavezes. No ideological pretext, none, can ever justify such violations of human dignity.

This is the perspective Hitchens brought to Iraq, perhaps his most contentious political stance, infuriating his erstwhile leftist confreres. Now, peace is a worthy desideratum. But again, too often the left gets its priorities wrong and would sacrifice too much for “peace.” images-5Not Hitchens, who saw what this was really all about: the depraved criminality of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He had actually opposed, more or less, the first Gulf War, but changed his view after visiting the area and learning first hand the reality. This was no garden-variety dictatorship; it was evil on a scale no smugly moralistic war-opponent seemed capable of imagining, and Hitchens is lacerating about such moral blindness. He understood how costly fighting that evil would be in human terms; but that “peace” would be even costlier. A tragic aspect of the human condition requires us to make this awful calculus. Flinching from it, under cover of pious platitudes, is not the answer.

I’ve written about “an ideology of reality” – basing beliefs on what one sees, rather than the other way around. Christopher Hitchens epitomized this, a sponge soaking up information. As a professional British far-left intellectual, he was supposed to despise the United States. Yet he took a hard look at America and fell in love; eventually immigrated; and finally became a citizen. And, after a third of a century deeply immersed in left-wing activism, writing and lecturing, the Iraq issue finally brought Christopher Hitchens to a fully conscious decision point: he left the left.

images-6However, as he himself insisted, such changes of mind never come out of the blue, but only after a long gestation, and Hitchens’s own journey is really the book’s main narrative. He notes how long his left allegiance required moral and intellectual double bookkeeping. The most glaring problem was to sustain hatred for fascism (a label the left is inordinately fond of flinging) while indulging communism, which Hitchens finally realized is just a slight variant of fascism. For the left, this meant antipathy toward America while making excuses for any communist regime: again, that “moral imbecility.”

Thus, he was friends with Noam Chomsky, whom he eventually came to see as nothing but an irrational America-hater. He wrote extensively about his great friend Edward Said (author of Orientalism) whose political philosophy similarly boiled down to America, and the West more generally, being always in the wrong about everything. It took Hitchens a while, but ultimately he got Said’s number too.

images-2Communism thankfully was proven to be not the longed-for utopia but a dead end. So that’s that. But the “progressive” side still hasn’t really recovered from the ethical pretzelization the episode afflicted it with. There is still a deep mistrust of all things American and “Western.”

As Hitchens says on his final page, “so many of the best lack all conviction,* hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation . . . . It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time.”

Tell me about it.

*A nod to Yeats (see me flaunt my erudition); but did Hitchens really still think of them as the “best” people?!

The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?

July 7, 2013

I recently had a featured article in The Humanist magazine. Here’s a link; and a condensed summary:

RobinsonA computer can be upgraded by adding memory, or a whizzier operating system – but eventually it’s time to just get a new computer. Is humanity’s fate similar?

Ray Kurzweil (“author and futurist”) thinks so, sort of; he sees a “singularity” coming in a few decades. That is, technological advancement changing life so profoundly it’s a discontinuity from what came before.

But many actually think technology, productivity gains, and innovation have stalled, and past progress may really represent the picking of low hanging fruit. We have indeed already invented the obvious big things, with further innovation being mainly tweaking and improvement. The computer was a comprehensive game-changer – but can we imagine some analogous future game changer?

Actually, yes: Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s a bomb waiting to go off.

images-1Some think AI research has been a dead end. It’s true that some early over-enthusiasm has proven misplaced, and replicating human intelligence is very hard. But while our brain architecture is admittedly extremely complex, it’s built from a quite limited set of genetic instructions, that merely provide general guidelines by which the developing brain wires itself. AI is moving in a similar direction, creating systems that can learn and increase their own complexity. You probably have one in your pocket.

So far we have not created a machine that matches human intelligence, but that will inevitably happen. And it won’t stop there. The machines will become smarter than us. That’s the bomb. That’s the singularity.

Because then technological advancement goes into overdrive. Scientific and technological problems will be attacked with brainpower far beyond ours. That will include the smart machines’ own further improvement. And there will be a worldwide network of them – a global intelligence.

This is what the “limits to growth” doomsayers, who believe we’re destroying our future, overlook. They fail to realize how different the future will actually be. Our environmental and resource challenges, too, will be tackled by capabilities vastly greater than ours today.

Will they, however, remain just glorified machines – or become something more? Consciousness is not ineffable or mystical; it’s an emergent property devolving out of the complexity of the signaling among the brain’s neurons. If that can be mirrored in an artificial system, there’s no reason in principle why it cannot be self-aware. Indeed, if the machines can outstrip (by far) our intelligence, could they not also attain some even higher form of consciousness?

Robinson-1So what then becomes of us, the primitive 1.0 version? Upgrade, or replacement? But rather than a divergence between fleshly humanity and mechanical super-intelligence, we should actually expect more of a merging. We’re already seeing the beginnings of our de-biologization when quadriplegics can manipulate physical objects with their minds, and we debate whether a runner should be allowed to compete because his artificial legs are better than real ones.

When you junk an old computer, it’s not the death of your computing life – you migrate it to a new machine. For humans of version 1.0, the ascent to 2.0 will probably be like that. So those future super-intelligences will be our own progeny; will be us, humanity 2.0, or 10.0, or 1022.0.

Much has been written lately about how our evolutionary biological past, embedded in our genes, shapes who we are, and not entirely in a good way. We carry a lot of such baggage. We’ve overcome many of its limitations through knowledge and technology, performing thereby a kind of evolutionary hat trick. Our next evolutionary hat trick will be to simply leave all that biological baggage behind.

Will there be problems and downsides? Hoo boy. Those who today rail against Genetic Modification, nanotech and “playing God,” will have a field day. Bill McKibben has actually said we’ve had enough progress, and it should stop. But, like always, progress will blast past such Luddites, and notwithstanding the inevitable problems, the bigger picture will be human improvement so vast that future anti-evolutionists will disbelieve their descent from lesser creatures made of (yuck) flesh and blood.images-2

Kurzweil (in his book The Singularity is Near) posits six stages of evolution. In the final stage, intelligence pervades all matter. The Universe wakes up.

There is no god – yet.

Egypt: A Very Democratic Coup

July 4, 2013

Nobody is more pro-democracy than me. But I must confess a grudging soft spot for a force that can tell a president, “You’ve been a total dick-head and screw-up. You’re done.”

egypt-army-main_635x250_1372885314I was inclined to cut Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi a lot of slack because he was elected. But I didn’t forget – as he apparently did – that his Muslim Brotherhood support base was really just 25% of the electorate (and he was their second choice at that). He became president only because the military, when last in charge, made such a hash of the election process. Still, Morsi could have been a hero if he had done some outreach to the three-fourths of Egyptians who didn’t really support him, and brought some responsible good sense to managing the economy. He did neither. He shut out everyone but Brotherhood stalwarts. Dire economic problems went unaddressed and worsened considerably. Morsi’s only responses were blustering bombast.

imagesMost Egyptians were fed up with this and wanted him out. Even when explicitly told he’d be ousted unless he accommodated political elements beyond his own narrow base, Morsi still pig-headedly refused. It’s mind-boggling that he wouldn’t act to avert so predictable a denouement.* I heard an Egyptian woman on the news say “he delegitimized himself.” And while ousting him by constitutional means was apparently not an option, the constitution itself was of dubious legitimacy, rammed down Egypt’s throat by the Muslim Brotherhood in their artificial moment of power, without meaningful democratic participation.

Hence this was really a coup by popular demand – a democratic coup, confirmed by the widespread jubilation in the streets. I support it. (Just don’t let’s make it a habit.)

I just got back from a July 4 celebration where I participated in a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It says that “when a long train of abuses” threatens despotism, it is the people’s “right,  it is their duty, to throw off such government.” When the reading ended, one listener remarked, “This is what Egypt’s people have just done.”

UnknownTheir first stab at democracy flopped. There’s a learning curve. Maybe Egypt has learned something, and now that they’re back to square one, they can get it right (or more nearly right) on a second try. There are grounds for hope. Having been once-burned, I doubt the army wants to run the show again but, rather, is apparently setting up an interim civilian government encompassing a broad representation of society – the very thing Morsi so foolishly balked at. It looks like there will be another election and another constitution. And the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility seems shot after its disastrous performance in power; its slogan, “Islam is the Answer,” proven wrong. A costly lesson, but Egypt may be lucky in cutting its losses after only one year.

The situation is fraught because in the short term, the political instability may exacerbate Egypt’s economic woes. U.S. aid would even have to be suspended if what happened is called a “coup.” Better call it another revolution.

Also, in the run-up to it, violence seemed to be stirring between Morsi opponents and his Islamist supporters. If the latter now respond with more violence, that’s indeed a worry, but it would serve to delegitimize them even further. Meantime, the 2011 revolution was actually followed by a shameful persecution of pro-democracy elements; now we hear that not only Morsi but perhaps hundreds of other Muslim Brotherhoodies have been arrested. This is not good. Anti-democratic though the Islamists may be, any representative government must include them. Trying instead to repress them is a recipe for more violent conflict.

As I keep saying, elections are not the beginning and the end of what democracy means. One fundamental point is that it shouldn’t be a “winner take all” system (as Morsi seemed to think). An elected government has great responsibility toward citizens who didn’t vote for it. Their rights and interests cannot be simply disregarded. This kind of pluralism and dispersal of power is essential, and unfortunately, Muslims in general seem to have a hard time with the concept. But perhaps the Morsi debacle taught this lesson too.

imagesToday, Morsi’s supporters and opponents alike are decrying America’s stance. They’re actually both right. We’ve been decisively wishy-washy, trying to have it both ways, thus satisfying nobody. We’ve cozied up to whoever’s in power without staking out a clear stance of support for the aspirations of the people themselves. The bulk of our aid still goes to the military, which Egypt’s people don’t need, rather than to things like schools and clinics and agricultural assistance, which they desperately need. UnknownJust another sorry instance of Obama’s sleepwalking foreign policy.

*I was able to write much of this post before the coup even happened.