10 March 2012

Transforming society to a sustainable future

I admit to being more or less a big-government Progressive. Unlike libertarians, the extreme example of which would be Ayn Rand, and her many followers including Alan Greenspan, I believe that over the past century or more government regulation in the area of health, building, environment, etc. has been overwhelmingly a force for good. But having said that, I also recognize that government is inherently inefficient at certain types of development. The development of the X-15 and manned orbital space flight was extremely expensive and inefficient organized by government, with aerospace industries which were incentivized, if anything, to maximize costs. But, had these developments not taken place, the subsequent independent entrepreneurs who achieved the same thing, thirty years later, for two orders of magnitude lower cost, could not have done so. (This technology has still not proved itself to be economically viable, but that's another issue).

So, it seems to me, the only practical ideology is one which recognizes that government has an essential role to play in setting the standards of society: safe buildings, security, medical care and decent level of housing, etc., and which is prepared to finance research and development when the kind of "bang for the buck" that government can force to happen is needed, but which then is more than willing to allow private entrepreneurial activity to actually do the development (and re-development). This private development works best not on a subsidy contract basis, but on the basis of seed money or even just intelligent regulation that allows private actors to develop technologies and businesses that meet the needs of people, while disincentivizing enterprises that merely extract and concentrate wealth. I think this sort of recognition of overlapping but not congruent spheres or magisteria, is the only basis for a sound system of government.

America has a serious structural problem in its governance. Our constitution and the forms of government, at all levels, while they are the descendants of what have become historical models of how to institute checks and balances and protections against domination of public policy by vested interests, have almost entirely failed in actually protecting the society from control by oligarchs whose interests are directly inimical to not only the interests, but the stated beliefs and intentions of the majority of citizens. Our politics has been nearly completely hijacked by the power of money, and the ideological tenor of our elected representatives is far more regressive, and specifically, shaped by the dictates of moneyed interests, than that of most citizens. This is just a fact.

But the solutions to our problems are not, I believe, primarily, the re-institution of "Big Government." What we need is responsive government, which recognizes its function as serving the needs of the people as a whole, is not beholden to special interests, and which functions to shape the economy and direction of the society to prevent the excessive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of people whose advantages are, when really examined, invariably the result of unwise policy.

But at the same time government must encourage creativity, cost-effective and advanced technology development shaped not by a desire to concentrate wealth but to solve the problems of the society. Government should foster, but not dictate, new ideas, and entrepreneurship, while ensuring that the essential interests of the people are protected. We face huge technological challenges in the coming decades: how to ensure sufficient clean water, how to grow enough food for an expected world population of 9 billion at peak, how to create an energy and transportation economy that utilizes only renewable energy sources, how to restore a more localized manufacturing capability that efficiently provides goods and services, how to husband and obtain the needed resources to make a high-tech economy work in a sustainable way. Government has a role to play to ensure that new technology brings not only wealth for a few, but a viable economic system, for our country, with jobs and wealth creation here, as well as in cooperation with other countries. These things are not going to be solved entirely or even primarily by government programs, on the model of rocketry research and development after World War II that led to the "military industrial complex" which is now more of a millstone than an aid to our future development. Government will have a role to set the agenda, direct resources to projects that are shown to work (maybe through "prize" competitions), fund university and laboratory research, etc., but a lot of this needs to be done more on the model of the Stanford and U. of Illinois technological DIYers who gave us, in the original seed R&D, workable personal computing and the public dimension of the internet. (Building, it is true, on military research; again the government has a role, but ordinary people also have to be given the incentive and freedom to work out what actually works for people).  Government needs to encourage solutions, while setting, through public policy, some of the goals: more efficient agriculture that isn't reliant on petrochemicals, energy produced from renewable sources, smart rail and automotive transportation that doesn't require oil, manufacturing that utilizes emerging technologies and which produces jobs as well as stuff, etc. For example, we need to protect individuals' rights to their labor and intellectual property, but there is no advantage to society in giving a Monsanto a monopoly forever on a type of seed that is found to produce more with less land and resources. There have to be intelligent and dynamic regulations to ensure rationality and public interest.

In this, government needs to be responsive, not compulsive. Our society is greatly distracted by frivolity and nonsense these days, in which category I would include no only the Kardashians and celeberity idolization, but things such as most of the TSA security for airline passengers, which just doesn't make sense. We spend billions on "security" and "intelligence" that accomplishes almost nothing. (I'm not saying there is no role for security and intelligence, but these areas need to be openly scrutinized with an eye towards getting only what we need for the least possible expenditure of resources. Plus, if we were to spend more of our resources working on moving towards a post-oil public-focused world economy, I actually believe that many of our security problems would gradually disappear). We need to foster and encourage a steadily emerging new spirit of We Can Do It. Kids need to be encouraged, and incentivized, to think about solutions to problems, to spend time tinkering with technology, and go into math, science and engineering; fields which will be the necessary springboards for a renewal of our economy and national spirit. The goals of our public education should be informed by values: people working together can solve problems, for the benefit of people. Not selfishness, but a sense of synergistic development that benefits all. This should be the goal of public policy, and the ethos of our public education.

There is already a movement emerging to find solutions to problems without recourse to government. If we, through movements like Occupy and the general frustration that the majority now feel with the way our government is controlled by a small fantastically wealthy elite, can bring about a change in government: make it more responsive, resist and defeat the myths and structures that make it possible for certain oligarchs to virtually own it, ensure that it functions to regulate and encourage positive development rather than protect the interests of wealth-extractors, then a new paradigm of public and private cooperation can emerge.

I think this is the only viable way forward, but it will require that people power, the willingness to get involved and demand change, come to the fore. We saw, in Wisconsin last year and in the Occupy movement, that there is a level of dissatisfaction, comparable to what existed just prior to the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam Anti-War movement, that may be about to take off. If this energy can be channeled, internally, by the hopes and desires of its own people, to demand changes that enable not a big "Old Left" "new new deal" transformation, but a transformation of government to one that actually listens to the people, responds to new ideas, ensures public interest and basic welfare, and encourages people to get involved in direct, to a great extent private, efforts to solve the problems we face in transforming our society into a sustainable one, then we just might be able to not only survive, but flourish in the twenty-first century. It's going to be up to us, as a people, to make this happen.


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