28 November 2011


A year before the election the news is dominated by the presidential race, and has been for months. Nowadays campaigns begin years before the election date and cost huge amounts of money, so it is no wonder that politicians spend more time running for office than they do actually governing. While Republican candidates have engaged in an endless series of debates, the current occupant of the White House has all but given up on governing in favor of campaigning. The chronic campaign produces two results- a dysfunctional government and elected officials who are good at campaigning rather than governing.

Permanent campaigning is a relatively recent development largely due to primary elections spread out over many months and geographic locations. Primaries are a result of the efforts of the progressive movement in the early part of the twentieth century, but only became decisive in 1960 when John F. Kennedy used them to prove his viability as a candidate and win his party’s nomination. But it is worth noting that Kennedy did not even declare his candidacy until January of that year. Nowadays it has gotten to the point where the next campaign begins the day after election day. We are subjected to all politics all the time. Is there any way to end this electoral cacaphony?
Contrast this with Britain, where campaigns are brief once elections are called. I am not suggesting we adapt a parliamentary system, but rather find some way to limit campaigns to a set time in order to end constant campaigning. There are of course parties with a vested interest in extended campaigns, including the media, campaign consultants, pollsters, fundraisers, political junkies, and activists. But how long should we allow the system to be hijacked by these groups? 
One way to reform the process would be to have candidates nominated by elected officials such as members of congress, the Governors, and representatives of state legislatures. Who after all best constitutes the party if not elected officials? This would likely produce better candidates who would also be better able to work with other elected officials. Those having the respect and  confidence of their peers would be in a better position to lead the country. Primaries also give too much weight to activists who are ideologically rigid, when government of necessity requires consensus and compromise. Would scrapping the primaries not limit the chances of outsiders? Not necessarily. Dwight Eisenhower was nominated and elected president despite never having served in public office. Generals were often nominated in the 19th century long before primaries. Any charismatic figure who could garner support could be nominated, but for the most part we would be better off with public officials who are known to others holding office. We might, in the process return to some of the character displayed by our first five presidents, who would find openly seeking the presidency unseemly, relying instead on the regard and respect of their peers. 
Under these circumstances campaigns would be much shorter and the cost of elections much lower. It would also give rise to people whose main talent is not in raising money and running for office, but in governing effectively.

23 November 2011


The City of New York finally evicted the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors from their encampment, never mind that most of the institutions they were protesting are no longer located on Wall Street but in midtown or elsewhere. While they expressed little in the way of a coherent platform, one recurring theme is that banks and corporations have too much power. This will come as a surprise to virtually every CEO in the country since they do not see themselves as all that powerful, but instead feel they are constantly under siege by shareholders, competitors, consumers, and the government. Their decision-making space is constrained by all these factors.

Then there is the 1% that presumably controls everything. But the people in the 1% are no different from the 99%, and in fact are in a place where most of the latter would like to be. Nor are the 1% a fixed elite with anything in common, and have themselves mostly emerged from the 99%. The make-up of the 1% is very fluid. I used to be part of the 1% but now I’m not. Those who currently compose it have worked at climbing the ladder of success, but on the other hand this doesn’t mean they are a pure meritocracy, since luck, focused ambition, and networking ability have at least as much to do with it as talent. Furthermore, rather than being any kind of reactionary force, most would like to think of themselves as “progressive.” Thus a majority of the 1% voted for Obama, who raised the most money in history from Wall Street and even now he has raised more money from bankers than all the Republican Presidential candidates combined. On this basis alone they deserve to get shaken up a bit and continuing Republican resistance to any increase in taxes on them makes no sense. 
Another alleged evil is “greed.” Many people do in fact have good reasons to be angry at “Wall Street,” but greed is not one of them. It is more a case of people being told over the years to make “secure” investments like GM and Citicorp only to see them fizzle- in other words poor performance handling 401(k)s that have gone nowhere for years. But this is more a matter of incompetence than chicanery. The truth is that a lot of the people in charge of things at this time are not very good at what they do. We live in an age of mediocrity not meritocracy. This is true of celebrities as well as CEOs. Is much of this “talent” overcompensated vis a vis everyone else? No doubt, but this does not justify class warfare. Taking something from one person does not make another richer. 
Nostalgic 60s leftists in the media have been sympathetic to the protests, for which the term “occupation” has been attached. But to refer to this phenomenon as “the occupation” is a very sick parody of the real thing, which occurred during World War II. My parents were stuck in Greece for the duration of the war owing to the Nazi occupation and saw a third of the population of Athens starve to death. That’s was the real occupation, not this gathering of clueless miscreants. 
I can’t get too excited in opposition to these demonstrations. From a policy standpoint they are vacuous, and participants clearly have no understanding of economics. They reject hierarchy and order, and favor a vague mix of anarchy and socialism. But they do not represent a serious challenge to authority and their actions are relatively mild. After all anarchists in the past assassinated President William McKinley and in the 1920s set off a bomb on Wall Street. Today we see nothing of that magnitude. 
Although these protestors have little in common with the Tea Party, one thing that stands out across the board is a general disillusionment with elites. This attitude is well founded, given the extent to which the people in charge have mismanaged things. It is increasingly difficult to believe that this is the best we can do, but any changes requires improved mass perception of quality.  In truth we can and must do better, and for elites to justify themselves they must rise above the pervasive mediocrity of our age.

18 November 2011


Even as medical advances improve the length and quality of life there may be parallel developments. We may eventually co-exist virtually, not in the sense of silly game avatars, but in full consciousness. This would mean essentially transferring one's consciousness for an indefinite period, or as long as the power stays on. Initially there will be stages that have already begun, such as using sensors to duplicate physical movement on a computer screen. The next step would be to communicate sensory responses to another person so that it would be possible to make love on line for example, although this would still be mimicry. But suppose it would be possible to somehow be wired in communicating directly from your brain.  There are profound consequences to this. 
First, you could be a different version of yourself, putting your best self forward. By that I mean the age at which you are physically at your peak accompanied by the wisdom you presumably have gained over the years. Or you could use an image of say Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. Or you could be a dog. Or you could visit the equivalent of another place and time, or roam the stars. The possibilities are endless. Second, you could duplicate your self, your consciousness. That presupposes that there is an actual mind that is more than a product of our bodies; if not there would at least be a representation of it. Although the consensus in mind science is that our mind is a product of our bodies and the world in which we live and nothing more it may not matter since it would be possible to construct one, or even the whole idea of heaven. Third, you are free from the limitations of the physical world and can link with others in ways we can hardly imagine. For example, it would be possible, when networked with others, to expand consciousness and intelligence exponentially. 
Thus there is physical longevity on the one hand, which must bump up against the limits of nature, and the possibility of an electronic existence that would make our current digital life seem as primitive as the dinosaurs. We cannot know what direction physical evolution might take but the “mental” may diverge significantly. If this were to be possible more people would opt for a virtual existence that eventually seems real. The potential relative immortality might be appealing, although even the universe is not timeless and will come to an end. It is possible that there is some intimation of this prospect in the developed world given the decline in birth rates. 
It is likely that some people, perhaps those with strong religious convictions, may opt for a "natural" life and eschew the virtual. But it is also possible that these worlds, the virtual and spiritual, may eventually converge. On the other hand it is also possible that those who opt for the virtual may just be postponing an even better afterlife. Whatever the case, the prospects for a post-material world make our petty conflicts and concerns seem lame.

04 November 2011


Barely a week has gone by since I had a total shoulder replacement but I am already able to type fluidly on a remote keyboard. The shoulder is the latest technology, made of metal and plastic, and is indicative of other parts that may eventually be replaceable. In this connection there is a story today about a doctor who has developed a technique that can turn brown eyes blue by using a laser. The laser essentially burns away brown pigmentation, but the process cannot be done in reverse so that eye color cannot be changed back. Brown is the default state in nature but there are about five hundred million people with blue eyes, all descended from a single ancestor who had a genetic mutation 10,000 years ago. They may soon be joined by others using this process.

Our bodies are becoming increasingly malleable as medical science progresses and it will be interesting to see what else can be changed. This will be accompanied by more genetic programming of the fetus to be rid of childhood diseases, if you view it positively, or produce "designer babies" if you view it negatively, and many ailments that plague us later in life may be attenuated in advance rather than through subsequent treatments. This will mean healthier and longer lives for those coming into the world. The rest of us will have to settle for medical attention, whether through drugs or surgery.

The only problem with these developments is the cost and who is going to pay for it. Logically a life-threatening organ replacement should be covered; a cosmetic procedure like changing eye color should not. Such continued advances will occur unless the government interferes with them and decides what constitutes health care for everyone. But whatever changes occur physically, imperfect human nature will remain the same in the brief moment in which our species has existed.