The Chinese central government today announced regulations that would gut Hong Kong’s evolution to real democratic election of the city’s chief executive. In essence, Beijing imposed rules that would ensure that only it’s hand-picked candidates would be allowed to run for the city’s top government post. I attended the beginning of the rally in the park in front of the city’s main government offices today. Here are some pictures:
- Hong Kong Pro-Government Activists Rally Against Occupy Protest (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- A showdown is looming in Hong Kong, with China threatening to send in its army (chinadailymail.com)
- Beijing Gets Ugly in Hong Kong (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Beijing: China Legislature Rules No Open Nominations for Hong Kong Leader (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- CHINA’S Ticking Clock: Critical Hong Kong Vote Ruling by Beijing Coming Soon (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Showdown: China Warns Against ‘Foreign Meddling’ (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- ‘Insufficiency of Mutual Trust': Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters to Get Pro Bono Aid (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
(My apologies for the poor photography — my Hong Kong cell phone has a decidedly inferior camera, and the rally really only got under way after dark.)
Police presence was heavy in the city during the day, with large foot patrols moving around. Interestingly, although Hong Kong’s police usually carry revolvers (.380s – I asked), most cops I saw today had empty holsters on their belts. Read the rest of this entry »
Our co-found and Editor-At-Large. Though this snapshot looks vintage, it was actually taken fairly recently, around 2007, back when he had a bit less gray hair, and long before he had a 3-D printer. But his hobbies are essentially the same. He’s currently heading up our Hong Kong Bureau, where his time and space doesn’t allow for recreational rocket building, so I’m sure he’ll enjoy this archival snapshot as a winsome reminder of a cherished pastime.
When Apple announced the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011, the headlines were not about its speedy A5 chip or improved camera. Instead they focused on an unusual new feature: an intelligent assistant, dubbed Siri. At first Siri, endowed with a female voice, seemed almost human in the way she understood what you said to her and responded, an advance in artificial intelligence that seemed to place us on a fast track to the Singularity. She was brilliant at fulfilling certain requests, like “Can you set the alarm for 6:30?” or “Call Diane’s mobile phone.” And she had a personality: If you asked her if there was a God, she would demur with deft wisdom. “My policy is the separation of spirit and silicon,” she’d say.
He envisions someone unsteadily holding a phone to his mouth outside a dive bar at 2 am and saying, “I’m drunk.” Without any elaboration, Viv would contact the user’s preferred car service, dispatch it to the address where he’s half passed out, and direct the driver to take him home. No further consciousness required.
Over the next few months, however, Siri’s limitations became apparent. Ask her to book a plane trip and she would point to travel websites—but she wouldn’t give flight options, let alone secure you a seat. Ask her to buy a copy of Lee Child’s new book and she would draw a blank, despite the fact that Apple sells it. Though Apple has since extended Siri’s powers—to make an OpenTable restaurant reservation, for example—she still can’t do something as simple as booking a table on the next available night in your schedule. She knows how to check your calendar and she knows how to use OpenTable. But putting those things together is, at the moment, beyond her.
Now a small team of engineers at a stealth startup called Viv Labs claims to be on the verge of realizing an advanced form of AI that removes those limitations. Whereas Siri can only perform tasks that Apple engineers explicitly implement, this new program, they say, will be able to teach itself, giving it almost limitless capabilities. In time, they assert, their creation will be able to use your personal preferences and a near-infinite web of connections to answer almost any query and perform almost any function.
“Siri is chapter one of a much longer, bigger story,” says Dag Kittlaus, one of Viv’s cofounders. He should know. Before working on Viv, he helped create Siri. So did his fellow cofounders, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham.
“Intelligence becomes a utility,” Kittlaus says. “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if you could talk to everything, and it knew you, and it knew everything about you, and it could do everything?”
For the past two years, the team has been working on Viv Labs’ product—also named Viv, after the Latin root meaning live. Their project has been draped in secrecy, but the few outsiders who have gotten a look speak about it in rapturous terms. “The vision is very significant,” says Oren Etzioni, a renowned AI expert who heads the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “If this team is successful, we are looking at the future of intelligent agents and a multibillion-dollar industry.”
Read the rest at WIRED.
Beijing’s recent efforts to tighten control over the Internet have so far included a crackdown on online rumors given partial credit for prompting a mass exodus from microblogging platform Sina Weibo to private messaging services, a subsequent crackdown on Tencent’s instant messaging app WeChat (and month-long renewal), and an ongoing anti-vulgarity drive. Yesterday, China’s State Internet Information Office (SIIO) announced new rules for users of instant messaging platforms. The China Copyright and Media blog has translated the new regulations in full. From Xinhua:
The Chinese government has passed a regulation that will require users of instant messaging services to use real names when registering in an effort to hold users responsible for content.
[...] Targeting China’s 5.8 million public accounts on subscription-based mobile apps such as Tencent’s mobile text and voice messaging service WeChat, the new regulation will take immediate effect.
Registrants of public accounts are obliged to register with real names and reviewed by service providers before being qualified to release information.
“A few people are using the platforms to disseminate information related to terrorism, violence and pornography as well as slander and rumors,” said Jiang Jun, spokesman of the SIIO. “Such behaviors have raised bitter feelings among netizens.” [Source]
Read more at China Digital Times.
EXCLUSIVE: A few days ago, The Butcher posted a link to a good article about the origins of “the Hong Kong Miracle” – a term that is justifiably used to describe Hong Kong as a near “capitalist paradise” of very limited government intervention into all aspects of the lives of its citizens, very low apparent taxation and nearly wide-open individualism and personal opportunity. I’ve seen pieces like this before and hopefully, people will be writing them in the future (and not discussions about how China “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”).
“As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story.”
As an on-again, off-again resident of Hong Kong (“on” right now and for the next few months), I’m an avid reader of Chinese history in general, and Hong Kong history in particular. Last year I began the grueling process of becoming admitted as a lawyer (solicitor) in Hong Kong, taking the very difficult test administered to foreign lawyers from other Anglosphere jurisdictions as a gateway to that honor. (I’m nearing the end of that long journey now – in two weeks I’ll be in court here for my formal admission before a Chinese judge wearing the white wig and crimson robes that English judges have been wearing for over three hundred years, a wonderfully rich experience of the cultural melting pot that is Hong Kong.)
“And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key.”
As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story. And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key. Because, while I am as libertarian as they come, there IS a functioning government here that provides essential public goods. The seven million people who live and work here depend on the fantastically well-built and well-maintained physical and social infrastructure: Massive public works (like the great new airport – no one misses the dangerous approach to good old Kai Tak, huge bridges and tunnels), a clean, efficient mass-transit system, pretty darned good public schools, a semi-public health-care system, adequate police and an amazingly open and un-corrupted legal system.
[Also see: The Man Behind the Hong Kong Miracle]
The mystery comes from looking at all of these great elements of the public sphere in Hong Kong, and comparing it with the tax regime. The highest marginal income tax rate here is 18% (only the very highest earners pay this, and most of them figure out a way to avoid the highest rate), there is no capital gains tax, and there are very few other explicit taxes of any kind. Although most government services have associated user fees in the form of some kind of “stamp duty” (an Anglicism Americans understand as a tax), these stamp duties are fairly low – and would come nowhere near raising enough revenue to support the public sector. Likewise, while there are fees for riding on the MTR (the integrated mass transit system that includes subways, above-ground trains, buses, trolleys and ferries) and some tolls (for instance on the main tunnel linking Hong Kong Island with Kowloon and the mainland side), these charges again can’t raise enough revenue to support their overall function, much less the massive improvements in Hong Kong’s physical infrastructure I’ve personally seen in the 35 years since I first came here. Read the rest of this entry »
From the Pacific Daily Times:
DEVELOPING… It’s now happening in Hong Kong. Unarmed protesters overran security and occupied another legislature, this time over construction projects and what is reported to be something like “crony capitalism”. Here is a link to a video from Apple Daily and another link to an article from Taiwan’s Sunflower Facebook Page.
As a sometime resident of Hong Kong, I read this news with mixed feelings. At one level, I can see this as a completely legitimate response to the domination of the legislature by what Americans would call “crony capitalist” interests. (See the weird “functional constituency” element of the current legislative election process.)
On another level, though, I’m very afraid of the backlash from Beijing. Coming just two days after the 25th anniversary of the TianAnMen massacre, the CCP will view this event with the greatest displeasure. Democracy in Hong Kong is very fragile, and is seen by reformers in China as a bellweather of how reform might work there. Unruly popular demonstraations are perceived by the Party as the absolute worst threat to its monopoly on political power. Hong Kongers and those who wish them well hold their breath . . .
I’ve been a black aircraft enthusiast all my life (and that goes back to the days when the SR-71 was still “secret”). Sweetman is one of the best aerospace/defense/mil-tech journalists around, although he’s been accused of being willing to run with a story a little too soon. I personally feel like he does sometimes report on rumors and informed speculation, but is careful to identify them as such.
At least as far as the available information on this one goes, I feel like this is a solid lead. The photos do not look photoshopped at all (there is a history of shopped pics among back plane chasers), and the aircraft does fit into a niche that many have wondered about — the US lacks a large, high-altitude, stealthy ISR platform and, as Sweetman points out, sat photos of Groom Lake (Area 51) show way more capability than can be accounted for with known programs.
So I put this one in the “definitely possible, maybe even probable” category.
The current proposed defense budget from the Obama administration would mothball the US fleets of venerable A-10 close air support (CAS) aircraft and the even more venerable U2 spyplanes (of Francis Gary Powers fame).
Miltech fans like me become attached to quirky planes like these, whose specialized missions lead to extreme designs (in the case of the A-10, basically a flying tank, and for the U2, an elegant jet-powered sailplane). Both aircraft have survived multiple attempts to kill them in the past, and both have proven their worth over and over again in surprising ways. Like the ancient B-52, that has been reborn over and over again to carry out missions it was never conceived for, these two aircraft have proven the value of a design that does one thing very well but isn’t all things to all people for all missions. Hated by the bean-counters and mega-defense contractors because they are such sturdy hedgehogs of the air, these old soldiers stand their ground in one corner of “mission space” against all comers. In this they are the opposite of what Defense Secretary Hagel says will replace the A-10, the gold-plated Swiss-Army-Knife F-35, which tries to do everything for everyone everywhere and, in doing so, does nothing extremely well.
Both the Warthog and the Dragon Lady have very vocal fans in and out of Congress. Time will tell whether they finally fall to the dreams of the budgeteers and bloated defense contractors.
I came across this last night:
In mid-2015, the asteroid probe Dawn is scheduled to establish orbit around Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, as well as the largest asteroid, to begin roughly six months of close-up observation. The level of interest in this mission has significantly increased with the detection by the ESA’s Herschel space observatory of plumes of water vapor being exuded from Ceres’ surface from a pair of local sources.
It turns out that Ceres may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth. If that’s true, it may well be the the best place to actually create a robust human presence off Earth (after a real foothold is established on Earth’s moon). Some people might think that water would be useful on Mars, but why put it at the bottom of a gravity well one-third as deep as Earth’s?
Now the only question is: Who’s going to grab this uniquely valuable spot?
After Raising $200 Million More, Airbnb Built a Replica of the Dr. Strangelove War Room in its OfficePosted: December 4, 2013
Alex Wilhelm reports this gem: Airbnb‘s last round of funding totaled $200 million, bringing its total funding to $326 million. The company also has a new office that includes a replica of the war room from the film Dr. Strangelove.
A profile of its digs in Modern Luxury’s SanFrancisco magazine documented the room, essentially an aggrandized meeting space, along with the new office’s glut of themed rooms, including “a Milanese one-bedroom that features lavender toile wallpaper, a flat-screen TV, and a dining table seating eight.” Sure.
It’s no secret that there is ample cash slopping around the San Francisco-area technology industry. One excess leads to another, and so while Airbnb is certainly a serious service (I used it this weekend to rent a cabin for a wedding I’m going to, kicking $55 to the company in fees as part of the process), it also managed to build the replica.
Is Airbnb alone in its pursuit of whimsical office space? Of course not. Google’s Googleplex has been around for ages, a visit to Yahoo will likely include your sitting in a ridiculous oversized purple chair, and Snapchat‘s first office was Jim Morrison’s old house. In this regard Microsoft stands out as a square, which probably isn’t much of a surprise. Read the rest of this entry »
The behavior of the North Koreans in the last few weeks may well be explainable if we think about our experience with and knowledge of China. Reading the news this morning, three closely connected thoughts that have been floating around in my head finally came into focus.
The first thesis is that North Korean institutions are like Chinese institutions we got to know when we first started working with large state-owned enterprises, only a LOT, LOT worse, in terms of a) their lack of knowledge and understanding of the outside world and b) their internal, institutional inability to accommodate realities (especially realities that arise from cultural differences of those outside the DPRK with whom they are dealing) that conflict with policies and edicts promulgated by those in authority.
The second thesis is that “juche” — the bizarre Nork ideology — is an extreme and pathological admixture of traditional “Sinitic” cultural elements (especially Confucianism) and “modern” nationalism. From the Chinese/Confucian substrate comes reliance on strict hierarchical structures of authority. From nationalism comes extreme chauvinism ramped up to hyper-paranoid levels.
If you combine these two elements with the fact that the Norks have a new leader that doesn’t have enough internal political capital to do ANYTHING that is inconsistent with these fundamental elements of North Korean society and polity, the result is a kind of rigidity that is basically inconceivable outside of their world. No one can say ANYTHING that is inconsistent with the established line. And the established line is a militaristic chauvinism that would make Hitler blush.
The last thing I’ve been thinking about is also based on my knowledge and experience of the Sinitic world: FACE (“mian”). Think about how Japanese military and political figures before 1945 REGULARLY killed themselves rather than come to terms with failure or embarrassment. When that was going on, Japan had been “open” to the West for decades. North Korea has NEVER been open to the outside world. Korea was a backwater that the Western imperial powers had completely ignored when the Japanese came in and took the peninsula over in the 1920s. For the northern part of Korea, the ONLY experience they’ve ever had of the outside world was the most rapacious and extreme form of Japanese militarism and imperialism. They went straight from that to the Kim dynasty. North Koreans have never been exposed to any form of culture other than the most extreme and brutalized forms of pride/shame-based “face culture.” To say that for North Koreans, “failure is not an option” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. The concept of dying — at one’s own hands, if necessary — rather than come to terms with failure — as failure is defined by the bizarre world in which they live — is FUNDAMENTAL in Nork culture.
… just some cheery thoughts for a Monday morning.
A few days ago I posted about my own personal early exposure to missile defense, and how that technology is now on the verge of bringing about a truly revolutionary change at almost every level of tactics, strategy and foreign policy. Thinking about that has led me again to some on-going musings about the impact that other, related technologies may well have on military and foreign policy over the next few years and decades.
The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), called “drones” in the popular press, has become a commonplace in the news. By and large, what reporters are covering is the use of the General Atomics (I just love that name) Predator and Reaper UAVs. Occasionally a reporter will take note of the larger Global Hawk intelligence platform. Every once in a while, you’ll come across a report that seems to be aware that these specific systems are part of a larger trend. On rare occasions, you see a reporter or commentator make the point that the use of UAVs seems to represent a qualitative change in military and foreign affairs.
But you may have to be a regular reader of publicly-available mil-tech geek material to realize that work proceeds at a furious pace on a pervasive suite of technologies that go beyond the Predator. And you have to squint just a little bit to see out to a horizon where warfare and conflict among states and others with access to these new technologies may create a military, diplomatic and geopolitical world that would look very, very different from the one we’ve known since the birth of “industrial warfare” in the US Civil War and World War I.
Looking back, the primitive liquid fuel rockets developed by civilian German and American pioneers in the inter-war years gave rise to Hitler’s V-2 “wonder-weapon.” Work with gyroscopes and analog electronics provided the guidance for that rocket. But the V-2 was merely prologue to the nuclear-tipped ICBM that completely changed the global military balance and, likewise, the Predator is only a foreshadowing of what lies not far ahead. Now, digital micro-electronics, and early artificial intelligence and robotics technology have given birth to the aerial “drones” that are making appearances over battlefields (declared and otherwise) and in popular news media. Beyond that is something that will seem very different from today’s battlefields.
Here is the promise of what is currently in development: As military robots become smaller, more capable and more autonomous, the kinds of “sensor fusion” being developed for the F-35 and other command, control, communication and intelligence applications (again, the “3CI” acronym) point toward unprecedented and qualitatively more acute penetration of the “fog of war.” Smaller, far more capable military robots will exist pervasively throughout the “battle space,” the information they collect will be of much greater quality, and that information will be made available to other robots, commanders and other humans on the battlefield and beyond in a more usable fashion. These military robots will shift seamlessly along a spectrum from 3CI at one end to actual attack and defense at the other; i.e. many of the very same robotic platforms that collect and share intelligence will also carry or be weapons of extreme precision. The evolution of the Predator from pure intelligence-gathering to the Reaper weapons platform presages the kind of highly flexible military robots that lie just over the horizon.
With these trends in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine a battlefield that is dominated by pervasive robots — a “bot cloud” that identifies and tracks threats, and then can respond and become a “bot swarm” in the blink of an eye aimed at destroying those threats. One reaction to this vision that I see from time to time is a fear that this robotic battlefield threatens some kind of “Terminator” nightmare. There is one such piece in the Washington Post just this last weekend. For some reason — perhaps because I’ve been steeped in military technology my whole life — I don’t harbor these kinds of fears. Every new kind of weapon presents novel threats and ethical challenges to those who would wield them. I actually think that the possibility of warfare with more precise and more intelligent weapons promises a more humane, not a less humane future: one with less collateral damage to civilians, and one in which the aims of warfare can be achieved with the application of less, not more, violence.
Instead, I’m concerned about the headlong rush into the promised future of robotic warfare for a different reason: the potential fragility of the command and control of the “battlefield bot cloud.” All of the wonderful sensor fusion we are promised, and the processing taking place within the individual elements of this battle bot cloud depend on electromagnetic radiation and electronic processes. And therein lies the problem. High-energy radiation can cause computer chips to go gaga, and the streams of communicated bits the robots must share over radio waves are subject to increasingly sophisticated jamming and spoofing. (The ignominious end of a stealthy RQ-170 intelligence UAV in Iran last year may have been due to jamming and spoofing.)
Jamming and spoofing are as old as warfare. Going back to the days of Sun-Tzu, combatants have laid down smoke screens and sent out false signals to confuse their enemies. Someday, robotic combatants may have the autonomy and ingenuity that have always served as countermeasures to overcome these things. But even that, as impressive as it will be, isn’t the best “solution” to the problem. Creating military robots that can act on their own when confused by enemy jamming and spoofing only gets you back to where you were before — admittedly with a saving of human life, but still without the coordination that makes the battle-bot cloud such a formidable concept.
In many ways, my concerns about the fragility of the battle-bot cloud are the same as the concerns I have about the civilian cloud and the Internet itself: These wonderful technologies depend on a connectivity that is easier to disrupt than many want to believe. The constant struggle between security systems and the assaults on our computers, smart phones and networks that have become a part of our daily life are a pale shadow of what all-out cyber-war would look like. The simple fact is that the Internet could be basically wiped out in any real cyber-war. Even short of a total Internet melt-down, the operation of big chunks of our civilian infrastructure could be brought to a grinding halt, both in the ethereal world of communication and data, and in the “real” world of actual machines with which we interact all the time. Basic industrial processes, banking, retail sales, inventory and logistics … all are now utterly dependent on reliable flow through the Internet. All are at great risk.
While the networks of communication upon which the military battle-bot cloud depends are already (mainly) much more robust than the civilian Internet, weapons designed to attack those networks and the processors and sensors they connect will also be more capable than the ones that could bring the civilian Internet to a halt. The mother of all network and processor disruptors, of course, is the EMP-inducing nuke blast. But you can be sure that America’s potential adversaries are hard at work on creating such havoc for military systems on a more focused and less catastrophic level. As are we.
We already deploy “hardened” chips and fiber optic networks that are more or less impervious to electromagnetic jamming. But the benefits of a truly pervasive battle-bot cloud can only be achieved if those robots can range freely, untethered by fiber optic cables. Is there a solution to the fragility of the battle-bot cloud?
I can imagine some directions that will have to be explored. Laser communication has to be one. But this solution is limited to line-of-sight. By itself, this isn’t as much of a limitation as it might seem. An advanced battle-bot cloud could create and maintain laser networks on the fly. When it is finally fully implemented, the F-35 points the way toward how this would work: Each aircraft is designed to act as a network node for all others, sharing the communication load on a flexible basis. It isn’t hard to imagine just a few steps beyond this, where each sensing and weapon node is festooned with laser transmitters and receivers.
But if such a counter-countermeasure is implemented, then we will come around in a full, ironic circle: The Fog of War will once again be a real thing. Not only will adversaries blanket the battlefield with beams and broadcast waves of shrieking radio-frequency jamming, but they will also literally seek to impose a shroud of real fog — clouds of smoke and dust to interrupt the flickering network of laser light by which military robots communicate with each other and their human commanders. If this happens, somewhere, Sun-Tzu will be smiling.
I can’t remember where, but in one of the good number of articles that have appeared in the last few days extolling the success of Israel’s Iron Dome short-range missile interceptor system, I saw someone make a comment to the effect that, somewhere, Ronald Reagan was smiling. I know the feeling.
I became aware of what would eventually become Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) in the late 1970s from an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology (known by military tech geeks like me as “AvWeek” or, more cynically, “AvLeak“). I was an undergraduate college student studying Chinese in a program that had been famous (or to some, infamous) as a conveyor belt feeding young recruits into the State Department and various intelligence agencies. I was also the son of an aerospace engineer that had been raised reading my dad’s week-old copies of AvWeek throughout the 1960s — a kid who had followed the space program the way other kids followed professional football, and who knew the names and biographies of astronauts and cosmonauts the way other kids knew the backgrounds of their favorite quarterbacks and wide receivers. And I was just as interested in military aerospace technology: By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could instantly recognize every military aircraft and missile on both sides of the Cold War.
So I was electrified by the article in AvWeek that described the basic outline of ballistic missile defense as it was being conceived in the late 1970s: swiftly developing sensor and computing technology (“command, control, communications and intelligence” or “3CI technology,” as it was known) was making it possible to begin to think about actual systems that could change the balance of terror that had been in place since the development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The implications were enormous and obvious, even to me. I knew that the technical challenges would be great and that it would take years to bring effective ballistic missile defense to the level of practical utility. But the payoff seemed well worth the effort to me.
Not long after I read that article in AvWeek, a senior academic and “policy wonk” specializing in Soviet history and affairs spoke at a seminar at my school. After the seminar, the participants made themselves available to the eager young students in attendance. I approached this fellow and excitedly asked him whether he’d seen the article in Aviation Week and, if so, what he thought about it. He hadn’t, so I told him about it — in hindsight, I’m sure I seemed like a feverish young idiot. “A fantasy … science fiction,” he responded, when I had finished describing the idea of space-based interceptors that was the centerpiece of the ideas the article had contained.
Crestfallen and embarrassed, I withdrew. Months passed, and any chance that I might have had a career in government straight out of school fell victim to the fact that I graduated when Jimmy Carter was president. It’s a long story of interest only to me, but my trajectory toward government service was derailed when I encountered a defense and intelligence establishment under Carter that was not, shall I say, welcoming to my ideas and values.
But I didn’t forget the idea of ballistic missile defense. Reagan became president. By then, the path of my life had moved on, and I watched the changes in defense policy as only an interested outside observer. Once again, I was thrilled to the core when Reagan announced that his administration would pursue what he called SDI as a basic strategic policy. Naturally, the more “realistic” mainstream media — who despised Reagan and characterized him as an idiot — lambasted the idea. “Star Wars,” they called it. Although there was a critique of SDI worth considering — that it was destabilizing and could actually increase the chance of nuclear war — the more common criticism one heard was that it wasn’t technologically feasible. In between was an idea that, while SDI might work, it was uneconomical, since it would always cost more to intercept and destroy an incoming warhead than it would to build another attacking missile. But Reagan and his administration ignored the critics and poured enormous resources into a project that, in hindsight, may turn out to have been as important as the Manhattan Project.
A few months after Reagan’s famous SDI speech, I was watching one of the Sunday afternoon talking-head shows and who should I see but the academic I’d buttonholed after the seminar some years before. He had just returned to academia after having served for a couple of years in the Reagan administration. And what was the subject of discussion? Why, ballistic missile defense! This fellow was being confronted by critics of the SDI program, who were liberally (pun intended) using the pejorative “Star Wars” term to label SDI as “fantasy” and “science fiction.” Imagine my pleasure when the response came that, in fact, the basic concept was technically feasible and that it was worth pursuing. I couldn’t help but think that the fellow I’d confronted some years before had had the chance to see the same technical studies Reagan had, and had concluded that the goal of intercepting ballistic missiles and their warheads — “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” as it was said — was not only achievable but that the result of that achievement would be a change in the military balance that would free us from the terrible prospect of nuclear Armageddon.
That was thirty years ago. During that thirty years, the people who have been working on missile defense have made amazing progress. The basic missile defense 3CI technology that has been painstakingly developed over the last three decades is what has made Iron Dome possible. As more than a few people have pointed out since Hamas has started firing volleys of rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome’s success has actually made it possible for Israel to forego a ground invasion — at least for now. Were it not for the successful interception of the vast majority of Hamas’ rockets, Israel would have had no choice but to send hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of troops into the rat’s nest of Gaza to hunt out the rocket launching and storehouse sites on a retail level. Some of the same 3CI technology that was pushed forward by SDI has also enabled the drones that attack Hamas’ launching sites to identify, target and destroy them within minutes or even seconds of each launch.
I’m reminded of a scene in the old BBC Masterpiece Theater series about Henry Tudor, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I can’t find a citation, but I think it’s a dinner scene at the Boleyn house, when Henry is becoming infatuated with Anne. The subject of conversation is the relatively new technology of infantry firearms and the impact it may have on the role of the traditional English bowman in warfare. As I recall it, Henry holds forth in response that while guns have their place, nothing will ever supplant the longbowman as the foundation of England’s military power on land.
Whether that conversation ever really took place or not, soon thereafter, the firearm indeed replaced the longbow, and gunpowder artillery became the “King of Battle.” That King, and it’s offspring, the ballistic missile (short, medium and long range), have reigned supreme for almost five centuries. Now, even the doubters who sneered at Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars fantasy” can see that the long rule of the ballistic weapon may well be coming to an end.
Here’s an essay entitled Betting With Trillions from Der Spiegel, that ever-reliable outlet for mainstream social-democrat, leftward viewpoints. It’s well worth the time to read the whole thing, because you’ll get a very good taste of how thinking people on the left express themselves when they try to look at both sides of the question that the article puts as “Why are democratic countries so pathetic when it comes to managing their money sustainably?“
The piece begins promisingly enough, starting the story with a history lesson that begins, as it should, with the unleashing of government power to create fake money:
Until 1971, gold was the benchmark of the US dollar, with one ounce of pure gold corresponding to $35, and the dollar was the fixed benchmark of all Western currencies. But when the United States began to need more and more dollars for the Vietnam War, and the global economy grew so quickly that using gold as a benchmark became a constraint, countries abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates. A new phase of the global economy began, and two processes were set in motion: the liberation of the financial markets from limited money supplies, which was mostly beneficial; and the liberation of countries from limited revenues, which was mostly detrimental. This money bubble continued to inflate for four decades, as central banks were able to create money out of thin air, banks were able to provide seemingly unlimited credit, and consumers and governments were able to go into debt without restraint.
This continued until the biggest credit bubble in history began to burst: first in the United States, because banks had bundled the mortgages of millions of Americans, whose only asset was a house bought on credit, into worthless securities; then around the globe, because banks had foisted these securities onto customers in many countries; and, finally, when these banks began to totter, debt-ridden countries turned private debt into public debt until they too began to totter, and could only borrow money from banks at even higher interest rates than before.
At the moment, the world has only one approach to getting out of this labyrinth of debt: incurring trillions of even more debt.
(Note that it is the US war in Vietnam that is identified as the sole spark for the prairie fire of debt, and not the Great Society’s spending spree.)
Before long, the piece ends where one would expect, with the largest part of the villainy of the relationship between democratic politics and debt placed squarely on markets and bankers:
And then, finally, we have a clear view of the three biggest problems in finance-driven, democratically constituted capitalism: First, how can a debt-ridden economy grow if a large part of demand in the past was based on debt, which is now to be reduced?
The second major problem of modern capitalism is this: How can the unleashed financial markets be reined in again, and how should the G-20 countries come up with joint rules for major banks, which are their financiers and creditors, and for markets, which punish and reward these countries through interest? How much freedom do financial markets need to serve the global economy as a lubricant, and what limits do they need so that banks, shadow banks and hedge funds do not become a threat to the system?
Third, how do governments mediate between the power of the two sovereigns, how do they reestablish the primacy of citizens over creditors, and how does democracy function in debt-ridden countries? How can politicians react without burdening countries with more debt, and how can they reduce that debt? In fact, how can they even govern anymore in this prison of debt? In the past, future revenues were mortgaged, in municipalities, states and the federal government. This now makes it difficult to structure the present and the future. Today only about 20 percent of the federal budget is truly politically available, as compared with 40 percent when Schmidt was still in office.
It is always only at first glance that the world is stuck in a debt crisis, a financial crisis and a euro crisis. In fact, it is in the midst of a massive transformation process, a deep-seated change to our critical and debt-ridden system, which is suited to making us poor and destroying our prosperity, social security and democracy, and in the midst of an upheaval taking place behind the backs of those in charge.
A great bet is underway, a poker game with stakes in the trillions, between those who are buying time with central bank money and believe that they can continue as before, and the others, who are afraid of the biggest credit bubble in history and are searching for ways out of capitalism based on borrowed money.
In other words (although the socialists at Der Spiegel wouldn’t put it this way): “How can politics re-establish its primacy over markets, when politicians are addicted to debt-financed vote-buying?” The standard model of the economic (and therefore the moral and political) world on the left is aptly summarized in the final identification of evil that has brought us to the brink: “capitalism based on borrowed money.” If it wasn’t so sad and dangerous, it would be hilarious: the author of this article sets out to be objective and balanced — identifying that the problem is inherent in the state financing its favors through debt and unleashing a tidal wave of cheap credit to which financial markets are inevitably drawn — but then finding all the fault in “capitalism based on borrowed money.”
Any sane person now knows that the governments of the West can never, ever repay the money they’ve borrowed on the terms upon which the debt was incurred. As the article points out, there are only three ways out of the crisis: (1) repay the debt honestly by radically decreasing spending and increasing government revenues, (2) openly default or, (3) default with a modicum of obscurity through inflation. We all know the first two won’t happen. The first option is politically impossible. Voters won’t stand for it. Even if they would, the fact is that the level of government debt is now so high that even the most austere of “austerities” and the most enhanced of “revenue enhancements” can’t solve the problem. The second option is financially impossible (although the US Congress will continue to pretend that this isn’t so). The days of the Philip II of Spain, when a great power was able to simply screw its creditors and then come back to do it again (and again and again, as Spain did), are long gone. Which leaves the third possibility as the only option: Inflating currencies as a form of only slightly more stealthy default. An inflationary default is the path of least resistance and the only one that buys more time, whether it solves the problem or not.
I know well-educated leftists who, when presented with the obvious truth laid out in the preceding paragraph, respond by saying that to limit the options to just these three things shows a lack of imagination, and a failure of faith in humanity. I respond by pointing out that if I push you off of a tall building without a parachute, you will fall to your death: There is no failure of imagination or lack of faith in coming to that conclusion — just a willingness to recognize reality. The conversation — which I have had many times — ends there: I am condemned as a fatalist because I refuse to believe that there must be a solution to the problem other than those that reality presents. You can call it wishful thinking. A very wise man called it the “fatal conceit.”
So … it’s the Mother of All Morning Afters … The reality that lies underneath it all remains: The societies of the developed world have become outrageously over-leveraged with debt because the democratic process has led after a couple of centuries of experimentation to the creation of entrenched interest-blocks that view an ever-expanding state as an ATM, a cornucopia-machine that those with the right PIN imagine to be inexhaustible. With every passing day, there are fewer and fewer options for escape from the flat-spin death spiral.
In our society that has become increasingly dominated by the notion that feelings are self-validating, I’ve seen headlines leading up to the last couple of election cycles that point to articles that address how those whose side has lost in an election will suffer psychologically. I haven’t bothered to read them. Somehow, I still hold to the old notion that, by and large, I should suck it up and just deal with it when things don’t go my way.
So . . . for a little while I’ll throw myself into work and, in the left-over time, maybe withdraw into a little escapist reading.
If you’re looking for data, instead of thinking about how you feel this morning, check this out:
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the presidential election polls. My gut tells me Romney could win big, but the polls (and their would-be oracle, Nate Silver) say otherwise: Close, at best. Perhaps Alex Castellanos at CNN has identified one major factor that could account for this dissonance:
… to identify our next president, we have to understand how publicly embarrassing it is to be a Republican these days.
Hollywood, the music industry, the news media, the fashion industry, the intellectual elite and the news media all fawn over Obama. To identify yourself as a Republican Romney voter, however, is to admit that you are culturally backward. In effect, survey questioners are asking Obama voters if they self-identify as cool. They are asking Romney voters if they would publicly admit to wearing socks with sandals.
Too often, Republicans dare not speak their name, because they know the cool kids won’t invite them to play.
This phenomenon, the reticent Republican factor, like the shy Tory factor found in British polls in the ’90s, could easily account for a 4% to 5% unexpected pro-Romney bump on Election Day.
Late polls in 1980 gave Ronald Reagan only a 2% to 3% lead over Jimmy Carter. Reagan ended up winning by nearly 10%. For the same reason, I would expect this campaign’s final public opinion polls and exit polls this Tuesday to underreport the Republican vote by a handful of points.
Forty-eight hours . . . could it be the cool?