the interjection point

To first describe my personal position:  I’m not ready to go vegan, but I try to be as responsible as I can in food shopping, recycling, and buying stuff.  As soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m going to repair my vintage stereo (needs some new light bulbs which I purchased for the king’s ransom of $6.40, other than that works pretty good after 30 years).  I take too many Hollywood showers (as opposed to Navy showers), and own a car, which fortunately I haven’t used in months.  I take the subway/bus/walk—I don’t own a commuter bike (and the race bike is not getting locked up outside in NYC no way no how).  So there I am, imperfect but doing at least something, aside from studying cognitive engineering.

 

Oho, cognitive engineering!  To ‘encourage’ people to make the choices that –someone- deems more rational and more positive in terms of environmental and social impact.  The philosophical question is here is who is that someone, and how do they decide what the best interest is?  Science acts on interpreting the information at hand, and rational policy follows science.  So, one would hope that this approach would offer better outcomes than the current free-for-all.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/18/science/earth/18family.html

This is where cognitive engineering and good policy would be best able to intervene.  In Ithaca, NY, you pay for garbage, but recycling is free.  This shift of cost from hidden (folded into your taxes) to obvious (you need to buy trash tags at the store) quickly changes behavior, and from my recollection, few people fall prey to the fine for untagged trash bags/cans at the curb.  It would be even better if there were community composting, like in San Francisco, but this is a pretty good system.

More interventionist, I say policy should work to overturn the concept of the ‘American dream’ which has become a nightmare.  A carbon tax would be pretty simple to implement and the trickle down effects would be felt everywhere.  Maybe the styrofoam plate users would switch back to washing their tableware if the cost doubled, tripled, or if Styrofoam (a pretty nasty material) were only available for uses like insulation panels.  And I doubt they can taste the difference between Styrofoam and reusable plates—but if they can, they should be worried about ingesting some unpleasant chemicals.

In terms of design policy, standards for buildings and products should be much more stringent.  Fortunately for me, I haven’t had to use my apartment’s heat once this winter, but it’s a kind of bad system—an air-source reversible heat pump like a hotel room, where I get complete control, and the apartment building gets to put the whole cost on my electric bill.  Good for them, bad for me (in terms of cost, if I used it) – and inefficient compared to larger building systems.

In terms of maintaining a good standard of living, there need to be interventions in the micro scale (personal behavior) and in the macro scale (government action, policy changes).  I’m involved in making those changes with my master’s program, IDSA involvement, and life trajectory.

Goals:

  1. preserve essential liberty
    – Expression is a necessary part of the human condition, without that there really is no point to living
  2. maximize sustainability
    – As defined by the Brundtland Commission, “[meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  3. maximize utility
    – make life as pleasant for as many people as possible: i.e. no one working in a sweatshop, and people on the other side having better products they can enjoy more.

Rational policy

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/opinion/07kristof.html

Carl Sagan described MAD as “two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.”  While we’ve managed to keep from annihilating ourselves, we did spend about 14 trillion (2010) dollars on cold war materiel—bombs never dropped, missiles never ignited, and planes never scrambled.  All the while, Costa Rica basked under our nuclear umbrella, and now they’re happy, healthy (36th on the WHO’s rankings, one notch above the US at 37th).  And peaceful.  They renounced their military and spent the money on goods, as opposed to their neighbors who have had revolutions, and are still poor, unhappy, and not particularly progressive.

It’s unrealistic to think that the US could just renounce the military and save a few hundred billion dollars a year, but we probably could shave some more money off the military budgets especially if policymakers could get out of their holes and actually work to make things better, rather than worrying about defending their power, what they have, and competing for prestige.  As a slight aside, one of the most awe-inspiring sights in France was a palace filled with swords bolted to the walls, a grand display of “if I have this many swords bolted to the walls of my palace, think of how many men swinging swords I must have ready to roll over your fiefdom!”  Back to the issue at hand, what do we really need 5th generation fighters for?  The nature of armed conflict has changed, conventional war in the Western sense really is no more.  And even the recent full-on wars like the 1991 Gulf War were pretty asymmetric.

The upcoming conflicts are likely to be over resources, such as the 1991 Gulf War.  So, wouldn’t it be a more rational approach to follow Jimmy carter’s advice to put on a sweater (and get off carbon, like Thomas Friedman constantly argues) rather than following the Carter Doctrine to defend ‘American interests’ i.e. the extraction and transport of carbon based energy when we know there is a better plan?

Even with all of this military power at our disposal, we can’t address the real threats (other than by using egregious force) to our security.  Can we even consider building instead of tearing down, or building things to tear down as a matter of policy priorities?

The Smaller Richer Life

from the New York Times: In Recession, Americans Doing More, Buying Less  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/business/economy/03experience.html

This is the best news possible to end a decade which Paul Krugman declared to be “the decade where nothing went right”.  That’s a pretty strong statement, but he’s pretty justified in the macro-scale.  Here we are facing the biggest threat since the human population was in the triple-digits, and we can’t even agree to do something about it!

And then a tiny ray of hope, the unprompted move towards a smaller richer life.

I have long believed that this was the next step.  Psychologists have found that experiences make us happier than things, for the most part; and going by even the most basic understanding of happiness economics, we should seek that which maximizes authentic (i.e. sustainable) happiness.  While no one in power is saying we need to remake our economic models to reflect a truer understanding of utility and go by happiness metrics rather than the positively insane accounting measures like GDP (making a mess then cleaning it up counts for extra spending = more ‘good’).

So I was very surprised to read this article, which says that we’re moving towards a more experiential life, slowly and for many, unconsciously.  Colin Beavan talked about this in No Impact Man, how he became happier by cutting off the technological lines and spending more time connecting with friends and family.  While his case is a little extreme, it’s still informative.

So, for 2010, I’ll have to keep practicing what I’m preaching here, and do more fun stuff!

Free China!

Gmail was attacked recently by sophisticated hackers, attempting to access the accounts of Chinese dissidents.  In response, Google has stated that the Chinese government likely had a hand in the attack, and they would no longer submit to regime in terms of censoring search results.  A few years ago, Google caught a great deal of flak for knuckling under in order to gain admission to China, which some viewed as a violation of their operating principle, "Don’t do evil."
 
 
Google has now put their cards down, but with only a small investment in China, and a relatively small part of the search space, they don’t have overwhelming leverage.  Microsoft, Yahoo, and other international players could, if they pledged solidarity, put a lot of pressure on Beijing.  Baidu, a Chinese search engine, couldn’t realistically oppose the government, but the amount of market controlled by international players is non-trivial.  While a pledge by all the international players might not breach the Great Firewall so quickly, I believe it would force the government’s hand, and could provoke unrest amongst the intelligentsia, which the government very much does not want.
 
Hooray for Google being really the first to put up a FREE CHINA! banner.
 
The Chinese intelligentsia uses Google.  Baidu, the indigenous search provider may have a much greater market share, but the elites, as always, have influence disproportionate to their numbers, and they rely on Google.  This means that if Google packs up and leaves, influential people won’t be happy.  Not only are they vocal now, they are the leaders of tomorrow.  And they aren’t so much in the mold of quoting from the Little Red Book–they would likely quote a paper on Google Scholar.  Google has some leverage in this group, and although they may not force China’s hand in terms of gaining unrestricted internet access, there may well be a liberalization of policies.  I see a crackdown as unlikely given China’s current position in the world, and the centrality of the internet in growth.