A Suggestion for Fixing America

Two professors writing for Foreign Policy see a way to simultaneously repair our country’s politics and economics (I’ve left out some of their analysis). Whether or not it succeeded, it wouldn’t hurt:

According to the Brookings Institution, Biden won 509 counties to [the other guy’s] 2,547—that’s over five times as many won by [the Republican]. But here’s the kicker. Biden’s counties constitute 71 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, [the loser’s] less than 30 percent. Surely we must somehow factor this into how we think about why people vote the way they do? How does growth, or the lack thereof, determine elections?

What we see in U.S. politics today is the death and dissolution of a particular social coalition that dominated politics and economics and underwrote social peace for three generations; call it the carbon coalition.

The carbon coalition was an encompassing political coalition, built on a set of agreements negotiated between 1932 and 1950, that distributed the income generated by the industrial economy among groups within society. In the auto and steel industries, the most dynamic of that era, United Auto Workers and General Motors signed the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, which tied pay to productivity. This created a path to prosperity for two generations of workers in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, to bring rural areas into the coalition, the urban middle class paid higher prices for food and accepted permanent agricultural subsidies so that farmers could enjoy higher incomes. These agreements drew together labor, business, and farmers; the North and the South; the Great Plains and the Great Lakes into one settlement. This broadly inclusive distributive coalition in turn softened the sectional and partisan divisions that had roiled U.S. politics almost continuously since the 1890s.

. . . This political coalition was in fact entirely dependent on a particular growth model: an extremely fossil fuel-intensive agro-industrial economy.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the United States’ postwar economy was a massive machine that transformed oil, coal, and natural gas into income and food. Consider the following: In 1971, automobile production directly and indirectly provided 1 of every 6 jobs in the U.S. economy. Most of these jobs were unionized, or, if not, most workers enjoyed wages and benefits that spilled over from union agreements. Then add to these jobs others created by the interstate highway program, by the oil and gas industry, and by the retail sale of gasoline and the repair and maintenance of automobiles. And then throw in jobs in aviation, shipping, and agriculture, which became increasingly energy intensive due to the use of diesel-fueled equipment and through the use of natural gas to manufacture artificial fertilizer. Finally come jobs in plastics and petrochemicals.

The carbon coalition distributed the income generated by the carbon economy. Elections determined those distributions. That model is now dying and indeed, given climate change, must die. The politics it made possible are dying too.

The carbon economy has been in decline for decades, but the [political effects are only now becoming visible.

The center of economic dynamism and wealth generation in the United States now lies in knowledge-intensive (or at least high-value-added) industries, some of which, like pharmaceuticals, are research intensive and some of which, like various forms of media, are creative.

Although this knowledge economy is diverse, these activities share one overarching commonality: None require (much less depend on) fossil fuels. Indeed, their survival over the long haul depends on successfully switching out of carbon completely. Productivity in these activities doesn’t come from more energy and bigger machines applied to faster assembly lines but from improvements in our ability to manipulate, analyze, and monetize information.

The economy that drives U.S. GDP growth today is already post-carbon. And though many of its activities are energy intensive (server farms consume more than more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity use; financial services consume more electricity than any other industry in New York City), the energy they consume can come as readily from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas. This isn’t the case for the internal combustion engine, for the steel from which its constructed, and for the oil extraction, refining, and distribution systems that support it. Nor is it true for an ammonia plant or for cement or aviation. Farmers cannot substitute solar energy for artificial fertilizer.

The U.S. economy is thus now divided in two: a growing and potentially sustainable post-carbon economy that can adapt to the realities of climate change and a carbon economy in decline that is unsustainable. . . .

Americans no longer live in the same economy.  Rather, they live in two incompatible models of economic growth. Those who remain embedded in the carbon economy quite rationally want to defend and rejuvenate that model. In contrast, those who have found a spot in the post-carbon economy largely embrace the future. . . .

Today, the firms and sectors that make up each of the two growth models fund elections and determine the strategy of their parties.

The post-carbon coalition dominates the Democratic Party. This coalition brings together a West Coast variant composed of high-margin agriculture (think wine), Big Tech, entertainment, and digital and high-end services and an East Coast variant based largely on financial services. These post-carbonites embrace some variant of the Green New Deal, which identifies the climate crisis as the most critical issue the country faces and offers a coherent policy response.

The carbon economy coalition that dominates the Republican Party includes export agriculture, carbon extraction, refinement and production, steel and other declining traditional industrial sectors, as well as low-wage and low productivity services (think Walmart over Accenture). This fragment of the original carbon coalition remains committed to defending and rebooting the carbon economy; this is what “Make America Great Again” means. . . .

The United States’ two coalitions cannot be brought together. Indeed, they are existential threats to each other. And on a population scale, each electoral coalition has more or less the same number of potential voters. As a result, elections are decided by thin margins in a race to the death. . . .

For almost half of U.S. states, the Green New Deal, which is—sotto voce—at the center of Biden’s platform, spells the end of their existing strategies—think fracking, refining, plastics, mining, logging, and so on. And for the other half of the states that support the deal, scaling back its objectives to attract support from the carbon coalition threatens the post-carbon coastal communities. . . .

There is only one way to fix this mess. The post-carbon coalition has to bribe what’s left of [the carbon coalition] to make [a] transition. Non-coastal, largely Republican states must be the epicenter of the green transition and be the recipients of most of the investment. After all, they have the most assets to turn around and the most to lose if they are not compensated. If all they are offered is “you decarbonize/we keep the money,” then all they will give back is more [right-wing radicalism].

There are clear parallels in U.S. history, such as the massive bribe that the urban sector began paying to farmers in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and two generations of generous farm bills . . . thereafter. Yet the bribe this time must involve more than a subsidy; it requires exiting the carbon economy. For it to work, green investment must extend well beyond energy capture (solar and wind farms) and downstream into industries that are powered by alternatives. Massive investments in electric vehicle production, for instance, to support a rapid turnover of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet with U.S.-built cars and trucks, are required. . . .

Elections in the United States are not being fought over rival principles and certainly not over median voters. They are contested over which parts of the country will grow and how and who will pay for it. Recognizing this is the first step to fixing the deeper problem of the carbon transition for the good of all Americans.

China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:

original

Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.

Shanghai-Skyline-Night-Big-Bus-Tours-01-2017

Hazardous to Public Health and National Security

Margaret Sullivan, former public editor of The New York Times, now writes about the media for The Washington Post. Today, she unloads on Fox News and suggests a corporate boycott. Her column is called “Fox News is a hazard to our democracy. It’s time to take the fight to the Murdochs”: 

I happened to be watching Fox News on election night when the network startled the political world by calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

It was a weird moment, without the fanfare that usually accompanied the announcement that a state was being put in one column or another. A few hours later, the Associated Press made the same call.

But many other news organizations, including The Washington Post, took days to reach that daring conclusion. For them, Arizona’s vote count simply remained far too close. . . .

And Txxxxworld was enraged. Losing the traditionally red state would make it that much harder to proclaim that the election was so close that it must in fact have been stolen by the Democrats. It would disrupt the Big Lie narrative. Former president Donald Txxxx’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, even called Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch to complain. But Fox News stood behind the call, which turned out to be correct.

But a lot has changed since then. Last week, two key members of Fox News’s decision desk abruptly departed the network. One was laid off, the other has retired, and some insiders are calling it a “purge.”

Apparently, at a network that specializes in spreading lies, there was a price to pay for getting it right. (“Fox News isn’t a newsgathering organization,” surmised press critic Eric Boehlert, arguing in response to the purge that its White House credentials should be revoked.)

In recent days, Fox has taken a sharp turn toward a more extreme approach as it confronts a post-Txxxx ratings dip — the result of some of its farthest-right viewers moving to outlets such as Newsmax and One America News and some middle-of-the-roaders apparently finding CNN or MSNBC more to their liking.

With profit as the one true religion at Fox, something had to change. Ninety-year-old Rupert Murdoch, according to a number of reports, has stepped in to call the shots directly. Most notably, the network has decided to add an hour of opinion programming to its prime-time offerings. The 7 p.m. hour will no longer be nominally news but straight-up outrage production.

Why? Because that’s where the ratings are.

And in a move that should be shocking but isn’t, one of those who will rotate through the tryouts for that coveted spot will be Maria Bartiromo, whose Txxxx sycophancy during the campaign may well have been unparalleled. She was among those . . . recently forced under threat of a lawsuit to air a video that debunked repeated false claims on her show that corrupt voting software had given millions of Txxxx votes to Biden.

At the same time, Sean Hannity, who likes to blast Biden as “cognitively struggling,” and Tucker Carlson, who tries to sow doubt about the prevalence of White supremacy, have become even more outlandish as they try to gin up anti-Biden rage within their audiences.

Even James Murdoch, while not naming names, blasted the harm that his family’s media empire has done. “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very much so,” he told the Financial Times. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”

But it’s his father and his brother, Lachlan, who run Fox, not James.

How to get the Fox News monster under control? I do not believe the government should have any role in regulating what can and can’t be said on the air, although I often hear that proposed. That would be a cure worse than the disease. But let’s not count on the hope that the Fox-controlling Murdochs will develop a conscience.

No, the only answer is to speak the language that the bigwigs at Fox will understand: Ratings. Advertising dollars. Profit.

Corporations that advertise on Fox News [such as Procter & Gamble, Amazon, Kraft Heinz and Verizon] should walk away, and citizens who care about the truth should demand that they do so (in addition to trying to steer their friends and relatives away from the network).

Big companies would never do that, you say? Don’t be so sure.

The Post reported last week that the 147 Republican lawmakers who opposed certification of the presidential election have lost the support of many of their largest corporate backers. General Electric, AT&T, Comcast, Honeywell, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Verizon all said they would suspend donations to members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden as president.

This shows, at the very least, that there is a growing understanding that lying to the public matters, that it’s harmful — or “insidious,” in the words of James Murdoch. And that some corporations don’t want to be a part of that.

When you think about Fox News’s role in the 400,000 lives lost to the pandemic and in the disastrous attack of Jan. 6, it’s even fair to call it deadly.

So if reality-based America wants to communicate clearly with Fox News leadership, they’ll have to do it in a language they understand. The language of money.

Unquote.

Sullivan later called attention to an additional point of attack:

Your cable/satellite TV provider pays subscriber fee to carry @foxnews. That cost is passed directly to YOU. Typical household pays #FoxNews $2 per monthh = $20 per year via their cable satellite provider, regardless whether they watch it. DEMAND @comcast @Xfinity #UNFOXMYCABLEBOX.

It wouldn’t hurt if the rich and famous who appear on the Fox Network or rub elbows with the Murdoch clan or serve on their boards of directors began to exert pressure too. Unfortunately, for the most part, such people consistently ignore my suggestions. 

Where We Stand with the Vaccinations

The vaccine is out there. It’s not being administered fast enough. But now there’s a plan. From The New York Times [with commentary included]:

President Biden’s promise to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office is no longer a lofty goal; it is attainable at the current pace at which shots are going into arms. In fact, some experts have suggested that the president’s ambition is far too modest. [His ambition is to get the whole country vaccinated; his promise was to do 100 million by late April.]

Federal data shows that the United States is already administering about one million doses a day, and even doubling that rate would not cause the country to fall short of distribution capacity or supply. . . . 

Mr. Biden made the 100-day pledge in early December, before any vaccine had been authorized for use in the United States. At the time, experts called the goal “optimistic” given their concerns about manufacturing and distribution capacity.

Since then, two vaccines have been approved and the United States has secured contracts for deliveries of doses through July. And while some jurisdictions have said that they are running out of doses, states and U.S. territories are using only about half of the shots that the federal government has shipped to them, on average. . . .

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to deliver a combined 200 million doses by the end of March, with an additional 200 million doses to be delivered by the end of July.

Under those circumstances, it is feasible that up to two million doses could be given per day, and Mr. Biden’s goal of 100 million shots could be reached by early March.

But ramping up vaccinations will not be easy. And national supply and distribution figures do not reflect the often complicated local realities.

“The complexity of administering vaccines may grow over the coming weeks as we open up a lot of new provider sites,” said Dr. Julie Swann, an industrial and systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University who was an adviser to the C.D.C. during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Getting shots in arms has already been hard, Dr. Swann noted. Providers get little notice of how much vaccine they will receive, making it difficult to plan and set up appointments. Estimating demand can be tricky too, which means that vaccines may be used more quickly in some locations than others, leading to wasted doses.

“The administration needs to be both fighting immediate fires and putting in the infrastructure to make this work better, too,” Dr. Swann said [which is what the president and his staff are doing, three days after the inauguration].

Unquote.

The new administration has issued a “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness”. This is the summary of the plan to “mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign”:

The United States will spare no effort to ensure Americans can get vaccinated quickly, effectively, and equitably. The federal government will execute an aggressive vaccination strategy, focusing on the immediate actions necessary to convert vaccines into vaccinations, including improving allocation, distribution, administration, and tracking. Central to this effort will be additional support and funding for state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments — and improved line of sight into supply — to ensure that they are best prepared to mount local vaccination programs. At the same time, the federal government will mount an unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination and communicates the importance of maintaining public health measures such as masking, physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing even as people receive safe and effective vaccinations. To mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign, the United States will:

  1. Ensure the availability of safe, effective vaccines for the American public.
  2. Accelerate getting shots into arms and get vaccines to the communities that need them most.
  3. Create as many venues as needed for people to be vaccinated.
  4. Focus on hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.
  5. Fairly compensate providers, and states and local governments for the cost of administering vaccinations.
  6. Drive equity throughout the vaccination campaign and broader pandemic response. Launch a national vaccinations public education campaign.
  7. Bolster data systems and transparency for vaccinations.
  8. Monitor vaccine safety and efficacy. Surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort.

The plan is only 200 pages long.

Yeah, we’re finally getting an administration that’s competent and wants the government to work. Patience is a virtue.

One Way to Start Fixing the Internet

Yaël Eisenstat has been a CIA officer, White House adviser and Facebook executive. She says the problem with social media isn’t just what users post — it’s what the platforms do with that content. From Harvard Business Review:

While the blame for President Txxxx’s incitement to insurrection lies squarely with him, the biggest social media companies — most prominently my former employer, Facebook — are absolutely complicit. They have not only allowed Txxxx to lie and sow division for years, their business models have exploited our biases and weaknesses and abetted the growth of conspiracy-touting hate groups and outrage machines. They have done this without bearing any responsibility for how their products and business decisions effect our democracy; in this case, including allowing an insurrection to be planned and promoted on their platforms. .  . .

The events of last week . . . demand an immediate response. In the absence of any U.S. laws to address social media’s responsibility to protect our democracy, we have ceded the decision-making about which rules to write, what to enforce, and how to steer our public square to CEOs of for-profit internet companies. Facebook intentionally and relentlessly scaled to dominate the global public square, yet it does not bear any of the responsibilities of traditional stewards of public goods, including the traditional media.

It is time to define responsibility and hold these companies accountable for how they aid and abet criminal activity. And it is time to listen to those who have shouted from the rooftops about these issues for years, as opposed to allowing Silicon Valley leaders to dictate the terms.

We need to change our approach not only because of the role these platforms have played in crises like last week’s, but also because of how CEOs have responded — or failed to respond. The reactionary decisions on which content to take down, which voices to downgrade, and which political ads to allow have amounted to tinkering around the margins of the bigger issue: a business model that rewards the loudest, most extreme voices.

Yet there does not seem to be the will to reckon with that problem. Mark Zuckerberg did not choose to block Txxxx’s account until after the U.S. Congress certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. . . . And while the decision by many platforms to silence Txxxx is an obvious response to this moment, it’s one that fails to address how millions of Americans have been drawn into conspiracy theories online and led to believe this election was stolen — an issue that has never been truly addressed by the social media leaders.

A look through the Twitter feed of Ashli Babbit, the woman who was killed while storming the Capitol, is eye-opening. A 14-year Air Force veteran, she spent the last months of her life retweeting conspiracy theorists, QAnon followers, and others calling for the overthrow of the government. . . . The likelihood that social media played a significant part in steering her down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories is high, but we will never truly know how her content was curated, what groups were recommended to her, who the algorithms steered her towards.

If the public, or even a restricted oversight body, had access to the Twitter and Facebook data to answer those questions, it would be harder for the companies to claim they are neutral platforms who merely show people what they want to see. Guardian journalist Julia Carrie Wong wrote in June of this year about how Facebook algorithms kept recommending QAnon groups to her. . . .  The key point is this: This is not about free speech and what individuals post on these platforms. It is about what the platforms choose to do with that content, which voices they decide to amplify, which groups are allowed to thrive and even grow at the hand of the platforms’ own algorithmic help.

So where do we go from here?

I have long advocated that governments must define responsibility for the real-world harms caused by these business models, and impose real costs for the damaging effects they are having on our public health, our public square, and our democracy. As it stands, there are no laws governing how social media companies treat political ads, hate speech, conspiracy theories, or incitement to violence. This issue is unduly complicated by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been vastly over-interpreted to provide blanket immunity to all internet companies — or “internet intermediaries” — for any third-party content they host. Many argue that to solve some of these issues, Section 230, which dates back to 1996, must at least be updated. But how, and whether it alone will solve the myriad issues we now face with social media, is hotly debated.

One solution I continue to push is clarifying who should benefit from Section 230 to begin with, which often breaks down into the publisher vs. platform debate. To still categorize social media companies — who curate content, whose algorithms decide what speech to amplify, who nudge users towards the content that will keep them engaged, who connect users to hate groups, who recommend conspiracy theorists — as “internet intermediaries” who should enjoy immunity from the consequences of all this is beyond absurd. The notion that the few tech companies who steer how more than 2 billion people communicate, find information, and consume media enjoy the same blanket immunity as a truly neutral internet company makes it clear that it is time for an upgrade to the rules. They are not just a neutral intermediary.

However, that doesn’t mean that we need to completely re-write or kill Section 230. Instead, why not start with a narrower step by redefining what an “internet intermediary” means? Then we could create a more accurate category to reflect what these companies truly are, such as “digital curators” whose algorithms decide what content to boost, what to amplify, how to curate our content. And we can discuss how to regulate in an appropriate manner, focusing on requiring transparency and regulatory oversight of the tools such as recommendation engines, targeting tools, and algorithmic amplification rather than the non-starter of regulating actual speech.

By insisting on real transparency around what these recommendation engines are doing, how the curation, amplification, and targeting are happening, we could separate the idea that Facebook shouldn’t be responsible for what a user posts from their responsibility for how their own tools treat that content. I want us to hold the companies accountable not for the fact that someone posts misinformation or extreme rhetoric, but for how their recommendation engines spread it, how their algorithms steer people towards it, and how their tools are used to target people with it.

To be clear: Creating the rules for how to govern online speech and define platforms’ responsibility is not a magic wand to fix the myriad harms emanating from the internet. This is one piece of a larger puzzle of things that will need to change if we want to foster a healthier information ecosystem. But if Facebook were obligated to be more transparent about how they are amplifying content, about how their targeting tools work, about how they use the data they collect on us, I believe that would change the game for the better.

As long as we continue to leave it to the platforms to self-regulate, they will continue to merely tinker around the margins of content policies and moderation. We’ve seen that the time for that is long past — what we need now is to reconsider how the entire machine is designed and monetized. Until that happens, we will never truly address how platforms are aiding and abetting those intent on harming our democracy.