Barnett’s Department of Everything Else

I first came across Thomas PM Barnett via his TED talk last year.  He’s an engaging speaker (PowerPoint performance artist might be more accurate), and he has interesting ideas about how globalization works, and what the US military’s role has been, is, and should be.  I’ve followed his blog on and off ever since.  I’m fascinated with him because a huge amount of what he says rings true, and unusually frank, but a little bit of it seems jarring. Last night I watched his full-length brief and took notes, to try and figure out what exactly it was that I disagree with.

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What is the Fed doing?

Trying to keep track of all the shenanigans innovation going on at the Federal Reserve is difficult.  Econbrowser and Interfluidity among others have been trying to help…  but every time I read about how our money system works, I find my head spinning in incredulity.  And that’s just when I’m reading about how it’s “supposed” to work.  It’s been getting more confusing lately.

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Ideas for Change in America

Change.org is a kind of public idea tourament.  There are a bunch of different subsections: agricultural policy, government reform, energy, etc.  Readers vote and comment on the ideas, and the top few ideas in each category advance to the next round.  Larry Lessig has submitted Citizen Funding of Congressional Elections whereby only public money and small contributions can be applied toward election campaigns.

Not sure how well this kind of system can work.  Many of the highest rated ideas don’t sound very productive…

California Backstory Barcodes

California officials launch ‘Green Chemistry’ initiative – Los Angeles Times.

The idea is certainly good, but there’s a lot of bookkeeping that will need be done within the myriad supply chains that create the products, that isn’t getting done now.  Does California have enough clout to force it to be done?  Seems unlikely (even if we are the Nth largest economy on earth, where N is small).  Really we need to partner with the EU, and other like-minded bodies to come up with a single standard we can all adhere to.  This is the kind of thing the WTO should (for instance) be about.

PBS Tackles Global Warming: HEAT

I watched the PBS Frontline report Heat online.  It’s 2 hours long, and explores the magnitude and difficulty of scaling back global carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 (which is what the IPCC says is required).  To be a success in my mind, I think it had to do four things:

  1. Convey the colossal magnitude of the problem, essentially requiring a complete re-imagination of the engines literally driving the global economy: fossil fuels and ever expanding resource consumption, and cooperation between nations and corporations on a scale we’ve never seen.
  2. Describe the potential costs of inaction, including sea level rise, possibly rapid decreases in agricultural productivity in some areas, water shortages in the world’s most populous regions due to melting glaciers, and ultimately, the irreversibility of the changes, due to positive feedbacks.
  3. Explain how solving the problem is difficult, politically: due to effective lobbying from old and currently profitable industries, and the inability of tomorrow’s potentially profitable “green” industries to effectively lobby, because they don’t currently have either the billions in profits to “invest” in DC, or a large base of employees represented as constituents.  Economically: because there is no cost borne by GHG emitters, making the atmosphere a tragic economic commons.
  4. Provide at least an outline of what any potential solution will look like: It will have to be measured in terawatts, meaning the only two sources of power that are up to the task in the long run are solar and nuclear (with reprocessing and breeder reactors eventually).  It will also require a method of turning electricity into some transportable high energy density form, like liquid fuels, or much much better batteries.

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What is Human

The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.

I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans.  People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum.  Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me.  I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef.  This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.

What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans?  When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?

A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human.  The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification?  Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.

Congress seeks to ban open access requirements

A bill duplicitously entitled the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (HR 6845) has been introduced in congress with the goal of prohibiting federal science funding agencies such as the NIH, NSF, NASA, etc. from making their grants contingent upon open access to the published results.  Currently, a large proportion of federally funded biomedical research comes with a requirement that the results be listed in the Open Access PubMed database.  Proponents of Open Access journals have seen this policy as an example of the way things should work – publicly funded research should have publicly accessible results – but now this system, and progress in that direction, is in jeopardy.  HR 6845 would prohibit any federal funding agency from making their funds contingent on public access to the results.

The bill has been referred to the House judicial committee.  Our representative, Adam Schiff, is on the committee.  If you support open access to scientific publications – especially publicly funded scientific research, please contact him and tell him to oppose the bill.  Senator Feinstein is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and should also be contacted.

More information including background on the NIH open access policy can be found at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.  You can track the bill’s progress at OpenCongress.org.  If you do call, write, fax, or e-mail your representative or senator, please e-mail Jennifer McLennan (jennifer [at] arl [dot] org) and let her know.