The problems of libertarian futurism.

The November 28 issue of the New Yorker had a great George Packer piece on the PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel: “Peter Thiel’s Rise to Wealth and Libertarian Futurism” (subscription required). I had previously known of Thiel primarily as the guy who was offering money to college-aged kids to not go to college – his Thiel Fellowship offers $100,000 to young folks (under 20) for a two-year period, during which time the Fellows “focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.”

In the article, Thiel does not come across as rabidly anti-education as his public image suggests. To me, Thiel and his friends as depicted in Packer’s article do not seem to have a very coherent or persuasive case against higher education as an institution – there are vague intimations that universities make you conformist, but I find that pretty unpersuasive (and why stop at universities? Why not high school, middle school, elementary school, or kindergarten?) At a dinner party described in the article, one of Thiel’s friends says he was failed by an English teacher who said he couldn’t write – but this sounds like the problem of one bad apple in the education system, a flaw that the business world certainly isn’t immune to. (Interestingly, another anti-education friend at this dinner party is AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of an elaborate Harry Potter fanfic called “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.”)

The Thiel Fellowship website reflects a more nuanced view, to a certain extent: the site’s page on “the education bubble” focuses on the unethical burdening of young people with untenable student loan debt. I think that’s a very legitimate public policy concern, but of course, it does not follow that everyone should skip college and launch high-tech startups.

In general, this is the story of each libertarian position taken by Thiel, and the problem with libertarianism in general: you start with a extreme position of “free choice,” but are forced to walk it back with caveats and conditions once you learn more about the complexities of the problem. Packer’s article illustrates this a few times, once concerning one of my favorite hobby-horses – the myth of political correctness run rampant on college campuses. In 1995, Thiel, who is gay, co-authored The Diversity Myth, which in part discussed the case of a Stanford law student named Keith Rabois who shouted “Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside an instructor’s on-campus residence – a provocation which earned Rabois’ ejection from Stanford. According to Packer, Thiel (along with his co-author David Sacks) characterized the Rabois case in The Diversity Myth as one “of individual courage in the face of a witch hunt,” and which challenged “fundamental taboos.” Now, apparently, Thiel regrets writing about the incident, telling Packer:

All of the identity-related things are in my mind much more nuanced. I think there is a gay experience, I think there is a black experience, I think there is a woman’s experience that is meaningfully different.

It’s nice to see an example of an ideological libertarian observing and learning something about the reality of the world we inhabit. However, it’s less inspiring to see Thiel shy away from issues, like energy policy or climate change, with live political implications – it seems like he just thinks political problems are too hard. To say, as he does, that “it would be good if we had a less political world,” is like saying “it would be good if we had a less money-driven world” – it’s an impossible utopia. But the failure to recognize that we live in an observably more money-driven world than a politics-driven world shows a shocking disconnect from reality which is, in my view, the fundamental problem of libertarianism.

I can agree with Thiel on futurism, or technological optimism, anyway. Packer notes the Founders Fund manifesto, “What Happened to the Future?” the tagline of which seems to be: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Even through (or maybe even because of) the dot-com boom(s), society’s technological imagination has been meager, seeming to top out at micro-blogging and FarmVille. (Although I’d quibble with the line, “Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo,” since we are clearly seeing the beginnings of a robust market in TNG-era flat screen tablets.) Thiel is adept with his science fiction commentaries:

The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

(Is that a real story? Or shall I write it?) Note also, of course, that in the Star Trek universe, the Federation has progressed past currency, making “entrepreneurship” obsolete.

After Fukushima.

It seems like, once the reactors were stabilized, the Fukushima disaster faded from the public eye almost instantaneously. I couldn’t remember the last time I had thought about it, until I came across Evan Osnos’ excellent article (subscription required) on the disaster and its aftermath in the October 17 issue of the New Yorker.

Among other things, the article highlights the regulatory dysfunction that catastrophically crippled Japan’s nuclear safety regime. It seems that regulatory capture is at least as much a problem in Japan as it is here in the United States, if not more so. I was also struck by how egregiously Japan’s government appears to have mishandled the situation; its lack of transparency seems only to have bred deep distrust of the government among the people.

I am less of a nuclear energy skeptic than your average environmentalist — my dad and several relations and family friends worked as nuclear plant engineers when I was growing up, I visited nuclear plants as a kid, and my uncle continues to work at Indian Point. I always thought that, at least on the medium time scale, nuclear could be done safely. But Fukushima and its aftermath make me wonder if, regardless of the capabilities of science and engineering, politics and the profit motive make safe nuclear energy an impossibility.

Osnos’ article quotes a compelling speech made by the novelist Haruki Murakami in June, criticizing Japan’s nuclear policy in context of the country’s history:

This is a historic experience for us Japanese: our second massive nuclear disaster. But this time no one dropped a bomb on us. We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives. …While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators. We must fix our eyes on this fact. If we fail to do so, we will inevitably repeat the same mistake again, somewhere else.

Gaultier and a fresh look at Karlie Kloss’ eyebrows.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Susan Orlean’s New Yorker profile on Jean Paul Gaultier, who is newsworthy apparently because of the traveling museum exhibition of his work, currently on show in Montreal. I wish the New Yorker had made an online companion feature for this piece; notwithstanding Orlean’s effective descriptions of Gaultier’s work, they really must be seen. Of course, there are plenty of images to be found on the Internet.

One of my favorite parts of the article was the description of Gaultier dressing supermodel Karlie Kloss for his Fall 2011 couture show:

Upstairs in a workroom, Gaultier was doing a final fitting of a sheer navy-blue gown, trimmed with mink, on Karlie Kloss, an American teen-ager with important-looking eyebrows and a delicate mouth.

(Italics mine.) I consume a fair amount of fashion media, and I have never heard anybody characterize Kloss’ eyebrows as “important-looking” or anything like that — not that I disagree!

I think her eyebrows look a little inconsequential here, actually.

I can’t wait to check out the Gaultier exhibit when it comes to San Francisco’s de Young Museum in March.

An inefficiency in the mission to kill OBL.

I’ve had this tab open for weeks, it seems, meaning to point this out to the Internet. Here goes!

In its August 8, 2011 issue, the New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Operation Neptune’s Spear – the mission that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad. It is a great and interesting read. For example, did you know that the translator, a Pakistani-American, was pulled from a “desk job” and had to learn how to “fast rope” for the operation?

More interesting still is this account of how the SEALs disposed of the damaged Black Hawk helicopter (the one that Pakistan might have let China check out):

Next, the SEALs needed to destroy the damaged Black Hawk. The pilot, armed with a hammer that he kept for such situations, smashed the instrument panel, the radio, and the other classified fixtures inside the cockpit. Then the demolition unit took over.

(Emphasis mine.) The pilot brought a hammer on this mission for the sole purpose of smashing up the instrument panel and radio, etc.? I don’t claim to be an expert in [para]military operations, but this struck me as odd. Is there a reason that other tools, like ones that could serve other uses for other contingencies, couldn’t be used for this purpose? Is there a reason that other things carried by the SEALs (like assault rifles) couldn’t be used? I’d like to know, because I don’t want our courageous special ops soldiers burdened with unnecessary hammers.

Bringing home the debt ceiling fight.

In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut,” he said. “If you can’t climb out, why not move?”

On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family’s possessions into the rental truck—and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn’t make the move, too—when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. “I guess it’s just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we’re going to stake a new claim,” Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. “Right, Brent?” Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them—only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.

On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”—the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.

…Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. …Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.

…Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country’s new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter’s cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.

In his Talk of the Town piece from last week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Danny Hartzell and his family, and in so doing, connects the politics of the debt ceiling debate with the economic reality that Americans experience.

I’ve read a lot of complaints on the Internet about how political journalism is over-obsessed with the procedural dramas in Washington, and should instead focus on explaining policy and the substance of political conflicts. I think this is one of those rare, good examples of the latter. Packer does a great job of illustrating the consequences of the current debate, and at a personal scale that is far easier to comprehend than the billion- and trillion-dollar cuts over ten years that are reportedly being debated.

In the particular case of the debt ceiling debate, it’s rare that I come across any mention of what the huge cuts in spending would mean for the many programs and services providing actual benefits on which Americans rely. In part, of course, that’s because the actual negotiations haven’t reached that level of specificity. But I think it’s important and useful to give some perspective, especially since most Americans are probably fortunate enough as to have never looked at a Congressional budget in their lives.