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The world is more peaceful than ever 2010-May-30 at 17:43 PST

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Chart of the day: Battle-deaths in state-based warfare since 1946, by Thomas P.M. Barnett, 28-May-2010

One of the many bases I cite for the argument that state-on-state war, when compared to the great expanse of human history, has pretty much gone away.

I try not to link to too much of Dr. Barnett’s stuff, mostly because you should all be reading his blog already, and also because I feel like I want to link to most of his blog entries, since I agree with almost all of them, so how do I choose?  Here he links to the miniAtlas of Human Security, which has some amazing information.

For instance, the number of deaths in state-on-state warfare has dropped to a historically low level.

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Deaths in non-state conflicts also showed a remarkable drop from 2002-2005.

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Meanwhile, the number of democracies in the world has skyrocketed, while the number of autocracies has plummeted.

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It all adds up to one overwhelming fact: the world is more at peace today than it’s ever been.  With globalization clearly taking a dominant role in the lower-right structures of governments around the world, and therefore impacting the lower-left cultures of those nation-states, our planet continues to grow more peaceful as the years and decades roll on.

Much more good information is found in the miniAtlas.

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The oil spill is not Ken Salazar’s or Barack Obama’s fault 2010-May-30 at 14:25 PST

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Time for Salazar to go?, by Mark Hertsgaard, 27-May-2010

No, it’s not.  And this accident is not the President’s fault.  And there’s nothing he could have done to prevent it.  And there’s nothing the government could have done to stop the flow of oil by now.  This is an unprecedented disaster — one mile below sea level — and there is no known technology to deal with it, so engineers are inventing solutions right now.  It sucks, but that’s the situation.  BP and Halliburton screwed up in terms of building the well, they didn’t have the kind of mission-critical safeguards they should have had, and it led to a total systems failure.  My only complaint here is in terms of BP’s own processes to ensure that this kind of failure would never, ever, ever happen, which just weren’t nearly good enough.

And the only way that government regulators ever learn about these kinds of problems is in a reactive way, through some sort of systems failure.  It seems to me that those who think otherwise are unfamiliar with culture and structure in large organizations.  The bad hand we all got dealt is that, in this case, the level of failure that regulators could learn from wasn’t much smaller.  With a partial failure, for instance, we would have been able to change the inspection regime to make sure that something this big would never happen.  Unfortunately, the first failure was the biggest possible one.

We’ve seen this movie before with Obama. When Wall Street nearly crashed the global economy, Obama responded by listening to advisers—notably chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—whose sympathies lay with the megabanks that gamed the system rather than with the ordinary Americans who paid the price in the form of unemployment slips and foreclosure notices. The bailout plan Obama ended up backing was a great deal for Wall Street, a terrible deal for Main Street. What’s more, the president allowed himself to be seen during the bank bailout drama as taking the side of the villains rather than the victims—a damaging and unnecessary political choice.

Now, Obama is in danger of making the same mistake with the BP oil disaster. Substitute Salazar for Geithner, substitute continued offshore oil drilling after the worst environmental disaster in history for continued lax banking regulation after the worst financial breakdown in decades, and the parallel is complete. In his final remark of the press conference, Obama drew the parallel himself, saying, “As in the financial markets, when big crises happen, it forces us to do some soul-searching.” Obama signaled today he wants to look tough on BP and demand exemplary behavior from the oil industry in general. But credibly standing up to Big Oil is difficult when your administration’s point man on the issue has long been the industry’s chief cheerleader and shows few signs of changing his views. If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America’s transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar’s resignation.

The parallels being drawn in these last two paragraphs between the financial crisis and this crisis are so distorted as to be laughable.  The assumptions are silly, and then the comparisons made between those silly assumptions and this situation stretch credulity.  Calling Salazar “the [oil] industry’s biggest cheerleader”? C’mon.

No one is happy about this, and this kind of knee-jerk search for the guilty is what I’d expect from both the extreme left- and right-wing publications (such as The Nation), but a moderate point of view allows us calmly to realize that we’re just in uncharted territory here, and we’re making it up as we go.

Is this a wake-up call about alternative energy sources?  I mean, sure, whatever.  There was already enough profit motive behind moving to renewable energy (particularly solar) before this incident to have it developing as quickly as it could.  It won’t come any sooner after this than it otherwise would have.  It’s not about government investment in it, it’s about private investment and research, and it’s coming right on time, and much faster than most people realize.

President Obama loses exactly none of my support around this issue.  He’s as frustrated and pissed as all of us are.  If there was a reasonable solution that involved using the U.S. Navy Submarine fleet, or divers, or sinking a decommissioned ship over the hole, or detonating a mine down there, or anything that the military could do, it would have been done already.  There’s nothing more that he can personally do… it’s up to the experts and the engineers now.  And they’re doing everything they can think of.

US and Europe differ on fiscal policy 2010-May-30 at 06:22 PST

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Geithner in Europe: US and EU Oceans Apart on Fiscal Policy, 27-May-2010

Europe is eager to begin paying down sovereign debt. The US wants to see Germany and France continue stimulus measures. With Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in Germany on Thursday, the trans-Atlantic differences in fiscal policy have become difficult to ignore.

But the camaraderie displayed on Thursday belied some recent tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship. For one, the US has not been impressed with Germany’s recent decision to ban certain kinds of naked short selling, considering it an unhelpful bit of unilateralism.

On a more fundamental level, however, Washington is concerned that, should Europe overreach in its rush to cut government spending, it could endanger the fragile economic recovery that has taken hold on the Continent and around the globe. In particular, the US would like to see countries like Germany and France continue efforts to stimulate their economies.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wholeheartedly support the move by the Obama Administration to pursue an international agreement on financial industry regulation and reform.  Financial regulation, however, is not fiscal policy, and on fiscal policy we’re seeing some sharp differences between the US and the EU right now.

To some extent, I’m not surprised by this.  The shock just felt in Greece, and therefore in the rest of Europe, has led many European leaders to draw the simple and obvious conclusion: debt and deficits are bad, and lead to bad outcomes.  Germany is simply saying to Europe: we’re the most stable economy here, we can borrow currency at incredibly favorable rates, and even we’re not interested in debt and deficits anymore.

The sad fact is that the United States is still far more comfortable with deficits and debt than Europe is likely to be over the next decade or so.  With that said, I appreciate the position that the Obama Administration – including Timothy Geithner, Paul Volcker, and Christina Romer – are taking: without fiscal stimulus, the entire world economy would have sunk, and it’s just too early to end that right now.

I have no impression whatsoever that the Obama Administration is in favor of endless high government spending; rather, I have the opposite feeling: that they’d love to cut spending as soon as they can, and as much as Congress will let them (and don’t forget, Congress makes the budget, not the President).  Everyone in the Administration has made that clear at every opportunity.  The important question remains: when is the right time to shift fiscal policy from stimulus to spending cuts?

There is much legitimate debate on this question.  Unfortunately, the alleged science of economics brings us answers on both sides of the question, and so we’re left with the artistic choices made by various governments.  Europe has one answer now; America has another.  I believe that if the United States just went through a debt scare like Europe just did, that we’d be highly motivated in the short-term to cut spending as well.  We haven’t – in fact, we’ve experienced a resurgence in the perception that the dollar is the most secure currency in the world – and so we continue to favor stimulus.

We all know that we’ll get to cutting the deficit, and paying down our debt, at some point… I’d rather it be sooner, because we need to start having the public debates about spending that will lead to a generational transformation in Congress.

And, of course, we need Congressional term limits. Desperately.

Afghanistan was rapidly modernizing… in the 1950’s and 1960’s 2010-May-29 at 06:26 PST

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Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan…, by Mohammad Qayoumi, 27-May-2010

These are amazing pictures, no doubt cherry-picked by the government at the time, but unthinkable today, of a Kabul that was westernizing in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Western clothing, record stores, medical labs… and then came the Islamic Revolution next door, and the Soviet invasion, and then a civil war, and then the Taliban takeover, and then the U.S. invasion.

No wonder no one in Afghanistan remembers this fragile peek into later levels of development, and why we now think of it as, in the words of British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, “a broken 13th Century country.”

Many assume that’s all Afghanistan has ever been — an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.

But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. I grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and ’60s. When I was in middle school, I remember that on one visit to a city market, I bought a photobook about the country published by Afghanistan’s planning ministry. Most of the images dated from the 1950s. I had largely forgotten about that book until recently; I left Afghanistan in 1968 on a U.S.-funded scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, and subsequently worked in the Middle East and now the United States. But recently, I decided to seek out another copy.

Interesting.  Here’s a snapshot.  Two dozen more come with the article.

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Never forget that development is rooted in time, and that things rooted in time can both flourish and deteriorate.  There is no guarantee of unbroken upward development, and Afghanistan is your proof.  It breaks my heart, really, to see what this country has been through, and will be through for another decade or so.  But globalization is coming… and once that gets into the system it’ll be hard to stop.

I look forward to visiting Kabul 20-25 years from now… it’s going to be glorious.  Again.

Quantum dot amplifiers… that go up to 11 2010-May-28 at 17:21 PST

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Moore’s Law reaches its limit with quantum dot amplifier, by Dana Blankenhorn, 25-May-2010

A Russian-Japanese team has created a quantum dot amplifier, an “artificial atom” that can amplify an electronic signal, a central electronic function. The announcement follows by three years the same team’s creation of a quantum dot laser.

Quantum dots are often called artificial atoms because, while they are made up of multiple atoms, they can be treated in theory like single atoms, and their electron shells can be manipulated.

The ultimate goal of quantum dot researchers is the construction of a quantum computer — replicating all of a computer’s functions on a nano-level. But the dots have other uses as well. As I wrote here in January they can make nifty solar cells, too.

They don’t really go up to 11.  But they do start to address a fundamental limit to Moore’s Law: namely, that even though we’re making chips with smaller and smaller electronic pathways (Intel is manufacturing as small as 32nm right now), when we finally reach the size of individual atoms, we can’t go any smaller with current silicon-based technology.

Quantum computers take us off that path of miniaturization of existing technology, on to a whole new set of technologies that sidestep the problem, and carry us forward into a newer, far more powerful computing future.

And, like he said… this is good for the development of solar cells too.

I’m a sucker for an Ayn Rand reference 2010-May-28 at 08:25 PST

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Instead of shrugging, Ron Johnson is running for office, by George F. Will, 27-May-2010

Before what he calls "the jaw-dropping" events of the past 19 months — TARP, the stimulus, Government Motors, the mistreatment of Chrysler’s creditors, Obamacare, etc. — the idea of running for office never crossed Ron Johnson’s mind. He was, however, dry tinder — he calls Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged" his "foundational book" — and now is ablaze, in an understated, Upper Midwestern way. This 55-year-old manufacturer of plastic products from Oshkosh, Wis., is what the Tea Party looks like.

He is trim, gray-haired and suddenly gray-suited. For years he has worn jeans and running shoes to his office, but now, under spousal duress, he is trying to look senatorial — "My wife upgraded me to brown shoes." He has been endorsed by the state party and will almost certainly win the September primary for the Republican nomination to run against Russ Feingold, who is seeking a fourth term in a year in which incumbency is considered a character flaw.

Former Republican governor Tommy Thompson led Feingold in polls and froze the race on the Republican side before deciding not to run. But in this season of simmering resentment of the political class, a neophyte such as Johnson might be a stronger candidate than a recycled executive. Johnson can fund himself. Asked how much of his wealth he will spend, if necessary, his answer is as simple as it is swift: "All of it."

I had a big Ayn Rand phase, too… it’s kinda sweet, in a weird way.  If you didn’t, you missed out on a seminal experience growing up.  It’s fun to be that certain that you’re right, while simultaneously being certain that other people are wrong.  At least it’s fun when you’re young… but in your 50’s, I have less interest in seeing it in leadership and in Congress.

I believe that Ron Johnson’s motivation for running is rooted in a deeply felt sense of morals… but I still can’t support him.  We already know what lies down the path of deregulation and the lack of government oversight, and it’s not the hidden capitalist lair, complete with gold-backed currency, of “Atlas Shrugged.”

Russians! Chess! Kremlin in control! 2010-May-27 at 18:04 PST

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Russian Knights Joust to Control Chess World, by Michael Schwirtz and Dylan Loeb McClain, 26-May-2010

The conflict has pitted an alliance of two former world champions and onetime enemies, the anti-Kremlin activist Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, against high-ranking Russian officials. Mr. Karpov shocked Russia’s demure chess world this year when he declared his intention to seek Russia’s nomination for president of the World Chess Federation against the officials’ handpicked candidate.

The players have accused the officials of corruption, incompetence and, in the case of Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, a Russian provincial leader and the current president of the federation, mental instability. Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who has also been linked to the murder of at least one journalist, is supported in his bid to continue in the job by several top government officials, including the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee and a senior Kremlin adviser, Arkady V. Dvorkovich.

It’s true… the FIDE has screwed up royally in the last couple of decades.  The behavior by the Kremlin in this spot, though, is beneath it, really.

Letting chess be run by professionals can only look good for Russia… for some reason they don’t see it that way.  Too bad, and a sad commentary on the level of control being exercised there right now.

As they say about China:  Russia… three steps forward, two steps back.  They’ll get there eventually, and sooner if Medvedev lasts at all.

Creating the computer models for a disaster 2010-May-27 at 12:18 PST

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I love this story.  Within a day, these people got time on a supercomputer and started working on creating 3-D models of what the oil spill might look like… especially if a hurricane comes through the Gulf, which is likely.

Researchers race to produce 3D models of BP oil spill, by Patrick Thibodeau, 26-May-2010

Scientists have embarked on a crash effort to use one the world’s largest supercomputers to create 3D models to simulate how BP’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill will affect coastal areas.

Acting within 24 hours of receiving a request from researchers, the National Science Foundation late last week made an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours on a supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas to study how the oil spreading from BP’s gusher will affect coastlines.

The goal is to produce models that can forecast how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas by showing in detail what happens when oil interacts with marshes, vegetation and currents.

The amazing part of this, for me, is that we’re so close to being able to create amazingly complicated 3-D models – that even take fluid dynamics into account – that there are computer scientists today who think it’s important to do for this oil spill.

We’re not quite there – the massive computational power required to accurately model a spill like this won’t come for another few doublings of CPU, memory, storage, and the like – but we’ll be there soon.

"The hope — and I’m being optimistic — is that it would you give you a much more accurate forecast of a potential impact by geography and potentially by what kind of impact is going to occur," said Wells. The 2D models "haven’t done very well to date," he explained.

And the next time – and I hope there won’t be a next time – we’ll know exactly how to react, because we’ll be able to verify through computer modeling that our responses are optimal before we even start.  We’ll have “multiple options processed overnight” kind-of-power.  I know that doesn’t clean up the oil, but it sure helps in resource allocation.

The smoking gun on BP 2010-May-27 at 01:10 PST

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BP Used Riskier Method to Seal Oil Well Before Blast, by Ian Urbina, 26-May-2010

Several days before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two options, according to a BP document.

The concern with the method BP chose, the document said, was that if the cement around the casing pipe did not seal properly, gases could leak all the way to the wellhead, where only a single seal would serve as a barrier.

Workers from the rig and company officials have said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton. Investigators have said these leaks were the likely cause of the explosion.

I try not to get too involved in the details of any of these big, horrible examples of Corporations Behaving Badly, because… well, I know.  I know they’re going to do it.  I know that some corporate cultures encourage it more than others.  I know that it’s inevitable, almost without regard for the developmental center-of-gravity of the company.  I just think that they’re the exceptions, not the rules.

And then you get an incident like this.  Simply put, the worst ecological disaster in the history of the United States.

It’s just such a punch in the gut, when you really let it sink in.  The worst ecological disaster, ever, and it happened on our watch.

We thought we were past this kind of thing.  We thought something of this magnitude would never happen now… that it was something from grainy video of the 1980’s, not from our world.

So now we’re seeing some of the problems that crop up when we let Orange/Achiever run amok, deregulated and even unregulated, in our financial systems, and our energy systems… and our food systems….

And the natural move over the coming years will be for more regulation, and Orange/Achiever will scream bloody murder the entire way, but we have to support Green/Individualist policies – shaving off the rougher edges – but moving us beyond the Orange/Achiever worldview into something that wishes to give a value to things not quantifiable.

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In the meantime… this is the outline of the case against BP, and it’s fairly damning.  I know it’s painful to dig into the details, but if you want to read just one article to explain quickly and succinctly what led up to the explosion of the oil rig, and at the same time allowed the automatic cut-off systems to fail, this is the one.

Jesus, it’s bad.  Let me just say, as someone who has spent a bit of time thinking about mission-critical systems, that this entire scenario is an unimaginable failure of risk planning and mitigation strategies for something that can’t ever, ever, ever fail.

Once it had failed, I do think that BP did everything it could think of doing to fix it, with no success thus far.

But once it had failed, it was too late.  There was no amount of cost savings on an individual well that would be worth the incalculable risk of complete system failure, and BP, through its culture, showed that it didn’t understand that simple fact… and therefore didn’t live up to its responsibility as a global corporation.

What kind of international legal treatment does a company that just screwed up this badly, this systematically, deserve?  What kind of legal responsibility do the Chairman and CEO have?  Is this the first international “death sentence” for a company we somehow hand down?

No, of course not – the Europeans don’t do capital punishment, right? – but the name “BP” is, for several generations, going to be associated first and foremost with an ecological disaster so awful it replaces the Exxon Valdez as the canonical example of one.

And in the meantime, this is going to be a very difficult time to be working at BP.  For years.  And whatever it has coming to it, from every legal system on Earth, it deserves.  But it’ll survive.

Until solar.

Only global banking regulations make sense now 2010-May-26 at 17:47 PST

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Regulators Seek Global Capital Rule, by Binyamin Appelbaum, 25-May-2010

Now one of the most consequential decisions about new restraints on the banking industry — how much more capital banks should hold in their rainy day reserves — is being decided not on Capitol Hill but far from Washington, by a committee based in Basel, Switzerland.

The Obama administration is pursuing an international agreement to make banks hold significantly larger reserves, which it regards as essential to increase the stability of the global financial system. It wants to complete the negotiations, which are being coordinated by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, by the end of the year.

Having tighter capital requirements only in the United States would drive investment to other places in the world through arbitrage.  The Obama Administration rightly now looks for a global consensus on a new, higher level of capital reserves for banks to prevent another global economic crisis like the one that we just experienced.

As you might imagine, the banks have reacted with shock and horror at the thought that they might need to be better capitalized:

Banks also warned that governments were piling on proposals to tax and constrain the beleaguered industry.

“The cumulative financial impact represents a level of conservatism so extreme that it will harm the banking sector, banking customers and national economies,” Wells Fargo’s chief financial officer, Howard I. Atkins, wrote in a letter to the committee.

If the “harm” is more security vs. slightly more profits for banks… I’ll take the security right now, thanks very much.

This process is inevitable after what we went through, and although I would have wished for it to be done already, it’s good that it’s moving through the system even within a few years of such systemic shock.

A flatland look at the rift between Obama and Wall St. 2010-May-25 at 12:36 PST

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Obama Is From Mars, Wall Street Is From Venus, by John Heilemann, 22-May-2010

The speed and severity of the swing from enchantment to enmity would be difficult to overstate. When Obama was sworn into office, Democrats on Wall Street rejoiced at the ascension of a president in whom they saw many qualities to admire: brains, composure, bi-partisan instincts, an aversion to class-based combat. And many Wall Street Republicans—after witnessing the horror show that constituted John McCain’s response to the financial crisis—quietly admitted relief that the other guy had prevailed.

Today, it’s hard to find anyone on Wall Street who doesn’t speak of Obama as if he were an unholy hybrid of Bernie Sanders and Eldridge Cleaver. One night not long ago, over dinner with ten executives in the finance industry, I heard the president described as “hostile to business,” “anti-wealth,” and “anti-capitalism”; as a “redistributionist,” a “vilifier,” and a “thug.” A few days later, I recounted this experience to the same Wall Street CEO who’d called the Volcker Rule a testicular blow, and mentioned I’d been told that one of the most prominent megabank chiefs, who once boasted to friends of voting for Obama, now refers to him privately as a “Chicago mob guy.” Do all your brethren feel this way? I asked. “Oh, not everybody—just most of them,” he replied. “Jamie [Dimon]? Lloyd [Blankfein]? They might not say Obama’s a socialist, but they come pretty close.”

For Obama, Wall Street’s cluelessness is a source of intense frustration—“He’s like, ‘What the fuck, you guys?’ ” says a White House official—and its ire toward him one of the cruelest paradoxes of his presidency. Rather than bowing to bailout rage or indulging the yearning for what Geithner calls “Old Testament justice,” Obama believes, justifiably, that he has taken a moderate approach to dealing with the financial system. On arriving in office, he chose to shore up the banks, not nationalize them. The regulations he has advocated aren’t punitive or radical. Despite the occasional burst of opprobrium, his stance has been one he summed up pithily at a meeting with the heads of the largest banks: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

This is a solid long piece that tries to find a way to categorize the viewpoints as best as possible, while pointing out the reasonable middle ground fairly often.

From the left: “Why aren’t you putting the screws to Wall St.?”

From the right: “Anything you do that even seems to slow down anything that Wall St. does is completely anti-business.”

From the center: “Main Street is mad at the president because he’s too close to Wall Street, and Wall Street is mad at him because he’s too populist,” Altman says. “Therefore, almost by definition, he’s in the right place.”

From an Integral point-of-view, of course, we see Orange/Achiever reacting to Yellow/Strategist as if it were Green/Individualist… which is to be expected.  And we also see Green/Individualist reacting to this instance of Yellow/Strategist as if it were caving in to Orange/Achiever… which is to be expected.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, the Tea Partiers only view Obama through the lens of some actions that he was basically forced to take in the first few months of his administration to, oh, I don’t know, SAVE THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY!  People have conveniently forgotten how bad things were at the end of 2008, and how gross the situation was that President Bush left for President Obama.

I mean, if you want to see the Orange/Achiever mindset spelled out, here it is [my italics]:

“They’re not accustomed to being engaged in politics this way,” says a private-equity investor. “Their skin isn’t toughened. They actually take [the attacks by Obama] personally. This is a profession with a lot of smart people, but who aren’t necessarily terribly introspective. They think they actually deserve to make all this money. So any attack on their livelihood is, ahem, unpleasant.”

There is no reform of Wall St. that they’ll be happy with.  Anything that takes away an opportunity to achieve short-term profits is anathema.  And, again, that’s to be expected.  But we still have to manage it from a later level of development.

I’d suggest that if you really think Obama wanted to do trillions of dollars of bailout that it’s your projection onto him.  He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have a choice, as he’s spelled out many times in many speeches, including the most recent State Of The Union.  If you were in that hot seat in the Oval Office, and were told, “Either we do this, or the world economy goes into Depression” by both conservative and liberal advisors… you’d do it too, no matter what.

Imagine a population with, say, 10% at Integral, meaning Yellow/Strategist or later, and 10% of Congress there, too.  We’d easily have the votes to reform Wall St. in a reasonable way that lets Orange/Achiever do its thing within the limits of rational regulation… which is what the Obama Administration has been supporting all along, anyway.  If you look at the final Senate bill, it’s pretty much in line with what the Administration has been supporting, without going all that far in terms of breaking up big banks.  We might see that sort of move if another one goes bad, but right now we’re taking a reasonable step forward… one that will impact the profitability of large Wall St. institutions only in areas where their activities just almost screwed the entire population of Earth.

We’re not far from getting that 10% – maybe a decade – and it gets even easier at 20%.  Hang in there….

Want to cut the federal budget? Try this handy on-line tool! 2010-May-24 at 09:25 PST

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Choose Your Own Fiscal Adventure, by Ross Douthat, 20-May-2010

Good news, America: Using the online budget simulator created by the good people at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, I’ve successfully reduced our debt to a relatively stable 60 percent of G.D.P. by the year 2018. All it took was means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age to 68, keeping health care reform in place but slashing its insurance subsidies by 20 percent, increasing cost-sharing and premiums for Medicare and raising the retirement age to 67, passing tort reform, returning food stamp spending to 2008 levels, slashing subsidies for agriculture and biofuels, cutting the federal workforce by 5 percent across the board, cutting earmarks by 50 percent, converting the home-mortgage deduction to a smaller credit, replacing the tax deduction for employer-provided health care with a flat credit, increasing the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, cutting foreign aid and military spending by $200 billion, drawing down troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan to 60,000 in 2016, taxing life insurance benefits, letting the Bush tax cuts expire for high earners and partially phasing them out for the middle class, eliminating the state and local tax deduction, and cutting out a lot of smaller things as well.

How bad is our spending addiction? This list is what Mr. Douthat plugged in just to get us down to a deficit that’s 60% of GDP – in 2018! – but not even close to a balanced budget.

None of the changes he proposed should be difficult to deal with – and if you disagree with some of them, hey, whatever – but we’re going to have to do much more to get to a balanced budget… and the baby boomers who run Congress simply won’t be able to do even what he suggests, never mind the really hard work to get to debt reduction.  As our friends in Europe are learning… nothing short of balanced budgets and debt reduction will, in the end, be sustainable for governments going forward.

I’ll play with this tool over the coming weeks, and see what it takes to get to a truly balanced budget, and see how an Integral perspective might help to figure that out.

The culture change in Washington, brought on by the Integral wave of development, can’t come soon enough.

The right kind of political leader 2010-May-23 at 08:21 PST

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I love Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ).  I think I love him more than any politician in the United States right now, except for the President and Rahm Emanuel.

From Gov. Christie: Fixing NJ finances more important than re-election, 19-March-2010:

Using self-deprecating wit and plainspokenness, Gov. Chris Christie suggested Thursday in a speech to the New Jersey Charter Public Schools Conference that his tough talk and tough love for New Jersey might cost him a second term in 2013.

“I will tell you today what I said throughout the campaign and what I mean from the bottom of my heart: I don’t care a bit about being re-elected. Not one bit. The proof of that should be Tuesday’s speech,” Christie quipped, referring to his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature that has resulted in protests and demonstrations by public employee unions upset over planned cuts to their benefits. “If I cared about getting re-elected, I wouldn’t be doing what I did on Tuesday. I don’t care about being re-elected,” he said.

And just watch this two-minute video of him responding to a reporter about taking a “confrontational tone.”  You can’t get more straightforward than this.  “I came here to govern, not to get re-elected.”  God, I love this guy.  See the guy in the background smiling the whole time?  If I were there, that would be me.

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I mean, one of the guys commenting on this video is already comparing Gov. Christie to Chuck Norris: “Chris Christie once broke every law of physics, at the same time. He was let off with a warning.”  That’s solid.

This is the kind of straight-up honesty we’ll get when term limits arrive.  I’m not saying we’ll get it from everyone, but we’ll see it more and more as part of the political culture in America, from both sides of the aisle, and that will be a really good thing.  These are the kinds of people that can hammer out tough but important agreements on things that move us all forward.

“He was going to go down fighting.” 2010-May-23 at 08:07 PST

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Specter Legacy Is Study of the Perils of a Switch, by Katharine Q. Seelye, 22-May-2010

At the time, Mr. Specter said candidly that he could not win re-election in a Republican primary because his party had moved to the right.

“I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, not prepared to have that record decided by that jury,” he said.

And so we have the ungraceful end of an over 40-year career in the Senate.  And it took us watching the slow-motion train-wreck of a transparent and desperate switch in political parties, followed by a bitter and cynical primary fight, to get to the end of it.

Is the United States demonstrably better for having people in office for over four decades?  Haven’t we seen, over and over, the machinations of those who seek re-election more than they seek to improve the way this nation is governed?

Now, imagine with me a world with congressional term limits.  Imagine a world where this kind of pathetic sight didn’t happen.  Imagine the simple, graceful turnover of congressional seats, election after election, as roughly 1/6th of Congress would be an open seat.  Imagine the new perspectives coming in, every two years.  Imagine the old guard, giving their advice about survival and “how things work in Washington” to newer members who never intended to do things that way in the first place, and then imagine the newer members politely humoring the older ones and then doing what they think is right anyway.  And imagine the old guard, no doubt still in Congress from grandfather clauses in the term limits amendment that exempt current members (the only way we’d get one), finally leaving in confusion about “the way these new people act around here”, or actually just waiting to die in office.

Imagine the day when the very last senator still serving under that grandfather clause leaves, and every single member of Congress will serve no more than twelve years: two terms in the Senate, or six terms in the House.

Imagine the kind of bold, imaginative legislation we’ll get when that happens… far less influenced by special interests or lobbying.  Younger, more energetic, more in tune with what we need at any given time.

And imagine when the average human life span grows past 100 years… and then past 120 years… and then past 150 years… all of which is coming in the 21st Century, and realize how important it is to get term limits into place as soon as possible.  If we don’t, we’ll see the first senator to serve 100 years in the Senate during the 21st Century, and that’s not a good thing, from where I sit.

And imagine when we won’t ever again hear lines like:

“Maybe there comes a time when people think, ‘Should I run anymore — is there a time to bow out gracefully?’ ” Mr. Harkin said. “But that’s not Arlen’s style. He’s a fighter. And he was going to go down fighting.”

That’s a day to look forward to.

Yet another group of cultural creatives comes out behind marijuana 2010-May-20 at 08:46 PST

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This time it’s the chefs.

Marijuana fuels a new kitchen culture, by Kim Severson, 18-May-2010

“Everybody smokes dope after work,” said Anthony Bourdain, the author and chef who made his name chronicling drugs and debauchery in professional kitchens. “People you would never imagine.”

“There has been an entire strata of restaurants created by chefs to feed other chefs,” Mr. Bourdain said. “These are restaurants created specially for the tastes of the slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work.”

Just one more reason that decriminalization will be coming soon enough.  What the Boomers didn’t accomplish in this regard, the Integral crowd will.

Molecular nanorobots 2010-May-19 at 03:00 PST

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Spiders at the nanoscale: Molecules that behave like robots, 12-May-2010

Shrinking robots down to the molecular scale would provide, for molecular processes, the same kinds of benefits that classical robotics and automation provide at the macroscopic scale. Molecular robots, in theory, could be programmed to sense their environment (say, the presence of disease markers on a cell), make a decision (that the cell is cancerous and needs to be neutralized), and act on that decision (deliver a cargo of cancer-killing drugs).

Another thing we need to get to cellular-level medicine is some form of nanobot… something tiny – around the size of a blood cell – and with some intelligence to it.

This isn’t it yet… but we’re right on time with this kind of discovery to see the ultimate results (to go along with those nanopumps) in a couple of decades.

The more hopeful, more realistic view of Europe 2010-May-18 at 09:35 PST

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In my previous post, I talked about the bleak view of Europe right now.  What would a set of more hopeful, more realistic perspectives look like?

Here are seven that, taken together, work for me.

  1. The idea that the EuroZone would never run into a major political crisis was naïve to begin with, and that crisis has now arrived.  It’s been a while since we really needed the grown-ups in European politics to step up, and they’re all a little slow out of the gate and a bit rusty at it, but now that this has come, we’ll see the important leaders taking responsibility for steering Europe through this.  I think they’re getting the hang of it, now that the $1T bailout package has been announced.
  2. No central European decision-maker would seriously consider dismantling the Euro.  It’s done too much to smooth relations between countries who have centuries of history of war.
  3. Some of the governments that supported the bailout will lose their next national elections, because, again, not all voters in Europe are at Green.  The results of these elections will be developmentally appropriate for those countries.  In fact, it’ll serve as an interesting Integral litmus test of some rough kind to show where populations are operating from during this crisis.  They might come from a later stage of development when things are good, but where are they when things seem bad?
  4. Even those new governments who won elections by harnessing voter anger won’t seriously argue either to end the Euro, or to unilaterally withdraw from it.  Some from those parties might talk about ending the Euro to placate their supporters, and might even stir up some populist energy, but when it comes down to it, none of them really want to invest their political lives in making that happen, and any passion around that will subside, probably by 2012.
  5. It’s going to take years to get the countries with high deficits back on a path to growth.  This is a very difficult set of circumstances for any government, or any Central Bank, to manage.  If they soft-land this, the way Obama soft-landed the crash he inherited, and you start to see a turnaround in growth in three years, I’d call that a masterful job of managing a potentially fatal blow against the Euro, wouldn’t you?
  6. The next time Europe appoints a President, they’ll realize the mistake they made choosing someone with no real international power, and put a big name in that spot.  Seriously, how many times have you heard the name Herman Van Rompuy during this thing?  If you need more than one hand to count that up, you’re reading news stories that I’m missing.  Imagine how this would be different if Tony Blair were in that position, and you’ll see how they’ll want someone who can provide that level of international presence and political cover for them in a crisis.
  7. The Euro will survive… the halo will have come off of it a bit, but having gotten through this major test, it’s future as THE single currency of all of Europe – as an important step to take as a new world economy forms, centered in Asia – will be assured.

And hopefully history will note that this set of leaders took action at a crucial time to ensure that the Euro remained on track.

That’s the hopeful view, and the realistic view, of what Europe is about to go through for the next few years.  I’m fascinated to watch it unfold.

The bleak view of Europe right now 2010-May-18 at 09:30 PST

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The Euro’s Lost Promise, by David Marsh, 17-May-2010

In any international crisis, there will be those who believe that the crisis-in-question merely portends an even more difficult future.

The dream of monetary union across Europe has turned into a nightmare. Led by France and Germany, European countries have decided to spend colossal sums of taxpayers’ money they cannot afford to heal mounting internal disparities they cannot conceal to shore up an edifice many believe cannot stand.

Yeah, well, when you look at it that way, it does suck.

Look, the voters in Europe aren’t all that different from the voters in the United States. It’s not like they’re all at Exit Green, just about to pop to Second Tier.  There are lots of them at Blue, lots of them at Orange, and lots of them at Green.  Just shift the center of gravity up about half a level from where the United States is, and you’re getting the picture.

And even within that group, there are different countries with different centers-of-gravity… just like we have amongst the states here.

Some of those countries will have an easier time understanding why this bailout had to be done, and some will have a much more difficult time.  That’s to be expected.  So the rollercoaster we’re about to go on will, sometimes, look a lot like Mr. Marsh is describing.

There was, however, one thing I heard in the article that made it clear to me where Mr. Marsh was coming from.

Decisive backing came from President Obama, who on the eve of the Brussels meeting telephoned Mrs. Merkel to warn her that Europe’s failure to act could set off another worldwide credit crunch. His intervention was incongruous in the extreme: an American president urging the German chancellor to shore up a currency union that was meant to bolster Europe’s financial independence from the United States.

If you can’t imagine that President Obama would want to weigh in on something that could affect the lives and happiness of over 830 million people in Europe, and billions more around the world trying to do business with Europe… you probably also have a needlessly pessimistic view of things in general, and perhaps a center-of-gravity from somewhere in First Tier which would make global cooperation seem “incongruous.”

So let’s be clear… this is the bleak view of things.  This is the warning from those who think the worst-case is coming: the dismantling of the Euro, which could lead to growing tensions and competition amongst those countries who no longer make common cause over currency.

Delivering drugs to individual cells 2010-May-18 at 05:05 PST

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Glass electrodes used in nanoscale pump, by Lin Edwards, 17-May-2010

A team of engineers from the U.S. and South Korea has developed what is believed to be the smallest man-made pump ever built, powered by a glass electrode. The pump is about the same size as a red blood corpuscle.

It could be used for applications such as delivering drugs to an individual cell or for taking fluid samples from single cells. The glass electrodes could also be integrated into other nanoscale devices.

The next major frontier in medicine will be cellular-level treatments that are able to go into the body and target individual cells for help, or for destruction (think cancer).  There are many different technologies required to get us there… this is one of them.  Widespread access to this kind of medicine is probably about two decades away.

What’s next after cellular-level?  Why, molecular of course.  Imagine literally rewriting the DNA in your cells… coming in about three decades to a body near you.

Soccer is entertaining 2010-May-18 at 02:06 PST

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No… not for the actual play.  That’s dreadfully boring.  Seriously.  Rest of the world: get a real sport, one that has actual strategy in it.  If you’re not familiar with what strategy looks like, check out baseball or American football sometime.

Christ, there’s more strategy in NASCAR than soccer.

No, “football” is entertaining simply for the sheer number of incidents of cheating and match-fixing and bribery found all over the world lately.  The latest?  It’s a good one.  Go grab some popcorn, I’ll wait….

From Lord Triesman’s 2018 bid claims face Fifa review, 17-May-2010:

World governing body Fifa is to probe ex-Football Association chairman Lord Triesman’s "bribery" comments over the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup.

Triesman was caught up in a tabloid sting suggesting Spain could drop its bid if rival bidder Russia helped bribe referees at this summer’s World Cup.

Triesman was secretly recorded allegedly divulging sensitive information to a former aide, including a claim that Spain and Russia, rival bidders for the 2018 World Cup, were conspiring to bribe referees at next month’s finals in South Africa as part of efforts to win the right to host the tournament.

Man, that’s fun.  I mean, it sucks for Lord Triesman… he’s getting pilloried for telling the truth, but the very fact that he said this in polite conversation means that it’s probably true, and that’s awesome.

I mean, what do we have over here, some guys taking steroids?  Really?  All the serious corruption is out of the major American sports… we’re just down to arguing over whether an umpire has a too-wide strike zone.

Corruption on an international level in the biggest sport in the world.  Stay classy, Soccer.