Entries in futurism (15)


Not Just About a Particular Election

A few questions:

  • How skeptical are you about the ability of [centrist/radical] approaches to achieve good outcomes and avoid bad outcomes?
  • What is your general sentiment about [ambitious/compromising] goals?
  • When an [attribute] politician is accused of being egregiously [negative trait], how much are you inclined to correct for a perceived bias against [attribute]?
  • When evaluating how much you like or trust someone, what factors matter most to you? Are you more inclined to go with the crowd in your evaluation, are you contrarian, or just idiosyncratic?
  • In your evaluation of the status quo, do you put relatively more emphasis on positive or negative things? (That is, are you more of a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person?)
  • How comfortable are you with ambiguity?
  • Do you think more about strategy or tactics?
  • How well are things going for you personally? If the answer is “well”, are you inclined to think that success is based on things that are stable or unstable? If the answer is “poorly”, how much to you agree or disagree with “better the devil you know”?
  • When you tried working [within/outside of] “the system”, how has that worked out for you personally in the past?
  • What is your general sentiment towards “the mainstream”?

Why do people who mostly agree make different predictions about contingent future outcomes?

How confident are you that any reasonable person would agree with your predictions?


Predicting the Present

Idea #7: The best way to accurately predict the future is to accurately predict the present.

I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning about the NSA scandal (ongoing) and the (now long-established) use of private contractors to analyze digital records, the sort of activity that would be obviously illegal if physical documents were involved instead of digital ones, when I was suddenly struck by the memory of Cory Doctorow’s comment about science fiction writers predicting the present. Because, in fact, Cory Doctorow wrote this one before, a short story called “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” (after the Jonathan Coulton song), published in 2008.

The story hits all the key points: Private contractors analyzing vast quantities of metadata for the surveillance state, and the sort of conflict between hired geeks and their authoritarian masters that results. Of course, in that story the private contractors are a cloistered society of lifehacking monks, but obviously a good science fiction has to push those predictions of the present a little in a future-weird direction. Doctorow’s story is a bit of a warning, too. The story at least raises the question of whether the withdrawal of the nerds into their own sousveilence society removed their effectiveness as an obstacle to the security state (in more way than one).

Well worth a read. And worth pointing out, especially since I’m not the only one thinking about fiction as warning in light of recent revelations.


Real Life Cypherpunk

No, the hurricane didn’t blow this blog away, but I’ve been hosed nonetheless.  Still, I want to get back to writing, so will maybe stick to something a bit shorter-form.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the rise in value of Bitcoin (BTC), a distributed, anonymous, cryptographic token transaction system intended for use as a currency.  My original thought on the technology was “nifty idea”, but never would have thought it would have much in the way of real value (not that virtual goods can’t have real value, but BTC isn’t, by itself, much of a game).  I certainly didn’t see it rising again after the initial bubble and crash, but if you look at the charts, you’ll see that the value is now above the June 2011 bubble and crash.  That crash was precipitated by a security breach and subsequent flash-crash at Mt. Gox (the largest Bitcoin exchange). Subsequent high-profile security breaches in the immediate months following surely didn’t help, but it’s worth noting that such incidents didn’t cease in November 2011, BTC was able to regain its value despite the occasional digital bank-robbery.

So given my interest, and my surprise, I was fascinated by this essay by Gwern on anonymous black-market website Silk Road (the site itself can be found here, I link to this for educational/informative purposes only and not to encourage you to do anything illegal).  The essay is a very detailed, down-to-brass-tacks look at how Silk Road works and what its weaknesses might be.

Silk Road is designed to conduct business with only the minimum amount of information possible.  A normal e-commerce website ends up with the following information:

  1. Payment information for the buyer
  2. Payment information for the seller
  3. Reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Information sent by buyer to seller (including at least a shipping address)
  5. Information sent by seller to buyer (if sent via site)
  6. The seller’s name / pseudonym
  7. Users IP addresses
  8. Metadata about users connections

Making the process anonymous involves several technologies:

So Silk Road actually ends up with:

  1. Bitcoin addresses the buyer used to transfer bitcoins to Silk Road
  2. Bitcoin addresses the seller used to transfer bitcoins from Silk Road
  3. The reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Encrypted gibberish sent by the buyer to the seller (including at least the buyer’s address), plus a public key for the seller (which everyone can see)
  5. Encrypted gibberish sent by the seller to the buyer, if any (the buyer has no need to post a public key, they can send it to the seller in their message if they need a reply)
  6. The seller’s pseudonym
  7. The last hop of the connection path users take to access the site

Silk Road can also strengthen their resilience against outside attack by only keeping recent data for items 1, 2, 4, and 5, and no data for item 7 (there is, however, no way for users to verify that they are in fact doing so).

Silk Road also employs several technologies / methods to mitigate the effects of anonymity:

  • Pseudonymous escrow
  • Reputation economy (presumably the reason they allow for pronounceable seller pseudonyms (6), while keeping information to an absolute minimum in so many other ways), plus methods for quantitative and qualitative analysis of buyer feedback data
  • Seller account auctions (SR admins say the primary reason for this is to make the sort of attacks (note that includes scams or stings) that can be done with new accounts at least very costly to do repeatedly; of course, this also makes money for whoever’s running Silk Road)

So Silk Road not just a straightforward application of Bitcoin.  Bitcoin is just a main ingredient in the whole cypherpunk stew!

Also, this is not to imply that the system doesn’t have weaknesses.  It still falls short of the goal of full cryptographic anonymity.  For one thing, the seller ends up with a physical post address for the buyer.  Postal addresses are a lot harder to generate and anonymize than Bitcoin addresses or private keys, and the movement of physical packages is a lot easier to inspect and trace than TOR connections.

Gwern suggests that Silk Road could be brought down through DDoS or acquiring a large number of accounts for some coordinated scam.  Acquiring new accounts to do individual stings is too high cost for too little gain, especially since the value of “flipping” a Silk Road buyer is very low (there’s little they can do to get information on Silk Road sellers).  Perhaps law enforcement will decide to do some stings anyways to make an example of a few cypherpunk drug-purchasers; the ineffectiveness of that tactic as a deterrent doesn’t stop people from trying.

Gwern doesn’t mention the demise of Bitcoin scenario described by Moldbug in this post, where the value of Bitcoins is brought down by a broad-scale legal attack on the Bitcoin exchanges, indicting them all for money laundering (Bitcoin tumblers might be more deserving of this attack, but targeting the exchanges will be easier and more effective).  That wouldn’t prevent people from trading Bitcoins for goods.  But Silk Road’s selection still isn’t as good as Amazon’s, and Bitcoins are still not sufficiently liquid when it comes to things like rent and groceries, so the value of a Bitcoin in rent and groceries still depends on the exchange rate with less science-fictiony currencies.  Not that it would be impossible to find someone on Silk Road to ship you food, but you really don’t want to buy your necessities at black market prices if you can help it.  Being able to spend money earned at a black market premium on things not sold at a black market premium is a big advantage of illicit trafficking.


The Rationalist Elect

As a fan of logic puzzles and rational decision theory, I’d encountered Newcomb’s Paradox before.  The puzzle goes as follows:

Omega (a powerful (but not supernatural or causality-violating) logic-puzzle creating entity) has set up two boxes.  Box A contains $1000.  Box B contains $1,000,000 or nothing.  Omega offers the choice of taking Box A or taking both boxes.  But Omega has made a prediction (and Omega’s predictions are almost always correct) about the subject’s choice, and put the million dollars in Box B if and only if the subject was predicted to take just Box B (without using an external source of randomness, people who flip a coin and choose based on that do even worse than those that just choose both boxes).

This is one of the most contentious philosophical problems in decision theory.  One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it’s hard to just deny that the premises are logically coherent.  You can sustain the paradox without Omega being perfect in it’s predictions, so long as Omega can be usually right, by increasing the amount to be maybe placed in Box B.

Newcomb’s Paradox is one of the problems that the denizens of Less Wrong discuss extensively because rationality is their raison d’être and decision theory is (in one sense) the theory of what it means to make rational decisions.  The consensus there is that the right solution to the problem is to one-box (that is, to take just Box B), and Eliezer Yudkowsky make a compelling argument for that, which is essentially this: Given the premises of the problem, people who take just Box B walk away with $1,000,000, while people who take both boxes walk away with $1000.  Therefore, it’s best to put aside qualms about strategic dominance, (the illusion of) backwards causality, and whether or not this Omega fellow is generally a jerk; just do the thing that reliably wins.

To put it another way: It’s a premise of Newcomb’s paradox that one-boxers usually win, and it’s a pretty poor game theory that gives advice that contradicts a scenario’s premises.

I was reminded of this puzzle again recently because Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has this unusual observation on it:

I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today […] and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.

[…] place yourself in the position of Max Weber’s Calvinist. An omniscient being (God) has already placed you among the elect or has consigned you to damnation, and there is nothing you can do about that. But you believe that there is a correlation between living a hard-working and thrifty life and being among the elect, notwithstanding that the decision is already made. Though partying and having a good time is fun, certainly more fun than living a life of hard work and self-denial, doing so would be evidence that you are in a state of the world such that you are damned. So you work hard and save.

[…] you work hard and reinvest, despite the dominance of partying, because you really really want to be in that state of the world such that you get to heaven.

It does seem to follow from the premises in a similar way, so presumably the conclusion would be analogous.  That makes sense.  When dealing with omnipotent and omniscient entities, trying to find loopholes is widely regarded as a bad idea.

I guess the problem for Less Wrongians (and here, I really must give credit to Crooked Timber commenter Prosthetic Conscience for the link, though some of the overlap in our ideas was independent) is that despite usually being atheists, they are often singularitarians, so they may genuinely worry about effectively omni* entities messing with them (or at least some version of future-them).  Sinners who could yet end up in the hands of an angry god-like-entity.


The Bumpy Downside

One big debate within the peak oil community is if the world is facing an economic contraction due to scarce energy, will that be a “fast” or a “slow” collapse?  In a fast collapse, failures cascade in a rapid, catastrophic way.  In a slow collapse, there isn’t out-of-control acceleration, but past problems and a shrinking resource base undermine the ability to deal with future problems effectively, so the slide cannot be easily halted.

In 2005, I would have leaned towards “fast”, but I was wrong.  All signs, including the Baltic caviar price curve for oil (instead of the sustained high prices I would have expected) point to slow.

A great case-study for this sort of collapse in modern times is the fall of the Soviet Union, which Dimitri Orlov analyzes in his book, Reinventing Collapse.  So I was struck by a recent blog entry that discusses how Greece is now following a similar pattern:

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia’s life expectancy fell dramatically. It’s birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia […]

An excerpt really doesn’t do it justice, go read the whole thing.

On a similar theme, consider this post on bus fuel efficiency improvements:

Orion buses, by stark contrast, are so far almost doubling the miles a coach can travel on a tank. Thanks to the fact that the diesel engine driving them is half the size of a conventional bus’s, they are also quiet enough for the driver to hold a conversation with a passenger on the freeway without either raising their voices. Oh, and don’t let that small engine fool; they move up hills faster than the conventionals. These buses are nice.

And they are going to be needed. As the financial crisis deepens, more and more are riding the bus. A financial analyst stumbled upon probably the best graph yet for visualizing the present perhaps post-peak world […]

The graph is question is this:

The post goes on to note:

Remember my excitement over the new Orion coaches? One of their chief investors in the hybrid technology, Daimler, has decided that increasing bus fuel mileage is simply not profitable:

Daimler Buses North America no longer will manufacture buses at its Orion facility in the Oneida County Industrial Park, officials announced Wednesday…

“Daimler Buses considered all possible options for reconfiguring our transit bus operations in North America,” said Harmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses. “But at the end of the day, Orion is facing a situation where the cost position is not competitive, the local market is in a continued slump and growth opportunities are not available from selling the product overseas.”

It’s not because these buses won’t prove cost effective in a future with ever-rising fuel costs. That’s not it at all. It’s because an era of ever-rising fuel costs will force everyone to reorganize their expenditures. Businesses that rely upon cheap fuel will cut back or go out of business, and closed and/or downsized businesses can’t pay as much in taxes.

Taxes pay for buses.

So just when they need to cut back on their own travel expenses, many workers will see a shortage of buses available to get them to and from work.

That’s slow collapse for you.  Mundane problems with mundane solutions so close at hand.  And yet…


Who Will Pay for the Future?

I recently read The Coming Generational Storm.  It’s an alarming book, and well worth reading.  Of particular note is the method of generational accounting.  It seems to take a page from formalism in treating all promises equivalently (whether that promise is that benefits will be delivered, that bonds will be paid off, or that taxes will not be raised) and treating the status quo as an implicit promise.  Looking at the possibility of implicit and explicit default is also key:  Benefits delivered worthless are the same as benefits not delivered at all, and inflation functions as a tax on financial assets even if taxes aren’t raised.

Of course, the question isn’t just whether promises will be broken or renegotiated, but whose promises will be subject to adjustment.  The youngest generation had little say in the current political order, so to what extent will they be willing to foot the bill?

If there’s a generational conflict, the young don’t seem to be winning, as noted in the Esquire article, “The War Against Youth”:

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.


Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. […] Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981.

And it’s not just congress (and other formal, governmental politics), but academia:

From 1980 on, the price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent. While the price has spiked, the quality has tanked. […] In a survey published in 2011, 45 percent of students showed no improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years of college. […] And how could the results be any different? Three decades ago, 43 percent of professors were adjuncts. Now, with colleges bloated by older, tenured professors who take up huge slices of academic budgets while teaching crumbs of courses, the vast majority of classes are taught by adjunct.


But maybe […] you want to get a master’s or a professional degree. With entry to the professions comes another opportunity to be taken advantage of, and it’s not just the inherently ridiculous price of a creative-writing M.F.A. or journalism school, where on some level, everybody understands the students are being played for suckers. The cost of medical school has spiked over the past three decades. In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000. Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009 while American laws schools wildly increased the number of lawyers they graduate. Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. […]

And unions:

New workers will earn a “globally competitive wage.” […] Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do […]

To the extent that the recent economic crisis hurt retirees as well, it’s not clear that this doesn’t exacerbate the transfer of wealth and opportunity away from the younger generation, as would-be retirees delay retirement.  This MarketWatch commentator notes that the BLS statistics on that point may be exaggerated if compared with statistics from different samples at face value, but concludes the trend is still there:

Part of this story is a real phenomenon: More baby boomers are staying on the job because they are healthy enough to keep working. They like working. Further, many of them desperately need the money: They lost their retirement nest egg when the housing market collapsed and the stock market stalled. Fewer of them can rely on a defined benefit pension, and more of them must rely on their own savings to fund their retirement.


The good news is that employment has been growing faster than the population in every major demographic group. In other words, the employment-population ratios have been rising since the depths of the recession. But, except for the oldest age group, the employment-population ratio is far below pre-recession levels.


The same thing happened to the generation that came of age in the 1930s. They put their lives on hold for years, and we are still living with their legacy: the baby boomers who are now clinging to their jobs. [emphasis mine]

American politics in particular is hooked on wishful thinking about the future.  If the future is one of unmitigated economic growth, increase productivity might pay all bills and pave over the entire problem.  Admitting that this is not to be is politically untenable.  It is tempting (and reasonably so) for middle-class children to view their parents as excessively optimistic, as opposed to viewing them as short-sighted cowards who sold their children’s birthright to the ultra-rich in order to secure their own retirement.

And it will be hard to renegotiate the social safety net in the face of a retiree voting bloc convinced on the one hand that the whole thing was a bad idea after all and should be scrapped, but on the other hand it’s good that we can just barely afford to keep it around for those who are really counting on it.

As the Esquire piece concludes:

Youth should be the only issue of the 2012 election, because all the subsidiary issues — inequality, the rising class system in America, the specter of decline, mass unemployment, the growing debt — are all fundamentally about the war against young Americans. But the choice young Americans face is between a party that claims to represent their interests but fails to and a party that explicitly opposes their interests and actively works to disenfranchise them.


By bus and train and car pool, they will follow the gerontocracy to Tampa and Charlotte, the cities with the utter misfortune of hosting the presidential nominating conventions. Then we’ll see if the people inside the convention centers can find the youth anything better to do.

We’ll see then how the flowers of rage, planted and nurtured so carelessly for three decades, have sprung up and who will harvest them.


Digital Generation

Kevin Kelly shares some anecdotes about the subset of the latest generation raised with cutting-edge technology from an early age.  Here’s one:

Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said “broken.”]


Another reader had this story. Her son had access to a computer starting at the age of 2. Once while they were shopping in a grocery store, she paused to find a label on a product. “Just click on it,” her son suggested.

The comments are good, too.

The real question is whether this will have transient or lasting effects on how the children in question learn and think.  And will those effects be comparable to previous technological “generation gaps”, or qualitatively different?


The Robot Revolution


Idea #6: The history of the 21st century will be one of technological singularity and collapse.

More accurate:

The history of the 21st century will be shaped by, on the one hand, labor-saving technologies (with vast and unpredictable effects on society), and on the other hand, peaks in resource production and attendent problems in maintaining complex systems in the face of random disasters, demographic shifts, increasing population, and so on.

For now, let’s focus on the former.

The history of capitalism is one of labor displacement and capital accumulation.  Really expensive tools make increased productivity possible.  Only the rich can afford really expensive tools.  The way to get guaranteed access to work is to sell most of the product of your labor in exchange for access to such tools.  Those that don’t make the trade are out-competed.  The rich get richer.  The new unemployed (since productivity increases exceed demand increases (which are at least somewhat constrained by population increases, but that’s a whole other post)) end up in newer, cooler jobs made possible by the same sort of technological development.  Or so the story goes.

The question is what happens when the newly-created labor demand from technological development is less than the labor-displacement from technological development.  A related question:  What happens when labor saving technology just creates demand elsewhere for not labor but more labor saving technology?

Or: What happens when having your job outsourced to Chinese robots just creates jobs for more Chinese robots?  (The robots are also built by Chinese robots.  In China.)

I’d argue that the marginal cost of adding production through labor-saving technology has probably been lower than the marginal cost of labor in many areas of production for a while.  However, there were a few mitigating factors delaying the robot revolution.  Both have to do with “developing markets”.  First, there was the desire to expand quickly into new markets.  If hiring people is quicker than building more-automated factories, it might be better to do the former than let your competitors beat you to the punch.  Second, there was a desire to produce stuff in areas that didn’t have the infrastructure to support highly-automated production (especially since many of those areas have fewer regulations and lower labor costs).

I think that’s no longer the case.  The most promising developing markets are developed, first-to-market incentives are diminished (i.e. the resource grab is over).  Infrastructure development has also come a long way.  Hence stories like this.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend:

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

Corporations are doing fine. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are expected to report record profits this year, a total $927 billion, estimates FactSet Research. And the authors point out that corporate profit as a share of the economy is at a 50-year high.

Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher than the 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to its total job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.

They concluded on an optimistic note:

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

But that misses both that many people are not capable of “intuition and creativity” jobs (at a high enough level to make a living at it) and, at any rate, that the demand for such jobs will never equal the previous demand for industrial-labor jobs.  Intuition and creativity don’t scale.

I expect this effect will also have a way of trickling up from industrial workers.  As everyone tries to avoid the industrial-work class if at all possible, the struggle for those “creative” jobs becomes more intense.  This analysis from Robert Cringley is telling:

In the near term how do we creatively respond to jobs going overseas? In the longer term what happens if Ray Kurzweil is correct and the Singularity rolls along in 2029 or so and humans suddenly become little more than parasites on a digital Earth?

The easy answer to this problem has been the same since the 1960s — become Paul McCartney. But how many Beatles can the world sustain?


Where you live counts as much as anything else, too, so position yourself in a city that has high serendipity.  Any kid living with his parents in Palo Alto can get a job today simply because he already has a place to live. No skills required.


Live in the coolest place, I tell Cole and his brothers. Have the coolest friends. Do the coolest things. Learn from everything you do. Be open to new opportunities. And do something your father hasn’t yet figured how to do, which is every few years take off 138 days and just walk the Earth. [emphasis mine]

Cringley takes an optimistic tone, but I find the content of his post rather grim.  He’s right.  Sure, there are some high-paying jobs that the robots can’t do for now, assuming that not too many others are trying to do the same thing.

But if you want to get into / stay in the middle class after the start of the robot revolution, you’d better be cool.  Have the right connections, be in the right place.  Hopefully have parents wealthy enough to facilitate that and smart enough to realize that it’s not about “job skills” anymore. Social skills are the new middle class job skills.  It’s hard to evaluate those “intuitive” and “creative” jobs, so appearances matter.  As the job search becomes more competitive, attributes not related to job performance matter more.

And be lucky (the repeated “serendipity”).  Maximize your opportunities to benefit from luck.  It’s all a gamble, victory goes to those who can roll (or rig) the most dice.

Hard enough for the middle class.  And for those not currently in the middle class, being either “cool” or “lucky” enough is going to be mighty tough.

Though angry may stil be an option.


When Labor is Obsolete

What happens when the entire world’s demand for goods and services can be satisfied by a fraction of the world’s population?

What happens when there are many people who can’t do any job more cheaply than a machine or robot?

Do either of the above questions relate to the concept of a “jobless recovery”?

(Musing mostly based on someone linking back to this post.  The title is an overstatement, obviously.)


Obama and the FDR Route

I’ve still got a post in the hopper on education and the school system, but I’d like to take the time for a bit of a digression on the 2010 elections.  Mostly because of this interesting comment by Robert Reich:

Some people are going to tell President Obama that Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center, and Obama should, too. But Clinton was really reelected because by 1996, the economy had come roaring back to life.


The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996. It’s Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. By 1936, the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.

How? He shifted the debate from his failure to get the economy moving to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Republicans, he said, stood for “business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking.” And Roosevelt made clear his opponents wanted to stop him from helping ordinary Americans. “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he thundered. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

The lead of that piece quotes Clinton in contrast to the FDR strategy:

 I want us to forge a partnership to produce results for the American people.

Compare that to Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of the election:

I’m not so naïve as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then, but I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that’s going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.

In part, I agree with Reich.  I don’t think the “double down on consensus building” approach in 2010-2012 will work any better than the same approach 2008-2010.  However, the Roosevelt comparison is equally poor.  Let me count the ways:

The Democrats gained seats in ‘32 and ‘34 (and were on their way to doing well in ‘36).  They had a strong majority in both houses by ‘32.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs started in ‘33.  So ‘36 Roosevelt was winning in a way that Obama is currently not.  Easy to take a haters gonna hate line when you’re on top.  You might be able to do it if you were selling yourself as a scrappy (but right) underdog.  But Obama hasn’t been selling himself as a scrappy underdog since the election, and even then he was using “we’re all in this together” rhetoric.

A better comparison would be Roosevelt ‘40.  After all, the Democrats took a big hit in ‘38 because the economy was still weak.  Sounds familiar.  Even more familiar (PDF, via Wikipedia):

When the Gallup poll in 1939 asked, ‘Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?’ the American people responded ‘yes’ by a margin of more than two-to-one. The business community felt even more strongly so.

But even then, Roosevelt had quite a few things  going for him that Obama does not:

  1. He had far better access to the media than his opponent.
  2. The Democrats still had control of both houses, whereas Democrats in 2010 don’t have control of the House and only have enough control of the Senate to not do things.
  3. War was looming, when it came to having an external enemy to convince the American people that changing course on domestic policy is not the relevant issue, you couldn’t do better.  (Heck, the guy is still a favorite political distraction.)
  4. People had a negative sentiment for “big business” that they don’t today.  (They felt that Roosevelt ‘40 was “delaying business recovery”, but that didn’t mean a lot of public sentiment behind deregulation or repealing New Deal programs.)  Today, a lot of the same anger is directed into anti-government sentiment.  Among other fears.
  5. The Democrats of today aren’t credible as an anti-Wall-Street party.  Sure, they’re a bit better in supporting higher taxes on the top income bracket, which would discourage some of the reckless compensation schemes featured prominently in the current crisis.  The Republicans were all over deregulation.  But Clinton passed NAFTA and Gramm–Leach–Bliley and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and reappointed Greenspan, while Obama is all Summers Geithner Bernanke and the best he can get in terms of big liberal reforms is basically the health care plan proposed by Republicans in 1994 and a bit more consumer protection for credit cards.

So Clinton ‘94-96 isn’t the right lesson.  But FDR ‘34-36 (or even ‘38-40) isn’t the right answer either.  And that’s obvious enough that I don’t know why Robert Reich would think so either, except for wishful thinking that Obama will change his strategy completely and start acting like FDR.  Wishful thinking more powered by a positive sentiment about FDR than a reasonable belief that such a strategy would work in this situation.

As for the Republicans, I’ll quote Senator Mitch McConnell:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.  But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

Sadly, I think Obama’s 2010-2012 strategy will likely be similar to his 2008-2010 strategy, with even more modest results.  And if the 2012 election is a straight-up Obama versus centrist Republican contest, I predict Obama will lose (and that the Republicans will subsequently forget all about ending the bailouts, cutting spending, and shrinking the size and scope of government).  Whether healthcare reform is repealed will depend on how much popularity it has gained by 2012, which I can’t accurately predict.  (If repealed, it will probably not be replaced at all.  If replaced, it will likely be replaced by something rather similar.)

Of course, it’s not at all guaranteed that the 2012 presidential election will be straight-up anything.