Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You Don't Miss Your Water...

An interesting article from the NYT on how climate change, both in terms of current impact and projected impact, is creating challenges for conservation biologists. A few key paragraphs:

“We have over a 100-year investment nationally in a large suite of protected areas that may no longer protect the target ecosystems for which they were formed,” said Healy Hamilton, director of the California Academy of Sciences, who attended a workshop on the subject in November in Berkeley, Calif. “New species will move in, and the target species will move out.”

As a result, more and more conservationists believe they must do more than identify biologically important landscapes and raise money to protect them. They must peer into an uncertain future, guess which sites will be important 50 or 100 years from now, and then try to balance these guesses against the pressing needs of the present.

“It’s turning conservation on its head,” said Bill Stanley, who directs the global climate change initiative at the Nature Conservancy. He said the organization has a goal to protect 10 percent of major habitat types — like grasslands, forests and freshwater systems — by 2015.

“We are not sure exactly how to treat this yet,” Mr. Stanley said. “Areas that we preserved as grasslands are going to become forests. Does this mean we are going to have to have more than enough forest and less grassland than we had before? Or does it mean we should fight it — try to keep the forest from coming into those grasslands? Or should we try to find new areas that are least likely to change, that seem to be the least susceptible to change, and prioritize those areas?”

Interesting questions for me:

From an ecological perspective, if climate change is going to create massive and fundamental changes in local ecologies on a short time frame, how do you determine the ecological value of conserving a particular biome?

From an economic perspective, how do you make decisions on where to invest resources in conservation? How can you quantify the negative impact on a particular ecology, or the positive benefit, in the face of such overwhelming uncertainty in outcomes?

For people engaged in the public debate about conservation, be it advocacy or politics, how do you continue to make a compelling case for conservation when the ecological, economic, and for lack of a better word, spiritual arguments for conserving a place become harder to make with confidence, due to the impact of climate change?

What happens to that spiritual grounding of conservation, from Aldo Leopold to John Muir, when the constancy of a physical place is something that may become even more precious to us due to the effects of climate change?

And is there some heretical, futurist romance in being able to watch new ecologies rapidly transform in front of our eyes? Grasslands turning into forests? An underwater Everglades?

The UX Fund: Quantifying the Value of User Experience

The ROI case for why a company should invest in design, particularly user-centric design, beyond simply market research, is often hard to make in terms of hard, bottom-line numbers. Often, the business sponsors or owners of projects either just believe in or don't believe in the importance of investing in design as a fundamental part of the development of products, services, and interfaces with customers. With this context, PG at work sends around a very interesting experiment in trying to quantify the value of user experience-focused design, by the design firm Teehan + Lax.

In brief:

The UX Fund was created to test our belief that companies who deliver a great user experience will see it reflected in their stock price. On November 1, 2006 we invested $50,000 in 10 companies we felt:
1. Demonstrated care in the design of their products and Web site
2. Has a history of innovation
3. Inspired loyalty in their customer base
4. Doing business with them was a positive experience

Obviously, this financial portfolio-based approach to trying to value a nebulous variable has precedents and is subject to many, many caveats. That said, the overall performance of the portfolio was compelling (certainly from an investment point of view), although Teehan+Lax' commentary indicates a certain definite caution in extrapolating too far.

One major observation that jumps out is how much more strongly those companies performed that have product design, user experience, or brand experience as central to their value (Apple, EA, Nike, Yahoo) when compared to those businesses (Target, Progressive, JetBlue) where design and brand may be important, but at the end of the day, there is a core business (retail, insurance, an airline) that has to be run, with management and competitive stresses that far exceed the influence of design.

Another factor may be the cycle-time for bringing design ideas to market, which is (or should be) much shorter for software, internet, and even consumer goods products, when compared to service industries and industries with deep investments in physical capital which are less subject to change.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Russian Beauties

Apparently the trade-off between Communist tyranny and open markets is being stuck in a drab factory job in some backwater town versus being able to rocket on your cheekbones and backhand to fame and fortune in the West. Or so says Anne Applebaum:
And what open markets do for beautiful women they also do for other sorts of genius. So, cheer up next time you see a Siberian blonde dominating male attention at the far end of the table: The same mechanisms that brought her to your dinner party might one day bring you the Ukrainian doctor who cures your cancer or the Polish stockbroker who makes your fortune.
A good reminder why I generally dislike her columns -- interesting premises devolving into horribly oversimplified paeans to the promise of freedom and markets. Not that freedom and markets are bad (or that Communist tyranny was good), but isn't this a preposterous and unnecessary formulation? Does it also account for the French broker who loses your fortune? Or the multi-national pharmaceutical company who won't sell drugs at discount to third world countries?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Spin Cycle

Or at least spinning you over to the other blog. In case you've stumbled upon this randomly, this blog has a (fraternal) twin. Where you should expect to find me skimming the surface of hard questions on this blog, you can find me diving deeply into simple ones over on The Quiet Quiet. If you never have, please take a look. If you don't know where to start, here are some recent highlights:

- Music, movie, and book recommendations from 2007
- Some thoughts on I'm Not There
- A review of Anatole Broyard's Kakfa Was The Rage
- The outstanding web video serial "Clark and Michael"
- Some photographs of rural, Soviet-era bus stops

As always, thank you for reading. I would always love to hear comments and feedback!

Photographs from a Flickr search for the most interesting photographs tagged "Spinning" And, yes, all of the adorable photos of children doing the helicopter made this cheating.

The Energy Bubble

RM over at Informed Reader summarizes an article on the next economic bubble -- supposedly being created as capital is moved into research, development, and marketing of new technologies in alternative energy. (Caveat: I haven't read the Harper's article.) Thoughts?

The small fashion among economic commentators that our entire trajectory of economic growth is a (wink-wink) sanctioned Ponzi scheme, shifting capital and hype from one sector to another, is pretty terrifying. Particularly when the debts and assets left behind from one level to the next are being bought up by foreign interests.

In general, I guess it is a good thing that this capital is being moved into alternative energy. Even if there is an eventual collapse, the initial investment should yield dividends in terms of new technologies and markets. Casualties of the Internet boom aside, that Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, Wikipedia, and all the online media were wrought from that initial investment surely has been a significant and positive change in our lives.

If the bubble is starting now, I guess I'm going to be late to the party again. Damn my timing!

Financial Wizardry

Unlike a lot of my peers and colleagues (but like, I imagine, a lot of my friends), I really do not enjoy managing my money (when I have money to manage). I don't pay attention to the market on anything less than a weekly basis, I invest in stocks based on believing in the company, not the expected short-term movement of the stock, I invest in mutual funds based on abstract faith in either a market sector or the reputation of the fund manager, and beyond that, I'm generally less attentive to both the market and my money than I know I should be. I wish I could be better, but it just seems like there are much more rewarding things to spend your time doing.

In addition to that streak of laziness, I am admittedly put off by the inaccessibility and general blow-hardness of the financial press. Also, I don't really trust them - not their motives, so much, but their ability to actually give any useful advice. Which is what has drawn my attention to Wikinvest (also here) and Motley Fool's embrace of social media and community trends in building out their website. I haven't yet placed any bets on the financial insights that might be garnered from each of the sights, but I do find both to be better entrees into understanding financial issues, both large and small, certainly when compared either to traditional financial media or my broker's website.

From a consumer perspective, Is this a good idea? Is this likely to make investing more attractive/less painful? Will it improve my returns?

From a software perspective, what features will be key to making this work? Reputation? Analytics that can accurately track information provided by users to performance? Or does this simply become another wild west of data which I have to navigate?

The Tata Nano

A new "people's car," for a new era. India's Tata Motors unveiled the world's "cheapest car." From the NYT's automotive blog:

Over the past year, Tata has been building hype for a car that would cost a mere 100,000 rupees (roughly $2,500) and bring automotive transportation to the mainstream Indian population. It has been nicknamed the “People’s Car.” Over the course of the New Delhi Auto Expo, which began this week, anticipation had grown to fever pitch.

With the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Motors drove the small white bubble car onto Tata’s show stage, where it joined two others.

“They are not concept cars, they are not prototypes,” Mr. Tata announced when he got out of the car. “They are the production cars that will roll out of the Singur plant later this year.”

The four-door Nano is a little over 10 feet long and nearly 5 feet wide. It is powered by a 623cc two-cylinder engine at the back of the car. With 33 horsepower, the Nano is capable of 65 miles an hour. Its four small wheels are at the absolute corners of the car to improve handling. There is a small trunk, big enough for a duffel bag.

“Today, we indeed have a People’s Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions,” Mr. Tata added. “We are happy to present the People’s Car to India and we hope it brings the joy, pride and utility of owning a car to many families who need personal mobility.
What is exciting about this? First, that an Indian company (albeit a massive conglomerate) has developed a solution for the needs of the Indian market, in terms of cost, features, and fit to the physically crowded Indian urban landscape. Second, the opportunity for increased mobility that this provides the expanding middle class in India. The introduction of the automobile to the middle class fundamentally changed American culture. What will be the impact in India? Third, the commitment (if Tata's claims are true) to building a vehicle which takes environmental and basic safety concerns into consideration, not just cost:
"the 33hp engine meets current Euro 4 emissions standards and is cleaner than most of the scooters running around on Indian streets right now.” They also claim that the Nano can achieve 54 mpg (U.S.) and has passed frontal and side impact tests"
What is worrying about this? I make the assumption that, with or without this vehicle, there would be an explosion of personal-use vehicles by the rapidly expanding (in number and wealth) middle class in India. Still, the prospect of another million vehicles on the Indian roadways is deeply concerning -- for the local environment, in terms of smog and congestion, for the global environment, in terms of climate change and other atmospheric emissions, for public safety, of both the drivers of these tiny little death traps, and the massive number of Indian urbanites who use other means of transportation (pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles) on Indian city streets, and to the political will that Indian governments will have to building public transportation infrastructure at the expense of more roads, widened roads, and highways. Perhaps not quite the head-on collision of anti-poverty versus environment that Slate suggests, but some interesting dilemmas will arrive if the Tata Nano takes off. And I bet it will.

The Lazy Environmentalist, part 2

Based on nothing more than my armchair observations, I think that in the last ten years, it has become easier to live a little more "green." From household cleaners to cars, both choice and information on more environmentally responsible product alternatives have become more available to consumers. Whether you are buying local, organic, hemp, hybrid, or nontoxic, the market has certainly delivered more products, and of higher quality, to satisfy the eco-conscious consumer, and in consistently more mainstream channels. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

Josh Dorfman's book and website (and presumably, radio show, which I have never listened to), The Lazy Environmentalist, are great entry points into making consumer choices that can make you a little more green -- covering the territory from just a little more eco-conscious, without sacrificing much in terms of status or style (i.e., shop at Bed Bath & Beyond, wear Timberland, drive a Lexus) , to more significant commitments to brands or products which push the green envelope even a bit further. For anyone looking to inject a green perspective in to an upcoming buying decision, I highly recommend both the book and the website.

And as evidenced by the brands and resources highlighted by The Lazy Environmentalist, some companies are making both an ethical commitment and seizing a market opportunity to serve consumers who want to green their lifestyles. The movement of green products from the fringe into the mainstream of style, status, cost, and availability is a trend that I hope can be sustained.

Dorfman's book, in each of his chapters, which are organized (helpfully) like an enormous environmental department story might be, also broaches questions on what it would take to live a lot more green. The challenge in moving from a little to a lot is that the choices often take us out of our comfort zone. They are no longer simple consumer choices -- do I buy product A or product B, but lifestyle choices. Where should I live? How large should my house be? How often should I travel? Should I eat meat? While Dorfman does an admirable job opening the dialogue on some of these questions, his book, with its orientation as a consumer resource, is not really well-equipped to challenge these core values deeply (nor should it be).

But, as we understand the scope of global environmental challenges, like climate change or sustainable development, the depth and dimensions of the choices we are making in "going green" must change, as well. We can't simply become more conscious consumers. We need to make much more deeply considered personal choices, with respect to our lifestyle's impact on the environment and resource use, and political choices, which can help drive policy and market constraints to make both the small consumer choices and the big lifestyle choices easier and more feasible for a lot of people to make.

A bit of an abstract argument, I apologize, but one which always creeps to the fore when I think about how easy it is to feel good as a green consumer, without necessarily making significant impact. But a start is a start, and The Lazy Environmentalist is a good start, particularly if, like me, you are lazy.

And while we're at it, a second, separate UK-based resource also dubbed "The Lazy Environmentalist," is worth a visit...

Gulf War Photos

Slate's daily photo gallery with some incredible photos capturing the damage done in the first Gulf War... which began 17 years ago this week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Are Squatter Cities A Good Thing?

"The city air makes you free, they said in Renaissance Germany" - Stewart Brand, making the case that the trend to urbanization in developing countries is empowering the poor, enabling upward social mobility, helping to control population, and creating wealth. Certainly touches on a few interesting trends, and trends that won't reverse, but it seems a bit of a starry-eyed appreciation of human enterprise in poor, urban environments, rather than a real argument that squatter cities are actually a good thing...

Glassbooth, Project VoteSmart, and ForwardTrack

An admission: I have no idea what the MSM (mainstream media) is saying about anything. I'm out of touch, at best. Certainly if I assume that other people still pay attention to the MSM. My political news comes from a handful of influential (if not mainstream blogs), the links and clips those blogs post from the MSM, listening (half-dazedly) to NPR in the morning, and occasional perusals of the NYT and Washington Post websites.

I note this as set-up to two points. First, in the wake of Clinton's New Hampshire win, I've seen a lot of second-guessing, back-tracking, and finger-pointing, on blogs and online sources, trying to figure out how the mainstream media and pollsters "got it so wrong." Among the speculative threads tied to this that I find curious are the notion that the MSM abdicated its responsibility to be faithful reporters of political news in favor of hyping narratives (Obama's running away with it! Clinton '08 is broke and in disarray! Hillary's a cry baby!) that, well, weren't actually that true.

More interesting is the notion that, deciding to continually whack Hillary, in columns, on talk shows, in debates, the MSM actually created a pro-Hillary groundswell of people who were, at some level, voting against the MSM's gleefully misogynistic biases. Not that its news, but its interesting that the MSM still plays a role in shaping the outcomes of campaign, but instead of being able to influence outcomes consistent with their perspective, people may be so fed up with the Chris Matthews' and O'Reilly's of the world, that the MSM is causing shifts in opposition to their perspective. Speculative, sure, but it would be great if it were true. Because it would be deserved, those solipsistic, self-serving bastards!

As for me, I'm sure for many others. The MSM has become almost irrelevant, and my political information comes from the "new media." I don't know if that's good -- am I getting better information or more insightful analysis? Or am I just getting it from people who aren't charismatic to have their own TV show?

Whatever the case, there is a wealth of great resources being made available to help better understand candidates and make informed choices. Are people using them? I don't know. Should they? Yes, I think so.

PK recommends (and I second), which has a great quiz for aligning your values to a candidate -- and then digging further into the records of candidates (apparently I'm a Kucinich man, but Obama and Edwards are considered acceptable choices, too).

A colleague forwarded Project VoteSmart, a little more red-white-and-blue, but still nice to have.

And related to the political arena, Forward Track, which made a nice splash in the 2004 election cycle, which helps you track political activism and donations, with very rich data and nice interfaces for exploration.

Gizmodo Mischief at CES

CES has no shortage of displays. And when MAKE offered us some TV-B-Gone clickers to bring to the show, we pretty much couldn't help ourselves. We shut off a TV. And then another. And then a wall of TVs. And we just couldn't stop. (And Panasonic, you're so lucky that 150-incher didn't have an active IR port.) It was too much fun, but watching this video, we realize it probably made some people's jobs harder, and I don't agree with that (Especially Motorola). We're sorry.
Take a look.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Big Think + TED

TechCrunch ran an article yesterday about BigThink, a new website where, um, "thinkers," get to share their opinions on subjects (presumably within their expertise). Although it rubs wrong some tiny classicist streak in me that thinks we should be reading about big ideas (or at least, listening for them on the radio), I do have to admit to being a big fan of the TED lectures (and continued big ups to my current giggers, Method, for designing the site!), and further, find video on the web to be a very consumable medium for engaging with big ideas. It is also nice (maybe even revelatory) to see the person presenting the idea. It makes it easier for me to judge them.

PS - I have no idea who David Patrick Columbia is, but apparently he is an "expert" qualified to answer the question "What is the most lavish party you have been to?" His answer kind of sucks, and in perusing the sight further, a lot of the experts kind of suck, and seem unqualified to answer the questions posed to them (Tommy Thomson on the Road to Iraq?). I'd rather see CC answer the question "What is the most lavish party you have been to?"

PPS - Dear BigThink, you should work on the ability of your embed code. Very hard to copy/paste, and I have neither the time nor the energy to actually inspect your code and figure out why Blogger thinks that the embed tag is not being closed properly...


Two topics of long abiding interest relating to India, which I may explore in greater depth in 2008:

1) Why does there not seem to be a counter-culture in India? Or, specifically, why isn't there a purely cultural counter-culture, a sex/drugs/rock 'n roll/art/fashion counter-culture, whose purpose it is to strike a pose of rebellion? This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but in my limited but not irrelevant experience with India, this seems to be true. There are deeply politicized "counter-culture" movements, steeped in issues as varied as sexuality and gender, to poverty and anti-globalization activism, to regional heritage. But, unlike Latin America, or Eastern Europe, or China, or Japan, or even to some extend, West Africa, in India, there hasn't been an abiding embrace of the global counter-culture (most keenly felt in art, music, and movies) that has maintained a long and evolving monopoly on "cool" (and, therefore, deeply influenced the shape of both mainstream cultural and consumer trends) since the end of WWII.

2) The emergence of a new, influential class of people in the world has been surprising well documented in the media in the U.S. This class of people is the young, independent, technologically-adept, status-savvy young Indian professionals who are in the ascendant in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and on and on. Much richer than their parents ever were, aware (through cousins, travel, and television) of Western style, luxury, and mores, independent and increasingly feeling entitled, the notion that this class will be influential in the next 50 years, and that their influence will be felt globally, has been asserted. What they care about (beyond professional success and status) and how they will exercise their influence is much less certain -- and again, in my experience, the political and social agendas (beyond, simply, success) of these, my counterparts in India, has been underdeveloped. For a middle class that ranks 250 million strong, their values, politics, and engagement will be crucial in positively or negatively influencing issues like poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability, and public health, both within India, and, since India accounts for a billion people, globally.

I raise both of these issues partly to set the table for further investigation on my part, and partly because, until recently, I have found very few avenues for sounding out these issues. But a new website,, holds the promise of being a locus for opinions from young Indians and non-resident Indians (NRIs), and warrants a few looks...

Who would've imagined, twenty years ago, that a thing called "the Indian blogosphere" would exist? Who knows, twenty years from now, what the relevance of that set of people might be ~ on global politics, on consumer trends, on innovation... that's where I'm going with this!

The Iraq Vote + The Primary Schedule

I wasn't for the war in Iraq for two simple reasons:

1. It seemed impossible that they were actually a threat to our national security.
2. Invading other countries unprovoked has never been the right thing to do.

That said, with all the posturing and parsing about the 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war, I wanted to refresh my memory on how the vote actually went down. Joining Ms. Clinton in voting Yes? Feinstein, Dodd, Biden, Tom arper, Max Cleland, Dick Lugar, Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Charles Schumer, John Edwards, and Tom Daschle.

Notably voting No? Senators Boxer, Bob Graham, Dick Durbin, Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone (RIP), Jon Corzine, Jim Jeffords, Pat Leahy, Robert Byrd, Russ Fiengold, and Senators Chaffee (R) and Reed (D) - RI. Good work Rhode Island!

For reference, the remaining political calendar for primaries and whatever the plural of caucus is...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hillary's Laments

A bit more politics. First, above, today's much talked about clip featuring Hillary's "tears" at a campaign event, which, if I read the blogs right, has brought all the sharks out. Oh, get over it. In fact, I thought Hillary responded very honestly and eloquently to the question posed, showed some emotion, and let's move on, people. The amount of dumb, fuck-up things candidates say on the road, as a result of campaign wear or sheer stupidity, Hillary should be allowed a moment of exhaustion and emotion.

Second, the clip below, in which Hillary vents a bit of frustration at being painted as the establishment candidate, versus the candidate(s) of change. One, I have to empathize with Clinton -- she's worked long and hard in her political career caring about the right issues, and working for positive change, and up against hard odds all the while, and in the narrow-vision game of politics, it must be just a nightmare to have worked the right side of the line, and one day wake up to find that your on the wrong side, through little fault of your own. Two, the one valid criticism of Obama that I think can continue to play out in the primaries is his actual inexperience in governance. It would be easier to palate, of course, if Hillary or Edwards had more than a couple of years experience on Obama, as executives or Senators, which they don't. But it is one of the very few lines of attack that would concern me about, say, a McCain-Obama match-up (and what a strange article about that very real possibility over at!)

My favorite part of that clip? Bill Richardson running for the Vice President nod by amicably swiveling around in his chair like a ten-year old with ADD. But, Hillary, "false hopes!" Ooh, that'll get you in trouble sooner or later.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

2007 in Photos

A small but heartening token that the world we live in is cooler and more beautiful today than it was a yesterday: the ability to go to Flickr and do a search for any topic, and pull back a multitude of wonderful photos taken by people all over the world, seemingly as many annotated in Spanish or Mandarin or Russian as in English. A marvel of technology, globalization, freedom of expression, and artistic inclination, and good, also, to know that there are so many people documenting so many moments, good and bad, extraordinary and mundane. A selection of photos from a Flickr search tagged, simply, "2007."

And, finally, a good 2007 photo retrospective, from the NYT.

Proposed Antilia Building: More Green? Still Ostentatious

I recently learned about the Antilia building, which is under construction in Mumbai, by Perkins + Will, for Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani. A couple of descriptive paragraphs:
Construction is underway, albeit with some delays, on one of India’s highest profile and most opulent projects—the Antilia, a 490-foot-tall corporate meeting facility and private residence in Mumbai. Chicago-based Perkins + Will designed the 24-story tower for business tycoon Mukesh Ambani, whose family will occupy roughly 35,000 square feet in its top floors.

Among its interesting elements, Antilia will feature a band of vertical and horizontal gardens that demarcates the tower’s different program elements. A garden level will separate the ground-floor parking and conference center from residential space above, for instance, and the outer walls on certain levels will be sheltered by trellises supporting panels that contain hydroponically grown plants.

In addition to signaling different space uses and providing privacy, these “vertical gardens” will help shade the building and reduce the urban heat island effect. “You can use the whole wall almost like a tree and increase the green area of the site by five or 10 times over what it would be if you just did a green roof,” Johnson observers. “It’s a prototype for buildings of the future.”

Oh, wow. What a crazy building, and while some of the architectural and green design aspects are interesting, it is difficult to see how this building either fits in with the development needs of Mumbai, in general, or a commitment to green design. I guess the rich get what they want, although if this building is a prototype for the future, it seems we're moving ever-closer to a Blader Runner-like dystopia, where the rich live comfortable lives in high-rises towering above the city floor, while discharging a disproportionate amount of waste to and depleting resources from those stuck on the ground, in the shadows below.

The article which brought this building to my attention is interesting, as well, in dissecting how efforts to create standards for certifying green building design (specifically, the LEED certification standards) can be counter-productive for really achieving green design objectives. The main criticisms seem to be that LEED's check-list based system for evaluating building design give similar weight to disproportionate investments in green design, creating mis-aligned incentives, that the checklist oversimplifies many of the design objectives and fails to create baseline standards, and that the premium is placed on achieving efficiency and not on controlling scale.

I haven't really paid attention to the evolution of LEED in ten years, but the criticisms seem like pretty standard fare for most initiatives trying to bring standards for sustainability into commercially-driven enterprises. I don't disagree with any of Daniel Brook's analysis of LEED (to the extent that I am familiar with the standards and qualified to agree or disagree), but also it bears mention how difficult it is to create initiatives that both achieve sustainable objectives and will gain buy-in from the companies that need to be properly incentivized and to implement designs and programs according to those standards. Not an excuse, just highlighting the ongoing design challenge that people serious about sustainability will continue to face.

Democratic Stars

Last political post of the night, I guess I'm just starting to get caught up in the season. The issues that I care about and foresee challenging us in the next forty years (of which, changing our approach in the next eight years is crucial) include:

Global Issues:
Economic development in Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America
Climate Change
Energy policy (and global resource use, broadly)
Political and military engagement in asymmetrical conflicts (terrorist organizations and failed states)
Humanitarian intervention (genocide, famine, disease, natural disaster)
Basic health and sanitation services for the poorest 1 billion

Domestic Issues:
Education (primary and secondary)
Health Care
Sustained Economic Growth
Competitiveness in scientific and technological innovation
Managing national debt and trade balances
Increased energy efficiency and independence on foreign oil
Creating capabilities and opportunities for the poorest quarter of American society
Creating open political dialogues on race and class in America

In emailing with CC about the results of the Iowa caucus, I was impressed about how wide a range of political talent a Democratic President will have at his/her disposal to tackle these issues. From potential Vice Presidential candidates, to cabinet members, to high-profile statesmen who can be called upon to fulfill ambassadorships or special missions, the list is impressive, in political talent, in the problems that the individuals have chosen to focus on and care about, the approaches that they take to those problems, and the political standing they have both in the U.S., and globally. Consider a hypothetical Obama administration:

VP Candidates include Edwards (focus and credibility on domestic policy, including poverty issues and health care), Richardson (experience with Energy policy, engage Hispanic demographic, credibility on international issues, particularly N. Korea), and Biden (foreign policy, deep legislative experience).

As statesmen, you'd have Bill Clinton (imagine having him lead task-forces on global economic development, AIDS and other epidemics, and forging partnerships with China and India), Al Gore (climate change and energy policy), Edwards (poverty and health care), Wes Clark and Joe Biden on Iraq and global political crises, including terrorism and humanitarian crises.

Add to that the ability to select advisers from a whole cadre of smart, respected ex-active politicians with national profiles who you could potentially make use of (Gephardt, Bob Kerrey, Tom Daschle, Tom Harkin, Bob Graham), smart, senior Senators from "safe" states like Biden, Dodd, Jack Reed (RI), Boxer/Feinstein, Feingold, Durbin, Kerry, Schumer, Pat Leahy and Hillary to deploy as needed, a ton of smart, young politicians and policy wonks whom I've never heard of, and the ability to reach across the aisle, where appropriate, to the Olympia Snowe's and Chuck Hagel's and Mike Bloomberg's and Bill Cohen's of the world.

The potential for a Democratic president to really re-assert America's perceived and actual leadership well into the 21st century is massive. I can't see a Republican president doing anything but continuing the harm that his administration has done. And in terms of political talent available, there is nothing even close to comparable on the Republican side of the aisle (and there hasn't been in at least twenty years).

Biden Out

Definitely sad to see Joe Biden bow out of the Democratic primaries, as he provides an intelligent perspective on most of our major national issues, and presents real solutions, beyond purely rhetorical, in terms that people can understand. The increased passion he showed in this season's debates, particularly when discussing American responsibility in confronting the crises in Iraq and Darfur, was very compelling. It is good to have an advocate in national debates that is willing to talk about America's role as a moral leader, and who can do so with authenticity, clarity, and impact, and also with an understanding of what the costs are of exercising that leadership in a complex world.

CC sent this brief post from the NYT's political blog, which praises Biden, and damns some part of our political process, although not quite clear which part (the media, for being too narrowly-focused and a hype machine? us, the electorate, for including the nebulous concept of 'electability' in our political calculus?, us, the electorate, for being so shallow? the system, for enabling all of the above and worse?). Given that I think Biden actually did an effective job adjusting his public persona for the national stage, and did a good job using new media (Interent, e-mail, YouTube) to convey his messages, it is interesting how these issues will continue to make Presidential politics a young, beautiful person's game. May be a good thing, may not.

And while I'm eulogizing Biden's candidacy, may as well do the same for Christopher Dodd, who, along with Biden, is a great example of the qualities I wish all of our political leaders had: intelligent, informed, compassionate, moral, serious, principled, and committed to the big ideas that define our national interest.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Why We Fight

I recently watched Eugene Jarecki's feature Why We Fight on DVD (trailer here), a documentary that attempts to trace the reasons for America's engagement in armed conflict, and the associated rise of the military industrial complex (a term popularized by no less than President Eisenhower). The basic premise of the film is that there are a lot of personal reasons for supporting or engaging in war, ranging from noble goals like "spreading freedom," to vengeance, to providing life with purpose, that there are a lot of national reasons that a country might go to war, including those above, as well as political interest. The film also asserts that there is a set of commercial and political interests (again, call it the military-industrial complex) that will drive a nation to war, by focusing the personal and national mood of the country into compliance with, if not active support of, a war agenda.

While Why We Fight traces American militarism in the last sixty years, the film's focus and the deepest resonance lies in our current war in Iraq. While I don't know that the film successfully answers the question "Why We Fight?" (the three common answers seem to be "I'm Not Really Sure" from individuals, political bromides like "For Freedom" from politicians and individuals, and "because the political and commercial interests which require war for their own self-preservation seized an opportunity for war and manipulated political and public opinion to allow for that war to be made" representing the film-maker's opinion), the three questions continually surrounding (and never discussed in simple terms) the Iraq war are raised in the film. How did we get in to this war in the first place? Why are we fighting the war? How do we know when we've won the war? (i.e., How do we know when we've accomplished what we expect to accomplish in this war?)

While the film doesn't lay these questions to rest (and I hope that the details surrounding the first question are re-examined with the election of a Democratic president, and the second and third firmly resolved by the actions of the new administration), it does a good job of surfacing them, and providing some historical context. In fact, the revelation of the entire documentary may be President Eisenhower's farewell address, which I had not previously read and will excerpt in parts:
Eisenhower addresses how to promote and maintain American ideals in an increasingly militarized and turbulent world. The rhetoric from fifty years ago sounds not so far removed from today (when we hear it coming from the more articulate and less jingoistic of our politicians:)

We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches, and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
But Eisenhower proceeds to warn against, in surprisingly explicit terms, the influence of the military industrial complex. It's amazing how, from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, to Eisenhower, there are a legacy of prescient speeches reflecting on American power, and how fundamentally our current leadership and their intellectual influencers, have chosen to ignore:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

The entire address can be found here. I would also highly recommend reading Christopher Hedges' War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning for anyone interested in this topic, particularly in trying to understand our impetus to war, in general (i.e., not as closely focused on the current mess we've made in Iraq).

First Step

Welcome news to start 2008 -- Obama wins Iowa. As I've discussed, I think all three of the leading candidates on the Democratic side of the fence will make an excellent President and will pursue strong policy and lead the country in the right direction. But on the merits of his intellect, his policy positions, his policy team, his youth, vigor, and general with-it-ness, and, yes, by the symbolic act of electing a black man who embodies an immigrant experience, I think electing a President Barack Obama would demonstrate America's willingness to continue to be a leader in the world in the 21st century in a way that a President Edwards or a President Clinton simply would not.