Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Other Kind of Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

If the dish can run away with the spoon and the umbrella can get jiggy with the sewing machine there on the dissecting table, I guess it’s possible that George Bush has something in common with Pericles. Anyhow I was reminded of Bush’s situation by a famous anecdote about the great Athenian politician. The King of Sparta asked one of Pericles’ political rivals who was the better wrestler. Thucydides replied, “When I have thrown him, he insists that he didn’t take a fall and eventually makes the bystanders believe him in spite of their own eyes and thus gets the better of me.” Of course Pericles’ mastery of spin resulted from his famous oratorical skills while Bush needs an army of handlers and a compliant press to attempt the analogous feat. It takes more than a turn of rhetoric to enforce the claim that Iraq is a famous victory, and even the dogged loyalty of an army of purchased pundits may not succeed. What is certain is that they won’t stop trying. Any outcome in Iraq will be defined as a victory.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Emerging American Majority?

The crimes and confusion of American history appear tolerable in retrospect because of the great nation that emerged from all the blood and nonsense. When the expansion ends, we’ll find it harder to forgive our continuing moral and political errors. What’s cute or at least tolerable in a rambunctious teenager is merely pathetic in an aging biker. We need to grow up and develop—or restore—a civilization on these shores.

William Blake wrote “Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.” From which I make the unromantic application that it’s getting to be time to bring out number, weight, and measure. Our ethic, which cherishes the brag and bluff and values effectiveness above efficiency, made excellent sense in the middle of a land rush. The question is whether we’ll be able to adapt to different circumstances where it behooves us to step gingerly without losing our respect for human rights. The temptation will be to lurch from anarchistic individualism to an authoritarian system that crushes independence and dissent through an endless series of emergency measures. What the economic and political situation calls for is a substitution of intelligence for force, but that prospect isn’t going to inspire very many tailgate parties.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Far Slope

I haven’t written anything for weeks, partly because Fall is a busy season for us migratory farm workers but mostly because everybody is now aware that there is something seriously off about the current administration and its policies, that it isn’t simply ideologically problematic but frankly pathological. Thing is, I don’t like to rant in company, especially when I don’t like the company. After all, in the aftermath of its change of heart, the media hasn’t changed its methods. Whether at your feet or at your throat, the journalists can be counted on to get the story wrong. What can you say about an institution that waited for the wind to change before it took serious notice that the government was promoting torture? What we have here is a weather vane, not a moral compass.

I can’t claim that I don’t enjoy the sufferings of the Republicans—Lord knows they deserve far more than they are likely to get—but not even Schiller thought that Schadenfreude was the daughter of Elysium and there are more important questions to pose and ponder than how to phrase a fresh denunciation of a fallen foe. For example, I want to know why our system is so inept at vetting its potential leaders. I understand or think I understand how a guy like Bush can get elected. What I can’t understand is why and how a major party could nominate such a dubious character.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Channeling Hari Seldon

Conservatives complain that liberal politics is fueled by envy, which is doubtless true. But anybody who has ever listened to Limbaugh knows that rightist politics depends on the very same motivations. To a very crude approximation, the mass politics of the left is based on resentment against people with too much material capital while the mass politics of the right is based on resentment against people with too much cultural capital. Unfortunately, the right has a certain advantage in this competition between dueling jealousies. In principle, anybody can be rich because anybody can win one of life’s many lotteries. In contrast, membership in the cultural elite is thought to have something to do with merit. In this respect, money is more democratic than talent since even an idiot can aspire to become a rich idiot in a nation ruled by rich idiots; but the mediocre can only imagine becoming a genius or a saint or simply a competent human being by imaging they are no longer themselves. Which is why the real virtues and accomplishments of an Al Gore inspire far more hatred than the undeserved successes of a George Bush, especially among journalists.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Cause and Effect

After the cultural conservatives admit to you under their voices that they don’t believe in anything either, they invariably fall back on the claim that religion is necessary to promote social cohesion. This theme is so commonplace that one has to be reminded that there isn’t much evidence that faith improves people’s lives. A recent paper by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society points to the opposite conclusion. In well-off modern nations at least, the rates of violent crime, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and even abortion are negatively correlated with secularism—it isn’t the people who believe in evolution who act like animals. Indeed, the more faith, the more violence. Although Paul admits that the associations he describes are far too weak and general to prove anything positive, they certainly tend to disconfirm the pragmatic justification for traditional religiosity. The absence of faith of the Spaniards and Swedes may not disincline them to manslaughter, but it hasn’t prevented them from living together much more peaceably than the much more religious and much more murderous Americans. All of which is congruent with the observation, easily reached after even a quick perusal of the Statistical Abstract, that it isn’t the faithless Blue States but the fervent Red States that have the high crime rates and general levels of social disorganization.

I don’t think one can draw very many conclusions from the kind of statistical studies that underlie Paul’s paper—in the social sciences descriptive statistical methods are much useful than inferential ones because societies are surely too diverse to be validly compared as if they were patients in a drug trial—but even if the sample sizes and correlations were on the up and up in this study, an association of religiosity with crime and other measures of social disorder would not establish that belief causes violence. I expect that the reverse is more often true. Sick people without health insurance fall back on cheap forms of self-medication like drugs and alcohol even though these expedients may well make them worse off. Poor and frightened people in societies that don’t take very good care of their members fall back on irrational systems of belief in order to get temporary relief from their miserable situations even though the cure often exacerbates the disease or at least fails to address its real causes.

It is sometimes implied that secularism is a mere default, what you believe when you no longer believe, the credo of Nietzsche’s last man. I don’t buy this theme any more, but it has at least this much going for it. Disbelief is not something achieved so much as something allowed. In the absence of fear, want, and political pressure, one naturally falls back on the truth, which, because it is largely negative, is utterly obvious. It takes ingenuity and a lot of heavy lifting to make a case for impossible conclusions. One relaxes into the acknowledgement of realities. I have to remind myself that being able to dispense with religion is a consequence of my own relatively happy situation. Like everybody else, I entertain myself with the fantasy that I live in an especially glamorous state of existential extremity; but I’m actually so unthreatened by the world that can afford to believe things simply because they are apparently true. By the same token, I’m as vain about the blackness of my heart as any television evangelist, but as a matter of fact I don’t have any serious inclination to harm anybody. The categorical imperative if not mere inertia suffices to keep me out of night court. No doubt I couldn’t and wouldn’t maintain these complacencies under less favorable internal and external circumstances any more than the orderly and rational societies of Europe and Oceania will retain their secularism if things go to Hell.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Great Work

Everything that can go around eventually gets around to going around. During most of my life, for example, various middle-aged ladies have explained to me how the alchemists were really interested in spiritual transformation rather than metallurgy; but of late scholarly historians of the Art have emphasized the empirical research conducted by adepts who often used mystical language to preserve their trade secrets in an age before patents. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, butter of antimony is sometimes just butter of antimony even if you call it the dizzy leopard to confuse the competition. But at least some of the time some of the alchemists were speaking neither about spiritual matters or material matters but about both at once, as if one could precipitate a metaphor in the bottom of a beaker. This program is not necessarily absurd.

I’m pretty big for a homunculus, but I myself am presumably the product of a chemical synthesis. The alchemical recipe for an artificial man usually involved hermetically sealing various ingredients in a vessel and incubating them for months and months in a steaming pile of horse dung, the so-called Mare. It turns out you have to have a lot of patience to pursue this crock-pot cookery to a successful conclusion. Three or four months of ferment hardly suffice and you need to think big. After all, the original run, conducted on a planetary scale, lasted for some 4.6 billion years. The point of alchemy, of course, is to accelerate and miniaturize nature; but an experiment with a fair prospect of a favorable outcome would still be a major undertaking. Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist with the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity, has proposed a somewhat similar operation. In his book, the Origins of Order (1993), he suggests that life might spontaneously emerge from under the right conditions if a couple of thousand chemical species were mingled in a biochemical reactor. The results of such a trial would not be very impressive to look at, at best a very activated sludge, and would probably be exquisitely fragile, utterly defenseless against natural living things, which are all finalists in a very long Mortal Kombat tournament. So far as I know Kauffman never actually conducted this experiment—the financing might be harder to assemble than the chemicals and you don’t even want to think about the permits—but perhaps it could be adequately simulated on a sufficiently powerful computer. As one might also have said about the endeavors of the alchemists, Kauffman’s idea is perfectly reasonable even if it turns out that the available means are insufficient.

I expect that a lot of people would be alarmed at the prospect of a modern version of the Great Work—I imagine the farmers of central New Mexico stocking up on torches and pitchforks just in case—but the grave threat of such researches is metaphysical rather than environmental. As with genetic engineering, it isn’t so much the practical as the moral risks of such activities that alarm people. Many people still believe that life was created, after all, and that makes the artificial life a blasphemous parody of the action of God. The rationale for the commandment against graven images is that artists should not pretend to be able to make living things. Actually pulling off that feat would be even worse just as Bonaparte had to be institutionalized on St. Helena because he thought he was Napoleon. But even a nonbeliever might find the production of a couple of grams of metabolizing goo anti-edifying if the expense and difficulty of the process only served to underscore the general sterility of Mother Nature.

The original alchemists believed that material things harbored occult potentialities that could be released by their art. They credited nature with an intrinsic ability to make, which is part of the reason they were distrusted by the Church, which insisted that God had a monopoly on the creation business. The newer alchemy promotes a more depressing heresy. Life indeed arises from unliving matter, but only as the tiniest of impurities. Nature’s trade is disorder; but disorder has an irreducible minimum. As I wrote in the margin of Kauffman’s book, “The Devil only permitted good because he could produce a greater evil from it.” That’s a rather stupid joke, of course—I was sitting through jury duty when I wrote it and plead boredom. Life may be overwhelmingly rare, the residue of a residue like the faint glow of radium left in Madame Curie’s last crucible in the Greer Garson movie, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. Au contraire. Still…

The occasion of these thoughts was an argument I had on the Internet about Bush Administration plans to go back to the moon. I made the point that the motivation for manned space is not scientific—unmanned probes yield far more knowledge at far cheaper rates. Like so much of our politics, the program appeals to our fantasies. We persist in sending human beings into the abyss because we dream of traveling to the stars even though it is very unlikely that an expedition, let alone a migration, is feasible over interstellar distances. When I quoted the tee shirt “186,000 miles a second. It’s not only a good idea. It’s the law,” I was accused on underestimating human ingenuity, etc. But the consideration that really makes me doubt the possibility of leaving this neck of the woods is not physics—even if I were an expert on the subject, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of some loophole in the rules—but the evident fact that we aren’t up to our necks in aliens. If long-range space travel is possible, even at a very low rate, the mathematics of exponential growth guarantees that intelligent life would have long since infested the cosmos like bacteria in unrefrigerated soup. To which it was countered that we may be the first and only planet on which intelligent life emerged or—and this is where I was brought up short—intelligent life may routinely self-destruct before it seeds itself across the heavens.

The idea of the self-destructiveness of intelligence is familiar from many a science fiction novel and doesn’t much further a discussion of the advisability of manned space flight since the technical feasibility of rocketing off to Sirius wouldn’t make much difference if we’re doomed to blow ourselves up before we get around to making the trip. What the thought suddenly illuminated for me, however, was an error of my imagination. I have long been awed by the rarity of sentient life in space, but its rarity in time is probably just as sublime. It’s very likely that the Great Work is not only a mountain that gives birth to a mouse but that it can only produce a very temporary rodent. Our civilization is probably as evanescent as the homunculus of Paracelsus. Fueled by the rapid combustion of coal and petroleum that was build up over many millions of years, it is likely to run out of gas before it achieves escape velocity.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when I was a kid permanently deformed my prose style so I suppose I have an excuse for abusing the memory of Edward Gibbon by trotting out the following quotation for the millionth time: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” My motive in resurrecting this Lazarus is not to attack the religious right, however. In fact, as even a brief Google search verifies, the fundamentalists frequently quote it approvingly themselves and demonstrate in the process a better understanding of what Gibbon meant than the average village atheist. Gibbon wasn’t writing about the spiritual and political atmosphere of the decline, but explaining the rationale of the consistent tolerance followed by the Empire at its height. Gibbon, who was both a philosopher and a magistrate, doubtless approved of Antiquity’s version of multiculturalism. The American theocrats just as obviously despise it along with its contemporary avatars. They are, however, talking about the same thing.

In fact, one could hardly apply Gibbon’s quote justly to either the 5th Century or the 21st. The intellectual classes of late Antiquity, even the remaining Pagans, were deeply superstitious. They may have despised the coarser practices of the Many, but they commonly embraced the notion of reincarnation, poured over horoscopes, practiced magic, and summoned spirits. Even their serious philosophy was theosophy. The erstwhile freethinkers of our own times are no less susceptible to the appeal of irrational religious ideas. Business for alternative forms of medicine, astrology, and memory regression is always good in University towns. The dry and sober rationalism of high antiquity is not much in evidence. Meanwhile, just as the magistrates of the era of the Decline found that fanaticism had political uses, the politicians of our times have rediscovered the motive power of true belief.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Neap, Spring, Ebb, Flood

Time, one hears, is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. If that’s true, it must have gotten the position as a political favor from Karl Rove because it hasn’t been doing a very good job lately. The present situation is hard to address either analytically or politically because what’s important about it relates simultaneously to so many trends and cycles, each of which has a different scale and rhythm. Thus the Bush regime, which in many ways reprises the familiar program of other corrupt American administrations (Grant, Harding, Reagan), practices its entrepreneurial politics at a time when the consequences of looting the nation have far greater consequences, not only domestically in a nation with far less margin for error than before but abroad, too, since the gears of the conservative machine mesh with the operation of the whole world. Ideological stupidity and political criminality that once has largely local consequences becomes something quite different when it takes place at or near the inflection point of so many fundamental historical trends including the end of cheap oil and the demographic transition of the human population and at a time when the planet itself is undergoing an ecological, meteorological, and even chemical revolution. And that’s not to factor in the spiritual and civilizational fits underway in the realm of culture, the migration vast numbers of people across the globe, and the incalculable prospect of the wild cards dealt into the game at random intervals by the scientists. What we’re dealing with here is the motorized version of Russian dolls— “their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel” (Ezekiel 1:16). Or maybe the Mayans, whose conception of time featured a whole set of nested cycles, were right in understanding that calamity or creation naturally occur when all the digits of the cosmic odometer turn over at once, as, by the way, they are scheduled to do when the Long Count begins again on December 21, 2012.

As the acronym SNAFU indicates, problems are not anomalies and normally provide no occasion for panic. Indeed, managing, like walking, is essential a controlled stumble. What we’re dealing with, unfortunately, is a reduplication of crises, a crisis crisis, which the public mind is especially ill suited to comprehend since of all the cycles in play, the narrowest is the news cycle.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Scrambled Eggs and Brains

Two recent papers in SCIENCE (9 September 2005) report on a couple of variants in genes associated with increased brain size have increased in frequency rapidly, too rapidly to be explicable as instances of genetic drift. Statistical tests indicate that one of the variants in the gene Microcephalin arose about 37,000 years ago. The second, haplogroup D of the ASPM gene, is more recent and probably began to occur around 5800 years ago.

The press noted that the two variants occur less frequently in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere, which doubtlessly reinforced the belief, nearly universal in America, that blacks are genetically inferior to Europeans. What the newspapers didn’t notice, however, is that the incidence of the genes is highest not in Europe but in places like Pakistan. Some 78.6% of the French population tested possessed the Microcephalin variant, but 98% of the Siberian Ubermenschen. 45% of tested North Italians had haplotype D, but they couldn’t compete with Papua, New Guinea where the sample came it at just under 60%.

Well, the ifs, and, and buts never impress anybody. They are routinely dismissed as liberal piety. It probably doesn’t help to point out that a host of genetic variants affect brain development and that there is no way of determining from purely statistical studies whether the Microcephalin variant or haplotype D are particularly important determinants of better cognitive functions or, indeed, whether they in fact improve cognitive function at all. Natural selection obviously favored these genes, but what phenotypical effects account for their greater fitness is unknown. Genes typically have multiple effects so it is perfectly possible that the variants in question flourished because they boosted immunity to some pathogen or directly increased fertility like another rapidly spreading gene variant recently identified in Iceland.

The authors of the papers go so far as to speculate that the timing of the appearance of the two genetic variants matches up with important milestones in human cultural evolution; but if cave painting or agriculture were somehow made possible by these mutations, they must have been potent indeed since at the outset and for many generations afterwards, only a tiny percentage of individuals possessed them. I’m more inclined to look at things from a reversed perspective. Every cultural accomplishment increases the value of intelligence and makes it likely that any mutation that improves cognitive functioning will spread through the population. What occurs is analogous to a common pattern in the history of technology, the invention of a new practice—extracting motive power from fuel, telephony, flying—inspires an often motley series of secondary inventions that implement or exploit the primary innovation. No point in having more brains if there’s nothing to do with them. It might be that cultural changes circa 38,000 BCE or 5600 BCE made the genetic changes more likely to spread rather than the other way around.

If civilization persists long enough, the genetic basis of human cognitive performance will eventually be elucidated and the results may be ideologically embarrassing to everybody, though probably not in foreseeable ways. In the meantime, it’s a good bet that every isolated research result will be taken as confirmation of the prevailing tribal prejudices. A true statement is validly implied by every other statement, true or false–trust me, it’s logic—so if you are an absolute believer in some tenet, it is perfectly though insanely reasonable to assume that everything you hear is further evidence of its truth. Which is why, incidentally, every surprising result in biology can be instantly seized upon as evidence for intelligent design and people can actually be edified by the sufferings of marching penguins. This sort of thing makes me very dubious about the whole enterprise of popular science.

By the way, there is at least one widely held belief that really is challenged by results like the papers in SCIENCE. I refer to the endlessly repeated notion that the advent of anatomically modern human beings signaled the replacement of genetic evolution with cultural evolution. This commonplace never made any sense at all. Natural selection is inevitable whenever heritable phenotypical characteristics lead to differential rates of successful reproduction. Since not everybody has the same number of live offspring and their relative fertility is surely not a matter of mere chance, evolution will proceed, although its action will often take the form of apparent stasis under the action of what is usually called stabilizing selection, the biological version of quality control. Anyhow, as I previously pointed out, the emergence of culture actually promotes directional evolution—the development of animal husbandry led to the rapid spread of genes that allow adults to drink liquid milk, for example—and I wouldn’t be surprised if ever more complex technological civilization eventually leads to one or more speciation events.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Unparallel Lives

I could only shrug my shoulders at a recent survey in which Ronald Reagan emerged as the greatest American president. Ideologies aside, anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of history has to wonder how a one-dimensional figure like Reagan, who spent most of his life as an actor or corporate spokesman, didn’t write even his own speeches, and never led his nation through a war or comparable crisis could be compared to, for example, Abraham Lincoln, who having given himself a profound, if narrow education, became a great orator, the emancipator of an entire race, and the tragic hero of a desperate civil war. The worst disaster Reagan ever faced was the loss of the 300 marines in Lebanon, a blow to his political image that he conveniently recouped three days later by invading a small and defenseless island in the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine Reagan dealing with the costs and sorrows of an Antietem or a Gettysburg. I do give him credit for resisting the worst impulses of his right-wing advisors and allowing himself to listen to Gorbachev. But Gorbachev, after all, was the great man of the era while Reagan was never much more than a PR confection, a masterpiece of audioanimatronics even before he fetched up in Disneyland. Yet Reagan outpolled Abraham Lincoln. You might as well compare Thomas Jefferson and George Bush.

Speaking of Jefferson and Bush, there is actually a formal basis of comparison. Jefferson came into office with a minimalist view of government, but the opportunity to acquire Louisiana quickly changed his mind about what the Federal government should or should not undertake. Bush is also finding that New Orleans can make you change your tune about the proper responsibilities of the state. Supposedly a proponent of small government, Bush was heard last night trying to sound like FDR, though his version of the New Deal, supervised by fixer-in-chief, Karl Rove, is likely to come off like a botched bank robbery. Indeed, it is likely to come off as a botched bank robbery.

It should be noted, of course, that the hurricane is not the first disaster to derail Bush’s plans—9/11, the failure of the Iraq invasion, and the oil crunch kept him in Brownian motion even before his problems with Brown. Every president sooner or later finds his preconceptions defeated by events, but Bush was a hostage to fortune from the beginning. He gets blown about by every unforeseen contingency, which means he gets blown about quite a bit since he doesn’t do much foreseeing. He may be stubborn and prejudiced, but he certainly isn’t steadfast and principled. With his utter lack of substance, in fact, he might eventually be a worthy competitor to Ronald Reagan in some future greatest American poll.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Judicial Notice

With a resounding title like the Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins’ new book figures to be a magisterial brick. In fact it is more accurate to call it an extended pamphlet—it’s barely more than 200 pages. Written for a polemical purpose, it is a move in the on-going debate about the advent of the Dark Ages. Over the last twenty or thirty years, several influential historians have tried to re-imagine the era between 200 and 800 AD as “a quite decisive period of history that stands on its own” rather than a depressing coda to a glorious antiquity. Ward-Perkins is not entirely hostile to some of this work. He obviously respects Peter Brown, for example, though he points out that such books as the World of Late Antiquity and the Rise of Western Christendom focus on the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of the era rather than its economics and politics. But Ward-Perkins dissents when revisionist historians attempt to downplay the gravity and violence of the fall of the Empire in favor of an irenic vision in which the Romans and barbarians gradually accommodate to one another. In the West, at least, there was indeed a catastrophe in the 5th Century, a comprehensive crash comparable to the collapses of civilizations documented by Jared Diamond.

Mentalities are fine, but Ward-Perkins concerns himself with piles of broken pottery, the remains of old villages, and the bones of ancient cattle to address realities. The contrast in material conditions before and after the 5th Century is startling. One easily forgets how wealthy and comfortable the Empire had become, not only for a tiny elite but also for farmers and tradesmen who lived in well-build houses with tile roofs and emptied the wine and oil from mountains of amphora. Literally mountains. A view of Rome from 1625 shows Monte Testaccio, a 50-meter high hill made of some 53 million amphora imported from southern Spain.

Before the Barbarian invasions, the prosperity of the Western Empire depended on the long-distance exchange of cash crops and other goods. When first Gaul and Spain and then Africa fell to invaders, the dismembered parts could not sustain themselves either economically or demographically. The enormous manufacturing industries that used standardized methods to gin out good quality clothing, pottery, and weapons failed. As Ward-Perkins documents, domestic animals became smaller as farmers reverted to less efficient subsistence agriculture. Though the book doesn’t address the issue directly, one can only assume that people were similarly stunted. Things really, genuinely, no fooling, went to Hell.

I think Ward-Perkins makes his case effectively, but it’s telling that he needs so few pages to do so. The point of view he combats was never very strong in arguments and evidence. Its appeal was and is extrinsic. Ward-Perkins claims that it has become convenient to find nice things to say about the barbarians since most of the E.U. nations are heirs to the barbarian kingdoms; but I think there is something else at work besides multicultural sweetness and light, though the fetching picture of the barbarian couple he reproduces from a recent French book suggests he’s got a point. I note that, as it did in late antiquity, much of our intellectual life has turned inward—Derrida and Lacan are highly reminiscent of Plotinus and Proclus—so that the mental life of the Church fathers and Neoplatonics seems more interesting to many scholars than the noise and numbers of economics and demography. Writers who obsess about what people think and feel instead of what they do and make have become idealists in practice if not in theory. They just aren’t interested in what used to be quaintly called the external world.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Of Some of the People, By Some of the People, For Some of the People

The administration is spending billions of dollars in response to Katrina. One is supposed to be grateful that they have finally decided to do something, but it is quite likely that they are going to waste an enormous amount of public money in the process. The same cost-plus, no-bid contracts that were awarded to Bush’s political allies in Iraq are very much a feature of the current relief effort. Of course from a purely partisan point of view, this sort of looting of the treasury is not a waste at all since it’s going into the right pockets; but for those of us who aren’t in on the swag, it’s just more looting. And the damage is not merely fiscal. Bush et. al. are past masters of using emergency situations as cover for passing laws that continue their settled policy of dismantling unions and weakening environmental protections.

The Republicans harm us, as much when they are driven to address genuine public needs as when they pursue more overtly selfish ends. Last year’s Medicare bill, for example, ostensibly enacted to provide drug benefits to seniors, has turned out to be a gruesomely expensive boondoggle that provides minimum help at maximum cost while containing a host of deal sweeteners for the political connected drug firms. No bill at all would have been much preferable to this measure, which not even the conservatives have bothered to defend except as a more or less necessary piece of political cynicism in an election year.

In lieu of encouraging the government to do anything at all over the next three years, responsible politicians need to follow a consistent program of obstructionism. Nothing good will come from this corrupt crew, whose defenders are more accurately described as accomplices than supporters. What we have here is a new version of the Grant administration, except that it was possible to believe that the President in that case was simply naïve. It was said that Grant never met a businessman he didn’t trust. But Bush is a businessman who, absent amnesia, should surely know better than to trust himself.
The Inextinguishable Laughter of the Blessed Gods

While everyone except salaried administration personnel and pundits on Fox has denounced the conduct of the Iraqi war, criticism of the war itself remains strangely muted beyond the radical left. A great many Democrats, including self-defined liberal Democrats, favored the invasion even though most of them thought the PR preparation was inadequate. For them no less than for Rumsfeld or Bush, international laws and treaties are just scraps of paper; and the doctrine of preemption is unproblematic. But the liberal hawks have more in common with the administration than the traditional sociopathy of the international relations professional. They share the right’s belief that America can do anything it likes because of its enormous military and economic preponderance. Beneath their purported political realism lies a thick deposit of nationalist fantasy. They seem to actually believe that we can get away with almost any level of incompetence.

The theologians missed something when they didn’t include complacency among the divine attributes. A God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal is necessarily also immune to anxiety. I mildly care about such things, because I’ve always liked the first person of the Trinity. Some fictions are more lovable than others—I’ve still got the hots for Elizabeth Bennett, for example—and part of the appeal of the figure of Father to me is the attraction of somebody, someplace who has everything under control. It would be similarly gratifying to imagine that one lived in a nation so powerful as to be unmenaced even by its own errors. I’ve got a head cold just now, so I can’t say with 100% certainty that our shit doesn’t stink. Nevertheless, I believe as an article of rational faith that it does. I don’t think that any country ever has or ever could achieve so transcendent a status.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Moral Hazard Hazard

The voice in your head that orders you to do bad things is not necessarily a demon or a black dog. In many cases it turns out to be some theoretical conclusion you learned in school. Economists, for example, have internalized a notion of how markets are supposed to function that is far more attractive than mere empirical information. “Who you gonna believe? Conclusions that follow validly from convenient axioms or your lying eyes?” Back before the California energy crunch, proponents of deregulation made calculations from reasonable assumptions that putting up with occasional blackouts was worth it if it made the system more efficient overall. In the event, however, people just would not put up with unreliable service; and it turned out that the “reasonable assumptions” had only been reasonable on somebody’s blackboard. Politically, they were simply impossible. What’s going on with New Orleans is similar. The social Darwinists of the administration have been brought up short by the sudden revelation that the nation as a whole thinks of itself as a nation and doesn’t think that even poor blacks are disposable at 3/5ths a head. As a result, we’ve learned how fast even an incompetent government can act when confronted with a catastrophic public relation’s disaster.

Certain ideas mesmerize their thinkers. They are like drugs. For example, discussions of the state of America’s health system almost always get caught up on the issue of moral hazard, the terrifying prospect that adequate health care insurance would encourage people to go to the doctor too often. Such an eventuality is certainly possible since making anything cheaper is liable to increase demand, but the issue has got to be the reddest red herring of them all in a country where, on the evidence, the current incentives often discourage people from going to the doctor when they should and the largest single reason we pay more for health care is the expense of maintaining an enormous bureaucracy dedicated to keeping people from getting care. Whatever the notional cost of moral hazard, the real—and staggering—costs arise from the levees and dykes erected to hold it off. Meanwhile, the nations that have capitulated to universal care and succumbed to a terminal case of moral hazard have been penalized with better medicine at a much lower cost, a fact that, unfortunately, is no match for a fascinating idea.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Law of Intended Consequences

It gives the play a lousy plot, but much of what happens is simply what somebody wanted. They may not like it when they get it, but that’s a separate issue. For example, I don’t doubt that many Republicans were momentarily unhappy to read that poverty had increased in every year of the Bush administration as it routinely does in Republican administrations; but that result, though unedifying, began life as an intention. One can imagine a universe in which destroying unions, eliminating public services, and promoting lower wages ironically results in general prosperity, but that’s an alternative reality. In our world, if the ruling party sets out to benefit its people at the expense of those people, it’s very likely to succeed.

Liberals and moderates like to argue about policies, but often what matters is not how the law reads but who administers it. One is reminded of the old and thankfully obsolete joke about the German daddy who complained that when he followed the directions on assembling his son’s bicycle, it always turned out to be a machine gun.

Sometimes it is a fallacy not to argue ad hominem.
A Hopeful Note

Maybe things really will get better in Iraq. The Bush administration is notorious for rewarding failure and ineptitude, but this policy is finally running up against its natural limit. In several cases there is simply no honor or office left to give to the incompetents so that people like Condi Rice may no longer motivated to invite fresh catastrophic terrorist attacks through their negligence or to promote another disastrous and illegal war by lying to the public. Unfortunately, the law of effect takes time to alter behavior; and sheer momentum may produce further calamities just as Katrina remained a destructive storm for a long time after it made landfall. Nevertheless, though the administration is still made up of people immune to the bad consequences of their own behavior, malfeasance is no longer a guarantee of further riches and higher offices so perhaps some of them will at last learn.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Crimes of Pedagogy

To a remarkable but largely unremarked extent, what the public knows about nature and science is simply the pedagogy of textbooks. The common notion that animals fall into distinct groups marked by unambiguous structural characteristics, for example, reflects the examples teachers use to explain taxonomies. Many taxa contain members that have secondarily lost features that were once definitive of their group—the notion that there is a central plan that plays unchanging substance to the superficial accidents of wing color or tooth shape or behavior is deeply misleading since even basic body plans can change drastically over time. We only know the animals belong together because we can trace their common ancestry through transitional forms. And even when common features persist, there is a temptation to assume that they are functionally fundamental simply because they have persisted, even though some diagnostic features—the details of wing venation in insects, for example—are probably as accidental as the ridges on a finger print. They just happened to be the elements that, for some reason or for no reason at all, didn’t change in a given phylogeny.

By fostering an exaggerated belief in the naturalness of kinds, the just-so textbook version creates a largely artificial mystery, the impression that macroevolution differs qualitatively from microevolution. This may be one of those instances in which there is no answer to a question because there really isn’t a question to answer. Granted that genetic changes are always discrete, Natura semper fecit saltus, but the leaps in question only appear to be impossibly great if you imagine a spectacular vault from the picture of the living starfish on page 121 and the picture of the living hummingbird on page 124 instead of the tiny hop involved in the original divergence between one obscure species of deuterostome invertebrate and another in the slimy bottom of some Vendian estuary.

I was reminded of this issue by a report on the BBC on a strange looking invertebrate from the Cambrian that is said to embarrass the taxonomists. Vetustodermis planus is evidently hard to place in one of the recognized phyla, but it is hardly weirder than many a common living organism. The recherché bugs pictured in Grimaldi and Engel’s splendid new book Evolution of the Insects are every bit as bizarre as any relic of the Burgess Shale; but since they don’t fall on a crack between one group and another, nobody thinks they challenge evolutionary theory.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

“It has yet to be proved that acerbity or gloom is detrimental in an historian.”

I’ve been very gradually reading Syme’s immense book on the Roman historian Tacitus, mostly for the pleasure of spending as much time as possible with Sir Ronald’s austere wit. Unfortunately, the contemporary relevance of the subject matter intermittently interferes with the untroubled appreciation of the great classicist’s sheer virtuosity. The unfolding of present events brings ancient dilemmas in and out of focus. Roman writers of the empire like Tacitus and Seneca were greatly admired and closely read at the end of the Renaissance, no doubt because they spoke to the ethical predicaments of ambitious men in an age of burgeoning national empires—the literati of the Chinese Age of Warring States would probably have appreciated them as well. They certainly speak to an important group of modern individuals. And they speak to me as well.

Tacitus took up history writing after a not insignificant public career that began in the tyrannical regime of Domitian and extended into the time of Trajan, the second of the so-called five good emperors. Although a member of the Senate who sometimes evinced a certain nostalgia for the Republic, Tacitus did not write to restore a past that was gone for good and, for that matter, gone for good reason—he had no illusions about the fatal shortcomings of the old system of anarchic competition between selfish aristocrats. His great theme was not retrospective at all. It addressed the question of how virtuous men could live decently and usefully in the imperial present. The end of political liberty limited the prospects of ambitious men, but it didn’t absolve them of responsibilities to their country or to mankind. Even in its palmist days, the Roman Empire was only maintained by the strenuous efforts of a host of generals and officials. If the German barbarians didn’t sack Rome in the first century, if the Parthian horsemen didn’t overrun the East, it wasn’t because they weren’t trying. The Empire needed leaders who could some how function in an autocratic regime even though the emperor feared able men and often rewarded incompetence. (nec minus periculum ex magna fama quam ex mala’ — no less danger from a good reputation than a bad one — as Tacitus wrote, defending his father-in-law Agricola from the Tiber chapter of the Swift Boat Veterans) But what can integrity mean in a milieu in which dissimulation and flattery really are the prerequisites for career advancement?

Maybe it would be a good time to come out with an inexpensive paperback edition of Tacitus for the benefit of all the serious people in this country who are attempting the difficult act of behaving well in a vicious system.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Standard Oil Song

The whole is, at most, the sum of its parts; but figuring out the anthill by tracking individual ants is very hard work. For example, the Iraq War was undertaken through the efforts of a host of individuals with multiple and changing motives so it has become an on-line industry to figure out how we brought ourselves to strip off our clothes and jump in this particular cactus patch in the first place: Oedipal one-upmanship, routine miscalculation, hubris, the search for a political distraction, the urge to play tin soldiers with real soldiers, indirect support for Likud, Wilsonian idealism, American exceptionalism, profiteering by well-connected contractors, the Monroe Doctrine as applied by people with an uncertain grasp of geography. Or maybe what we’re experiencing is the strategic version of the disassociative effect of computer games. For ex officio statesmen personally unfamiliar with the blood and shit of real war, blowing people to bits from high altitude is like playing Doom. The electronic mediation makes it all rather flat and unreal. Or it could be argued, in the alternative, that action in this instance resulted from a case of Presidential nerves. Making an irrevocable decision wasn’t evidence of resolution: it was a substitute for resolution. Cortez burned his boats in order to commit his men to a desperate mission. Bush burned our boats to commit himself. And then there’s the oil.

It is customary at this point to remind everybody of every reason that oil wasn’t really at the root of the thing even though it is obvious, and usually admitted, that we certainly wouldn’t be so deeply involved in the Middle East if it weren’t for the petroleum. It is argued that actually occupying Iraq doesn’t increase the world’s oil resources at all or even secure them for the United States at a lower price. Since oil is fungible stuff whose cost is determined by the global market, what matters is overall production, not who sells which oil to whom. If a regime decided not to sell to us, the overall effect would be nil so long as they sold to somebody. Of course a fanatical government could decide not to sell its oil to anybody, but no nation could afford such a course for long. During the sanction years, even Saddam, who certainly hated us, sold as much oil as we’d let him. What else was he going to do with it? So who physically controls the oil fields is not crucial. Only people naïve about economics think otherwise. However.

The problem is that there is an important group of influential people who are naïve about economics and many of them play key roles in developing our foreign policy. Practitioners of realpolitik are often addicted to a crude mercantilism, in the current instance to a mercantilism that assumes that what matters is who possesses the crude. Looking at foreign policy as a huge map exercise, one can imagine them thinking to themselves that putting a marker in Mosul was part of a solution, though we surely know by now that they had no clue what the men and women represented by the marker were going to do once they got there or how that was supposed to keep the price of oil under $50 a barrel. Bear in mind that these are the same guys who occasionally float the idea that we may eventually have to seize the Saudi oil fields by military force, evict the Arabs, and run the plants ourselves.

It may be true that oil was not a rational motive for invading Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that oil wasn’t a large part of why we went there.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Perfectly Normal Ill Wind

I’m informed that there is an old Arab saying to the effect that the Persians know how to do everything. I don’t know about that, but I suspect they know enough to bemuse the world long enough to develop a nuclear arsenal. The Iranians are in the situation of the Athenians, who wanted to wall their city in order to be able to defy the Spartans. The Spartans convened a conference to prevent just this sort of destablizing and irresponsible masonry proliferation, but the Athenians, led by Themistocles, who, to judge by his track record, was even more clever than the Persians, kept on talking and talking and talking, ragging the puck, working the clock, resorting to a four corner offense, bribing the odd ephor, lying through their teeth, and sending the official wall inspectors on a series of wild goose chases through the whorehouses of the Piraeus while all the while every man, woman, and child back home was furiously piling brick on brick. Naturally, when the wall was tall enough to defend, Themistocles diplomatically advised the Spartans to bugger off just as it is a good bet that seventeen U.N. committee meetings from now, the Iranians are going to invite us to bite their cranks.

Most Americans seem to regard Iran as a non-fiction version of one of those comical countries you find in novels. The Iranians, presumably don’t think of themselves as living in San Narciso, however. Not without historical warrant, they have a sense of themselves as one of the great nations of the earth. If the Americans, British, Russians, Chinese, French, Indians, and even the benighted Pakistanis have the bomb, how can so proud a people as the Persians be content to forgo the prestige that comes with nuclear power, especially since their national identity has been repeatedly and painfully disrespected down through the centuries? Even if the Iranians lacked a practical reason for wanting the definitive deterrent in the face of what they see as a paranoid Israel and an aggressive, erratic America, their self-definition would demand the bomb. Which is why it is probably impossible to deny it to them even in the medium term. What we have here is not the whim of some maximum leader like Kim Il Sung or even part of the program of some party or sect. It isn’t just the mullahs who want the weapons. I suspect it isn’t even especially the mullahs. And Iran is a big country with considerable resources, not a basket case like North Korea. They’re going to get the bombs.

Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed to be very worried about the Persian bomb, but I’m mostly worried of the consequences of efforts to forestall it. In a different time line, one in which we had pursued a calm and principled foreign policy, America might be in a position to argue against the bomb with more justice. As it is, our options are to go on practicing our own policy of delay or to unleash the Israelis or resort to a bombing campaign of our own. Between the disastrous consequences of a violent response and learning to live with a nuclear Iran, I’d opt for the latter. I think the dangers of such an eventuality are vastly overstated. Meanwhile, nobody with a paying job seems to be willing to notice its upside. At least an Iranian bomb would prevent prevention.

Unlike the first few nuclear club members, India, Pakistan, and even China have not built a huge number of bombs or delivery systems. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. still have thousands of warheads and the British and French hundreds, presumably because they once upon a time seriously considered using them. Having a notably smaller arsenal has a different logic. India, Pakistan, and China have enough megatonnage to hugely raise the ante for any country that contemplated attacking them, but acquiring the continent-destroying power of even the Force de Frappe would be pointless. A nuclear India isn’t going to get in an arms race with the United States or even Europe, and a nuclear Iranian isn’t going to either. It couldn’t afford the investment and would have no prospect of success against any of the big powers. From an Iranian perspective, however, the inability to compete is irrelevant because the point of having the bomb is to preserve their sovereignty against aggressive countries like the U.S. whose public intellectuals frequently speak blandly about attacking Iran as if it were Guatemala or Haiti.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

We Must, We Must, Develop Robust

The President recently made some offhand remarks supportive of introducing intelligent design into high school curricula. Although some educators and scientists were upset, I doubt if his comments were calculated for political advantage. He didn’t make much of an issue of the matter, and his own science advisors are on the record that ID is not a credible scientific theory. In a very general way, I suppose, evincing skepticism about evolution is a way of demonstrating solidarity with your base, but surely nobody has any reason to doubt Bush’s bona fides as a member of the culture of ignorance. Creationism is a default position. You don’t have to take a course or read a book to be wrong about these things. It’s as natural as breathing. Living things may have developed without effort and forethought, but it requires effort and thought to arrive at understand how they could have developed without such inputs. The truth is located on an upper floor, and there is no elevator in the building.

Some of the heavy lifting involved in actually figuring things out is on display in Andreas Wagner’s new book Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems. Wagner’s aim is to examine how living things manage to persist, reproduce, and evolve despite the noisiness of their environment. Or to use Wagner’s own words, “Why is an organism not a molecular house of cards?” Stuart Kauffman wrote an influential book some years ago called the Origins of Order. Wagner’s book is about the durability of order, an equally challenging problem. Mutations are inevitable in genetic systems and even a top of the line Xerox machine eventually fails to reproduce a visible image as it copies copies of copies. Even during the life of a given organism, random thermal motions constantly perturb the intricate network of chemical processes that make up metabolism. So how do you have a picnic during a tornado? And why doesn’t the sheer complexity of a single cell, let alone a multi-cellular organism, make life simply impossible? According to Murphy’s Law what can go wrong will go wrong. There are vastly more things to go wrong in a cat than in a can opener, but the cats are still here. Indeed, contrary to what one might think, reliability actually seems to increase with complexity.

Wagner addresses two main questions. He examines the mechanisms that make living systems robust on the genetic, metabolic, and developmental levels; but he also looks at possible explanations of how these systems became robust. Quite a lot is known about the first problem. For example, computer simulations show that the genetic code is optimized for robustness in the sense that random mutations tend to code for chemically similar amino acids more often in the existing code than in all or almost all of the zillions of alternative possibilities. Which means, in turn, that a large proportion of the proteins derived from mutated genes will have the same general chemical properties as the originals and retain or enhance their functionality despite the changes. The chemical pathways of the cell also show a high degree of resiliency that allows metabolism to continue even when one or more enzymes fails, and developmental pathways can be drastically reorganized without obviously changing the morphology of the adult organisms—I was particularly impressed with Wagner’s account of how the embryology of insects in the hymenopteran suborder Apocrita differ depending on their lifestyles, with yolky, Drosophila-style eggs for the free living and ecotoparasitic forms and tiny, yolk-poor eggs for endoparasites. Evidently ontogeny doesn’t always recapitulate phylogeny as revolutionary alterations of developmental processes can occur without altering the end product very much.

How life came to be so tough in the face of noise and mutation is a separate and less clear-cut question. Wagner supplies some suggestions. There is some evidence that living things can and have evolved in the direction of greater robustness, but it isn’t always obvious that straightforward natural selection can account for the trend. For one thing, robustness can be too much of a good thing at some levels. For example, proteins are more stable if they reliably fold into the same shape despite thermal noise, but enzymes often have to be able to change their conformations in order to catalyze chemical changes. There are trade-offs. It is also unclear whether genetic systems can become more robust under individual natural selection, because the inclusive fitness of individuals is not increased by mutations that make future generations less sensitive to mutations. In that case, however, it may well be that the same mutations that increase the robustness of metabolic processes to thermal noise have the more-or-less automatic side effect of increasing the resistance of the genome to unfavorable mutations. Thus the same heat shock protein that protects proteins from folding improperly at high temperatures buffers the effect of mutations as well—knock out the now-celebrated Hsp90 and you and your fruit flies will manifest a host of abnormalities.

Wagner ends his book with a brief look at man-made systems. The telephone grid is like a living body by virtue of its enormous scale and intricacy but also because it is remarkably reliable (~99.999%). As Wagner points out, the great majority of service interruptions occur not because of the failure of individual parts—such failures occur at a rate comparable to the genetic mutation rate in living things, mostly without obvious consequences—but simply because the phone companies decided it wasn’t worth the money to build a big enough system to withstand the occasional overload. In other words, the fragility of the system is planned. Its robustness is not. It is a side effect of the way the system evolved. During the long, piecemeal process of its development, defects and failures continually occurred and were responded to with various ad hoc expediencies. As a result, the grid, like the genetic, metabolic, and developmental systems of living things, looks like a crazy guilt or, if you’re old enough to catch the reference, like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Nevertheless, it works in the sublunary world better than any rationally designed system whose elegant structure is likely to be hopelessly brittle.

By the way, although Wagener doesn’t say a word on the topic and should not be blamed for my homily, his take on robustness suggests a veritable Argument from Non-Design to an infidel like me. To put things simply: We know that living things were not designed. After all, they work. Which brings us back to George Bush’s recent comments.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Admission of Failure is not an Option

If nothing counts as losing, victory is inevitable. On a less flexible scoring system, Iraq sure looks like a failure. What we’ve bought at the cost of 300 billion and thousands of lives is a wrecked nation stuck in a civil war. Under the circumstances, the most favorable outcome would be a country divided between a pro-Iranian Islamic republic in the South and a Kurdish ethnic state in the North. Even in that case, a more or less permanent insurgency would probably smolder in the middle subsidized on the cheap by irritated Sunnis in adjoining areas.

The right wing, seconded by many a pundit from America’s mindless middle, cheerfully responds to the endless train wreck with rhetorical maneuvers patterned on theological apologetics. It isn’t that they examine the facts on the ground and conclude that things are going well. They begin with the conclusion and track back, just as defenders of Christianity or Islam seldom argue for the truth of the faith from the evidence but beg the question from the get go. Since assessing the situation might yield unacceptible results, both the theologians and the political commentators content themselves with the not very challenging task of explaining how a predestined conclusion can be represented as consistent with the acknowledged facts of the case. Such explanations are always possible: “True, no living things more elaborate than Lepidoptera survive in the poisoned wastes of post-war Mesopotamia, but the outcome is as good as anyone could have reasonably expected, and we can thank the President that Manhattan remains markedly less radioactive than Bagdad.” Consistency is a very cheap commodity and worth its price.

To judge by the polls, the American public is not buying the optimism of the right these days; but it is not clear that what the people think matters much as long as the levers of power are in the hands of true believers. Which means that we are at the mercy of a group of people who have decided that it is unmanly and unpatriotic to learn from their own mistakes. Since political stupidities have real costs, however, this principle can only be implemented by cupping your hands around your ears and repeating “la-la-la, I can’t hear you!” Unfortunately, denial is like running up the balances on your credit cards. Only God almighty can afford to be complacent forever.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Even I have to allow that some eternal verities have a kernel of truth. For example, the cliché that scientific results are always provisional is correct as a matter of principle since on any reasonable account of what the “empirical” in empirical science means, it doesn’t mean deduced deductively from unquestionable axioms. Formally speaking, we could perfectly well discover next Tuesday that DNA never codes for protein or learn to our surprise that due to a clerical error we were wrong all along about the atomic number of oxygen. At least in a contemporary context, however, the rhetorical force of such avowals of methodological modesty depends on a covert awareness that DNA damned well codes for protein and the atomic number of oxygen really is 8. An enormous number of scientific issues are up in the air, of course; but the guilty secret of the researchers is that they actually can and have achieved results that are materially correct. Nobody’s going to come along and overturn the periodic table. It just isn’t going to happen. I don’t think we’ve come to terms with this embarrassing fact and its many implications.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Fluoride of the Progressives

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been making the rounds of talk shows talking up the idea that autism is caused by thimerosal, a mercury compound formerly used in this country as a preservative in childhood vaccines. While some right-wingers are also upset about thimerosal, most of the concern about it comes from the left, which is peculiar in a way since suspicion about vaccination is traditionally a conservative preoccupation that reflects a programmatic unwillingness to bear even tiny personal risks for the general good. To be sure, Kennedy and Arianna Huffington and various folks at Salon and Rolling Stone claim to support vaccination and relate their attacks on thimerosal to an anti-corporate theme. Their narrative is all about how Big Pharma conspired with bunch of bought-off scientists to cover up the connection between mercury and autism. Of course if thimerosal really is a cause of autism, the motives of its critics don’t matter very much. What is the state of the evidence?

No official scientific agency in the United States and Europe has reported any link between thimerosal and autism or any other neurological problem, but a consensus developed that it should not be used in vaccines because of a general concern about mercury exposure. For this reason, thimerosal has not been used in vaccines in this country since 1999 while research into the possible effects of thimerosal has continued without turning up any very definitive results. As with many recent epidemological issues—the health effects of electro-magnetic fields, for example—the technical difficulties of defining the real risks are formidable, in part because the association between the agent and the effect is so weak. Nobody is claiming that flu shots are to autism what cigarettes are to lung cancer. Mercury is not good for the nervous system, but the toxicity of mercury depends upon its chemical form. Thimerosal delivers ethyl mercury to the body whereas environmental exposure to mercury largely takes the form of methyl mercury. The pharmacology of ethyl mercury remains to be elucidated. While methyl mercury tends to linger in the body, ethyl mercury is rapidly excreted in the feces. On the other hand, some babies may not be as capable of excreting ethyl mercury as others; and ethyl mercury from a vaccine injection comes as a single big dose while methyl mercury from food and water is ingested a little at a time. A bolus of mercury may produce a more severe effect than an incremental exposure.

The case against thimerosal also assumes that the incidence of autism has increased markedly in step with the frequency of childhood immunizations. This assumption is not obviously valid. You sometimes read that autism was unknown before the introduction of vaccines with thimerosal, but what happened in the forties was the introduction of the term autism, not the sudden appearance of withdrawn, affectless children. Many cases of what we would now call autism are described in the older medical literature, just as millions of people died from heart attacks over the years even though myocardial infarction was only defined in the 20th Century. Because the clinical definition of autism is so vague, it is perfectly possible that its increasing incidence reflects to some degree the tendency of doctors to make trendy diagnoses in borderline cases, an instance of that syndrome inflation or societal hypochondria familiar from the ADD saga. In this regard, I find it telling that follow up studies of children diagnosed as autistic in recent decades find that many of them go on to college and careers while the autistic kids of yesteryear are still banging their heads against a wall.

Because as a rule it is hard and expensive to figure things out, none of the questions about thimerosal are going to be answered quickly and anybody who issues conclusive statements about the matter is overstating his or her case. That said, I confess that I lost interest in the issue a couple of years ago because of a simple consideration. Thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Denmark in 1992 but the reported incidence of autism continued to rise sharply thereafter (Science, Vol 301, Issue 5639, 1454-1455, 12 September 2003). That finding doesn’t guarantee that the mercury in vaccines has no relationship whatsoever with autism, of course; but it certainly deflates the notion that thimerosal is the fundamental problem. The research also reminds us that a giant and crucial experiment is already underway in this country. If thimerosal really was the cause of a U.S. autism epidemic, the epidemic should be coming to an end shortly since vaccines no longer contain thimerosal. Since this vast if accidental test will much larger and more conclusive than any feasible planned study, I think it makes sense to reserve scarce research dollars to deal with other issues.

Note: for a rundown of information on thimerosal that includes links to sources on both sides of the issue, see this Wikipedia page.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Le Meme Chose

In Goethe’s play, Faust sells the Holy Roman Emperor on the idea of issuing paper money backed up by buried treasure since the emperor is entitled to such hordes by imperial law and the gold will turn up eventually. Naturally, the float sinks; but the brilliant absurd notion is no crazier than what various philosophers and scientists have promoted in earnest. Hume, as an impatient young man, advertised his initial epistemology as the application of Newtonian methods to the physics of ideas as if sense impressions formed little solar systems governed by simple laws of attraction. A.J. Ayer’s also proposed to cut all the Gordian knots at one stroke by assassinating traditional ethics and epistemology with a superficially plausible theory of meaning. This sort of thing can also be institutionalized. Some Sumerian grad student once got the bright idea of keeping track of what happened in Mesopotamian politics when comets appeared or the moon was eclipsed, but his program continues to this day as astrology. Learning theory in psychology can’t claim such a long run, but it is also based on an obvious methodological insight. All we’ve got to do is find the law that relates stimulus and response! Well, that’s the sort of thing that works when it works and, in any case, is always easy to explain, which counts for a lot.

Although every successful theory gets mechanically applied to every available problem, in most cases all that gets transferred is a set of buzzwords. That’s certainly true in relationship to the current fad for applying ideas drawn from evolutionary biology to discussions of the transmission and fate of ideas and institutions in human society—the meme meme. Since both living things and cultures change through time, it’s hardly surprising that the processes involved in their evolution are analogous. The trouble is, they are aren’t apparently homologous, i.e. the terms of the theory of natural selection—genes, genotypes, phenotypes, fitness—don’t match up one-to-one with the corresponding cultural terms, assuming there are corresponding terms. While genes prosper because the organisms to which they belong survive and reproduce better than organisms with other genes, the success of melodies, jokes, poems, slogans, gestures, gods, faiths, philosophies, and other cultural detritus seems to mostly depend merely on their tendency to be copied. Meanwhile, while it is possible to define what gets replicated in natural evolution—crudely speaking, stretches of nucleic acids—almost anything can and has been identified as a meme, though only a few candidates for memehood have anything like the specificity of an allele. It may be possible to model the fate of a catchy melody or an exactly repeated ritual by recourse to the mathematics of population genetics, but, as Scott Atran points out in his book In Gods We Trust, even something so apparently cut and dried as the Ten Commandments is impossible to specify. We’re not talking about a series of sounds in Hebrew or a series of letters in the KJV, after all, but the meaning of a form of words. In lieu of anything like the chemical formula that defines a gene or a protein, such entities are, as I like to say, boneless. Just think for a moment of the admirable flexibility of the Thou Shalt Not Kill provision.

Knowledge is limited by the intelligibility of its objects. Natural evolution is understandable because living things have genetic and developmental systems that drastically constrain how they change over time. They are good to think. The cultural systems that are best understood—languages, folk taxonomies, musical systems—are also apparently constrained by nature, which is to say human neural biology. Where such preexisting regularities are lacking, the will to know will simply create superstitions. I think that’s what’s happening with memology, which seems remarkably like the Intelligent Design movement in its endless production of programmatic statements and its utter lack of a research program.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Even If This Isn’t the City of God

I once tried to make the point to a bunch of libertarians that the worst political excesses of the 20th Century were committed by ideologues whose hostility to the state ran as deeply as theirs. Since from the libertarian point of view the state simply has to be the root of all evil, they couldn’t hear what I was proposing, though it was hardly sophisticated idea. I merely noted that the revolutionaries of the last hundred years treated the traditional state with contempt, sometimes merely ignoring it and building parallel institutions that exercised the real power, sometimes allowing it to function but only as a tool of their own interests. The fascists, Nazis, Bolsheviks, Maoists, Young Turks, Peronists, Iranian Mullahs, and Baathists had no use for parliaments or bureaucracies with real independence. They were parties acting in lieu of governments and rejected any real distinction between the administration and the state, often going so far as to argue that bureaucratic, juridical, scientific, and other professional norms of objectivity that justify the independence of the state apparatus are illusions or frauds. Which is why it was a critical moment in the Second Russian Revolution when Gorbachev decided to govern as President rather than Party Leader.

That the state and its institutions have in fact oppressed individuals and groups is not in dispute, of course; but the charter of the state is not to play favorites but to create artificial spaces in which individuals and groups differing in wealth and power can compete or cooperate without violence: parliaments, courts, markets. In these leveled arenas in which the din and stench of mammalian contention has been quieted and deodorized to some extent, men, who are certainly not created equal, are made equal for certain purposes. The cogency and benefits of this program are obvious. Even those who scoff at civilization generally don’t dispute the theory of the thing, but many people apparently think that human beings are quite incapable of the disinterested actions that make the City possible.

Lots of doctors have given up telling their patients not to drink too much because, as everybody knows, they will often go on drinking. It has been shown, however, that the advice of physicians has a real and medically relevant effect on alcohol consumption. In common with most remedies, advice is not a panacea; but it isn’t a placebo either and even placebos work. The human capacity for principled behavior is another such imperfect medicine. Teachers sometimes punish students for disagreeing with their private prejudices; but most of them know that promoting a point of view is not their role and they can and often do put their own ideas aside. Like infant baptism and other routine wonders, I’ve seen it done. I’ve even done it myself. The case is similar in other public professions. Judges perfectly well know what it is to act judiciously, though they may choose to cheat or fall into self-deception at times. Judging fairly is a skill that human beings can acquire, just as they can learn to play the piano or make soup. The notion that disinterested action is impossible is not merely a sophisticated way of defending immoral behavior. It is factually incorrect.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

It’s not War. It’s Extermination.

Various critics of the new War of the Worlds have interpreted it as an allegory of 9/11, citing in particular the way that the alien’s death ray turns human flesh into fine white ash. That observation may be fair enough, since Spielberg is an American and Americans understand everything that happens in terms of their own experience. If I were an Iraqi, however, I might venture a quite different take on the movie. The U.S. Army moves in hummers and tanks rather than in giant tripods and our air force doesn’t employ ray guns as far as we know, but we are the ones with the terrifying, invincible weaponry. Our drone aircraft and cruise missile can blow anybody to atoms, anywhere, at any time at the command of a distant operator. Our fuel-oil bombs can take out several city blocks at one time. I don’t know if it is more horrible to be vaporized by non-humans or burned to death by napalm. I do know, however, that the former monstrousness is in the realm of special effects while the later is a reality for whomever we chose to attack. So how do you suppose War of the Worlds will play in Tehran or Cairo?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom but What Makes You Think There’s an Off-Ramp?

Something rather like representative democracy may be the most rational goal of political action, but that doesn’t mean that democracy is the telos of history. Good things, after all, are anti-entropic almost by definition while a pile of ruins is a much more natural outcome. The sage does nothing, and everything is demolished. Anyhow, to desist from the metaphysical pronouncements and get empirical for once, a quick look around the world doesn’t necessarily support the notion that things tend towards democracy under current conditions. A series of ancien regimes has indeed been overthrown by the concerted action of populations, but the aftermath of the various velvet revolutions has been more equivocal because liberation is hard to sustain in face of the structural advantages that the oligarchs have over the democrats, especially when economic conditions change. Fukuyama, the author of a famous book on the end of history, himself believed that the triumph of liberalism resulted from the prosperity promised and then delivered by free institutions and market capitalism. If that prosperity falters, as we have good reason to believe it will, promoting the general good will be a less rational program for individuals than securing a greater share of a stagnant or declining economy for you and yours—recall the political monstrosities spawned by the last great global depression.

The commonplace assumption that the triumph of the liberal society is foreordained is very much like the faith of Old Reds in the inevitable triumph of Communism. It is an article of faith that is argued from more often than it is argued to. I myself incline to the ancient opinion that there is no stable form of government and that under the stress of events each type of polity is likely to succumb in turn to its own intrinsic contradictions—aristocracy, democracy, tyranny, paper, rock, scissors. And that’s assuming that some sort of overwhelming external force does not intervene in the frustrated dialectic like a Cretaceous meteorite. At best, political arrangements are temporary solutions to changing circumstances that depend crucially on the continuous efforts of men and women determined to make them work.

The most recent democratic era in American history was made possible by the nation’s extraordinarily favorable international political and economic position after World War II; by cheap oil; by a series of technological breakthroughs; and, not least, by a genuine consensus in favor of open, inclusive, and responsible government. Most of these contextual factors have changed over the last thirty years; and, in response, functional, as opposed to notional, loyalty to the public good is becoming merely quaint—in this society, individuals of real integrity have something Amish about ‘em. The U.S. appears to be moving in the direction of a one-party state that uses interlocking government and corporate power to protect and extend the prerogatives of a small group of hyperwealthy families against the interests of an inert and infantilized population. One can surely imagine the fall of the current kings of the shining city on the dunghill—indeed, one can predict their fall with some confidence—but the removal of one mad prince isn’t going to restore the Republic because democracy doesn’t go very well with a declining empire. Even if democracy is the end of human history in some sense, I doubt if there will be very much of it at the end of our history.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Protestant Misunderstanding of the Nature of Science

It may seem an excess of caution to feel a need to argue for the real presence of flour in the host, but our motto has always been “Dare to be dull.” We purpose to get it right even though the truth is bound to be pretty banal: it is largely banal, after all, since so much of it resides in the box labeled “Of Course.” Repeating the facts too often violates Grice’s rules of pragmatics and Shannon’s information theory, both of which mandate that every utterance must surprise or else it cannot inform. Fortunately for the leaden literalist, however, the world is full of fictions that people actually believe; and so long as they do, it will remain relevant to dispute them. Thanks to all.

Where was I? O, yeah. I was fixing to comment on how popular discussions of science presume that the sciences are really just debating societies whose output is a body of propositions. If you bother to click on the link to Panda’s Thumb over to the right of these paragraphs, you’ll discover that both the partisans of Intelligent Design and the defenders of evolutionary theory sound like participants in a particularly ill tempered 18th Century salon. That’s pretty much inevitable, of course, but only because the political debate over evolution and creationism doesn’t take place in the sciences at all. It is a sham combat, a clown fight with pig bladders. Real scientists really do argue with one another in the course of practicing science, obviously; but the novelty and value of the science derives from the degree to which it is not merely a conversation among people but a process that gives a voice to the objects its studies.

Back in the 16th Century, the Reformers made the error of thinking that Holy Writ sufficed to define right belief so long as it was read in good faith. The Genevan variety of intolerance followed from scriptura sola like a theorem; for if the doctrinal content of the Bible was clear, if followed that the Papists and the Socinians and Anabaptists and the Libertines just had to be lying. Even the most literal-minded of the Lutherans and Calvinists eventually had to finesse the theory of reading that underlay their theology, however, because at a minimum they themselves had to add a little something to the interpretation of the Old Testament to go on claiming that it made reference to Christ and the Trinity and they also had to tweak their own rendition of the New Testament to defend the utterly unscriptural practice of infant baptism. Meanwhile the Catholics made things much easier for themselves by maintaining that the basis of the faith was not the inert text itself but the scriptures as interpreted by a tradition continuously inspired by the spirit of God.

The sciences cleave to the Catholic view of the matter. The intelligibility, let alone the reliability, of scientific results does not derive from right reason or human authority but from the continuing real presence of the world in the process of research, which plays the same essential role for them that the holy ghost is said to play for the church. The novelty of the scientific method was to invite the things into the lab where they could offer their sometimes-coerced testimony to supplement and eventually supplant the testimonials of learned. Obviously this process crucially involved the development of new social and political institutions, but the whole point of the emerging research establishment was to get beyond merely human input and the interminable repetition of our favorite fantasies. Only a cartoon social constructionist could imagine that the content of the often unexpected findings of physics and biology originate from the fiat of any human mind since our minds just aren’t that creative—Millikan may have fudged his data, but he surely couldn’t have found the value of the charge on an electron in his head since -1.6 x 10-19 is not the sort of thing to be found in human heads.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Power to the People?

Mainline Democrats are only slightly more democratic than their Republican opponents since a strongly egalitarian politics threatens the prerogatives of professional people as well as billionaires. Certainly, none of the relevant elites is about ready to let the mass of the population have a decisive say in foreign policy. The democrats really do have a different take on the proper use of power, but liberal imperialists who wish to rule through consensus are still imperialists. Which largely explains why the Democrats have been so helpless in confronting the Iraq war. Many of them more or less openly endorse the notion that we have a right to unilaterally impose our system and its values on others by the application of deadly force. The Weapons of Mass Destruction scam didn’t just provide cover for the right. The moderates that went along with Bush may have thought that Saddam had some mustard gas, but they also knew perfectly well that the WMDs were utterly inconsequential, the merest red herring. They knew, but they were as willing as Powell and the rest to use this phony excuse to manipulate the public because they have no scruples whatsoever about lying to the people. Whatever you think of their motives, that is what ruling classes do.

My point is not to suggest that the world would automatically be better or safer if the wishes of the public were seriously consulted, though I think the European public at least has been far wiser than the American Neocons about the Middle East. There are a great many things that should not be settled by a vote, indeed a great many things about which people in general have no right to an opinion. The problem is that our nation endlessly proclaims its democratic principles but denies them in practice in areas—war and peace, wealth and poverty—where everybody really does have an existential stake and therefore a right to be heard and listened to. Since democracy on these matters would interfere with the wishes and interests of the rulers, we get democracy where it doesn’t belong by way of compensation. The courts will become collection agencies for the corporations, but we will tenderly protect the people’s right to impose their sexual morals on everybody. We’ll steal your pensions and your social security contributions to pay off our political supporters, but you’ll be able to decide scientific issues like evolution by a show of hands. You want to pronounce it New-cu-lar, you go right ahead. See, we’re populists.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Windfall Prophets

To hear people use the word you’d think that the notion of spirituality was as plain and unambiguous as $3.45. I don’t mind admitting that I’m less clear about either the referent or the intention of the term. In fact, I just don’t know what it means. On the other hand, I do know at least one thing it’s for. Like many other words that lack an overt definition, it certainly has a job description. For example, you trot out “spirituality” on those occasions when you want to intimate that you are a decently deep individual even though you are also a little too sophisticated for more mythological or dogmatic or organized forms of religion.

I don’t have much use for “spirituality” myself because I’m always trying to be as shallow as I can. That’s my job: to pursue the horizontal depth of the literal. I guess in a pinch I could identify as spirituality the Psalmist’s solitary insomnia or my own recurrent surprise and delight at the spectacle of the world, a gratitude that tempts me to invent somebody to thank. Mostly, though, I avoid using terms like spirituality whose meaning eludes me. It doesn’t seem quite decent to speak so loosely about what is rumored to be the most important dimension of life. I certainly have the exclusive rights to that particular scruple. Folks who are otherwise very cautious of speech immediately lose all restraint once the time comes to make vague religious assertions, and the modern precedents are all on their side.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Putting the Waste Back in Wasteland

American journalism is highly offensive to people with an engineering mentality because it represents an enormous waste of resources. When I see a CNN anchor sitting in front of a room full of expensive electronic equipment manned by highly trained technical folks, I can’t but wonder if Turner et. al. would have ever made such a massive investment if they had known how little of the information gathering capacity they created would ever be used. What we see on the screen depends far more on fear of offending the government or the sponsors and the imperative of sticking to the storyline of the week than on any input from the real world. In the absence of an institution willing to inform its audience, building up the machinery of newsgathering is as pointless as fighting a famine by manufacturing more spoons. The newsmen already know what they need to know. What they lack is the nerve to tell it to us.

Deciding what to show and what not to show is an absolutely basic function of any kind of journalism, but the problem with our system is not that it is selective but that the bases of its selection are uniformly perverse. A certain kind of faux liberal pundit likes to claim that many stories are too complicated or too old hat for the fickle and mindless listeners, but much of the information coursing through the wires behind Aaron Brown is both interesting and timely. If he doesn’t report promptly on stories like the Downing Street memo it’s not because of their irrelevance but precisely because they are all too relevant. Real news would be highly exciting, perhaps even inciting; but it would also get the networks in trouble with the government and its corporate allies.

You often hear that television news reflects the taste and intellectual capacities of the public. Aside from the obvious fact that the tabloid obsessions of the day don’t preexist the nonstop coverage of the nonevents, the displacement of serious news by gossip wasn’t motivated by ordinary commercial considerations. The kind of folks who are eager to listen to blond harpies picking at Michael Jackson’s scabs are a very much less desirable demographic than the well-educated, mostly prosperous people who want to know what’s actually going on in the world. Unfortunately, to reach that audience would require a huge gamble that would put at risk a great many careers and a lot of capital. Which is why it’s probably not going to happen. And since we’re not going to have a free press again for a long time, most of the electronics on the set of the news shows will be as useless as the machine that went ping in the old Monty Python skit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Tyranny of the Agenda

Politicians and pundits tend to think that everything that occurs is relevant to the issue that happens to preoccupy them that day, just as scientists can fall into the analogous error of thinking that their observations automatically bear on the topic of the grant proposals. In a recent study of capuchin monkeys at Yale, for example, an economist set up a token economy for the animals. When the females began to hook for tokens, it was assumed, quite arbitrarily, that this primate prostitution reflected badly on the monkeys when it may have had more to do with the moral atmosphere of New Haven.

Making an analogous error, David Brooks recently delivered that the economic problems of Europe demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Left, even though, as I recall, very few rightists ever admitted that the former economic power of the West Germans was evidence of the superiority of Social Democracy or that the abysmal performance of American medicine has anything to do with our peculiar political economy. Political polemic aside, the performance of the European economy surely reflects a host of demographic factors; the aging of its population; the costs of absorbing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact into the system; and, crucially, the price of oil. The putatively socialistic institutions of Western Europe didn’t prevent many years of general prosperity in the region—remember the Wirtschaftwunder?—; and, in any case, since the socialistic parties in Europe have pursued a far more market-oriented policy over the last decade, one could just as easily maintain that it has been their abandonment of the true leftist faith that got them into trouble. My point is not that one or another of these explanations is right, but simply that determining which issues matter in such discussions is already a crucial and difficult question. Just because you happen to obsess about the proper balance between the public and the private doesn’t mean that everything happens because of the level of social spending in Norway.

Generals famously prepare for the last war; and, more generally, people go on worrying about the same old issues when the times change. I suspect that both the left and the right are part of a failing ancien regime that has fallen into this trap, though the stereotypical thinking of the right is vastly more harmful just now because the right is in charge. When Brooks denounces Europe in the name of a more dynamic if piratical economic policy, he is promoting remedies for the wrong disease. In an era of cheap fuel and demographic expansion, one could indeed make a case for a more laissez faire approach because too much welfare spending probably did reduce the overall growth rate of the European economies at a time when the great challenge and opportunity was still growth. Under contemporary conditions, on the other hand, it is at least problematic to suggest that building strip malls in Tuscany constitutes progress since it is not obvious that it constitutes progress in Nebraska. By the same token, promoters of a yet another New Deal fall into anachronism by supporting income redistribution as a way to shore up demand in an era when the most pressing need is to figure out how to suppress demand without crushing the economy or impoverishing a large part of the population.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Awaiting the Sensation

Whether what’s coming is a short, sharp shock, on the other hand, remains in dispute. In the last six months or so a great many people have finally noticed the problem with liquid fuels. There was even a made-for-TV faux documentary on one of the off-brand stations last night that dealt with the consequences of an interruption of oil supplies, though even this pot boiler, which was otherwise sufficiently alarmist, was careful not to let on the fundamental problem isn’t recalcitrant Arabs, balky technology, or hurricanes but the sheer disproportion between a finite supply and a continuously growing demand. Absent Ben Laden or Iraq, we’d still be up against it, albeit the political and military angles will doubtlessly have a lot of do with how and when the crisis plays out. And of course it does make some difference that the current administration is doing nothing substantive to deal with the problem.

The approaching problem hasn’t been a secret for some time. Aside from assorted environmentalists and folks who simply hate the car-dependent suburban lifestyle and can be dismissed for parti pris, sober scientific types such as Philip Morrison have been sounding the alarm for many years, though it must be admitted that publishing editorials in SCIENCE is not exactly calculated to reach a large audience. Even when the message has been audible outside the technical ghetto, it has been misunderstood as a claim that we were facing a generalized energy shortage instead of something a lot more specific and hard to deal with. But the point is not that there aren’t many available substitutes for oil but that the sources of energy that remain abundant are not the right forms of energy to sustain an economy like ours. Despite its abundance and high caloric value, coal can’t be put in your gas tank, for example, anymore than you can eat it. Converting coal into what we need is not, contrary to the G.E. ad, merely a matter of filling the coal mines with sweaty Victoria Secret models. It is not going to be easy to figure out how to use coal or nuclear or the renewables to fuel transport and, perhaps more crucially, to produce the huge inputs of fertilizer that have so far kept agricultural production ahead of world population growth.

Perhaps we misunderstand the problem because the public discussion of energy issues tends to be dominated by economists who tend to think that energy is as fungible as money and engineers who tend to think that every problem is solvable by sufficient ingenuity. I’ve think I’ve tended to be overoptimistic about the effectiveness of the technical solutions myself, in part because I deal with the technological side of the issue in my day job and know of many possible ways of ameliorating the situation if only the political will existed to implement real steps to deal with the problem. Even making the dubious assumption that the nations and their citizens can be persuaded to act rationally in all this, I may still be too optimistic.

It’s easy to dismiss the scary prophesies of writers like Jim Kunstler as green hysteria, but rather more difficult to defeat the particulars of their arguments, especially the very important point that the transition to a non-petroleum economy will be exceedingly expensive, perhaps impossibly so, without a fairly drastic decline in the standard of living. It takes a lot of gas to fill up the trucks that deliver the cement that goes into a new nuclear plant, for example; and that gas is likely to be even more expensive by the time we finally get around to building even one new nuclear plant. Even the building of new coal power plants and the mining infrastructure needed to supply them with fuel requires a great deal of petroleum. Biofuels have the same weakness. Indeed, since agricultural production in its modern form requires a huge and continuous input of petroleum products, synfuels may be dimes purchased at a quarter a piece even after you amortize the costs of ramping up their production.

Any change involves waste, but the transition of this country to a totally different energy regime is likely to result in an enormous write-off of assets. A large proportion of the wealth of a country like the United States is tied up in suburban real estate. Increasing the price of gas automatically deflates the real value of much of this store of wealth by making it more and more expensive if not impractical to live many miles from work. Having made the decision to build huge suburbs, we can’t just move all those buildings into more compact and energy efficient cities. We’re stuck with the consequences of earlier choices.

Students of economic geography often point out the dilemma faced by the Russian Federation. Huge cities were built in Siberia during the Soviet period at the whim of tyrants and commissars even though it never made much sense to locate large population centers so far from markets in such a miserable climate. Now that the cities are there, however, it is next to impossible to dismantle them, even though they have filled up with unemployed people and represent a drain on the entire country. We’re going to have to deal with the Capitalist version of the same problem. L.A., Phoenix, and Las Vegas are every bit as artificial as Magnitogorsk or Irkutsk.