Viewing the future in dark times – more engineers, fewer bookies

In the past, confidence for the future in advanced democracies offered a counterpoint to endless security fears. The existential terror of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, for example, lived side by side with the promise and expectation of a better life, fundamental to the success of democracies.

Standards of living rose, lifespans extended and citizens enjoyed freedom of movement unimaginable in the past.

Now, instead of an optimism pegged to a concrete vision for a better future in Western democracies, there is wariness and doubt. The outlook is provisional, conditional, tentative.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that future terror attacks are discussed in terms of risks, as is the style today. Risks, likelihoods and odds have become the de facto way to discuss, not just the chance of a terror attack, but a politician’s prospects of winning an election. Taking alongside the risk-based view of major economic or ecological events and it seems odds now dominate how the future is conceived and discussed.

But is a horse-racing form guide the best way to view the future that we can shape?

Buckminster Fuller’s US pavillon at Expo 67. Fuller forecast techno-utopian visions.

In past times, people looked forward to the future. Their optimism was grounded in specific expectations of a better world: financially, socially, physically. The Depression and World War II generation, after surviving those events, witnessed technological leaps that changed their world, giving people every reason to expect a better life ahead.

Achievements as mammoth and varied as penicillin, the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, computers, vaccines to inoculate against disease, intercontinental jet travel, the Apollo moonshot or even national healthcare schemes fundamentally reshaped the world.

Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel eschews the power of risk and luck in favour of the power of planning. He believes that from the 1700s to the 1960s, optimists with definite plans led the Western world.

Since the long bull market of 1982 began and the string of major technological advances seemingly dried up, “finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future”.

Peter Thiel

In Australia, you could argue that the mining and housing booms have further enshrined the concept of risk, chance and odds as a way to understand the future.

Individuals manage “risk” in their retirement savings. They “future-proof” their careers against as many different outcomes as they can. For a decade, the economic outlook of the Lucky Country, relied on the puzzle of what was going on inside China’s economy.

Australia’s real estate market placed further emphasis on sentiment and luck for the winners of auctions. Quite tellingly, Malcolm Turnbull, upon becoming PM, noted it was a “turn of events I did not expect.”

Mentions of ‘risk’ (red line) and ‘progress’ (blue line) in books from 1900 to 2008.

Even on the national security front, Australia “hedges” its risk, simultaneously hoping against but planning for an eventual China-related war in Asia. All of it, a risk-based future.

Perhaps Thiel is right in saying that “if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you give up on trying to master it”.

Watching politicians in Australia and in democracies beyond, one can only conclude that many have given up on trying to master the future.

Politicians govern from poll to poll in fear of voter or party revolts, while businesses can only see ahead to the next quarter in trying to placate the market. In the throes of the current US primary season, notice the absence of future plans and how abundant polls are.

Everyone fancies themselves an armchair statistician. A Nate Silver. A 538er. And so the future vision of a nation extends ahead only weeks, rather than years. This is particularly true on the Republican side, as the GOP contends with a leadership vacuum being filled by Donald Trump.

Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss, 1929

Maybe the popularity of this risk-based view of the future accounts for how democracies generally have responded to the big challenges of the time. There is a lassitude, a wobbliness about decision-making in matters as diverse as the eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, Islamic State, and China’s island-building.

In Australia, mining taxes and climate change legislation have been enacted then reversed as governments watched their approval ratings oscillate. Even the national broadband network has somehow become a whipping post of successive governments.

If it’s true that Western democracies need new industries in order to keep incomes rising and employment full, then clearly a bit of engineering is in order. But let’s be honest: governments and people don’t embrace this kind of thinking unless they have to. Embarking on major projects means accepting a sizeable chance of failure.

Deep in France’s Trente Glorieuses – Jean Luc Godard directing a film in 1964

The question now is, have we reached such an uncertain point, that we need to begin planning big for the future. Economic growth is uncertain. Great power politics are emerging again in Asia but also in Europe. Islamic State is active abroad and lurks within Western nations, too. Mass migration is reshaping politics. Meanwhile, rising and revanchist powers use their military to jockey for influence.

Rather than drifting towards a future with options continually held, bets hedged, hoping for lucky days ahead, democracies can create their own destiny: economically, technologically and socially. Setting ambitious national goals – concrete, tangible, but rhetorical and political too – would give the future shape.

Then, the optimistic world view that acted as an engine for Western democracies in decades and centuries past can be put back in place. It would be an counterweight to the parade of dangers democracies confront. If liberal democracies know where they are going, they will be able to shape their future. If they shape the future, they can bend it in a favourable direction. In uncertain times, this can’t help but offer hope of a better tomorrow.

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#NeverTrump? The question is #WhyTrump?

In a first, guest contributor journalist B.J. Bethel explains how the Donald Trump phenomenon has been decades in the making.

Guest post by: B.J. Bethel

Third-party movements are nothing new in US presidential elections, and aren’t as rare as one would believe. What is rare is for a third-party movement to strike fire within one of the two established parties.

Essentially, this is the accomplishment of Donald Trump. A portion of the party’s constituency is mad as hell, and isn’t going to take it anymore, and has found its voice in the Donald – wealth inheritor, real estate tycoon, multiple bankrupter- the last person to lead a working-class populist uprising.

Crippling the Republican Party

Many are clamoring at Trump’s audacity, the calls for a border wall; banning Muslim immigrants, and the other awful things he’s said, and universally ignored what’s been the biggest factor in his rise. They raid his rallies, interrupting them with protests. One tried running on stage. A rally in Chicago turned into a riot. (As someone who has covered many a politician and knows how difficult it is to get into a rally with a press pass, let alone with the intention of making a ruckus, maybe the protesters should ask themselves why they seem to get in so easy) .

Trump just didn’t show up at a rally or debate, and start making people angry. This is a phenomena building for 25 years, beginning with the rise of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, and his numerous carbon copies, moving along to the advent of Fox News and the Internet. The conservative movement has profited from and had success with an incessant rage machine that’s pumped money, intensity and voters into elections for two decades. This coalesced into the Tea Party.

The Tea Party was an honest grassroots movement. It grew out of Porkbusters and other small, internet based conservative and libertarian activist groups that emerged after the bank bailout. Middle and working classes were both enraged. After years of preaching from conservatives on the evil of welfare, handouts and championing law and order; the bailout was a step too far. Quickly donors and the party saw something they could use to their advantage, and the organizing began and the money followed. The Democrats took a historic beating in the 2010 midterms, and the GOP was well on its way to making Barack Obama a one-term president.

White working class – plaything of the right, ignored by left (pictured Archie Bunker)

Except the GOP never understood the nature of the grievances held by those voters. When angry Baby Boomers and senior citizens (caustically mocked by those in the coastal media for their preference for baseball caps, polo shirts and cargo shorts), began appearing at town halls, they were mad about health care law that might cut Medicare and Social Security benefits – not exactly a conservative position.

Trump’s following is built primarily from disenchanted working and middle class whites who see both parties selling them out for trade deals that benefit Wall Street and wreck Main Street. Clinton passed NAFTA and GATT, the Republicans let companies offshore without a fight, now both parties are working hard to get the largely secretive TPP agreement – a 12-country NAFTA for the Asia-Pacific region – passed with as little scrutiny as possible.

Trump’s strategy when he speaks has been to generate enough vitriol to dominate the news cycle. He can do this at appearances and with his Twitter account, making CNN perhaps the most important member of his constituency.

The other half of his typical stump speech consists strictly of economic talk – focused directly on trade and offshoring. Facts are, worker productivity and hours have skyrocketed in the last 40 years, along with health care costs. Plummeting are wages and benefits. Thirty years ago, a family of three could live a middle-class lifestyle with one working spouse – all while preparing retirement. Those days are history.

This is the core of the Trump message, the part Democrats and Republicans don’t want to talk or deal with. This would mean going against their main constituency, the donor machine, Wall Street, K Street lobbying, which lies in direct opposition to the working class on nearly every treaty, law and court ruling the last 30 years.

What are the stakes? The two-party system as it now exists. During prior third-party runs, if these candidates carry serious support, generally one of the parties would adopt their key issue as their own. Ross Perot took home nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992, largely on the strength of concern over the national debt. Republicans adopted much of his agenda when they ran and won Congress in 1994.

Would a party do this on trade, jobs and offshoring? This would clash with the desires of big donors, big business and big finance.

When groups with politically unpopular concerns are left out of the process in Europe (the biggest issue of late immigration), the tendency is for far-right movements to grow. The US can avoid this result by one or both parties giving them a seat at the table. This means looking money in the face and saying no – when was the last time a politician did that?

B.J. Bethel is a journalist living in Ohio. He’s covered government, politics, sports and the environment for a decade.

Wanted: Iranian hackers

FBI director James Comey’s language in discussing the indictments of seven Iranian hackers brings to mind the language of the West. - Get codes for Facebook, Hi5, MySpace and more

“The FBI will find those behind cyber intrusions and hold them accountable, wherever they are, and whoever they are,” he said.

“The world is small, and our memories are long.”

“No matter where hackers are in the world and no matter how hard they try to conceal their identities, we will find ways to pierce that shield and identify them. That is the message of this case.”

You can almost imagine John Wayne or Tommy Lee Jones delivering the words. But it’s not a joke.

The US is apparently coming to grips with this world-changing invention, and how to form a coherent response to aggression by other nation states. Thinking of the cyberrealm as an untamed frontier, one which the US cannot simply occupy, but must patrol and face showdowns in, probably makes sense.

Internally, the US has begun coordinating its prosecution to allow these kinds of cases – this is a new thing. The prosecution effort bridges national security and commercial crime in a way that is needed for the long-term strategy in the cyber frontier. Meanwhile, corporates which are long accustomed to hiding evidence of cyber intrusions from each other are taking steps toward sharing information.

As the Washington Post reports:

For years, the U.S. government had treated hacking campaigns carried out by foreign governments as matters of national security that are classified. Officials were reluctant even to acknowledge a major intrusion by a foreign country either for diplomatic or intelligence reasons.

But as the scope and severity of the intrusions have grown, that has changed.

In 2014 the US indicted 5 Chinese PLA members for economic spying online against the US. The US government has even arrested Chinese citizens caught travelling on Pacific islands like Guam and Saipan for offenses like pirating. Into the seeming chaos of globalization, the long arm of justice reaches.


Robots as job-takers or productivity-makers

Robots in the workplace are often feared as the latest job killers but that view depends on what part of the world you’re in.

In Japan, for example, robots in factories or shops are being welcomed by society, says Professor Motoshige Itoh, one of the leading minds behind Japan’s economic reform known as Abenomics.

“Politically, it’s very surprising,” Itoh said. “Japan is in a very good environment to just speed up the process of the introduction of robotic technology, replacing workers.”

Read the full story here.

Robots and human at work together (MST3000)