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Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news?  If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around.  Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”

Airline market share

As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right.  There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America.  If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane).  This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly.  Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.

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I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society.  America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market.  Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude.   With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them.  Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson?  I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!

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The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly.  This in turn is stifling competition and innovation.  It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings!  The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s.  The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.

It is not supposed to work this way.  In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming.  In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.

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This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace.  Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers).  We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do.  The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.

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Here are more political musings for this highly political fortnight.  Let’s start with a basic assumption.  Donald Trump is not worthy of anyone’s vote until he releases his tax returns.  That is the basic price of entry into politics.  Until he shows otherwise, we can just assume his scammy casinos and fraudulent colleges are bankrupt and all of his money comes from the Russian government. We do not even need to get to the parts about him being an ignoramus, a bully, a fraudster, and a, um, fascist who would upend decades of international peace, progress, and prosperity for his own naked self-aggrandizement.

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So, it looks as though we are supporting the Democrats this year no matter what their circus…er, caucus looks like…but what does their circus look like?  After blogging last week about the Republican convention in Cleveland, it is necessary to say something about the Democratic convention this week in Philadelphia.  So far the Democratic convention has certainly been glitzy–with all sorts of high-profile show-biz folk. After a colorful opening day during which diehard Bernie Sanders supporters disrupted the proceedings, things have settled down and the grand Kabuki of party reconciliation is proceeding apace.  I was also pleased to see the current president return to his finest form with a moving speech about Americans coming together around values like decency, hard work, and responsibility.  Where has this kind of soaring speech been during his presidency?

At heart, I am a believer in our world of capitalism, free markets, and open trade (although I don’t especially love the way the market panders to comfort over meaning).  I don’t think people are as different as the Trumps (or even the Jesse Jacksons) make them out to be.  I am a social liberal.  The theocrats need to keep their imaginary gods (and their very real inquisitors) out of people’s private lives.

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I also believe in classical liberal economics (although I use that phrase in a sort of 19th century way which will hopefully not confuse people). I read The Wealth of Nations, and I was convinced by Adam Smith’s arguments.  However, the part of that book which nobody talks about is the part about monopolies (which Smith saw as anathema to his system). Large corporations merge into immense corporations, which then become nearly impossible for upstarts to dislodge. Such corporations can and do play havoc in the market.  They alter regulations to throttle competitors.  They fix prices so that everyone pays more.  Our version of capitalism may not actually be capitalism, but is instead its hijacked successor.

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The rentiers who gain greatly from operating these monopolies (or cartels or duopolies) need to keep them from being disrupted by the only force large enough to do so: the Federal government. The Republicans…the real Republicans who have seemingly vanished overnight played a cynical game where they accumulated electoral gains by telling people not to believe in government or politicians and then collecting campaign money and post-career favors from the too-big-to fail titans.  The business interests have an easier time writing their own ticket, and minimizing the uncertainties which stem from rapid technological innovation and globalization.

However that is a cynical way of looking at politics, and we can’t afford to be cynical. Also, when I talk to thoughtful conservatives they say what I just said, except they strongly aver that it is the Democrats who have been taken over by moneyed interests.  I don’t disagree, but the sheer extent to which Republicans have acted to paralyze and undermine government makes me think of them as the true malefactors.  Is there a way to make things better?

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During his stump speech on Tuesday night, Bill Clinton said, “Change is hard and can be boring” I have not found this to be true.  Change for the better is hard.  It is exceedingly easy to make things worse.  I keep looking on Facebook and seeing my old scoutmaster from red America lambasting the Democrats and praising Trump, and it fills me with sadness.  What does he imagine in going to happen?  We will start a trade war (or a war war) with China, and suddenly it will be 1963?  Erecting trade barriers (or literal barriers) will make the cost of goods and services leap through the roof and we will be in a recession that makes the one from 2008 look like a jolly day trip. Even then protectionism and isolationism will not fill up factories with high paid workers—those days are gone forever.  If we betray our longstanding allies suddenly the world will be unimaginably dangerous…and we will have no friends.  Our power and prestige could evaporate overnight: such things are made of networks and handshakes and treaties and beliefs.  For that matter so is money (which is just promises in a database somewhere).

So we have to love the Democrats. Thoughtful people may disagree about some of their positions, but we have no choice but to back them this year. Frankly I have never had much love for the Republicans’ world of religious authoritarianism, intrusive rules about substances and bodies, censors, and unfettered cash worship anyway.  The things the Republicans represent which I do love are the belief in a robust military and the desire to throw money at technological progress (which is an entirely necessary requirement for having a worthwhile military in our world of super computers, nano-materials, and space technology).  Blue sky research is also the way to have a vibrant economy tomorrow, and maybe to stay ahead of humankind’s terrifying negative impact on the world ecosystems.  This year, the Republicans are not interested in improving the military or pushing science forward (they even stopped Newt Gingrich from going on about his moonbase) so screw ‘em.

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Hillary was not born as some cold spoiled oligarch—she worked hard to become one. She has substantial brains and a steely work ethic.  She needs to stand up for the networked world.  This is going to mean working with the corporate hegemons—the same monopolies I was bemoaning two paragraphs ago.  It is going to mean some unpalatable compromises with unsavory corporations, countries, and coalitions. Yet we know Hilary has a knack for this sort of ugly work. She also has kind of a flinty look—like she could be another Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel…our own formidable iron lady!

Tonight she is going to look us in the eye and tell us she loves us all and wants to hug us and that she will work tirelessly to make us richer and more free. Then she will turn around, go into a smoky backroom somewhere, and make very different promises to the great masters (neither they, nor anyone else, can trust Trump–so they are going to have to deal with her).  This saddens me, I wish we could hear about these actual plans for grown-ups rather than whatever airy waffle Hilary serves up in tonight’s speech.  But this year has made it all too obvious that people must be talked to as though they are childish idiots.

I guess I am with her.  We can keep muddling forward together to greatness.  Hilary for President!

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(at least she looks happy to have my support–and that is a very cool twill!)

Yuri Gagarin and his Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule

Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic trip to outer space aboard a Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (in what is now Kazakhstan). Yuri’s call sign was “Кедр” (“Kedr” in Roman letters, which means Siberian Pine). He was in orbit for 108 minutes. Gagarin was chosen for this mission because of mental acuity, physical toughness, and his affability–which elicited the admiration and respect of his fellow cosmonauts. Additionally his tiny size was an asset in the cramped capsule (he was only 5’2”). He was the first human being to enter outer space. Our kind has been spacefaring now for half a century.

This event is celebrated around the world with a (fledgling) holiday known as Yuri’s night. It is a time to reflect on the milestones of space exploration and to drink to all the heroes of the world’s various space programs (especially Gagarin who died in a 1968 training flight). While I might prefer such an international space celebration to mark an American space milestone, there is no need to be churlish.  There is plenty of space to go around, and the tiny grinning Gagarin makes an engaging hero. He lived to fly.  If a fiery death in the sky was the price of such ambition then he was willing to pay up.

Vostok1 Lifting off on April 12th, 1961

The fiftieth anniversary of the first space flight is a worthy cause for celebration, but it also gives us a lot of missing milestones to think about.  Aside from the rickety bucket of bolts which is the International Space Station, we are all still here.  There are no moon bases.  There has been no Mars trip. We have never ventured to Ganymede and we may never go.  We lack energy sources which would allow us to undertake great ventures beyond this world. Although the robots currently exploring the solar system are quietly amassing a vast array of data and some very bright people are busy analyzing it, space exploration does not seem to be a priority right now. Our politicians would rather slather money on entitlement programs instead of funding a more assertive space program.  The bankers and industrialists in charge of private industry seem only fitfully interested in space research and exploration (indeed, they sometimes barely seem interested in anything worthwhile).

I haven't forgotten you Virgin Galactic. You have done well.

I am not demanding humankind establish an interstellar empire (well, actually I am, but I am asking quietly because physics is scary and space is extremely…spacious). There are some hard truths about the physical universe that we are butting up against here. Our failure to move further faster is partly a problem with engineering, technology, and materials.  Who knows though? Somewhere someone might currently be making some breakthrough which will solve all of this.  A glorious space age might be right around the corner, but we need to act.  We need resources to go toward blue sky research and scientific discovery. We need missions and objectives which arouse the finest passions in tomorrow’s explorers and scientists. Other than vague talk of private spaceflights and maybe a Mars mission we don’t have any dazzling targets we are aiming at. Our shuttle program is ending and nothing is replacing it. Our imagination is failing and our celestial dreams are winking out.

I would like the heroic accomplishments in space to lie in the future not merely in the past   Why not join the Planetary Society, or draft a letter to your legislator?  Yuri Gagarin was the first person to leave Earth, if only for a brief time.  More people should venture to space this century rather than less. We all need to take bolder better steps to ensure there is a future for humanity in the skies beyond this world. In half a century we have only just dipped our toes into the heavens.

The Milky Way Galaxy from Earth

I’m a globalist who favors free trade and open markets, so I hope people won’t take me the wrong way when I take a certain amount of umbrage with today’s capitalism.  A new generation of leaders and thinkers need to rework the way in which decisions are made and resources are allocated. The actions of the market—which so many economists and businesspeople regard as sacrosanct–are hemming us in to a stale repetitive worldview, which is ultimately a trap.

The way we live now...

Capitalism is very good at creating captivating plastic rubbish, dangerous motor-vehicles, elaborate insurance for said vehicles, and erection pills, but it is less gifted at facilitating fundamental scientific research.  Most of the really important technological innovations of the last century came from the military, from universities, or from crazy monopolies (before they got busted up).  Capitalists refined these ideas and made them marketable, but they were not interested in the initial open-ended “blue sky” research which was expensive and did not always proceed logically to money making technologies.  Virtually every part of the aerospace industry originated in military technology for solving cold war (or World War I & II) tactical problems. The internet grew up out of defense department computer and communications experiments. The capacitor was created in one of Ma Bell’s laboratories before AT&T was broken up. Antibiotics were discovered by an absent-minded professor with a messy lab!

Capitalists are necessary to refine and popularize great ideas, but they do not see farther than the bottom line…and the truly worthwhile discoveries are lurking out there in the wilderness beyond immediate financial recompense.

Yes, yes but where exactly are we going?

There are indeed avenues by which money travels into pure research. Rich bankers give money to universities and research hospitals. Taxpayers give money to NASA and the military.  All of us give money to monopolies (which have an insidious way of forming despite legislation prohibiting them). These avenues are not enough.  We are stagnating.  Ask anyone.  Or just look outside at a fossil fuel & automobile based world which seems pretty fundamentally similar to the 1920’s.

Dammit, that's what I figured. Can't you think bigger here for just a few minutes?

There is a world of wonder out there and our future could be bright indeed: By the end of my life we should have nanobots that eat cancers and repair brain damage. We should have space elevators and brilliant robot superservants which (or maybe I should say who) beat the Turing test.  We should be crafting true artificial ecosystems that exist outside of this world (because it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are too many of us). However, the investment bankers and wallstreet power brokers need to rethink the utility of the (musty oligarchical) world they are building, and politicians are going to have to think beyond the end of their term. Otherwise the glowing future is never going to come.

A probabilistic functional gene network of the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Image: Insuk Lee, Michael Ahn, Edward Marcotte, Seung Yon Rhee/Carnegie Institution for Science)

I have no idea how to incentivize these things better. Maybe we should ask an economist. But don’t you want to live a much longer life? Don’t you want space elevators and robot servants? Then write to your congressperson and ask them to send more money towards research (or better yet, vote for a new legislator—none of the current ones seem much good).  If you are a stockholder, vote out the current board.  I am blaming our shortsightedness on our leaders but they are a manifestation of all of us.  Our vaunted capitalist system needs to incentivize vastly more scientific research and it needs to reward bold long-term thinking (rather than myopic money-grubbing). We are going to have to stop thinking small and greedy–only then can we create a future which is truly big enough and great enough for our bright dreams.

A Bernal Sphere (painting by Don Davis)

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