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Happy 2020!  This first Ferrebeekeeper post of the (de-facto) new decade arrives on January 2nd, a historically glum day, as people leave holiday merriment behind and return to their futile dayjobs.  As far as we can currently tell, the ‘teens were not a good decade.  Not only were there few major scientific or technological breakthroughs (beyond garden-variety “slightly better fuel economy” sorts of things), but, even worse, all of the politically expedient bunts which spineless or feckless leaders have made since the Cold War began to truly catch up to the world’s great democracies.  Again and again, government figures of intellect, probity, and conscience were outmaneuvered by sinister oligarchs and pro-business cartels who used dark money, demagogic tricks, manipulative new technology, and straight-up cheating to thwart the popular will. The decade’s putative bright spot, a roaring bull economy is really a sugar rush made of frack gas and stock buybacks. In the meantime, the dark side of global consumer capitalism becomes more & more painfully evident in the form of desertification, ocean acidification/warming, climate change, and general ecological devastation.

This is all pretty discouraging to face as you go back to pointless drudgery in your horrible open office. Maybe I could have at least listed some of the compelling new tv shows or ranked good-looking celebrities or something?

Well don’t worry! I believe the situation could become much brighter than it presently seems. All is not yet completely lost. The 2020s do not necessarily need to be another lost decade like the teens. By adapting two sensible reforms, we can make the next decade actually good instead of good only for crooked billionaires and their mouthpieces.  But when I say two major reforms, I mean two MAJOR reforms which would change how power and resources are allocated at a society-wide scale. As an American, I am addressing the problems here in America, but I believe these concepts are broadly applicable to democratic societies. The year is already getting longer so I will state these big concepts bluntly and succinctly.

1)  Our broken political system needs to be fixed.  Right now partisan polarization is ripping the country apart.  Even broadly popular common-sense solutions are impossible to implement.  Stunningly, extremists on both sides of the aisle would rather deny the opposite party a victory than do what is best for everyone in the country.   The way to stop this polarization is through ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections and through independent election redistricting.  The current system helps extremists.  Ranked choice voting would make it much more difficult for fringe candidates to be elected.  Independent redistricting would mean that voters choose their political representatives rather than vice versa.  Since polarization would no longer be rewarded, political leaders could work together to gather some of the low-hanging fruit which has been left dangling by all of these sequesters, filibusters, pocket vetoes, hearings, and other scorched-earth political gambits.  Obviously we can’t just implement such a plan instantly (it would be stopped dead by political gridlock).  But if we started using ranked choice voting just for primaries and local elections it would help.  Soon we might start seeing politicians with plans and ideas from both the red and blue parties, instead of these despicable apparatchiks we now have.

2) Public investment needs to be poured into blue sky scientific research, applied research and development, education, and infrastructure.  In the market system, corporations will spend money on things which will make money for them in the immediate future.  Government and universities do the heavy lifting by conducting real research on real things.  The government makes the internet.  Private companies make Netflix.  Since corporate behemoths (ahem…monopolies) have an ever greater say in how money is spent, less money is being spent on science, education, and fundamental real physical systems (transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric grids). R&D, education, and infrastructure are the seed corn of future prosperity.  Right now, corporations are eating that seed corn (in the form of Trump’s stupid tax cuts for the economy’s wealthiest players).  Right now, research scientists–the people whose ideas will keep you from dying horribly of a disease or keep the the future from becoming an unlivable hellscape–are being forced to grind their teeth as some character with an MBA from Sloan or Wharton explains that fundamental scientific research to understand the universe does not meet critical business metrics. I don’t mind busting the budget, but we should at least get something in return for the money.

Of course these two broad objectives things will be hard to accomplish, but I believe they are well within our collective grasp.  Best of all, as things begin to improve, virtuous feedback loops will unlock even further  progress.  2020 will be a hard year as we push against the corruption and failures of the past decade (or two)  but I believe that if we keep these two broad goals in mind, we can make the twenties a roaring success that everyone will talk about with pride and happiness… in a future world which still exists!

Bullet train! Yes!

Usually I avoid quotidian political subjects, but I am excited about the newly released plans for high speed rail (which fit very well with my preferred vision of the future) and I was also angered by the kneejerk opposition to those plans.  It would be fun and elucidating to write about the many merits of high speed rail and the great opportunities which such a system presents.  Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the way that political discourse is conducted in America anymore, so I will bow to contemporary conventions and belittle its foes.

A pro-rail article from Yahoo news presented these disparaging words from a rail critic, “Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.”

Hmm, I actually don’t think anything in the transportation world covers its cost.  Ken Button, whose quote makes him sound profoundly ignorant of transportation realities (and whose name makes him sound like an off-brand toy) is just blithely assuming that roads, highways, car infrastructure, and even air infrastructure is all free.  In fact these things cost a great deal of money–and taxpayers foot the bill. Even “for-profit” airlines are heavily subsidized and supported by public money.  But it is money that taxpayers are willing to shell out, because we like having a civilization.

"All of this is completely free and appears by magic!" --Ken Button (cit. needed)

Sometimes, when I’m on the subway and lack an appropriate book, I read one of New York City’s tabloids. The editorial section usually features some suburban blowhard observing that since he doesn’t take the subway he doesn’t want his tax dollars paying for it–let the strap hangers pay for it themselves with greatly increased fares. This poor logic always bothers me.  An equally weak counter argument would run thus: I don’t drive, so why should my tax dollars pay for the roads?  (I could add that roads are filled with dangerous maniacs who love to carelessly mow down children, working people, and even one another.  Additionally cars increase our reliance on foreign oil suppliers and cause a variety of environmental problems.)

But it is wrong to dislike roads (and the automobiles on them).  Roads allow goods and services to move everywhere: they are the means by which emergency vehicles get around and food is delivered.  Outside the city, they are the only way to travel (except for ornithopter or pony).  But, here in the northeast corridor, they are also a mess.  So are airports for that matter.  If we want to move around freely in the future we will need new means of doing so (maybe we won’t want to travel—we might be busy shooting arrows at each other and fighting over canned food, however politicians would be wise not to make that a centerpiece of their vision for the future).  I’m sure the anti-subway driving enthusiast writing to the Daily News would find new worth for the subway if all 5 million riders decided to drive to work (particularly if it was on the day his heart gave out and he needed an ambulance).  Maybe he will even have some qualms about quashing public transportation when petrol shoots up a few more dollars (and growing instability in the middle East always makes that seem likely sooner rather than later).

Of course there are very valid concerns about the proposed high speed rail system: Amtrak is a mess (having been remade in the image of a pork barrel), and we don’t want to damage our extremely reliable freight rail service.  And the whole thing is going to cost far more money than it is being billed at (money we don’t have). But I imagine that money would be thrown out anyway (remember “cash for clunkers” which subsidized wealthy car buyers to purchase new Toyotas?) and at least we’ll have beautiful new bullet trains and an additional way for people to move around the country.  Additionally, such a system will be necessary when we inevitably move to a nuclear-powered world.  Either opponents of the new high speed rail plans should produce some long term plans of their own or they should just come straight out and proclaim they are friends of Middle Eastern despots and that they oppose technological progress and infrastructure growth.

Of course high speed rail is all a dream anyway--this is the most likely actual future.

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September 2022