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10 June 2008, 33rd birthday with bike

I turned over 33 years today.

I bought a bike over the weekend because I wanted to spend my birthday riding around town. It was surprising how easy it was to come into a new bike. I guess it shouldn’t have been. The previous bike came pretty easy too: it was left in the apartment by the previous tenant.

Anyway, I decided to ride the Mt. Vernon trail from Georgetown to Old Town Alexandria. People will often tout the Mt. Vernon trail as an aspect of what a livable city Washington, D.C. is. That this is a piece of D.C. livability speaks volumes. The Mt. Vernon trail is really just a sidewalk along the George Washington Parkway — and under the Reagan National Airport landing pattern. At one point, the trail is just a little berm between the Parkway and the airport runway. There are actually blast walls along part of the trail because they have backed up planes along it with their engines idling. It’s 95° out and the trail is a thin strip in the midst of 100 feet of blacktop on either side: one with thousands of cars averaging 80 miles per hour, the other with a jet landing every four minutes. Apparently D.C. people think this is a nice encounter with nature.

But it’s not so much the trail that’s miserable. The misery of the trail is only indicative of the larger problem, which is that D.C. has decided that the best use of the Potomac river is as a natural cut for freeways. On the Virginia side the river is walled off from the city by the George Washington Parkway. On the District side the river is more or less inaccessible all the way from Georgetown University to Anacostia Naval Base. The Mall, rather than ending at the river ends in one of the most confusing and nasty tangles of highway interchange in the country. The river is so cut off as to play no significant role in the life of the city. It may as well not be there. Washington, D.C. doesn’t even feel remotely like a river town.

Anyway, after the ride down, I said fuck it and took the train back into town.

Conviction Versus Expediency: A Quandary

The consensus on the left is that Senator Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to go to war was the top line problem that cost her the nomination. Ezra Klein says (“What Went Wrong?,” Tapped, 4 June 2008),

… among the more heartening and broadly applicable lessons of this campaign is that supporting a misguided, but politically expedient, war in 2002 turns out to have been a serious mistake.

For Matthew Yglesias it has been an ongoing theme, but in his post-Obama-victory analysis he says (“It’s the War,” TheAtlantic.com, 4 June 2008),

At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton had (and has) much more credibility with the liberal base than does the average person who shares her position on the war. If she can be held accountable, and if John McCain (until very recently the most popular politician in America) can be held accountable, then the sky’s the limit.

The problem here is that perhaps the majority of Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 did so because they remember the consequences of opposing an earlier Bush’s war with Iraq in 1991. Back then the Democratic party was reflexively anti-war and voted in a large block to oppose war in 1991. They confidently predicted another Vietnam. Then the war went swimmingly, approval ratings of President Bush, Sr. went through the roof and Congressional Democrats were left with egg on their faces.

Any politician with presidential ambitions in 2004 or 2008 was sure to tick off the “willing to kick rogue country butt” requirement on their political CV — all except one, that is. But what’s a politician to do when it turns out that neither stout conviction nor craven expediency does the trick?

A Western Union?

Okay, I’m going to advocate one of those bigthink political ideas that has absolutely no possibility of becoming reality (see, e.g., Foreign Affairs).

The United States should join the European Union.

Commentators are concerned that the world may be breaking into competing trade blocks, with North America and Europe being the most contentious. Both are constantly at odds over their respective agricultural subsidies. The U.S. engages the E.U in an epic battle at the WTO over its banana import regime. European antitrust czar Mario Monti vetoes the merger of General Electric and Honeywell and finds Microsoft €497 million for anticompetitive practices after the U.S. gives both a free pass. Both countries have strategically critical airplane manufacturers, Boeing and AirBus. The U.S. complains that AirBus is E.U. subsidized. The E.U. retorts that the U.S. hides its subsidies of Boeing in the Department of Defense budget. Why not take all these high-stakes squabbles out of the indeterminate realm of international disputes and bring them under the more normal procedures of federal politics?

In denial of its complete impracticality, the United States and Great Britain have already experienced a considerable amount of political harmonization — which I take to be the prerequisite to political union. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in simultaneous conservative revolutions in each country. Both were followed by short-lived toadies in the persons of John Major and George Bush, Sr.

But it doesn’t stop at Britain. Much of mainland Europe seems to be on a nearly synchronized political periodicity. As Thatcher and Reagan were putting their revolutions in place, French President François Mitterrand was backing off from his socialist program to become one of that country’s historic liberalizers. Germany was also headed by the conservative Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, to be followed by the third-way Gerhard Schröder in 1998. Indeed the trio of like-minded politicians Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder seemed quite a phenomenon at the time.

The United States already has a treaty of military alliance with Europe in the form of NATO. At the WTO the U.S. and the E.U. form a more or less unified negotiating block against the G-20 group of developing nations and Mercosur.

There is much idol discussion of a league of democracies so supplement or maybe supplant the United Nations. A U.S.-E.U. union would get us most of the way there. Throw in the British Commonwealth of Nations — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and so on — and what more is left?

If we’re on the way to one world government, but convergence is what is required, this seems like the next most logical step.

Finally, there is a persistent, nagging, Spenglerian fret over the decline of the West. Call it civilizational status anxiety. If the United States is serious about the idea of the West and defending it, why not make it official. Instead of the West being an idea from books or a lose political affiliation, make it a real political entity.

On the downside, it would really get us well on the way to Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and would reify the clash of civilizations.

Markets: Plan A or Plan B?

In an aside to an article on genetic determinism, The National Review comments on markets and the limits of information science (Manzi, Jim, “Undetermined,” vol. LX, no. 10, 2 June 2008, pp. 26-32):

In the middle of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and the libertarians he inspired faced those who asserted that the economy could be successfully planned. The libertarian position was not that such planning could be proved impossible in theory, but that we lacked sufficient information and processing power to accomplish it. The world of economic interaction was so complex that it overwhelms out ability to render it predictable; hence the need for markets to set prices.

I don’t for a moment believe that the Libertarian Party will disband once we cross some floating point operation threshold on supercomputers. There is the practical and there is the principled reason for subscribing to the libertarian position and I have read some of its proponents specifically state that even if the command economy could deliver superior performance, they would still be libertarians because of the component of human freedom.

The State of Brain-Machine Interface

Given that in the last five days it has been reported that scientists were able to read signals off the brain of a monkey and use the information to control a robotic arm in a useful manner, that Dean Kamen has done the same with for humans reading the signals off the nerve endings and that another team has been able to use fMRI and some adaptive software systems to guess what noun a subject is thinking with 77 percent accuracy, I’d say that we’re cusping on a sudden leap forward in the field of brain-machine interface, no?

Carey, Benedict, “Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own,” The New York Times, 29 May 2008

Tweney, Dylan, “Dean Kamen’s Robot Arm Grabs More Publicity,” Wired, 29 May 2008

Randerson, James, “Scientists Move a Step Closer to Mind-Reading,” The Guardian, 30 May 2008