Herbert London is author of Decade of Denial, published by Lexington Books, and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
The New World Technology Is Creating
It is a virtual cliche borne of overstatements to suggest the world is interconnected. Technology has created the information economy and, according to Thomas Friedman, has made "the world flat." Presumably the p.c. has made decisions possible in real time, has offered opportunities for labor, commerce, and wealth production on an unprecedented scale, and provided benefits too numerous to identify. Let me illustrate.
Most libraries will soon be book-free and devoid of people. In the cyberspace age most research is done online. Google is in the throes of digitizing 32 million books on its site. For the Google entrepreneurs, content hasn't any value. It is the viewer who is important, the person who wants the content. Needless to say, for authors this may appear as copyright infringement, but for the researcher it is nirvana.
Any topic the mind can conjure is or will soon be researchable. Buildings housing books have become places for repose, or for codgers like me who love dusty stacks. But the library of books and archives is quickly becoming an anachronism.
Similarly, a technology that transmits information in words and pictures can advise and educate. A surgeon at NYU hospital can assist with a surgery in Nairobi; a grandma in New Jersey can provide visual evidence for her cold remedy to a grandchild in Los Angeles.
Behavioral targeting to wit: the preferences of online users are collected and offered to advertisers capable of targeting individual consumers. "Deep pocket inspection boxes" inside an Internet network can track consumer visits and deliver precise data to anyone eager to sell products or influence opinion and taste.
Perhaps the most significant online break-through is the use of "virtual" manufacturing, sometimes described as nanotechnology. Products can now be produced in a virtual world without real mock-ups or materially based forms. From airplanes and cars to buildings and homes, a non-material world of products can be constructed; in fact, is being constructed as Boeing's 777 aircraft indicates.
In a world where information and ideas count more than material resources, the gap between rich and poor will diminish in time. In fact, companies that relied on a stable of scientists or so-called experts will now be challenged by the globalization of the Internet. If a question is posted, thousands of people across the globe will be able to address it in real time. Knowledge will be democratized as the aggregate views of mankind tackle issues from desertification to agricultural yield.
That technology is changing our lives is apparent as the cell phone, iPods, and HDTV demonstrate. But I would be remiss if I mention only the benefits without considering the drawbacks.
A generation that relies on the Internet for research seeks specific answers to specific questions. The large, universal, deeply philosophic matters are overlooked. Moreover, if intellectual property is made available without charge -- the manifest form of Internet transactions -- what is the incentive for scholarship?
Second, the value of the Internet is that anyone can use it (this is the height of egalitarianism), but the major flaw is that anyone can use it. This technology can be employed to spread knowledge, and to spread rumor, to elevate the human experience and to degrade it. The fact that a false rumor can circulate the globe in seconds should give us pause.
Third, by monitoring individual preferences through advanced targeting devices, privacy can be jeopardized. Do I want advertisers to know my desires? Do I want all the information about myself collected and made readily available to a source I do not know?
As Descartes noted when he discussed "the ghost in the machine," technology offers wonders that can influence living, but it is accompanied by a cost. It is one thing to see a world that is flat with opportunity universalized, but it is not far-fetched to envision a Brave New World as well. Clearly the choice is ours, or is it? Technology seemingly has momentum of its own. Once in motion, it is hard to stop. Hence, it is wise to think through the pros and cons of new technology and never lose sight of the law of unintended consequences.
The Bad News Is the Good News Is Ignored
More than a decade ago Ben Wattenberg wrote a book with the marvelous title, The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong. If that book were republished today I would change the title to The Bad News Is The Good News Is Ignored.
It isn't surprising that in the world of media reportage only bad news counts. The problem with this condition is that it feeds a generally one dimensional view of politics, a misperception of the world that promotes weltschmerz and despair.
Most of the reports about Iraq, for example, emphasize sectarian violence, failed policy, and tactical errors. Overlooked, with rare exceptions, is that the "surge" and an emphasis on counterinsurgency have had a profound effect on the war effort. Civilian deaths have fallen 77 percent year over year, while military fatalities have declined by 64 percent.
Needless to say, nirvana has not been achieved, nor is it appropriate to declare victory, but the trend line is clear. Al Qaeda is in retreat. Even many Sunni leaders who had provided sanctuary for Al Qaeda terrorists have turned against them. Recently the Washington Post and the BBC finally admitted that violence in Iraq is abating, but these stories appeared well into the third stage of the campaign, and remain aberrational in media coverage of the war.
Second, it is noteworthy that Democratic candidates for president have placed a great emphasis on income disparity in the nation. The quasi-Marxist contention is that the rich grow richer and the poor, poorer. Yet the evidence provides a somewhat different picture.
The middle class has more disposable wealth than ever before and the lowest quintile has actually improved its annual income. Moreover, the numbers overlook the extraordinary mobility of one group rising and some falling back. But perhaps the most significant finding is that the percentage of those who are poor had declined slightly, and the percentage of those who earn above $150,000 per annum has increased (controlling for inflation).
Needless to say, this condition may not attract the attention of "two Americas" speech-makers since the reality is much less provocative than assertions of economic exploitation. But surely there should be space somewhere in television land where the nuanced story of class income can be described.
Last, it is often said by the panjandrums of television news that most Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs. Presumably workers are distressed by dreary dead-end positions. Yet recent polls tell a different story with more than two thirds arguing that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their present positions.
It should also be noted that most Americans between the ages of 25 and 45 change jobs multiple times, indicating that there are several opportunities to find employment satisfaction. In a society that has made the transition from an industrial base to an economy structured by information, those who obtain skills can dictate to the employment market. This may be the first time in history that labor influences management more than the reverse.
These largely undisclosed, or should I say non-publicized, accounts are part of a consistent media view. In the 1960s it was argued, due in part to Paul Erhich's book The Population Bomb, that the world's population would double in every subsequent decade. Of course, that hasn't happened, but the recantation hasn't either. It was argued four years ago that several islands in the Pacific would have to be evacuated because the ocean would rise due to global warming. But the devastation of these atolls has not occurred and the media organs responsible for the initial accounts are silent.
The drum beat of negativism is unrelenting. There may be some good news stories on t.v. and in newspapers, but it is simply hard to find them. I wonder what kind of effects a steady diet of negative news has on the public. No, I need not wonder; I see it in the mind set of nihilists who preach despair and the end of the American experiment.
$100 a Barrel Oil?
As oil approaches $100 a barrel and as some pundits contend the price could reach $200 a barrel, Chicken Littles are persuaded this could undermine Western economies and involve an historic transfer of capital to oil producing nations.
While this could happen, I remain unconvinced. It is not that I am hopelessly polyannish; my guarded optimism is based on several quite logical expectations.
First, an oil price that accelerates the production of synfuel alternatives is not in the best interest of OPEC nations. Saudi economists understand that matter, which explains why production increased in the 1970s when President Carter introduced his synfuels plan.
Second, while demand has been increasing, particularly from China and India, known reserves have also been increasing in East Africa, Prudhoe Bay, and the South Pacific. Of course, crude oil is meaningless without refineries. For the first time in decades the U.S. is intent on doing something about refinery capacity.
Third, the public is increasingly aware of the fact that oil revenues translate into terrorist activity, a condition that explains why Americans are eager to see a largely homegrown fossil fuel industry such as ethanol.
Fourth, steps are being taken to transfer combustion technology reliant on gasoline to hybrid and electric cars.
Fifth, the use of sovereign Arab capital to buy Western companies and financial institutions is engendering widespread uneasiness and dissatisfaction with Middle East oil.
Sixth, there isn't a presidential candidate in either major party who doesn't discuss "energy independence." Of course, it would be far more accurate to say "less of a reliance on Middle East oil," but that's not quite as sexy as energy independence.
Seventh, it is often overlooked that Canada has the world's largest oil reserves, more than Saudi Arabia. However, much of it is in the form of tar sands, difficult and expensive to extract. However, at $100 a barrel, this fossil fuel is starting to look economic.
One of these conditions alone might not be sufficient to change the oil pricing structure. In the aggregate, however, a scenario has emerged in which high oil prices are probably not sustainable.
Another independent variable that influences oil price is the weakness of the dollar. But that too is more a temporary condition rather than a long-term prospect. When the Fed decides to control dollar production and loose credit, the dollar's trajectory will undoubtedly change. As one might guess the weak dollar is also having a salutary effect on the current account balance since U.S. exports appear very reasonable.
Most significantly, the average person realizes something is amiss. We buy oil from sheiks who fuel terrorism and then we have to employ tax-generated funds to fight the terrorists. There is something wrong with this picture. Mr. and Mrs. Man and Woman On The Street are starting to get it. And when they get it, the pols cannot be far behind.
While $100 a barrel for oil seems like an overwhelming obstacle for business development and economic growth, it is not here for the long term. Markets adapt to price escalation. The oil market is in the spring of this adjustment, but, I'm convinced, it will flower. When it does, I'd like to be among the first to say "goodbye OPEC." It was a cartel that lost its way, and won't be remembered for anything except the manipulation of the market for a short time. That, and making sheiks more wealthy than logic would suggest they had any right to be.
The Israeli Attack in Syria and the State Department Response
The veil of secrecy surrounding the Israel bombing on September 6 of what is alleged to be a Syrian nuclear facility is understandable. Israel is not willing to disclose its military capabilities and technical advantages.
On the other hand, the secrecy is having and will continue to have a profoundly negative effect on United States' diplomatic credibility. Since North Korea was involved in one way or another with the Syrian facility either by providing enriched uranium, nuclear technology, or plutonium, it makes sense to discuss Kim Jung Il's pernicious role in exporting nuclear material.
Yet the State Department, leading a discussion in the Six Party talks over North Korea's nuclear capability, does not want to upset the so-called apple-cart by describing North Korea's malevolent influence. Silence in this case is deadly, but the State Department's goal is an agreement, however empty the ultimate result might be.
What hasn't been seriously entertained is the influence of silence on the talks in Annapolis and back channel conversations with the Iranians. If the United States chooses to avert its gaze from North Korea's mischief, the message being conveyed is that you can get away with a great deal if you negotiate with the U.S. and offer the illusion of conciliation.
In fact, diplomacy has become a weapon used against this government by our enemies, mindful of our energetic pursuit of treaties. This is the 21st century version of the Munich Accord, with appeasement the goal for State Department officials who do not know how to say "no."
Moreover, the hidden message at Annapolis is the U.S. wants a deal, even if it means giving tacit support to terrorists and selling out our allies. What other conclusion can one reach if we are unwilling to blow the whistle on North Korean nuclear exports?
For some who believe it always pays to talk to adversaries (Barack Obama comes to mind), it should be noted that negotiations can serve as a cover for violent acts. In the haste to produce an "understanding" the U.S. can overlook or rationalize any action that might jeopardize a treaty. Yet as history has demonstrated, treaties are worthless if one of the parties chooses to ignore its terms. Think of the Kellogg-Briand pact or the Locarno Treaty.
It should be noted that in addition to the dissemination of nuclear material, the North Koreans have provided every rogue state in the Middle East with missile technology to deliver weapons of mass destruction. The SCUD arsenal in Iran, for example, has its provenance in North Korea.
There are times in foreign affairs when silence is golden. As already noted, I can appreciate Israel's reluctance to discuss details of its September 6 attack. But the U.S. is in a different position vis-a-vis North Korea and its involvement with possible Syrian nuclear material. This disclosure warrants transparency in my judgment.
Unfortunately, the State Department wants deals more than disclosure. As a consequence, the full story of North Korea's involvement with Syria won't be known in the short term. But there is something we do know: Israel would not have attacked unless the material in question was a direct threat to its security, and Syria would not have cleaned up the site unless the material might prove to be an embarrassment.
What we also know is North Korea's involvement in this imbroglio, since a North Korean vessel carrying sensitive material was monitored by Israeli surveillance satellites days before it arrived in Syria. The key question that remains open is why the State Department maintains secrecy about this matter. But, then again, I think I know the answer to this question.
Congestion Pricing Evaluated from the Standpoint of Practical Experience
The logic of "congestion pricing," to wit: charging cars an exorbitant sum for driving into the inner city in order to avoid traffic congestion, is compelling. It flows from the free market logic that if you tax something, you get less of it. In this case, it would be fewer cars on the city streets.
London's mayor argues this has been a grand success, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City agrees. In fact, he has lobbied energetically with Albany legislators to get approval for his plan.
Unfortunately, what Mayor Bloomberg has not considered is the law of unintended consequences. When asked how people would navigate about midtown Manhattan where congestion pricing would be enforced, he said, "they will use public transportation." Here's the rub.
For anyone using the Number 4 or 5 on the East Side Subway Line, it is apparent the trains are filled to capacity, alas beyond capacity, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In fact, as a regular rider, I can attest to the condition.
At the 42nd Street Station there isn't even standing room on the platform. Mayhem invariably results when those getting off the local Number 6 train seek a downtown express.
Now the mayor contends that the subway system can accommodate thousands of additional passengers. Is he kidding? Presumably the mayor who uses this line on his way to City Hall, or so he says, claims the trains are "not crowded."
I find it hard to believe he uses the same line I do. On my several subway trips each weekday, I find myself converted into a sardine. I'm obliged to breathe the fumes of recently devoured onions and hair that hasn't been washed in weeks. There are times I simply get off at the nearest station to breathe.
Needless to say, intimacy is part of the New York experience. Most people conduct themselves with reasonable respect for others, and remarkably there are few subway injuries and even fewer fatalities.
Yet, as I see it, the system is at capacity. Another 50,000 users would break this precarious balance. Mayor Bloomberg may think the East Side Line can accommodate others, but he is dead wrong.
Congestion pricing is a theory in search of empirical evidence. What it may restrain on the avenues and streets, it will surely exaggerate in the subway system. Perhaps this underground congestion will render MTA efficiencies; perhaps additional trains will be employed; perhaps, as well, the Second Avenue Line will be completed. But these conditions fall into the realm of wishful thinking. What we have is likely to be what we will have, at least for the foreseeable future. Hence anticipating an illusory set of new arrangements is simply daydreaming.
Therefore, despite my predilection to embrace free market ideas, I do not believe congestion pricing can work in New York. For residents in Area Code 10021 who do not use the subway system, and live in Mayor Bloomberg's insulated New York City, the idea has resonance. But for those of us riding daily on the Numbers 4 and 5 congestion pricing is a thoroughly impractical concept.
In one respect, it reminds me of the 5 deposit on bottles and cans which, based on the logic of the market, was designed to clean the streets of litter. What the promoters of this idea neglected to consider is that surveyors of bottles and cans would rummage through plastic bags of garbage, spreading filth across streets and placing greater demands on the Sanitation Department than was formerly the case.
As one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, Fats Waller, once said, "One never knows, do one." Theories do not always work as we expect them to, and, one way or another, unintended consequences usually enter the social equation. *
"You can't be for big government, big taxes, and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy." --Ronald Reagan