On Leadership

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 2009.

I seem to have lost faith in the promise of the Obama administration, which has pursued a radically centrist agenda and left me sorely disappointed. There has been little real change. Kevin Drum summarizes the last eighteen months best in a much-circulated quote:

Here’s the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here’s the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

While obviously Obama is not solely to blame for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the media lockdown that has been enabled by it is un-American on a fundamental level.

Nominees like Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan, while a lock for confirmation, are exactly the kind of uninspiring mediocrities that have once again disillusioned us. If one of Kagan’s strongest credentials is that Lawrence Lessig endorsed her, why not reach for the stars and nominate Lessig himself? Or Harold Koh?

It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that Barack Obama, who signaled an end to the Bush era abridgement of rights and liberties, may in fact be worse than his predecessor; a “third Bush term” that brings to their logical extreme many of the policies put in place that Obama had suggested might be curtailed. And even if all this does not accurately reflect Obama’s actual intentions, it points to something nearly as unforgiveable – half-assing it.

If you’re serious about a high-speed rail program, don’t just hand out the paltry sum of $8 billion and expect the states to pay for the rest. That would be worse than not spending anything at all. And at the same time, there are 1.8 million construction workers without anything to build. That’s an industry-wide unemployment rate of 20.1%. I mean, get serious about this. Put them to work. We need massive repairs to our roads, bridges, and vital infrastructure? Then sign a $1 trillion package. Or at least propose it. To quote The West Wing, “this is a time for American heroes – and we reach for the stars.”

Right now we’re just gazing at our shoes.

Crossposted at The Smolerian.

Like Burning the Stars and Stripes, or Kicking a Bald Eagle

A violent anti-G20 protester, using Black Bloc tactics, throws a chair through the window of a Tim Horton's while demonstrators smashed their way through downtown streets June 26, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

Even the Greeks in their orgy of destruction would never dream of touching a Goody’s. Aren’t all Canadians outraged? Are they pressuring the Harper Government to send all three tanks at the protesters? Is everyone buying Timbits in solidarity? Come on, Canada, time to rrroll up the rim your sleeves!

No Final Frontiers

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of today’s foremost science personalities, addresses the total halt of innovation on NASA’s part and what it means for the nation. He is an epic man, and delivers an equally epic response to the question of the implications that NASA’s underfunding has for the United States as a nation.

For the better part of the Cold War, NASA was an inspirational agency, “the most powerful…on the dreams of a nation.” But the wonder is gone. NASA’s focus on ‘low-earth orbit’ missions misses the point, which is to push the boundaries – and frontiers – of human knowledge, a concept lost in the age of incremental, short-term planning. Agencies like the NSF and NIH, for all the good research they do, do not arouse the same feelings of wonder and imagination that NASA adventures of old did.

Much like foreign aid, estimates of what kind of percentage of the budget NASA receives are wildly overinflated. “I ask people…they say five cents, ten cents on a dollar – it’s half a penny!” There’s no boldly going anywhere anymore, even if our initial knowledge of the greenhouse effect came from studying Venus. Even if understanding the cosmos helps us to conceptualize developments at a subatomic scale here on Earth. We’re looking down when we should be looking up.

“Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore.” All too true.

Via Motherboard.

Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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A Taste of Libya

Michael Moynihan has a scathing report on his recent journey to Libya. Highlights are below, but definitely read the whole thing. It’s like P.J. O’Rourke at his best.

When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and…a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods … Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover.

Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product…is, inexplicably, corn oil.

The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.

Soon after arriving, along with three other journalists and one academic, we are…to meet the first group of terrorists recently released from Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. All are former members of the Al Qaeda farm team known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) … With every conversation, they sound more and more like the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps of Al Qaeda.

Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

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Abdication

The grim future of a world without net neutrality

The government won’t push for it. The existing near-monopolies have no incentive to change. So who steps up? Google, of course. Google’s plan to offer internet services at the blisteringly-fast speeds of up to 1 GB/s could finally revolutionize the American broadband network. As a bottleneck for innovation, the archaic state of internet infrastructure obviously needs improvement. South Korea leads the world in internet speeds, with a 100 Mbps fiber optic line scheduled to come online nationwide this year. The United States didn’t make the top ten – it was 18th in the world with an average speed of 3.9 Mbps.

But no one will act (even though Google’s been prodding telecom companies), and the government won’t push anyone to act.

The risks of lagging behind are comparable to net neutrality in terms of stifling new developments, which is why it may seem weird to call for more regulation. But the regulation that would help only need set a baseline for acceptable quality and service.

This kind of wide push for faster internet service works on a number of levels:

  1. It allows for new growth, research, and innovation.
  2. It keeps the U.S. on equal footing with the rest of the world.
  3. It allows us to avoid ridiculously hyperbolic nightmare scenarios like the “bandwidth caps” Mark Cuban envisions (and I won’t even begin to take apart his prediction of our computerless-future).
  4. New infrastructure work, especially as part of a comprehensive federal plan, will a) allow/mandate simultaneous rural development, always a must in the expanse of the United States, and something any corporation is loathe to take on of its own volition (the per capita subscription rate really can’t justify it, but thanks to equal representation in the Senate is a necessity nonetheless), and b) create jobs. Let’s also not forget those 93 million Americans without broadband access at all, whom Cuban’s market-based solutions have clearly left behind.

As Google is proving though, the federal government has little interest in sweeping technology improvements across the country. A Reaganesque privatization this is not. The government has merely ceded responsibility to the private sector yet again.

Because It’s What Next

The Constellation Program logo

Included with the stunning just-released $3.8 trillion budget was an interesting cut. It appears alarming at first: NASA’s Constellation Program, with the goal of returning men to the moon by 2020, has been told to shut down (alas, the Post has taken down their earlier, more hilarious title: “Obama’s Proposed Budget for NASA Starts Moon War on Earth”). The winding-down itself will cost $2.5 billion, after $9 billion was put into the project.

This does seem troubling to aficionados of space travel and exploration (not to mention NASA employees and contractors), but there’s most assuredly a silver lining:

Instead of continuing to develop the Ares 1 and Orion, the administration wants to invest $6 billion over five years in a commercial space taxi to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit. The budget would also funnel billions of dollars into developing new space technologies, such as the ability to refuel spacecraft in orbit. What isn’t in the budget is a specific target for exploration.

You know what? That’s absolutely fine. If anything, a more open-ended commitment is ideal, as it allows more space for contingencies. The truth is, we don’t know what we’ll find, or discover, or invent. The same goes for other massive scientific projects like the Large Hadron Collider. Sure, there are some concrete objectives, but they’re fairly modest in scope (with the exception, perhaps, of the ‘God particle’). The fact that overall NASA funding has actually increased is very encouraging.

And to all those who decry a space program as a waste of dollars better spent here… as usual, Aaron Sorkin phrases it better than I ever can:

There are a lot of hungry people in the world, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder, and certainly none of them are dumber because we went to the moon. We have to go to Mars because it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next. [YouTube]

…and we reach for the stars.