A Few CRACKPOT Suggestions
By David Brin, Ph.D.
[image from ACRLog]
And now, keeping my promise, I will offer a list of notions that are even more unusual -- some possibly borderline strange -- befitting a guy who earns his living partly from sci fi! Then I'll finish with a final suggestion -- something that is just plain wise.
Are you sick of the way the Loony Right keeps dodging and weaving and shifting ground? They do this in part to dazzle and distract the Decent Conservatives of America from noticing that their hijacked movement is no longer about facts, but two decades of bizarre stories and never-fulfilled predictions. Disprove one and it is always replaced by new stories, new distractions.
Examples from a vast bestiary: Supply side gifts and tax breaks for the rich won't worsen deficits, but will erase them! It will stimulate the economy and lessen social gulfs, rather than widen them! (A thirty year experiment, decisively disproved.)
Or, Saddam has weapons of mass destruction... no, that wasn't our reason for going in at all! It was ties to terror! No, it's nation-building! Did we once call "nation-building" stupid? Us? Never!
I could go on, ad infinitum, and most of you are already familiar with this tidal wave of nonsense. But the key point here is not to indict the Right for being wrong a lot! The public has already awakened to that fact. Rather, it is to express awe toward the neocon spinmeisters, who can veer and gyre with stunning agility, spewing story after story to keep their base in a culture-war rage, without ever proving even one of their tales.
Hence, my first crackpot suggestion: Make wagers! I have experimented with this method and it really does work. Every time my gopper pals come up with yet another story -- about Obama's nefarious background or his plans to confiscate all private firearms -- I dare them to lay money on the line, to back their certainty and bluster with guts and cash! "If you're so certain about this," I demand, "then give me odds! It should be easy money for you."
Watch how fast they backpedal!
Oh, how I wish I had done this over their supply side predictions, their UN "black helicopters," their Vince Foster inanities, and so many other fabulations. Make it a matter of both currency and courage! Demand that they back up their slanders and fictions, like men. Or else, calm down and earn some credibility, for a change. (Again, I have found this really does work. I've not only forced friends to calm down and back off... but also made some nice wads of cash, when they foolishly agreed!)
A related "crackpot suggestion": Take credit! The most agile thing the Democrats could do is to make explicit that free enterprise works better when they rule. In fact, everything conservatives should want does better under the Democrats, including reduced premarital sex, STDs, domestic violence and even abortion. So? Time to get aggressive. Attack the right's rationalizations and fictions. For example, under Jimmy Carter, capital gains taxes went from 49% to 24%, far more of a tax cut than under Reagan. Carter did more and far better deregulations of unwarranted government meddling in markets, even while adding much-needed government efforts in energy, that would have borne fruit by now, if Reagan hadn't gelded them. Just one Carter reform -- allowing pensions to invest 10% in Venture Capital funds -- is credited with stimulating the Silicon Valley boom that gave us the prosperous nineties.
Above all, pound home the correlations that can no longer be denied. Except under Eisenhower, and a couple of years of Reagan, things generally go far worse under Republican rule than when Dems are in charge. Fight "stories" with facts.
Or: Launch a peace and love offensive aimed at Tehran. Think Nixon-to-China. The Iranian people are ready. At least the students and urban folk are, plus several million expatriates. All intelligence info and polls show that they are sick and tired of the mullahs and only Condi Rice's incessant saber rattling has sufficed to drive them into the arms of the islamists time and again. In fact, nothing terrifies the mullahs more than an American charm offensive... starting with the one thing that the Iranians have demanded since 1979 -- an apology for the Shah. (What would it cost us?) Timed and phrased right, this can be done without sacrificing US honor or prestige... and might even help the moderate, Khatami, get back into power. And if we're snubbed? It will hurt us HOW, to be seen earnestly trying for friendship?
Only remember who you'll cross if you do this! Not only the mullahs, but the Saudis, as well. The reason they ordered Condi's saber-rattling is clear: Fear of a restored friendship between America and Iran.
Or: Restore states rights. Why didn't even one Democrat raise this issue, when every Republican effort in this century seemed aimed at concentrating power in an imperial presidency? Oh, meanwhile, collect all the Cheney-isms about how the Presidency is answerable to nobody, and hurl them in the neocons' faces. Without, that is, actually using their awful rationalizations.
And now, just to prove that I'm not biased in favor of the (fictitious) "left"... here's a far more "rightward" (but reasonable) crackpot item from my 2006 article:
Steal and co-opt the "good parts" of Gingrich's "Contract With America".
Wait! Don't leave! Please stop and think about it. What deed could possibly embarrass the GOP more than pointing out half a dozen solemn promises from the "contract" that Republicans betrayed? Here are the "good parts" of that Contract that the GOP never kept:
Really, who could object to these items? Indeed, what could be a more powerful blow to the GOP than to remind Americans of these broken promises... and then for Democrats to fulfill them at long last? (While mocking the "bad" parts of the Contract that were fulfilled.)
Indeed, just the right olive branches may lure the "decent conservatives" out there to finally perform their own miracle of 1947 and cut off their unholy alliance with kleptos and troglodytes. It seems worth a gesture or two!
Still another crackpot suggestion: Do something about the prisons. Now, veering "left" again... (actually, staying "sensible"), let's fix the absurd fact that the USA has by far the highest percentage of its population behind bars -- far more that Cuba or China or Russia. Of course this is related to the absurd Drug War and so, finding some reasonable "medical" solution to personal drug use would seem to make sense. One example: perhaps half of our prisoners might better be declared semi-competent wards of the state who must check in weekly to clinics, while living at home and working -- or possibly getting clean at voluntary conservation camps -- rather than costing us millions to incarcerate. I don't have any perfect answer. But, what we're doing is wrong.
Or: Initiate a discussion about the future of capitalism. Among possible reform topics that would not disrupt our creative markets, but possibly prod them back toward sanity: Does the present "C Corporation" -- an immortal entity with most of the rights of a human being, but very few of the responsibilities -- need some tweaking or revision? So that "success" is rewarded across decades, and not by maximizing stock price peaks for insider sales? Or so that the minimal conscience of a normal person can be expected or demanded? (See also the concept of the "B Corporation.")
Revise "corporate democracy" to reward involved, long-term stockholders and limit the power of passive proxies. Consider a transaction tax to limit volatility and to control a "churn-hungry" financial caste. Sharply limit the recent abuse of interlocking corporate directorates, with a narrow CEO clan of golf buddies voting each other vast compensation packages in the most outrageous racket ever seen.
(Think about it. If CEO compensation truly were "competitive," then these high salaries would have -- by natural capitalist incentive -- drawn fresh supplies of managerial talent toward the field! Till the price of good managers fell back down again. That's something called -- supply-and-demand capitalism. In other words, every excuse for these "incentive packages" boils down to anti-market hypocrisy.)
Or: Ban the undergraduate business major. I am only partly joking or exaggerating about this one. We have been very badly served by an "MBA caste" made up of people who think that the purpose of companies is to give them papers and money and people to shuffle around, while charging commission on each shuffle. Hypocrites on the right think this is solely a crime of government, but it is in the corporate world that locust swarms of bureaucrats have taken over, thinking they are geniuses because they vote each other bonuses. Would it hurt for every member of the managerial caste to have at least once been required to make a product or deliver an actual service, so they might remember what market capitalism is supposedly for?
Let's finally find out who owns what! I've mentioned this before, but it seems crucial. Instead of seeking to raise taxes or more socialist interventions, we should respond to the recent kleptocratic raid by demanding that the present laws, taxes and markets be allowed to work! And one thing would help above all is revealing who owns what and where all the money is. The only people who ought to fear this are crooks and tax evaders. Moreover, the billions that could be reclaimed from them might not only erase deficits but even let tax rates fall, for honest men and women. It is called transparency. Economists (even right wing ones like Hayek) know it is the fundamental element needed for markets to function, and it could be radically better than it is. And if transparency becomes radically better, ironically, it could stave off many other forms of radicalism. (Conservatives who oppose this, again, are the most fragrant hypocrites.)
Oh, while we're at it... at long last, call in the greenback! Every other major country has replaced its currency by now, with important positive effects for honest taxpayers. The rationalizations being offered by opponents -- who claim the greenback is forever special, different, and sacred -- are getting ridiculous and awfully long in the tooth.
Create a whistleblowers/predictions registry! The intelligence communities, the economic bureaucrats, the professionals of all stripes, keep promising that they are on top of things, that they can anticipate what's coming. But every year, we hear of people who were right in the past, yet ignored. In the 1980s, one fellow forecast the S&L crisis. Did he rise in influence after being proved right? In the 1990s, another warned repeatedly that Orange County would go bust. What was his reward? What about those who said Saddam would invade Kuwait in 91? Or that there were no WMDs in 2002?
Or take this example: His repeated warnings that Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff was running a giant Ponzi scheme have cast Harry Markopolos as an unheeded prophet. But people who know or worked with Markopolos say it wasn't prescience that helped him foresee the collapse of Madoff's alleged $50 billion fraud. Instead, they say diligence and a strong moral sense drove his quixotic, nine-year quest to alert regulators about Madoff. Markopolos waged a remarkable battle to uncover fraud at Madoff's operation, sounding the alarm back in 1999 and continuing with his warnings all through this decade. The government never acted, Madoff continued his ways, and people lost billions.
Some modest strides toward prognostication-accountability are coming, through the new field of prediction markets. Some intelligence agencies are making timid steps. But this is an area we simply have to get far better at, and fast! This isn't the place for details, but I raise some intriguing possibilities elsewhere.
Now let's talk about Privatized Force. Blackwater in Iraq is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more, aspects of security, and even justice, are being diverted into secretive and unaccountable private hands, sometimes featuring terrible abuses, as happened during Hurricane Katrina. This is an ancient pattern going back to before history began, and we re-enter the Mercenary Era at great risk.
Even if we put aside moral implications, there are historical dangers: Mercenaries inherently do not want to solve problems completely, but rather to maintain ferment as a source of demand for lucrative services. Quiet-calm-efficient means of achieving national goals get replaced by noisy-frenetic-inefficient ones that offer opportunities for parasitism. The power of prison guard unions illustrates what can happen when this becomes a full-scale political constituency.
Make the rich pay to fly the privatized sky. If the Big Three automakers showed us nothing else, they demonstrated how the rich are already abandoning us to our fates in the deteriorating airports and airlines, fleeing from First Class into charters and corporate jets, thus avoiding all the frisking and hassles. I've spoken of this before: When the elites abandon a mode of transportation (e.g., railroads in the 1950s) it starts to die, and the gulf between the mighty and the Little People widens. (For more on this see David Rothkopf's book SUPERCLASS.) And see if anybody would deny that free enterprise faces just as much danger from an ancient human tendency, even older and more dangerous than socialism.
Close down the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center. This sounds strange, I know, coming from an astronomer and science fiction author who has been active in the space program, an advisor to the Planetary Society and so on... but really, how many decades must go by, in which great ideas enter this awful place and transform -- metastacize -- into vast, money-wasting exercises that produce colorful reports and never, ever, ever launch anything useful into space? If aliens ever infiltrated the United States, with the intention of preventing progress in spaceflight, they could hardly come up with a mechanism for accomplishing this that would be more effective than Marshall has become. Break it up! Disperse the people to places where they might rediscover their eagerness for building things that actually fly. Or, at least, appoint fifty new department heads willing to get back to taking risks and getting things done. (I doubt that would work, but it is a first step, before simply surrounding the place in a quarantine and checking everybody for alien DNA. You think I am joking?)
Stop letting taxpayer-subsidized companies "shout" into space. And heckfire, while I'm at it... all right, this one is going to sound super-crackpot. But as we speak, a private company, the Deep Space Communications Network in Florida, is engaged in the routine practice of using dishes that were paid for by the U.S. taxpayer to assist in NASA missions to transmit commercial stunt messages -- for everything from snack food companies to Craig's List -- into outer space -- supposedly to sell music videos and garage sale items to aliens! Sure, it sounds harmless enough, and it might be. But that's the problem, we just don't know.
See an evaluation of the cult phenomenon called METI or "Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligence." What's offensive isn't that these messages are likely to bring alien invasion or death. (It doesn't seem likely.) But that it is being done without a scintilla of open discussion in the scientific community or the slightest consideration by government, which is, after all, supposed to be looking out for even unlikely dangers, and giving them whatever study they deserve.
In fact, this is part of a very general problem. We have no idea why humans seem to be alone in the cosmos. But it may imply the universe is dangerous, with many ways for intelligent species to fail -- ways that go beyond nuclear war, bio-terror and climate change (the perils that seem right in front of our faces.) I suppose what I am saying is that at least a little effort should be given to appraising, cataloguing and rating a list of things that might go wrong, like they try to do over at the Lifeboat Foundation. After all, isn't that supposed to be one of government's jobs?
And if that notion seems too crackpot, this one is (unfortunately) all too down to Earth and real: Look into the radicalization of the Military Academies. Turning back toward the serious and important, hardly any attention has been paid to this potentially disturbing issue. Indeed, all I have to go on is anecdotes from a few high-placed sources. Nevertheless, there is strong reason to believe that a hundred or so extremist members of Congress -- the sort who are only in office because of district-level radicalism that is propelled by gerrymandering (see #18) -- have been using their appointment privilege to wage Culture War against the United States of America, by appointing cadets to several of the elite U.S. service academies based not upon intellect or other relevant qualifications but based primarily upon adherence to severely dogmatic creeds.
Judging by anecdotes and appearances, the problem is worst at the Air Force Academy and has been resisted stiffly by the US Navy. Frankly, I cannot say that this phenomenon has crested to dangerous levels, though harrassment of non-evangelical cadets has been scandalous at Colorado Springs. But I do believe that the new administration should assign some people to look into it. Procedures may need changing. Certainly, all religion-based intimidation has got to stop.
Go ahead and search. You'll not find anyone who spoke up earlier than I did, to defend the United States Officer Corps against the abuse and suffering that was inflicted by Bush and his minions upon these brave and dedicated and extremely brainy men and women. There are ways in which they have -- often discreetly and quietly -- stood up for us all against enemies both foreigh and domestic, the latter requiring care and tact and precise judgment. Now is not the time to allow fanatics to conspire a change in the fundamental character of this crucial American clade. And Democrats, above all, need to wake up to this fact.
For over 200 years, we have been well-served by an Officer Corps that is elite, professional, intellectually impressive and dedicated, above all else, to the Constitution. Let's not change that now.
Or: help Mexico! We can no longer ignore the chaos across the border, as our neighbor fights desperately against drug lords who have grown powerful by catering to American appetites for illegal substances. Preventing Mexico from sliding into "failed state" status has got to be a supreme priority! That reason, alone, should be enough to make us reconsider the methodologies of our ridiculously off-kilter version of a "drug war." But help with anti-corruption efforts and transparency are also urgent. Above all, we need to let our neighbors know that we will listen and are on their side.
All right. That's a lengthy enough list of "crackpot items," any one of which might make it easy for clusters of folk to dismiss me as a kook. Which is a pity, because that makes them far too closeminded! Fortunately, this is the first civilization to recognize that The Wide Perspective is a gift.
And when you think wide and deep, it means challenging assumptions. In other words, I'd be a failure at my job and craft if some fraction of my ideas did not sound... well... strange.
[image from Science 2.0]