All posts by tim

TED Talk – Shifts in Global Power

For the past few months, I have been submersed in thinking about global trends in the world and how the world may look over the coming few years and even decades. On that journey, I was lucky enough to come across this fascinating talk from Paddy Ashdown. (Watch it first).

I think the three ways that he identifies are very powerful. The classic lateral shift in power is definitely taking place. However, I do not think anyone knows with any certainty how the world will actually end up. Will we see two powers? Four? When will China become the world’s largest economy? When will India? Will the per capita gaps ever narrow completely? Many questions, few answers, but we can be sure that the world will not continue as it has recently.

On the vertical dimension, I think former Ambassador Ashdown may be missing some of the changes. While I would agree that power is shifting away from the nation state, I think that it is moving in two directions. Global institutions are gaining power in the upward direction, but I think that individuals and subnational organizations are also gaining power. There has been much talk of the rise of the public private partnership to solve challenges facing states, which directly empowers companies, and cities and smaller groups of individuals are often taking a lead on policy (New York has been doing quite a lot). And while we need to have international regulation as so much more happens outside of state boundaries, current global institutions have not had a high success rate at changing behavior so far. The state is getting squeezed from both sides.

The last point around interdependency has been everywhere the last few years post-financial crisis, but it begs repeating. For so long, we operated under the premise of mutually assured destruction – a concept that is frightening but turned out to work pretty well in keeping the powers in check. As we become more interdependent in other ways, including more specialization in who supplies energy, food, manufacturing, and ideas, does a similar concept also occur in trade and economics? That could be a brighter though, as it would suggest stability as an imperative on all fronts. We will see.

However accurate he is in identifying the axes of change, I also like that he is not prescriptive. There is no over promising of what the future might look like, when we would be wrong to say we were anything but uncertain.

On a complete side note, I think that Ashdown’s rhetorical skills are simply superb. He has a command of language, and really makes this talk spellbinding. At some point, I would like to also be able to speak at length in such an eloquent fashion.

Food for thought.

Articles for June 22nd – Big Data and Elections and Access

It’s been a few weeks since I compiled a list of the articles that I have been reading – hoping to make a little headway against the backlog with this post.

A number of the articles that have been floating around have to do with data – how we use it, control it, and what we should do about it. I think we have all known how much data there is on each and every one of us out there, but all of the recent developments have been illuminating in who has access to it and what they can use it for. – The NYTimes posted a long article this week on some of the ways that recently victorious political campaigns have used data to their advantage, and it’s a great read. Frankly, its surprising that with so much at stake this didn’t happen a lot sooner. When the votes were counted, I wonder how much these analytics capabilities specifically were worth. In some sense, it is sad that the quality of the organization and activities of the campaign can have such important effects on the outcome relative to the messaging and policies that are actually being proposed. Marketing seems to trump the policy dimension. Additionally, with so much of the data coming from external sources (Facebook agreed that its terms of service were not being violated, but how much power could it have had to make the decision either way?), could we conceivably have data that was given to one campaign and not the other? This is what is so troubling about the NSA’s data collection or the IRS asking for donor lists – especially with the endemic lack of transparency, how can we be sure that the data is not used in an unfair or illegal manner? – One of the biggest legislative holes that we have is in email. Our law has not caught up to the realities of what email communication is, how personal it is, and how it needs to be protected. Phone calls, physical mail, and other communication has strict standards for access, and a default that prevents its use without probable cause. We need to update our laws for email privacy. The EFF is passionate about this and has a lot of good information on it. – Even as our power begins to fade, the US still sets the tone for governmental engagement around the world, and historically (again, people love to argue about this) we have largely pursued an agenda of freedom and openness around the globe. How can we be the ‘city on a hill’ with regards to freedom when we so blatantly disregard those tenants within our own borders? How can we be a good example for those countries around the world which are coming into power and maintain more oppressive stances to their citizens than we do? We do not want to set the precedent for the coming century by weakening the freedom of the individual. – Terrorism is sensational – unexpected, unpredictable, fear inspiring, and often theatrical in character. The same reasons that psychologically cause us to fear airplanes more than automobiles causes us to be irrational about the dangers of terrorism, and too apt to surrender our freedoms to protect ourselves. – Good to know the Senate cares so much.

Switching gears, there have also been a number of articles dealing with another one of the issues of our time. How can we deal with free markets as well as income inequality? What are the main causes of income inequality and how to we rectify them? I would like to study this a bit more, but wanted to pass along a few articles that I’ve seen dealing with the topic in recent days. – Education is always cited as the answer that can help equalize the opportunity available to folks despite the situations that they were born into. However, as is pretty clear, income is predictive of income between generations, and it has gotten worse. Much of it is the result of  poorer students not having the information, or present means, to apply to colleges. – Interesting look into a possible policy to lower income inequality. A universal basic income is one method to do this, as is a high minimum wage, welfare/social security and other safety net programs, the earned income tax credit and other tax policies. Which is the most effective way to distribute dollars, flatten the Gini coefficient, and not preclude folks from taking risks and being productive? This is an interesting economic as well as philosophical question – one I will hopefully dive in to in later posts when I can explore some Rawls and Nozick. – We do spend too much time focusing on the left-to-right dimension of government, and not the better-to-worse (effectiveness) dimension, holding the scope of activities constant. I read a statistic recently of how the VA still uses paper forms, so thousands of cases are not handled before the former service members dies. Technology could be an easy way to automate and streamline a number of the activities of government.

We’re Being Watched

Given the revelations over the past week, it seems clear that our government has overstepped what many of us would consider proper in the realm of surveillance.

Initial reports –
NSA Disclosure in the Guardian –
PRISM in WaPo –

While it is perhaps too early to call these reports “the facts”, the administration has not denied that the programs exist, and has defended their usage and effectiveness in combating terrorist threats. However, the power wielded seems to be incredibly massive – all phone records of all calls made in or out of US soil in a multi-year period, ability to sift through the content of internet communications (“accidentally” picking up a lot of intra-US material even when only foreign material is targeted), in addition to all types of surveillance we know is available already, including databases of license plate numbers and warrant-less wiretapping and the like.

The framers knew that power was a corrupting influence, so they attempted to split it up and let power balance power as much as was possible. The “tyranny of the majority” needed the representative process to “cool” its passions. Power was vested in 3 distinct branches, so that any movement would be tempered, and a broad concensus would be needed to move policy in very new directions. The American people are directly responsible for two of those branches, with a third as a derivation and quasi-impartial check on the rest. This balance of the government, along with the influence of the people and public opinion, is responsible for the (relative) success of our system to date.

However, inherent in this process is that the people can be an effective check on the actions that are done in their name; without transparency, there is no way to hold the government accountable for what it does. In this case, with the legislature signing away extremely broad powers of surveilence, the executive interpreting them in an aggressive manner, and all questions adjudicated by a court whose opinions can never be read, how can the public really know or even attempt to police PRISM, cellular metadata, and other types of ridiculous collecting of information?

Our laws have evolved epically slowly in this time of technological transformation. The jurisprudence that allows the government to collect and aggregate this data, read any emails over 180 days old, and tap into other internet communication without a warrant was built in a simpler, less connected time. It is up to us to become educated and push for a modernization of the law. For unreasonable search and seizure should not be limited to the physical world; my old emails and digital footprint are immensely more personal than if police were able to rummage through my pockets as they pleased.

It seems inevitable that this will lead to corruption. Why should I trust the 3 branches to do their duty in isolation, without the check of the people? Why should I be made to trust that they will not use it for other ends? Saying that “if we don’t trust in the 3 branches to do what’s right” (paraphrase) in secret, then “we’re going to have some problems”, does not make me feel particularly at ease. If something is too powerful, no one or group should wield that power over another.

Nearly no one outside of the administration and the few senators that have spoken out on the program have taken stands to defend it. See some of the commentary –
If each of the seemingly small number (200) of court orders on this is as big as the Verizon one… –
The NYTimes in on the action –
Sad for the country that has done so much to push freedom around the world (disagree if you wish) to not follow its own guidance –

I think that each of us should take a little effort to familiarize ourselves with these programs, and what they might mean for our own information stored online. When I think about the size of my online footprint in the context of this, it surely is disheartening. Something I might test later is, which might be able to help out. Others have written articles to help out –

Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how this effects many of tech’s biggest giants, who inherently now rely on our data as their major business proposition. What if that data dries up because we have no faith that it won’t be used against us? –

Very thought provoking stuff.

Overdo Short Number of Articles from the Weeks Preceding May 14th – I think that this is one of the most important arguments that can come out of the Boston terrorist attack.

A few weeks have passed, and little has amounted to calls for more surveillance. Good for us in my opinion – when we rush to judgment, rarely do we make good and measured decisions on what is truly right.

Terrorism as a form of warfare does not leave us many options that are not in them selves constraining. As the Patriot Act and other actions in the wake of 9/11 demonstrated, there is a sliding scale between individual freedom and the security that can actually prevent events like this from occurring. In order to become more safe, we must sacrifice the freedom (more importantly the privacy) that we also consider very important.

Interestingly enough, this meshes well with the story that I wanted to cover on drone spying. A few weeks ago, Eric Schmidt of Google warned on the proliferation of drones, and how it threatens privacy, among other concerns. Technology today allows us to be constantly aware and chronicle that which happens in the public sphere. Police cars can track and store every license plate that they pass as they patrol around a city, creating a database of where each car has been. Drones could see every inch of the country every second of the day, putting more of the world into storage at near real time. Google and its streetview have been the trailblazers in this regard – interesting to see Eric Schmidt speak out.

Already, the internet and its connectedness are offering us new ways to interact with our world. A quick search for the drone article above led me to, a site devoted primarily to amateur drone instructions and ideas. Within the last month, a fully plastic 3d printable gun was created. It is crude and nearly disposable, but designs will get better over time. One wonders how we have any chance to control gun violence, while simultaneously leaving these new areas of innovation untouched.

A few other articles that I wanted to point out: – Rather incredible long read. Not sure I have a lot to say about it, but is an amazing critique of some of the pressures in higher education, and the balancing of life with “achievement”, whatever that actually is. – An article that I don’t necessarily fully agree with, but certainly expresses some of the changing landscape of business, and how that is affecting most of us. As we do more with less labor, and only the educated seem to be able to truly contribute, where does that leave us? Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness comes to mind. – I disagree with the main premise of this article that a carbon tax is a good or required thing, but acknowledge that it might be a more effective tool if replacing carbon is the goal. – Speaking of “many economists believe”, as the previous article on green energy does, this article speaks to the fact that economists have been heavily politicized. You can find any research on any topic that serves any purpose, all of it claiming a great deal of confidence that supposes that it is qualified on which to base important policy. Great. – Two good recommended thought pieces on economics and policy.

I’ve been neglectful, so I wanted to get a few thoughts down on digital paper.

Articles and Notes – April 16th

I have been really behind on posting some of my latest treasure trove of articles that I have been reading, but there have been some great finds in the past few days. – The Atlantic has done a great visual piece here on how we pay taxes, including where they come from and where they go. In memorial of another tax day, it is worth looking at where our collective dollars come from and what they actually end up paying for.

tax graph 25.png

I find this to be perhaps the best graph. While individual income tax percentages have stayed roughly constant as a share of total receipts (despite the marginal tax rate falling from 90% to just under 40%), there have been a lot of changes in the other sources of Federal dollars. One wonders what is driving the corporate income tax shortfall – presumably the lobbying for targetted complexity in the tax code is one driver, and the multinational nature of the modern corporation, which allows shielding of overseas profits that are not repatriated because of our tax law, is another. I’ll have to look into what is causing the change in payroll taxes, and we all know that excise taxes are next to nothing these days (100% in 1800?). – Since Bitcoin has burst on to the media scene, pundits around the globe have offered up their take on the future of the currency, and whether it is a passing fad or a sign of bigger changes to come. This article has a humorous bent, but includes some thoughts from a number of economists on the topic. A good read.?). – Margaret Thatcher’s death has stirred up the strongest of emotions on her legacy, both from those who lauded her and those who reviled her. No matter what one thinks of her, it is impossible to doubt that she was in every sense a leader, and was able to exact surprising and powerful changes in Britain, and helped it into a position of leadership even into the 21st century. – Quite different from my usual articles, but I found this a bit of a mind blowing read. It is strange to ponder how far modern medicine will be able to go. – I’d love to see a “to big to fail” bank fail. So many regulatory questions here. It is great to play “risk on” with the put always available onto the taxpayer.

I was also going to include a great article on Eric Schmitt’s perspective on drones, but it was redacted until next week by the Guardian. I’ll comment on it when it pops back up – interesting to see his take when Google has been pushing the frontier with regards to the amount of information stored and processed on what is the “public domain”.

Weekend Article Review

Every few days, I would like to use this blog as a sounding board and repository for some of the best articles that I have seen, to both save for my own knowledge as well as spread them to those that are interested. Here are some from the previous few days – – President Kagame of Rwanda and Michael Porter explain another way to look at the progress of a developing nation, and how this way of thinking is helping Rwanda today. – Some progress on locating the matter that keeps our galaxies together. – Another in depth look into Bitcoin, the digital currency that has continued its meteoric rise over the past few weeks. – This article was in my backlog, but I am always interested in the media’s take on high speed rail. I would like to see more development of the corridors where HSR really makes sense, and less time wasted on trying to plop down HSR where it is not needed as a purely stimulus effort. – This one was passed along to me, and is a nice motivational read. – For any one of us considering grad school, a sobering look into the difficult job market for PhD grads.

Telling Charts that I Saw This Weekend


Fascinating look at the current state of the labor market, showing perhaps some of the ways that one can measure unemployment and why there is conflict over the statistics as they stand.


Graph of energy densities of different fuels, as explained in the article text

While having a short discussion with some of my friends about energy, I found this graph published by the EIA – showing pretty clearly why gasoline is still the dominant fuel for use in transportation right now, due to its efficient storage relative to weight and volume. Interesting to note that any nuclear way of storing energy is off the charts comparatively in energy (MJ) per kilogram (and also volume).


TED Talk – Reclaiming the Republic

Reclaiming the Republic

The attached TED talk was recently sent to me, and I think it warranted sharing – with some comments of course.

Lawrence does a good job of outlining the problem. Money in politics is akin to a cancer – candidates are in an arms race reaching ever deeper into the pockets of the very few to bankroll their candidacies. This of course gives undue political power to those interests, which increasingly control the electoral landscape. Some of the statistics are absolutely staggering. 132 people…

I think he is right, especially in the perspective that everyone knows that this is a problem. He is certainly not the first one to point out the symbiotic relationship between Capitol Hill and K Street, to the determent of the taxpayer as well as to pragmatic and effective policy. There are so many instances where the way that our electoral process is structured leads to sub-optimal outcomes – i.e. corn subsidies are unlikely to end anytime soon due to Iowa’s place at the top of the hierarchy of primary elections. Money in politics is one of the most unsightly issues that is so obviously one of the “first issues” that prevent real reform – in either direction, left or right.

However, I think his overview of potential solutions is terribly lacking in specifics and much oversimplified. Campaign finance reform has always been the the political “boondoggle” for many of the reasons mentioned in the TED talk, above all that the number one exit opportunity for a legislator is to join one of the big lobbying firms. However, it is a web of legislation, law, ethics, freedom, and public opinion – all of which need to be navigated to make any progress.

Dollars are one currency that we have typically regarded as political speech. Unless we reclassify speech as not including money, how can we limit it? If we limit dollars now, what does that mean for potential alternative “political currencies” down the road? Will someone with twitter follower numbers over a certain amount be subject to campaign law restrictions because of undue influence on the electoral process? The legal questions are much more complex than he seems to let on.

While it is not an easy problem to solve, it should definitely be a priority. I’m going to put some more thought into this one.

NASA Spending Under the Sequester

News broke this week that NASA is having to alter its behavior in response to the sequester—

Well, it looks like it’s finally happened: the U.S. sequester – a “series of across-the-board cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years” (CNN) — has finally hit NASA… right where it hurts, too: in public outreach and STEM programs.

In an internal memo issued on the evening of Friday, March 22, the Administration notes that “effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.”

Read more:

In total, the cuts equal approximately $1.2B off of NASA’s $17.8B in planned spending, or about a 7% decrease. Not only will the cuts slash outreach, they will also threaten on-going modernization efforts and technology research. Basically, it will slow both NASA’s core operations as well as its ability to inspire study in the math and sciences, something that we are currently struggling with as a nation (I wonder how many people are engineers today because of the Apollo program or the space shuttle program…).

While a 7% haircut may adversely affect agency operations for the current year, it is worth placing this in the longer term context of the erosion of finance support for NASA since the mid-90s, and really, since the end of the Apollo program. Sequester related cuts are miniscule in comparison to the stagnation of spending in real dollars for the past few decades. NASA will have to make adjustments to its plans, but its activities already pale in scope and magnitude compared with some of the projects that it has taken on in the past.

For historical comparison, I have looked at NASA spending since its inception in 1958 as compared to the overall level of Federal spending. While it is to be expected that spending would be lower than at the height of our stretch towards the moon, it is striking how spending has decreased from 1% of the Federal budget throughout the 80s and 90s, to nearly 0.4% today. Federal priorities have clearly shifted elsewhere, and in my opinion, to our detriment.

Of all the economic markets that the Federal government invests in, subsidizes, and stimulates with other regulatory tools, spending on space exploration is no longer a focus. However, the unique mix of extreme long-term nature of returns, high levels of risk, and distributed economic and social benefits provide a more obvious probable cause for spending on NASA than on almost any other market; the case for government intervention is comparatively strong. 

For every $1 spent on NASA, typically about $2.1 is added to the economy in revenues, a high multiplier compared to other economy jump-starting spending – for instance, tax cuts typically have a spending multiplier of 1.0 to 1.3. Additionally, many of these dollars go to high tech and infant industries; some of the many beneficiaries during the Apollo program were the semiconductor and computer industries. I wrote a long paper long ago on some more of these issues – but my point is, even a typically free market aficionado can see some of the enormous benefits of the funding of space program in the public sphere, and the relative inability of the private market to fill the void left by the loss of public spending. 

If NASA spending were held at the historical 1% level, we would be spending more than double on NASA this year ($38B). In the most (perhaps recklessly) optimistic scenario, with budget allocation equal to the 1966 peak, NASA would be nearly $170B of spending today. In either event, the American people would be achieving much more than we are today, and pushing more of the boundaries of our exploration.

I am hopeful of changes to this policy at some point in the future, although I doubt we will raise spending in the near term. In our current political reality, it will take some strong form of catalyst to push us against the current inertia.

In later posts, I want to dig into some of the specifics of the benefits of NASA spending and why it is a good endpoint for Federal funds.

I have included the budget numbers below for those curious to see how the budget of NASA has unfolded over the years.