Dumb quote of the day--hippie bashing edition

>> Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The state can successfully push science; there is no sense denying it. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo program remind us of this possibility. Free markets may not fund as much basic research as needed. On the day after Hiroshima, the New York Times could with some reason pontificate about the superiority of centralized planning in matters scientific: "End result: An invention [the nuclear bomb] was given to the world in three years which it would have taken perhaps half a century to develop if we had to rely on prima donna research scientists who work alone."

But in practice, we all sense that such gloating belongs to a very different time. Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. I am not aware of a single political leader in the U.S., either Democrat or Republican, who would cut health-care spending in order to free up money for biotechnology research--or, more generally, who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects. Robert Moses, the great builder of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or Oscar Niemeyer, the great architect of Brasilia, belong to a past when people still had concrete ideas about the future. Voters today prefer Victorian houses. Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre. Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.
-Peter Thiel, "The End of the Future",
National Review Online, October 3rd, 2011


Naturally, I'm confused. In January, 1969, Richard M. Nixon was sworn into the office of the Presidency, and he's the dude who welcomed those astronauts back home from the moon. This was a project that had been given special emphasis and was heavily pushed by the center-left John Kennedy and brought to fruition by the liberal Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's death, of course, and Nixon would end up scaling the Apollo Program down and proposed cancelling the program altogether in 1971 (he was talked out of it and two final moon landings were made in '72). Nixon, anyway, was hardly a hippie and I don't recall the hippies taking over in any meaningful way after Nixon was chased out of the White House: Jerry Ford certainly wasn't a hippie; Jimmy Carter was a straitlaced Navy nuclear engineer and choirboy; Ronald Reagan was... well, Ronald Reagan; George H.W. Bush was a former CIA director and exactly the kind of guy-in-a-suit Abbie Hoffman's crowd were trying to send back into space in 1967. Which brings us up to Bill Clinton, the guy who brought the Democrats back into the White House by sucking up to big business and corporate donors, arguing that the left-wing of the Democratic Party was why they couldn't win elections and they needed to be more Reagan-like in their approach, you know the guy who promoted NAFTA and presided during the tech bubble Thiel talks about elsewhere in the NRO piece quoted above. Clinton's successor would have been the policy wonk with the PowerPoint slides who bragged about his legislative role in helping create the Internet (n.b. he never claimed he invented it), except the United States Supreme Court decided to go with the guy whose opposition to stem-cell research and obligations to the energy industry led to criticisms by scientists that his administration was stifling research even with administrative pushes to increase funding within permitted areas.

Honestly, I'm smelling something here, it's wafting from Thiel's opinion piece and it ain't patchouli.

The paragraph I quoted at the start of the piece is only the smoky edge of the vast burning stupid. Read it for yourself; it's riddled with factual errors like the ones in the quote, with inconsistencies, with logical gaps and unwarranted assumptions.

I mean, get a laugh out of this paragraph, which contains pretty much all of the above issues, for instance:

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds--from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century--reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story--"Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?"--barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.


Ah, yes. The Concorde. An Anglo-French project (behold the international reach of dirty smelly Woodstock hippies) that was so financially impractical that it required exactly the kind of heavy-handed governmental meddling Thiel implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) criticizes throughout the piece: the Concorde not only was developed largely at the expense of the French and British treasuries, but Concorde purchases and flights continued to be subsidized by both governments through the plane's operational history. When Concorde flights were cancelled and the planes decommissioned, it had little to do with the environmental concerns of hippies unhappy with the planes' noise levels and potential for ozone depletion, and almost everything to do with the free market: the expense of maintaining and replacing Concorde fleets had led to a spectacularly ugly crash that further reduced the depressed consumer demand for the plane by creating an impression that the aging fleets were unsafe, and Air France and British Airways in any case could make more money off their conventional carriage.

Which points to another issue: Thiel makes the unwarranted assumption that faster is better when he talks about travel, without considering the likelihood that this is actually an instance where the free market is actually accurately reflecting reasonable preferences. If all consumers cared about was speed above all else--comfort, safety, reliability, cost, et al.--there's not really a technical reason people couldn't pay thousands of dollars to be stuffed inside padded howitzer shells and fired in the general direction of their destinations. Conversation over the subject at hand is thickened and muddled by things like the seemingly-annual insolvency and need to be bailed-out of major American air carriers and Amtrak and bitter fights over the economics of futuristic alternative like maglev. But the point actually still stands for all of that: mainly, that transportation is a complex subject that brings in various economic, social, political and security factors that don't really have anything to do with science or the rate of scientific advancement, and "faster" isn't necessarily a preference that outweighs considerations like who wants to pay for a high-tech transportation system and will it be safe from terrorists and I don't want it out back of my house and where do I get to sit and so forth; if it was just about the speed, somebody (the taxpayer? Taggart Transcontinental?) would blow a big wad on a bunch of maglev rail and we'd all pay out the nose to be stuffed into shoebox railcars with freight just so we could arrive at our destinations before we left them. But no, it'd be cheaper to drive, wouldn't it, so that's what everybody would do, nevermind.

I think this really gets to the Achilles heel of Thiel's whole rant, you know. He tepidly concedes that government spending helps keep science spinning along, but he doesn't want to concede that point--he thinks Keynesian economics are a "fraud" and doesn't seem capable of considering that New Deal spending (and the massive Federal expenditures program called World War II) may have caused or contributed to the explosive growth of the American economy over the following decades. So he ends up bemoaning the end of technological programs that were driven (Thiel ought to find this ironic) by massive government spending and ended, as it happens, largely by politicians trying to implement budgetary cutbacks. He's far too wedded to his libertarian assumptions to consider that maybe a solution to the problem he perceives would be a modern Tennessee Valley Authority, a modern Manhattan Project, or a modern Apollo Program (or perhaps even a modern Concorde). Somehow it doesn't strike him at all that the innovation slowdown he perceives happens to coincide with the decades of rightward shift in American social and economic politics, with the rise of a post-Reagan political culture that starts with the premise that the only thing worse than deficits are taxes, a form of theft in which hardworking citizens are robbed by the government they elected to represent them (honestly, at this point I'm not at all clear at this point as to why libertarians don't just take up arms in open revolt against a system they continue to participate in despite clearly not believing in it, unless it's the fact they all know in their hearts-of-hearts they'd lose because hardly anybody else really believes in their articles of faith).

Or maybe not. It's hard to move on without pointing out:

We have seen that even the simple question of whether a technology slowdown has occurred is far from straightforward. The critical question of why such a slowdown seems to have occurred is harder still, and we do not have the space to tackle it fully here. Let us end with the related question of what can now be done. Most narrowly, can our government restart the stalled innovation engine?


I.e. "Actually, I'm not even sure there's a problem here, but since National Review has asked me to write something and that's the hook I ill-advisedly decided to hang the whole piece on, I'll move along to how to solve this possible non-issue while nakedly dodging any messy questions of causality that might undermine the possible-non-premise I started the piece with or that might kick my ideological soapbox out from under my feet." This is the kind of thing one expects from desperate high-school students the night before a paper's due, actually: "The simple question of whether kids today watch too much TV is far from straightforward, and this five-page essay doesn't have space to discuss why kids might watch too much TV, but kids should definitely play more sports instead of watching too much TV because sports are fun." I have to admit this is the point where I start getting a little resentful towards people like Peter Thiel: I write this shit because I feel like I have to (there are angry little men inside my head and they vex me in horrible ways with pins and matches); Thiel, meanwhile, was probably paid and probably put much less effort into it (indeed, gives every appearance that he forgot he had an NRO assignment because he was playing XBox360 and had, you know, just that one more level to finish and then his mom came into his room and said, "Peter, don't you have a National Review article due in the morning?" and he told her he was already finished with it and was taking a break, which was simply not true--he hadn't even started it--and that's how he ended up barely finishing it at his desk while the bell rang and Rich Lowry came in and announced how disappointed he was by everyone's Friday test which he finally just finished grading).

I mean, here I am, writing a free blog for free because I have this irresistible compulsion to put my thoughts into words and share them with strangers who may not actually care all that much, and here's Peter Thiel, who, the more I think about it, must be a total jackass. Intellectually, that is--it's possible he's a really nice guy who tells funny jokes and leaves generous tips, he's just a jackass when it comes to things like this article. I, sucker that I am, will hit "Publish Post" and anxiously check the comments section every few hours to see if there's any indication anybody read it; Thiel, the brilliant (word used loosely) entrepreneur will get a paycheck from NRO, realize it's much less than the interest any of his investments will make during the fifteen seconds it takes him to endorse it, and wipe his ass with it, instead. No, that's not fair. NRO probably does direct deposit like everybody else these days: Peter Thiel will imagine what it would be like to wipe his ass with a cashier's check and then he will close his eyes, lean back in his expensive, awesome designer chair, and think about how much he'd like to meet a dirty, smelly hippie so he could punch him in the face, and how much would it cost to rent a hippie for an afternoon for just that purpose, then he will shift his butt in his expensive, awesome designer chair, and fart.






(H/t Torie Bosch at Slate.)








7 comments:

Phiala Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 2:55:00 PM EDT  

There hasn't been a technology slowdown, it's just shifted over.

We don't have flying cars, but we have the internet, and have mapped the human genome.

We don't have a functional US manned space program, but we have tiny amazingly-powerful hand-held computers and nearly-universal communications and access to information. (First world, yadda yadda).

We didn't go the direction that 1964 magazine covers predicted, but neither have we reverted to living in caves and cooking over open fires.

(Although I think that's what the far-right would like me to be doing.)

I would like to see more government support for science and engineering and technology (and infrastructure dammit), but we're by no means standing still. (Whether we're running as fast as the competition is a whole separate question.)

Janiece Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 3:12:00 PM EDT  

Phiala, the far right Gaultian fanboys only want you to cook over an open fire because you're an effete, over-educated liberal woman. It's not personal.

Phiala Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 3:27:00 PM EDT  

Janiece, yes, it's the sin of having shoes and birth control.

Eric Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 3:40:00 PM EDT  

I dunno, some of that Randian crowd would probably be okay with you two being independent women so long as you liked rough-borderline-rape sex and knew when to make room for your tall, ruggedly handsome, intelligent, creative, individualistic, independent, restrained, resolute, grey-eyed, well-built men.

(Imagine, if you would please, my eyes rolling while I typed that last paragraph.)

Phiala, excellent points, and one wonders if Thiel groks the fact that a lot of the stuff on the covers of Popular Science and similar mags wasn't just optimistic, but pretty silly and half-baked. Glass houses that would have roasted their inhabitants (or mandated insane power bills for climate control), for instance, or flying cars. (Who doesn't love the idea of a flying car? Now try to imagine your afternoon commute pile-up happening at 3,000 feet; yeah, I think I'll stick to ground-based transportation where a fender-bender doesn't result in my plummeting to my fiery death, thanks, if it's all the same.) Meanwhile, most of the real wonders of our age were just missed: I can't even count the number of SF stories I've read that feature somebody accessing a city-sized computer that possibly has less computational power than my cell phone. My cell phone that I sometimes think is "slow" when I'm trying to watch a YouTube video on it.

I'm also with you on the government expenditure for infrastructure.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 5:38:00 PM EDT  

Definitely side with Internet/telecommunications added to the transportation/speed mix. I blogged something the other day and had one response in minutes -- from Brazil. Try that with Airmail or print media.

Add in video conferencing, and you just might not need to make that trip.

Dr. Phil

Steve Buchheit Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 12:18:00 AM EDT  

Yeah, because it's all those dirty hippies who approved money to develop a cross country high-speed rail system, and then all those clean cut conservative governors who said, "No, thanks." Because it was a warped gotcha kind of moment. Including making Gov. Christy cancel a tunnel program that would help more people travel from NJ to NYC faster, because, well, I don't know why.

Oh, wait, that's the opposite point than this dickwad is trying to make. Never mind.

Warner Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 8:20:00 AM EDT  

In 99 I flew 250,000 miles to travel to technical conferences to represent my employer.

I'm doing a lot of the same work but pro bono, I'm a national expert on Closed Captioning which I think is worth spending my time on. I don't travel, neither do my conferencees, it is all Internet. I couldn't afford to do the work if I had to travel.

One of Asimov's Lucky Star books has somebody with a personal computer (which turns out to be a communication device instead), Heinlein has all sorts of awake computers, but they are the size of space ships, and Mote in God's Eye has people with handheld links to a main computer.

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