Gongol.com Archives: October 2023
In certain circles, it remains fashionable for people to make fun of capitalistic systems, as though the systems are somehow the source of all inequality, all substandard working conditions, and all momentary occupational ennui. Yet it shouldn't go without some appreciation that jobs are inevitable -- even hunter-gatherer tribes still require some division of labor. And those jobs don't actually have to destroy the individual's quality of life. ■ People used to have jobs that were so static that they became surnames. Many people still carry those surnames today: If your last name is Archer, Cooper, Miller, Smith, or Baker, then you are carrying a surname that is based entirely upon somebody's old occupation. ■ If your name is tied to your occupation, then there really isn't much of a sense of being free to change. That's a valuable sort of freedom that shouldn't go without some kind of acknowledgment. Nobody in the future is going to be named with a surname of cybersecurity technician or actuary. ■ Yet those are jobs people today are free to enter and leave at any time -- without changing surnames or being anchored to a particular places. That freedom to move about or to find new, more satisfying work without undue encumberance is a real reward of modern living, enabled by the economic system we enjoy. The results of that freedom should be celebrated, not hated.
If the Communist Party of China decides that it wants to initiate a 50-year plan to undermine the Taiwanese government and take over the Republic of China, then there's very little that any democratic nation can do to match such a plan with an equally long-term strategy. Voters in democratic systems inevitably grow restless, even of those leaders who perform well, rendering it difficult to make plans that stick for more than about a decade. Authoritarian regimes have an institutional advantage in being able to initiate and stick with long-term plans -- at least as long as the particular authority in power lives to see it through. ■ But what democratic systems are capable of doing is learning from feedback obtained closest to the source and cultivating the processes, rules, and systems for responding to large long-term problems. We should acknowledge the fact that it's almost impossible for democratic systems to stick with specific strategies over the long haul (unless a credible institutional structure is built to make it happen). And we should realize that to do otherwise, is just not in the nature of the beast. ■ But in so acknowledging, we also should be willing and ready to grasp what we know that those systems are capable of doing well: learning and adapting. Specifically, being good at recognizing failures and opportunities faster than systems in which delivering bad news to the Big Boss is the best way to be sent to the gulag. ■ We shouldn't despair over the large number of big problems that take long-term solutions, as some people are so wont to do. We should learn to exert our efforts where they're most likely to achieve useful results without trying to change the fundamental characteristics of the societies we inhabit. Some people succumb to the naive fantasy that big solutions can only be achieved by far-reaching powers wielded by a central authority. From climate change to artificial intelligence to poverty, it's easy to find examples of people living in free and democratic conditions who are frustrated by the limited capacities of their governments to "solve" the big problems. ■ Yet really big plans are always hobbled by the reality that humans are not omniscient, information is imperfect, and circumstances change. But the ability to adapt to new circumstances, new information, or new reasoning is the inherent advantage of free and open democratic systems. We should avoid despairing over problems that appear too great and instead use the leverage of our natural advantages. ■ As a substitute for planning, though, we have to actively participate in the vital work of building up institutions and sticking to principled processes for getting things done. That means we need to reject people who would take advantage of circumstances or act in bad faith. The quality of our institutions and process is vastly more important than any short-term gains to be felt out of achieving a particular results.
The football program at the University of Michigan is simultaneously under an FBI investigation into "inappropriately accessed" computer accounts and an NCAA investigation into an alleged complex program to steal the sideline signals used by opposing teams. The two cases are said to be separate from one another, which, if true, would be symptomatic of a wildly out-of-proportion sense of what matters to that community. ■ It is a sad contemporary problem that too many people are unable or unwilling to sort the serious from the trivial. College football may be a wonderful source of diversion and entertainment for tens or even hundreds of millions of people, but it remains only a sport -- and no more than that. No globally or historically significant outcomes are to be obtained from two teams meeting on the gridiron. And yet there are those who would risk actual prison time in order to win. Something is gravely wrong when that is the case. ■ That anything-it-takes approach to winning games is indicative of a failure to know that sports are ultimately trivial: They exist to provide entertainment, not to solve real problems. ■ And it's not simply a matter of people who take trivial things far too seriously, but also a problem of people taking fundamentally serious matters and trivializing them for their own benefit, like the member of Congress who treats his own expulsion vote as a laughing matter. He is in a similar role as his colleague, who trivializes the word "genocide" as a campaign prop. ■ These are two sides of the same coin: Taking the fundamentally unserious (like college sports) far too seriously, and treating the fundamentally serious (like the conduct of members of Congress) as nothing more than a circus sideshow. Responsible adults have to be able to draw distinctions between what really matters and what really doesn't. Furthermore, real adults have to possess the self-respect to correct their friends and allies when they cross over the line. ■ It is far worse to commit the actual infraction, of course, but to tolerate among us those who cannot or will not tell the difference only invites trouble. We shouldn't be afraid to call them out, even if we like the results they're trying to achieve.
Youthful indiscretion is so commonplace that it already has a name. But there are times when the overreaches of the young and intemperate must be met with corrective consequences. ■ The student leadership of the College Democrats at the University of Iowa published a statement on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and concluded with a phrase widely recognized to call for the destruction of the state of Israel. This was met with condemnation, including from the chair of the state party. ■ In the course of commenting on the conflict, it ultimately cannot be missed by anyone that it began with a brutal terrorist attack by Hamas in which more than 1,400 people in Israel were murdered. In the words of Deutsche Welle, "The images go far beyond what journalists who have years of experience dealing with conflict, war, death and violence are used to seeing." ■ It is possible to say many things -- including to convey sympathy for the humanity of civilians on both sides of the border -- and to do so temperately, cautiously, and prudently. But words matter so much that one should always take care to check the origins and connotations of what seem like clever turns of phrase from others before adopting them. Youth can be an excuse for only so much, and aligning with terrorists (even if only in words) is a measure too far.
For a long time, critics have dismissed the possibility that electric-powered aircraft could be feasible, given the capacity of batteries and the limiting factor of their weight. But sometimes technology advances faster than the critiques can evolve, and breakthroughs are actually demonstrated to be possible. ■ Such is the case with electric-powered flight. One company has conducted non-stop flights of more than 300 miles with its small aircraft and has already begun installing a charging network at airports. Another company, bearing a household name, has begun flight-testing a hybrid propulsion system, with plans to put it into regional jets holding up to 180 passengers by the other side of this decade. ■ Aviation gets a lot of attention in the context of climate change -- almost unavoidably, perhaps, because of the paradoxical nature of people traveling to climate-change summits aboard private jets. No matter how rational the choice may be, it looks bad. ■ But while it is believed that aviation only accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, it's a high-profile 2%. But more significantly, it's in an area where speedy deployment of technological advancements will help to spur progress elsewhere. Businesses dedicated to technological products often benefit a great deal from having a high-performance division, from which improvements in products and processes can flow to the rest of the company. That's why racing has always been crucial to Honda. ■ Electric and hybrid-electric powertrains will be like that for aviation: The faster they can drive elite engineering work, the sooner we will get to see advancements in electrification elsewhere. Powering aircraft with electricity is a really hard problem, but the solutions will spill over into other sectors. For that reason alone, the much-quieter sound of motorized airplanes should make us all stand and cheer.