Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 January 2009

Infrastructure, Industrial Policy, and Economic Recovery

[For comment on Tom Daschle stepping down, click here.]

Yesterday David Sanger, one of the New York Times’ most astute reporters, posed a rhetorical question. “Can the government,” he asked, “fashion a fast and efficient economic stimulus while also seizing the moment to remake America?”

To those of us of a certain age, he implied we have a Jerry Ford problem. Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Two days before, Sanger’s colleague, conservative pundit David Brooks, made the point same point as a complaint. The recovery bills now moving through Congress, he nagged, are too diffuse, too little focused on short-term, immediate stimulus, and too devoted to a Democratic wish list of projects (like health care) that have languished for forty years.

Both men haven’t done their arithmetic. The present recovery bills may indeed be too diffuse. But over 56% of their funding would put money quickly in individuals’ or local governments’ hands. Only about 17 percent would go for infrastructure and industrial policy.

So if the bills have a fundamental flaw, it is not a focus on long-neglected Democratic initiatives. It is a failure to remove the lasting spell of Republican economic fairly tales.

That spell has held us in thrall for several decades. It still does. Despite all the evidence of our economic collapse, we still believe that putting more money into the hands of individuals and private business will improve our sorry state. We still see Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” holding a magic wand.

But markets cannot cure what ails us. Unregulated financial markets are what destroyed our economy. We have the world’s most inefficient, costly and inflexible transportation system, brought to us by free markets. We rail against China’s and India’s use of dirty coal for fuel, but our hinterlands rely on coal for close to ninety percent of their electricity. Our electric grid is barely adequate to prevent the sort of multi-city blackouts that plagued us in the nineties, let alone to support modern, distributed wind and solar energy. Our military industrial-complex is bloated, inefficient, bureaucratic and corrupt—so much so that it takes four years to write a contract for a new tanker plane.

Our infrastructure is beyond decay. Roads, bridges and aqueducts are falling apart. New Orleans died and must be resurrected because we neglected the kind of basic civil engineering that tamed the Mississippi and made human habitation there possible in the first place. Basic research in physics has moved to Europe with the Large Hadron Collider. Basic research on stem cells has moved to Europe and Asia because we valued religion over science. Our health-care efficiency is abysmal in part because the nation that invented the Internet can’t get doctors, hospitals and insurers to use it. Our food, drug and cosmetic regulators have become apologists for marketers, rather than scientists honestly studying new products’ safety and effectiveness. Our air traffic control system is virtually obsolete and will be utterly overwhelmed when the economy recovers.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. We have neglected vital infrastructure that we must build collectively—as a society—so badly and for so long that we barely know where to begin.

So we don’t just have a Jerry Ford problem. We have a Handel’s Messiah problem, too. Our free-market fairy tales have reduced us to a state best described by that plaintive verse: “Oh we, like sheep, have gone astra-ay, every one to his own way.”

We need to get together again and rebuild our country as a nation, not a congeries of hypothetically rational individual economic actors. We need to make our sheep a flock again. For that, we need national leadership, including industrial policy.

Once our public sphere was the world’s most robust and effective. Here is a partial list of what our public and nonprofit sphere accomplished in the last seventy years alone:

1. Winning World War II. To help win history’s greatest conflict, we nationalized most basic industries, including cars (to make tanks), aircraft, aluminum, and rubber.

2. Running the Manhattan Project. We built the atom bomb, whose prospect itself arose out of government-sponsored research in physics, in a massive secret project run entirely by our military. It was the most ambitious, expeditious, expensive and successful development of advanced technology in human history. During its uranium enrichment phase, the project drew about 10% of the nation’s total electric power. Our government developed the Tennessee Valley Authority, with its massive generators, in part to provide that power.

3. Inventing Synthetic Rubber. When Imperial Japan captured Malaysia’s rubber fields, we invented synthetic rubber, called “neoprene,” for tires. The project was entirely financed and managed by the federal government as part of the war effort.

4. Stopping the Scourge of Polio. When I was a kid, swimming pools were closed regularly, and every mother’s greatest fear was polio striking her child. We banished that fear and polio with the Salk and Sabin vaccines, which we developed in universities and nonprofit institutions with government support and research management.

5. Building the Interstate Highway System. President Eisenhower began this project in the late 1950s, as a better, more versatile version of the national railroad network that had made our nation a leading industrial power. It was designed, managed, operated and funded by the federal government, and paid for by taxes.

6. Eradicating Smallpox. This awful disease had been a scourge of mankind since the Middle Ages. Federally initiated and managed vaccination programs eradicated it from our nation and, with others’ cooperation, from the world—all during my lifetime.

7. Inventing High-Altitude Flight. Federally run aerospace programs invented pressure suits (later, space suits) and pressurized aircraft. These federal projects made above-the-weather flight possible, allowing air travel to become reliable enough for routine use.

8. Putting Men on the Moon. Federally run aerospace programs put men in orbit around the earth, then around and on the Moon. They accomplished the latter feat within the ten-year deadline set by President Kennedy in his inaugural address.

9. Developing Air Transport. From the days of the Wright Brothers, the federal government controlled the progress and development of aviation. Our military supported rapid development of aircraft before, during and after the two great world wars. Our government started regular air mail and package service as part of our Post Office, in part to demonstrate the commercial capability of aviation. For about fifty years, a discontinued federal regulatory body called the Civil Aeronautics Board supervised and guided virtually every aspect of the industry’s development, including safety, routes, schedules and fares. Even in today’s “deregulatory” environment, government agencies (the FAA, NTSB and TSA) insure the industry’s viability by regulating safety and security and providing air traffic control. (If you want to see at a glance what careful government planning developed and nurtured, take a look at this stunning video of daily global air traffic. It’s quite revealing.)

10. Running the World’s Best Post Office. Our Postal Service is the most unjustly maligned government institution in the world. If you can find a better post office in any foreign country—let alone one with self-stick stamps, Web-vended postage, cheerful agents available by telephone, and inexpensive overnight service with Web tracking—please let me know. I’ve traveled to about twenty foreign countries and have lived in two, and nothing I’ve seen abroad even comes close.

11. Curing Cancer. When I was a kid, we all thought cancer was a single disease. People spoke the word in hushed tones, because it was a death sentence. Now we know it’s a huge collection of diseases caused partly by genetic defects and partly by environmental impacts (smoking, viruses, chemicals and pollution). Now people live for years—sometimes decades—after the fateful diagnosis. Virtually all of this progress derives from basic research funded and managed at the federal level and supported by your tax dollars.

12. Defanging AIDS. When the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, everyone feared a new Black Plague. The disease decimated gay communities in New York and San Francisco and put those cities in a vise of fear. Scientists from our federal health research centers, in cooperation with France’s Institut Louis Pasteur, identified the virus and quickly established the limitations on its transmissibility, averting a global medical panic. Then they began the long, slow search for a cure. Now people infected with HIV, who once died in years, can live long, fruitful and fear-free lives. All this progress came with federal tax dollars and federal management and control.

13. Inventing the Internet and Giving it to the World. The Internet began as a defense project, planned and funded by DARPA, our federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The idea was to make our strategic national communications system fully decentralized, so that no nuclear strike or natural disaster could disable it by destroying a single control point. The federal government managed, controlled and funded the entire development. Only after government had created a sizeable working nucleus of federal laboratories and universities did President Clinton release the Internet to the world for commercial use, creating the most convenient and versatile mode of communication in human history.

The most impressive achievements of human civilization—atomic energy, air travel, the Internet, and much of modern medicine—arose or were developed under government control and guidance, at least initially. As this brief list of stunning achievements shows, the notion that government lacks the competence, vision or vitality of private industry is nonsense. With his legendary self-restraint and understatement, President Obama would call it “inaccurate.” I would call it a lie—an untruth deliberately perpetuated by a class of people for their own short-term enrichment, political aggrandizement, and personal power. Now we all know where that lie has led us.

Unfortunately, national ideology is like a secular religion. It doesn’t change overnight. Vladimir Putin is one of the smartest and best-educated leaders on the planet. He knows that Communism destroyed Russia’s economic infrastructure and industrial potential for nearly a century, as he recently admitted at Davos [subscription required]. But when things get scary he instinctively turns to state control over basic industry. Old habits die hard.

We have the opposite problem. We, too, thought the Cold War was an ideological jihad. We thought we “won” because our Free Market God was stronger than the Russians’ Central Control God. We, too, have to rediscover a proper balance between private and public enterprise after nearly a century of true belief. The only difference is that we approach the problem from the opposite extreme.

One of the saddest commentaries on our current sorry state came in a recent feature of Paul Solman, PBS’ economics commentator. Apparently the only successful company he could find in his foray to Los Angeles’ Port of Long Beach was a small firm that makes “Tummy Tuck” jeans.

Now I’m all for private enterprise. Far be it from me to deprive women who eat too much and get too little exercise of the chance to look good by buying a pair of jeans. But anyone who thinks that “innovations” like Tummy Tuck jeans, Facebook or MySpace will restore our industrial predominance is smoking something very strong.

Take a good look at my baker’s dozen list of government projects that made our nation great. Those are the kinds of things we have to learn to do well again. We have get our entire nation—meaning government—involved in repairing infrastructure, building new infrastructure, and supporting and directing basic research and industrial development in energy, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and materials science. We need to create a National Battery Development Consortium to organize the development of good batteries for electric transportation and energy infrastructure. We need to have government setting goals, limits and standards for private industry as it transforms our energy, transportation, health-care and air traffic systems, among others, for the twenty-first century.

All this requires industrial policy. That’s something every other country in the world has, but which we still abjure as inconsistent with our national ideology.

Rebuilding our national infrastructure will take money. But industrial policy won’t necessarily. All it requires is adult supervision and guidance at the national level. For examples of how government can aid progress by setting goals and standards for private industry, without great expense, see this post, especially parts 4, 13, and 14.

Fortunately, we now have a president who most definitely can walk and chew gum at the same time. He knows that we have to get government involved in building infrastructure and setting national directions again, particularly in energy, transportation, communication and health care. And he understands that we have to do so at the same time as we give individuals, local government and private enterprise enough support to keep people from starving and our economy from collapsing utterly.

The recovery bill moving through Congress provides a good start (56%) on the second problem. But it barely provides a small down payment (17%) on the first. President Obama must turn his full attention to infrastructure and industrial policy before his honeymoon expires.

Footnote: The stated percentages are drawn from an early itemization of the stimulus plan, but against a larger $900 billion (really, $890 billion) denominator due to alternative minimum tax relief, as later added in the Senate. Infrastructure investment consists of the following: $20.1 for health information technology, $10 billion for scientific facilities and research, $6 billion for broadband Internet access, $82 billion for energy grid, energy, flood control and other infrastructure investment, $30 billion for highway construction, and $10 billion for rail and other transportation infrastructure. Against a total expenditure of about $900 billion, that’s a total of $156.1 billion, or about 17 percent. Immediate expenditures include $87 billion for Medicaid, $39 billion for temporary health insurance, $54.6 billion for aid to schools and colleges and increases in Pell grants, $43 billion for unemployment benefits and job training, $20 billion for food stamps, $29 billion for high-priority state needs, including public safety and law enforcement, $275 billion for tax cuts, and about $70 billion for AMT relief. That’s about $508 billion or 56 %. The other 27% is mostly medium-term, non-industrial infrastructure investment, such as modernization aid to local school districts ($41 billion), bonus grants for school performance ($15 billion) and repairing and weatherizing public housing and modest-income homes ($22 billion).

The Curious Case of Tom Daschle

The last line of Carl Orff’s immortal Carmina Burana comes from an ancient Latin folk song. It translates as follows: “For the strong [man] whom fate fells, [let] all cry with me.”

So fell Tom Daschle. He was once the most powerful man in the Senate. He’s got a preternaturally calm and soothing personality and unmatched political skills. Everyone loves him, apparently even his ideological enemies in Congress. Virtually everyone with reason to know believed him the best person to bring rational health care to our nation, after half a century of trying. Yet there he is, back on the outside again, when we need him most.

Numbers don’t explain his fall. The $140,000 of taxes and penalties he paid too late amount to less than 0.00002 percent of the proposed stimulus plan (or our TARP program), less than 0.0008 percent of the $18.5 billion of undeserved bonuses recently spread around Wall Street. Compared to amounts misspent daily in our deranging economy, his peccadillo did not even rise to the level of rounding error.

But fall he did. You might even say he was pushed, not so much by the usual suspects, but by his natural allies—the New York Times and generally liberal political cartoonists (1 and 2).

You might be excused for calling his self-recusal an anomaly. Dubya brought us an unnecessary war, trampled our civil rights, ignored checks and balances, and watched idly while stupid, greedy bankers wrecked our economy. Cheney usurped the powers of the Attorney General, the Cabinet and some of the presidency. When accused of destroying our Republic, he arrogantly said “So?” Rumsfeld is responsible for most of our 4,236 deaths and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths. Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove sent political operatives to remake our Department of Justice in the image of its Soviet and Red Chinese counterparts. George Tenet presided over dysfunctional, turf-warring intelligence agencies that let 9/11 slip by. John Thain and hundreds of stupid, greedy bankers like him (investment and conventional) destroyed our economy.

So far as I know, not a single person who visited these disasters upon us has paid any price at all. John Thain and Michael Brown lost their jobs and the chance to do further harm, but that was all. Many made out like bandits, including all the Wall Street minions too far down the ranks to pursue. In our current social and political climate, Maureen Dowd’s cry for disgorgement is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Every human society on the way up had a way of dealing with screw-ups, malefactors and misfits in high places. In ancient Rome, they fell on their swords. In Imperial Japan, they committed seppuku. In our own heyday, we were more civilized. We fired them. They left with the words “fired for cause” figuratively emblazoned on their foreheads. They lost not only reputation, prestige, opportunities and social capital. They also lost salaries, bonuses and even pensions.

Now they lose nothing. They are rewarded for failure or worse. George Tenet got the Medal of Freedom. Karl Rove makes a fine living as a pundit for our clueless media.

What a society we have built! Celebrity is the coin of the realm. Fame and infamy are equal tickets to the easy life. No one acknowledges error or fault except on the way to jail. A governor whose criminal acts were caught on tape brazenly maintains his innocence and public spiritedness until removed by unanimous vote of his state senate.

Juries in criminal cases have become the ultimate arbiters of social morality. We are all perfect and above reproach unless and until convicted of crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.

How strange, in such a world, for a good man with flaws so tiny to step down!

Can some good come of it? Maybe. Maybe Daschle’s selfless act will teach us that there can be no national renewal without accountability. Maybe he will help us know the meaning of “shame” again.

But shame means little to people who measure their worth in dollars or the number of homes they own. Until we replace them—all of them—with people whose higher values include the meaning of shame, our society will continue to decline, even if our president turns out the best in our history.


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30 January 2009

China Rising II: The Hantsu Hypothesis

The Hypothesis
The Complexity of Hantsu
Hantsu as a Foundation of Culture
Theoretical Support for the Hypothesis
Empirical Evidence
My Personal Experience
The Task of Converting


Almost two years ago, I posted a hopeful essay about China’s rising influence in world affairs. That essay outlined the positive aspects of China’s rise and promised a later look at some of the negative aspects.

I haven’t yet dropped the other shoe. There are two reasons for not doing so. First, like most Americans, I’ve been preoccupied with our presidential election, which determined whether our own nation will continue to lead human civilization or extend its present dramatic decline. The outcome gives me hope that American leadership will continue.

Second, I’m not sure that I can say anything particularly useful or insightful about China’s two greatest problems: corruption and pollution. All those lead-tainted toys, tubes of poisonous toothpaste, cartons of tainted milk and pollution-belching coal-fired power plants may reflect a fundamental contradiction between authoritarian government and a modern, transparent, rapidly evolving technocracy. Or they may be a mere passing phase in the social and industrial evolution of an ancient society, analogous to our own snake-oil and Robber-Baron days. Not too many years ago, Japanese vending machines used to sell oxygen in Tokyo and Osaka for residents needing a break from ubiquitous air pollution. Now Japan’s cities are as clean as or cleaner than American and European cities of comparable size.

Chinese civilization has the potential to help lead the world to a new Golden Age or to drown the world in a pall of guanxi and greenhouse gases. Not being a China expert, I have no crystal ball, nor any peculiar insight into which way the fortune cookie will crumble. So like everyone else, I’ll have to just wait and see.

Yet in the meantime there is something unusual and thought-provoking that I can say about China. It’s only an hypothesis, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for twenty years. It may explain why such a large, complex and ancient society has lagged the rest of the world in science and technology since the Mongol era.

The Hypothesis

My hypothesis begins with an interesting riddle. Ancient China is responsible for three of the humankind’s most useful inventions: gunpowder, printing, and noodles. English-speaking Chinese in the United States rank just a little higher on intelligence tests than everyone else. Walk down the corridors of any Silicon Valley firm or any great university in the United States, and you will see Chinese names on the doors, often many.

Yet since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution four centuries ago, the vast majority of path-breaking scientific discoveries and technological innovations has come from Europeans or their descendents in America. The list includes everything from Einstein’s theories of relativity, through the airplane, transistor and laser, to the flush toilet and the Internet. The roster of Nobel Prize winners contains Chinese names in far smaller proportion than you would expect from China’s near one-fourth of the world’s population.

The success of Chinese Americans on both intelligence tests and in every walk of life gives the lie to any theory based on race or genetics. Now that the last vestiges of discrimination here at home are dying, people of Chinese descent are becoming leaders of science and technology in the United States. Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and our new Secretary of Energy, is just one of many. Why not in China itself, and in much greater numbers?

One answer, I propose, lies in China’s complex and antiquated system of writing. I call this the “Hantsu Hypothesis,” using the Chinese term hantsu (pronounced “hahnt-SUE”) for Chinese characters.

The term hantsu is both singular and plural. It does not refer to the hieroglyphics of ancient languages, such as the Pharaohs’ Egyptian. It refers only to the complex characters used in Chinese and adopted by neighboring cultures in Japan (where they are called “kanji”) and in Korea.

The Complexity of Hantsu

In order to understand my Hantsu Hypothesis, you must first understand how complicated Chinese writing is. Most Westerners (including fully assimilated children of Chinese descent) have no clue.

Our Roman alphabet has twenty-six letters. Our most complex letters—E, M and W—have four strokes. Most have just two or three. In China or Japan, you must know some 1,600 hantsu just to read a newspaper. Each of those hantsu can have up to fourteen strokes.

Experts and scholars need much more. To participate, let alone excel, in any field of expert abstract thought, a hantsu writer must have a scholar’s written vocabulary of about 3,000 hantsu. Each of them can have up to twenty-four strokes. If you simply multiply the number of characters by the average number of strokes, you can see how Chinese writing is several hundred times more complicated than writing in the Roman alphabet.

But even that comparison understates the complexity of hantsu. Multi-stroke hantsu are so complex that Chinese calligraphers have developed preferred ways of writing them. The preferred methods govern not only the order of strokes, but also the direction of each, i.e., whether up or down for vertical strokes or left or right for horizontal ones. A young student or scholar learning hantsu must memorize the precise order and direction of each of the strokes, up to twenty-four for complex characters. Each hantsu is therefore like a small painting, which students must learn to “paint by the numbers.”

Hantsu are an art form as well as a system of writing. The order of strokes for each character apparently reflects artistic preference as well as diligent study of the human hand and the way it works. An American woman who studied hantsu in China reports that her teacher could tell—merely by looking at her hantsu after she had written them—whether she had made her strokes in the correct order and direction. That fact alone gives some insight into the boundless intricacy of the Chinese system of writing and the time, diligence and effort required to master it.

Hantsu as a Foundation of Culture

The Hantsu Hypothesis is based on this extreme complexity and its consequences for learning and abstract thought. But before we explore the hypothesis in more detail, we must consider China’s strong cultural resistance to any change.

That resistance has three sources. First and foremost, the hantsu system of writing is a matter of national pride. It has rivals for the first human writing system worldwide, but apparently it was the first in Asia. Other Asian cultures copied it as a sign of civilization and prestige. It still serves that function in Japan and Korea today. Even in the darkest days of World War II, while Japan was using superior technology to rape China, Chinese could take pride in the fact that Japan’s scientific and technological prowess depended on a borrowed Chinese system of writing.

The second source of hantsu conservatism is art. Hantsu are not like letters. Because they are so complex, each character is like a little painting. It can be an object of great artistry. It is no accident that the art of calligraphy is more highly developed and highly respected, and has a longer history, in China than in any other human culture. Any simplified system of writing would take this art—and all the history that goes with it—out of writing and engender strong cultural resistance.

The final source of cultural resistance to change is social. Because hantsu take so much sustained effort to learn, they have always been part of the Chinese system of social stratification and control. Since the days of imperial China, the Chinese system of writing has been an entry barrier to the elite.

You cannot be a member of the intelligentsia or a leader in any human society unless you can read or write. Since the time of the Mandarins, nationwide examinations have reinforced this natural entry barrier into the upper echelons of Chinese society. Nationwide university entrance examinations—all given in hantsu, of course—are their counterparts today.

The element of social control arises in part from the nature of hantsu themselves. The writing system and its stroke-by-stroke approach requires extreme diligence and effort, over a period of many years, to master. The learning required is rote memorization, a type of learning that lends itself to authoritarian teaching.

A simple statistic reveals much. In Western cultures children know their alphabet and are ready to read and write (although not necessarily to understand) any word early in grammar school, typically by age eight or nine. In China and Japan, students are not fully literate until approximately the age of our juniors in high school, age fifteen or sixteen. The difference is as much as seven years of sustained learning by rote, devoted in large measure just to mastering the skill of reading and writing completely.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this sort of sustained, rote learning—necessary as it is—squeezes out rebels, misfits, dreamers and geniuses. Many scholars have speculated on some sort of generalized proclivity to order, rote learning and discipline in Asian cultures. Perhaps those characteristics of Asian society are built right into the hantsu (or kanji) writing system and the inherent need to learn it by rote.

Theoretical Support for the Hypothesis

Now that we have some idea of the extreme complexity of the hantsu writing system, as compared to alphabetic systems, we are in a position to consider its consequences. There are three reasons to suppose that the system has an adverse effect on abstract thought, especially “outside the box” thinking, and on children’s mental maturation.

The first reason derives from computer science: the notion of “overhead.” In the human mind, a system of writing is analogous to an operating system in a computer. It is the method by which abstract ideas and data are input into and extracted from the human brain.

As is well known to computer nerds, some operating systems are more efficient than others. That is, some systems require a greater number of processing steps or “cycles” than others to perform the same input or output function. Like greater “overhead” in a business, the extra steps or cycles consume additional time and resources. Computer nerds refer to the resulting relative inefficiency using the same term, “overhead.”

Although the human mind works differently from digital computers, cumbersome systems of input and output have a similar effect on it. Like a microprocessor burdened with a “high-overhead” operating system, the human mind has to struggle with the enormous difference in complexity and difficulty between alphabetic and hantsu-based languages. The extra effort to read, write and visualize complex hantsu represents mental “overhead” that a mind working in hantsu incurs but a mind working in alphabetic languages does not.

Of course analogies between digital computers and the human mind have their limits. Yet it is worth noting that the science and engineering of optical character recognition bear out this simple “overhead” analogy. Because of the extreme simplicity of the Roman alphabet (as compared to hantsu) we now have multiple workable computer programs that can recognize letters and written words, even when written by hand. To my knowledge, no similar program exists that can identify the 1,600 hantsu needed to read a newspaper, let alone the 3,000 or so needed for success in any scholarly discipline—even when written by machine.

The Japanese have circumvented this limitation in a clever way. They have created keyboards using a uniquely Japanese phonetic syllabary, called hiragana, to input the sound of a kanji character. Once the computer knows the sound, it presents the user for selection, on screen, with kanji alternatives corresponding to that sound. Due to the ambiguity of spoken Japanese, which makes it a generous language for puns, there is usually more than one phonetic match.

The absence of generally effective optical character recognition programs for hantsu by themselves reflects the relative difficulty of recognizing 26 characters with a maximum of four strokes, as compared to several thousand with a maximum of twenty-four strokes. Having no native syllabary analogous to Japanese hiragana, the Chinese are stuck with using pin-yin, a phonetic system based on the Roman alphabet, if they wish to exploit their written language fully in the digital age. But pin-yin doesn’t adequately reflect the systems of various oral tones used to distinguish different words in Mandarin, Cantonese and other spoken Chinese dialects. In addition, as a “foreign” system it inevitably engenders cultural resistance.

The second theoretical reason for supposing that a hantsu-based writing system impedes abstract thought is developmental. Scientists who study the human brain are just beginning to understand how complex and extended is the process by which a baby develops and matures from birth, through childhood and adolescence, eventually coming to possess an adult’s intellect. One of the key recent findings of neurological science is that the biological process of development and maturation does not end in childhood, as previously thought, but continues well into adulthood, typically until at least the early twenties.

This new observation dramatically increases the importance of the long time required to learn the hantsu system of reading and writing completely. In alphabetic cultures, a child has learned all he or she needs to know about reading and writing years before puberty. With that knowledge, the child can read, write and look up any word in the language, from the latest slang to the most abstruse and advanced scientific or mathematical term. Not every child is capable of fully understanding advanced terminology at a young age, but some children can, and the writing system impedes no one.

In hantsu cultures, children do not have the tools to assimilate the words, let alone their meaning, in writing. Until they learn the hantsu for a particular term, they have no means of writing it, reading it, or holding it in their eidetic memory. Although they might learn the term orally, they cannot visualize how it relates to other similar or different words which have or use similar sounds. Insofar as advanced abstract concepts are concerned, the full power of the written language is unavailable to youth in hantsu cultures until well after puberty.

Surely this enormous difference (between hantsu and alphabetic cultures) in the age at which children have fully assimilated the written language has some impact on their development of abstract reasoning ability. In alphabetic cultures, that age is as many as seven years younger than in hantsu cultures. Is it unreasonable to suppose that such a long delay in mastering a culture’s written language fully, which amounts to one-third of the entire human maturation cycle, might influence the degree, speed and outcome of abstract-reasoning development?

The final theoretical reason to suppose that hantsu-based writing systems are inefficient is how quickly they are forgotten. Anecdotal evidence, particularly among Japanese living in the United States, suggests that working knowledge of kanji deteriorates after a mere few years of nonuse. First the ability to write fluently goes, as the mind drops the order and direction of the strokes. Then writers lose the ability to recognize complex characters and words that use them in compounds. This loss occurs even to highly trained people who, at one time, mastered the kanji writing system at the peak of a complex profession.

In contrast, people trained in alphabetic systems seldom lose an appreciable part of their vocabulary unless they become senile or suffer a stroke. This difference corroborates the hypothesis that maintaining an eidetic memory of all those complex hantsu simply takes more raw brain power—i.e., more synapses or the same synapses more often reinforced—than maintaining an ability to use and reason in an alphabetic language.

Empirical Evidence

By and large, current empirical evidence for the Hantsu Hypothesis is limited to the sort of anecdotal evidence summarized above. As compared to alphabetic writing, hantsu writing systems are much more complex, take much longer to learn, require much more sustained effort to master fully, and are more quickly forgotten.

Yet for the first time in human history, we now have the scientific tools to test the Hantsu Hypothesis directly. With magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission imaging, we now can peer directly into the working human brain.

With these tools, it should not be difficult to test the Hantsu Hypothesis. Modern brain imaging tools can looks at brains in the process of recognizing and writing hantsu, or reasoning with their aid. By seeing whether more brain circuits “light up,” scientists can compare the amount of brain tissue required for reading and writing hantsu with those required for reading and writing alphabetic languages such as English. With these tools, we should be able to study directly the extra “overhead” that hantsu-based writing systems appear to impose on the human mind.

In the meantime, while those experiments are being planned and executed, there are other sources of empirical evidence that can be collected and massaged, with the aid of mere statistics. Three inquiries suggest themselves in this regard.

The first is a simple comparison of Chinese working in China with their assimilated counterparts in the West, who use and think in alphabetic languages. A review of Nobel Prize winners suggests a difference here. While scientists and other intellectuals with Chinese names have won a number of prizes, most of them are from the United States and Europe. There are virtually no prize winners from China itself. The historical “slump” in Chinese politics and culture over the last two centuries, which only began to change with the advent of Deng Xiaoping and modern China, may explain this phenomenon. But more careful analysis might show a statistically and culturally significant difference between Chinese working in China and assimilated Chinese working in the West.

A second source of anecdotal and possibly relevant statistical data is Korea. Koreans have used Chinese hantsu for over 2,000 years. Yet over 560 years ago, Korean King Sejong introduced a simplified alphabet-like writing system that today goes by the name of hangul. It uses only twenty-four alphabetic characters, which are as simple as Roman letters. To the untrained Western eye, hangul writing seems almost as complex as hantsu because the simple characters are used in syllabic groups, typically of two or three at a time, arranged two-dimensionally. Yet the system appears to have the same sort of visual and mental efficiencies as Western alphabetic languages, even if the two-dimensional syllabic groups are a bit more complex.

What is especially interesting about Korea is that its writing system may be in transition. Highly educated Koreans, including scholars, traditionally have relied on hantsu for their professional writing. Even today, high-school students in South Korea are expected to learn 1,800 hantsu before graduation. Yet increasingly even formal and scholarly written work contains a mixture of hangul and hantsu, and the mix may be tilting toward the native Korean system as time goes on. If so, Korea would make an excellent laboratory for studying the social and commercial effects of linguistic efficiency. Is it possible, for example, that hangul helps explain both South Korea’s postwar “economic miracle” and its work today at the forefront of LCD and chip technology, despite its having a population that is minuscule compared to China’s?

The final fruitful source of anecdotal evidence is Japan. That country has three distinct systems of writing, two alphabetic syllabaries and a simplified system of Chinese characters called kanji. Each of the syllabaries contains about 54 “letters.” One, called hiragana, is used for Japanese words. Formal Japanese writing uses this syllabary to record the correct grammatical endings for kanji-based concepts, plus the small words and particles that the Japanese language requires for complete expression. The second syllabary, called katakana, is used for foreign and international words. Since so much of Japanese society has been internationalized, katakana is ubiquitous in the neon and business signs in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

An interesting feature of hiragana is its use as a way of writing kanji out phonetically. Japanese children use it that way as they are growing up and learning the difficult kanji system. Subway systems in Tokyo and Osaka also use hiragana (as well as English for foreigners) for station names so that young Japanese children can read them. And as discussed above, Japanese computers use hiragana as a simplified means to input kanji phonetically.

In all these applications there is some ambiguity, since several different kanji usually have the same sound when spoken aloud. The reader or computer user resolves the ambiguity in the usual way, from context.

Today the Japanese elite, including government officials, lawyers, scholars and scientists, still use kanji as their writing system, just as the Chinese elite use hantsu. But even today, the transitional use of hiragana as an alphabetic writing system, while children are learning their kanji, presents a unique opportunity to study the comparative developmental effects of kanji-based and alphabetic writing systems.

My Personal Experience

My own personal experience suggests yet another possible adverse effect of hantsu-based languages. Some twenty years ago, I tried to learn Japanese kanji. I began with an excellent introductory book, Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji, by Len Walsh.

This excellent beginner’s book introduces the most prominent and useful formants of kanji by explaining their derivation from ancient Chinese counterparts and earlier pictographs. It builds up a basic vocabulary of about 400 kanji using these common and universal formants. By proceeding in this way, it not only makes learning more interesting than rote memorization would be; it also makes kanji easy to remember. But the book provides only an introduction to the kanji system, emphasizing things of greatest interest to tourists; more serious study required me to buy an English version of the standard book that Japanese high-school students use.

I soon found that memorizing the various kanji, let alone the standard order of the strokes used to write them, was for me an almost insuperable task. The reason was my own personal mental limitations. Although my mother was an artist, I did not inherit her visual skills. In my youth, virtually all my aptitudes tested around the 99th percentile, except for one. That one, called “spatial visualization,” reflects the ability to visualize spatial relationships among parts of a design, be it a blueprint or a complex kanji. On that dimension, I tested at the 50th percentile, i.e., just average.

With that aptitude, I would not make a good airplane pilot or architect. Yet having had the good fortune to be born into a society with an alphabetic writing system, I could learn to read and understand the most complex abstract matter. Had I been born in China, Japan, or Korea, I would not likely have mastered the hantsu writing system to the level necessary to read and write the matter with which I now deal every day. My career path would have been limited, and those other high aptitudes might have gone to waste.

My own experience made me wonder how many people like me there are in China and other hantsu-based Asian cultures. How many of them does the hantsu writing system bar from fully participating in the intellectual life of Chinese culture and contributing to it? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since.

The Task of Converting

If further study proves the Hantsu Hypothesis correct, what can be done about it? Conceivably, hantsu-based societies could convert to alphabetic systems of writing. Yet strong cultural forces, already discussed, would make conversion an uphill battle. In addition, there are several reasons why the task would be far more difficult in China than in either Korea or Japan.

Both Korea and Japan have native phonetic syllabaries that each could use to make the conversion. Korea has hangul, and Japan has hiragana. If they wished to do so, they could switch from kanji to much simpler alphabetic writing systems based on these already-existing syllabaries. They could do so virtually overnight, since every literate Korean is fluent in hangul and every literate Japanese is fluent in hiragana. While these native syllabaries are not as simple as the Roman alphabet, they are infinitely simpler than hantsu.

Both cultures would lose two things in the conversion. They would lose much of the elegant art and history of hantsu calligraphy. In addition, the ambiguity of their written language would increase because the spoken language reflected by their syllabary would not reproduce all the nuances of meaning embodied in the complex hantsu. But this problem could be overcome, as in other languages, by greater reliance on context, or by deliberate changes in spelling to resolve ambiguities. Translating existing Korean and Japanese libraries would take only a few years with the aid of computer technology, at which the Koreans and Japanese excel.

Unfortunately for China, converting to an alphabetic system would not be nearly as easy. China has no native syllabary, analogous to hangul or hiragana, which it could use as an alphabet. It has only pin-yin, a system of Roman letters, which is foreign and inadequately reflects the tones used in spoken Chinese, especially Cantonese and Mandarin.

The second reason why China’s transition would be more difficult is its many spoken dialects, of which Mandarin (the official and most widespread) and Cantonese are only two. All Chinese dialects use the same hantsu for written expression, but the sounds used to express the same hantsu in different dialects vary dramatically from one to the other. In order to make the transition to a phonetic alphabetic language, China would first have to complete the transition, now under way, to Mandarin as a lingua franca used fluently by everyone in China.

Combining that transition with a move to a new alphabet might considerably complicate the process. On the other hand, it might be easier for the millions who have not yet made either transition to make both simultaneously. If you have to learn a new spoken language, why not learn a new writing system at the same time, especially when the new writing system is simpler, easier, and more closely related phonetically to the new dialect you are learning? Chinese linguists, teachers and policy makers will have to wrestle with these questions as they ponder how to modernize Chinese culture, as well as its science and technology.


To question the social, economic and practical value of a writing system that is one of humankind’s oldest and greatest achievements requires the sort of daring for which Americans are rightly famed and reviled. But the fundamental tenets of science and intellectual inquiry demand that no subject be taboo.

I should stress that this essay outlines an hypothesis, not a conclusion. It will take far more than a few pages of informed speculation to prove or disprove it.

But no one can question the importance of the inquiry. The Chinese alone constitute almost one-fourth of the human race. The Koreans and Japanese, who rely in part on the same writing system, have advanced and productive societies. If their common writing system is holding them back from fully exploiting their respective intellectual capabilities, that is a matter of concern not just for them, but for the entire world. The fact that China is the world’s most quickly rising star only increases the inquiry’s importance.

So this essay ends where it began, with questions, not answers. Is China’s complex writing system retarding China’s development by making abstract thought inefficient for one-quarter of the human race? Does that writing system deprive large parts of Asia of the full aptitudes of people whose special talents do not include the artistic-spatial ability required to master that type of writing? Does it retard children’s development of the ability to think abstractly because it is so complex and takes so long to learn, or because it requires so much routine, rote memorization?

These questions cry out for serious scientific investigation. They have never been more timely and important than today. I hope this essay will inspire serious scientists, especially in China, to undertake the work needed to answer them.


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25 January 2009

Iraqi Provincial Elections: A Game Changer

[For comment on California’s request for an EPA waiver and its effect on industrial policy, click here.]

Perhaps because our economy and the Internet have decimated them, our scatterbrained and celebrity-obsessed media are mostly missing one of the stories of the new century. In the long sweep of history, the Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for next week may be the most consequential event to occur in the Middle East since the birth of Israel over sixty years ago.

Those elections are our ticket out of Iraq. Over sixteen months ago, I argued there were only two real benchmarks for success in our misguided enterprise there. The first was a reduction in our troops’ casualty rate, which has already occurred. The second is Iraqi provincial elections, including their results.

That second benchmark is now imminent. We have little influence over the results; any attempt to meddle would be counterproductive. If the Iraqis choose wisely, we can go home sooner. If they choose poorly, President Obama might have to postpone his ambitious plans for a quick withdrawal.

But there is another reason why the elections are even more important. They will make waves far beyond Iraq.

So far rude democracy has taken root in only two Islamic Arabic places: South Lebanon and Gaza. Neither we nor Israel liked the results, although the elections appear to have been generally free and fair. There were obvious reasons why Hezbollah and Hamas won: of all the many “leaders” in their locales, they alone paid attention to their constituents’ human needs.

Unfortunately, both Hezbollah and Hamas are Islamist and prone to terrorism. The winners in Iraq will almost certainly be different. Kurdish democracy, for one, will not change. Local leaders will still be secular, competent, and pro-American.

As a brilliant piece of reporting in the Washington Post suggests, the new Sunni leaders may be similar. Most of them will be secular sheiks exercising newly-found political power after defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are as suspicious of Islamists as they are of the Shiites who now control Iraq, maybe more so. Many are grateful to us for removing the yoke of Saddam’s Stalinism, arming them against Al Qaeda, and keeping the Shiites’ lust for revenge in check.

The only segment of Iraq in which Islamist extremism and terror might take root is the Shiite sector. But that outcome is hardly foreordained. Three powerful factors will work against it.

First, the Shiites have a huge job of rebuilding their country before them, and they know it. They may not like what’s happening in Palestine. But for most of them, what happens there will remain a remote concern for the foreseeable future (the more so if credible peace talks resume).

Second, Iraqi Shiites’ relationship with Iran has always been more nuanced and circumspect than most Americans perceive. For reasons of language, culture and history, Iraqi Shiites don’t want to be ruled from Tehran.

Finally, Iraqi Shiites’ best spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, still lives and still guides them. As I have argued earlier, his form of “quietist” Islam contains the germ of separation of mosque and state, which could turn Shiite Iraq into a real, modern democracy sooner than anyone expects.

Of course things could go wrong. The three factions could resume fighting, not just in Parliament, but in the streets. The Shiites could turn inward and religious, as repressed people have often done. But the facts remain that two of the three Iraqi factions are decidedly secular in orientation, and none has an obsession with Palestine or terror. After what has happened in their country over the last five years, terror is the last thing on their minds.

So Iraq’s provincial elections may let the world see what an Islamic, Arabic democracy not based on grievance and victimhood looks like. That outcome would be of intense interest for the whole world.

How can we help? We Americans can and should do nothing until the Iraqi electorate has spoken. But once it has, we can do three things.

First, we can put that exorbitantly expensive new embassy to good use, with a full-court diplomatic press. Our diplomats and military folk should get to know the new Iraqi leaders as well as they know Chicago pols, which (the Post’s piece suggests) the Iraqis are likely to resemble. They should work to help the new leaders rebuild their communities and their country at the local level, road by road, small business by small business, school by school.

Second, we should adopt and implement a new immigration policy for Iraqi refugees as quickly as possible. Many Iraqis—including some in exile in Jordan, Syria and Egypt—fear returning home and would like to come here. We should let them, with preference for those who helped us, those with skills and an education, and those with credible reasons to fear persecution. Once here, they will form the nucleus of an Iraqi expatriate community that, in a few years, will be sending American money back to Iraq and helping Iraqi business and Iraqi-U.S. trade grow.

Third, as much as we can afford to do so, we should help Iraq rebuild. I have suggested a mini-Marshall plan for Shiite Iraq, financed by passing the hat to regimes in the region, as well as in Europe and East Asia. The whole world has an interest in seeing Iraqi democracy and reconstruction succeed, and our developed trading partners should help finance the effort. We should make sure the money goes to small businesses, run and controlled locally, not corrupt American behemoths like Halliburton.

About 34 years ago, the last American helicopter left Saigon, ending the first losing war in American history. Today, Vietnam is our friend and a valued trading partner. While not yet a democracy, it has a more moderate and commerce-oriented government than any of our domino theorists who pushed the war could have imagined. Americans and Vietnamese who fought there, Vietnamese who came here, and their descendants helped make that happen. The same thing can happen in Iraq.

Tip O’Neill told us that all politics is local. Hezbollah and Hamas proved him right. Now we have a chance to see that principle take root in a country for which we have sacrificed over 4,000 lives and a trillion dollars. We should do everything we can to help the seed of non-Islamist, non-terrorist democracy, which we have planted in the heart of the Middle East, become a mighty tree.

California’s EPA Waiver

President Obama is the iron fist in the velvet glove, a modern Machiavelli. He gets things done without making waves, sometimes without even a ripple. His brilliant handling of Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign—which I and others once took as too “soft”—is just one example of his skill.

If you want more evidence of his talent, consider today’s announcement that the new EPA will look into granting California’s request for a waiver to allow it to regulate greenhouse gases.

As I’ve outlined in multiple posts (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), we have a crying need for national industrial policy, especially regarding fossil fuels and energy. One aspect of that need is converting our transportation infrastructure to alternative fuels.

There are three ways for government to seek that end. With our native car companies dying, it could simply take them over, as a condition of the continuing bailout they most certainly will need. For example, the government could buy control of GM (at its ridiculously low current market price) and spin off the Chevy Volt to investors who understand the big picture and the unlimited promise of electric cars.

The other two ways to enforce industrial policy are economic: taxation and regulation. We could force a transition to alternative fuels by taxing gasoline heavily, as Tom Friedman has advised. Or we could decrease the use of gasoline by regulation.

What’s the best option among the three—control, taxation, and regulation? Involving government directly in industrial decisions sends shivers up Republican and conservative spines. It would encounter massive political resistance, especially after the first inevitable mistake. With all due respect to Tom Friedman, taxes are not a viable option now, in the midst of an horrific economic downturn. They’re especially not a viable option politically when they would fall most heavily on people least able to afford them: poor folk who depend on old, inefficient cars for transportation. So that leaves regulation.

If you followed the last congressional brouhaha over efficiency standards, you might have noticed that not everyone agrees. Despite all scientific and engineering evidence to the contrary, not to mention Europe and Japan, the bozos who now run our car companies still insist that higher efficiency standards will kill their businesses. The unions line up behind them, believing that poisoning our planet and selling our national patrimony to Chavez and the Saudis will keep their jobs. And John Dingell of Michigan, who at 81 should be required to have a brain transplant as a condition of keeping his House seat, follows blindly.

Enter California and the EPA. As the state with the largest population, the largest number of cars, and the biggest auto-induced smog problem, it has the most experience dealing with alternative fuels and the problems that cars cause. It also has a popular Republican governor, who understands our need for industrial policy on fossil fuels and environmental protection.

Not only that. Thirteen other states have joined California’s request for a waiver. Collectively, they represent about half the nation’s cars and light trucks. The nitwit car CEOs bewail the “patchwork” of regulation they claim is coming. They say they will have to produce different cars for different states. But they are bluffing. If the waivers go through, the CEOs will make the smaller, more efficient cars required and sell them everywhere. Incidentally, those cars will be cheaper, so more people will be able to afford them in this economic downturn.

Next to Tom Friedman’s draconian gas taxes (which current economic conditions render practically and politically infeasible), this is probably the best possible temporary solution. Like a tax, higher efficiency standards don’t pick winners and losers. They don’t tell industry how to do its job. All they do is apply steady pressure to do what’s right. Detroit can emulate Henry Ford and make smaller, lighter cars which more people can afford. Or it can emulate Thomas Edison and make electric cars that needn’t use gasoline at all. It might even get wise to real ethanol use and apply its considerable lobbying power to repealing our counterproductive tariffs on cheap, imported, cane-derived ethanol.

As for politics, the waiver solution is brilliant. A popular Republican governor and our largest industrial states will be leading the charge. There will be no need for the idiots in Congress to take a stand against auto-industry and union demagoguery, no opportunity for Dingell to showcase his consummate stupidity again. Everything will proceed under the radar of our clueless press, in those dull and boring regulatory agencies and the courts. No one will hear the cries of our moronic CEOs.

Will the EPA grant the waiver? Of course it will. It will take some time to marshall the scientific, engineering and industrial evidence, but the result is virtually certain. Practically unnoticed by the press, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA chief, is trained as a scientist/engineer. She earned a masters degree in chemical engineering from Princeton and graduated summa cum laude in that field from Tulane. And if she has any doubt about the science herself, she can pick up the phone and call Steven Chu, our new Secretary of Energy, who has a Nobel Prize in physics and commands the attention of the entire scientific community. No one with a government portfolio in fossil fuels or energy is going to ignore science, engineering or numbers any more.

Comparing Obama with his predecessors is positively exhiliarating. Bill squandered his political honeymoon on gays in the military—a worthy cause but one horrendously mistimed. Dubya spent his sole real election’s meager political capital like a sailor new and port. As a result, he headed right down into the cellar of popularity, where he stayed. On his fourth full business day in office, President Obama sets in motion a new industrial policy with the stroke of a pen, without even breaking a sweat, and without spending a dime of political capital. God bless him.


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22 January 2009

A Day to Cherish

By now the Inauguration is old news. But it’s not for those who were there. Our step will be lighter and our world brighter for a few days yet. As long as we live, we’ll cherish the memories.

My wife and I don’t like crowds, and she hates the cold. Yet there we were, in temperatures in the low twenties, standing in a crowd in a frigid breeze. We enjoyed every minute.

There were no choirs of angels, but it was a gloriously sunny day. To minimize our time on sardine-packed subways, we walked across the Arlington Bridge. The sun gleamed on the Capitol and the monuments, making the District look like one of our “alabaster cities” from “America the Beautiful.”

As President Obama (God, that sounds good!) took the oath of office, we were about a mile away. The Lincoln Memorial was at our back, and the Reflecting Pool on our left, with the Vietnam War Memorial beyond it.

Between us and the President, about half way, stood the Washington Monument. That’s where the “National Mall” ends according to our maps. In that closer half, aerial images showed the crowd densely packed, like blades of grass. Between the Monument and us, the crowd was sparser, mostly clustered around the jumbotrons, with some breathing room.

Despite a time lag, the sound and video were excellent, and the mood was joyous. We heard sustained applause when Colin Powell and Bill and Hillary appeared, and a surprisingly warm response for Al Gore. In deep basso, a man behind me intoned, “They stole it from ya, Al!”

Dick Cheney appeared in a wheelchair, and we heard isolated laughter and a few catcalls. Even though I thought he’d suffered a stroke, not just a strained back, I couldn’t find any sympathy in my heart for him. Neither, apparently, could the crowd. The Washington Post’s “Express” Inauguration Supplement summed up the mood by quoting a blogger’s view of Cheney:
“[H]is deal with the devil is coming due, and he is degenerating into his true form, gollum, that he will inhabit once his power is revoked.”
For those of us old enough to remember the movie, he looked a lot like Dr. Strangelove.

There were also a few jeers and boos for Dubya. They came once when he appeared, shifty-eyed, in the entry way, and later when he squirmed under the new President’s not-so-veiled criticism.

But mostly the crowd stood mute for Dubya. The people around us were like watchers at a horror film, waiting tensely to see whether the monster would rise again or subside at last. The family in front of us wouldn’t relax until they saw Dubya’s helicopter fade out of sight.

Barack, Michelle and the First Kids of course evoked the greatest joy. The roar was deafening when Barack became president, and again when he impliedly criticized Dubya. After he completed his oath, people kissed each other, and strangers hugged or shook hands. The long nightmare was over.

After the speeches and final benediction, the crowd around us began to disperse, and everyone fell to taking pictures. My mind wandered toward coronations in English and French history. Then power passed with the life of monarchs and the cry, “The King is dead! Long Live the King!”

Unlike England and India (among others), we have no way to remove a leader who has lost the people’s confidence. So, like subjects in a monarchy, we have to wait to replace bad with good. We had to wait only four years, not a lifetime. But sometimes an eyeblink in history can seem an eternity.

When I was young, “Forty Miles of Bad Road” was a popular country-and-western song. What we had just endured was similar: forty years of bad rule. Except for the brief interludes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s first term, those years were times of selfishness, certitude, division, arrogance and greed.

Something evil—Nixon’s Southern Strategy—had kicked the whole thing off, putting a bent demagogue in our highest office. Tolerating intolerance is bad enough. Exploiting and fostering it to win elections is vile. Reagan also did it, and so did Dubya’s father. Even Hillary and Bill put a toe in the cesspool during their primary campaign.

Now that era seems gone forever. You could see it in the crowd, which where we stood was more than half white. You could see it in Dubya’s face. Even with his dim intellect, he could understand the meaning of the crowd’s number. Estimates put it between 1.8 and 2 million people, eighteen to twenty times the turnout for Dubya’s second inaugural—the only time he won fairly.

Even the dumbest politicians can count. So we all can hope that things like the Willie Horton ad, the demonization of Reverend Wright, and all the rest are gone forever. From now on, if campaigners seek dirt, it will have to be in personal behavior, not people’s genes or remote associations. In the unlikely event that Barack Obama does nothing else of note during his presidency, he may have drained that cesspool.

Of course we expect him to do much, much more. He’s got the best combination of brains, judgment, vision, and character of any president in my lifetime, bar none. But on that glorious day, it was enough to end an awful era, one that began with racism and one unnecessary war and ended with more racism, another unnecessary war, and universal belief in economic fairy tales.

With the ceremony and the speeches over, my wife and I turned to pay obeisance to Lincoln. We read the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural, engraved on the Memorial’s walls. Once again, we marveled at Lincoln’s uncanny ability to see things just as they were, while reminding everyone brilliantly how they ought to be.

After forty years of darkness and division, we now have another man with those same abilities in the White House.

That happy comparison filled my soul. We glanced at Lincoln for the last time, turning to cross the bridge and pay respects to my own relatives at Arlington Cemetery. As we left, I thought I saw Lincoln smile.

P.S. The Washington Post’s “Express” Inaugural Supplement also quoted one Larkin Harris as follows:
“For the past eight years, I would have wanted to be president for one reason: I think that I would have done a better job than the man in charge. Now that our country is being led by President Obama, I would respectfully decline the post.”
I felt much that same way. In the era of good leadership that has now begun, I expect to have much less to say. So readers should not be disappointed if new posts henceforth appear on this blog only once every week or two. Like the other two million people on the (extended) Mall and most of the rest of the world, I will sleep sounder at night—and produce fewer cries in the wilderness— knowing we have a president who is up to the job.


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16 January 2009


Everyone who fears hard times should read David McCullough’s 1776.

As the world’s predominant nation today, we like to think that our rise was inevitable. But it wasn’t. Our birth as an independent nation was as precarious as any event in human history.

We were up against the largest, best trained and best equipped military in the world: the British Empire’s. When the British took New York, they had over 400 ships in and around the harbor—the greatest armada ever assembled. One of their cannonades was so thunderous that some of our green troops fled at the mere sound of it.

In contrast, our navy was minuscule and our army inadequate. Throughout 1776, we had at most 9,000 troops at arms; the British and their mercenaries had about 30,000. Our industrial might was only a distant promise. We lacked powder, cannon, muskets, food, clothing, shoes, blankets and firewood. Many of our troops marched through the winter with tattered shoes or bloody rags on their feet. Some used pitchforks or makeshift spears as weapons.

Worse yet, our troops were untrained, unruly and undisciplined. They didn’t keep order in their camps. They didn’t keep themselves, their clothes, their food or their weapons clean. Many ran at their first taste of combat. They didn’t observe even the primitive rules of hygiene known at the time. As a result, dysentery and disease were rampant among our troops, far more than among the British regulars and Hessian mercenaries.

We didn’t even have a standing army. We had various state militias, and their enlistments were all short term, typically six months. In our darkest hour, in December 1776, thousands of troops left our ranks as their enlistment terms expired. George Washington had to promise each soldier a bonus of ten dollars (a significant sum in those days), to keep the army from dissolving before his eyes. He did so on his own initiative, without congressional authority. The Continental Congress later backed him up.

McCollough ends his fascinating book in January 1777, after our hit-and-run military victories at Trenton and Princeton. While enormously important for our morale and self-respect, those midwinter victories were militarily insignificant. Our War of Independence would run on for another six and a half long, wearying years.

Yet we all know who won. Why?

It wasn’t Washington’s brilliance as a strategist. In defending New York, he relied on officers unfamiliar with the terrain. He left a key but little used pass completely unguarded. As a result, his army was cut off, and we almost lost the war, as well as New York.

Washington made other equally disastrous mistakes. Often he was indecisive. Sometimes he was too cautious. Luckily, when he was too rash his command councils overruled him. The history of 1776 involved one strenuous retreat after another, as Washington sought to preserve his army and any chance of victory, no matter how small.

As you read McCollough’s history of trials and failures, two features of George Washington’s character become crystal clear. First, he was a realist. He always knew what he was up against.

More important, he understood. He saw how far his ragtag band of rebels had to go to become a real army. He knew his only chance for victory was to keep his forces together and as intact as possible, despite their inadequacies and hardship. His bouts of indecision were due more to lack of good intelligence than to vacillation on fundamental aims. He hazarded attacks on Trenton and Princeton (as morale boosters) only when he knew that the bulk of enemy forces had repaired to cities for the winter, as was customary at the time.

Even more important, Washington had perseverance. Bred to land and wealth, he might have been soft, pliable and weak. He was not. Like so many of his social class, he might have become a Tory loyalist and aided the enemy. Like many of his soldiers, he might have been overcome by hardship and given up. Instead, he soldiered on, often leading in the thick of the fighting. What he lacked in strategy and formal military training, he made up in ability to inspire and lead his men and his adamant will.

Washington led by keeping firmly in mind what he was fighting for. He constantly reminded his men and a distant Congress what was at stake. In the darkest hour, he never doubted the rightness and justice of the cause. He gave those closest to him unshakable faith in their mission. He inspired loyalty like no American since, but he never abused it to seek power for himself or to excuse his failings.

As we face trials far less serious than those the first Americans faced, we would do well to think about that kind of perseverance. For eight years we have seen its antithesis. We started a war in Afghanistan, seeking justice for the perpetrators of 9/11. Did we see it through? No sooner had we secured a transitory and precarious battlefield victory than we started a new war in Iraq and gave it higher priority.

As for finance and industry, for the last eight years “perseverance” has meant holding on long enough to cash in stock options and leave the sinking ship. Many doubt our ability the stay the course toward energy independence, believing that consumers will refill their gas guzzlers (and buy even more) now that gas sells for less than $ 2 a gallon again.

Yet there are signs that things are changing. Just yesterday Intel Corporation—one of our leading industrial giants—faced a grim reality: a 90% plunge in profits. While announcing layoffs, CEO Otellini refused to cut support for internal research and development. “We’ve always believed,” he said, “that the best way to successfully emerge from recessions is with tomorrow’s products, not by standing still with today’s.” That’s perseverance.

Any what of our new political field? The campaign stamina of Hillary Clinton, our new Secretary of State, is legendary. So is Barack Obama’s. Both persevered through the longest and toughest presidential campaign in history.

Is this a pleasant coincidence? I don’t think so. Part of what makes Secretary Clinton run is her own ambition. But part is her awareness that she carries the baton for millions of women who, after 89 years of suffrage, have yet to see political influence, let alone power, proportionate to their numbers.

As for our African-Americans, what can you say? Is there any group in this great land that has shown longer and more effective perseverance? Their ancestors came here in chains as slaves. They’ve been despised, beaten, lynched, oppressed, marginalized, disenfranchised, neglected, disrespected and spurned.

For the last four decades, Republicans have demagogued the “threat” of “black power.” But there never was any real threat. Some African-Americans scared the rest of us (Malcolm X and Huey Newton), yelled at some of us (Al Sharpton), goaded most of us (Jesse Jackson) and appealed to the better angels of our nature (Martin Luther King, Jr.). But none seriously considered large-scale violence, let alone the sort of guerilla war that regularly occurs in Latin America.

Like George Washington, African-American leaders always knew what they were struggling for. It wasn’t a replay of the French Revolution. Through most of four centuries, they never lost faith in the promise of an America that treated them so poorly. Instead, they struggled loyally within the system that they hoped one day would accept them. That’s perseverance!

Now “their” leaders are “our” leaders. They still know who they are—who we are—and what we all have been struggling for. Soon-to-be Attorney General Eric Holder knows. No doubt with his ancestors’ treatment in mind, he’s said that waterboarding is torture and won’t happen on his watch. He has promised to observe the letter and the spirit of our Constitution in all that he does.

Our American push for Reason and Justice has always been an improbable experiment. We have had to fight the phantoms of history, tradition, cynicism, selfishness, greed and stupidity every step of the way. Sometimes, as now and before the Great Depression, those lamentable qualities have been our own. Sometimes, as during our War of Independence and the last century, we’ve had to fight and beat the most fearsome military machines that mankind ever assembled. But we have always persevered.

Whether you fought for this day, stood on the sidelines, or even resisted, you will get the goods. As Barack Obama takes his oath as president, every one of us will reap the benefits of history’s most dogged, patient, and loyal pursuit of American values.

Having people with that legacy of perseverance steer our ship of state through these troubled waters is not just encouraging and inspiring. It is downright comforting.

P.S. My wife and I will be going to the Inauguration and will be out of touch for several days. We won’t be on the dais. We’ll be among the millions watching the proceedings on jumbotrons on the Mall. But we’ll be there to experience the immense power of popular faith in our continuing capacity for national renewal.

That’s the power that has made our Republic, still young and fragile, the last, best hope of mankind. We trust that it is still just that, and we’ll be there to feel the power of renewal in the flesh.


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14 January 2009

“When Donkeys Fly”: Steven Chu’s Energy Plans

[For a related post on how easy it will be to market the Chevy Volt, both as an exciting car and as an energy solution, click here.]

Energy policy is a make-or-break issue for our nation and our species. So I found it more troubling than amusing yesterday when our hare-brained media rushed off to cover the Hillary Clinton’ hearing, rather than that of Nobel Laureate Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy.

Sitting right next to Chu at the witness table was Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Ca.). In introducing the distinguished scientist from her own state, Boxer made a fool of herself, kicking off her remarks with an awkward excuse for rushing off to hear Hillary. She might as well have said, “Hillary’s more important. Sorry, Steve.”

Sitting on Chu’s right, Senior Senator Diane Feinstein (D., Ca.) had been more tactful and gracious. She emphasized the importance of energy policy, California’s role as an experimental energy laboratory, and the contributions of Chu and the national laboratory he runs to our nation’s scientific past and future.

The fact is that neither Hillary Clinton nor her new job is more important than Steven Chu’s. In any event, nothing new or remarkable emerged from the Clinton hearing. As usual, Clinton’s articulate but tightly scripted speech foretold nothing and solved nothing. In contrast, the Chu hearing revealed some important new information about the Obama Administration’s energy policy and our energy future.

An unlikely hero emerged from the Chu hearing. Bob Corker, the new Republican Senator from Tennessee, had exploited an ad with racist overtones to beat his Democratic rival, former Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr. But he proved to be far more than a clever and dirty campaigner. He was easily the most candid and perspicacious speaker at the hearing. His remarks were a breath of fresh air.

Most of the senators used their brief remarks to score points or lay down markers for narrow, parochial interests of their states or local industries. Nearly every one of them had something to sell.

But Corker was different. He appeared to have our nation’s and our species’ interests at heart. He spoke to the gravest issue in all of energy policy: how long we humans will continue to poison our cities and ruin our planet by burning coal.

Responding to others’ insistence that Chu devote substantial attention and resources to the dangerous illusion of “clean coal,” Corker was candid and folksy. Many people believe, he said, that sequestering carbon from burning coal will work “when donkeys fly.” He recognized the continuing mortal threat of coal, all but apologizing for his state’s own reliance on that dirtiest of fuels.

Chu’s response was revealing. Earlier he had danced around the issue. But Corker gave him the opportunity to be more candid. Chu acknowledged that carbon sequestration is only a “possibility” and that making it a reality will be a “real challenge.”

You had to pay careful attention to understand the nuances of Chu’s “diplomatic-speak.” Later in the hearings he called the promise of fourth-generation biofuels (bioengineered plants refined to fuel by bioengineered microbes) a “probability.” The contrast with “possibility” for coal sequestration was telling.

This exchange revealed two things about Chu himself. First, as a brilliant scientist, he knows the score. Second, he won’t stick his neck out politically unless led by others with more political backbone. He’ll let the new president decide how to frame the issues and break the bad news, but he’ll give the president accurate advice on real science behind the scenes.

The second most important point to emerge from Chu’s hearing involved nuclear energy. The Obama Administration’s approach to nuclear power is not nearly as negative as pandering to the NIMBY fringe made it seem during the campaign.

Several senators from Southern states expressed eagerness to build new nuclear power plants. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.) pointed out that our Southeast doesn’t have much wind but also doesn’t want to be left behind in modern energy. In response, Chu enunciated a policy of building new uranium-cycle plants. He also supported quick release of long-sequestered and over-bureaucratized federal loan guarantees for that purpose.

Yet Chu’s remarks on nuclear fuel reprocessing were disappointing. He recognized—as he must—that reprocessing decreases both the radioactivity and radioactive lifetime of nuclear waste, at the same time as it extends nuclear fuel and makes it more economical. He also recognized that France, Japan and Russia reprocess nuclear fuel and that Great Britain is looking into doing so.

Yet Chu pleaded lack of detailed knowledge of reprocessing technology. He appeared to want to put it on the back burner, citing risks of diversion by terrorists. Like Candidate Obama, he also disparaged nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, making only vague promises of future research toward alternatives.

This response was troubling for several reasons. First, as Chu himself pointed out, nuclear power today accounts for 70% of our carbon-free energy. If we are to reduce our national carbon footprint significantly, we are going to have to rely on nuclear power at least in part and at least in the medium term.

Second, as Chu himself also pointed out, coal and nuclear are our two current “base load” technologies for electric power. Coal today generates more than 50% of our electricity. While efficiency and conservation may keep that number from going up, only substitutes for coal like nuclear, wind and solar can bring it down. If we are going to wean ourselves from the most dangerous and dirty fuel on Earth, we are going to have to resort to nuclear power.

Next to these points, the rest of the hearings paled into insignificance. Only a few additional points are worth making.

Handsome and self-confident, Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) staked out a position as chief energy troglodyte. Noting (with apparent pride) that 98 percent of his state’s electric power comes from coal, he insisted that we force China and India to take the first steps toward reducing coal use.

Bayh and all of Indiana’s political leaders should wear that 98% number in shame, marked in soot on their foreheads. It is appalling. Indiana’s senior senator Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) knows better. But apparently neither he nor any other Hoosier has done anything with that knowledge. That’s not leadership!

One the bright side, Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) lauded solar power and asked only for a laboratory (or branch thereof) to promote it in his state. That’s the spirit! Another Senator asked about thermal solar power, and Chu responded with appropriate approval and enthusiasm.

As for wind power, the hearings were a bit of a love fest. There was much support and enthusiasm for this hugely promising, nontoxic, carbon-free, nonpolluting technology, which works right now. Chu himself lauded it and explained how expanding and “smartening” our electric grid will promote it.

The only sour note on wind was sung by Senator Bob Menendez (D., N.J.). He made his whole state sound like a NIMBY area for new transmission lines. To be fair, he had a minor point. Apparently the regulators have designated his whole state as a power transmission corridor, while analyzing matters on a line-by-line basis in California and other western areas. But that was a small point for Menendez to make in private, rather than appear a troglodyte like Evan Bayh.

Mary Landrieu (D., La.) made a final practical point. She asked Chu to divert subsidies and attention from corn-derived ethanol to sugar-derived ethanol, which is far more efficient. Chu never responded to her request, but it’s something that the Obama Administration should consider, now that pandering to troglodytes is in abeyance for at least two years.

The Chu hearings thus made three things clear. First, Chu himself is a brilliant scientist with a clear, quantitative grasp of the issues and the real potential of various solutions, including so-called “clean coal.” Second, now that it actually has to solve real problems, the Obama administration (as I predicted) apparently is reconsidering the campaign’s ridiculous overemphasis on “clean coal” and not-so-benign neglect of nuclear energy.

Third—and most important—there are still too many energy troglodytes out there.

Some otherwise smart politicians still don’t get it: energy is not just another issue to be traded off like pieces of pork. It’s a matter of survival for our nation, our species, and our planet. Every state and every locality needs to pull together if we are to get energy right. There is no room for parochial interests or NIMBY resistance.

People like Evan Bayh and Bob Menendez need to get educated, and quickly. After eight years of the most anti-science administration in U.S. history, it’s depressing to hear Democrats talking like them. Maybe Chu, once confirmed, can hold a seminar for backward senators.


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