Monday, September 10, 2007

Four Big Ideas Needed

As the GOP candidates fumble their way towards the primaries, much has been made of the lack of big ideas on which to hang their candidacies. Frankly, I think this holds equally for the Democrats, with the minor caveat that they're willing to talk about something other than terrorism and the war from time to time.

The problem is that there are four huge challenges facing the the West in general and the US in particular. Underlying each of these challenges are fundamental, historical shifts.

  • A change in energy infrastructure. After so many years of false alarms, it's pretty clear that we are beginning the transition to a post-fossil-fuel civilization. Whether oil reserves are exhausted or whether global warming makes burning oil or coal impossible, we know that the energy economy of 2050 will be completely different from today's.

    There are two characteristics that seem inescapable. First, the primary source of energy will be non-fossil and able to scale massively at very low cost. Practically, that means that solar and nuclear fission/fusion are the only things on the horizon that have a prayer of scaling up properly.

    Second, the medium of energy transfer will be electricity, either in line-transmission form or via batteries fed off the line. I suppose that ethanol is a possibility, but it seems unlikely to scale.

    The current discussion of carbon neutrality is fundamentally unserious, due to its inability to scale. It is also unserious to think about conserving your way out of the problem. The economy will continue to grow explosively, dwarfing any conservation efforts. We need massive, renewable, carbon-friendly energy production. Any technology that can't satisfy all three adjectives need not apply.

  • A framework for dealing with non-state actors while preserving freedom. See my previous few posts. The fundamental change is that non-state actors will soon be able to gravely wound or even destroy a society with available technology. Since these individuals must be stopped at any cost, there is a civil liberties penalty to be paid. The international conversation about the form of that penalty is still in its infancy.

  • Promotion of an open, global economy while providing opportunity for all. The globalization genie is out of the bottle and it's unlikely we'd choose to put it back in even if we could. But there's no question that the prospect of having your job yanked out from under you and sent off to Bandar Seribegawan at a moment's notice is terrifying. Somehow, the citizens of the US--and ultimately the citizens of the world--need to answer the following questions:

    Is there any enforceable framework that can preserve local jobs without placing the locality at an unsustainable competitive disadvantage? (My guess is that the answer to this is "no," but if you say you've got a real solution, well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan.)

    Can a significant percentage of the population be educated to be globally competitive? If so, how, and how do we transition educational infrastructure to do it?

    What do we do with the dumb people who can't compete? They deserve a decent life. At the least, they deserve not to be frightened all the time.

  • Defining to what extent human life will be preserved and suffering eased. We typically think of this one as "the health care crisis," but the rising cost of health care is merely the leading edge of a much more profound change that will occur over the next fifty years. When medical technology is completely mature, I predict that nearly indefinite life extension will be available for an arbitrarily high price. So, when somebody can pay $10 million and live to be 250, while a poor person lives to be 75 and spends the last 10 years of his life in pain, there's going to be a certain amount of social dialogue. Indeed, there's a decent possibility that an arbitrary amount of GDP can be spent on health care in the not-too-distant future. Since that's impossible, we'll need to have a rationing discussion and answer some hard questions.

    Similarly, the abortion issue is only the beginning of a discussion on what it means to be human, and what rights accrue to those defined as human. Genetic enhancement, biomechanical and cybernetic advances, and machine intelligence are going to tear this one open real soon now.

Note that none of these issues has a satisfactory answer today and all of them must have some kind of answer for civilization to survive. These are enormously hard problems. But it's not like they aren't there for the candidates of either party to acknowledge and discuss.

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