Visions of a sustainable technocracy

our little girls shadow

Barack Obama's team seems more technologically savvy than his predecessor. In the mid 1990s when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, I was surprised to learn that he didn't have a public email address. At the same time, George W. Bush's democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bollock did have a public email address. Obama's recently launched website provides a more scalable framework for public input than any past president has ever deployed. I hope he and his staff are able to manage it well. I submitted some of these suggestions to

  • Restore the technical advisory counsels that Reagan sacked in favor of lobbyists. Consider appointing optimistic, far-thinking visionaries such as William McDonough and Bill Joy.
  • Rebalance the fiscal value of education and research with the societal value, so basic research on energy, health, economics... and other areas of science which are unlikely to boost an individual stock price in the next 91 days, won't forever sit on the back burner while Europe, India, China and Japan leave us in the technological dark ages.
  • Treat universities as long term societal investments, not short term fiscal investments. Our great universities are decaying into trade-schools and country clubs because of thier focus on short term money. U.S. university cost has risen at three times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. This forces bright students to abandon "slow payback" fields such as basic science, medicine and instead choose degrees such as MBA, Law and Computer science which provide quick payback but tend to be valued only during short periods of peak demand immediately after graduation. It also leaves behind many intelligent but poor students who could better themselves and society if they were able to afford more high level education.
  • Fix the SEC rules so they don't punish companies which invest money in research where the payoff is more than 91 days in the future.
  • Use a six-sigma approach to all aspects of government (including voting). If the quality level of our hospitals was as low as what we accept in vote counting, at least 500 babies would go home to the wrong parents every day.
  • Tag all funded research with the funding organization so we know how many grains of salt we should take before we believe studies telling us that toxic waste is good for us.
  • Focus government funding on areas of science with a longer term societal and fiscal payoff. We shouldn't be spending $1 of our tax money funding R&D which only helps the stockholders of one company for one business quarter.
  • Any intellectual property resulting from projects partially funded by government should belong to all of us. This means patents, scientific research and software.
  • Set some "before this decade is out" goals. We have several equivalents to sputnik right now, global climate change, energy, education, healthcare. These are areas where we are falling behind our potential. We have targets, we only need leadership... and in some cases we only need the government to step out of the way.
  • The 800 billion going to failed investment banks would be much better spent rebuilding our infrastructure. Create a technological WPA/CCC to rebuild our infrastructures in a green, sustainable, efficient and cost effective way. Anyone can sail when there is wind, but our economy is stuck in the economic doldrums until we become smarter and more efficient.
  • Restore normal relations with the citizens of Cuba and end the embargo. This anachronistic policy dates almost back to the McCarthy era and is a terrible failure compared to our policy of engagement, diplomacy and trade with China. Arrange for a doctor/medical technology exchange program so our sagging healthcare system can benefit from Cuba's supply of well educated doctors. The Castro brothers will be gone soon and an exchange that is good for the people of Cuba will also help U.S. baby boomers find affordable health care in their retirement years.
  • Create a multipartison office of public science which explains scientific research and decisions to the public so we can all make more informed decisions about science.
  • Create a program which rewards companies for investment in efficiency technology. For example, why does a company get a per mile tax break for employees who drive but not for those who telecommute the same distance?
  • Revamp the Bush/Bernanke/Paulson fiscal bailout plan which at best can only reanimate a handful of Wall Street firms. See this for alternative ways of blowing $800 billion.
  • Don't try to reinflate the property bubble. It had the following negative impacts:
    1. It led to sprawl from cities to suburbs to exurbs and enormously increased our dependence on oil.
    2. It rewarded highly leveraged debt and unsustainable speculation while punishing non-REIT businesses, anyone who saved money, anyone who can't yet afford a home, and future generations.
    3. It increased our average personal debt load to the highest level since the Great Depression.
    4. It allowed state governments to become drunk and bloated on the excessive property tax revenue which was based on imaginary valuations.
    5. It left millions at risk of foreclosure or in negative equity which will prevent labor from moving to where the jobs are.
    6. It harmed U.S. competitiveness. An office worker in CA where typical house prices exceed $300,000 can't possibly compete with a worker in China, India or Mexico. The Internet allows information technology and office work to flow to wherever the cost of labor is lowest and it is impossible to sustain a low cost of labor with a high cost of living.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I'm sure some of these ideas are controversial and all need polishing. But some of these are certainly more feasible than some of the half-baked schemes that have been pushed through congress in recent months.


I mentioned William McDonough in the context of the inspiring Monticello dialogues he presented in the mid 1990s. I've since learned that even such intelligent dreamers bump into areas where they lack expertise. The stories of Huangbaiyu and GreenBlue should be taken as lessons on the value of "openeco."

Huangbaiyu is like the first cut of an opensource project, it had problems which seem obvious only after it was deployed. The "closed source" approach is to bury the problems and pretend they never happened. The opensource approach is to publish the problems as well as what worked so the Huangbaiyu 2.0 isn't a failure.

GreenBlue is another example where "cradle to cradle" like concepts fail as a proprietary trademark but succeed wildly when they are opened.

Even with these mistakes, I would still suggest McDonough for an Obama eco-cabinet position and only hope he has learned from his mistakes. Humility is a difficult concept for dreamers.

Posted by bnitz on November 08, 2008 at 07:02 AM GMT+00:00 #

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