The Genius of Visions of the Distant Future

In 1853, the New York legislature acquired a 700-acre area in the middle of Manhattan. When they bought the land, it was swampy and rough. Now, it is Central Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted was the man behind the transformation. Along with architect Calvert Vaux, Olmstead designed what is now one of the most visited parks on earth. Books have been written about how and why their phenomenal idea came to fruition, none I have read fully captured the genius of the undertaking.

When the park was planned, much of Manhattan was sparsely populated. In 1880, when the Dakota was built on West 72nd, it was considered as far away from the urban portions of Manhattan as the territory from which it took its name. And it was a common saying that well-off New Yorkers only went to the West Side if they were going to Europe.

And yet, Olmstead and Vaux included in their design the so-called “transverses”, the hidden roadways that carry traffic between the East and West Sides. They anticipated the need for cross-traffic in a time when modern New York would have been unimaginable. Just as unimaginable is the city without those transverses.

Today, we need more people like Olmstead, who can prepare us for a future we have no idea is coming.

The whole country is riven by strongly held views about the future and how to deal with it. We are still losing more jobs yearly to automation in agriculture, industry, and services than we are creating. And jobs are increasingly concentrated in the wealthy urban coasts, leaving many communities without jobs or hope.

At the same time there is a growing number of positions/jobs that can NOT be filled for lack of qualified people.

This mismatch is exacerbated by geography. That is, in part, because people in rural areas either do not want to move or are unable to afford to, because the value of their homes is so low.

So the question for today for Olmsted’s visionary successors is where and how are the jobs going to come from to keep all Americans at work with economic and psychic satisfaction.

The answer, not surprisingly, may come from the internet.

Technology exists today that allows almost everyone to work remotely. The most obvious example is call centers, which are now dispersed all over the world. But a similar technology could allow someone in Nebraska to work at Met Life’s Manhattan office doing clerical work (particularly as such work becomes fully digitized). Too much of our thinking has been devoted to ways to bring jobs to people and not enough to virtually bringing people to jobs.

I think that Mr.  Olmsted would embrace that vision of the future of jobs.

Of course, we must make sure that everyone in America can get a suitable job BEFORE we begin go abroad for foreign nationals whose sole claim to those jobs is their willingness or ability to accept much lower pay than Americans need. There will be problems transitioning to such a future, but we must make our best effort.

Airplane wings are flexible so they do not break under stress. Economic policy needs to be flexible enough to enable the United States to create enough jobs for all our citizens who need and want a decent paying job.

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Tapes, No Tapes, or Tapes that Revealed Truth

Last week we saw a great deal of writing on the topic of Trump’s “tapes” tweets, but most commentators seem to have now accepted that there were never any tapes.

As Robert Hanlon famously said, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

It seems Trump is dumb enough to have threatened James Comey with no way to follow through, and such an empty threat would fit a pattern of behavior related to (as David Frum wrote) Trump’s inability to put any pressure on North Korea and apparent willingness to let Russia get increasingly belligerent in the skies over Syria.

Therefore, perhaps the most likely explanation is the relatively innocuous one: that there were no tapes; and that Trump is simply in way over his head.

But not enough attention has been paid to the only other possibility.

If there were tapes, of course, Trump would have to lie about having them, unless they showed Comey to be the liar.

He clearly has no compunctions about dissembling to the American public. And if he has tapes (and worse, if he destroyed them), Mueller can get to the truth in his interviews with White House staff.

And, when and if Mueller does that, even Trump’s most fervent supporters must begin to see him for what he is: a con man, and not even a very good con man.

Georgia Special Election: A Wake-up Call

Yesterday’s result in the Georgia Sixth has taught us some valuable lessons.

First, money alone is not that important. After Jon Ossoff, the young Democrat, failed to win an outright majority in the first round of voting, money poured into the district. The race quickly became the most expensive one in Congressional history and the money, over $40 million, in one Congressional district became the message and drowned out everything else. NOT GOOD.

Second, messaging is important. Jon Ossoff’s message of moderation succeeded in earning him 48% of the vote in the first round but failed to pick off any voters from all the many losing Republican candidates. In yesterday’s election, his share of the vote held firm at 48% of an overall larger turnout.

Finally, the critical ability of “connectivity” with voters is the most important thing. All accounts that have reached me from friends and family in Atlanta indicate that Ossoff seemed to lack strong voter empathy– whatever it is that makes voters feel like their representatives understand and care about them—he had never run for office and lacked that experience and some of those ineffable, instinctive skills that attract votes.

Ironically, yesterday’s defeat may yet turn out to have been a good thing. If Ossoff had won, it would have been easy for Democrats to rest on their laurels going into 2018, believing that problems with the Trump administration would, as indicated by a victory in this by-election, simply forecast easy victories in 2018.

Now, the Democrats must pick better candidates—people with proven ability to connect to voters and win elections—and give them strong messages.

Let’s make this apparent setback a powerful wakeup call for the midterms.

Foreign Interference in Our Elections

Lest you start with the wrong idea, I have NOT gone soft on “the Russia thing” at all. But I think there are some basic problems with liberal discussion of the subject that are being overlooked in the eagerness to get Trump.

The “Russia thing” boils down to the fact that the Russians deliberately set out to tilt our election against Clinton.

Our media is focused on the assertion that there may have been collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But it is unclear what that means from a legal point of view.

We have laws that strictly limit ownership of domestic TV and radio stations by foreigners out of fear that they might interfere in our elections. And those laws are pretty well enforced, so “all news all the time” cannot be too easily be converted into “all propaganda all the time”.

But the threat of brain washing has radically changed since the advent of the internet, when traditional national borders essentially ceased to be an obstacle to information flows.

We also have laws that supposedly prohibit foreign money from being spent in and on our elections. Those laws are taken pretty seriously BUT they are also are pretty easy to circumvent because money is fungible and can easily pass into our election processes.

The Russian investigation underway hopefully will get to the facts. But when it gets there, it just may turn out there really is no there there?

We already know from Putin that perhaps some Russian hackers made efforts to influence our election. What we do not yet see are provable links to Putin himself and we similarly do not have yet hard evidence that Trump buddies ever actually solicited support from Russia.

That inevitably leads to very hard questions.

Let us suppose that Putin fully admits that he “encouraged” those so-called hackers. Is that a crime in Russia and/or the United States?  That is unclear to me.

Let’s also suppose that Flynn and/or Kushner etc. admit to having solicited non-financial support. Is that a crime in Russia or the United States? That, too, is unclear to me, despite the fact that it stinks.

So where does this leave us and what might we do about it?

Trump may turn out to be right that “no one in his campaign broke any laws”. If that should happen, Trump will come out way ahead and his supporters will be further emboldened to encourage him to be ever more outrageous.

So what can we do?

We must lay out and explain better to the public what ”the Russia thing” really is and explain that it is WRONG even if it may in fact NOT have been illegal. Today’s wide expectation on the left is that Trump or his hangers-on actually acted illegally and that there will be appropriate consequences. That expectation needs to be clarified.

We should turn our attention to the future and modify our laws about any use of money—directly and indirectly—by foreigners in our elections and really close down as tight as possible those trouble-making dollars. That should be accompanied by legal clarification about what illegal collusion really is and make solicitations of foreign powers by Americans illegal and attach to both large fines and long jail terms.

Yes, the “Russia thing” is a big deal. There is an old wisdom in the law that hard cases make bad law.

This case appears to me to be a very hard case at the moment.

We should use it carefully as a clear and present warning and confine ourselves to fixing the issues for the future, about which there is already a political consensus

If we allow hollow expectations to continue to be too great, we well may lose precious ground to Trump and engender a further emboldened “nut case”, to borrow Trump’s description of Comey.

Back Down to Earth

The public session of the Comey hearings just ended. On the whole there was nothing really that added to his prepared statement. Unsurprisingly, he came across as sincere, articulate, open, and direct.

He was a convincing witness, but probably did not win over many Trump believers. Without more vivid evidence of obstruction of justice, there is not likely to be any real action.

There were two things that did happen, which were sad and interesting.

One Republican Senator asked Comey: “When Trump asked you to let Flynn go and lift the Russian cloud, why you didn’t simply say, ‘Mr. President you should not make those requests of me, and I cannot and will not respond.’”

After fumbling around a bit he said, uncomfortably, that he was not Captain Courageous in the Oval Office and perhaps he should have said that. And, as he had previously made clear, he had every intention of completing the last seven years of his term. It is fair to assume that Comey figured that if he had said that, Trump would have fired him on the spot. Therefore, he fudged a bit and bought a little time, though he did make clear enough that he could not/would not be bought off.

It was a genuine dance of elephants in the Oval Office at that moment.

The bottom line is that Comey is smart, independent, and tough, but he loved his job enough to hope he could weave his way through the Trump jungle.

The other troubling moment was Senator McCain who appeared to be VERY confused. Comey wisely did not deal with McCain head on and let it pass in an elegant way.

McCain wanted to know why he—Comey—cleared Clinton last summer of everything– including Russian interference– and could not clear Trump now on the same basis—overlooking the obvious fact that there was not, at that time, a public investigation of the Russian matter and that the Clinton matter was completely different .  Evidently along with McCain confusing the names of Trump and Comey on two occasions, McCain mistakenly conflated the two different matters of Clinton’s computers and the Russian interference.

That diversion probably will have little or no effect on the Comey-related matters, but it is saddening to see a grand old man wilt in front of such a large audience. Though McCain was never up to being President, he has been a very honorable and distinguished man in the military and the Senate, and deserves a better ending.

The next steps in the Trump saga will be Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia investigations.

Alien Life?

Many of us Earthlings have an insatiable appetite for information about “what is out there?” particularly alien life.

Given that the universe is almost 14 billion years old (does it matter how old, if there is no answer to what predated it?), there has been more than enough time for other Earth-like planets to spawn some form of intelligent life and for that life to wonder “what is out there?” from wherever they are.

Humans are eternally curious and ingenious. We have learned quite a lot about what is out there, how far away things are and how long it takes to get from one place to another.

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second (give or take) and since the speed of light is believed to be the universe’s speed limit, it is practically impossible for modern humans to live long enough to get anywhere worth getting to. So why do we care what strange beings live among the stars?

We should ask what “going there” means?  An alien encounter would be nothing like that of the Pilgrims running into Native Americans on the shores of Plymouth Harbor.

“Going there” may mean learning their form of communicating, possibly seeing pictures (of some sort) of their physical manifestation and what they have created of what we call “a life.”

In the process of such exchanges, we would learn a lot more about “out there” than we know now.

Which leads to another interesting question: With billions of years already behind us, is it possible that some other intelligent forms of life may have found us a long, long time ago? It could have happened well before our known sources of history, which go back only a few thousands of years.

That idea was most famously posited in “2001: A Space Odyssey” but has long lived on the fringes of science as fodder for tabloid headlines and conspiracy buffs.

Very recently, however, it has been suggested by what seems to be a reasonable source that a very long time ago, perhaps when our earth was quite young, aliens did pay us a visit. And now there might be a way to prove it.

Who knows?

But it is interesting to speculate how they might have gotten here, where they came from, and what we can learn from what they may have left behind.

My curiosity is piqued. But one of the frustrations of science is that evidence lags far behind imagination, and we will likely wait a long time (in human terms) for more information and insight on the subject. Then again, within about 100 years we will likely achieve almost eternal life for a least a lucky (or not) few.

That wait for theories to flourish or fail will seem less daunting to people for whom age is personally meaningless, and they might even become our first interstellar explorers, venturing forth to answer the question, “What is out there?” with two simple words:

“We are.”

Break It and You Fix It

An interesting and unexpected thing might just help explain the impending British election.

The Brexit vote a few months back was VERY close and many commentators expressed the view that it passed because it was widely expected to fail. People against it apparently failed to vote assuming they did not need to because the outcome was so clear?

Unsurprisingly, many people thought the vote was flawed and should be rerun. In the process David Cameron lost his post as Prime Minister and Theresa May succeeded him promising to execute the will of that vote.

The early maneuvering to exit the European Union has now occurred with more negotiations still ahead. Yet most leading analysts insist that the exit is a very serious mistake for Britain—economically, politically, and financially.

Apparently sensing an easy opportunity to increase her Parliamentary majority, Mrs. May called for a snap election to extend her term, increase her majority, and strengthen her hand at the negotiating table with Europe. That general vote for a new Parliament is now at hand.

In an unexpected twist, May’s polling lead has fallen from 20% to less than 10%. Signs now indicate that her majority might be in serious jeopardy.

By the process of elimination, there can only be one reason why that is happening.

Britain has repeatedly and very recently shown no appetite for Jeremy Corbyn and a Labor majority.

It is therefore becoming apparent that British voters, whose nonchalance permitted Brexit to occur, may have seized on this election as a proxy for redoing the Brexit vote, presuming that Article 50 can also be undone.

If May falls, the whole Brexit situation will quickly become chaos, which would likely lead to another national vote on Brexit to clear up the confusion on that front and another snap vote to find out which party the country really favors.

To make matters even more confusing, May’s survival now will leave her weakened at home politically and in Europe at the negotiating table. She may need to seek a new round of voting, unencumbered by the Brexit issue.

It seems a stretch to suggest that all of this may have been part of an intricate long term plot to get rid of the stuffy Cameron. But whatever the motives of UK voters, an exit from the EU at this precipitous moment would leave the two leading English-speaking nations isolated from their essential and historic military and economic partners.

The prospect of such a dangerous outcome might yet compel the parties to come together to  fix the European Union’s agreed upon flaws!