Monday, May 9, 2016

An App For That

I’m watching the world from Google Earth. Not from so far away that it looks like a blue marble, but from high enough that I can see that my neighborhood is a bunch of boxes. With cars. The bigger boxes are malls. And the long roads are full of cars. Some arteries are clogging. Heart attacks are imminent. 

If I dial back a little more, I can see the vast deserts and tundras that belt the planet There is no water in those places. Not enough to live on year-round. And they are spreading. Millions of people are migrating to water, and away from war. Their neighbors don’t want them. Their homeless, country-less children are starving. The fact that those children are growing up—if they do grow up—uneducated is the least of their problems. But not ours.

Not far from my neighborhood of boxes are communities with bigger more expensive boxes: the gated homes of the one percent. Truth be told, even though I live in a smallish box, it too is an expensive one. The best thing about my part of the country is that it is called Silicon Valley. 

Yes, the denizens are rich, but they are less likely to be clipping coupons and playing golf than struggling to solve problems they have set themselves against. Some are trivial, in terms of those starving migrants, but others are consequential. We do not yet fully know the global contribution to civilization of communications platforms like Facebook, for instance, or the transformative power of the information Google gives us all as easily as plugging in a lamp, but they are likely to be huge.

I live almost as far from our nation’s capital as possible, in miles and mindset. I mourn the state of our politics. Our elected representatives are wasting precious time and resources squabbling like school children. Blame who you will. There is plenty to go around.

Our government now is, at best, following our society. It certainly is not leading. Perhaps it never does. Perhaps politicians only do things when enough of their constituents force them to. There have been surges of government leadership—the New Deal, the civil rights acts—but we have seen nothing like them in a while. 

I wish I could use Google Earth to go back in time. I think I know what I would see. Instead of vast expanses of boxes, I would see villages. The people would be farmers. They would grow enough to feed themselves, then some would sell their crop surpluses to others, and maybe design a better plow and sell that, and commerce would be born. Soon you would be able to get things others grew or made. Then plumbing. Then electricity. Hospitals would be closer. Vaccines. A zippy motorcar.

You can argue about whether all that amounts to progress. Most think it does. Sure, we have frightful economic stratification today, but when we were living in villages, there were kings in castles. On the whole, the villagers are better off now.

So the question I ask myself is: Why is that, why are we better off now? Was it the noblesse oblige of the kings. I don’t think so. We’re better off now because we worked hard to become so. We did it individually, with invention and effort, but the effect was collective. This is why I love Silicon Valley. My neighbors are inventing today’s new plows, today’s steam engines, today’s electricity, today’s railroads. They are in the vanguard of the march of progress.

I don’t know if we needed feudal kings—maybe they provided mafia-like protection—but I’ve always accepted that we need government today. Someone has to build the roads, provide for the desperately poor, etc. But the lot we have at the helm of our national government is collectively incompetent. Any company in Silicon Vally would have fired them. Teamwork is a watchword in Silicon Valley. Washington is pretty much the opposite of teamwork.

Am I swinging toward libertarian? Maybe. Our government is now so inept and dysfunctional that I think that we might be better off trying to go to the next stage in the evolution of our civilization without it. Or at least without it on a national level. 

Who would defend us as a country? Good question. Maybe Elon Musk. He’s better with rockets than Kim Jong Un.

Who would keep the usurers and fraudsters at bay? Another good question. This may sound ridiculous, but I believe there may soon be an app for that. Think crowd-sourced yelp-like machine learning algorithms, think bitcoin.

Who would arrest and imprison the criminals? Maybe we should take a break from that. We seem to have overdone it. Contract security, electronic tethers, maybe the odd shock collar. Who knows. We couldn’t do worse.

Who will collect taxes and take care of public works? Why can’t that be collaborative? By community. There is always money to be made in public works. Let road builders put in toll roads. Let the people nearby vote on whether they support the idea. There’s easily an app for that.

Who will stop global warming? No one, apparently. The one thing I am pretty sure of is that whatever is done will be done out of self interest. Ultimately, and over the long term, the savage Darwinism of commerce is the best incubator of self-interested behavior.

The commercial world is full of fraud. It’s the birthplace of fraud. But government is doing no better on that score, and it is lazy and inept to boot. At least in commerce you have to hustle or some other guy will take your customers. There will always be fraud in commerce, but with more information more readily available than ever, the consumer’s ability to detect fraud is better than ever. Much better than or ability to know what the hell the government is doing, if anything.

I don’t know how we shrink government to the size we can drown it in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist proposed, but I’m beginning to wonder whether that shouldn’t be the next project for my brilliant neighbors in Silicon Valley. Our government as it is now functioning is obsolete. As an investor might say, it is ripe for a takeover.

Maybe someone will design an app for that.

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