There have been big headlines this week about an Internet phenomenon called Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an open source peer-to-peer virtual money system, unsupported by any government or bank or underground vault stacked with gold bars. It works on the basis of simplicity and transparency, and is backed only by the fact of its own existence. The surprising news about Bitcoin is that people are using it and it works: the peer-to-peer system manages to provide complete transactions without any of the presumed requirements for a currency platform.
Bitcoin is an experiment, obviously, in applied economics, created by ambitious techies. The existence of an extra-governmental open source currency system suggests a new way to define our relationship with governments. In this sense, it's an extraordinarily exciting idea, and certainly an idea with a big future. Does the open communication of the Internet age offer us a new capability to rethink the role, shape and substance of money in our lives?
This is an appealing idea for an age in which economics often seems like an evil science, rife with hidden hazards, drenched in corruption, besotted by noisy and near-hysterical political debate. The clean simplicity of an alternative digital currency system seems to present the eventual possibility of a global financial system reboot. The idea should catch the attention of both conservative libertarians concerned with the power of central government and progressive liberals concerned with economic justice and corporate/Wall Street corruption -- and to anybody, really, who isn't happy with the questionable economic systems and practices (remember 2008, anyone?) that still define the status quo today.
The media coverage of Bitcoin, unfortunately, has been inane. As Bitcoin experiences its first blush of fame -- it is expanding greatly as we speak -- it is being confronted by a gigantic barrage of negative media coverage, based mainly on the fact that a few people seem to have made instant profits by trading on Bitcoin, while others have lost their investment or may lose it soon, and by the ridiculous fact that the Winkelvii are involved. As if any of this mattered.
By evaluating Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme (which it was never meant to be), the media can dismiss the experiment with a laugh and avoid the responsibility to take it seriously. (This is a familiar pattern in the tech field, since this was how major media outlets treated the entire Internet/World Wide Web communications revolution during the first dot-com era: they hyped it as a get-rich-quick scheme, then damned it when it failed to deliver on those terms.)
I am ignoring the inane media coverage and following Bitcoin with great interest, because I have long wished for more public experimentation with alternative economic systems. Why is there so little public awareness of the possibility of alternative economics? We live in an era of (hopefully) positive change, but our culture freaks out at the very thought of changing the basic principles of our economic structure. Hell, we're suddenly managing to accept gay marriage, which is great -- and yet the topic of alternative economics is still absolutely taboo. Our thinking about money is stuck in the dark ages.
Nate Thayer, a well-respected journalist, has published a blog post roasting the Atlantic for asking him to provide a summary of a recent article for the Atlantic website for free. He didn't like that idea very much.
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.
A lot of support has rolled in for Nate Thayer, and against publications that dare to ask writers to write for free. Another Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal has tried to explain the digital editor's side of the story, only to be torn into by Wonkette, which accuses Madrigal of "man-splaining".
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.
I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I've already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao's manufactured famine: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don't already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well ... some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as "The Great Leap Forward", an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao's grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here's a typical description from Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine:
I sure am going to miss Andrew Sullivan.
Actually, I hope I'll still get to read his awesome blog, which has variously enraptured and informed me for many years, even though he just announced that he's putting up a paywall. But the Daily Dish paywall will be porous, he says, and this is good news for me, since I don't want to stop reading him. Here's how he describes the mechanism he's putting in place when he moves to a new site:
Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a "Read on" button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You'll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter - so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall. It won't. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We've tried to maximize what's freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside.
I say it's a paywall, and I won't be paying. That's not because I don't think $20 a month is a fair value for Andrew Sullivan, who may be the single best blogger in the history of the format. I won't pay because supporting website paywalls for editorial and news content is against my religion.
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
Penguin and Random House are merging. This is big news because Random House and Penguin are two of the biggest of the "Big Six" publishing firms that currently rule the book business (the other four are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Hachette). It's also big news for devoted readers, because these are two of the most beloved historic brands in modern literature. Random House once published Ulysses by James Joyce, and its Alfred A. Knopf imprint is often considered the single most prestigious name in literary fiction. Penguin helped generations of readers enjoy great books of the past with its beautiful Penguin Classics line, and its Viking subsidiary once published On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
What good will a Penguin/Random House merger do? In my opinion: absolutely none. A book publisher merger, like a bank merger or a food company merger, is never designed to improve the products the companies sell. It's usually an act of economic opportunism or arbitrage, a shuffling of objects to temporarily hype up their combined value. In this case, it appears that Penguin's parent company Pearson wanted to get out of trade publishing to focus on other businesses, and Random House picked up the orphan before HarperCollins could grab it.
No word has been thrown around more during the USA presidential election of 2012 than "jobs". The single greatest failure of the Obama administration, according to Mitt Romney and his supporters, is the unemployment rate. More jobs, we are told, will save the economy, and Mitt Romney has pledged to create 12 million new ones. Here's a typical Romney quote about working women and day care.
“I wanted to increase the work requirement,” said Romney. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”
It's so easy to tangle Mitt Romney up in his own words that there's often no sport in it. This quote caused Romney some problems because of the arrogance it expressed towards mothers who might wish to raise their children rather than put them in day care. But there's more to examine here. The final phrase of the quote -- "the dignity of work" -- is revealing in ways that go beyond gender.
The sacred ideal of the full-time job is one of the major themes of the Plutocrat/Randian wing of the Republican party, and, beyond that, of American culture as a whole. This comes out often in our current debates: the coddling of "job creators", the singular obsession with unemployment rates, the idea that health insurance is best managed by employers rather than by the federal government. This idea that we are better off trusting our employers than we are trusting the federal government is an idea that most of us who actually depend on full-time jobs for our livelihood can only laugh at.
The free job market, according to the Plutocrats, assures excellence through the profit motive, through natural selection. Unlike the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency of the so-called nanny state economy, an economy rooted solely in free enterprise and capitalist self-interest will invigorate and inspire us all. But what about the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency we all see inside the free job market?
Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.
It's funny that some people think presidential elections don't matter. There's little doubt that many things will change quickly if Americans make the nihilistic choice to empower Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to lead our government in 2012. Every woman's right to privacy over her health decisions will be threatened. The gains made via Obamacare against corrupt health insurance practices will be reversed. A newly aggressive and muscle-bound foreign policy (think: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) will make an unwelcome return. In fact, so many changes would occur that we the people have barely even begun to discuss all the vital things that will change if we give these two out-of-touch plutocrats a mandate to run our government according to their ideas.
Let's talk about trains.