Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012: Some Predictions

"We" at Unforeseen Contingencies do not usually make annual predictions, but 2012 is a year that almost cries out for such. While we can't claim to have unusual abilities at forecasting, we can make a few educated guesses about what the future does and does not hold. Here are ten:

1. The various end-of-the-world predictions for 2012 will prove to be false. This one is easy. I have no idea why anyone would take the ancient Mayan calendar as an authority for anything, or why they'd put more faith in an invisible Planet X than in the complete absence of evidence for any such planet, or why they'd believe any of the other obviously silly doomsday arguments. But some do.

2. Someone in the "west" will engage in an overt military action against Iran. My "west" includes the U.S., Western Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. (Pakistan doesn't count.) Overt action against on Iran includes attacks on the Iranian navy, but excludes cyberwarfare and infiltration by special forces (both of which are probably long since underway). So long as the Iranian nuclear program progresses and Iran acts in an increasingly belligerent fashion, conflict seems inevitable. If Hezbollah gets into another fight with Israel, I think this will also result in an Israeli attack on Iran. Conflict with Iran will not necessarily lead to an all-out Middle East war... but it might.

3. Barack Obama will win a second term, defeating Mitt Romney in a close race. I have gone out on a limb on this one, since Romney is not a shoe-in for the Republican nomination. But if Obama loses the election after the Republican fiascos we've seen in 2011 (the idiotic debt ceiling fight, the GOP opposition to payroll tax cuts, the primary circus) it will be entirely because of his own ineptitude. Republicans will stupidly conclude that they could have won had they "stuck to principle" and picked one of their crazy-coot conservatives, but in fact this would have resulted in an Obama landslide victory.

4. TBTF banks will increase in size and share of the financial sector. They are one of the biggest threats to the economy, and they are so well connected with both political parties that their position is "safe." (TBTF is by definition unsafe.) They'll continue to grow in power, in scope, and in "profitability," as they continue to suck the lifeblood from the economy.

5. The U.S. Supreme Court will fail to rule that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. There are several ways this might happen. They'll begin by hearing a challenge that the Anti-Injunction Act forbids them from considering the mandate until after it has gone into effect, and might agree. More likely, they'll simply agree that the mandate is within Congress' authority. The Republicans will snarl, but we'll never see any serious attempt to repeal the ACA.

6. The United States will make no progress in getting their debt problem under control. I admit it, with this one I'm just padding the list so I'll be guaranteed some hits. Might as well predict that the law of gravity will still be in effect in a year.

7. The Eurozone crisis will deepen. Greece will go bankrupt. Unless the Germans agree to subsidize the rest, the Eurozone as a monetary union will break up. In other words, I do not believe in the current fixes. And I doubt we'll see any genuine fix. But if you really want to see brilliant forecasting, read this old blog post from early 2006, in which Nouriel Roubini explains why the Eurozone crisis is coming.

8. China will undergo a sharp recession. China's real estate and infrastructure bubbles will pop sometime, and I'm predicting sooner rather than later.

9.India and Pakistan will go to the brink of war. And hopefully no farther. Pakistan is a basket-case of a state. It's almost certain that elements within the ISI had some role in organizing the Mumbai attacks in 2008, in protecting Bin Laden, and other terrorist activities. The Pakistani governing authorities seem to be at war with each other, but all share a deep fear of India and a fair amount of paranoia that the world is out to get them. It would not take a great deal for a renegade faction of ISI to "unite" the country by striking India and invoking a harsh Indian response. Crazy people with nuclear weapons...ugh.

10. The U.S. unemployment rate will be roughly unchanged at 9%. That I'm not predicting things to get much worse is something of a story in itself. Despite the inability of Americans to fix what's wrong here, turmoil in Europe, the Middle East/West Asia/Southern Asia, and China will keep the United States a safe haven for capital, and we'll muddle along.

I admit these are boring here's one more that is interesting:

11. Scientists will announce discovery of life on a planet in another star system. In 2011 humans discovered earth-like planets in other systems for the first time. More will be found next year, and I predict that observation will reveal evidence of intelligent life.

Happy 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Knowledge and the Future

Knowledge is different from other goods. Unlike most goods, if one has knowledge and passes it to another, one doesn't have less. In fact, knowledge grows and becomes more valuable when more people have it, because they can add to and improve on it. One might even end up increasing one's own knowledge (you think I haven't learned from my students?) Hence, when one passes knowledge to another, one often increases the stock of knowledge by more than the amount of knowledge passed on...a phenomenon economists call increasing returns.

Therefore, anyone in the world with the motivation and the ability to learn ought to have the opportunity to do so. They ought to be able to access the best of the world's knowledge. Of course, that's not possible, right?

Here's what Susan Hockfield, President of MIT says: "...anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables."

Wow! For some time, MIT has made available an excellent selection of online lectures and materials through their Open CourseWare program. They are now beginning to build an online learning initiative MITx, which will feature courses and certification for those completing them.

Some particularly interesting details from the MITx FAQ:

Who can take courses on MITx? Will there be an admission process?
As with OCW, the teaching materials on MITx will be available to anyone in the world for free, and in general, there will not be an admission process. However, credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject.

In MITx, what will be free and what will cost money?
All of the teaching on the platform will be free of charge. Those who have the ability and motivation to demonstrate mastery of content can receive a credential for a modest fee.

What will it cost to get a credential for a given course?
MIT is in the process of determining a fee structure for individual courses and groups of courses. The aim is to make credentialing highly affordable.

"We" at Unforeseen Contingencies give a thunderous standing ovation to MIT for this work. We wish them the greatest of success. We predict that this is the wave of the future in education (well, one of them, anyway). And you can expect us to be studying "at" MIT ourselves!

Photo: "Knowledge mural in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The caption is


Ron Paul update

Mainstream media finally managed to do some journalism regarding Ron Paul, his support among white supremacists, and the link with the Rothbard/Rockwell contingent. Credit the New York Times with getting the story. They even managed to do it without tarring all of libertarianism, too.

It's sad that it has to come to this, because what America and the world needs now is intelligent, informed, consistent libertarianism. These kinds of scandals do not help introduce liberty to new audiences. But it's necessary that these pseudo-libertarians be exposed, and if this is what it takes, so be it. I hope this continues -- as they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Newt Gingrich and Stalin

It's been hard for me to keep up with the developments of the GOP primary race, but the farther it goes the stranger it gets. It's now actually become scary. I would never, ever have imagined any American presidential candidate calling for ending an independent judiciary that bases decisions on law and evidence, and replacing it with one that takes orders from the president and congress, and can be arrested when it disobeys. But Newt Gingrich has called for just this. NYT blogger Andrew Rosenthal suggests we might just as well institute martial law. George Will accuses Gingrich of "sinister radicalism" and "impatience with impediments to the political branches’ wielding of untrammeled power." Both are exactly right. And it should be obvious -- what Gingrich is demanding is a Soviet-style court system.

It's hard to know what to say, other than that I hope the Gingrich campaign goes down in flames, anyone who supports him is crazy, and if by some freak chance he's nominated articles of impeachment should be drawn up immediately for use in the nightmarish eventuality that he's elected. Once sworn in, he could then be immediately impeached, arrested, convicted, and locked up.

It's simply bizarre that the Republican Party has descended to such levels of madness. All their claims to favor limited government and strict interpretation of the Constitution are lies.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poor Ron Paul

Boo hoo hoo. He's at the top of his campaign, he's probably the best among the current leaders of the GOP, and he has no prayer of getting the nomination. And if somehow he did he'd have no chance of winning. He'd be utterly destroyed. Here's why:

He disavows the racist pieces in his newsletter, but won't disavow the likely author, Lew Rockwell, with whom he has a continued association. Imagine Barack Obama raising this issue with Paul during a debate. What would Paul do, stomp off?

Meanwhile, Walter Block argues that if one doesn't support Ron Paul, one isn't a libertarian. David Friedman does a nice job of dissecting this. (Thanks, Knud!)

Since Ron Paul really is not a libertarian, why would one's libertarian credentials hang on supporting him anyway?

Postscript: I note that Wolf Blitzer seems to think Gloria Borger was just doing tough, hard-hitting journalism. Actually all she does is ask the same stupid question over and over until Paul gets mad and storms off. And now Newt Gingrich follows up with the "hardhitting" question: "how much money did you make from the newsletters?" (A lot less than you took from Fannie Mae, Newt.)

Bah! Are public discussions no longer capable of following lines of reasoning? Since Paul denies knowing who wrote the newsletters, ask how big his staff was and who was on it. Ask who was in charge of editorial decisions. Or if this is too hard, why not just Google "Who wrote the Ron Paul newsletters" and read this.

If someone really wants to, it shouldn't be hard to show that Ron Paul really does maintain connections with racist, homophobic, anti-American scoundrels.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Newt Gingrich, liar?

Yes, and a corrupt one at that. Here's a dandy ad from Ron Paul that makes the case dramatically. I'm no Paulista, but RP is exactly on target with this. Among the front running Republicans, Paul is the only one with even a semblance of principle. And Gingrich is by far the most corrupt.


Monday, December 05, 2011

Sam Harris on Violence and Self Defense

Sam Harris has recently posted one of the finest pieces on self defense I've read in a very long time. There's no nonsense in it at all -- it's clear-headed and focused exactly on what is fundamental.

As he points out, one is justified in using deadly force when an enemy has signaled a threat, has the ability to carry it out, and has the opportunity... and one doesn't have a lower cost means of resolving the situation. Harris also does a nice job of explaining why neither non-resistance nor tough-guy approaches make sense. And he makes clear something I've pointed out before -- the job of the police is not to protect citizens from attack in progress, it's to investigate the aftermath.

I had just started reading Harris' The Moral Landscape, and wondered whether he had any of his thinking on ethics on his website. Finding this one is like finding a gold nugget.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Refreshing the Tree

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

-- Thomas Jefferson

Listen to this interview with Samra Naas of Libya. Her husband, Mohammed Nabbous, just received the Lyons Award for Integrity in Journalism from Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism...posthumously. The story is horrible, heartbreaking, and extremely beautiful.

So long as there are people like Nabbous, and Naas, and Mayar, there'll be freedom.

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know," the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.

-- Robert Heinlein

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