Saturday, February 4, 2012

Look World -- No Oil!

A colleague told me that he is not in favor of the government getting behind electric cars.
The reason he gave is that "bureaucracies don't pick winners or losers well."

I agree with him on that count. There are some things that are best left to the markets to decide ground up, than to bureaucracies to dictate top-down. However, there are some other things that require co-operation that is not possible without government. We would never have made it to the Moon, if President Kennedy hadn't launched that initiative, and committed us to that path. Markets are short-sighted, and fickle. Necessary things that require long-term vision and sustained effort would go undone, to disastrous consequences, if policy were left entirely up to the markets to decide.

So why should we move to electric cars? We should move to electric cars, because having electric cars implies having a new grid. We need a new grid, for defense reasons.

The Eastern Seaboard Power Outage of 2003 has shown the extent to which the current North American grid is vulnerable to software failure. If China's cyber-army decided to attack tomorrow, we'd back in the stone age, without a life lost, or a shot fired. Supreme excellence!
A new, more robust grid is urgently needed, or we are sitting ducks.

In the long term, it is in America's best interest to become non-dependent on foreign oil.
So as long as we are building a new grid, we might as well move towards electric cars.

Moving to electric cars, however, will require that enough energy be available on the grid.
So energy companies are likely to profit. It is at this point that the government can step in, with a stick and carrot, and steer us towards clean energy sources. The markets, as usual, will allocate funds between various clean energy research alternatives.

The economy is recovering slowly, and the USA is in need of more new jobs.
Money that the Department of Defense allocates can come with the restriction -- contract work for US citizens and legal residents only.

I see crowdsourcing as a means, not an end in itself. The goal should be to move to electric cars. How we get there should be decided by the markets.

So why should we move to electric cars?
For the same reason we went to the Moon -- so America can flex its technological muscle. Look world; no oil! America should lead the way to an oil-free future.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Defense of Apple, and China

There has been much media buzz about Apple's supply-chain partner in China, Foxconn, mistreating its workers in ways that appall us. I contend that we are not seeing the whole picture.

Those workers, bad as their condition was, competed to get employed at a Foxconn factory. Their condition must be better off than the condition of their peers in the rest of China.

Let's step back for a moment and ponder some basic questions -- What do humans need? In what order? Who decides? I would prioritize human needs roughly like this:

First-aid (including Oxygen), Food, Water, ...  Companionship ... Right to vote ... Literacy ... Free speech ... Free software ... Universal healthcare ... right to personal property .

The ellipses represent gaps in my thinking, where many other things could go. I haven't put things like Love, or Freedom on the list, because they are too intangible.

Different people, and different cultures, would state their priorities differently.
We must give Cultural Relativism its due.

The Chinese government censors what its citizens see, hear, say, read, or write. The Chinese people have given that power over to their government.

The Chinese communist party, as an organization, has lifted more people out of poverty than any other organization in history. They are doing triage on the poor, uneducated masses.
They have just deferred some rights until the right moment. Once, people in China couldn't own personal property. That right was granted at the appropriate state of progress.

Something in my Western-educated mind rebels against this way of thinking.
"Love, Freedom, must come first!"
"I would rather die than live a slave!"
"Why would I give over my rights to an unelected government of mostly old men?"
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Those sentiments have their place. One must take a slightly more mellow and pragmatic perspective. We could learn something from China. They are the Freakin' Deathstar -- able to co-ordinate the efforts and energies of over a billion people. Their anti-poverty strategy is alien to us, but effective. We must understand and respect that.

Life in developing countries is hard, but getting better.
That should come as no surprise. What should also be un-surprising, is the story from Foxconn.
Improving the lot of a billion people is a slow process. There are bound to be transitional states.
Still, improving the lot of the poor by making them partners in commerce, is preferable to giving handouts.

In the meanwhile, I would pay $65 more for a sleek new "Made in USA" edition iPhone with an elegant Red-White-and-Blue shell, loaded with an Americana media anthology, customized for American tastes. Would you?
If not, then don't worry too much about where the products and services you buy, come from. 
We want the East to suddenly be the West, but it takes time.