Thursday, January 08, 2009

Natural and Unnatural Disasters

I caught up with my holiday e-mail today, and here is an excerpt from one about cataclysmic events, geological, economical or otherwise:

I've heard that if the Yellowstone area ever has another "big one", which is several thousand years overdue, that most of North America will be blown up into the sky.  The version I read had it that nobody in the US should be expected to survive as the quake activity and falling large chunks of semi-molten rock would probably get anyone not effected by the event directly.  Then there would be the tidal waves.  Maybe some folks in the mountains of Alaska would be safe for a while.  Not so much Hawaii.  The rest of the world would then have to deal with something similar to the extinction event for the dinosaurs (if you accept that hypothesis).  Given all of that, I think the best place to be might be right at the epicenter.  I'm all for surviving hard times, but really really hard times might be best not survived.  There will be no Internet, and no Cable TV and in their place a lot of back breaking work trying to learn how to plow a field like they did in the dark ages.  

I may be repeating myself, but when I was a "computer scientist" we learned that computer simulation was fairly useless for any sort of extrapolation.  If you have a thorough understanding of a process, like people coming into a bank and waiting for a teller (that was the example we always used) you could then predict with some confidence the effects of adding or subtracting a teller, or going from a single queue to multiple queues.  It would be nice to hear from a current computer expert just what advances in the science have occurred to allow us to surpass these limitations and make useful predictions about systems we have only begun to understand.

Do you think our understanding of the economy is any better than our understanding of the climate?  My thinking is that understanding climate is simple by comparison.  For one thing, if you rule out meteor strikes and Yellowstone blowing up, its a fairly static system.  You could rank, in order of importance of their effect a lot of what we know, with gaps for things we don't know:  Particulate matter, humidity, sea salinity, ? , sunspots, algae blooms, ? , undersea heat vents, CO2, Oxygen, Old growth forests, etc. with question marks representing things we haven't even discovered yet that we would find to be quite important if we knew about them.  With all the question marks resolved, and the ranking sorted out, we could at least start to think about modeling it all.

Now to model the economy, still ruling out hundred-thousand year events, you still have to understand both climate and weather changes (short-term "climate change" particularly) and then you have to factor in natural resources, and discoveries of new ones that happen on a regular basis, and new inventions (solar power, integrated circuits, new computer techniques, LED light bulbs, etc) which happen almost daily (unless we restructure the system to discourage such "undesirable" effects on our model).  My point being that the economy can't be modeled, and therefor still can't be usefully controlled by government actions.  Every government action is just as likely to help as to hurt the situation and to the extent that it draws resources away from the countless experiments being done in private enterprise it is more likely to hurt rather than help.

Yesterday I listened to a member of the Obama transition team answer a question about improving education and he said (about the thousandth time I've heard this from a politico): "we need to look at the various things being tried at each state level and identify those things that work and those that don't."   Great!  Then we standardize on the thing that works (in let's say Nashville) only to find (surprise!) that it doesn't work so well in New York or Los Angeles, or Cheyenne, or Seattle.  But importantly, we've eliminated the experimentation at that point too and it's left up to some random bureaucrat what we try next, typically, applying what doesn't work in New York to Nashville and all the other cities, so that at least we all get the same uniform failure.  Consistency, predictability, uniformatiy of results are important to those on the left who parrot an appreciation for diversity in nature while abhoring any evidence of it in human activities.

That's the poison in left-wing (and some right wing) thinking, that one size fits all solutions are ever a good idea.  Decentralization of these choices, all the way out to the individual level (liberty) allows states, localities and individuals to learn from the mistakes and successes of others and adapt those lessons to their own circumstances, or in some cases to reject those lessons and try something totally new.  In Obama's (and Gore's)  world-view, false certainty and presumed control over outcomes is of paramount importance.  In their system, we all sink or we all swim, and that metaphor, if you think of us all thrown into the sea tied together by a network of irremovable ropes, is about as expressive of my confidence in their efforts as anything I can think of.

On the other hand, I do think we are in a business cycle, overdue perhaps, and much exacerbated by government tinkering in the past.  As that cycle progresses, things will get better and maybe they will do so to a great enough extent that Obama policies will be given credit for the improvement.  I think quite a bit of that type of interpretation of events has happened with respect to the Great Depression, which vastly expanded the powers of government.  We may be in for a repeat of that and a further reduction in our liberties as a result.

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