Friday, December 31, 2010

Apocalypse Via the Roomba



So perusing Matthew Yglesias' blog, I came across this line about the company that makes Roomba's:

Perhaps the most notable American civilian robot is the Roomba, a sort of semi-intelligent vacuum cleaner. But even this is made by a firm, iRobot, that has extensive defense contracts for its PackBot and other military robots.

Why on Earth would a company name itself after a
book whose main focus is on the unpredictability of intelligent machines and the danger they could pose to humanity. Maybe it has something to do with that sense of unlimited progress the book evokes, or it could have to do with how wildly unsuccessful the movie franchise was that no one even gets the reference, but I digress.

On a more serious note, military robotics have always been an interesting topic for me. The rise of asymmetric warfare demands that military strategy change to deal with fluid battle lines, unrecognizable enemies, and different types of weapons technologies. I have always wondered why the changing nature of warfare demands turning towards more autonomous forms of war machines. If the threat that a military has to deal with gets more complex, how does making the fighting systems themselves more complex help to deal with it? Why does this not mean we should return to the basics, i.e. focusing on the particularity of the combat environment?Pushing towards greater understanding of the cultures we're fighting in would make more sense to me. For every advanced fighter jet we build, we could be hiring thousands of cultural experts including sociologists, translators, linguists and other academics who have expertise in that area.

My inkling is that this has something to do with the military-industrial complex in our country. Via Will Wilkinson, there is a discussion floating around on this Bryan Bender article in the Boston Globe. The gist of the article is that just as the executive branch sometimes acts as a revolving door to high-power financial institutions, so does our military act as a conduit of influence for defense firms:

But this is the Pentagon where, a Globe review has found, such apparent conflicts are a routine fact of life at the lucrative nexus between the defense procurement system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the industry that feasts on those riches. And almost nothing is ever done about it.

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general’’ business is all but irresistible.

From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.

Defense companies determine which technologies will be developed via grant proposals, just as academic researchers determine which ares constitute their field of study by choosing those topics which are relevant. The reason that there is a dearth of economists writing from a Marxian perspective has as much to do with the failure of Marxian economics as it has to do with the field itself determining that Marxian economics is not a worthwhile area of study. The problem with this method is these companies are not pushing for an intercultural approach to warfighting. Their expertise exists in weapon technology and all foils of that, irrelevant of the culture they exist in. By having these channels open, where companies influence the defense department, it seems likely that the defense department will view their toolbox of military strategies more and more through the lens of defense contractors. This is not to group all defense contractors into one group. There do exist many groups that deal with the intercultural exchanges necessary to deal with modern combat. However, after reading the Bender article, it is striking how much influence technology firms have over the process. They are the ones with the big bucks, and as the illustrious Wu-Tang have said, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alleged Democratic Missteps

I've had this in the docket for awhile now. Liberals criticism of democratic strategy towards the tax cuts have been a bit over the top. Via Ezra Klein, he laments how democrat's have squandered a favorable situation:

Democrats, it seemed, had won this one. They had the popular position, the president's veto pen and control of the Congress. But they simply refused to carry the ball over the goal line. Instead, they began negotiating with themselves, talking about millionaires' brackets and short-term extensions. Republicans noticed the Democrats' disarray and lost their fatalism: "Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Bloomberg Television he was ready to instruct GOP members to vote down legislation Democrats plan to bring to the floor that would extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts only for the middle class."

Now it looks like all the tax cuts will be extended, at least for the moment. But it's a baffling outcome. The structure of the situation favored -- and continues to favor -- the Democrats. No tax cuts pass without their support, and Republicans have previously admitted that their position isn't popular enough to prevail in a standoff. The only thing that's changed is that Republicans have realized Democrats aren't confident enough to enter a standoff. But it didn't have to be this way. Think back to early this week, when the president announced the federal pay freeze. "The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require broad sacrifice," he said. "And that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government." Here's what he could've said next:

It also must be shared by those among us who've prospered most in recent years. Even before the financial crisis, middle-class incomes had stagnated. But the incomes of the wealthiest Americans hadn't. Similarly, America's upper class has recovered from the crisis much quicker than the working class. There's nothing wrong with that: The country depends on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its most successful citizens. But in a time of high deficits and belt tightening, it makes $700 billion in tax cuts that go solely to the top 2% an unreasonable expense. Those tax cuts were passed in a time of surplus, and now we're in a time of deficits. As our situation changes, so must our policy. I will veto any bill that extends those tax breaks.

Though, I frequently agree with Mr. Klein, this seems a bit off the mark. Let's envision a world where the tax cuts expire. Would the public sift through the situation and understand that the GOP used its minority status to throw up procedural hurdles on behalf of the richest few? Or, would they make the easier calculation that democrats were in charge while taxes increased, and democrats are too blame? Hm, let's quote Jon Chait to help me answer this question:

In fact, another analysis of over 40 years of presidential elections, this one by political scientists Richard Nadeau and Michael Lewis-Beck, found the same thing. Voters rewarded the president's party when times were good and punished it when times were bad -- no matter whether government was unified or divided. Nadeau and Lewis-Beck write:

The presidential office is viewed as the command post of the economy, irrespective of whether the president actually has sufficient control of Congress to implement his or her economic plan.

No matter the Congressional make-up, the public puts the President in the driver's seat of the economy. With the high-profile, nearly aristocratic status we assign to the President, this makes sense. Recall any election season. There are rarely thousands of people rallying for individual congress persons, but they are a frequent occurrence for our Presidential nominees. Add onto to that how meta-narratives of presidential elections are repeated and amplified through our media institutions and you get a very high-profile, almost deified, figure. And when things go poorly, the false gods are the first ones to go. All I'm saying is in a world where people still blame the stimulus, and subsequently the President, for our economic woes, I don't understand how the tax fight would've been any different.