Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen I wrote about this in some detail in my December 13th essay, “What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements.” The challenges awaiting delegates later this year (December, 2011) at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, will be tremendous, particularly in regard to trying to negotiate the massive divide that exists between most Annex I countries and virtually all non-Annex I countries on the fate of a second (post-2012) commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. However, on this first day of 2011, it may be helpful to reflect again on the recent success in Cancun, and ask – in particular – why it occurred, because understanding that could provide some valuable lessons for the organizers and hosts of COP-17 in Durban. However, on this first day of 2011, it may be helpful to reflect again on the recent success in Cancun, and ask – in particular – why it occurred, because understanding that could provide some valuable lessons for the organizers and hosts of COP-17 in Durban. This was the question I addressed in a brief December 20th Op-Ed in The Christian Science Monitor, and so rather than attempting to summarize or expand it, I simply reproduce it below.
A SUBSTANTIAL part of all stock trading in the United States takes place in a warehouse in a nondescript business park just off the New Jersey Turnpike. Few humans are present in this vast technological sanctum, known as New York Four. Instead, the building, nearly the size of three football fields, is filled with long avenues of computer servers illuminated by energy-efficient blue phosphorescent light. Countless metal cages contain racks of computers that perform all kinds of trades for Wall Street banks, hedge funds, brokerage firms and other institutions. And within just one of these cages — a tight space measuring 40 feet by 45 feet and festooned with blue and white wires — is an array of servers that together form the mechanized heart of one of the top four stock exchanges in the United States. The exchange is called Direct Edge, hardly a household name. But as the lights pulse on its servers, you can almost see the holdings in your 401(k) zip by.
Computers That See You and Keep Watch Over You – Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location. The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. The enthusiasm for such systems extends well beyond the nation’s prisons. High-resolution, low-cost cameras are proliferating, found in products like smartphones and laptop computers. The cost of storing images is dropping, and new software algorithms for mining, matching and scrutinizing the flood of visual data are progressing swiftly.
Contrary to the NYT’s Assertion, Japan Does Not “Face a Looming Demographic Squeeze” – The article tells readers that the share of the population over 65 is projected to rise from 25 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in 2050. Given that roughly 20 percent of the population is under age 20, this implies that the current ratio of people ages 20-65 to people over age 65 is approximately 2.2 to 1. Assuming the under 20 portion falls to 15 percent of the population by 2050, in that year the ratio will be 1.4 to 1. If productivity growth averages just 1.5 percent annually (it has been averaging more than 2.0 percent in the U.S. over the last 15 years), then output per worker will be more than 80 percent higher in 2050 than it is today. If the average retiree currently consumes 70 percent as much as a prime age worker, then this increase in productivity would allow retirees in 2050 to enjoy a 50 percent rise in living standards above current levels, while still leaving workers almost 30 percent better off.
Resolved – Fix the Filibuster – Walter Mondale – WE all have hopes for the New Year. Here’s one of mine: filibuster reform. It was around this time 36 years ago — during a different recession — that I was part of a bipartisan effort to reform Senate Rule 22, the cloture rule. At the time, 67 votes were needed to cut off debate and thus end a filibuster, and nothing was getting done. After long negotiations, a compromise lowered to 60 the cloture vote requirement on legislation and nominations. We hoped this moderate change would preserve debate and deliberation while avoiding paralysis, and for a while it did. But it’s now clear that our reform was insufficient for today’s more partisan, increasingly gridlocked Senate. In 2011, senators should pull back the curtain on Senate obstruction and once again amend the filibuster rules. Reducing the number of votes to end a filibuster, perhaps to 55, is one option. Requiring a filibustering senator to actually speak on the Senate floor for the duration of a filibuster would also help. So, too, would reforms that bring greater transparency — like eliminating the secret “holds” that allow senators to block debate anonymously.
Beauty as a public good – Public provision is typically deemed justified in cases of coordination or market failure. Vaccination is a classical example: if all kids but one are vaccinated against a particular disease, the parents of the remaining kid have little incentive to vaccinate her, since she would never catch that disease from her friends. But if all parents free-ride with the hope that others will vaccinate their children, then too few might actually do so. Hence schools mandate a certain vaccination schedule as a pre-requisite for admittance and health services provide vaccinations for free for those who haven’t received them otherwise. Against what disease does beauty immunize us? Beauty is the antidote to white noise. Beauty, in the sense meant here, is not in the eye of the beholder, not a matter of taste. The Taj Mahal, Bach’s ciaccona, the double helix, Godel’s incompleteness theorem don’t gratify us – almost the opposite: they arrest us. They strike us against our boundaries, against the inevitable necessity of the world, with tension, proportion, balance.