Ingenuity, Technology and Paranoia

We live in a patchwork quilt of new and old.

Here in Indiana, the dim bulbs in our legislature are busy fighting old constitutional wars and introducing measures to protect us against non-existent threats.  Let teachers impose prayer in schools! Make them teach religious beliefs in science classrooms! Protect Indiana from the existential threat posed by “Agenda 21”! (The latter is a reference to a decades-old, utterly toothless pro-environmental UN resolution that the paranoid are convinced will destroy American sovereignty and perhaps, Strangelove-like, sap our “manly juices.” Or something.)

Meanwhile, in precincts less terrified of reality and the future, innovative ideas are making urban life more convenient. We just returned from New York and a visit to the son who lives there, and once again were impressed by how livable the Bloomberg administration is making the Big Apple. Of course, as Bloomberg noted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers pay high taxes and thus have a right to expect good service for their money.

It isn’t only municipal services that are making New Yorkers’ lives more convenient, of course. Technology and the clever use of ubiquitous cell-phones have given rise to new services that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. While we were in the city, we made use of one of them, called Uber.

Those of you who are familiar with Manhattan know that taxis are everywhere–at least, when it isn’t raining. Outside Manhattan, however–in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, for example–the familiar yellow cabs are far rarer. People living in those boroughs have access to the subway and to bus service (unlike the situation in Indy), but they don’t have the added option of raising an arm and hailing a cab.

Enter Uber.

Uber is a service that allows you to order a car easily. But it is much more than that. You download an app. Should you need a car, you enter your location and your desired destination; a return message tells you where the nearest Uber cars are,  how long it will take for the closest one to reach you, and how much the ride will cost. If you decide to proceed, you tap in your order, and pre-pay the fare and tip (credit card information having previously been entered). The app gives you a photo of the driver and the license-plate number, so you can identify the vehicle when it arrives, and it maps the car’s progress on the telephone screen. In our case, we watched as the little dot representing the car moved toward us on the screen.

When the trip was over, Uber sent an electronic receipt to my son’s smartphone, confirming the route and charge.

Our driver was Maria. Her car was new and clean, and she was pleasant and willing to explain the virtues of the Uber system from the driver’s perspective. She could work when it was convenient–she just turned on her phone to signal her availability. She no longer worried that she might pick up some mugger or worse–few predators will provide their credit card and identifying information.

The service was more expensive than a taxi, although not excessively. It probably doesn’t make sense in places where hailing a cab is easy. In underserved areas, however, its convenience is well worth its cost.

I don’t know whether Uber will make it–whether this new use of technology to make transportation more convenient will catch on and spread. But I marvel at the ingenuity of whoever created the system. If we look, if we open our eyes, we can find similar inventive efforts all around us. In fact, if we just take a moment to think about it, so much of the taken-for-granted activity in our daily lives would have been incomprehensible to our younger selves. From our smartphones to our laptops to our IPads and Kindles, to thermostats that communicate with us, to cars that stream our music….In earlier days–and not all that much earlier–these were the stuff of science fiction.

We have a choice. We can embrace our newly enabled existence, these gadgets and breakthroughs that ease our days, and we can use our increased productivity and saved time to enrich our minds and souls, to solve problems and help others. Or we can spend that newfound time looking for UN agents in black helicopters, and repudiating Darwin.

Our choice.


Over the Edge

Look, I know it sucks to lose. But in the wake of November 6th, the sound of the loon is increasingly loud in the land. As Mother Jones reports:

On October 11, at a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus convened by the body’s majority leader, Chip Rogers, a tea party activist told Republican lawmakers that Obama was mounting this most diabolical conspiracy. The event—captured on tape by a member of the Athens-based watchdog Better Georgia (who was removed from the room after 52 minutes)—had been billed as an information session on Agenda 21, a nonbinding UN agreement that commits member nations to promote sustainable development. In the eyes of conservative activists, Agenda 21 is a nefarious plot that includes forcibly relocating non-urban-dwellers and prescribing mandatory contraception as a means of curbing population growth. The invitation to the Georgia state Senate event noted the presentation would explain: “How pleasant sounding names are fostering a Socialist plan to change the way we live, eat, learn, and communicate to ‘save the earth.’”…

About 23 minutes into the briefing, Searcy explained how President Obama, aided by liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress and business groups like local chambers of commerce, are secretly using mind-control techniques to push their plan for forcible relocation on the gullible public…”

Ya gotta watch out for those commies from the Chamber of Commerce.

As a friend of mine remarked after hearing this lampooned by David Letterman, there have always been folks whose connection to reality is intermittent at best–the guy who used to hang around the barber shop spinning conspiracy theories, or your great-aunt Bertha who complained about the men peeking in her window. Today, the internet allows those people to do two things Aunt Bertha couldn’t: find each other, and amplify the crazy.

I have some sympathy for people who just can’t cope with the world as it is, the people who need a “real” explanation for events they find incomprehensible (like re-electing that black guy…or voting to approve same-sex marriage). I have considerably less patience for the people who enable them.

Convening a hearing to listen to paranoid fantasies is a bridge too far, even for Republicans in the Georgia Legislature.

This country desperately needs two responsible political parties. The last thing the Republicans should be doing in the wake of the November 6th reproof delivered by voters is encourage the residents of Neverland.


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

The real question facing America right now is how long it will be before the lunatics outnumber sane folks.

I’m not talking about the recent spectacle of Todd Akin, or the ongoing self-parody that is Michelle Bachmann. If they were anomalies, they’d be entertainment; as it is, they are just two of a terrifyingly large number of political figures who reject science and reality–with very negative consequences for the rest of us.

A few days ago, Timothy Egan wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “The Crackpot Caucus.” In what he called a “quick tour of the crazies in the House,” he quoted Rep. John Shimkus–chair of a subcommittee that oversees climate-change issues–pooh-poohing the very notion of climate change, and explaining that “The earth will end when God declares it to be over.” More God talk came from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who opposes wind energy because “Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Clean energy would slow the winds down and make it hotter.” Mitch McConnell is among those who dismiss climate change as “a conspiracy and a hoax.”

John Huntsman was the only presidential candidate running in the Republican primary who was willing to say he accepted the theory of evolution. Jack Kingston of Georgia rejects evolution because there’s no indentation where our tails used to be. I’m not kidding.

There are literally hundreds of similar examples.

In Atlanta, Tea Party activists are claiming responsibility for defeating a 1 cent sales tax add-on that would have paid for highway and transit improvements in a ten-county area. The measure was backed by a bipartisan, urban-suburban consortium, and ran afoul of another rampant conspiracy theory: the U.N.’s “Agenda 21.”

Agenda 21, also known as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, along with a  Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio in June of 1992. It’s a non-binding declaration of an intent to address climate issues, but it has sparked fierce resistance from the more loosely-tethered-to-reality fringes, who have labeled it a scheme to destroy private property rights and “urbanize” America. Alabama has actually passed a law forbidding its “implementation” in that state.

Now, despite the claims of the Tea Party, Atlanta’s transportation tax didn’t fail simply because some fearful folks bought into the Agenda 21 conspiracy. As Neal Pierce notes in “Region Shoots Self in the Foot,” decades of anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric, rural resentment of urban Atlanta, and poor strategic decisions all played a role. But these elements were mutually reinforcing, and the consequences for the region–where congestion is already a nightmare–are likely to be profound. In the words of the Atlanta Chamber president, failure of the measure spells “economic disaster for Georgia.” (But hey–they sure showed those “anti-liberty” internationalists from the UN!)

Modern life requires a level of cognitive ability and reason that is in dangerously short supply.

Large numbers of Americans, including uncomfortably large numbers of elected officials, believe in a variety of far-fetched conspiracies that defy elementary logic (exactly how did Obama’s “Kenyan” family manage to plant that birth announcement in Hawaiian newspapers 40+ years ago? How did they know he’d be President??).

In the case of the “birthers,” the conspiracy persists because it de-legitimizes a black man who somehow became President. Those who deny climate-change and evolution are rejecting ideas that make them profoundly uncomfortable–facts that challenge limited and rigid worldviews, or (in the case of some elected officials) run contrary to the interests of their bigger campaign donors. Those who see dark motives (and black helicopters) emanating from the United Nations probably need something concrete to which they can anchor free-floating anxieties.

There have always been reality-challenged people at the fringes of society. What is so terrifying is that they have been normalized. We elect them. Politicians who do know better pander to them. Pundits take them seriously, or at least act as if they do.

Sociologists and political scientists tell us that the past 25 years has seen a profound shift to the political Right. I don’t think that’s what has happened; I know many sound and sane conservatives, and they aren’t the ones who worry me. We haven’t gone Right; we’ve gone unhinged.

I worry that we aren’t very far from the day when the inmates control the asylum.


The Monster Under the Bed

Parents of small children are familiar with the phenomenon. A few minutes after turning the lights out, a fearful cry comes from the bedroom: there’s a monster under my bed! That is typically followed by a parental “sweep” of the under-bed real estate and assurances that the room is safe for “night-night.”

But what do you do when the terrified child is—physically, at least—an adult?

As American politics has descended into farcical territory, the role played by fear has become increasingly obvious.

To some extent, of course, all of us are disoriented by the pace of social and economic change. But for some subset of our citizens, complexity and ambiguity are the monsters under the bed. As one of my sons observed a few weeks back, when we were scratching our heads over an especially egregious bit of political buffoonery, very scared people desperately crave certainty in a world that has none. They need a bipolar, black and white world in which good and evil, God and the Devil are clearly labeled and easily identified. The enemy is not so much the “Other” (immigrants, gays, African-Americans) as it is the relativism that their acceptance represents.

Which brings me to the folks currently insisting that public transportation and environmental protection are part of a United Nations “agenda” (not to be confused with the “gay agenda”) to destroy American liberty.

According to a story in today’s New York Times, activists with ties to the Tea Party are rallying against local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. As the Times article put it “They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities. They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances — efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.”

The designated Monster-Under-the-Bed in this case is a non-binding 1992 UN resolution encouraging resource conservation. Fox News and various activists have identified that resolution (unfortunate titled “Agenda 21”) as an effort to encourage urban living and density in order to strip away property rights. To denizens of this paranoid universe, public transit, bike lanes and smart meters–devices being installed by utility companies to collect information on energy use—are all part of this nefarious plan.

When the less conspiratorial among us hear these stories, our natural inclination is to shrug and laugh, but these protests are having an effect. The Times reports that they were successful in shutting down Maine’s efforts to reduce congestion on Route 1, and deep-sixing Florida’s high-speed rail plan, among others.

There are, of course, genuine issues raised by the movement of more Americans to cities. Urban dwellers are by necessity confronted with trade-offs that rarely confront more rural folks.  We need to make accommodations for the needs of our neighbors, and we need to make policies that serve whole communities—policies that will inevitably irritate some and satisfy others. Those realities do constrain us. I live in a historic district, for example, where I have to obtain approval to paint my house a different color. Does that limit my property rights? Sure.

There is not only nothing wrong with discussing and debating the trade-offs that come with living in modern industrialized societies, it is a conversation that is absolutely critical. But like all such debates, it needs to be conducted by adults and informed by reason and evidence.

The world is scary enough without inventing monsters to fear.