“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that will eventually kick the bucket too.
When you finally get to a power supply, you hog as much as you can in the time you have, but you are aware that life as you know it is only as good as the flow of electricity to which you have access.
Then there’s the nightmare scenario of a blackout that lasts days or even weeks. What then? It hasn’t happened to me since the advent of the digital age. But it could as soon as tomorrow. Forget the meat in the fridge. I can live off canned goods. But where and how will I recharge my phone, my laptop, my tablet, my e-cigarette? How will I buy and spend my Bitcoins?
Many of these thoughts I’ve carried with me privately and tried to push them aside. Maybe this is just the way life works. It’s full of risks. There is no security in this world. In the end, we live one day to the next. We can’t be consumed by disaster scenarios, and we probably can’t prepare for them either, right? I know many people do. They buy generators. They go “off the grid” to test their wherewithal. But that’s not me. I have no interest in reverting back in time.
But here’s the problem: the complication and the thing that makes me stop and think. And it is the single most alarming fact about the technological times in which we live. All these utilities are provided by public utilities.
They are sort of private (monopolistically private) and also local (geographically noncompetitive), but also government established, regulated, managed, and, in the end, owned. The grid itself is a government-codified system, having been nationalized in 1934 and then deregulated at the wholesale level only later.
In short, electricity itself — the thing we depend on so completely in every aspect of our lives — is a government system. And you know what that means? It means that it is finally undependable and regressive, not taking advantage of any force of innovation that has improved every other product and service out there. We are still living in the 1920s, a fact which you can vaguely discern by how the U.S. plug shape has not changed in anyone’s living memory.
So when will this system be finally smashed by the forces of progress? Incredibly, it is happening already. It turns out that over the last 10 years, a sea change has occurred in the provision of power. Roughly 40,000 commercial and industrial sites in the U.S. have decided to spurn the government system and make their own systems of power generation. This is a quadrupling over the last seven years.
Today, on-site electrical generation accounts for only 5% of the power supply, but the trend is actually far more significant because it is happening first among what were once the largest clients of the electrical companies. And there are big plans in place: Wal-Mart plans to increase its solar-generated share of electrical use from 4% to 20% over the next seven years, while Apple’s main data center makes all the power it consumes.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “The growing number of companies that are at least partly energy self-sufficient is sending a shudder through the utility industry, threatening its revenues and growth prospects.”
What kicked this trend into high gear was Hurricane Sandy. It sent a message to the whole of Corporate America: You can die the death at any point, and there is nothing you can do about it. That’s when the preparations began.
In other words, it is the fear among companies that they would be forced to stop doing business that is pushing this trend forward. This is the market responding to a felt need.
It turns out, then, my anxieties about electricity are not paranoid. They are felt even more intensely by large companies who have far more skin in the game than I do. And this is creating a trajectory of progress despite every attempt by government to stop it or divert it with crazy schemes involving windmills or whatever. The need for power is at the core of modern life, and it is a key to the future. It will not be stopped.
So what will happen to the dinosaur utilities? Look at this wonderful statement from a top executive at American Electric Power: “Am I going to just sit here and take it and ultimately be a caretaker of a museum?” Deciding against that path, he further suggested that perhaps the big power companies ought to give in and make themselves useful by helping companies install their own electricity-generating equipment.
Let’s broaden out this context a bit by going back one hundred years. Electricity was the coolest thing going, installed and used first by the rich and then by urban consumers and eventually by everyone else. Government was taking an ever larger role in people’s lives and was looking for some way to become the hero. Electrification became the great motto for all states in the world, from the U.S. to Russia.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the new government adopted the slogan “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Electrification had to happen, said Lenin, “otherwise, the country will remain a small peasant country… Only when the country has been electrified, and industry, agriculture, and transport have been placed on the technical basis of modern large-scale industry, only then shall we be fully victorious.”
The provision of technological progress, then, was to be the great achievement of the modern state, the thing that would cause the whole world to shout with glee: Up with the public sector and all that it means to us as a civilization!
This trend continued in the New Deal. FDR sought to grab the whole power of technological initiative from the private sector and place it in the hands of the executive state. This was a driving motivation of his administration’s programs, and it culminated in World War II, when technology was turned from serving people to killing them en masse.
But now look what’s happened. We are blessed to live in a time of astonishing advancement, none of which is being pushed by government; on the contrary, government’s main contribution is to slow it down.
The reality is everywhere before us. The tools we use every day on the Internet come courtesy of the profit-and-loss system of enterprise that governments have tried for 100 years to displace. Our coolest toys are provided by entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats. The things we use to get information, to get goods and services, to get medical care, are being pushed by the marketplace, despite government’s every attempt to crush it.
And what has happened to the wonderful energy that the government said some 100 years ago that it would give us? It is being systematically eschewed as old-fashioned and unsuitable to a modern people. The bureaucratic contraptions of command and control have been reduced to the role of spectators watching their empire gradually fade from view and a new world of private energy provision emerge one step at a time.
This is the larger picture. Another limb of the nation-state is being sawed off by the forces of progress, as fueled by markets, private property, exchange, and the unstoppable drive of humanity to not let anything stand in the way of gaining a better life.