"I miss that guy, he gives great hugs": A Breakthrough Dialog Report

Last week I had the pleasure of going back to the Bay  for the second Breakthrough Dialog. It was wonderful to get some cool air, to see all my friends (with the notable exception of Jesse Jenkins, who is too busy going to MITtestifying before Congress, getting married, and going on a honeymoon in Italy to put in an appearance. The dialog was 17% less credible due to his absence), and meet the  2012 BTGeneration Fellows, who are incredibly intelligent and well-qualified. I can't wait to see what they'll do.  Of course, the fact that my friends are wonderful, and that the Bay Area is a great place to be a hedonist are not very bloggable.  What follows is my (scattered, disorganized) thoughts on the Dialog. This is by no means complete, but it should be a partial picture of what I thought was interesting or provocative.

The main subject of the dialog were "Wicked Problems", areas of political and scientific controversy where even basic facts are determined by how the problem is framed and preexisting biases of the involved parties.  Steve Rayner started the day by observing that a good heuristic for wickedness is that whenever government declares war on a noun, there's is probably a wicked problem. Wicked problems are not problems so much as persistent and insolvable social conditions, and the way we attempt to tame them is mostly a matter of our preferred method of arriving at solutions.  Using Mary Douglas's Cultural Theory of Risk, Rayner elucidated the ways in which hierarchical, competitive, and egalitarian institutions attempt to organize themselves while disorganizing other ways of resolving the wicked problem. He suggested that we should try to keep all three methods in play, what he called "The Law of Minimum Requisite Priority".

Mark Sagoff and Nico Stehr followed. To paraphrase, both of them offered the hypothesis that wicked problems arose in the 1960s, as the credibility and power of the state weakened, and the levee en mass of Napoleonic battles was replaced by the technological style of the Cold War. An increasingly pluralistic and open society diminished the ability of anybody to exercise power.

Nobody will ever criticize The Breakthrough Institute for a lack of ambition. Wicked problems are by definition big and almost insoluble. I am personally aligned with Steve Rayner when he argued that the phrase might be a misnomer, orienting people towards trying to find an illusory solution rather than the persistent work of maintaining our industrial society. Much of the political process these days seems to be about gaining a permanent majority, the institutionalization of political programs, and trying to use coercive and apocalyptic rhetoric to force permanent closure of controversies. Deeming something "wicked" is not yet a sufficient weapon to halt groups who claim to have a solution. I'm also doubtful that there's enough similarities between different types of wicked problems that something is gained by treatinTg them as a common class. But recognizing the contingency and stickiness of these issues is probably better than the alternative.

The next panel, "Beyond Parks and Recreation" focused on the future of conservation, using lessons from the quickly developing Amazon Rainforest and Mongolia.  Probably the most shocking part of this panel was delivered by Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservatory and one of the leading conservationists alive today, who argued for a deeper engagement between environmentalists and global corporations. Global corporations are like keystone species, they control the flow of energy and material at a high level, and while they all do environmental impact assessments, most of them are superficially focused on energy efficiency. Only deep knowledge of both conditions on the ground and the engineering processes of the corporation can improve ecological outcomes. And finally, big multinationals are frequently easier to work with, because they have a public reputation that they care about, and they'll modify policies to avoid being exposed. Some valuable unconventional wisdom from Kareiva.

The third panel, on "The Future of Nuclear", featured a fight between Tom Blees, a proponent of the Integral Fast Reactor, and Burton Richter and Oliver Morton, two conventional nuclear experts. Blees argued that the IFR is a technically sweet solution to supply the world's energy, while Richter countered that while nuclear energy is safe in public health terms, it is profoundly distrusted, and Morton said that historically, nuclear agencies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and that plants must be expensive to be safe. Nuclear energy could be competitive, at prices two to three times what we pay today. There were a lot of technical arguments about the cost per kilowatt of given plant designs, and their actual safety. At the end of the day, I think that Richter and Morton are closer to being correct. Real nuclear plants are complex and expensive, and the kinds of investments required to improve nuclear would require handing billions of dollars over to nuclear scientists and investors who face a profound deficit of public trust for good, historical reasons. Barring a seismic cultural shift or a demonstration project that blows all expectations away, nuclear has a steep slope to climb.

The next day started with a panel on "Hamiltonian Liberalism" by Michael Lind and Roger Piekle Jr. Lind summarized the arugments of his book Land of Promise which links a Schumpeterian/Kondratiev reading of economic history based on cycles of growth around major technologies like steam, internal combustion, and computers, with political cycles between Hamiltonians who want an active federal government, and Jeffersonians who fear a dependent citizenry. American history alternates between Hamiltonian resolutions to majors crises and Jeffersonian backlashes. Pielke, while largely agreeing with Lind, argues that the dramatically larger size of the economy today makes historical examples problematic. "In 1800 the size of the entire US economy (GDP in 2005 dollars) was the same size as the GDP of Pascagoula, Mississippi in 2005. (Data from here and here.) By 1850 the US economy had grown to the size of Rhode Island's 2005 GDP, by 1900 it was Virginia, and 1950 it was the size of California's 2005 GDP."  Even now, we're not sure where jobs come from, and certainly, neither Obama nor Romney know.

I found this panel both satisfying and depressing. Satisfying, because apparently I know about as much about innovation as the experts (I guess getting a PhD in this stuff is good for something), and depressing because they don't have any better answers than I do. One thing I do want to note is that big infrastructure projects can't be separate from failure and cronyism. Railroads in the 19th century looked a lot more like the right-wing depictions of Solyndra than the heroic construction of America.

The next panel was on "The Future of the Welfare State", featuring Bill Voegeli and Mark Schmidt.  Bill is a card-carrying conservative, and for the benefit of the overwhelmingly liberal/progressive audience explained the Republican opposition to the welfare state.  Conservatives see many costs to welfare. It attentuates the thick bonds that bind a community together, replacing them with thin financial links between government agents and dependent welfare citizens. It leads to a waste of human potential, as people live the life of a perpetual grad student-minus the scholarship (personal note: ouch). The communitarian values expoused by liberals are fundamentally anti-American. On an economic side, high taxes reduce competitiveness and government spending is filled with waste.  And finally, it reduces politics to a clamoring of interest groups looking for a bigger handout, destroying democratic self-governance and inspiring limitless commitments. Mark Schmidt offered a much less spirited defense, saying that liberals need to reconstruct the social contact and figure out what programs do we need provide people with the resources to make the most of their potential. In particular unemployment insurance lets businessiness adapt to the business cycle.

I'm going to have to get on my soapbox here, because this issue really bugs me. I disagree with Voegeli but he did a much better job of advancing his argument that Schmidt, which mirrors how conservatives have been kicking that crap out of liberals at the ballot box. Empirically, welfare spending is about 50% of the budget (infographic) and only going up as the Baby Boomers get older and sicker. It will eat the entire budget in a few decades. But the liberal reconstruction of welfare has been feckless and irrelevant, abandoning the field to jerkwads like Paul Ryan.

The future of the welfare state is intimately tied up with state power , the body politic, and how we conceive of it and what it does in the world. Sovereign state power is based around the defense of the state in the person of it's ruler.  The sovereign state is literally a man with a shiny hat and sword who kills anybody who threatens him, or by extension his land and citizens. This pre-modern notion of the state is durable, but has in practice been replaced by a different state, one that measure, monitors, and intervenes to encourage or discourage the flourishing of its citizenry.

We need to be asking, "Does this program make us flourish as a people? Does it make us stronger as a nation?" A nation that lets the elderly freeze on the street is one that demands a hard-hearted citizenry, one that is low in trust and therefore weak. Conversely, a nation that gives hip replacements to 80 year-olds while cutting education is one that is not investing wisely, and is also weak. Now, I can't make everybody read The History of Sexuality Vol.1, let alone interpret it the same way I do, but I believe that this biopolitical notion of the state is firmer foundation for welfare than some vague notion of justice, fairness, or the social contract. Conservatives are winning because they have an actual theory about the state and liberty, and liberals need one as well. This, at least, moves the debate inside political boundaries where liberalism can win on the merits, rather than "death panels" and "mah freedoms!"

The final panel, "Left Behind", featured Scott Winship and Susan Meyer, talking about inequality and opportunity. This was some fairly technical inequality, and at this point my attention was thoroughly burned out, so all I can say is we're less equal and less mobile than ever before, and it's not getting any better.

So, that was the Breakthrough Dialog. Not sure what I learned, or what wicked problems were resolved, but we're trying, and at this point in time, trying is a lot more than most people are doing. Now, about that election...

(image credit to Matt Bors)


  1. Interesting thoughts about “wicked problems” -- an often misunderstood concept. You might like to know about this recent publication, as it concerns a method for treating such problems, developed by Caltech Professor Fritz Zwicky:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:



    Tom R.

    1. The New York Times has an op-ed by a couple of guys who advance a more biopolitical view of government. Of course, they don't cite Foucault because apparently that's a faux pas in the Times, but it's the same idea.


      "Government spending is not a single-step transaction that burns money as an engine burns fuel; it’s part of a continuous feedback loop that circulates money. Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood. To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden."

      Now, as a skeptical guy, I think there are major flaws with the garden metaphor, but it's better than the engine concept. Sigh, another blog post to procrastinate on...