06 August 2009

Triumph of the Slow Variables or 'Rat in a Box.'

More than one conservative commentator has suggested that President Obama’s (BHO's) redistributive agenda equates to European-style socialism. Sadly, there are other, more troubling possibilities. We discuss one of them and introduce a concept from mathematics that bears on how we reached this awful state of affairs. Like Tinky Winky, we save the rest for later.

  1. Whatever one thinks of the merits of state ownership, income redistribution, etc., it is important to distinguish democratic socialism from Marxist-Leninism. The former can be voted out; the latter, not.

  2. The available evidence suggests that BHO is a people's republic sort of guy. The academic-activist culture from which he emerged is rife with sympathy for countries and revolutionary movements that practice or promote dictatorship of the proletariat. BHO’s “odd” associations, his long-standing working relationships with Ayres, Wright, Khalidi, etc., his recent appointments, Holdren, Singer, etc. all are explained. Pares cum paribus facilime congregantur, loosely, “birds of a feather flock together.”

  3. Likewise explained are BHO’s radical inclinations, his sympathies, disparate reactions to Iran and El Salvador, not least of all, his vocabulary.

  4. "Change we can believe in" arguably equals revolution, at the ballot box, thus far, but revolution nonetheless. BHO’s foreign policy positions are best understood as adjunctive to the same. They amount, above all else, to disengagement from the external world, much as the Soviet Union disengaged after the Bolshevik revolution. Overseeing a revolution consumes time, energy and money, in which circumstance, foreign entanglements are distracting.

  5. The exception is when foreign policy can be used to support “transformative” initiatives at home. Keeping the army (sharp tip of the spear) elsewhere occupied (Afghanistan) is an obvious example. Appealing to particular constituencies in an ethnically diverse society is another.

  6. BHO's proposed national service corps, a "community organization" armed and empowered by law, can only be comprehended as the iron hand beneath the glove.

Separation of Time Scales.

One approach to studying the behavior of complex systems is called "separation of time scales." Here, one sorts variables according to their rates of change. More precisely, one distinguishes "fast" variables from "slow." When this is possible, one can eliminate the fast variables, thereby simplifying the analysis see, for example, Lin and Segel (1988). In short, it's the slow variables that call the shots," even when it's the rapidly fluctuating fast variables that catch one's attention.

Rat in a Box.
Now suppose we are performing an experiment and that the slow variables are experimental conditions we can control. For concreteness, imagine measuring the metabolic rate of a rat in a chamber, the temperature of which can be varied. Further suppose that we turn the knob slowly and that, after each twist, wait a while for the animal's physiology to adjust before taking data. Over a wide range of temperatures, the so-called "thermo-neutral region" (flat portion of the graph), there is little or no change in metabolism the animal regulates its body temperature by constricting or dilating its peripheral blood vessels, thereby reducing or increasing heat loss to the environment. But reduce the external temperature below a certain point, and metabolic rate goes up the animal shivers. Likewise, if the temperature is set too high, metabolic rate also increases the animal pants. In both instances, passive temperature regulation is replaced by active, energy expenditure kicks in, and metabolic rate increases. Too hot or too cold, of course, and the animal cannot adjust; it dies (dashed lines in the figure).

Triumph of the Slow Variables.
BHO's election to the Presidency is a triumph of the slow variables 40+ years of "progressive" policy innovations having eaten away, bit by incremental bit, at the country's shared presumptions, at the institutions that translate these presumptions into policy, at the professions that transmit the presumptions from one generation to the next. This is especially the case in education. That is what Annenberg / Ayres is all about, although it is worth noting that social engineering has become part and parcel of all manner of programs, some of them, for example, the awarding of National Science Foundation research grants (go here), quite far afield. In the case of complex systems generally, as in that of the unfortunate lab rat, the effects of such change can be abrupt and catastrophic. Sadly, we are the rat in the box. And we have just been pushed outside the thermo-neutral region.

Yes. The slow variables have triumphed. Preserving our democracy is now going to take considerably more effort than going down to the polls a couple of times a year. Lest we shrink from the task, remember this: the letters SPQR (Senate and People of Rome) continued to adorn the legions' standards long after Caesar was murdered in the forum, and the Senate, to convene. But the Roman republic was dead, having been replaced by the panoply of emperors, some good, some bad, who counted themselves as gods. Let not future historians write that these were the final days of its American counterpart.

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