Saturday, September 10, 2005

Technoprogressive Social Policy in the Wake of Katrina

IEET Executive Director James Hughes teaches health policy at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut.
A subscriber to the wta-talk list noted yesterday, searching for a possible upside to Katrina,
for a huge majority of these disadvantaged citizens, they have the attention of all levels of Government like never before.
The thought is uncomfortably close to Barbara Bush's clueless "they are better off now" comment but I confess I have had the same thought. Partly because I have long admired a book by Nicholas Lemann called The Promised Land, which was based on William Julius Wilson's work on the underclass.

Wilson and Lemann argued that geographic and social isolation of the urban underclass had been created by desegregation (when middle class blacks left the inner cities) and de-industrialization. Looking back at the experience of FDR's CCC work programs, which had got poor whites out of poverty and spread them all over the country, Wilson and Lemann proposed that a massive set of government work programs, building vital physical infrastructure like levees, or working in human service professions like nursing homes, could get people out of their isolated ghettoes, break the cycle of urban poverty and improve the security of the nation. This tragedy could indeed be an opportunity for such a change in opportunities for the displaced poor.

Unfortunately the United States is now controlled by plutocrats and anti-statist ideologues who think tax cuts are the solution to all social ills. So while the coastal disaster has spread hundreds of thousands of poor people across the US, it is unlikely that this administration will commit to the relocation efforts, jobs and education programs, or physical infrastructure investments necessary to keep them from remaining stuck in poverty. Before Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi were two of the poorest, sickest, and least educated states in the U.S., ranking with countries in the developing world, and in five years I think they probably still will be.

Sadly, I also read in this week's New Yorker a piece by Nicholas Lemann, who it turns out is a New Orleanian, and whose parents have had to leave behind their home there. He's pretty depressed. But in an accompanying interview, he does echo one sentiment that I'm hearing a lot: this is the beginning of the end for the anti-statist phase of our political cycle, as the 1927 New Orleans flood helped pave the way for the New Deal.
"New Yorker: Is this whole experience going to make people lose faith in government?

Nicholas Lemann: I certainly hope not. I hope it'll have the exact opposite effect. Starting with Reagan's inauguration, in 1981, when he said that government is the problem, I think we've been conditioned to believe that government is this kind of vague, ill-defined thing that does all this wasteful, stupid stuff, and nobody really needs it. This should be a moment that wakes people up to the need for a government that works. There's no way to deal with this kind of thing without the federal government, as we're seeing."
So if we (and the world) are lucky, we may see progressives elected in the U.S. in the 2006 and 2008 elections who will start to reinvest in people and infrastructure instead of the military-industrial complex.

How does it all relate to technoprogressivism, the Singularity and emerging technologies? A key technoprogressive issue is the structural unemployment likely to emerge from economic globalization and automation. One of the key technoprogressive policy proposals is a basic income guarantee (BIG) to address both structural unemployment and the emerging "old age dependency" ratios attendant to life extension.

But one of the key debates in social policy (at least on the Left) has been about the relative utility of jobs programs and workfare versus "welfare" and basic income. The jobs/workfare side has argued that (a) the quid pro quo of money for work gives people dignity, and reduces their dysfunctionality (TV watching, baby-making, crack-smoking, etc.), (b) addresses unmet social needs, and (c) is much more politically palatable than simple money-for-nothing. I think each of these arguments has merit, which is why we need to defend and expand labor-intensive government spending on health, education and infrastructure programs, and on job-training for jobs available in the private sector, at the same time that we build support for a basic income guarantee. Of course we will still face the situation that, at some point, a robotic tree planter displaces ten human tree planters, a nano-bot injection displaces a home care nursing team, and a robotic levee-builder displaces ten construction workers.

So BIG still needs to be front and center on our agenda, even as we struggle today to provide jobs, housing, education and a new, more sustainable, coastal economy and infrastructure for the victims of Katrina.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Kass Replaced by BioCon Pellegrino as Head of US Bioethics Council

Glenn McGee, over at announces that Kass has been replaced with Catholic biocon stalwart Edmund Pellegrino. McGee is quick to praise the choice, since Pellegrino is a more respected bioethicist than Kass:
Dr. Edmund Pellegrino will be nominated to be a new member - and the Chair - of the President's Council on Bioethics, according to this Personnel Announcement from the White House. He will succeed Dr. Leon Kass. Pellegrino is one of the most respected, best published, and most accomplished scholars who has ever worked in bioethics.

It is possible to gush about the White House's decision - a rare opportunity these days - in part because Pellegrino is a good, honest and kind person, but also because Pellegrino is not afraid to engage his academic peers and will not operate like a cheerleader for the administration, nor will he treat the Council like an oversized ethics seminar for neoconservatives. So, for example, I do not expect to hear that the American Enterprise Institute is going to be selling the products of the deliberations by the Council in the future. The sun will never rise on a day where Edmund Pellegrino lobbies Congress as a 'private Citizen' for a 'second term bioethics agenda,' or writes Op Eds defending Presidential stem cell policy while sitting as Chair during a Presidential election year.

Pellegrino's views on a number of issues are well known, since this chair of the PCB has published more than 500 articles in the field and participated in more than 20 books, and while many of them are not my own views, I for one am happy to have those views expressed as the honest result of a well thought-out argument based on his years of peer-reviewed scholarship on clinical ethics. Pellegrino's affiliations with groups of conservatives are of no concern to me because he is, again, no one's stooge. They say as much - see for example the description of his role as Fellow at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity here.

A conservative choice, yes, but a solid scholar of bioethics whose entire career has revolved around the virtues and character of physicians. - Glenn McGee
Interesting for the Bush administration to replace the quasi-secular Kass with the Catholic Pellegrino given the new focus of the new Pope on engaging with biopolitics. Pellegrino is on record, of course, as being for a permanent congressional ban "on privately supported as well as federally supported research involving the production and destruction of living human embryos." Last October, when Pellegrino spoke in Missouri, ex-pat Norwegian transhumanist Lene Johansen reported that Pellegrino was anxious to pursue the anti-enhancement agenda of Kass's President's Council on Bioethics.
The council has published a report called “Beyond Therapy,” which served as a basis for Pellegrino’s lecture.

Pellegrino said that America will be divided in the discussion on enhancements. Even members of the president’s council had limited themselves to posing the questions in their report because they were divided as well.

Pellegrino opposes the cloning of humans and all stem-cell research that involves destruction of a human embryo. He is critical of human enhancement because of its ethical dangers, and he is well aware of the allure of the promises enhancement makes.

“We will be undoing all the mistakes the creator made when he created the human species,” he said with a smile. “But, remember that Nemesis always followed Hubris. She takes care of those that are full of hubris.”
For more on Pellegrino's critical approach to human enhancement, see this essay: "Biotechnology, Human Enhancement, and the Ends of Medicine". The main focus is on the physician's sacred responsibility to not cross from "therapy" into "enhancement." But he also gives us a clue to the theo-centric approach he will bring.
Fundamental questions about how enhancement affects our concepts of the purposes of human life and the nature of human happiness will be buried by more immediate demand for happiness, fulfillment, and mental tranquility. The modern and post-modern emphasis will be on effective regulatory measures, better techniques, and competent practitioners—not ethical restraint. Restraint or prohibition beyond prevention of abuses and harmful side effects is highly unlikely. Those who restrict freedom of choice will be seen as a danger to the realization of a higher quality of life for all. Any restriction will be interpreted as a violation of the physician’s obligation to respect patient autonomy.

Many of us will take these to be specious arguments, which, if accepted, would make medicine the handmaiden of biotechnology and erode its traditional role in treating the sick. Counterarguments will be difficult given the powerful vectors of change in our cultural mores. Hopes for an earthly paradise are seemingly within reach for many people who no longer believe in an after-life. For them, extracting the maximum from personal enhancement is a seductive substitute.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Cyborg Manifesto dot.comic

A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century written by Donna Haraway and art by James Kohl is available online in dot.comic format. Enjoy!

Grounds for Restricting ReproRights: Spawning

I suspect we'll be generating a lot of interesting and important text over at the TechnoLiberation list. (Of course every email message from Dale Carrico would be publishable with a couple of footnotes.) This morning I posted a reflection on a question about the regulation of "spawning," the rapid creation of large numbers of humans.

Q: Assume that they would be able to lay a fertilizer egg every week after an incubation of several days. How do you think the governments should respond?

My answer:

A) We have a right to ensure that the practice is safe for the children and mothers.

B) One of the arguments in favor of a highly liberal approach to reproductive decision-making and germinal choice is that human beings breed relatively slowly, giving society time to anticipate change and adapt. Especially in a society based on equal suffrage (one-person/one-vote), any group that comes up with a way to reproduce significantly faster than one generation every twenty years, especially if conjoined with multiple births per "litter", would pose a significant threat. So yes, this would be a huge problem, and society would have a legitimate right to restrict the practice. (BTW frank Herbert addressed this possibility in Hellstrom's Hive, and more recently Stephen Baxter returned to the idea in his Coalescent series.)

BTW this is also an obvious problem for the proliferation of electronic people. We can't have a situation where the first upload makes 300 million copies of herself and outvotes the rest of us. Although with Republican designed voting machines, it might not make a difference.

Q: Would the preferability of applying restrictive reproductive laws be bigger for you if the group of people were of an extreme fundamentalist persuasion?

Religious and cognitive liberty obviously requires that we not act in a 'discriminatory' way. On the other hand, if a rapidly breeding group had values antithetical to liberal democracy the threat would be that much more severe, and the regulation that much more urgent.

Reproductive liberty is extremely important and should not be contravened lightly. I don't think the hypothetical social harms of germ-line enhancement, sex selection or repro-cloning - once they are safe technologies - meet the weight to warrant restricting repro-liberty. But being outbred by an insectile religious cult does.

Worldwide, and soon in the post-Rehnquist/O'Connor USA, the struggle for reproductive freedom and germinal choice is paramount. Defending repro-choice requires that we be extremely clear that we are not for "anything goes." In order to stake out and defend greater liberties we technoprogressives or democratic transhumanists need to specify when and how liberties can be legitimately restricted.