Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Time to Found the Foundation?

Seventy years ago, Isaac Asimov's fictional character Hari Seldon invented the "science of psychohistory."  Psychohistory was a mathematical approach to predict and shape the future by influencing the course of events through manipulating the probabilistic laws of mass action.  A form of "mathematical sociology" modeled on mathematical economics, Seldon based psychohistory on his "discovery" that there existed formula and equations that could encapsulate societal dynamics and provide solutions to problems.  He used it to seek to manage the long term history of a human society that had spread throughout our Galaxy.  He foresaw a time of cyclical disintegration and sought to use his "science" and the two "Foundations" founded upon it to use the equations to tweak events and reduce the time of recovery.

Paul Krugman claims that his discovery of the fictional mathematical history is what led him to study economics.  Indeed, "psychohistory"  shares the economist assumption that society moves in cycles and that good times alternate with bad ones.  Like economics, Seldon's science could be used to try to extend the good and shorten the bad.  There was also a deeper tie between the two, the view that the best economy - and the society it was based upon - worked through the central mechanisms of individual choice and freedom in a free market of exchange. 

Democracy and capitalism do seem to be the most effective way to maximize social and economic  good in the long run.  Any society that limits either - that doesn't have both - will sooner or later limit its own ability to sustain itself.  In other words - in this optimistic view - democracy combined with free market capitalism are mutually re-enforcing and sure to win over all competitors in the long run.  The short run may be another matter.  And as Seldon foresaw, the short run may last a long time. 

I mention all this because it occurs to me that the key element of Asimov's fictional science - as it is for economics - is the assumption that there are formulas for understanding what is happening to us, predicting the future and undertaking actions to manage that future.  In other words, there are solutions to the complex equations that are determining events.  Furthermore, these solutions have as their aim - if not their immediate means - perfecting implementation of democratic governance and free market exchange.  Though economics traditionally postulated an "invisible hand," since Keynes it has been understood that a "free market" does not mean an untended one.  It is also understood that total government control of an economy is not efficient.  The best solution seems to require the intersection of democratic government and free markets, where the good of the whole society as determined by the body of citizens impacts the actions and interactions of individuals and groups seeking to maximize their own benefit.

So the question becomes, are there formula or possibly even equations for analyzing our evolving global society as the fictional Seldon foresaw?  Should we stop arguing about climate change, ideology, history and everything else and instead start looking for ways to identify and manage the trends and the likely futures we can foresee?  Is it time to found the Foundation?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Photo Homage to the C&O Canal

In 1753, Lt. Col. George Washington was sent to see if he could talk the French out of a fort they had constructed in what is now western Pennsylvania near Lake Erie.  He was rebuffed.  He returned to the area in 1754 to try to dislodge the French from their new Fort Dusquesne at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the two form the Ohio River at what is now Pittsburgh.  On the way there, he encountered the Ohiopyle rapids on the Youghiogheny River.  He could not go further by boat.

Washington remembered this years later when he envisioned a canal from Ohio to the Potomac to allow transport by water to and from the new American West.  He founded the Potowmack Company in 1785 to improve navigation along the river.  In 1824, the company passed its rights to the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, which started building the Canal up from Washington in 1828.  It reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1850 but was by then already facing competition from the railroads.  Plans to push on to Pittsburgh were abandoned but the C&O functioned as it was until 1924, 170 years after Washington first saw the possible water route west.

President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps began rehabilitating the Canal during the Great Depression and today it's a National Park.  We in the DC area live with this treasure.  Many people visit some part of the 185 miles of the trail.  I've biked it or parts several times over the years, the latest in May as the second part of a trip down the original canal path from Pittsburgh.  It's a great park and really nice to hike and bike.  Here follows a homage of pictures I've taken through the seasons.

Leaving from Cumberland, Maryland

Exiting the Paw Paw Tunnel


At Hancock, Maryland

Along the Canal and through the woods

Some locks still work

Around Mile 40

Locks 2 and 3 in Georgetown

The Ignoble End