Paradox of Progress

Note: I do not speak for the trees, nor the U.S. Government, its affiliates, or my employer; the standard disclaimers always apply.

Every five years the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) releases a pretty substantial report on growing trends and this iteration is called "The Paradox of Progress."  It's a fairly substantial report with numerous implications on American geopolitical positioning, military funding, and foreign policy; it's also a report that most Americans will never consider reading. I wanted to unpack it, point by point, and provide context as much as possible to help at least a handful of Americans slug through it.

For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War.

While the DNI report doesn't explicitly talk about the evolution of the Cold War as a result of Cyberwarfare and Fifth Generation fighters, they do immediately and explicitly call out the changing shift in global power. Throughout most of history, conflict has been zero-sum, and global power has been hegemonic and isolated in empires (including the United States of America).  However, the post-Cold War American dominance (or as I call it: primacy) is on the way out.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that is causing a great deal of discussion within the Intelligence Community - apparently making it to the desk of the DNI.

Underlying this crisis in cooperation will be local, national, and international differences about the proper role of government across an array of issues ranging from the economy to the environment, religion, security, and the rights of individuals.

The current pattern of “international cooperation where we can get it”—such as on climate change— tasks significant differences in values and interests among states and does little to curb assertions of dominance within regions. These trends are leading to a spheres of influence world.

Climate change, environment, and health issues will demand attention. A range of global hazards pose imminent and longer-term threats that will require collective action to address—even as cooperation becomes harder. More extreme weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, glacial melt, and pollution will change living patterns. Tensions over climate change will grow. Increased travel and poor health infrastructure will make infectious diseases harder to manage.

This issue has been center stage in American politics for decades already: What is the role of the U.S. Government in every day life? When should the U.S. Government intervene to affect the will of the common man, and when should companies (or states) pick up the burden? Is it a matter of national security, or personal freedom, to restrict or enable gun purchases? What about when national security isn't at play, but the government has to mediate a dispute between a baker and a homosexual couple?

The most prolific, and threatening, issue that comes to mind in this realm is Climate Change. A sadly divisive issue in the U.S., Climate Change is one of the best examples of the difficulty in determining the role of government. Ignoring the sad saps who disregard scientific reports (e.g National Climate AssessmentDirector of National Intelligence) the argument of what role personal responsibility plays in tackling global crisis is at the forefront of this paradox. The DNI simplifies the science found in the NCA3 report with a chart, shown below.


They continue by moving past the science, to highlight how international cooperation is going to be increasingly difficult in the decades to come, even as issues (like Climate Change) require international cooperation to combat.  Recall that, without the Paris Accords, there is "virtually no chance" of keeping global temperature rises under 2 degrees.  The bleak outlook of an almost certain 2 degree rise in global temperature is one thing, but the DNI report outlines the reality that this will have on global politics: " More extreme weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Tensions over climate change will grow. Increased travel and poor health infrastructure will make infectious diseases harder to manage."

While the U.S. grapples with how to appease its unscientific radicals, the world is forced to cooperate without us in order to prevent the outcome that's almost preordained.

Warring will be less and less confined to the battlefield, and more aimed at disrupting societies–using cyber weapons from afar. War From Afar. Growing development of cyber attacks, precision-guided weapons, robotic systems and unmanned weapons lowers the threshold for initiating conflict because attackers put fewer lives at risk in their attempts to overwhelm defenses. The proliferation of these capabilities will shift warfare from direct clashes of opposing armies to more stand-off and remote operations, especially in the initial phases of conflict.

This is a concept I've written about quite a bit recently: The insecure and ambiguous Internet provides the U.S. economy with avenues of growth and vulnerabilities to exploit; increasingly advanced manned and unmanned warfighting machines present terrifying attack vectors; mishandling of classified materials by underlings can shape elections; cyber attacks can lead to global conflict; user privacy is a sacrificial lamb to corporate profits; and global leadership is more void than substance.

The general theme between these articles, and the DNI report, is simple:  Cyber conflict is a reality that will affect each and every person on the planet.  Every man, woman, and child will be an active or passive participant in affecting global politics, war, and national security.  In a recent speech, Donald Trump says"Economic security is national security." Take in that context, the actions of every employee in every industry has the potential to undermine U.S. security at home and abroad.

From a recent article, I wrote"A world where anyone can own a gun, but few understand two-factor authentication, is a world where the U.S. falls behind its competitors in innovation, security, and geopolitical power.  It's a world where U.S. primacy is a myth, and its sovereignty is in peril."

Poor IT security at a defense conglomerate, such as Lockheed Martin, can enable a foreign hacker to steal intellectual property (i.e. F-35 or THAAD data) and put U.S. lives at risk. A banker who falls for a spearphishing campaign may find himself supporting a terror attack that later takes his life, or the life of someone he knows. While World War III is not inevitable, your participation in global conflict is. 

Technology and wealth are empowering individuals and small groups to act in ways that states historically monopolized—and fundamentally altering established patterns of governance and conflict. Just as changes in material wealth challenge the international balance of power, empowered but embattled middle classes in wealthy countries are putting extraordinary pressure on once-established state-society relations, specifically on the roles, responsibilities, and relationships that governments and citizens, elites and masses expect of one another. The reduction of poverty, especially in Asia, has expanded the number of individuals and groups who are no longer focused solely on subsistence but instead wield the power of consumption, savings, and political voice—now amplified by the Internet and modern communications.

The greatest benefactor of globalization has been the middle classes of the emerging economies like China and India.  As the graphic below depicts, as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to cheaper labor overseas, the economic power of these new blue collar workers has nearly doubled as the spending power of blue collar Joes in the U.S. and western world have stagnated or dwindled.

Income and Power.png

This has led to two things.  First, it has improved the economic (and national) security stature of these countries at the expense of U.S. economic (and national) security; and second, it has led to populism in the U.S., decreasing the capacity for U.S. citizens to acknowledge the benefits and inevitability of globalization, and to enact harmful, ethnocentric, policies. This has led China to become increasingly vocal and willing to accept regional and global leadership roles, and a willingness to voice grievances such as the U.S. involvement in the Korean and South China Sea crisis. 

A more interconnected world will continue to increase—rather than reduce—differences over ideas and identities. Populism will increase over the next two decades should current demographic, economic, and governance trends hold. So, too, will exclusionary national and religious identities, as the interplay between technology and culture accelerates and people seek meaning and security in the context of rapid and disorienting economic, social, and technological change. Political leaders will find appeals to identity useful for mobilizing supporters and consolidating political control.

This is another topic that has been covered in extreme detail over the course of several years on this blog:  The 2008 financial crisis revitalized populism throughout the entire world (most notably Tel Aviv, the U.S., and Greece); the decentralization of information enabled the creation of modern U.S. markets and dissolution of authoritarian regimes; enabled the election of people like Senator Tom Cotton and President Donald J Trump; an increasing fetishization and hero worship of soldiers has led to perpetual warfare; and decentralization of information and destruction of expertise has led to "Fake News" and polarizing opinions that is unlikely to right itself anytime soon.


All is not lost, however. The Director of National Intelligence doesn't just point out the realities of the coming decades, but offers concrete goals on how to mitigate them and assure America's place at the table in a growing multi-polar world. "The Paradox of Progress" outlines three key areas that the U.S., and our western allies, can improve upon to strengthen our economic, national, and ecologic security.

Initiatives to provide continuous workforce education, enable a mobile and secure workforce, and preserve technology leadership in multiple disciplines will enhance the resilience of states to potentially disruptive advances in technology, such as automation, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnologies.

In particular, the DNI report suggests: (a) Public-Private continuing education (i.e. college subsidies) to assist workforces in affordably adapting to a changing environment; (b) partnerships between industry, academic institutions, and government to develop curricula that create pools of workers with the needed skills to compete in new and evolving industries.

The idea of utilizing education as a catch-all solution is nothing new. An educated middle class that can affordably retrain whenever a disruptive technology threatens a large section of the market can turn a potentially losing middle class into winners. As our current President would say of a strong, educated, middle class: “We're going to win so much. You're going to get tired of winning. you're going to say, 'Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don't win so much. This is getting terrible.' And I'm going to say, 'No, we have to make America great again.' 

Take the recent unveiling of the autonomous truck from Tesla: It poses a critical threat to economies of many states, where a large portion of the population accept higher-than-average wage jobs to drive trucks for a living.  While the advent of self-driving trucks do present other job opportunities (manufacturing of batteries, engineers to develop the LIDAR and cameras the truck uses), the total number of jobs significantly decreases, leaving some state ecnomies with no benefit whatsoever. 

To make matters worse, while the salaries of truck drivers ($34, 768) may be above the median for the country, they are not sufficiently large enough (or the job stable enough) to enable these individuals to retrain into a job that isn't threatened by automation.  How does someone go to college, or technical school, while doing a long haul down Interstate 80? The only option is to take increasingly rare and less lucrative jobs in their field, work less skilled positions (i.e. retail), or retrain at great personal expense. All of these options erode the truck driver's ability to retrain in the future, and hurt the economic freedom of him/her and their families.

Automation on a large enough scale, cutting across a varied enough selection of industries, will affect the ability for the U.S. to adapt to increasingly rapid, and complex, changing technologies and markets.  This leads to a weakened middle class, an uneducated public, and an insecure economic and national security posture known as "The Vicious Cycle," depicted below.

In addition to helping the economy adjust to the rising levels of automation, education, combined with transparency and anti-corruption measures, may also help to prevent the rising level of toxic nationalism and populism within countries around the world. Unfortunately, true to "The Vicious Cycle," education and economic benefits for the middle class are being cut through aggressive tax reforms by Republican congressional delegates in order to provide short term economic growth at the exepense of long term stability.  You can act by clicking the link below.

Getting people to act in the best interest of the long-term future requires some level of trust in the system. No one can be reasonably expected to risk their entire financial future on a college degree if they don't expect the market to reward their dedication. That level of trust in the U.S. government can only be maintained if they believe the government is reasonably free of corruption and wrong doing.  Allegations of sexual misconduct by a Republican Senatorial candidate and an elected Democrat Senator do not help combat the erosion of U.S. primacy in the multi-polar world.  As the world becomes increasingly multi-polar, with leadership being increasingly shared between the four main power blocs (European Union, Russia, China, and the United States), a nation divided by polarizing politics and sexual abuse scandals cannot secure its place at the table.

Transparency enabled by communication technology will build resilience by enhancing citizens’ visibility into government processes, supporting anti-corruption measures, and moderating divisive impulses might help deter populism. 

Ensuring that offenders in the government are held accountable, through Senate Ethics Committee hearings, expulsion from the senate (or simply not getting elected), or special prosecutors, is critical to ensuring that transparency and anti-corruption measures are healthy, robust, and effective.  Ensuring that allegations are investigated, even if charges are fallacious, is absolutely paramount to keeping U.S. sovereignty in a multi-polar world.  Keeping individuals who are unfit to be elected to office, with a rich history of abusing previous offices they've held, is the first step.

The DNI (who doesn't endorse my post, or my solicitations for donations), continues its recommendations that the most resilient countries to this shift to multi-polarity will be those with a diverse workforce.

The most resilient societies will also be those that unleash the full potential of individuals— including women and minorities—to create and cooperate. Such societies will be moving with, rather than against, historical currents, drawing upon the ever-expanding scope of human agency and skill to shape the future.

Recognizing the importance of all individuals is a progressive goal at the foundation of nearly every progressive movement out there, and getting more skilled workers into the workforce is at the bedrock of capitalism.  Improving the access of minorities to positions in politics, STEM, and business will help diversify the U.S. economy, strengthen its economic/national security, and influence culture in ways that will ripple throughout history.

In conclusion: Get your shit together, America and get to work.