Guest commentary: It's about time we start listening to the Geeks

Guest commentary: It's about time we start listening to the Geeks

By TOM O'LAUGHLIN

Broke or not, the Greeks have given us a lot to be thankful for. Western ideas for one, among the many glories of ancient Athens and Rome. Fulfillment would come later when a few Enlightened Scots and Brits, newly arrived in a 13-colony laboratory, bankrupt and at war with the world's mightiest military power, enacted its essential parts. Political genius "surely delivered by divine hand." Patriots mind you, who "read voraciously, kept diaries, wrote a lot of letters and never a bad one."

Author David McCullough tells their story. "They were tougher and more persistent than we are. They knew the classics." They were also honorable and randomly ill-behaved. They were human. Best of all they invented America and defined into law the relationship between property rights and individual freedom, of owners to use, buy or sell with minimal interference.

The characteristics that have distinguished "The West and the Rest," Niall Ferguson argues, are its six "killer apps," "novel and complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviors ... that allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for 500 years."

Those are competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.

The 19th-century yield on that investment brought us the steamboat, cotton gin, telegraph and telephone, the airplane (1903), marking an Industrial Revolution, a turning point. Living standards of ordinary people began to undergo rapid and sustained growth despite a crushing Civil War. Nothing like it had ever happened before.

The 20th century gave us less erring science — physics and the algorithm, binary theory and the mathematician, and what you got is relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory, creative destruction and information technology. But another uncanny 20th-century coincidence produced the Federal Reserve Act and John Maynard Keynes, whose instinct for "quantitative easing" finally had the machinery needed to "grow" an economy "pain free." All he needed was a willing electorate unschooled in, among other things, a culture of self-sufficiency. In more than half a century of worsening and shapeless immigration policy practiced by well-minded humanists with an aversion to numbers, a penchant for borrowing and institutions hardly recognizable as "Age of Reason" offspring, we face the "fiscal cliff." Accountants call it bankruptcy.

The Greeks had their day mapping a strategy unable to survive well-organized assaults by a modern-day practiced political class. We better start listening to the Geeks, with their clever algorithms, computer modeling, maybe a cure for lawyering, doctoring and brokering excess too, perhaps a Cabinet post or two.

This paper has reported on recent computer models "displaying an impressive predictive process (N-G, Nov. 11, 2012) correctly forecasting once-in-a-century Sandy, the pre-Halloween disaster from a bunch of clouds in the Caribbean." Statistician Nate Silver, "on a beat up laptop, predicted how all 50 states would vote. Even the tie in Florida." Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang, using mathematical formulas and polling data since 2004, predicted a "100 percent chance of an Obama victory."

Can predicting Sandy's behavior and path, or election outcomes with such stunning precision, be more difficult than, say, solving some of our most pressing economic and fiscal problems? Find us a "unified theory" and all the theories in between, please. The Dismal Science deserves nothing less.

A few years ago, my wife and I signed up to hear Hoover Institute scholar Paul Romer speak at Foellinger Auditorium. As he ended, Romer stuffed a few notes in a coat pocket, walked to center stage and made an unscripted close: "The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign made this country rich. Not Harvard."

I can't think of a better place to start looking than right here, "Geek Central."

Tom O'Laughlin is a retired published alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and occasional contributor to these and other pages. He is a co-founder of the Academy on Capitalism & Limited Government, now a 501(c)3 organization situated within the UI Foundation. His email address is two4883@comcast.net.

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jthartke wrote on November 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Perhaps some of those "geeks" should include climatologists and environmental scientists, as well as the vast swath of economists that say tax cuts for the rich do not create jobs.

pattsi wrote on November 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Another place to turn to for more information and another view is a conversation between Krugman and Stiglitz sponsored by the Institute on New Economic Thinking, INET, on C-SPAN.  If you want to view and listen, go here

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/AConversati

The organization website is here

http://ineteconomics.org/

nick wrote on November 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

This isn't very well written. I would suggest,with respect,that the writer narrow his focus and develop a point. The random examples are cobbled together which makes the whole article disjointed and unclear.This effort seems out of place as a featured commentary.