The Long View 2008-01-08: Self-Piloted Vehicles; Slaves & Servants; FDR on the Volga; Ceausescu in New Hampshire


John J. Reilly correctly notes the value of self-driving cars, especially the urbanist’s dream of eliminating parking from the city, although he didn’t phrase it that way. However, it is very funny to me to read this optimistic forecast from GM about how they could field autonomous cars within a decade, and that the primary problems were regulatory and consumer related.

No, they aren’t, the problem is we still don’t know how to do it. We have had roughly this level of self-driving car for forty years. Tasks of discrimination and movement are much harder than making computers play games with logical, well-defined rules. Part of the reason why is that computers are exceptionally good at manipulating forms, in the Aristotelian sense, but absolutely terrible at identifying them, a facility we humans do with ease.

Self-Piloted Vehicles; Slaves & Servants; FDR on the Volga; Ceausescu in New Hampshire

If Detroit says they can do this in ten years, then no doubt Toyota will do it in five:

DETROIT (AP) - Cars that drive themselves—even parking at their destination—could be ready for sale within a decade, General Motors Corp. executives say...The most significant obstacles facing the vehicles could be human rather than technical: government regulation, liability laws, privacy concerns and people's passion for the automobile and the control it gives them..."Now the question is what does society want to do with it?" [Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development] said. "You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy and emissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to a totally different world."

The killer app for this technology is old people, as anyone who has a relative who should not be driving anymore can tell you. However, it seems to me that this technology could change ordinary life at least as much as cellphones. Self-piloted vehicles remove labor from retail delivery. This would make more of a difference to small retailers than to large ones.

Then there is this: the technology could mean the end of the city-as-parking-lot. There is no need to keep your vehicle curbside if it can look after itself while you are about your business. Actually, it could even mean the end of the privately own car. You could subscribe to a ubiquitous car service as you would to a phone service.

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Joseph Bottum had the effrontery to post this item at the First Things Blog; it's the thesis of a piece by an immigration attorney he is thinking of publishing:

If I understand the point, it means that certain classes (and generations) of women wanted to have both successful careers and successful families. And to achieve that, they needed to be able to afford servants on middle-class and upper-middle-class incomes...The claim in all this is that the construction, food-service, and farm industries are not the ones that will suffer much if illegal immigration is halted. It’s the professional women who will suffer. As voters, they overwhelmingly oppose attempts to crack down on illegal immigration, and they typically insist they do so for high moral reasons.

"Illegal" is not the key point; any high-immigration situation would have the same effect. Members of my family were servants for a while after immigrating just before 1900, and some of them lived long enough for me to meet them. My family caused less trouble than they might have because mass immigration ended after 1920.

Today, I think, we should view this issue in connection with this video that appeared on the New York Times site today:

Will Wilkinson, left, of the Cato Institute and Kerry Howley of Reason Magazine on whether the international sex trade is enslavement or liberation.

The legislatures of New York and New Jersey just passed resolutions apologizing for their state's roles in legalizing slavery in centuries past. The irony is considerable because, we see that, here and there, like garden ivy you can never quite uproot, slavery is trying to reinstitute itself. It would take a generation and a half for it to succeed, and today we cannot imagine the terms in which it would justify itself. Still, the odds are better than even that it will succeed.

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Speaking of the return of the repressed, Jonah Goldberg has these remarks about Vladimir Putin's favorite American:

Putin has routinely invoked FDR as his role model. "Roosevelt laid out his plan for the country's development for decades in advance," he gushed at a news conference last fall. "At the end of the day, it turned out that the implementation of that plan benefited ordinary citizens and the elites and eventually brought the United States to the position it is in today."

'Our ideological ally'

"Roosevelt was our military ally in the 20th century, and he is becoming our ideological ally in the 21st," Putin's chief "ideologist," Vladislav Surkov, explained at a state-sponsored conference commemorating the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth...Both Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany invoked FDR's New Deal as proof that their own programs were, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's famous phrase, "the wave of the future."

Actually, all these people favored neoclassical for public buildings, too. Political eras have their styles. Lincoln was clearly in the same business as Bismarck. The Founding Fathers' moderate institutionalization of the Enlightenment bears comparison with that of Mozart's Emperor Joseph at about the same time.

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Mark Steyn had these cruel remarks about Hillary Clinton's poor showing in Iowa last week:

Sen. Clinton, her Thursday night third-place was the nearest Bill and Hill have come to a Ceausescu balcony moment.
The Ceausescu balcony moment

The Ceausescu balcony moment

For those too young to remember, here is the Moment itself, in 1989. Nicolae Ceausescu was the only Eastern Block Communist leader to be overthrown violently.

Early indications suggest that the analogy may seem even more apt after today's primary in New Hampshire.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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