To understand how I can remain optimistic when all signs point to a deep recession, perhaps depression, and our President-elect comes out of a far left base, it is important to set out a few assumptions.
First, the single most valuable asset that the United States possesses is its human capital.
Second, the increasingly connected, modern world economy places a premium on human capital. In other words, while individual economies may interfere with the optimal functioning of the marketplace of human abilities, the world economy increasingly rewards those economies that maximize their human capital.
[For contrasting examples, consider the Middle East. Israel with a tiny population has a vastly more productive economy that the Arab world, despite the Arab world's exponential advantage in natural resources. It is the orders of magnitude more productive human capital of Israel that allows its productivity to dwarf that of it's surrounding enemies.]
Here are some brief biographical vignettes, supplied not only because they are germane to my argument but because I have always found them fascinating:
Évariste Galois, was born October 25, 1811 and died form injuries sustained in a duel at the age of 20 on May 31, 1832. He was a brilliant mathematician and legends have accrued around his last night on earth, spent frantically detailing as much math as he could during his last hours. Mathematicians often perform their most creative and powerful work when they are very young, but losing Galois' genius at a mere 20 years of age was a terrible tragedy.
Whatever the reasons behind the duel, Galois was so convinced of his impending death that he stayed up all night writing letters to his Republican friends and composing what would become his mathematical testament, the famous letter to Auguste Chevalier outlining his ideas. Hermann Weyl, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, said of this testament, "This letter, if judged by the novelty and profundity of ideas it contains, is perhaps the most substantial piece of writing in the whole literature of mankind." However, the legend of Galois pouring his mathematical thoughts onto paper the night before he died seems to have been exaggerated. In these final papers he outlined the rough edges of some work he had been doing in analysis and annotated a copy of the manuscript submitted to the academy and other papers. On 30 May 1832, early in the morning, he was shot in the abdomen and died the following day at ten in the Cochin hospital (probably of peritonitis) after refusing the offices of a priest. He was 20 years old. His last words to his brother Alfred were:
Ne pleure pas, Alfred ! J'ai besoin de tout mon courage pour mourir à vingt ans ! (Don't cry, Alfred! I need all my courage to die at twenty.)
Almost exactly 100 years later, another brilliant French mathematician died in an equally senseless, perhaps even more tragic, fashion:
René Eugène Gateaux
Born: 5 May 1889 in Vitry-le-François, Marne, France
Died: 3 Oct 1914 in Rouvroy, near Lens, France
On 14 February 1914, Gateaux delivered a lecture at Volterra's seminar; his lecture notes were kept among his papers. Gateaux mainly dealt with the notion of functional differentiation. He recalled that Volterra introduced this notion to study problems including an hereditary phenomenon, but also that it was used by others (Jacques Hadamard and Paul Lévy) to study some problems of mathematical physics - such as the equilibrium problem of fitted elastic plates - finding a solution to equations with functional derivatives, or, in other words, by calculating a relation between this functional and its derivative. Gateaux probably came back to France at the beginning of the summer, in June 1914. He certainly expected to go back soon to Rome as he obtained the Commercy grant he had applied for.
Gateaux seems to have been caught napping by the beginning of the war. The danger of war had in fact been realised only very late in July 1914, and most people received the mobilization announcement on 2 August with stupor. Gateaux was mobilized in the reserve as lieutenant of the 269th Infantry regiment, a member of the 70th infantry division. The quartering of Gateaux's regiment took place in Toul. The first battles were successful for the French, but, after the euphoria of the very beginning of August, the hard reality of the force of the German army obliged the French troops to withdraw day after day. At the end of August, the task of the 70th Infantry division was in the first place to defend the south-east sector of Nancy. At the end of September, the French and German headquarters became aware of the impossibility of any further movement on a front line running from the Aisne to Switzerland and so the only hope was to bypass the enemy in the zone, still almost free of soldiers, between the Aisne and the sea. General Joffre decided to withdraw from the eastern part of the front (precisely where Gateaux was) a large number of divisions and to send them by rail to places in Picardie, then to Artois, and finally to Flandres, to try to outrun the Germans. The so-called race for the sea lasted two months and was incredibly bloody.
The 70th division was transported between 28 September and 2 October from Nancy to Lens, a distance of almost 300 km! It received the order to defend the east of Lens and Arras. On 3 October, Gateaux's regiment was in Rouvroy, a small village, 10 km south-east of Lens, and Gateaux was killed at 1 o'clock in the morning, while trying to prevent the Germans from entering the village. In the general confusion of the bloodshed, corpses were not identified before being collected and hastily buried in improvised cemeteries. Gateaux's body was buried near the St Anne Chapel in Rouvroy, a simple cross without inscription marking the place. Only long after, Gateaux's corpse was exhumed and formally identified, and finally transported to the necropolis of the military cemetery of Bietz-Neuville St Vaast where Gateaux's grave is number 76.
What a tragedy to lose such a mind at such a young age. Gateaux was 25 when he died.
Then consider one of the more fascinating human tales of the last century. Srinivasa Ramanujan was an impoverished Indian man, who taught himself math and proceeded to do such astonishing work that he eventually was invited to Cambridge and worked productively there for four years.
It is one of the most romantic stories in the history of mathematics: in 1913, the English mathematician G. H. Hardy received a strange letter from an unknown clerk in Madras, India. The ten-page letter contained about 120 statements of theorems on infinite series, improper integrals, continued fractions, and number theory. Every prominent mathematician gets letters from cranks, and at first glance Hardy no doubt put this letter in that class. But something about the formulas made him take a second look, and show it to his collaborator J. E. Littlewood. After a few hours, they concluded that the results "must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them".
Thus was Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) introduced to the mathematical world. Born in South India, Ramanujan was a promising student, winning academic prizes in high school. But at age 16 his life took a decisive turn after he obtained a book titled A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics. The book was simply a compilation of thousands of mathematical results, most set down with little or no indication of proof. It was in no sense a mathematical classic; rather, it was written as an aid to coaching English mathematics students facing the notoriously difficult Tripos examination, which involved a great deal of wholesale memorization. But in Ramanujan it inspired a burst of feverish mathematical activity, as he worked through the book's results and beyond. Unfortunately, his total immersion in mathematics was disastrous for Ramanujan's academic career: ignoring all his other subjects, he repeatedly failed his college exams.
Ramanujan's life was truncated by illness at the age of 33, far too young, a tragic loss but at the time an unavoidable loss. His contribution to human knowledge was perhaps the most surprising since he had to overcome very long odds to find his way from the (mathematical) intellectual back waters of rural India to the attention of the leading mathematicians of the world.
I include the last example because he lived long enough to make major contributions to science (effectively inventing a branch of science) and to the victory of the Allies in WWII, yet suffered a tragic fate nonetheless:
Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was an English mathematician, logician and cryptographer.
Turing is often considered to be the father of modern computer science. He provided an influential formalisation of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine. With the Turing test, meanwhile, he made a significant and characteristically provocative contribution to the debate regarding artificial intelligence: whether it will ever be possible to say that a machine is conscious and can think. He later worked at the National Physical Laboratory, creating one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE, although it was never actually built in its full form. In 1948, he moved to the University of Manchester to work on the Manchester Mark I, then emerging as one of the world's earliest true computers.
During the Second World War Turing worked at Bletchley Park, the UK's codebreaking centre, and was for a time head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine.
Turing was homosexual, living in an era when homosexuality was still both illegal and officially considered a mental illness. Subsequent to his being outed, he was criminally prosecuted, which essentially ended his career. He died not long after, under what some believe were ambiguous circumstances.
Consider this, four geniuses whose contributions to all of mankind were truncated.
Évariste Galois died far too young in an archaic attempt to regain Honour; such attempts have been discredited and superseded by more adaptive methods of gaining and regaining Honour.
René Gateaux died in the first great institutionalized blood letting of the 20th century. The record of history since the second world war is a record of decreasing sacrifice to the bloody altar of Ares. There are fewer wars today than at any time for which we have decent records. There are fewer people, civilian and military alike, dieing in mass slaughter than any time in the past. If we do not succumb to an ELE, natural or man-made, we should have every expectation that these trends will continue.
Srinivasa Ramanujan succumbed to disease that has been the constant companion of mankind since we stood upright on thew Savannah. In the 2oth century we began to understand enough about our biology to begin to fight back; in the 21st century it is not unrealistic to expect that most diseases will become historical relics. Even aging itself is increasingly in the crosshairs of the Biotech industry.
And finally, Alan Turing, a brilliant man haunted and hounded by his own deepest desires; does anyone expect that a brilliant young person who happens to be homosexual will be similarly hounded to his death in the 21st century in America?
This is what gives me such optimism in the face of all of our problems, many of which seem so intractable. We are using and facilitating the development of more of our human capital than ever before. I have not even mentioned the single greatest increase in human capital, an increase that has been most dramatic within my life time. No longer is it considered exceptional to find women contributing in almost every sphere, as full partners in our democratic and economic experiment. In one generation we have effectively doubled the amount of brain power available for problem solving!
No matter what the Democrats or Republicans do in Washington, the exponential increase in human problem solving abilities, now facilitated by an ability to manipulate information never before imagined, will lead to changes that will make the last 100 years seem like a mere prologue. I do not see this aspect of the American dream changing in significant ways (though our politicians can certainly slow things down and retard our emergence from our current economic straits.)
Humanity has always lived on a knife's edge between progress and regress. I firmly believe we have put some daylight in between the past and the present and the gap is widening daily.
[While I could go point by point on how the future will be an improvement over the past and present, let me suggest one compelling area of concern, energy policy, as an example. I support drilling as a way to manage the transition away from our dependence on foreign oil and to a more sustainable energy economy. If, as seems likely, the Obama administration believes they need to curtail drilling and oil use to "save the planet", this would have a tremendously deleterious effect on our economy in the short and medium term. Yet such a profound impact would only hasten the resolution of the problem. We will continue to work out ways to change our biological waste into energy and eventually develop a more robust and decentralized power system, perhaps starting with the mini-nuclear reactor.]