Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”: a warning to individual elitists (like me): you have everything to lose, by force

Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” comes across as a moral lecture about the perils of individual elitism. That’s my gut reaction The book is indeed a warning about how liberal democracy and the world order of the West can die. A lot of the time, the author is talking about whole countries and issues like state formation (the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), which Nicholas Wade also covers (causing some outrage) in “A Troublesome Inheritance” (June 24)– but this time, more from the Left He speculates about the dangerous future Donald Trump can bring, like a war with mainland China in 2018. (We scraped on this with Bill Clinton in 1996 and again with George W. Bush in early 2001.)  I wondered, what about North Korea right now?

But Luce is at his most powerful when he warns that the kind of globalist liberal fundamentalism that has become fashionable since the 90s can produce a dangerous backlash against individual globalists (me), not just countries. The basic problem is clear enough. Destructive technology has hollowed out the middle class. Superbly gifted young adults do spectacularly well (whether Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook or Jack Andraka and his worldwide book tour based on his science fair medical invention, or perhaps Taylor Wilson if he gets his fusion reactor going). But for the rest of “us”, it is harder to keep up. You have the student loans, the uncontrollable health insurance premiums (and the current debate over “replacing” Obamacare). Eventually this leads to a world where too many people have nothing to lose and everything blows up in revolution. We’ve seen it before. I warn about the same things in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014), especially in my “non-fiction Epilogue” chapter.

Luce casts his argument in four extended chapters, like movements of a symphony: “Fusion”, “Reaction” (the slow movement), “Fallout” (the Chinese-sounding scherzo), and “Half Life” (a rather inconclusive finale than ends quietly – I’m reminded of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony #5 in D “L’allegro ed il Pensieroso”). Of course, the title of the finale is rather telling: society will wind down to a whimper.

I have gotten used to thinking of myself as a “global” citizen, and I’ve seen Facebook friends (especially the childless) brag about the same. There is a dangerous insularity, to say the least, about this. It says, “I am better than (you)” because I am “smarter”, more “independent”, more “self-directed”, and I don’t make the bad choices that make “you” dependent on generosity. Oh, think how that plays out in the health care debate. But in recent year, social media has reversed this attitude somewhat, with the “GoFundMe” culture, where people expect personal interventions from strangers in what used to be a “mind your own business” individualist society (say, pre 9/11). And “disruptive technology” (exacerbated by the financial creativity of the Bush era, pre-2008 which he calls an “Atlantic” phenomenon) is leading the job market into the same place:   a higher percentage of jobs today involve tending to (or selling to) individual consumers or customers than in the past. I lived my I.T. career until after 9/11 sheltered in the world of the “individual contributor”, only to find, after age 58, how pimpy (or pimpled) the job market had become.

Be wary, Luce warns the elitists (like me), you have everything to lose (when others have nothing).

Revolution comes from populism, whether the far left or the alt-right. Populism tends not to care about the truth; it wants things to be better for average Joe’s now. You attract the strong man. You wind up with communism from the Left (like Venezuela right now), or extra-judicial vigilantism on the right (like Duterte in the Philippines). Oh, yes, you get Brexit (Oops? England?) and now Donald Trump, who “talks that way” and constantly threatens to bully the elitist, know-it-all media.

Luce makes some interesting meta-arguments over LGBTQ rights. He notes that progressives today assume marriage equality is an unchallengable postulate, but it’s only been a few years that this has been so. Societies often have differing perspectives about the “moral” place of diversities in their culture because of evolving (or devolving) external influences. Then people forget the past very quickly, or don’t want to be reminded of the past because it could fuel ideology for potential enemies. My own perspective, when I wrote my first DADT book in the 1990s, was centered around libertarian ideas of consent and privacy (especially when there is tension with ideas about cohesion, as in the military). I wanted the freedom to live in my own world of fantasy and upward affiliation, if that worked for me. Yet, I can see how this can lead to a dangerous, “elitist” endgame (like in chess); hence today I have to resist social pressures to actually sell the idea that gender fluidity is good.

The book was available only from third-party resellers and on Kindle when I bought it. That is unusual for new books.

Author: Edward Luce
Title, Subtitle: The Retreat of Western Liberalism
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0802127396
Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, 226 pages, 4 chapters, indexed, endnotes
Link: Nation review

(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over”: win, or get exiled into insignificance

Here’s an earlier work by George Mason University libertarian-leaning economics professor Tyler Cowen, “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of The Great Stagnation” (2014).

Cowen’s penultimate book is properly concerned with the hollowing out of wages and income-earning ability of the middle class.  His book predicts an unsettling political climate which as in fact developed with the election and administration of Donald Trump. In his last chapter, “A New Social Contract”, Cowen accepts intellectual and personally competitive meritocracy as somewhat morally inevitable (in contrast to many other authors reviewed here), and hints that the “others” (including the aged and the unsophisticated) will, so to speak, “go away butterfly” – exile themselves to low cost places (sometimes out of the country) where they more or less drop out of meaningful participation in global life. No wonder we have Brexit and Trump’s isolationism (including Trump’s pulling out of the Paris accords yesterday) now.  (And, no, I don’t want a condo in Belize or Panama.)

Cowen spends a lot of space comparing life and markets to chess games and theory, and digresses into a discussion of how Freestyle Chess works, as he compares computer chess playing to robotics and automation taking over the job market.   He compares chess (implicitly) to the Godel problem that may explain why consciousness exists:  no mathematician or computer has been able to prove that the initial chess position is a win for White or a draw (you can prove it pretty easily with many king-and-pawn endings based on the idea of the Opposition).  He mentions grandmaster Larry Kaufman, whom I know through the Arlington Chess Club (I lost a skittles game to him once, playing Black n a Nimzo-Indian) – I do have Kaufman’s rather dogmatic (but detailed) opening repertoire books.  He gets into interesting discussions of what a valid mathematical proof is (contraposition?  Counter-example?  Induction?)  O, I remember struggling through the bizarre Liouiville in my Master’s Orals at KU back in 1968. He discusses particularly the P v NP computer algorithm theorem, and some leading-edge stuff in string theory.  He is all over the map.

He also talks about the Turing Test, and gives a moral not to Alan Turing’s life and the great horror of the way his life ended.  Whatever his Asperger personality, he apparently had his own kind of charisma, as shown by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in Morton Tyldum’s  film “The Imitation Game” in 2014.

I’ve seen the hollowing out of my own career as a moral process.  I “retired” at age 58 with my first layoff in 30 years, 90 days after 9/11.  The old-fashioned IT industry had become stratified in certain levels of expertise that gradually dwindled, but people could get jobs only in the same areas they had worked before, often W-2 gigs.  The end result was that the careful matured professional approach of mature workers was no longer in play when, for example, Obamacare was developed.  (Cowen, as I do, objects to forcing people to spend their own money to handle other people’s potential behavior problems.)  Object-oriented computing was new in style, with the resulting languages (like C++ and java) terse and non-procedural in syntax, but something young people can learn more quickly than older worker, just as young people learn to play music or learn foreign languages more easily. Cowen, for all his discussion of new forms of education (including online), doesn’t give enough attention to re-training.  Another issue that I think matters is dealing with regimentation in the work place — other people have to.  Cowen does explain why immigration is probably good for jobs as a whole and downplays job loss (or “outsourcing”) to cheaper labor forces overseas as inevitable.

The changes in the workplace tend to drive a lot of people toward hucksterism, or at least maintaining artificial levels of socialization.

Author: Tyler Cowen
Title, Subtitle: “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation”
publication date 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-218111-9
Publication: Plume
Link:  Brookings

(Posted: Friday, June 2, 2017 at 2:45 PM EDT)

“Fatima”: A Muslim single mom in France helps her daughters assimilate without learning French

Fatima” was the name of an apparition that appeared in Portugal (I visited the site in 2001), but it’s also the name of a film (2015 79 minutes), and of its central matronly character, directed by Morroco-born Philippe Faucon.

Fatima (Soria Zeroual) works as a housekeeper for various rich clients, and has raised her two daughters Souad (Kenza Noah Aiiche) and Nesrine (Zita Nanrot), after emigrating from Algeria and then losing her husband (Chawki Amari) to another woman.  Fatima speeks Arabic but little French, as her work keeps her from having time to learn.  The two daughters have learned French but remember little Arabic.  Souad, 15, is somewhat spoiled, but Nesrine is struggling through her first year of med school.  Much of the film works up toward a climax where she takes a final multiple-choice exam.

At a critical point of no return (55 minutes), Fatima slips and falls down a stairway.  She recovers physically but doesn’t want to go back to work.  She writes a diary in Arabic (I thought of the poems in “Paterson”) where she explains how the well-off depend on “some Fatima” to keep their lives together.  This is all about karma, which Islam (at its best) can become very concerned with.

The DVD has a 22-minute interview with the director, who also mentions his 2011 film “The Disintegration”, about the inability of three young Muslim men to assimilate into French society and their drifting toward terrorism – all years before the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

The music score contains some excerpt from the Schubert F# Minor sonata.

Name:  “Fatima
Director, writer:  Philippe Faucon
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1    in French and Arabic, subtitles
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD
Length:  79 (22 minute director’s interview)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official

Also: Our Lady of Fatima site in Portgual, wiki.

Anti-terror demonstration in Paris after Charlie Hebdo attack, wiki.

(Posted: Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“The Founder”: history of McDonalds says a lot about hucksterism and workplace values

Jan Lee Hancock’s new satirical biography “The Founder” seems a perfect fit for Donald Trump’s inauguration day.

The film, starting in 1954, the Eisenhower years, traces, with some sarcasm and snark, the career of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), an ice cream equipment salesman from the Midwest.  When he gets a larger order from two brothers running a new fast food restaurant in San Bernadino CA, he develops the idea of starting a franchise on their name, McDonalds.  The idea is Trump-like – own and lease the land under the stores, and swindle the brothers out of the trademark (and even trade dress) for their name.

There’s a lot about high-pressure selling as a career here, and what you need, according to Kroc, is “persistence” and street smarts, but not intellect or critical thinking.

Kroc will take risks, as he mortgages his own home in Illinois, under his own wife’s (Laura Dern) nose.

The early scenes have some interesting play about workplace discipline and movements in the fast-food joint.  I can remember overhearing a conversation about a waiter in a Martinsburg W Va family restaurant one time, “His movements are too slow.”

And they used to say, McDonalds, or fast-food work in general, can test “whether you can work or not” and start out at the bottom at minimum wage and pay your dues before you expect to go anywhere in life. That sort of appeals, ironically, to a kind of Maoism.

The Wall Street Journal just had an article on how McDonalds workers hate ice cream machines, here.

All this fits into the debate about “men without work” (previous review), and what my own authoritarian father (who had been a salesman) preached about “learning to work.”  I would protest “low work” indeed.

On the other hand, I’ve gotten flak in job interviews because I questioned things too much and wasn’t very enthused about selling someone else’s vision.

Name:  “The Founder
Director, writer:  Lee Hancock
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2017/1/20 at Angelika Mosaic, fair crowd, late
Length:  118
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  TWC, FilmNation
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of San Bernadino after a rare snowfall.  San Bernadino, coincidentally, was the site of a major terror attack in 2014.

(Posted: Saturday, January 21, 2017 at 2:45 PM EST)

“Men Without Work” by Nicholas Eberstadt: men not in labor force become spectators and moochers

Nicholas Eberstadt (“A Nation of Takers”) presented his little book “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis” at a Cato Institute forum on January 10, 2017 (writeup ) .  I can gest and suggest the phrase “men without chests” from a National Review article by David Skinner in June 1999.    The book is part of a “New Threats to Freedom” series initiated in 2010 by Templeton Press.

Seriously, the book documents the gradual drop on LFPR (Labor Force Participation Rate) and “Not in Labor Force” (NILF) rate among working age men 25-54 and sometimes up to age 64, over various time periods since WWII, especially since 2000.  “Not in Labor Force” refers to men not only not with paid employment but also not looking for work.   The charts are based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, often from special Census surveys run all the time (I have actually worked for Census on these surveys).

NILF has increased steadily in the past two decades, and not changed particularly changed (in derivative “rate of change”) during sharp recessions.  Some of the factors that reduce labor force participation include education level high school or lower,  criminal backgrounds, non-white, non-immigrant, single, and childless.

Men with families to support do have higher labor force participation, which seems logical.  Immigrant men tend to be more desperate to work even when illegal to do so, and to want to send money home, and to move around to get work.  As men become better educated, marital status and having children becomes less important.  Women with kids will normally do their best to work if single because they have to.

The book notes that many NILF men indeed seem to live as mooches, spending their time as “watchers” on social media, as if that were their job.  (That confounds the “No spectators” rule of the movie “Rebirth”!)  The author notes that the men don’t even help take care of children (too “emasculating” biologically, as we now know) or elderly relatives.  But “observing” is still a form of “economic inactivity”.

The causes of this development are many. Obviously, men with criminal records are hard to employ given the punitive culture of US justice.  Globalization and automation have removed jobs for intellectually less talented men.  Our culture has become more individualistic and less social, a development that men (and women) with good cognitive (and/or good people) skills benefit from (sometimes with spectacular results), but which demoralizes men who “don’t get it” and need a more consistent family and communal tribal culture.

The book contains criticisms (“Dissenting Points of View”, that is, opposing viewpoints)  by  Henry Olsen and Jared Bernstein.  The criticisms note Donald Trump’s campaign based on the loss of many manufacturing jobs for men to offshoring. Olsen mentions military conscription as raising employment for men from 1948 to 1972, but, in a rebuttal, the author notes that many men were rejected by the draft and these men tended to be harder to employ.

My last high-paying job was eliminated at the end of 2001, when I was 58, and I held interim jobs (list) until 2011, but for various times I lived on savings, investments, and inheritance.  I have not added to economic activity (which would help others find work) as much as maybe I should be expected to.  There was a culture in earlier times that people could retire at 55, which is way too early given today’s population demographics.  Corporate pension social security offsets were set up to assume retirement at 62, which is unhealthful.

One problem was that the jobs being pushed at me mostly involved superficially conceived commissioned sales gigs and hucksterism.  I could have, for example, sold sub-prime mortgages.   We need to create jobs that add real wealth, not just build ponzi-like pyramids.

Author: Nicholas Eberstadt
Title, Subtitle: Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-59947-469-4
Publication: Templeton Press, Philadelphia; 206 pages, many charts, endnotes
Link: AEI author

(Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 11:30 PM EST)

“Fences”: August Wilson’s play on the screen, with Denzel Washington as an “imperfect” family man of his segregated times

Fences”, directed by Denzel Washington, is a major African-American morality play, actually based on the Broadway play by August Wilson, and translated rather directly to a 139 minute film that looks rather like a stage play, set mostly in a rowhouse and small backyard in working class Pittsburgh in 1957 (with a final act in 1962).  The film has three visual interludes that seem like act markers.

Denzel plays the “imperfect” family “patriarch” Troy Maxson, now 53, who has a particularly authoritarian relationship with his 17-year old son Cory  (Jovan Adepo), who fears Cory’s ambitions to play football (in college and maybe pros) are unrealistic given racial discrimination, and that Cory needs to learn his place making a proletarian living. It’s noteworthy that he is illiterate (can’t read).

In fact, Troy had been a baseball star in the Negro leagues, and had come along “too early” for baseball, before Jackie Robinson changed things (the film “46”).  But by 1957 baseball already had many black stars, including Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Larry Doby (the last two from the powerhouse 199954 Cleveland Indians).  Pro football as also changing quickly, so Troy wasn’t with it.  Cory thinks his dad is afraid of his son’s being “better” than he is, but isn’t that a point of having a traditional family?

Viola Davis plays his loyal wife Rose, but she engages in the fast talk of many scenes.  Troy has an older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who struggles as a musician, borrowing money and getting in trouble with the law.  In fact, we learn that Troy had done hard time himself for manslaughter after a fight in Alabama, where he had grown up.  There is also a disabled brother (Mykelti Williamson) and the sidekick foil friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

As the play progresses, Troy will continue his transgressions and test the loyalty of those around him, until he dies, as there is another “illegitimate” child Raynell (Saniyya Sydney).

I’ve encountered, in the workplace, African American men who believe they have to raise their kids to expect discrimination but still not expect any handouts in a capitalist society.  One of them thought that, as an unmarried man, I must be living with my mother.  But a decade later, I had to.

The film has some interesting scenes of improvised street baseball, like the backyard baseball  (or softball or whiffleball)) we used to play in the 1950s.

Name: Fences
Director, writer:  Denzel Washington, August Wilson
Released:  2006/12/25
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: 2016/12/26, daytime show, nearly sold out, at Angelica Mosaic in Fairfax (mixed audience)
Length:  139
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Paramount (as if independent or Vantage)
Link:  official

Wikipedia:  Mt. Washington area of Pittsburgh in 1905, link.

(Posted: Monday, December 26, 2016 at 9:30 PM EST)

“The Intern”: a comedy about a 70-year-old retiree who seeks “real life” in a fashion firm

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Name: The Intern
Director, writer:  Nancy Meyers
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD
Length 121
Rating PG-13
Companies: Warner Brothers, Dune-Ratpac
Link: official site


The Intern”, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, opens with 70-year-old Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) appraising himself in a ritzy New York apartment and explaining what it feels like to live as a retired widower, having already seen the world and finished his bucket list.  He keeps his suits and ties in immaculate order, as well as his NYC coop (in contrast to me).  He needs something to do, involving real people.

He finds an e-commerce fashion firm in Brooklyn, “About the Fit” (a little snazzier than the real life “Bindle and Keep”, July 29), which has an “outreach” to senior citizens by letting them “intern”.

He goes through the interviews and demonstrates his “people skills”, especially when the youngest manager, Justin (Nat Woff) asks him what he wants to be doing in ten years and then apologetically withdraws the cookie-cutter question. Other young managers include Jason (Adam Devine, the “Man-o-Lantern 2”).

But most of the film revolves around his working with CDO Jules Olsen (Anne Hathaway). He own husband (Anders Holm) had become a stay-at-home dad to give her time to grow the film, but her personal life is creating enough noise that Wall Street wants her to step down from the startup.  She’s inclined to do so to save her marriage.  In the meantime, Whittake has developed a romance with massage therapist Fiona (Rene Russo).  In one sequence, he participates in a fake home breakin to save Jules from an embarrassing email on her own computer (remind you of Hillary Clinton’s server scandal?)

The film is stronger as it starts than as it follows through its 121 minutes.  There’s a real question of whether you need to join with other people in a bureaucratic environment to accomplish things.  There are real issues of keeping up appearances.

The film should be viewed in light of Ross Perlin’s 2011 book “Intern Nation”.

(Published: Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, at 3:15 PM EDT)