“Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”: MSNBC host defuses the libertarian right’s moral paradigm

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Author: Christopher Hayes
Title, Subtitle: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
publication date 2012
ISBN 978-0-307-72046-7
Publication: Broadway, 292 pages, 7 chapters, indexed
Link: Atlantic, Slate

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy” (2012), by MSNBC host and “Nation” editor Christopher Hayes,  purports to take on inequality not so much by appealing to usual arguments about race and class and social stratification (books by Putnam and Murray already considered) but by what the libertarian right takes to be the moral justification for whatever inequality we have to live with: meritocracy. (Yup, there is a bit of Wagner’s Ring cycle in the title.)

I’ve followed this track in my own writing: You need ego, and reward for work to spur innovation.  But you have then to deal with the inequality that follows or else you eventually get more instability (as is the argument of my DADT III book). In fact, I have plenty of legacy (2004) links on it:  Here is the oldest sidebar, and here is a mathematical argument.

From my perspective, the basic flaw in over-dependence on meritocracy is the idea that every “successful” person has benefited from the sacrifices of others, that he or she probably is at best minimally aware of.   The end result is corruption, of what Hayes calls the “Iron Law of Meritocracy” which inevitably causes it to self-destruct.  When I was in the Army (1969), the way one buddy put this was “The Ocelot has clay feet”.

Hayes analyzes many historical examples of where merit let us down.  The most chilling was the progressive coverup by the Catholic Church of sexually abusive of supposedly celibate (and abstinent) priests, “passing the trash”.  The same thing used to go on with bad teachers in public school systems  Another interesting example is the PED steroid scandal in Major League Baseball, especially in the 1990s, compounded by the embarrassing strike in August 1994. (Washington didn’t have a team then.)

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Then he gets into “process pieces” with even more widespread consequences.  One of these is how the nation was goaded by supposed “experts” into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and started the war in Iraq in 2003, leaving the mess that opened the door for ISIS today (after his book was published).  Hayes twice mentions the now repealed “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, once in conjunction with ROTC and with the separation of the sacrifices of the military from the lives of ordinary Americans in a post-conscription world, which makes going to war easier for some politicians. Another big “process” was the way the subprime mortgage and over-securitization scandal on Wall Street developed, leading to the collapse of 2008, followed by the Bush-Obama bailouts of the banks.   The mortgage mess is, I think, a great example of “The Cheating Culture”, born of extreme capitalism, as explained prospectively (or predicted) in David Callahan’s 2004 book.

The rule of “experts” seems to work reasonably well in some areas – medicine, space science, astrophysics.  But not in policy.  I think one reason is that the areas where “merit” has failed have a lot to do with action and getting results through others, where in the sciences (and in coding) individual brilliance and determination have a lot more effect.  Why was Alan Turning so successful?  True, he had unusual integrity, but he could be unusually focused on solving a specific problem he had taken on.  That holds for people like Jack Andraka, Taylor Wilson.  Sometimes it holds in the arts.  But not in the world where so much hucksterism is necessary to make a living.

Indeed, Hayes acknowledges the importance of democratized, “amateur” speech, most visible in modern social media, as playing an important check on the established press and on those with built-in political agendas, often partisan.

Values based on meritocracy connect to upward affiliation (especially among gay males), the idea that you inherit something by being connected to “better” people.  But then comes the philosophical conundrum: what’s the use of recognition and accomplishment if you don’t “care” about the people who use what you produced?

Indeed, when Hayes talks about the “Cult of Smartness” as failing the public, he seems to be taking moral aim at the idea of hiding behind the idea of being “better than other people” as a reason for smugness and social insularity.  (But it’s easier to really innovate if you work alone and are really smart enough — and have the integrity.)  But it’s interesting that his Chapter 3 is titled “Moral Hazards” – created by other people.

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Hayes talks about social distance (more than just propinquity) as one reason policy “experts” don’t help the disadvantaged.  He gives striking examples – the biggest being the huge death toll of those left behind in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (leading to the Superdome fiasco in which Oprah Winfrey said she almost vomited).  But that’s something that has to get personal (“Mission in Belize” material) to be meaningful.   Indeed, Hayes notes that lower income people typically have more personal empathy and capability for mutual “back watching” than those with more to lose.  That brings to mind Putnam’s call for more mentoring.

In the last chapter Hayes’s policy proposals get rather general, concerning raising tax rates on the rich, to be more like they were in the post War years.  Hayes presents an interesting paradox: the “Great Compression” after WWII led to a relatively prosperous middle class – but unfortunately it excluded many whom we see as suspect classes – most of all concerning race, and then gender issues.  Civil rights and then the “sexual revolution” and modern ideas about equality have indeed comported with meritocracy (so we can have an African American and now probably a female president), but have been accompanied by greater class divisions and with fewer people controlling more wealth – as well as a failure of the “ruling elite” to make its expertise transparent.  He also talks about the overly generous inheritance tax rules – but (as the Left preaches), when money is inherited, it isn’t “earned”.  Remember how one of the Apprentice contestant “hires” (Bill Rancic)  one time talked about “generational wealth” after Trump’s show?

(Posted: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 at 5:30 PM EDT)

“Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”, by Robert Putnam; identity politics alone will not “make America great” again

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Author: Robert D. Putnam
Title, Subtitle: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-6990-5
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 386 pages, indexed, paper
Link: author


About a year ago, a rounded tabby cat showed up on my driveway, looking for a place to crash to have her babies.  I guess I was being invited to become a sudden adoptive parent.  As I recall, some other teens in the neighborhood sheltered the event, which probably gave a good lesson in biology, and in caregiving.

Maybe this was an example of suddenly confronting a real need.

That provides, for me at least, a moral backdrop for reviewing Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.

Putnam’s observation is differential:  kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are not doing better than their parents now, whereas a half century or more ago, they could.  We can get into calculus terminology and call this “differential inequality”.

The book comprises an overview, then chapters on “Families”, “Parenting”, “Schooling”, “Community”, and “What is to be done?”  Putnam gives comparative family histories from many places, including his own Port Clinton, Ohio, Bend, Oregon, Atlanta, and (like Charles Murray in “Coming Apart” in 2012), Philadelphia.

It seems like a paradox, that the working class was “better off” in the 50s and 60s than now – give the rampant racism which begrudgingly retreats for decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Generally, it’s the white working class that was better off – Donald Trump’s subjects for his own version of identity politics.  But people were not so segregated by economic class as they have become since.

Putnam covers the “sexual revolution” and acknowledges conservative theories as to how this development undermined poor people, along with the use of welfare payments which seem, on the surface, to encourage unwed motherhood.  It’s true that it seems harder to pay high-paying jobs to more people as women compete in the workplace on near parity with men.  And more single and childless adults (that used to include LGBT more than it does now) compete for the same jobs often reducing possible opportunities for heads of families (I could also say that the singles sometimes work for less and are more likely to survive layoffs).  I was part of that scene.

But the biggest problem seems to be globalization and technology has eliminated old-fashioned manufacturing jobs that stabilized the middle class.  Also, jobs get exported.  All of this fits Trump’s theories and demagoguery. At the same time, at a personal level, culture has become more individualistic.  The new sense of self -reliance (so much the moral basis for the libertarian right wing – and predicted by Ayn Rand)  works well with people who grow up in strong families and social backgrounds, but further weakens the disadvantaged.

Putnam focuses particularly on how parenting in poor neighborhoods results in kids without the physiological brain development that it takes to grow up to become reliable independent adults who can answer for their own choices (again, the morality of the libertarian right).  I’ve tended to focus on the idea that “observable inequality” of unearned wealth tends to convey a message to the disadvantaged that the “rules” don’t make sense and that they might as well live by the laws of the jungle (or inner city gang) anyway – I said that in my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book in 2014.  But Putnam brings this back to neuroscience.  Kids raised in lower class homes, without effective interaction, hopefully with two parents (same sex or not) don’t learn abstraction, and don’t develop the brain circuitry to support it.  This is part of the argument of Nicholas Kristoff in “A Path Appears”. That’s true in both sub-Saharan Africa and in Chicago’s gang neighborhoods.

Then the disadvantages propagate.  Teachers won’t stay at disadvantaged schools (although in Washington DC they actually make visits, story) .  Schools emphasize test scores and cut back on extracurricular activities that would help more disadvantaged kids get social skills.  Wealthy parents bend over backwards to get their own kids grow up to be little “Clark Kent’s”, while the disadvantaged fall further behind.

Finally, disadvantaged kids don’t get informal mentoring from unrelated adults, and don’t develop the extensive social “networks” of non-close people whom they know and could still learn from (and probably get leads on for employment).  The trends go over into modern social media.

Here, Putnam seems to part company a bit with Charles Murray (indeed the moral voice of the libertarian right) in “Coming Apart” (2012), in that Murray criticizes lower income communities (especially the white working class) for not maintaining strong inner social capital.  With Murray it’s “preach what you practice” – the better-off merely show the less well-off how to keep eusociality alive.  I asked Murray by Twtter if this book resembled his, and he answered, well, while the policy recommendations are much more from the Left, otherwise, “pretty much”. But I also disagree with both Murray and Putnam a little– I think the “working class” even today has a better “watch each other’s back” street sense in social relations than many wealthier people.

As to “what is to be done”, part of the policy solution is the usual recommendation for much more assistance for new parents in low income areas, regardless of “moral hazard”.  This has to do with tax credits, cash grants, guaranteed income, and a variety of progressive proposals (which Vox Media in particular has suggested).  But it’s on the personal side that it gets interesting.  He says that poor kids need a lot “well off” adults willing to serve as their mentors, sometimes in structured and sometimes informal settings.  Places of faith are good for this.  Presumably this should incorporate childless people.  This is starting to sound like moral pressure related to real need.  Should there exist a legal concept called “mentorship”?

Local churches send older youth overseas on missions to do this kind of thing (“The Mission in Belize” has been covered on these blogs), and the same sort of concept exists with refugees and asylum seekers.  But we may need to do a lot more of this with our own.

(Posted: Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”: how to leverage you’re assets when others see you as the underdog

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Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Title, Subtitle: David and Goliath
publication date 2015
ISBN 978-0-316-28525-4
Publication: Back Bay/Little Brown, 327 pages, paper, indexed
Link: author

I perceive Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell as somewhat the liberal David Brooks, someone who wants to show us how to be good.  But actually he often offers what amount to conservative to libertarian arguments, more or less along the lines of Mary Ruwart.

In his 2015 book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”, Gladwell provides a counterweight to his 2008 “Outliers” (see Index), as he looks at how underdogs, in most political and social systems, often leverage their special circumstances to prevail.

The book, while starting with recount of the Old Testament is Bible story that introduces us to King David, is laid out in three large parts (nine chapters and an Afterword): “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages), “The Theory of the Desirable Difficulty”, and “The Limits of Power”.

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His first example is given by basketball coach Vivek Ranadive, but I could digress with a discussion of “backyard baseball” (really softball and sometimes whiffleball) in eighth and ninth grade in the 1950s.  I was behind the other boys physically, but I invented a “league” of individual softball players, with the rules arranged to make the scores reasonable.  Although I was weaker, I had tremendous home field advantage because I could hit the ball just hard enough for “homers” according to my ground rules – and that could make the other kids mad, as it seemed anti-meritocratic.  Or, when I was a patient at NIH in 1962, I won a ping pong tournament by “keeping the ball on the table”, making other impatient players mad with errant slams.  I developed my own catchphrase, “fighting with my fingernails”, which I actually did once in seventh grade, inflicting potentially disfiguring forearms cuts on a bully.

With Teresa Debrito, he introduces the idea of U-shaped curves in explaining that smaller classes don’t always result in better students and better academic results.  Then with Caroline Sacks, he explores the idea of a “big fish in a small pond”, specifically with the issue of whether some students do better if they don’t go to top colleges. (I like the way he talks about organic chemistry.)   I could say that the way I leveraged my writing on the Internet in the early days of search engines, and influenced the debate on gays in the military, could have added more material to the chapter.

He then goes into the idea that having a “handicap” often precludes asymmetric, spectacular success in life.  He develops a lot of his material with dyslexia.  Particularly impressive is the way Gary Cohn talked his way into the brokerage industry by tailgating someone after an elevator pitch.  But in some cases, it’s extroversion and risk taking that has to happen for success to occur (which isn’t exactly the case with me). In discussing David Boies, he gives an important personality chart on p. 116 which is distantly related to the Rosenfels idea of polarities.  With Emil Freireich, he gives an interesting history to the development of combination chemotherapy for leukemia  (earlier account )   In talking about “tricksters” in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, he explains the advantage of having nothing to lose.  So that explains the “Rich Young Ruler” in the New Testament – a rich man who has too much, hunkers down, and doesn’t know when to let go.

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The last section, starting with the IRA in the late 1960s, does convey some lessons on why the imposition of overwhelming political and military power doesn’t always work.  The book concludes with an interesting Afterword on why US policy failed to win the Vietnam War into which I was personally conscripted in 1968 (although I was sheltered stateside).  Gladwell also gives some cogent analysis on why increasing sentences for crimes (like “three strikes” laws in California) don’t always reduce crime.  He does get into a brief but interesting self-conversation on how the criminal mind works.  One point is that the usual idea of morality doesn’t make sense to a criminal who cannot function cognitively and simply perceives the need to control others.

Gladwell gives an account of the 1940 bombings of London which could be compared to Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” (May 31).

There are “moral” questions about the way one deploys one’s hidden assets or “poison pills” – sometimes by avoiding the risks and personal stakes that others have, without much conscious choice.  The “rightsizing” (or “karma”) debate, common in some religious circles, is never mentioned explicitly.  That sounds like something David Brooks could take up (or I will).  Maybe I could name a book “Jacob and Esau” and wonder who is manly enough.

(Posted: Monday, October 10, 2016 at 7:15 PM EDT)

“Grounded”, by Diana Butler Bass, looks at faith that is becoming less personal in a modern world

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Author: Diana Butler Bass
Title, Subtitle: Grounded
publication date 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-232854-0
Publication: Harper Collins, 2 parts, 7 chapters, 322 pages, hardcover
Link: author

I bought “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC in February 2016 when the author, Diana Butler Bass, gave a guest sermon.

Before the service, there was a QA where I asked how she felt about expectations of social conformity and growing up being expected to meet certain obligations imposed by others.  She sounded confounded by the question, as if she were unfamiliar with a world of a few decades ago when young men were drafted to fight “other people’s wars”, so to speak.

The author (who had written “Christianity After Religion”) has lived in various locations around the country, especially Maryland’s eastern shore, and then Arizona.  The title of the book suggests looking for spiritual roots and “grounding” in a world where social values are changing all too rapidly.

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Teenagers know the word “grounded” to mean, being kept at home, from going out (dating) and exploring the world on your own as an emerging adult.

It seems that people of most faiths are trying to look for a way to “ground” their own personal interface with God.

The book is in two parts.  Part 1 is “Natural Habitat” and comprises three chapters: Dirt, Water, and Sky.  Needless to say, there is plenty of progressive advocacy concerning reducing pollution and controlling climate change.  There is also the idea of going back to the woods (in spiritual retreats like Lama in New Mexico, which I visited in 1980 and 1984 – the Ram Dass “Be Here Now”).

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The second part is “Human Geography”, which sounds like an evocative idea.  Dolphins, by comparison to us, don’t seem to live in a world with much delineative geography despite their superior capacities for distributed consciousness.  Humans need place and grounding. The five chapters are Roots, Home, Neighborhood, Commons, and Revelation.

In the chapter on Roots she talks a lot about ancestry and lineage, bringing to mind another Army buddy in the barracks at Fort Eustis in 1969 doing genealogy charts.  In fact, some of the “ancestry.com” commercials are just plain silly – does nationality matter that much?  Maybe to Donald Trump.

But on p. 154 she talks about Ubuntu and quotes Desmond Tutu, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate framework of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation.”  Later, she recounts how 9/11 changed her perspective on the “grounding” of a personalized God.  But so can a lot of things – cancer, birth defects, crime, auto accidents – the “bad things happen to good people” problem.

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Her concept of home is interesting.  I like the analogy (to go into Dusty Baker’s world today) that in baseball, your team gets to bat last – if behind, it knows how many runs it has to score, so that’s why home field advantage matters particularly in baseball.  Ever heard of “play for a tie on the road and a win at home”. (The Kansas City Royals, of all teams, are masters of this.)  Sounds like trying to draw with Black and win with White in competitive chess.   Actually, she gets pretty well into the changing concept of family, now to include same-sex marriage, to the chagrin of people who feel that the old-fashioned “grounded” complementarity of traditional marriage has been rendered officially moot. Around family is community and nation, and the whole problem of whether you “take care of your own first”, a problem that moralist David Brooks recently took up.

But the biggest problem seems to be how “personal” one’s relationship with God is.  I feel put off by people who join in groupthink exercises of faith and give up their own individuality in mindless praise (“old time religion”) to hide from the fact that they are often not doing very well in their own lives.  I’ve seen this all my adult life and tended to observe people from a distance, almost as if an alien anthropologist, not as talented as Mark Zuckerberg.

On an intellectual level, God does fine (remember the Lady in the Radiator in David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”). It makes sense that a supreme being designed the constants of physics to be just right for consciousness.  (I’ll leave aside the anthropic idea that we are living in just the right universe of statistically infinity). Entropy means that the universe will decay, so God set things up so that conscious beings would evolve to keep the Universe alive forever.  Reproduction is necessary because entropy demands that individual beings decay with time.  Are plants conscious?  I wonder, when I see a wild grape vine attaching itself to my cable line for “grounding”.  But it’s clear that higher mammals can make morally calculable choices (like the tabby cat who decides at a particular person is kind enough to approach for a place to have her babies.)   Animals can think, and are aware of things about us that we wouldn’t imagine (dogs and cats like to feel the electromagnetic chances of an owning human’s heartbeat, and they know before we do if something is wrong).  Whales and dolphins, most of all orcas, experience distributed consciousness, of which for humans the idea of “referred pain” is neurological primitive. Ever been befriended by a wild crow or mockingbird who watches you every day?

Let’s add that physics and math could predict that the need for a “savior” at rare intervals could be necessary because of entropy and mathematics is logically incomplete, so it is impossible for a conscious being not to “sin”. Someone who actually lived at the time of the Resurrection and Ascension and who “saw it” (“Doubting Thomas”) would think this was all there is in terms of miracles or explanation of the Universe.

Individual lives are fungible and finite but consciousness is not.  I think the idea of a hollow heaven – living with your family in a garden condo for trillions of years is a little naïve.  While God needs to allow an infinity of lives to be born and develop, it may be that in the afterlife the individual expressions of consciousness consolidate into what Monroe Institute calls “soul families”, and these might be more finite.  Maybe it does matter if you have children – among orcas, distributed consciousness follows matriarchal lineage (“roots”).  We don’t know if that’s true of the afterlife.

Finding an alien civilization could certainly blow our idea of a grounded God.  Want to stay in a luxury hotel room in a space station on the Dyson’s Sphere of an alien civilization around Tabby’s Star, 1450 light years away?  Do they take American Express? Maybe have Facebook and Twitter too there (if we can get around the speed of light).  Mathematics and music will work the same there as here, at “home”.  Even God can’t change the theorems of topology.

In fact, it’s likely that, at least in our area of the Milky Way, our civilization is one of the first to evolve.  Given 4 billion years of history for our Earth, we’ve had a technological civilization for about a century.  We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Can we survive asymmetric terror?  Can we survive climate change?  How about solar storms or asteroids?  We have to work smart to get through these things.  But the trick is to survive hundreds of millions of years.  In time, more civilizations would evolve and persist within a few thousand light years and eventually contact would happen.  But if we are to survive indefinitely, we have to learn to live on places other than Earth, and eventually to travel to other solar systems.  We’ll need to have selected remnants of civilization able to travel and reproduce for decades or centuries on journeys to other worlds, living in “rama-like” worlds envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke.  We’ll have to decide who gets to go.  And like it or not, procreation and birth rate really will be critical again to survival.

There’s also the idea (reflected indirectly in the recent Facebook posts of “Survival Mom”) that whole civilizations can have massive setbacks and failures, and go through cycles where technology is lost after cataclysm or war, and that such multiple iterations could occur several times before a civilization is permanent enough to make contact with other advanced cultures in the Milky Way.  Individuals living through such downdrafts could still bear the moral responsibility to produce future generations that could gradually recover.

Even so, we’ll always want to have a sense of “home”.

I would add as a postscript, Bass discusses the virgin birth and the controversy over whether Joseph, as “betrothed”, was actually married (as Catholics say, like here), or “had some explaining to do”, as James Somerville (former FBC pastor, now in Richmond) one preached.

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(Published: Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 at 6 PM EDT)

“When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism” by Jonathan Haidt, NYU

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The scholarly conservative periodical “American Interest” has published a book-length article by NYU social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism”, in four chapters, which deserves a book review.  It’s dated July 10 and comes as the one free article per month in a stiff subscription paywall.  So I went out to a Barnes and Noble store and bought a hard copy for Jlu-August 2016, and did not find the printed article there!  But there were a couple other articles that supplement it, which I will get to.

The four chapters are “The Rise of the Globalists”, “Globalists and Nationalists Grow Further Apart on Immigration”, “Muslim Immigration Triggers the Authoritarian Alarm”, and “What Now?”

Haidt makes the valuable point, in Chapter 1, that as living standards rise  and a sense of “existential” personal security grows enough with ”democratic capitalism” familiar in the west, people tend to place a high moral value on personal expression (even “emancipation”) and on outreach to a whole world, and a sense of equality relative to a whole world, at least as a goal. Old fashioned values regarding religious tradition, and reverence for bloodline and patriotism, tend to be pushed behind, even shunned. However, as living standards for many people rise, patterns of greater efficiency tend to hollow out the jobs of many, and there is a tendency for some parts of lower and middle classes to become poorer.  All of this has been particularly true after the growth of the Internet.

Immigrants sometimes take the manual labor jobs that at first many people don’t want, but in time higher paying jobs may be outsourced overseas or be taken by more talented immigrants.  In time, some groups find that their way of life is threatened, and in some cases their sense of “meaning” is trampled by secularism or permissiveness.  In time, some immigrant groups do not assimilate well in some countries and create conflict, even threats. That is most obvious today with some Muslim communities, especially in Europe.

Haidt disputes the idea that a turn to nationalism and patriotism is necessarily “racist”. He does explain the idea the appeal of strong authoritarian figures as a desire by people to protect their own “group”.  But in some groups, the stricture on behavior or values of individual members of the group can be troubling, even extreme.  In some groups, homosexuals are outcast because in part they represent a possible threat to the group’s ability to maintain strength through procreation and extended family social cohesion.

I learned about this piece from an op-ed in the New York Times by David Brooks, “We Take Care of Our Own”.  I think there is a context that can get quite personal.  If you want individuals to be effective in reaching out to others (whether our own poor or in missions and projects overseas), they have to learn the social cohesion of “taking care of their own” in the family first.  To an extent, it is helpful (maybe even essential) that the “less developed” world (and poor in our own countries) see this process take place, so that others feel that there is some personal hope and some point in behaving peacefully. That may indeed provide a logical backdrop for “family values” the way social conservatives usually argue for them, even though most social conservatives (such as those writing the GOP’s platform this week) seem lost in naïve religious platitudes.

I experience competing tugs in my own journalism and activities.  Groups want me to be “loyal” to them (as if they picked up that wearing a group victimization sign or shouting in a demonstration were “beneath me”), and it’s logically impossible to be simultaneously loyal to more than one.

The “American Interest” issue did contain at least two other essays that seem pertinent. One is “Globalization and Political Instability”, by David W. Brady (p. 33), which seems higher level than Haidt’s piece and less potentially “personal” but makes similar points.  A more disturbing piece is “Pragmatic Engagement” (p. 22), by Stephen D. Krasner and Amy B. Zegart. This essay discusses China and Russia, sandwiching all that around a section called “Unconventional Threats” including cyberterror and possible attacks on the power grids, all as low probability but catastrophic impact events. The authors use the term “Black Swan” for such an event, borrowed from Sarron Aronofsky’s film for Fox of that name based on performing Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake”.  But this discussion amplifies the idea that the US should make more of its infrastructure hardware at home (a point that Donald Trump could make constructively without race or religion baiting).  It also potentially can feed right-wing ideas about “doomsday prepperism” or survivalism (another prod toward “take care of your own first) and self-defense and gun ownership.

Along these lines, Newsweek has an issue, dated July 1, 2016, with a yellow scare-cover, “Can ISIS Take Down Washington?” with an article by Jeff Stein on p. 26, “You Can’t Stop ’em All” with reference to an April Washington Post piece on soft targets in bars and restaurants. .

Haidt refers to several other important articles, including a Politco piece on Donald Trump and authoritarianism, another Politico piece on the “future of American politics”, and a Bloomberg piece warning about the losers of globalization.

(Published: Sunday, May 17, 2016 at 5:15 PM EDT)

“Of Men and War”: PTSD therapy at a center in California

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Name: Of Men and War
Director, writer:  Laurent Becue-Renard
Released:  2014
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2016/5/30
Companies: PBS, Kino Lorber, Alice Films
Link: url

Of Men and War”, directed and written by Laurent Becue-Renard, aired Memorial Day on PBS POV, late (after a Ted Talk on the topic, previous post).  The documentary, shot in reality mode with handheld videocams, shows returning veterans (mostly from Afghanistan) living as patients at The Pathway Home,  a new post traumatic stress (PTSD) for returning combat men in Yountville, CA, in Napa County, NE of the Bay Area.  I visited the area most recently in November 1995.

The men are shown in various activities, including playing sandlot baseball, and especially in many group therapy sessions.  One of the veterans has to learn to become a patient.

The men have been socialized to live for the good of the unit in combat, and find the individualism of civilian life stressful.  That is somewhat Sebastian Junger’s theory.  But in the actual therapy sessions, most of the men sounded traumatized by the grotesque injuries that had occurred to other buddies in combat.

In one narrative, a former combat medic describes saving the life of another man with horrific, and permanently disfiguring injuries. Later, the other man says he didn’t want to live.  Yet, a statement like that, unwillingness to accept the necessity of one’s own sacrifice and the support that then must come after it, undermines the resilience of others in the same circumstances, and can undermine the entire military operation.

I can remember that during the Vietnam era some college students said that if they were drafted and maimed, they didn’t want to come back.  I even said that.  But that can be very counter-productive to “solidarity” when that really matters (maybe it didn’t for Vietnam).

A movie for comparison that comes to mind is Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” (1950) with Lee Marvin (Stanley Kramer, United Artists). Another is Oliver Stone’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) for Kramer and WB with Matthew Modine.  Finally, consider Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), about Ron Kovic played by Tom Cruise (Universal).

Photo by DaringDonnaOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, for Wikipedia attribution

(Published Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”: how modern civilization can subvert man’s social nature

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Author: Sebastian Junger
Title, Subtitle: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4555-6638-9
Publication: TwelveBooks, 168 pages hardcover, four chapters
Link: Amazon

I met Sebastian Junger at his book-signing party at a Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis in 1998 for his non-fiction epic “A Perfect Storm”.  I remember the book well, most of all the harrowing description of death by drowning.  I would see the film by Wolfgang Petersen (with George Clooney and “Marky” Mark Wahlberg) in 2000, and write a review on AOL’s Moviegrille (at the time, a real innovation, pre social media) that would cause a squabble online over “class warfare”.  I describe the details on my legacy site here.

Junger has definitely led a swashbuckling life, and “paid his dues”, living in war zones (like to make “Restrepo” and “Korengal”) and doing dangerous work (as an arborist, where he was injured, maybe helping to inspire the book “Fire”.  Later he talks about our dependence of people who do manual labor (but my own father used to harp about this in the 1950s).

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” is brief, in fact it could have been published as another extended Vanity Fair article.  The publisher, “TwelveBooks”, a division of Hatchette, says it picks out just one book a month to publish, the opposite of self-publishing indeed.  Junger’s “Author’s Note” makes some comments about the meticulous fact checking that should be expected of all those who call themselves journalists.

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The media has described the work in terms of the psychological needs of returning combat veterans, who miss the unit cohesion and belonging of combat and military service.  But the book is much broader, in its implications for social stability, and, ultimate, “the ethics of identity” (Appiah, May 27). The title of the second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, is indicative of the tone of the book.

Junger’s thesis is that man has evolved wired to live collectively in small groups, or “tribes”, with self-concept and “identity” tied to the group, larger than the self.  The best example of this lifestyle probably was native American tribes before European settlers came.  During the French and Indian Wars (James Fenimore Cooper’s world that gave me a high school term paper), and sometimes other conflicts, Euorpean settlers would “defect” and choose to live in the relative “freedom” of native tribes.  But natives did not want to live in hierarchal European society, so the converse did not happen.

Tribal society was, Junger claims, quite egalitarian.  People accumulated few possessions and money was of little consequence. People slept together in yurts, and Junger makes a point that sleeping alone, in one’s own room, is a European and American invention, facilitated by material wealth and then smaller families.  Forced intimacy was the norm, and the modern concept of “privacy” was unknown until relatively recently (well into the 20th Century), as this panel, “The Birth and Death of Privacy” by Greg Ferenstein shows.

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A question occurs, what about the moochers?  Yes, tribes had ways of chasing out their freeloaders (and in individual cases were capable of great brutality).  There had to be patriarchal elders in charge (often with religious authority).  But, because people usually didn’t have the opportunity to interact with others outside of their tribes, political life was simple, so there was a sense of freedom that supplemented the “belonging”.

As society became more organized (as with the European system of sovereign states, or even entities like Mayan and Inca empires) political life became more complicated, and classes developed.  So someone living in “the commons” could well wonder about his or her assigned station in life, in a way that wouldn’t develop in simpler tribes.  Often, politicians became authoritarian and indeed abused minorities, leading to more modern ideas of struggles over class, race, and gender roles.

Junger spends a lot of attention of the importance of war and conflict in shaping social mores.  Most tribal societies have to deal with external enemies, as well as natural disasters.  Hardship and the need for individual sacrifice is a given.  So it is the long term future of the group that has the highest moral (in Appiah’s terminology) value.  He talks about the eusociality and caring for strangers that the British people developed during the London bombings in 1940, for example.  In this environment, physical cowardice is a moral evil and capital crime.  People have to give up their individualized sense-of-self during conflict, so they often feel less stress personally.  But the stress returns with peace when the standard of living returns and economic inequality (and excessive attachments to private assets) also come back.  But, in the minds of many, modern infrastructure and even “law and order” cannot be counted on forever (that is, is not inherently “sustainable”).  The modern “doomsday prepper” crowd, often associated with supporting the Second Amendment, views self-sufficiency “off the grid” within family groups as a prerequisite for living by anybody.

Family life in tribal societies is certainly embedded deeply in tribal purpose.  Marriage and procreation is viewed as a community matter as well as a private one.  Gender roles are important in more survival-challenged cultures, and the paradox of male warrior culture (and “unit cohesion”) is reinforced. Junger says that simpler cultures generally do make room for less assertive men and more assertive women, which would obviously affect LGBT persons (whom Junger doesn’t directly address).  But we know that the tribal societies of the Islamic world and of much of sub-Saharan Africa are still often very hostile to homosexuals (usually with religious teachings providing the necessary canards).  Russia seems to be trying to reinstall tribal values to rebuild its population and settle its emptied out Siberian lands.

Tribes often require warrior initiation rituals, which modern men might see as humiliating (“hazing”), like the chest work he describes in p. 119.  But “hazing” (like the “tribunals” at William and Mary which I so dangerously skipped in 1961) might be seen as a way for getting young men to accept self-sacrifice when necessary and still perform as fathers later.  I think a curious parallel could be drawn to people allowing themselves to be shaved in public in benefit events showing solidarity with cancer patients on chemotherapy.

Junger has indeed described how humans behave.  Humans are primates, he says, generally wired to live collectively, more like wolves than cats (maybe like lions).  I wondered, what about the Bonobo chimps?  It seems that as technology has advanced and society has become more politically complex, individualism (all the way to Ayn Rand) has become “selected”.  Especially among young men in a wired, global society, individual achievement is rewarded, somewhat at the expense of cohesion with others in a group.  This development may be very hard on those “wired” more conventionally  for group life, putting them at a bigger competitive disadvantage, and complicating the issue of “inequality” further.  The popular “X-Men” comic book and movie franchise  might be a metaphor for the effects of allowing some people to stand out so much.

But, given our cultural anthropology lesson, the next question is, how should this affect policy?  Let’s not forget that in some parts of the world, tribal life invokes horrible practices (try female genital mutilation, for example.)  But let’s accept that some tribal life works.  It’s bad news for introverts. But what “moral” (or plain “ethical”) standards should be expected of the little “x-men” among us (that includes “Little Rubio”, maybe). (That is, after all, the theme of my own 2014 “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book.)   Junger, for example, talks about the draft, although not calling for its reinstatement. He mentions that the all volunteer military attracts recruits who have experienced sexual or familial abuse, disproportionately. He talks about his own draft card, and his father’s idea that he should keep it but leave the country if he had enough moral objection to Vietnam. My own history, of flunking students (exposing men to the military draft after student deferment loss when an assistant graduate algebra instructor, then entering the Army in 1968 with a graduate degree and escaping all exposure to combat myself, then becomes very troubling, something that should never be buried.  So is the earlier history of my clumsiness with the expectations of the male role, and my disinterest in the social experiences that others expected of me, for their collective benefit rather than “mine”, as a conveyor of the family for its own sake. Rather than engage people emotionally in a world where I would inevitably be perceived as “lesser”, I created my own world and propagated it. My doing so does raise moral-level questions.

As for inequality, it’s well to note that there are about 1200 voluntary income-sharing “intentional communities” (with limited connection to “the grids”) in the U.S. today; most, but not all, are in rural areas.  In central Virginia, Twin Oaks and Acorn provide typical examples.

Junger correctly observes that our idea of victimhood, and pimping it as a virtue, is indeed shallow.  Sometimes “casualty” is the right word, rather than “victim”.

Junger appeared on Memorial Day, 2016 on a PBS Ted Talk (“War and Peace”) with Adam Driver and others .  Junger talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among some soldiers once back in civilian life and away from the bonding of the military environment. He also says (as in the book), that civilian PTSD  actually went down after 9/11.  The PBS full link is here. Included is a song by Rufus Wainwright (from his second opera “Hadrian“), and short films “All Roads Point Home” by Linda Singh, “Talk of War“, and “Bionic Soldier“.  Singh talked about why people (especially women) join the military, and about what military values could offer handling race problems like Ferguson and Baltimore. Later, there was a presentation of non-violent resistance in Mosul, as parents refused to send their kids to an ISIS school but home-schooled them instead;  then there as a presentation showing that rich countries profit from selling arms to people in poor countries, where still most of the slaughter happens; guns are cheaper there than is clean water. The program ended with music for cello and piano, unannounced, but I believe it was by Ravel.

I should mention here that I do recall reading a novel “The Tribe” by Bari Wood, around 1987, about golems that bring retribution in modern day Brooklyn for what happened in the Holocaust.

(Published: Monday, May 30, 2016, at 9 PM EDT)

Appiah’s “The Ethics of Identity”

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Author: Kuame Anthony Appiah
Title, Subtitle: The Ethics of Identity
publication date 2005
ISBN 978-0-691-1-13028-6
Publication: Princeton University Press, 358 pages, paper, roman intro 28 pages, six chapters
Link: Amazon


I bought “The Ethics of Identity” (2005) by Kwame Anthony Appiah  on impulse in an independent bookstore (Kammerbooks in Washington DC), as I was trying to judge just what philosophy books really sell in physical stores, especially slightly older ones. I also wanted to find a text that would help me work through the ethics of my own life and second career

The author is a professor of philosophy at New York University, previously Princeton. He was born in London (of mixed race) and raised in Ghana.

I could introduce my own stake in this topic by recounting a day in 2007 when a life insurance agent took me to lunch in Merrifield VA at a Panera Bread. There was no chance I would buy anything.  But I said that my returning to look after her was costing me my “sovereignty”.  Indeed, at age 64 then, my normal “right” to make my own decisions about a lot of normally personal things had been seriously questioned by my circumstances (explained in my DADT III book, Chapter 5).

The book starts with the writings of John Stuart Mill (“On Liberty”) by noting Mill’s statement that “individuality” is “constitutive of the social good.”  The rest of the book revolves around the paradox that an individual’s expression and consciousness is only meaningful relative to a society and social structure in which he or she lives:  by definition, other people must matter.

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The book has a long roman introduction, and six long chapters: “The Ethics of Individuality”; “Autonomy and its Critics”; “The Demands of Identity”; “The Trouble with Culture”; “Soul Making” and “Rooted Cosmipolitanism”.

Appiah gets to the idea of “identity” by exploring the paradox of the life experience of the butler in the novel and film “The Remains of the Day” (novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; 1993 film directed by James Ivory, Columbia Pictures, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler; I recall seeing the film at the Shirlington Theater in Arlington VA that year).  I would say that my own identity is my own universe, which seems very full at any given time;  it has been in retirement that I’ve learned how really “relative” it is.  I could get into the issue of what generates consciousness (“I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter, 2007).

But, then, individual identity is mediated by “belonging”, to a group which may or may not be sharply delineated with immutability.

Appiah tends to write “from on high”, as if composing a manifesto; he deals in abstractions and principles.  Occasionally, he comes down to earth to deal with what people really have to do, to step right up.  For example, he mentions filial piety (p. 264) and earlier mentions that sometimes reasonably democratic societies do demand contingent sacrifices, as with conscription.  When he talks about the social development of the “soul” on top of identity, I am reminded of George F. Will’s preachy 1983 book “Statecraft as Soulcraft” (Touchstone) which fit in well wit Reagan’s early years.

His last chapter wraps a lot up, even as he explains that the idea of a “global citizen” is offensive to many groups (as is oversized personal autonomy, in Chapter 2).  But then he distinguishes between moral opprobrium (Scalia) which is universal in nature, and ethical behavior, which is circumstantial depending on one’s own ties.  The whole question of being “cosmopolitan” breaks down the normal conservative expectation that people need to “look after their own” first.  But Appiah emphatically says there is a big difference between public discrimination, and the exercise of discretion and choice in noticing differences in private affairs.  I don’t think Appiah would consider it wrong to refuse to date a member of another race (although I know from personal experience that some people do).

Appiah seems to believe that civilizations will make “moral” judgments about major norms and collective goals; given their reasonableness, how a citizen behaves (expressing her own “identity”, especially globally now in a world much less tribal than in the past) becomes an ethical problem.  Civilization (especially “Western”) has to make moral choices on how to interpret the science on climate change, for example (Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” indeed). Individuals make ethical judgments on their own transportation, mobility and living arrangements (at least I did).  But if a civilization is too far off base (like Nazi Germany), then taking orders is itself a moral as well as ethical problem.

Appial notes the tension in classical liberalism among three triangular pillars:  autonomy, loyalty, and “moral equality” which bears indirectly on personal ethics.  Earlier, he has anticipated his discussion of ethics with an explanation of akrasia.

I’ve often written about the expectations of others, who have sometimes challenged my fantasy life and my “drawing attention” without taking more risks to be in a position to care for others – for not having the down to earth skills to do so – for not finding enough meaning in doing so.  Individual identity depends on groups one “belongs to”, but it also must relate to the individual people in these groups, as with my own father’s dictum about being able to “see people as people.”

The book often mentions society’s treatment of homosexuals, but was written largely before gay marriage had become a reality as it is today.

Other books include Martin Fowler’s “You Always Belonged and You Always Will: A Philosophy of Belonging” (2014), and Paul Rosenfels, “Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process” (1971).

(Published Thursday, May 26, 2016 at midnight 5/27)

“Requiem for the American Dream” is Noam Chomsky’s best interview film

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Name: Requiem for the American Dream
Director, writer:  by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott
Released:  2015
Format:  video or film, standard
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/5/18
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Site: Link

Requiem for the American Dream” (2015), directed by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, is the best Chomsky interview film so far.  The film, stitched together from four recent interviews with Chomsky’s “ten points” (below), has plenty of interesting animation and a lot of interesting archival historical footage that is shown while he talks.  Most of the time, the view has something other than Chomsky to watch.

My own introduction to Chomsky came while I lived in Minneapolis. Late nights, I would pass Shinders book store on Hennepin on the way to the Saloon, in the months after 9/11.  I often saw paperbacks by Chomsky on right wing conspiracies in the stacks.

The title of the film tells us the theme: most average Americans have had most of their opportunity taken away from them by the wealthy and powerful. Chomsky calls our system now a “plutonomy”, extracting from a “precariat”, or “precarious proletariat” (and my first unpublished novel, after all, had been titled “The Proles”).  The plutonomy undermines democracy deliberately because it sees the “precariat” a threat that could rise up and expropriate, pretty much according to Marxist theory.

Let’s run through the ten methods that the ruling class uses.

(1)    “Reduce democracy”, the basic idea.

(2)    “Shape ideology”.  Donald Trump is trying to do that.

(3)    “Redesign economy”, particularly through “fincialization”, as explained in the book “Makers and Takers” by Rana Faroohar May 14 here. Sometimes Chomsky suggests that things are much more unequal know than ever before because of this process, but at other times, he admits that inequality and labor exploitation were pretty awful in past generations (slavery, the sweatshops of the industrial revolution).  Indeed they were. The 50s and 60s are a bit of a “golden age”, but not really, given the need for the Civil Rights movement, and then Vietnam.

(4)    “Shift burden”, particularly to workers, whose jobs become more precarious even if management says the issues are still mostly job performance.

(5)    “Attack solidarity”.  This sounds like something about labor unions, but that comes up later. This is more about social solidarity.  Michael Moore often criticizes the attitude “I got mine”.  There are questions like, why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have kids?  Chomsky talks about the proposals to privatize social security here and sees it as a wealth-sharing, whereas most of us feel we paid for our own benefits with our own FICA taxes, a point he doesn’t mention.

(6)    “Run the regulators”. This would seem to refer to loosening of financial regulations, that allow crashes (we didn’t have any in the 50s or 60s – the crashes really started with the savings and loan in the late 1980s, but the biggest was the 2008 crash, followed by the “too big to fail” idea.

(7)    “Engineer elections”, with more and more money for campaigns.

(8)    “Keep the Rabble in Line”.  Here Chomsky talks about unions, saying people don’t have sufficient right to organize (solidarity again).  He seems to be referring to “right to work” laws.  But there is also a problem in non-union salaried environments, where people with fewer responsibilities (often the childless) can work for less, or work free overtime, and lowball the system.

(9)    “Manufacture consent”, where he talks about public relations companies and consumerism, especially now online.

(10) “Marginalize populations”.  Here he says that free speech is not itself in the Bill of Rights (what about the First Amendment?) and didn’t come into serious consideration until the 1960s.  He says that the plutonomy tries to restrict the number of people who have influence, but totally misses the contributions of the “Fifth Estate”.

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In the end, Chomsky says that the ruling elite doesn’t like to see  ordinary people talking about “class”.  Indeed, “class” has something to do with what people you have some control over, at least indirectly.

Chomsky is indeed talking about how the “overlords” (to use a term of Arthur C. Clarke, as if we approached a “Childhood’s End”) manipulate classes of people, as if this were the main moral concern of the day.  Yet, at the same time, he says, “this is a free country”, as if to say that is pretty unusual in history as a whole.  My own writing inverts all this, and asks how the “man in the middle” (me) is supposed to behave, as if this is the moral question.  Maybe it’s like former Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne’s titling a book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” back in the 90s (1998, Liamworks, which I read after hearing Browne speak at a LPVA convention in 1996).  I indeed grew up with a certain class consciousness, and the idea that if I made good enough grades, I could move into the “good clothes” class and live off the real labor of “The Proles” (link). It sounds like a boorish, snooty, snarky idea. It brings up the idea of personal “rightsizing”, so far an essentially spiritual idea having to do with personal karma.  It would mean learning to walking the shoes of others whom you have depended on without feeling you are brought low yourself.  You have to deal with it.

Some good collateral reading would be Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951).

(Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:30 EDT)

 

 

 

“The Second Machine Age” probes the economic and social dislocations associated with technology, globalization

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Authors: Erik Brunjolfsson, Andrew McAfee
Title, Subtitle: “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”
Publication date 2014
ISBN 978-0-393-35064-7 paper
Publication details: WW Norton, 306 pages, indexed, endnotes, 15 chapters
Link: Amazon


The Second Machine Age”, recommended by Fareed Zakaria on his Global Public Square program on CNN two months ago, looks at the transformation of technology since the 1980s through now, as it continues, and at the long term social and economic effects on how people actually live.

One could talk about the industrial revolution and all the advances (from steam engines to electricity, to factory automation, to cars, air travel, modern appliances, space travel beginnings and personal mobility) from about the 1850s until about 1980, and then realize that during the time of Reagan (maybe with the help of Ronnie’s somewhat libertarian streak, and the development of solid state) miniaturization exploded with a revolution in communication, both peer-peer and in self-publication.  A major sub-inflection occurred around 1992 with the release of the public Internet, even though precursors had been in use for a long time.  The rapid changes followed the expansion of computing power stated by Moore’s Law enabling the digitalizing of almost all information.

In the 1990s, one of the most revolutionary changes was the nosediving cost in (digital) reproduction of published materials.  Not only did this drive down the cost of traditional desktop self-publishing but, in conjunction with search engines,  it also enabled speakers to reach a very wide audience through the web with almost no incremental cost.  This opportunity benefited me, as I embarked on self-publishing when taking on the issue of gays in the military (and “don’t ask don’t tell”).  I have gotten flak for not doing enough to sell “instances” of my books (physical copies and perhaps Kindle) rather than let people read it online, because my doing so can disrupt other people’s way to make a living.

The authors point out that the digital revolution benefited consumers, who did not have to pay much for new access to convenience.  Even though people might earn less in wages or other compensation, in terms of real wealth people were often better off.  But this is true whenever there is a rise in the standard of living through technology. The authors ask, are you better off with 2016 goods and services at 2016 prices and incomes, or with 1986 goods, prices and incomes.  For many people, earning relatively less, the answer is the former.  So my own “self-publishing” was arguably adding real wealth, even if it could exacerbate hidden social conflicts regarding inherited privilege or shielding from the risks that others (less fortunate on the economic ladder) must take to earn a living at all. Modern social media (most of all Facebook) replaced the earlier chaotic “dot-com” bubble by expanding mere publication and broadcast and embedding it into the process of social networking, representing online. While social media represented new opportunities for abuse, it probably settled the question that social media was here to stay along with user-generated content, despite the conflicts that “amateurism” with UGC could cause.

But technology also seemed to increase income inequality, largely through globalization, and through replacing some kinds of jobs with computers and automation. Indirect effects made weaker competitors in many businesses drop out, and tended to result in consolidation, with relatively fewer jobs at the top and more concentration of high earnings among the few. The “winner take all” economy developed, with stars earning orders of magnitude more than ordinary people.  Income averages tended to exceed medians, which tended to mean that “ordinary people” had less chance to advance out of mediocrity. While the standard of living for the poor and less well off improved in some areas, like ownership of smartphones and mobile devices, in the big items like housing, health care and education, the poor usually got worse off.

Actually, this seems to be a cyclical process.  Middle class incomes did rise after WWII as old patterns of “extraction” of wealth from labor (from the class societies of the past, so much the target of communist ideology of the past) broke down to democratization (labor unions and civil rights), but this improvement in middle class lives, as experienced in the 50s and 60s, started to reverse with the hyperindividualism associated with the growth of digital technology.

To deal with inequality, the authors recommend a mixture of measures for both individuals and policy makers.  The authors start out by using a great analogy of human conflict – the game of chess. Although super computers can normally beat grandmasters now, in team chess, where both sides have access to computing and database, human grasp of positional strategy still trumps.  The experiments of Garry Kasparov are discussed.  I’d mention that it would seem possible for computers to generate paths of optimal opening preparation strategy for tournaments.  For example, any chess computer system would know that White’s prospects are far better with “1. D4 d5 2. C4” than with the mirror image of “1. E4 e5 2. F4”.  (But, given 1. D4 Nf6 2. C4 e6 it is much harder to say if 3 Nc3 or 3 Nf3 is stronger.)

The authors talk about “ideation” as a needed skill, getting beyond the obvious.  But superior ideation is still likely to reward the few best ideas with billions (Mark Zuckerberg – whether or not he really did invent Facebook one night in his dorm room after a fight with a girl friend, as in “The Social Network”,)

The authors talk about improving education, but with a mash of ideas.  They praise Salman Kahn and his online academy.  They would probably like AOPS and the problem solving videos by robust young math grad students like Deven Ware.  They’re all for improvement of teaching as a profession, but would they go as far as Finland?  What about the homework controversy?

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Their most important ideas seem to be in recognizing the value of various kinds of work.  Many kinds of labor, many of them trade skills involving complex tools, or involving taking care of other human beings, a skill that gets more important as more people live longer with some disability.  The authors talk about libertarian Charles Murray’s 2012 book “Coming Apart”, which sounds like a surprising call for eusociality.  The authors mention Murray’s comparison of “Belmont” with “Fishtown” (Philadelphia working class area), but disagree that it is just about social norms, the problem is that not as many people in Fishtown have jobs, or good jobs, as in the past.  The authors also get into tax policy, and seem to concur with Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) somewhat that the lazy rentier class tends to be abusive. There may something to my own father’s past moral opprobrium about “learning to work.”

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The authors seem, in fact, to think that structured work is a key to dealing with the social disruptions of globalization.  I don’t see that they have taken up the low wage (like the minimum) much, or Barbara Ehrenreich’s setting an example by paying her dues (“Nickel and Dimed”, 2001). Arguably, it could be important somehow to make what I do in retirement really pay (without cheesy ads or pimping copies of books), because “It’s Free” (Reid Ewing’s little 2012 short film about the public library that sets up this whole issue) can become socially disruptive to the businesses models that provide income for others.  One idea could be that more steady volunteer positions could be funded or paid.  A progressive idea is connecting volunteer projects to retiring student loans, as in this Huffington piece or this Take Part article.

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The authors, however, examine some other progressive ideas, like guaranteed income, or the negative income tax, that can also help (Vox Media has supported these repeatedly).

The authors do discuss the evolution of the sharing economy (ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft;  renting out your house, like Airnbn), as something concomitant with sustainability, and moving away from the idea of personal identity by “collecting things” (in my case, classical records and CD’s earlier in my life). Shared housing is coming to for, as in the New Yorker article by Lizzie Widdiecombie, “Happy Together” (the antethis of “Alone Together“, Sherry Turkle. 2011) by or “dorm life forever”, May 16, 2016.

Finally, the ask whether we could really approach a singularity someday, where robots become conscious of themselves and reproduce.  That may be only way to travel the galaxy.

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It would be well to compare this book to the new “Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business” , by Rana Faroohar, summarized in her article “Saving Capitalism” on p. 26 of the May 23, 2016 issue of Time Magazine  (paywall link). The villain is “finanicialization”, where Wall Street designs financial products for short term gain rather than infrastructure or “real wealth” investment, because of perverse personal incentives (mentioned criticially by the authors of the main book in this review, above, relating to extracting wealth by debt instruments and derivatives).  But these incentives are somewhat tied to way globalization and digitization affects the value of labors and commodities, while at the same time, as Charles Murray points out, social fabric unstrings itself. Edmunk Contoski had self-pubbed a libertarian, Ayn Rand-like book with the “Makers and Takers: How Wealth and Progress Are Made and How They Are Taken away or Prevented” title (American Liberty Publishers) back in 1997 (also the sci-fi novel “The Trojan Project” filled with constitutional amendment proposals like mine, and a pre-malware telephone virus that is more like a telepathy manipulation and a Windows executable.

(Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)