Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Modernization has created an angry world

November 29, 2017

I think the world is locked into struggle between a heartless corporate neoliberalism and a rage-filled blood-and-soil nationalism, neither of which offers hope for the human future.

Pankaj Mishra, author of AGE OF ANGER (2017), said this is part of a conflict of ideas that originated with Voltaire and Rousseau in the 18th century and is still going on, all over the world, today.

Voltaire taught that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, and embrace science, reason and commerce, you will gain the power to determine the course of your life, as well as enjoy a rising material standard of living.

His enemy, Rousseau, spoke for all those who were angry because this bargain was not kept, or because they rejected the bargain in the first place.

They included millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who have been uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

Voltaire, although a brave defender of religious and intellectual freedom, despised the ignorant masses.  He admired “enlightened” despots, such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, for trying to force their unwilling subjects to adopt modern—that is, French—ways of life.

Rousseau cared nothing for modernization.  His ideal was an imaginary Sparta, an austere, primitive and close-knit society of brave warriors.   He thought it unimportant that Spartan warriors were predatory and merciless to others.  What mattered was their comradeship with each other, and also their manliness.

Another theme of Rousseau, in contrast to Voltaire, is the need for manliness and the corresponding need to keep women in their place.   Once again, this is an example of Rousseau wanting something he didn’t have.  He was never able to fulfill the traditional role of the male, which is to be a protector and provider for women and children.

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Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit and social class

November 21, 2017

I read Little Dorrit as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.   Reading the novel as part of group helped me appreciate how great Charles Dickens was—as a descriptive writer, as a storyteller and as a student of human nature.

The moral center of the novel is Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshalsea, a famous debtors’ prison in London, where her father has been imprisoned as a result of business failure.

She is called ‘Little’ Dorrit, rather than by her name, because she is small of stature and looks more like an adolescent girl than a full-grown woman.

She embodies the specifically Christian virtues.  She is loving, self-sacrificing, humble, forgiving, patient, devoted, uncomplaining and thankful for every blessing.  This makes her as out-of-place in class-conscious Victorian London as she would have been in the Rome of Quo Vadis or in success-seeking 21st century USA.

One of the themes of Little Dorrit is what we now would call “classism.”   The novel is full of characters whose life revolves around having other people acknowledge their social rank.   This includes, first and foremost, Little Dorrit’s own family

From a young age, she is a virtual parent to her father and her older brother and sister, for which they show little or no gratitude..  She learns how to read and write, learns marketable skills from other inmates and gets a job outside the prison to an elderly rich businesswoman, Mrs. Clennam.

Her father, William Dorrit, over the years creates an identity as “the Father of the Marshalsea,” to whom visitors and other debtors have to pay tribute and acknowledge his superior status.

Despite William’s dependence on Little Dorrit, he condemns her for befriending fellow inmates, such as the mentally retarded Maggie, because this undermines his pretensions to superior social rank.

Amy’s beautiful gold-digging older sister, Fanny, and shiftless older brother, Edward, take the same attitude.

Mrs. Clennam is the other character in the novel whose life is shaped by religion.  In contrast to Little Dorrit’s, her religion consists in obeying strict rules concerning personal conduct and business obligations, and in showing no mercy to those who do not.

Her religion makes her unhappy, and causes her to make others unhappy.

Little Dorrit is sometimes sad, but she is capable of being happy and she does nothing to make herself unhappy.

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John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

November 8, 2017

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.

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North Korea: totalitarianism in action

September 19, 2017

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

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An African immigrant view of America

September 14, 2017

The polite term for the black American citizens who used to be called Negroes is “African-American.”   This term is intended to put them on a par with white ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans.

However “African-Americans,” unlike white ethnics, are not immigrants, but the descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were all brought to this country before the Civil War, and most before the Revolution.

The USA now has a significant African immigrant population, who are the product of a different history than old-stock black Americans.   But the term “African-American” doesn’t really apply either, because it obscures the fact that Africa is not all one country.   African nations have national characters as distinct as Italy or Poland.

Recently I got a glimpse of the African immigrant experience by reading  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013).

“Americanah” is a Nigerian slang word for someone who has lived so long in the United States that they no longer fit into life in Nigeria.

Adichie’s heroine, Ifemelu, grows up in Nigeria, immigrates to the United States as a young woman and, after initial hardships, achieves success and fame.  But, after 13 years, decides to return to her native land.

Ifemelu, like her creator, is intelligent and outspoken, with many shrewd observations about American culture and racial attitudes.   I don’t find her likeable; that’s an observation, not a criticism.

The early chapters show the frustrations of Ifemelu and her educated, middle-class family, in life under the repressive Nigerian dictatorship.   She and her fiance, Obinze, who is handsome, sensitive and good in bed, dream of the United States as the big time where real things are happening—the way some small-town Americans in Kansas or Nebraska may think of New York and Los Angeles.

Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study at an American university, but quickly finds that the USA is not the paradise she imagined.

Her family taught her certain standards of good housekeeping, good grooming, good manners and good grammar, and she is taken aback by the slovenliness, permissiveness and vulgarity of the many Americans whose attitudes are formed by the mass entertainment and advertising media.

She has to struggle to earn a living and is sexually abused by a white employer.   This is so traumatic that she feels unable to keep in touch with Obinze.

This clears the way for her to begin a love affair with Curt, a handsome rich white jet-setter, who is good in bed.   Curt gets her a lucrative job in public relations, and her financial worries end.

Eventually she tires both of Curt and the PR job.   She starts a blog about racial attitudes in America, which is not only an overnight success, but an unexpected source of income that guarantees her financial independence.   She begins a love affair with Blaine, a handsome black intellectual idealist, who is good in bed.

Blaine, a Yale professor, spends time talking to an uneducated black security guard.  Ifemelu can’t bring herself to like him.   She and Blaine break up temporarily when the security guard is unjustly arrested, Blaine organizes a protest demonstration and she can’t be bothered to take.

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Renewable energy’s mismatch with the grid

September 4, 2017

Falling cost of photovoltaic cells. Chart via QIC.

The existing U.S. electrical grid can’t handle too much solar and wind energy.   They’re too variable.   They can’t be counted on when they’re needed most.

Until this changes, electric utilities will continue to rely on their aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants as certain sources of power.

The problem, as Gretchen Bakke describes it in The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, is in the unique nature of electricity as a commodity.   It is the only commodity that has to be used as soon as it is produced.

The historic economic problem of electric power utilities is that they have to be able to supply as much electric power as their customers need at any point in time, but that most of the time this capacity goes unused.   This is especially acute in the USA, Bakke wrote, because we Americans insist on being able to use as much electricity as we want, any time we want it.

The Public Utility Regulatory Power Act – PURPA – requires electric utilities to buy renewable energy at a price equal to their cost of making non-renewable energy.    Now wind and solar electricity are reaching the point in which they’re competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Bakke reported that 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewables.   The percentage is bound to increase.   Denmark reportedly gets 40 percent of its energy just from wind.

The problem is that wind and solar power are not always available when and where they’re needed.  The windiest and sunniest parts of the North American continent are not necessarily where the population is concentrated.   And the windiest and sunniest times of day are not necessarily when energy is most needed.

So some utilities are faced with the problem of insufficient solar and wind energy during some hours of the day, and so much solar and wind energy at other times that managers have to scramble to prevent the grid from being fried.

Solar power, by definition, is only available during the daytime.   But electric power use peaks in the early afternoon.   Fossil fuel and nuclear energy, on the other hand, can be turned on at any time of the day.   Until this mismatch is eliminated, electric utilities can’t stop using non-renewable coal, oil, natural gas or uranium.

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America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

August 31, 2017

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

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Friendship, ancient and modern

August 24, 2017

David Andreatta, a newspaper columnist, wrote that a true friend is somebody you would enjoy having a beer with, and who also would help you move.

Tim Madigan, co-author of the forthcoming Friendship and Happiness, once said to me that a true friend is someone who would visit you more than once if you were in a hospital or hospice.

But in ancient times, the ideal of friendship was that friends would literally sacrifice their lives for one another.

The most famous example is the story of Damon and Pythias, supposedly based on historical fact.  Damon was sentenced to death on charges of plotting against the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, but asked for leave to go home first to attend the funeral of his father.   His friend Pythias volunteered to be a hostage to be executed in Damon’s place if he did not return.

Damon was late, and the tyrant, mocking Pythias for his trust, was about to execute him, when Damon appeared.   He had been kidnapped by pirates, and was able to escape only at the last minute. The tyrant was so touched that he spared their lives.

A.C. Grayling, in his book Friendship (2013), tells a story of an even deeper friendship, the medieval story of the knights Amys and Amylion.   Amys perjured himself in order to save the life of his friend, and, as punishment, was stricken with leprosy. Years later Amylion was told in a dream that he could cure his friend by bathing him in the blood of his children.   He did so, Amys was cured and the children were miraculously restored to life.

I read Friendship over a period of several months as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by Paul Mitacek.   I do not recommend it.  It is rambling, and does not come to interesting conclusions.

But it did raise interesting questions to talk about. Can bad people be friends? Do friends put up with each others’ faults or try to correct them? Do similar or dissimilar people make the best friends?  And just how important is friendship to us today?

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Paul Theroux in the Deep South

August 14, 2017

At the age of 74, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux toured the Deep South in 2012 and 2013.   It was research for his first travel book on his own country.  What he found was “kindness, generosity, a welcome.”

Back home in Cape Cod, he wrote, a stranger would look away if he tried to make eye contact.   In the South, a stranger would be likely to say “hello”.    Strangers, black and white, were quick to offer help and advice, even without his asking for it.

He greatly driving back roads in the South.  He enjoyed Southern cooking and the music in Pentecostal churches.  He made more trips than he originally planned.

But he was shocked by the dire poverty in regions such as the Mississippi Delta, which reminded him of what he saw traveling in Africa.

The difference was that, in Africa, he frequently came across American missionaries, philanthropists and foreign aid workers trying to alleviate poverty.   Poor Southern communities, in his view, are own their own, so far as American corporate executives, politicians and philanthropists are concerned.

I read Theroux’s travel book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (2015) as a followup to the writings of David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard on the origins of American regional cultures.

Theroux skipped big cities such as Atlanta, which he said are little different from Northern cities, nor what he called the Old Magnolia South, the South of horse farms, historic preservation and gracious living.  He did not interview prominent politicians or anybody whose name I’d heard before.

Instead he concentrated on the small towns and back roads, and talked to people he met in diners, churches and gun shows.

The bulk of the book consists of reports of conversations, with roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks.   In most cases, he did not specify the race of the person he was talking to, and I somethings had to read quite a few paragraphs before I could deduce the race from context—which, significantly, I always could do.

Many Southern white people think Northerners see them caricatures, based on how they’re depicted on television and in the movies.   One man told Theroux he gave up watching television because he is tired of programs that only show a smart black man and a stupid white man.

Theroux thinks a certain type of Southern regional writer is partly responsible for this stereotype.   Writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others depicted poor Southern white people as freaks—albinos, hunchbacks, 12-year-old brides, colorful con men and generates.

Not that their tall tales have no merit as stand-alone works of literature, but their approach was a way of not dealing with segregation, chain gangs, sharecroppers and lynchings, Theroux wrote.   Only a few white Southerners wrote about everyday life in the rural South in the kind of way that Anton Chekhov wrote about the frustrations of life in rural Russia.

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The significance of regionalism in U.S. politics

August 4, 2017

Updated 8/5/2017

Click to enlarge

Two things I came to realize from reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America are how much the various regional cultures have changed over time, but how they still have preserved their separate identities.

One of the most interesting parts of his book is his account of how the various regions were changed by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but in different ways.

The four Southern regions (Tidewater, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France) gave up their resistance to legal equality for African-Americans.  The white political establishment in, for example, North Carolina opposes a reform movement of African-Americans and their white allies, but this is done through normal political maneuvering, not murder and terrorism.   This is a revolutionary change.

Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest (El Norte) and French-speaking people in Quebec (New France) changed from being politically passive and oriented toward tradition to being politically active and oriented toward the future.   I think these changes were set in motion by the new thinking of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The “youth revolution” in attitudes toward drug use, military service and sexual morality—”acid, amnesty and abortion”—was limited to the Pacific Coast (the Left Coast), the Northeast (Yankeedom and New Netherland), Woodard wrote.

This, too, was a revolutionary change.   A hundred years ago, you could get arrested as a pornographer in Boston for distributing information on birth control.  Now Boston is a stronghold of Planned Parenthood.

Woodard overlooked another transformative 1960s movement—the new conservative movement represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.   The Far West was once the scene of violent labor strikes with battles between armed workers and company police.   Now there are confrontations  between armed private militias and the federal government.

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Is Canada a nation?

August 3, 2017

In this post, I consider two authors who argue that Canada is not a nation.

Click to enlage. Source: Cyrus Dahmubed

Joel Garreau, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote back in 1981 that the USA and Canada were not actually nations, only a collection of regional cultures.

He claimed that their territories were actually divided among The Nine Nations of North America (shown in the left map above), of which only Quebec was wholly contained within the jurisdiction of Canada and Dixie within the United States.

His conclusions were based on travels and interviews in the late 1970s, and he concluded that there really were six Canadian nations, all but one of which had a metropolis in the United States.  They were:

  • New England (Boston), the U.S. New England states and the Canadian maritime provinces.
  • Quebec (Montreal), the actual province of Quebec.
  • The Foundry (Detroit), the industrial region north and south of the Great Lakes and including the U.S. Middle Atlantic States.
  • The Breadbasket (Kansas City), the agricultural U.S. Great Plains and the Canadian prairie provinces.
  • The Empty Quarter (Denver), the thinly populated, mineral-rich Rocky Mountain states and provinces and the Canadian north.
  • Ecotopia (San Francisco), the Pacific-facing region from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska.

Americans and Canadians within these areas, Garreau argued, had more in common with each other, economically and culturally, than they did with U.S. and Canadian citizens in other regions.

Colin Woodard made the same argument 30 years later in American Nations: a History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America, except that, unlike Garreau, he defined all of his “nations” except the Far West based on their cultural inheritance rather than economics and geography.

He divided Canada into six “nations”, at least four of which overlap with the United States.   They are:

  • First Nation, the newly autonomous American Indian nations in the Canadian North.
  • New France, the heirs of the original French settlers.
  • Yankeedom, roughly corresponding on the Canadian side to Garreau’s New England.
  • Midlands, which I will discuss below.
  • The Far West, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Empty Quarter
  • The Left Coast, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Ecotopia.

Woodard, who lives in Maine, described the sense of unity between New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.  The Canadian Maritimes were settled from New England, he wrote, and Yankees and Maritimers were reluctant to fight each other during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

The provinces of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and New Brunswick were created after the Revolutionary War to provide a refuge for defeated Loyalists after the American Revolution.   Most of those Loyalists, according to Woodard, were pro-British fighters, neutral merchants and farmers and Quaker pacifists from the New York City and Philadelphia regions.

Some of them were loyal to the British crown.   Others were attracted by the offer of free land in Ontario—a forerunner of the U.S. Homestead Act.

British, Scots and Irish settlers came in larger numbers to the Maritimes and Ontario, but, according to Woodard, the settlers from the U.S. Midlands came first and it was they who set the tone for the culture.   That is why his hypothetical Midlands region has such a strange, looping shape.

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Is the American South a nation?

August 1, 2017

What is a nation?  In my opinion, a nation is a group of people who wish to live under an independent sovereign government and whose primary loyalty is to each other.

By that definition, are any of the regional cultures in Colin Woodard’s American Nations nations?

Some North American Indian nations fit that definition.   The French-speaking people of Quebec are a nation; they have achieved virtual sovereignty within the Canadian state.   A certain number of African-Americans and of Mexican-Americans think of themselves as a separate nation.

Woodard described early secessionist attempts in the trans-Appalachian West and talk of secession of New England during the War of 1812, but none of them every came to anything.   There is talk today of secession in California, Texas and other states, but also highly unlikely to come to anything.

The only region within the United States that ever made a sustained struggle to be an independent nation is the American South.

Originally the South, according to Woodard, was not one unified region, nor even two (the mountain and lowland South), but three (which he calls Tidewater, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia).

Click to enlarge.

The difference between Tidewater and the Deep South is that the first is that the Chesapeake Bay region was settled by Cavaliers from southern England, who hoped to reproduce British aristocratic rule as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, and South Carolina was settled by planters from the British colony of Barbados, who intended to establish the slave society of the West Indian sugar islands.

Slavery in the two regions was very different.   The first Africans imported by the Tidewater plantation owners were indentured servants, who had a legal right to freedom after they served their indenture.   Race slavery was introduced only later.

This explains something that puzzled me.   I learned in a biography of Harriet Tubman, who was enslaved in my home state of Maryland, that Maryland in those days had the highest proportion of free black people of any American state.

Click to enlarge.

Later a fellow Marylander, who visited Liberia in his youth as a merchant seaman, said he was astonished at the number of Maryland place names and family names he saw there.

Where did those free Maryland black people come from?

The free black people in Maryland, and the African-American colonists of Virginia, were the descendants of the indentured servants.   Their presence in Maryland and Virginia meant that, even though free black people lacked virtually any legal rights, they still were not quite reduced to the status of livestock.

In contrast, the slave culture of the Spanish, French and British colonies in the West Indies was more like the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi forced labor camps than it was like serfdom in 16th and 17th century Europe.

The West Indian sugar plantations were strictly commercial operations, controlled by a tiny minority of white people, who used terror, torture and the threat of death and mutilation to try to keep slaves under control.   Slaves died at such a rate that the planters needed a continual supply of new slaves to keep operating.

Slavery in South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South was not quite as bad as that, but it was bad enough.   Slaves in Virginia and Kentucky feared being sold down the river to South Carolina and the Gulf states.   But slave owners in the Deep South threatened slaves with being sent to Cuba, which was even worse.

I don’t, of course, intend to justify slavery in any form.  Any time one group of people has absolute power over another, you will reproduce the Stanford prison experiment.

Neither to I intend to imply that Southern white people were all demons or that Northern white people were angels.

Woodard pointed out that there was a time when there were more African slaves in Dutch New Amsterdam than in the region from Maryland to Georgia.   Much of the African slave  trade operated out of Newport, Rhode Island, from which Yankee skippers took trade goods to west Africa, then slaves to the West Indies and then rum back to New England.    The whole newly independent USA  was involved in slavery, not just the South.

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Is the USA one nation, indivisible?

July 29, 2017

Updated 7/5/2017

Colin Woodard, a journalist and historian, claims that the United States of America is not a unified nation, but an arena of struggle among separate and distinct regional cultures.

For more than 250 years, he wrote, American history has been shaped by the basic conflict between regions he calls Yankeedom and Deep South, and the shifting alliances among the other regions.

Canada, too, is shaped by regional identity.   In fact, neither the United States nor Canada is a unified nation at all, according to Woodard; the real nations of North America are the 11 regional cultures, which are as follows:

  • Yankeedom, heirs of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.
  • New Netherland, heirs of the tolerant, commercial Dutch culture of New Amsterdam.
  • Midlands, heirs of the tolerant culture established by Quakers in the Delaware Bay.
  • Tidewater, heirs of the aristocratic culture established by Cavaliers around the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Greater Appalachia, heirs of the original settlers of the Appalachian back country
  • The Deep South, heirs of English West Indian slave owners who settled in South Carolina
  • The Left Coast, heirs of New England Yankees who settled the Pacific Northwest.
  • The Far West, heirs of the varied pioneers who settled this harsh region.
  • El Norte, heirs of the original Spanish settlers of northern Mexico and the American Southwest.
  • New France, heirs of the original French-Canadian settlers and their Cajun cousins.
  • First Nation, heirs of indigenous peoples of the Far North.

I recently finished reading his book, American Nations: the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011), on the recommendation of my friend, Janus Mary Jones.

I think the regional rivalries he described are real.  I learned things I hadn’t known.  But I think he errs in trying to interpret American history exclusively in terms of regional conflict.

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Albion’s seed in Appalachia

July 22, 2017

The hardscrabble people of northern England, the Scottish lowlands and Ulster were cannon fodder for the English-Scottish and English-Irish border wars.

They were uncouth, fierce, stubborn and rebellious, and hard to get along with.

When the border wars ended, they were encouraged to leave for colonial America.  Once here, they were encouraged to leave the coastal settlements for the Appalachian back country.

David Hackett Fischer, in Albion’s Seed, wrote that they were the last of the four great British migrations whose folkways became the basis of American regional cultures.

Fischer stated that each of the folkways had its own concept of freedom.   The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay believed in ordered freedom, the right of communities to live by God’s will and their own laws.  The Cavaliers of tidewater Virginia believed in hegemonic freedom, the power to rule and not be ruled.   The Quakers of the Delaware Bay believed in reciprocal freedom, the duty to allow others all the freedoms you want for yourself.

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The Appalachian backwoodsmen believed in natural liberty, the right to live as you wish without interference by others.   They found this liberty in America and felt at home here.   They and their descendants, when asked their ancestry, are the most likely to merely answer “American.”

Their desire for natural liberty put them in the forefront of the American westward movement.   Kentucky and Tennessee became states before Ohio and Alabama were barely settled from New England and the deep South.

They provide our image of the pioneer West.   Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Kit Carson were products of the Appalachian culture.

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Together with the indentured laborers of the Deep South, they also provide our image of poor white people.

And more recently, they provide our image of right-wing, gun-loving, evolution-denying, diversity-hating supporters of Donald Trump.   This latter image, while not completely false, ignores a lot of history

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Albion’s seed in Quaker Pennsylvania

July 21, 2017

David Hackett Fischer argued in Albion’s Seed that the United States is the product of four relatively small groups of migrants to the 17th and 18th century Atlantic seaboard.

The first wave, John Winthrop’s Puritans, established a repressive theocracy in Massachusetts Bay.   The second, Sir William Berkeley’s Cavaliers, established a haughty and repressive aristocracy in tidewater Virginia.

But the third wave, William Penn’s Quakers, established a community around the Delaware Bay based on values that most 21st century Americans could accept.

Quakers believed that all human beings possess an Inner Light which enables them to establish a relationship with God.   They lacked the Puritan sense of sin and the Cavalier sense of hierarchy.

The Quakers opposed war, opposed artificial distinctions among human beings and opposed religious persecution.   They did not weigh down their children with a sense of sin, like the Puritans, nor encourage self-centered pride, like the Cavaliers.   They came the closest of any of the colonists to practicing social equality and equality within marriage.

Many were prosperous and sophisticated merchants—aided by the Quaker reputation for honesty and fair dealing and by the Quaker practice of lending money to each other at zero or low-interest

Like the Puritans, they were extremely austere and enforced strict standards of behavior within their group.   But their method of enforcement was shunning—not the whipping post or the stocks.

Pacifism and toleration are not good memes for staying in power, and the Quakers in a few generations lost positions of power in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.   But they continued to influence the general American culture.

They were the first and foremost opponents of slavery and advocates of women’s rights in the early 19th century USA.   In all of the great New England movements for humanitarian reform, whether regarding prison inmates, the insane or even animals, the Quakers were there first.

I don’t, however, see the Quakers as the founders of a regional culture—unlike the New England Puritans, Virginia Cavaliers and Appalachian borderers.

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Albion’s seed in the South

July 20, 2017

The Cavalier settlers of tidewater Virginia were noted for their strong sense of rank—much more so than the Puritans, Quakers or Apppalachian borderers.   That is a heritage that continues today.

Rank in the old army sense of “rank has its privileges”.   Rank in the sense of expecting men to take off their hats and women to curtsey in your presence.   Rank based not just on wealth and power, but on hereditary privilege.

This was idea behind the 17th and 18th century English class system, based on the idea of the “great chain of being.”  God was at the top, then the King who ruled by divine right, then the different ranks of aristocrats, yeomen and tenants.

David Hackett Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed that the early Virginia settlers, of all the North American colonists, were the strongest royalists and the most committed to aristocratic privilege.

The Quakers at the other extreme were persecuted because they refused to recognize  rank.   They refused to call people “mister” or “your excellency” or anything but “friend.”

The Appalachian borderers talked to each other as if they were equals, but they respected wealth and power men who were strong enough to acquire it and hold on to it.

The Puritans abbreviated the English order of rank.   They didn’t have hereditary aristocrats, and they didn’t allow any members of their communities to sink into absolute poverty.  But the “meaner sort” were expected to take off their hats and show deference to the “better sort.”

But the Virginia Cavaliers, whose families warred with the Puritans back in Britain, imported the English rank system in all its glory.    Fischer said the Virginians believed in what he called “hegemonic freedom.”   The idea is that you are free to the extent that you have power over other people and nobody has power over you.

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How four of Albion’s seeds sprouted in America

July 17, 2017

A New Englander once told me about traveling in the South, and stopping at a convenience store to ask for directions.  Even though there was a long line of people waiting to be served, the clerk came out from behind the counter and did everything she could to make sure the traveler was properly oriented.

The waiting customers did not resent this.  Instead they joined in and tried to assist the clerk.   A New England clerk would not have done this, my acquaintance said.  It is not that the New Englander would have been less concerned.  It is just that a Southerner would regard hospitality to a stranger as the first obligation, and a New Englander, equally kind, would have made sure that customers were served.

We Americans are very conscious of our regional differences.  I wonder if they’re apparent to foreigners.

We have sayings, such as: If you introduce yourself to New Englanders, they’ll ask where you went to school; to New Yorkers, they’ll ask what you do for a living; to Southerners, they’ll ask what church you attend; to Minnesotans, they’ll not ask personal questions of a stranger because that’s impolite.

Recently my friend Janus Mary Jones lent me a copy of ALBION’S SEED: Four Regional English Folkways in America, a fascinating 1986 book by a historian named David Hackett Fischer, which attempts to explain American regional differences in terms of colonial origins.

Fischer made the bold claim that the seeds of present-day American culture were planted by four relatively small groups of migrants from different regions of England at certain periods of history, and that American history is largely the flowering of these seeds.

The four groups of migrants were:

  • 21,000 Puritans who left East Anglia for Massachusetts Bay in 1621-1640.
  • 45,000 Cavaliers and their servants who left southern and western England for tidewater Virginia in 1642-1675.
  • 23,000 Quakers who left the English Midlands, along with German Pietist allies, for the Delaware Valley in 1675-1713.
  • 250,000 borderers who left northern England, the Scottish lowlands and northern Ireland for the Appalachia backcountry in 1717-1773,

Although few in number originally, these colonists multiplied and spread, Fischer wrote, and they established the cultural frameworks to which later migrants had to adapt.

These cultures were very different from each other and also very stereotypical, Fischer wrote.   The Puritans were very puritanical, the Cavaliers were very haughty and aristocratic, the Quakers were very plain and peaceful and the Appalachian borderers were very rebellious and violent.   None of these qualities originated in North America.  They all had roots in their British places of origin.

A blogger named Scott Alexander has written an informative and readable revew describing these four cultures.  Rather than try to summarize, excerpt or improve on what Alexander wrote, I will just link to his post.

I think the impact of these four original settlements was important, but I don’t want to exaggerate.   Present-day Americans have more in common with each other than we do with 17th and 18th century Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers or Appalachian backwoodsmen.

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The vested interests in organizational stupidity

July 12, 2017

Supposedly we Americans live in a “knowledge economy,” in which the source of wealth is neither financial capital, physical plants or natural resources, but the knowledge, expertise and intelligence of individual human beings.   We have a whole industry called “information technology.”

But although employers require ever-higher levels of academic credentials, this is not reflected in the work itself.   College graduates wind up doing work that high school graduates once did, and high school graduates do work that school dropouts once did.

In the early 20th century, businesses adopted a practice called Taylorism—resolving factory work into the simplest, most basic, mindless human motions.  Now we have McDonaldization—resolving service work into the following of simple checklists.

Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, in their 2016 book, THE STUPIDITY PARADOX: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, attribute this to the tendency of organizations to suppress critical thinking because of their need for obedience to orders and smooth internal functioning.

What they write is true as far as it goes, but organizational stupidity is more than a simple mistake in setting priorities.   Organizational stupidity is maintained by powerful vested interests.

Knowledge Is Power

Knowledge is power.  If I am a supervisor and my subordinate is more knowledgeable and competent than I am, that diminishes my power.   What college graduate, fresh out of business school, wants to be contradicted by some grouchy old skilled craftsman, who has less schooling but may know more than he does?

Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Power and David Noble, in America by Design and Forces of Production, described the de-skilling of the American work force and the development of technologies devoted to increasing command and control by management rather than increasing productivity as such.

The more knowledgeable and skilled a worker is, the more power the worker has in relation to the employer, both as an individual and as a member of a labor union.   So knowledge and skills aren’t necessarily wanted except where they are indispensable.

A friend of mine who went back to school in mid-life to get an advanced degree in his specialty discovered that employers did not want his new skills.  What they wanted, he said, was “a jack of all trades who would work cheap.”   Employers see more benefit in having replaceable workers than in having  productive workers.

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The theory and practice of functional stupidity

July 12, 2017

You need to be remarkably intelligent to be functionally stupid.
==Mats Alvesson & André Spicer, The Stupidity Paradox

A higher percentage of Americans than ever before have advanced college degrees.  I.Q. test scores are higher in every generation, a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect.   Information technology is a major industry, and we talk about our “knowledge economy.”

So why do corporations and other big organizations do so many stupid things?

Two management experts, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, say that the explanation is what they call “functional stupidity”—which is “the inability and /or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflexive capability in anything other than narrow or circumspect ways.”

No big organization could function efficiently if everybody in it thought critically and independently about everything they did.    The whole point of hierarchy is to enable obedience to orders on a large scale..

In a hierarchy, employees have to teach themselves to focus on their own jobs and not worry about the big picture.   Otherwise the organization wouldn’t function smoothly.

Functional stupidity reduces conflict, soothes anxiety, improves morale and increases self-esteem.   The problem is when the organization is blind-sided by reality.

The philosopher John Dewey said that all human action is the result of impulse, habit or reasoning.   It is not humanly possible to reason out every single aspect of life, according to Dewey.   We turn to reason  when our habitual ways of acting or thinking fail us.   Why do people in big organizations so often fail to turn to reason before it is too late?

In their 2016 book, THE STUPIDITY PARADOX: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer identify five categories of functional stupidity.

Leadership-Induced Stupidity

 In contemporary organizations, it’s thought that the duty of an executive is not only to manage, but to inspire.   Leaders are supposed to be “change agents.”  But change can be either good or bad, depending on circumstances.  Adolf Hitler, after all, was a transformational leader.

Executives can waste their time engaging in what they think is inspirational leadership to the detriment of their tasks as managers— budgeting, assigning work, quality control, employee evaluation and so on.   Most employees, according to Alvesson and Spicer, don’t want leadership.  They just want to be left alone to do their jobs.

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Steven Pinker on moral fiction

July 9, 2017

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Source: New York Times.

Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

May 17, 2017

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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