Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

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Matthew Crawford on cultural “jigs”

December 7, 2018

I’m currently re-reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, this time as part of a reading group.  In the following passage, Crawford compares “jigs” used by skilled craft workers to simplify their tasks to cultural constraints that simplify moral choices.

In the boom after World War II, the [American] left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.

In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influence—through deregulation.

Few institutions or sites of cultural authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials—there was little that seemed defensible.

Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives.  [snip]

The combined effects of these liberating and deregulating effects of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.

Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we [Americans] are now very fat, very much in debt and very prone to divorce.

The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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What’s so great about democracy?

November 14, 2018

My core political beliefs are the ideals of American freedom and democracy I was taught as a schoolboy.  My belief in freedom as a political ideal was challenged by a book I read recently, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (2018).

Now I have read another, Breaking Democracy’s Spell  by John Dunn (2014), a gift from an old friend of mine, which questions democracy as a political ideal.

Dunn believes that the idea of democracy—especially as understood by 21st century Americans—is incoherent.  Unlike Deneen with liberalism, he does not have a theory of democracy; he just criticizes the shallowness of American thinking on the topic.  Oddly, he deals with the experience of only three countries, the USA, India and China.

He maintains that most Americans fail to realize that—

  1. Democracy does not guarantee good government.
  2. Democracy does not guarantee human rights or the rule of law.
  3. Voting affects governmental decisions but little.  Its main purpose is to give the public the impression they are in control.
  4. Democracy has been in bad repute through most of Western history.  
  5. Democracy’s current popularity is a product of specific circumstances in the past few centuries and may not last.
  6. China’s authoritarian system may prove to be more lasting than democracy as practiced in the USA or India.

Here are my thoughts.

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A novelist for a multi-cultural age

October 26, 2018

I recently read two novels, Let the Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013), by the Irish-born writer Colum McCann that astonished me by his ability to imaginatively get inside the minds of people of different races, different social classes, different cultures and different historical eras, and give the reader an idea of what it was like to be them.

Thomas Wolfe wrote great novels by processing his own life experience.  I would take nothing away from respect for his achievement.  I think McCann’s achievement, in processing the life experiences of people very different from himself and from each other, is of a different order.  Reading his novels helps me feel more at home in a multi-cultural age, in which I rub shoulders with people whose backgrounds and assumptions are different from my own.

I don’t, however, recommend his novels because they are multi-cultural.  I recommend them because McCann is a good storyteller and literary stylist.

∞∞∞

Let the Great World Spin is about the destinies of a diverse gallery of characters in New York City, linked by two events of August 7, 1974—one real, one fictional.

The real event was a tightrope walker performing on a cable slung between the newly built Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  The fictional event, which occurs in the first chapter, is the death in a highway accident of John Corrigan, an Irish priest who is trying to live according to the precepts of Jesus among prostitutes and outcasts in the Bronx.

McCann had the ability to imagine himself inside the heads of people different from each other and different from himself—men and women, black, white and Hispanic, rich, poor and middle class, and, repeatedly, the mind of a death-defying tightrope walker.

He was a marvelous descriptive writer, both in his ability to portray human thoughts and feelings and his ability to depict life in New York in the 1970s.  His prose is a pleasure and an inspiration for anyone who cares about writing.

Corrigan is at the center of the novel, but is never presented in his own voice, but only through the eyes of others—his older brother from Ireland, a drug-addicted artist who attends his funeral, a prostitute whom he befriends, a nurse who is in love with him, and a judge who mistakes him for a pimp.

He is repeatedly beaten by pimps for showing kindness to prostitutes, such as letting them use the toilet in his apartment. He never fights back, but tries to return good for evil.  We get glimpses of how hard it must be to try to live by such a commitment, not to mention how hard it is to keep his vow of chastity.

I won’t try to summarize the book or list all its characters, but one of the most memorable consists of the reflections of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and career prostitute, looking back on her life prior to hanging herself in a prison cell.

In her whole life, literally no-one has ever been kind to her except Corrigan and a Middle Eastern man who once paid her to spend a weekend with him so he could appreciate her beauty.   Her idea of love is the abusive relationships she has had with pimps.  She thinks that when she dies, she will confront God and demand to know why He treated her as He did.

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What’s so great about freedom?

October 24, 2018

Liberalism is the belief that human rights are the most important value.  I have believed this for most of my life..

I just got finishing reading a book, WHY LIBERALISM FAILED by Patrick J. Deneen (2018) that says it is impossible to build a nation or a society on this basis.

And that most of the troubles of the United States today are the result of trying to build a society on this false basis.

Liberalism has failed because it has triumphed, Deneen writes.  Its triumph makes manifest the flaws that were there all along.

He has strong arguments for this (even though, in the last chapter, he halfway takes them back – I will get to this is due course).

He explores the same territory as Chris Arnade, Zygmunt Bauman, Matthew CrawfordRod Dreher and Pankaj Mishra. There’s a lot to think about.

Deneen defines liberalism as the philosophy that says the most important thing is freedom to choose.   One version is classic liberalism, which in the USA is called conservatism, that says freedom means government should not restrict individual freedom of choice.

Another version is progressive liberalism, that says government can and should empower individual choice by promoting education, public health, retirement security and the like.

Classic liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by a powerful government; progressive liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by powerful private organizations.  Deneen believes there are systemic reasons for his.

He says both forms of liberalism differ from the older conception of liberty as self-government.  In the older conception, free individuals were those who were in control of their passions, greed, anger and fears, and did not need external control, and a free community was likewise keeping itself in order without external control.

As a wise friend of mine, Michael Brown, once remarked, individualism used to mean self-reliance, and now means self-expression.

Liberal ideas originated in Western culture about 500 years ago with Francis Bacon, according to Deneen; he  thought that the advance of science and knowledge would enable humanity to control nature rather than being subject to it.  Individual people were separate and independent of nature, not part of a great chain of being.

 

 

These ideas began to be put into practice about 250 years ago, by thinkers who believed it would be more realistic to found society on the basis of rational self-interest rather than on ideals that were often ignored.

Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” was an economic system in which entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest competed to serve the common good.  James Madison’s idea of constitutional government was to set up checks and balances so that the conflicting ambitions of politicians resulted in a balance that served the common good.

When Smith, Madison and other early liberals wrote of people acting out of self-interest, they weren’t thinking of sociopaths.  They were thinking of the normal level of selfishness of respectable middle-class British subjects and American citizens.  But the British and American liberals of that day were the heirs of an older moral culture that they took for granted.

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Does American labor need its own party?

October 5, 2018

Organized labor in the United States is committed to the Democratic Party, but, as the late Tony Mazzocchi came to realize, the Democratic Party is not committed to organized labor.

TonyMazzocchibiogralph51GaK-Gub-L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Les Leopold’s biography, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, tells how Mazzocchi’s final days were devoted to trying to create a Labor Party in the United States.

The dilemma of any labor party is that by taking votes away from a Democratic candidate that is indifferent to the needs of workers, it risks throwing the election to a Republican who is actively hostile to workers.

Mazzocchi’s answer was that a Labor Party should refrain from running candidates for at least 10 years, or until it had a realistic chance of winning.

Meanwhile it should continue politics by other means—supporting strikes and boycotts, educating workers on the issues, pressuring and lobbying politicians on the issues and holding them accountable.

Running candidates in elections is only one part of politics, Mazzocchi said.

He was a strong supporter of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy in his younger days, and helped build the Democratic Party on the Republican stronghold of Long Island.

But, as he noted, it was Richard M. Nixon, not John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  That was not because Nixon was pro-labor, but that labor unions in 1970 exerted enough power to bring him around.

He was disappointed with the Carter administration, which failed to enact modest pro-labor legislation despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.  But the impetus for a Labor Party came with the Clinton administration, which openly turned its back on the union movement.

The Labor Party made a good start in the 1990s, when there was a temporary upsurge in union membership and militancy.  At its peak, according to organizer Mark Dudzic, its affiliates comprised six national unions and 500 local unions and associated groups, representing 20 percent of union members.

But many labor activists turned against third-party movements after the 2000 election, when Mazzocchi’s friend Ralph Nader ran for President on the Green Party ticket and was blamed for throwing the election to George W. Bush.  Support for the Labor Party leveled off and then declined.

U.S. labor unions still have little voice in the Democratic Party.  President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said they “have no place to go.”  And the movement is even weaker than in 2002, when Mazzocchi died.

Mazzocchi’s long-term fear, according to Les Leopold, was the emergence of a right-wing American working-class movement organized around issues of race, immigration and nationalism.  If progressives can’t or won’t protect workers’ economic interests, somebody else will fill that void.

LINKS

Party Time: an excerpt from The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor.

What Happened to the Labor Party? An interview with Mark Dudzic in Jacobin.

American labor and the environmental movement

October 5, 2018

Down through the years, corporate polluters have told their employees they have a choice of working under toxic conditions or not having any jobs at all.

All too often workers accepted this tradeoff, and treated environmentalists as their enemies.  It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome—hostages identifying with their captors.

Environmentalists for their part have often neglected workers.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Barry Commoner’s Science and Survival (1967) warned the public of the danger of pesticides, but had little to say about the danger to workers who manufactured these pesticides.

Few workers understood the dangers of the chemicals to which they were exposed.  Few environmentalists knew the extent of worker exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The great accomplishment of Tony Mazzocchi, whose life story is told in Les Leopold’s The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Laborwas to bring environmentalists and workers together.

He never criticized environmentalists as being privileged people who failed to understand the realities of workers’ lives.  Instead he tried to bring the environmental movement and the labor movement together.

He had Commoner give eye-opening talks to members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ union on the medical effects of chemicals they worked with.

Mazzocchi helped organize the coalition of labor unions and environmentalists that is credited for enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act of 1970.

The OSHA law gave the Secretary of Labor the power to set health and safety standards and to enforce them through workplace inspections.  It gave unions and other interested groups the right to petition for new or stronger standards, and the right to call for inspections in the face of “imminent danger.”  It required employers to provide a work environment free from hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

But as he soon found, having these legal rights was one thing, and getting the federal government to enforce them was another.   As I read accounts in the book of how the government tolerated blatant hazards, I remember my experience in reporting on business in the 1980s.  Small business owners complained of being put to great expense to fix problems that seemed picayune both them and to me.

At the same time big corporations continued to endanger the lives and health of their employees in blatant ways, and, as Les Leopold reported, the government inspectors weren’t interested.

Tony Mazzocchi said more is needed—a workers’ “right to know” what chemicals they are being exposed to and their properties, and a “right to act” to protect themselves.  The ultimate goal, he said, should be to eliminate hazardous chemicals altogether.

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Communism, American labor unions and the CIA

October 4, 2018

One thing I learned from reading Les Leopold’s biography of the visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi was the great harm done to the labor movement by the anti-Communist drive of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

It drove out some of the most effective and dedicated labor organizers, created lasting bitterness and division within labor and led to a secret alliance with the Central Intelligence Agency.

This was not just something imposed on labor by the anti=Communist oath required under the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.  It was part of a drive by liberals such as Walter Reuther, who organized a purge of the United Auto Workers, and Hubert Humphrey, who did the same for the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.

I came of age in the 1950s and, as I became politically aware, I became a Cold War liberal myself.  I thought of Communists as followers of a kind of cult, blindly following a leader, who in this case happened to be Joseph Stalin, one of history’s bloodiest tyrants.

The Mazzocchi biography shows this view had some truth in it, but it was not the whole story.  Some American Communists were among the bravest fighters for civil rights and labor rights.

They ran African-Americans for public office at a time when no Democrat or Republican dared to do so.   The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted white adviser was a former top Communist fund-raiser.

It seems like a paradox that fighters for democracy and freedom in their own country could be mesmerized by a totalitarian foreign ruler, but it was so.

The writer Doris Lessing, who was a Communist in Rhodesia as a young woman, said the idea, however illusory, that she was being backed up by a powerful country where ideals of justice gave her spiritual strength.

Tony Mazzocchi was never a Communist and never followed any party line, Communist or otherwise.  He thought many of the Communists he knew were unrealistic and overly ideological.   He didn’t hate, fear or shun them, but he was held back—for example, when he considered running for Congress from Long Island—by the fear that these associations could be used to discredit him and the labor movement.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, like the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO itself, worked closely and secretly with the Central Intelligence Agency to support anti-Communist unions in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

If I had known about it at the time, I would have thought it was a good idea.  Moscow supported pro-Communist unions, so what would be wrong with Washington supporting anti-Communist unions?   I would have seen this all in the context of a great struggle of democracy against totalitarianism.

The problem with the way I thought back then was the assumption that the CIA, which had engineered the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala, could be trusted as an ally of either workers or democracy.

In the 1950s, there was a fear of Communist infiltration and subversion of left-wing and progressive movements.  But the really effective infiltrators and subversives were the FBI and the CIA.

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Tony Mazzocchi, a working-class hero

October 4, 2018

Organized labor in the United States has been in decline for decades.  If labor unions are to make a comeback, they should learn from the example of Tony Mazzocchi (1926-2002) who was vice-president and then secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union

Mazzocchi sought an alliance between the labor movement and the environmental movement and the peace movement, which have all too often regarded each other as antagonists.  President Nixon credited him with inspiring the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

He was a friend of Karen Silkwood, the whistle-blower who revealed the toxic working conditions at the Kerr-McGee

He fought for equal rights for African-Americans and pay equity for women before these were headline issues.

He thought the labor movement made a big mistake in its unconditional loyalty to the Democratic Party, whose leadership has taken workers’ support for granted, and in the years prior to his death in 2002 was trying to create institutions to give labor an independent voice.

I confess that I knew nothing about him until my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of THE MAN WHO HATED WORK and Loved Labor: the Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold (2007).

This book is well-written and thoroughly researched.  Although Les Leopold was a friend and protegé of Mazzocchi’s, he depicts his mistakes and failings as well as his successes.

Mazzocchi really did hate work as it is organized in American industry, and he didn’t think anybody ought to have to work under existing conditions.

He believed that no wage-earner need work for more than 20 hours a day, and that workers should have the final say in how work is organized.

I read somewhere that the average chemical worker lives less than 10 years beyond his retirement date.  In contrast, I spent my work life on newspapers, and I have enjoyed 20 years of a pleasant retirement and may well enjoy four or five or even more to come.

This is not because I exercised or ate a healthy diet, but because I had a job that didn’t kill me.  Workers in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries have as much right to live out their natural life span as I do.

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Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

September 21, 2018

View story at Medium.com

These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.

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Adam Tooze on the global financial crisis

August 28, 2018

The great economic historian Adam Tooze, in his just-published book, CRASHED: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, showed me things I hadn’t known, and made me rethink things I thought I understood.

Above all, he jolted me out of thinking of the 2008 financial crisis as primarily an American crisis.  It was global in nature, its consequences are still rippling through the world economy and its basic causes have not been dealt with

It is a kind of bookend to his earlier book, THE DELUGE: The Great War, America and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931. 

In the earlier book, Tooze described the continuing debt crisis following World War One, with Germans unable to pay reparations and the Allies unable to pay their war loans, and how the ongoing debt crisis shaped international relations and governmental policy in that era.

The United States, as the world’s top industrial power and top creditor nation, dominated the world financial system, but American leaders lacked both the understanding and the political means to resolve the crisis.  All the United States could think to do was lend money to Germany to keep the system from crashing.  In the end the financial system crashed anyhow..

Prior to the 2008 crash, the United States was in the opposite situation.   U.S. industrial power had been hollowed out and the United States was the world’s top debtor nation.  Economists feared the “twin deficits”—the U.S. trade deficit and government budget deficit—would cause runaway inflation.

This didn’t happen.  The U.S. dollar continues to be the medium of world trade, and the financial markets continue to consider U.S. Treasury bonds the world’s safest financial asset.

American financial leaders such as Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers acted boldly to meet the crisis. They bailed out banks, stabilized the financial system and averted a 1930s-type great depression, which was a real possibility.

That was no small achievement.  What they failed to do was to reform the system so as to reduce the possibility of a second crash.

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I had put the blame for the crash on Clinton-era deregulation, which gave free rein to speculation and to unethical and illegal (but unprosecuted) manipulation of the subprime mortgage market.   Financial markets have always been subject to cycles of expansion and recession, but removing the brakes made the crash a disaster instead of just a problem.

What I learned from Crashed is that deregulation was international.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government completely deregulated British financial markets in 1986, in what was called the “Big Bang.”  Her hope was to make the City of London, the British equivalent of Wall Street, the world financial center, and she succeeded.  American, European and Asian banks all made London their major hub, even though they did business in dollars.   The purpose of Clinton-era regulation was to enable Wall Street to catch up with the City of London.

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How the West empowers Central Asian tyrants

August 8, 2018

The regime of Islam Karimov, who ruled the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, once had a couple of dissidents boiled alive.  When the grandmother of one of them complained publicly, she was sentenced to six years in prison.

People under his rule could be jailed, tortured or killed for the slightest reason.  Police raped women at will.  His country’s chief export crop, cotton, was picked by forced labor.  Karimov’s family, especially his daughter Gulnara, and his cronies controlled the economy.

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But he was not a primitive tyrant ruling a backward country remote from the centers of civilization.  Rather he and his fellow Central Asian dictators were intimately connected with global finance and politics, and owed their power to those connections..

International banks helped Karimov and his family take their wealth out of the country and hide it.  Russian, American and Chinese governments completed for his favor, and turned a blind eye when his secret services reached out to capture and kill political opponents living abroad.

Corrupt Third World dictators that Western governments support are not mere puppets.  Empowering them means compromising and corrupting institutions that are supposedly based on the rule of law.

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I recently read two books about Central Asia – MURDER IN SAMARKAND: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror by Craig Murray (2006) and DICTATORS WITHOUT BORDERS: Power and Money in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathersaw (2017).   I’ll first comment on Murray’s book, then on the other book.

Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian nations were part of the Soviet Union until it broke up.  Their governments were continuations of the former Communist governments.

Craig Murray was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004. His descriptions of life in Uzbekistan reminds me of accounts of the USSR in the 1930s

He was a colorful character—a drinker, a womanizer and a proud Scot who appeared in formal occasions in Highland dress complete with kilt.  But his physical and moral courage were indisputable.

He once found himself with a stalled car on a country road, alone except for his female interpreter, a female staff member and the widow of a murder victim.

A couple of roughnecks approached, and the widow whispered Murray that they were the murderers of her husband.  Murray pushed one of them in the chest, told them he was the British ambassador and to get out of his way.  He did.

He in theory was supposed to advocate for human rights laws that the British government had endorsed, but in reality, his superiors wanted him to go along with U.S. policy, which was to support Karimov as a valued supporter of the U.S. “war on terror” and interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Uzbekistan was part of the Northern Supply Route, by which U.S. forces in Afghanistan are supported by way of Russia and Central Asia, and it allowed a U.S. air based on its territory.

This mean that Murray was expected to overlook at lot, as he told a Guardian reporter at the time:

People come to me very often after being tortured.  Normally this includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids including complete immersion of the body.  This is not uncommon.  Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities.

Source: The Guardian

He once interviewed an old professor about imprisoned Uzbek dissidents.  A short time later, the body of the professor’s 18-year-old grandson, bearing the marks of torture, was dumped on the professor’s doorstep.  That is the “murder in Samarkand” in the title.

The U.S. ambassador strongly opposed Murray’s meddling.  At the time was Uzbekistan was a destination for American “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists.  The CIA set great store by information obtained by torture and so did the British government.

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Science fiction the way it used to be

July 27, 2018

SF writer Neal Stephenson, speaking at a conference in 2011, lamented the decline of the U.S. space program and of big engineering projects generally.

Another panelist, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said this is partly the fault of science fiction writers themselves.

He said science fiction is culturally important in creating hieroglyphs—symbolic goals such as Robert A. Heinlein’s space rockets, Isaac Asimov’s robots or, in a later era, William Gibson’s cyberspace.

Science fiction writers, he said, need to abandon their dystopian preoccupations and revive the spirit of techno-optimism of the 1940s and 1950s.

In response to this challenge, Arizona State University commissioned an anthology entitled HIEROGLYPH: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.  Containing stories by 17 writers, it was published in 2014.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a Little Free Library.

Project Hieroglyph asked them to write about ideas that could be realized within one professional lifetime and implement technologies that exist today or will exist in the near future.  Writers were encouraged to consult with ASU scientists, and each story is followed by Internet links discussing feasibility.

I found the resulting stories interesting and I read the anthology to the end.  Somebody with a stronger background in science and technology than mine probably would find them more interesting.

Calls for “techno-optimism” is are calls for optimism not just about the possibilities of technology, but also about the possibilities of American capitalism.

In the same way, Soviet science fiction writers in the 1970s and Chinese science fiction writers today were supposed to encourage technological innovation, but not political innovation.

Science fiction writers should not be limited to suggesting incremental improvements and improving public morale.

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Science fiction and the loss of the future

When I was a boy and young man in the 1940s and 1950s, I looked forward to the future.   I had more opportunities before me than my parents had, and I saw no reason why this would not continue for future generations.  I devoured Robert A. Heinlein’s SF boys’ books and thought his positive vision was reflected in the world around me.

I no longer feel this way.  Succeeding generations have fewer opportunities than I did.  My main reason for hope is the knowledge that the future is unknowable.

Few young people today read Heinlein or Neal Stephenson, whom I consider Heinlein’s literary successor.   They read the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy because it is an extrapolation of their lives.

In my youth, the world’s best thinkers thought about how to make the world a better place.  Now they think about how to avoid catastrophe.

Neal Stephenson, in his “Innovation Starvation” article, says science fiction writers are too pessimistic and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there are many science fiction writers who are very hopeful about human possibility.  I’m thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod and the late Ursula Le Guin; if I followed the field more closely, I’m sure I could think of others.

These are not considered techno-optimists, even though Robinson and MacLeod are very sophisticated about technology, because their hopefulness is based on the possibility of fundamental change.

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Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option

July 20, 2018

Conservative American Christians have lost the culture war, according to Rod Dreher.  While the United States may have a Christian veneer, American society is not based on Christian values.  True Christians are becoming a minority group.

Dreher’s best-selling book, THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), is about how Christians can survive and thrive as a minority.

American society is being shaped, or rather dissolved, by what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity,” Dreher wrote.   There are no stable structures—political, economic, social or moral.  Everything is changing, so nobody can commit to a fixed role or even a fixed identity.

The result, according to Dreher, is moral disintegration.  Some 41 percent of American babies are born out of wedlock.  Pornography is everywhere.  Materialism and consumerism prevail.  The educational system is geared toward teaching how to achieve personal economic success, and nothing more.

The election of “someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative and morally compromised” as Donald Trump is not a solution to American’s moral decline, Dreher wrote, but a symptom of it.

The churches by and large do not resist this because they have been hollowed out.  He said this is true not only of the liberal churches (which he mostly ignores), but Evangelicals and Catholics.  Few young people have any understanding of the religious doctrines they supposedly believe in.

The prevailing implicit religion is what another sociologist, Christian Smith, called moralistic therapeutic deism—his term for what he found to be prevailing beliefs among young 21st century Americans.

Its tenets are (1) God created you, (2) God wants you to be a nice person, (3) the main goal in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself, (4) you can call on God when you have a problem and (5) good people go to heaven.

The problem for this for Dreher is not just that it ignores basic Christian teachings, such as sin and the need for repentance, and the need for prayer and worship.

It is the absence of understanding that there is a social order, a natural order and a supernatural order of which the individual is only a part, and that individuals cannot flourish if they cut themselves off from the order of things.

Dreher wrote that Christians today need to do what Saint Benedict did at the dawn of the 6th century A.D.  Benedict withdrew from the Roman society of his day and organized a new community based on a balance of work and prayer.

The Benedictines did not withdraw from society.  Hospitality was one of their principles.  But neither did they allow themselves to be absorbed by the prevailing society.  Instead they created an alternative that, in due time, became an example to others.

Most of The Benedict Option consists of reporting on contemporary Christians who are trying to do in our time what Saint Benedict did in is.   He begins with the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, which was suppressed by Napoleon in 1810, but revived by Father Cassian Folsom, a 61-year-old American, along with others in December, 2000.

Not everybody is called on to be monks, but all Christians can learn from their practice, Dreher wrote.  Families should set aside specific days and times for prayer, Bible study and serious religious conversation, and stick to that schedule, even when inconvenient.

He interviewed Czech and Polish Christians about how they survived under Communism, not by fighting the Communist governments directly, but by manifesting an alternative to life based on materialism.

He wrote about efforts large and small by Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States to build community and preserve authentic Christianity.

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Seymour Hersh: a reporter of the old school

July 11, 2018

Seymour Hersh is the outstanding investigative reporter of his generation.  From the My Lai massacre to the Abu Ghraib torture center , he made a career of exposing things that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies didn’t want the American people to know.

His new memoir makes me feel I wasted my 40 years working on newspapers.  I never really got below the surface of things.  The world was a very different place than I thought it was.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting of the My Lai massacre.  All he had to go on was a tip that a soldier at Fort Benning had been court-martialed for massacring Vietnamese civilians.  He systematically scanned microfilm records of the New York Times and found a short item inside the newspaper about a Lt. William Calley being court-martialed for the death of an unspecified number of Vietnamese civilians.

Later he was told the last name of Calley’s lawyer—Latimer.  With that to go on, he was able to locate George Latimer, a returned judge on the Military Court of Appeals now practicing law in Salt Lake City.   Latimer confirmed that he was defending Calley, but refused to help Hersh locate him.  He finally did by driving into Fort Benning and finding Calley for himself.

What Calley told Hersh was far worse than he suspected at the time, and far worse than I remember it.   The massacre was not something that happened in the heat of battle.   It was a systematic killing for more than 700 people, including women (after being raped) and babies.

In a follow-up, Hersh learned there was a soldier named Paul Meadlo in Calley’s unit who’d lost a foot to a land mine.  He told Calley that God had punished him for what he did, and would punish Calley, too.  All Hersh knew was the Meadlo lived somewhere in Indiana.  He called telephone information operators in Indiana until he found his man.

His first book, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal, was published in 1968,   He reported that, among other things, there were some 3,300 accidents at Fort Detrick, Maryland, involving biological warfare research, resulting in the infection of more than 500 men and three known deaths, two from anthrax.

Fort Detrick’s experiments resulted in the deaths in experiments each year of 700,000 laboratory animals, ranging from guinea pigs to monkeys.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church supplied 1,400 conscientious objectors to Fort Detrick to do alternative service in the form of being exposed to airborne tularemia and other infectious diseases.  Hersh said that at least some of them had no idea what they had volunteered for or been exposed to.

I mention this because at the time, I was a reporter for the Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, and Fort Detrick was within our circulation area.  I had no idea that any of this was going on, and I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had been told.

Hersh uncovered the facts by first obtaining a Science magazine article that listed all of the U.S. military’s chemical-biological warfare centers in the United States, then obtaining the in-house newspapers for these centers.  The newspapers listed retirement parties for officers leaving the service, and Hersh sought them out to interview.   Enough of them were bothered by what they had seen to provide the information for Hersh’s articles and book.

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Paul Revere and American independence

July 4, 2018

Paul Revere was much more than the man who rode to warn the troops at Lexington and Concord that the British were on their way.

He was a true revolutionary whose methods in some ways resemble revolutionaries and insurgents of todays.  He was one of the most important leaders in a network of revolutionary organizations that engaged in propaganda, espionage and preparation for armed revolt.

He helped bring Britain’s Massachusetts colony to the tipping point of armed revolt, the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and make that revolt successful.

PAUL REVERE’S RIDE by David Hackett Fischer (1994) tells the true story of Paul Revere as part of a detailed account of the events leading up to Lexington and Concord and an hour-by-hour account of what happened on that fateful day.

In giving a granular factual account of what happened on a particular day, Fischer threw light on many things—including manners, morals and day-to-day life in 1775 Massachusetts, how American and British political and social values differed, and how this was reflected in their respective military tactics.

In 1774-1775 Britain, you could be an artisan or mechanic who worked with his hands, a merchant who handled money or a gentleman who owned land and had a title of nobility, but you couldn’t combine these roles.

Paul Revere was all three.  He was a silversmith who worked with his hands, and whose work is still prized today.  He was a respected merchant.  And he claimed and was given the status of gentleman.

Revere’s opposite number was General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North American and royal governor of Massachusetts.  Gage believed his power derived from the King who ruled by divine right, but subject to British laws.  The British believed they were a free people because of the principle of the rule of law.

A contrary principle had grown in up colonial New England.  The Puritan churches, both in England and New England, were governed by their congregations.  The New England townships were governed by town meetings.  The principle was that authority in government came from the bottom up, not the top down.

General Gage’s mission was to make the people of New England submit to the authority of the British crown in some way, however minor or symbolic.  At least seven organizations sprung up to resist this.  There was no overall leader and nobody who belonged to all seven.  Paul Revere and another leader, Dr. Joseph Warren, belonged to five.

Out in the countryside, each town had is own well-ordered militia, based on the right and duty of the citizen to keep and bear arms.  Some towns provided weapons for the indigent.

There was no overall organization, only a communication network.  Paul Revere organized teams of riders who kept the nearby towns informed of British plans.  He made many rides himself.

Gage never ordered the arrests of Paul Revere, Dr. Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Hancock or any of the other revolutionary organizers, because they had not broken any specific law.  He was later criticized for this.

Because of the broad-based nature of the organizations, any leaders would have been quickly replaced.  Would new leaders have been as effective as the old?  Would this have mattered?  There is no way to know.

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How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

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Any time you log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter or other “free” social media, information on every keystroke is being fed into powerful computers somewhere.

Algorithms in these computers correlate this data.  They compare you with other people with similar profiles,  The algorithms—”intelligent,” but blind—experiment with ways to use this information to modify your behavior so you will do what they want.

What they usually want is for you to respond for an ad for a particular product or service.  But they can be trying to influence you to vote—or not to vote.

Jaron Lanier, a scientist and entrepreneur who pioneered virtual reality, wrote about this in his new book, TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW (2018)

He thinks this is sinister.  Your social media may not be influencing you a lot, but it is almost certain to have some influence, and that influence is operating on you below your level of awareness.

Social media feeds you stuff that is intended to stimulate your emotion, and it is easier to stimulate feelings of anger, fear and resentment than it is feelings of joy, affection and security.

I know this from my newspaper experience.  Back in the 1990s, my old newspaper made a big effort to discover what kind of news our readers wanted.  In surveys and focus groups, they said that wanted positive news—articles about people accomplishing good things.  But the article they remember the best was a horrible story about a dead baby being found in a Dumpster.

The people who answered the survey weren’t hypocrites.  Not at all.  It is just that we human beings react in ways we don’t choose, and this leaves us open to manipulation.

Another effect of feedback from social media is to reinforce whatever it is you happen to be—liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-war—and to diminish you ability to understand people who think differently from you.

I was shocked when I read about Cambridge Analytica, the campaign consultant that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, and its claim that it could manipulate voter behavior on an individual basis.  But I later came to realize that this was the standard Facebook service, and could have been available to the Clinton campaign.

Lanier takes the charges of Vladimir Putin’s interference in the campaign more seriously than I did.  The Russian ads seemed amateurish to me (unless they were decoys to divert attention from the real influence campaign) and most of them were posted after election day.

But effectiveness of the 2016 ads is beside the point.  If the combination of Big Data, artificial intelligence and behavior modification algorithms can influence voting behavior, Putin is sure to use it, and he doesn’t, some other foreign government or institution will.  Not to mention our own NSA and CIA.

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Thomas Frank on why Trump won

June 27, 2018

Thomas Frank has a new book out, an essay collection called Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society.  The videos above and below consist of interviews he gave about it.  Here’s how he introduced it.

The essays collected here scan over many diverse aspects of American life, but they all aim to tell one essential story: This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve.  This is the way ordinary citizens react when they learn the structure beneath them is crumbling.  This is the thrill that pulses through the veins of the well-to-do when they discover there is no longer any limit on their power to accumulate.

In headline terms, these essays cover the years of the Barack Obama presidency and the populist explosion that marked its end.  It was a time when liberal hopes were sinking and the newly invigorated right was proceeding from triumph to triumph.  When I wrote the earliest installment in the collection, Democrats still technically controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the presidency; when I finished these essays, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and Republicans had assumed a position of almost unprecedented power over the nation’s political system.

For a few, these were times of great personal satisfaction.  The effects of what was called the Great Recession were receding, and affluence had returned to smile once again on the tasteful and the fortunate.  The lucky ones resumed their fascinating inquiries into the art of the cocktail and the science of the grandiose suburban home. For them, things transpired reassuringly as before.

But for the many, this was a period when reassurance was in short supply.  Ordinary Americans began to understand that, recovery or not, things would probably never be the same in their town or neighborhood.  For them, this was a time of cascading collapse, with one trusted institution after another visibly deteriorating.

It was a golden age of corruption.  By this I do not mean that our top political leaders were on the take—they weren’t—but rather that America’s guardian class had been subverted or put to sleep.  Human intellect no longer served the interests of the public; it served money—or else it ceased to serve at all.  That was the theme of the era, whether the locale was Washington, D.C., or the college your kids attended, or the city desk of your rapidly shrinking local newspaper.  No one was watching out for the interests of the people, and increasingly the people could see that this was the case.

Source: Thomas Frank | American Empire Project

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The prototype action-adventure story

June 22, 2018

THE THREE MUSKETEERS by Alexandre Dumas (1844) is probably the first modern action-adventure story and the prototype of action-adventure novels and movies to come.

I’ve seen at least three movies versions during my life and I dimly remember reading the original a number of years ago.  I recently finished re-reading it, with great pleasure, as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

What sets The Three Musketeers apart from earlier stories of heroes and derring-do is its wit, its good humor and its quirky and amusing characters.

They aren’t solemn and serious, like, say, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  They’re having a good time.  I enjoy their repartee and byplay as much as their adventures, which they seem to be enjoying as much as the reader.

There really was a KIng’s Musketeer corps, personal troops of King Louis XIII, who spent a lot of time loafing around Paris, drinking, gambling, womanizing and getting into fights with members of Cardinal Richelieu’s rival corps of musketeers.

This is an ideal life for a certain type of young man, and D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are all young.  D’Artagnan is 20 years old when the novel begins, and Athos, who is old enough to have a tragic and secret past, is only 25.

They are classic examples of the aristocratic warrior ethic.  They are fearless.  They are unconditionally loyal to their king, their patron and each other.  And they never back away from any challenge, danger or fight.  They remind me of the pilots described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff.

On the other hand, they are not much for sobriety, self-restraint, deferred gratification, long-range planning, big-picture thinking or respect for the sanctity of private property or the virtue of women.

Each of them has a lackey, a totally loyal personal servant who attends to their every need, which also makes their lives more pleasant.

As the novel develops, it seems that the ruthless and devious Cardinal Richelieu and his evil secret agent, Milady de Winter, are acting more in the interest of France than the shallow and self-indulgent King Louis III and the faithless Queen Anne.  No matter!  Our heroes have chosen their side as, as men of honor, they stick to it, no matter what.

We had three men and four women in our reading group.  I would have thought that some of the women would have been bothered by the musketeers’ cavalier attitude toward women.  Cavalier!  There’s an interesting adjective.  It is probably based on the behavior of the actual Cavaliers, who is real life were warrior aristocrats with more of a sense of honor than a sense of virtue.

One thing that bothered me about the musketeers’ story is that they didn’t spend any time drilling with muskets.  A musket is a complicated weapon to load and fire, especially under battlefield conditions, and that is why troops were given musket drills so that behavior become automatic.

But not Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  They spent all their time in swordplay.  The same is true of D’Artagnan, who is only a would-be musketeer until the end of the novel.

The time comes when they are called upon to fight with muskets, and they do so, expertly.  Their lackeys load muskets for them, and they are all deadly marksmen, even though they have not spent any time practicing and the musket is not a particularly accurate weapon.

When I read the novel, I was swept along by the action and didn’t stop to think about such things until after I put it down.  I enjoyed it.  If you like swashbuckling adventure stories, you might enjoy it, too.

The new face of the U.S. working class

June 20, 2018

What should be most important to progressives?  The fights by women, African-Americans and Latinos against oppression based on gender and sex?  Or the fight by wage-earners against exploitation by a tiny minority of corporate executives and wealthy investors?

I recently finished reading SLEEPING GIANT: The Untapped Potential and Political Power of America’s New Working Class by Tamara Draut (2016, 2018), in which she argues these fights are the same fight, on behalf of largely the same people.

Wage-earners today, she said, are disproportionately female and people of color.  Some of the fastest-growing job categories are in food service, health care, education and personal service—jobs historically held by women and people of color.

Many of them, maybe for this reason, are historically low paid and outside the protection of labor laws.

The only way today’s workers can defend their rights is by means of solidarity across racial and gender lines, which means fighting against racial discrimination and sexual harassment as strongly as fighting for a higher minimum wage or universal health care.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at Demos, a pro-labor think tank, is the daughter of a steel worker.

Her dad did hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, which caused him to die of lung disease.  But he earned a union wage that enabled his family to live in their own house, take vacation trips and send Tamara to  college.

Working people still do hard manual labor under unhealthy conditions, but fewer and fewer of them earn a union wage.

In fact, the percentage of American workers represented by unions is lower than it was right before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  The law is less and less favorable to unions.

Large companies increasingly operate through chains of franchises and subcontractors, under restrictive agreements that do not allow leeway to increase pay or provide benefits.

Nine out of 10 food service workers tell pollsters they’re subect to wage theft—being short-changed on wages or being forced to work off the clock. One in five don’t work regular shifts; they don’t know from week to week when they will work.

One of the workers Draut interviewed for the book was “Damon,” a 32-year-old African-American man who was out on disability from his job in a Coca-Cola warehouse.

He was a “puller,” which meant that he put together orders for delivery on trucks by manually stacking cases of Coca-Cola on pallets.  He was paid by the number of cases he moved each shift, at the rate of 8.4 cents per case.

On each shift, the pullers are given a quota, the number of cases they must move each shift, and they are not allowed to leave the warehouse until they make their quota.

“Because we get paid on commission, I go out hard,” he said.  “I put my body on the line.  In order to make a good living pulling cases, you got to be fast.”  He told Draut he typically finishes his shift in six to seven hours. but most of his co-workers take eleven to twelve hours.  One died of a heart attack while pulling cases.

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Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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Are management consultants of any use?

June 13, 2018

Recently I read and enjoyed THE MYTH OF MANAGEMENT: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009).

Stewart told two stories in alternating chapters.  One is a history of theories of management, which is the topic of my previous post.  The other is Stewart’s personal experience of BS jobs in management consulting.

In 1988, Stewart, at age 26, found himself with a philosophy doctorate from Oxford and no job,  On a whim, he sent his CV to some management consulting firms.  By chance, he got a job from a firm looking for “non-traditional” hires—that is, people without MBA degrees.

Matthew Stewart

He soon found himself going to distant countries and convincing executives twice his age that he understood their businesses better than they did.   His tools were a set of algorithms developed by his firm, and his ability to play the role of an expert.

The main algorithm, as described in his book, was a system for estimating the cumulative cost, revenue and profit for serving each of a business’s clients.

What the system almost always produced was a graph, which looked like a whale, that showed that 20 percent of a firm’s clients produced more than 100 percent of its profits, 70 percent added virtually nothing and 10 percent cost the firm money.

Of course the question is how to disentangle the high-value, little-value and negative-value clients.  If you follow the Pareto 80/20 rule, then 20 percent of a public library’s books can be expected to represent 80 percent of its circulation, and the remaining 80 percent of the books only 20 percent of the circulation.  But you wouldn’t want a library to dump 80 percent of its books.

Companies that stop making low added-value products, as Eastman Kodak did with cameras and Xerox did with small copiers in the 1980s, find that ceding these markets empowers potential competitors.

That’s not to say that the quantitative analyses done by Stewart and his colleagues were worthless.  Understanding numerical data is useful.  But nobody ever checked whether Stewart’s firm’s interpretation of the data was helpful or even correct.  The consultants never suffered any consequences for being wrong.

Stewart did risk analysis—he had no training in risk analysis—for a Mexican bank in the eve of the collapse of the Mexican peso and the Mexican banking crisis.  Neither he nor his client had any notion that the crisis would be upon them, and his firm walked away with millions of dollars in fees.

He quit his firm for a while, then was enticed to join with some breakaway employees to form a new firm.  He invested all of his savings in the new firm.  After a time some the partners started to squeeze out Stewart and other partners.  They stopped his pay without telling him and refused to let him withdraw his stake.

But he successfully sued, got what was owed him and sold his shares in the company at the height of the dot-com stock market bubble.  He then began his new career as an author.

His whole saga reads like a satirical novel.  Indeed, since he doesn’t mention the name of his firm, his clients or his co-workers, it could just as easily have been fleshed out and published in the form of a satirical novel.

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The many pitfalls of management theory

June 12, 2018

As a newspaper reporter who covered business for 20 years, I learned that there are intellectual fashions in management theory as in everything else.

Once the key to success was thought to be vertical integration.  The idea was that a corporation should control every aspect of its business, from raw materials to distribution, in order to guarantee quality and eliminate the middleman.

Then the key was supposed to be diversification.  The idea was that a corporation should engage in varied lines of business so that a downturn in one line of business was offset by continued gains in others.

Then it was core competency.  The idea was that a corporation should limit itself to whatever it did best and enjoyed a competitive advantage, and outsource everything else.

The path of least resistance for any manager has been to follow the fashion of the day.  Failing by doing the same thing everybody else was doing has always been more acceptable than failing by doing something different.

I recently read a book, THE MANAGEMENT MYTH: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong by Matthew Stewart (2009)that validity of these management theories ranges from highly uncertain to completely bogus.

I was surprised to learn that the ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, founder of scientific management, and Elton Mayo, discoverer of the so-called Hawthorne effect, were based on fake experiments.

F.W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor claimed that there was one best way to perform any physical task.  It was the job of the manager or industrial engineer to discover the best way and to micro-manage workers so that they followed it, mindlessly and repetitively.

He claimed to have taught a Bethlehem Steel worker he called “Schmidt” the most efficient way of loading pig iron onto a freight car, and made that a standard method for loading pig iron.

The reality was that, one day in 1899, he gathered a group of Hungarian immigrant workers and challenged them to load as many 92-pound ingots as they could in 14 minutes.  He then extrapolated this to a 10-hour work day, discounted the total by 40 percent.  The total was 47.5 tons.

He offered a wage incentive if they could do this all day.  This would have been quadruple their normal output.  They declined.

Taylor then recruited another group of workers and challenged them to meet the target.  The only one who could was a German immigrant named Henry Noll—the “Schmidt” in Taylor’s tale.  Bethlehem Steel did not adopt Taylor’s method, but it became famous anyhow.

Taylor’s system eliminated the need for skilled workers.  They were undesirable because they might have ideas of their own.  It was up to managers and industrial engineers, not the workers themselves, to determine how each job can best be done.

His method was the same as the Soviet Stakhanovite system: Take a strong and efficient worker, determine the most he can accomplish under ideal conditions and make that the target for every worker.  Lenin praised Taylorism.

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo claimed that workers could be managed by offering them psychological and emotional rewards.

He claimed to have found by accident that workers at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant became more efficient as a result of being the center of attention—the so-called Hawthorne effect.

The reality was that in 1924, an engineer named Henry Hilbert at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant ran an experiment to determine whether increased illumination would increase worker efficiency.  The study was subsidized by the electric power industry.

He gathered seven women employees in a separate room and had them assemble telephone relays under different lighting conditions.  He also experimented with work breaks.  Efficiency seemed to increase no matter what he did.

Mayo learned of the results of the experiment and decided that the real Hawthorne effect was treating these women as though they were special and making them feel they were members of a team.

But Stewart pointed out that the factor he ignored was that the assemblers were given a group wage incentive to achieve greater efficiency.  Also, two members of the original team were fired for being shirkers and malcontents, and one of their replacements strongly wanted the higher wage and pushed her co-workers to do more.

Hilbert later repeated the experiment.  One group of workers were given the same special treatment, but no wage incentive.  Their efficiency did not improve.  Another were given a group wage incentive, but no special treatment.  They achieved the same efficiency gains as the original group.

So it was the pay, not the special treatment that mattered.  But the whole point of Mayo’s method was to avoid the need for increased pay.

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