Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

An elite that dare not call themselves elite

August 12, 2019

Natalia Dashan attended Yale University on a scholarship.  She was one of the 2 percent of Yale undergraduates whose parents are in the bottom fifth of American income earners.

She recently wrote an essay about something that struck her about some of her well-to-do classmates..

They lived and acted as if they in fact were poor.   They looked for reasons to think of themselves as oppressed.  They were in a near-constant state of rebellion.

Yale University Shield

But the rebellions were not over anybody’s material interests.  They were over whether how things were named or what someone said was appropriate—for example, whether “master” was an appropriate job title for the head of a college or whether a faculty member was out-of-line for scoffing at worries about racial stereotyping in Hallowe’en costumes.

Dashing also was struck by how quickly the faculty and administrators caved in to student protests, no matter how foolish their demands might have seemed to someone outside the academic environment and even in the absence of evidence that the protestors represented anybody but themselves.

The historic role of Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League universities has been to educate upper-class Americans to take on the responsibility of leadership—that is, for being a member of a ruling class.

Dashan concluded that the elite—defining the elite as those who grow up with the expectation that they and their children will attend Yale, Harvard or the equivalent—no longer want to assume the responsibility of leading and ruling.

So young people born to wealth and power look for ways to define themselves as oppressed, and older people, who should be their mentors, fear to appear in the role of oppressor.

The problem is that it is largely a performance—what I like to call psychodrama, but which more accurately could be called live-action role-playing.  It is tolerated because it is no threat to anybody, except the unlucky individuals who get caught in the crossfire.

Why this loss of confidence?  Dashan thinks it is fear of responsibility.  I think that is a large part of it.  But I think the more important part is a decline in belief in the values that gave confidence to earlier generations of elite Americans.

When I read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was struck by how different the Harvard he attended was from the Harvard of today.

The goal of Harvard University in the 1870s was not only to provide an intellectual education, but to shape students’ character based on ideals of patriotism, Protestantism and manliness.

Young men were expected to participate in footfall and other contact sports to toughen them up, but also to teach ideals of sportsmanship—doing your best, but obeying the rules and not whining if you lose.  Attendance at morning prayers at Appleton Chapel was compulsory.

It is true that these ideals excluded a lot of people—Catholics, Jews, freethinkers and women, not to mention un-athletic men.  I would have felt this morality very restrictive if I had lived then.  Evidently many others over the years felt the same.

The unanswered question was:  What do you put in the place of these ideals?  Young people need to believe in something.

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Why so many suicidal mass gun killings?

August 11, 2019

Vigil for mass shooting victims in Las Vegas in 2017. Source: VOA.

The mass shootings that regularly occur in the United States are mostly also suicides.

Click to enlarge

They are the ultimate “deaths of despair.”

The killers do their shooting in public places and are almost guaranteed to be gunned down in their turn, if they don’t kill themselves first.

They are comparable to the suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that the jihadist killers are sometimes trying to achieve a specific military objective, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War Two.

Among all the rich Western nations, the United States is the only one in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis.

That is not to say that ordinary Americans, and visitors to the United States, are in grave danger.  As a risk factor, mass shootings rank far below traffic accidents.

Click to enlarge

But the fact that they occur says something about our society.  For every man (the shooters are almost all men) who kills others and then himself out of rage and despair, there must be a hundred others who feel the same rage and despair and don’t act it out.

Some people blame availability of guns, and I agree it would be better if the government restricted sales of rapid-firing firearms with large ammunition clips and magazines.  Casualties from mass killings were fewer during the assault weapons ban, but they still occurred.

Click to enlarge

Some people blame ideologies based on hatred of black people or hatred of immigrants or hatred of women.  But the mass shooters can be of any race, and the percentage of white mass shooters is slightly less than the percentage of whites in the general population.

The killers profess all kinds of professed political and social motives and some profess no motives at all.  The only common denominator is that the killers are almost all suicidal men.

Hatred and bigotry have long been motives for killing.  The new thing is that the killers are suicidal.

There are ways to commit murder without sacrificing your life in the process.  (The methods are obvious, but if you can’t think of them, I see no benefit to society in helping you out.)

I think the root cause of mass killings are feelings of powerlessness and feelings of meaninglessness.  Your life is meaningless, so you give it up.  But you take others with you, so you do have some power after all.

I don’t have a good answer for this.  Calling for a greater sense of community or a stronger sense of values isn’t going to bring these things about.  Greater availability of mental health counseling probably would help some, but it won’t in itself empower people or make their lives meaningful.

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White nationalists aren’t the only mass shooters

August 8, 2019

I deplore the way President Trump inflames racial antagonism, and I think it would be a good idea to restrict the sale of rapid-firing rifles that use large ammunition clips and magazines.  But I don’t think either of these things is a root cause of the mass shootings that plague the U.S.A.

The root cause of mass shootings is deeper than any particular ideology, whether that be white nationalism, Islamic jihadism or something else.  The fact that it is not just due to white nationalism is shown by the racial diversity of the shooters.

And no, we don’t need a renewed “war on terror,” this one aimed at white nationalists.   [Added 8/9/2019]

LINKS

The War on White Supremacist Terror by C.J. Hopkins for The Consent Factory.  [Added 8/9/2019]  Good article.

Mass shootings aren’t growing more common—and evidence contradicts common stereotypes about the killers by Charles J. Ferguson for The Conversation.

Five things to know about mass shootings in America by Frederic Lemieux for The Conversation.

Why Do We Have Mass Killers? by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative [Added 8/9/2019]

A handy list of black mass murderers who were taken alive (for people who think that being taken alive for mass murder is a ‘white privilege’) by Will Shetterly for it’s all one thing.  [Added 8/11/2019]

I added the text, changed the headline and added links the morning after I posted the chart.

War, power and the clothing of men

June 12, 2019

These drawings are copied from About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

Click on About Face to see the rest of the sequence.

War, power and the clothing of men (2)

June 12, 2019

Click on About Face for the previous part of this sequence.

LINKS

 About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

A veteran and historian responds to Nate Powell’s “About Face” by Sam Duncan for Popula.

The Sum of All Beards by Adrian Boneberger and Adam Weinstein for The New Republic.

The facts behind the black-white IQ gap

June 10, 2019

In case this ever comes up in conversation.

Here’s Why the Black-White IQ Gap Is Almost Certainly Environmental by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones

Decline of the United States by the numbers

May 2, 2019

Historically, the American dream was that each generation would be better off that the generation that came before.  By many measurements, this is no longer true.  Click on any of the charts to enlarge them.

More American women are dying in childbirth.  This is not the mark of an advanced nation..

More Americans are dying of drug overdoses.  This is not a characteristic of a nation that is hopeful about the future.


More Americans are committing suicide.  Neither is this the characteristic of a hopeful nation.

Labor’s share of the American economy is falling.

U.S. student loan debt

Young people are told they cannot advance without college degrees, but they risk being crushed by student debt.

The gains in the economy are going to the top 1 percent of income earners.

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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.

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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Pro-family vs. anti-family conservatives

October 18, 2018

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher put up an interesting post this morning quoting an evangelical Christian man who says he and his wife can’t afford to have children because of corporate business practices and neoliberal economic policies supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

He and his wife are both employed in STEM fields and earn six-figure incomes, but their employers constantly remind them that they can be replaced at any time by immigrants from India willing to work at one-third their salaries.  Losing a job would mean losing health insurance, which might mean bankruptcy.

A cousin actually went bankrupt because his newborn had a rare disease, and his insurance company decided that the medical staff on duty that day were not in its network, even though the hospital itself was in-network.  Then there is the cost of education, which can bankrupt even an affluent family.

The most interesting part was his contrast of European and American conservatives.

Europe’s conservatives actually are pro-family there and support pro-natalist policies. The US media as usual is embarrassingly confused about populists like Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, the AfD in Germany, the NF in France, Vox in Spain, the Sweden Democrats and the conservatives in Denmark, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands.

These aren’t racists like the media claims, in fact quite the opposite, they are not the ones calling for invasion of foreign countries, but rather for the preservation of their own native European Christian cultures, Christian values and distinctive identities within their ancient homelands. And above all for supporting the family unit. [snip].

Europe’s populist conservatives all favor universal healthcare, low-cost childcare, free or low-cost tuition for colleges, 6 weeks of vacation (great for bonding with the family) and protection of the local labor market and wages. When I worked in Europe all Americans and other foreigners (including many tech workers from India) were paid the same or higher wages than locals, and if any employer tried to undermine the local labor market and wages, he’d be greeted with a prison term.

Source: Rod Dreher | The American Conservative

If somebody like that doesn’t think he can afford to live what used to be considered a normal life, what about the rest of us?

I’m reminded of Chris Arnade and his contrast of the “front-row kids” and “back-row kids”—the ones who get ahead because they value education, adaptability and individual success most, and the ones who are left behind because they value family, tradition and community more.

This is a good example of the coming together of the cultural conservative critique and economic radical critique of our current political economy.

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Learning to live in ‘liquid modernity’

September 27, 2018

“Liquid modernity” is a phrase I came across a couple of months ago.   It is an expression that makes a lot of things fall into place.   It expresses how things that once seemed solid and changeless are now fluid and ever-changing.

The expression was coined by a Polish philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017).    My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a copy of LIQUID TIMES: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2007), one of Bauman’s many books on the topic.   A 2016 interview with Bauman is shown in the video above.

I came of age in the 1950s in a world dominated by big organizations that offered security in exchange for conformity.   Social roles, including sex roles, were well-defined, although starting to change.  Science was regarded as the source of true knowledge.

Today’s world offers no security.  Social roles, including the biological distinction between male and female, are in a state of flux.  Post-modern philosophers tell us that nobody knows anything, and you have to figure things out as you go along.  We are at the mercy of economic forces that we don’t understand.

We are free of many of the constraints that hemmed us in back then.   Instead we constantly have to make choices without having any way to know the consequences of these choices.

Our great fear back then was of totalitarianism.  Now our great fear is of terrorism and the collapse of social order.

Bauman wrote that the great dissolving force is globalization—the ending of  restrictions on international movement of goods, services, information and money. along with unsuccessful attempts to restrict the international movement of people.

Politics becomes divorced from power, he wrote.  Politics is national and local, while the power lies with international corporations and organizations not subject to political control.

Governments are helpless before global economic forces, and turn over their historic functions to private organizations.   Individuals find less support either from government or from communities.  Instead of communities, there are networks.

Responsibility for coping with change is solely up to the individual, Bauman wrote.  But change is unpredictable.   Long-range planning is impossible.

∞∞∞

In an age of liquid modernity, you can be affected by events that happen anywhere in the world.  There are no safe havens.

The present era is not more dangerous than earlier eras—at least not for middle-class property owners in North America and Europe.  The difference is that today’s dangers are unknown and unknowable.

If there are wolves in the forest, you can stay out of the forest or be on guard against wolves when you go in.  But there is no way to guard against disruptive economic change that may wipe out your livelihood, or terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

Bauman said liquid modernity gives rise to free-floating fear, which politicians and demagogues can direct at any plausible object.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the war on terror would end when Americans feel safe.  That means it will never end.  Each U.S. attack on foreign countries increases the chances of a blowback terrorist attack on Americans.

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The changing meaning of ‘privilege’

September 13, 2018

The following is from an exchange of e-mails with a friend of mine about an essay by Matthew Crawford, a writer I admire, on the topic of “Privilege.” 

Hello, [Friend]:

    “Privilege” has always been a fraught word for me.  I was brought up to believe that I was a privileged person, and that I had obligations beyond the ordinary to “give back” to society.

    In the high school I attended, a large fraction of students dropped out when they reached the age of 16 because their families wanted them to get jobs.

     In those days, graduation from college was not a universal ambition.  Staying in high school long enough to graduate was considered an achievement.  Very few of us went on to college.

     I was one of the few—predestinated because of the choices of my parents—and therefore in those days (the 1950s) assured of a comfortable middle-class life.  I have been aware throughout my life that I did nothing to deserve having a better fate than my classmates who dropped out of school.

     I was taught from a young age by my parents, teachers and Sunday School teachers that prejudice and discrimination against Negroes (as they were called then), Jews and Catholics was morally wrong.  I came to understand the evils of male chauvinism, homophobia and prejudice against transgendered people about the same time as most liberal education straight white men did.

     I never thought of immunity from prejudice and discrimination as a “privilege.”  I thought of it as something that everyone should enjoy.  The fact that I can drive at night through [a certain suburb] without fear of police harassment does not necessarily mean that some black person has to suffer police harassment in my place.

     It is true that what you call “presumption of competence” is a kind of privilege.  I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that phrase.  But, yes, it true, in competition for scarce resources, such as jobs, I as a straight white Anglo cisgendered male enjoy an unearned advantage over someone who is  gay, black, Hispanic, transgendered, female or some combination.

    Of course such privilege I enjoy is much less than the privilege the privilege of those born to inherited wealth and legacy admissions to elite universities – people such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump.   They begin life from a position of wealth and power that was out of reach for most people after a lifetime of effort.    The chief means by which people are sorted into social and economic classes are (1) inherited wealth and (2) educational credentials.

     For at least 40 years, a tiny minority of people at the top of the economic and social pyramid have been leveraging their advantages to amass wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.  Most (not all] members of this group are white males, but the vast majority of people, including white males, do not benefit from this group’s privileges.

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Is Arthur C. Clarke’s Babylon our destiny?

August 1, 2018

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, published in 1960, about how a Communist dropped by his home in Ceylon to thank him for us idea of television broadcasting from earth satellites positioned over fixed points of the earth’s surface.

He said the Chinese planned to use this idea to saturate the United States with pornography and turn Americans into a nation of brainwashed pornography addicts.

They would start with broadcasts of images of erotic art on Hindu temples, but then produced specialized programming aimed at every sexual taste identified in the Kinsey Report.  They would also have a sideline of sadistic violence, starting with bullfights and working up to every torture and atrocity documented in the Nazi archives.

All this was fiction, of course.

My old friend Steve, who called my attention to this story, said that we Americans are now doing to ourselves what Clarke envisioned our enemies doing to us.  As conservative Christian journalist Rod Dreher writes:

We are conducting a radical experiment that has never before in history been tried, because it has never been possible. What happens to individuals and societies when images — moving images — of the most bizarre and violent sex acts imaginable can be instantly accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time? What does that do to our brains, our minds, and our hearts? What does it to do us as a people?

Source: The American Conservative

The American Psychological Association is undecided whether to call excessive porn watching an addiction, a compulsion or just a bad habit, but, in layman’s terms and for all practical purposes, it is an addiction.

Of course, some people enjoy pornography with no obvious ill effects.  I have a friend who has read every issue of Playboy since it began its publication in 1953, and he scoffs at my concern.

But compared to what’s out there today, looking at Playboy’s centerfolds is more like looking at the lingerie ads in the old Sears Roebuck catalogs than it is like looking at the porn of today.

And he started at age 18, not age 13.  The effect of pornography on young children is different.

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What will come next?

July 30, 2018

Centrally planned economies didn’t work.

Unbridled neoliberal capitalism isn’t working.

Blood-and-soil nationalism won’t work.

What will come next?  My candidate for the next big thing is some form of radical localism.

Small communities would push back against the power of multinational corporations and big government bureaucracies.

Ideally their civic and economic life would be based on a mixture of town-meeting democracy, volunteer groups, civic associations, producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, individually-owned  businesses and large numbers of self-employed workers.

A society based on radical localism wouldn’t be capable of building mega-projects or projecting world-wide military power.

But it might be more resilient when catastrophic global climate change kicks in, the global supply chains cease to work and dysfunctional national governments lose their legitimacy.

How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

Click to enlarge

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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Reasons to be hopeful

June 16, 2018

I often feel discouraged about the state of the world.  But a lot of things seem to be improving behind my back.

This set of charts was created by the late Hans Rosling for his newly-published book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and are taken from Amazon’s listing for the book.

Rosling contended that people in Western Europe and North America underestimate the progress being made.  In his opinion, this was based partly on an underestimation of the capabilities of people in Third World countries.  He thought that the harmful effect of this mistaken pessimism is that it discourages continued efforts to make progress.

He created Gapminder software as a means of graphically illustrating progress over time.

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The warrior syndrome as a 3rd system of survival

June 4, 2018

guardians&traders

One of the best books of the late, great Jane Jacobs was Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992).

In it she argued that there were two main systems of thought about political and economic ethics—what she called Guardian morality, which she named for Plato’s philosopher-kings and is the morality of those whose income comes from control of territory, and Commercial morality, which I’ll call Trading morality, the morality of those whose income comes from voluntary exchange.

Guardian morality is concerned with obeying rules and pleasing superiors.  Trading morality is concerned with creating value and pleasing a public.   A healthy society, for Jacobs, keeps these two systems of morality—or syndromes, in her terminology—in balance and in their proper place.

Jane Jacobs

A Guardian organization, such as a police department, is corrupted when it follows economic incentives, Jacobs wrote.   A Trading organization, such as a corporation, is corrupted when it seeks monopoly power instead of creating value.

I claim that what Jacobs called Guardian morality is a conflation of two syndromes.   The two are the morality of Plato’s Guardians and the morality of the “spirited” young male warriors that the Guardians used as enforcers.

I’ll call the second syndrome the Warrior syndrome.   The Guardian syndrome is an ethic of virtue, and the Warrior syndrome is an ethic of honor.  This is a deep division.  Neither “Commerce” nor “Trading” is a good word for the third syndrome, because, as I’ll discuss, it is not necessarily about money, but I’ll use it.

The three syndromes roughly correspond to the moral values of the three estates in 18th century France—the feudal lords (warrior), clergy (guardian) and urban merchants (trader).   They correspond to prevailing moralities in 17th century colonial America—Puritan Massachusetts (guardian), aristocratic Tidewater Virginia (warrior) and Dutch New Amsterdam (trader).

If you think in terms of three syndromes instead of two, some things become more clear.   The Bolsheviks were, as Jacobs wrote, a tyrannical would-be priesthood, an example of a Guardian syndrome gone wrong.

But the Mafia was not, as she said, another example of the same thing.  The Mafia is a would-be Warrior aristocracy based on a perverse code of honor.

The problem with certain American police is that they follow a Warrior syndrome when they should be Guardians.   They are more concerned with establishing dominance and punishing insults than with preserving order

Below is my revision of Jane Jacobs’ chart.   Jacobs’ original words are in italic and my substitutions are in bold-face.

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A clash of elites: the 0.1% vs. the 9.9%

May 29, 2018

The United States has two elites—an elite of great wealth, embracing about 0.1 percent of the population, and an elite of educational credentials, based on the next 9.9 percent.

A writer named Matthew Stewart wrote a good article in The Atlantic about the 9.9 percent, of which he considers himself a member.  If you go to an elite school, you’re on track for a job in medicine, law, finance or management consulting.

How you do in those jobs is up to you, but you’ve got a permanent, lifelong advantage over somebody who is a high school graduate or somebody who attended a non-elite school.

We Americans like to talk about how equality of result doesn’t matter, only equality of opportunity matters.  But the whole point of being in a higher social or economic class is to lock in advantages for your children.

Thomas Frank has written about how American politics has been changed by the fact that liberal reformers in the 9.9 percent no longer identify with the 90 percent.  Instead their goal is a multi-racial, gender-neutral aristocracy based (supposedly) on merit.

This has been exploited by Donald Trump, who speaks the language of the populists of old, but represents the interests of the plutocracy.   And the liberal professional class confuses Trump with real populism, and fears the masses more than they do the power elite.

These are sweeping, over-simplified generalizations, but I think they are a broadly accurate picture of what’s going on.

LINKS

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy by Matthew Stewart for The Atlantic.

Forget Trump—populism is the cure, not the disease by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

What’s behind the spread of useless work?

May 13, 2018

The old labor hymn, Solidarity Forever, written slightly over a century ago, celebrates the achievements and potential power of the working class.

The world depends on the labor of workers, the song goes.  “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.”  That is a “power greater than their hoarded gold.”  If workers unite and fight, they can free themselves from the parasitic owning class.

David Graeber

These stirring words quaint today, because all the driving forces in the economy are liberating the wealthy elite from dependence on workers.  The driving force in technology is to eliminate jobs.  The driving force in management is to make workers replaceable.

And there is another strange thing going on, which is the creation of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs.  The definition of a BS job is that it is regarded as unnecessary even by those who do it.

For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world.

And there seems every reason to believe that numbers in other wealthy countries are much the same. There would appear to be whole industries — telemarketing, corporate law, financial or management consulting, lobbying — in which almost everyone involved finds the enterprise a waste of time, and believes that if their jobs disappeared it would either make no difference or make the world a better place.

Generally speaking, we should trust people’s instincts in such matters. … If one includes the work of those who unwittingly perform real labor in support of all this — for instance, the cleaners, guards, and mechanics who maintain the office buildings where people perform bullshit jobs — it’s clear that 50 percent of all work could be eliminated with no downside. …

Even this estimate probably understates the extent of the problem, because it doesn’t address the creeping bullshitization of real jobs. According to a 2016 survey, American office workers reported that they spent four out of eight hours doing their actual jobs; the rest of the time was spent in email, useless meetings, and pointless administrative tasks.

The trend has much less effect on obviously useful occupations, like those of tailors, steamfitters, and chefs, or obviously beneficial ones, like designers and musicians, so one might argue that most of the jobs affected are largely pointless anyway; but the phenomenon has clearly damaged a number of indisputably useful fields of endeavor.

Nurses nowadays often have to spend at least half of their time on paperwork, and primary- and secondary-school teachers complain of galloping bureaucratization.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Antidepressants not a cure for lost connections

April 23, 2018

Journalist Johann Hari said in his new book that people who are depressed are not victims of bad brain chemistry.  They are depressed because they are disconnected from things that make life worth living.

They are disconnected from meaningful work, meaningful values and meaningful relationships with other people, from status and respect, the natural world and a secure or hopeful future.

In LOST CONNECTIONS: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions (2018), Hari walks the reader through the scientific research that shows how people suffer when they are disconnected from the things they need, and how they can heal when they recover those connections.

Depression and anxiety are big problems.  Hari said psychiatric drugs are being taken by one in five American adults, one in three French adults and an even higher proportion in the UK.

The death rate in the United States is actually increasing, driven by “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-caused liver disease.   The World Health Organization reported in 2010 that depression is the world’s second leading cause of disability.

Hari said therapists can help, and gave examples.  He said there are ways people can help themselves, and gave examples.  Medication has its place, although often ineffective.  Hari deeply regrets the 13 years of his own life that he spent taking antidepressants.

But feelings of depression and anxiety are not the problem, according to Hari.   Pain, whether mental or physical, is a message that lets you know something is seriously wrong.   The rising rate of depression is a message telling us that something is wrong with our society.

∞∞∞

In organizations, you might think that the managers and decision makers would be under the most stress, while those with less responsibility would be the least stressed.  A study of the British civil service, among others, showed that the opposite is true.  The lower your rank, the higher the stress.

What causes stress is lack of control, Hari reported.   Employees are stressed when they have to produce results without being able to use their best judgment as to how to produce these results.

They are stressed when they don’t know the meaning or purpose of their work.  They are stressed when nobody notices whether they are doing a good job or not.  They are stressed when they’re on call even after the work day ends.   They are stressed when they don’t know whether they are going to have a job next week or next year.  Lost Connections gives examples of workers dealing with all these things.

Stressful working conditions are on the increase.  We the people were told that technological advances would result in all the routine work being done by machines, and more fulfilling, higher-level tasks being done by humans.  I believe such a path is possible, but it has not been the path chosen.

Instead we got Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, factory automation and computer numerically-controlled machines.  The purpose of these innovations was not to make workers more skilled.  It was to make them more replaceable.

High tech executives continue to push to eliminate the human factor from work, even when there is no need or demand for it, such as self-driving cars, and even when the public hates it, such as elimination of human interaction from customer service.

Workers do not suffer from a chemical imbalance, Hari wrote; they suffer from a power imbalance.

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Jordan Peterson and the dominant lobster

April 17, 2018

I forgot to mention the most striking metaphor in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life—the struggle for dominance among lobsters.

Hierarchy is a law of nature, Peterson wrote; it is hard-wired in our brains by the evolutionary process.  It manifests itself not only as top dogs and pecking orders, but the struggle for dominance of our distant ancestor, the humble lobster.

Lobsters, it seems, compete for the best nesting places where they can be safe when they are shedding their shells.  The winners are lobsters with the biggest claws and a level of confidence produced by a substance called serotonin.   Sub-dominant lobsters not only fail to get good nesting places, but their level of serotonin drops so they can adjust to their lowly status.  Not only that, lobsters respond to Prozac.

So don’t be a loser lobster, Peterson says; stand up for yourself.

Illustration from 12 Rules for Life

It’s true, as he says, that human beings compete for dominance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Everybody can see this.  I’ll never again observe a certain type of (usually) male behavior without forming a picture in my mind of a giant humanoid cartoon lobster, waving its claws.

And it’s also true that the human body produces serotonin.  But current thinking is that serotonin has little to do with mental states.  In human beings, its main function is to aid digestion.   Also, even though lobsters respond to Prozac, there is no evidence that it makes them happier.  Also, the lobster species is not the ancestor of the human species.

Peterson, to his credit, does not advocate being at the top of a dominance hierarcy as a life goal.   That way lies fascism by way of social Darwinism.  What he says is that life is tough and you need to be able to stand up for yourself.

Where he goes wrong is to claim dominance and hierarchy in the animal kingdom have any relevance to current arguments about economic inequality.

It is true that, within any group, there will be one or more persons who are more competent and confident than the others, and they will emerge as leaders.

But that has nothing to do with questions of the power of money in politics, the abuse of power by government or the growth of income inequality.  The current distribution of wealth and power in the USA and other countries does not reflect constants of human nature; it is the result of governmental and corporate policies during the past 35 years.

12 Rules for Life is inspirational, and Peterson mostly speaks good sense when he is dealing with matters of which he has personal experience or has studied deeply.   But on issues of economics and politics, he seems not to know what he doesn’t know.

LINKS

Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain human hierarchies – do they? by Leonor Gonçalves for The Conversation.

Three More Reasons for Wealth-Deprived Americans to Take to the Streets by Paul Buchheit for AlterNet.  The real issues in the inequality debate.

 

Modernization and an angry world

March 8, 2018

These are notes for a presentation to the Bertrand Russell Forum of Rochester, NY, at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

There’s no denying that world is full of angry people.

There are angry blood-and-soil nationalists, for whom love of country is like a religion, demanding their supreme loyalty. They are angry because they think their nations are under attack.

There are angry religious fanatics, for whom loyalty to a creed is a form of nationalism, defined by opposition to other creeds. They are angry because they think their religions are under attack.

There are angry and violent individuals, whose free-floating anger doesn’t appear to be linked to any larger movement or cause.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in Age of Anger: a History of the Present that most of this anger has a common cause—disappointment with the promise of modernity.

The promise of modernity is that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, if you embrace science, reason and commerce, if you leave home, get an education and join a wider world, you will not only prosper, but you will be free to choose the course of your life..

The anger, Mishra wrote, comes from those for whom this promise was not kept, or who didn’t believe it in the first place.

The angry men—almost all of them are men—are not people clinging to a traditional way of life. They are men who long for something they lack.

This goes back a long time. It was felt by 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 were uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

The promise of an improved material standard of living was kept for some of us—educated middle class people in North America and Western Europe, and, during the 20th century, great masses of working people.

But it is not humanly possible that the majority of the people in China and India, let alone Africa and the rest of the world, will ever be able to consume as much of the world’s resources as prosperous Americans and Europeans do. And even if they could, that might not compensate for what they have lost.

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Diversity is not a substitute for justice

February 20, 2018

Racial and cultural diversity is a good thing.

Adolph Reed Jr.

I, a straight white male, benefited from diversity during my college days in two ways.

I won a college scholarship because I was the only applicant from a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, and because I was one of the few applicants for this particular scholarship who took tests in the humanities rather than the sciences.

The other way I benefited was in meeting a more diverse group of people than I had known before.  I never had a meaningful conversation with anyone who was not white or Christian until I went to college (in the 1950s) and meeting people of different backgrounds was an important part of my education.

But diversity is not a substitute for social justice.  Diversity will not, in and of itself, end plutocracy or war or police brutality or unemployment or divisiveness.

The reason so many powerful people and institutions embrace diversity and reject social justice is that diversity leaves the existing structure of political and economic power intact.   Diversity is a good thing.  But it’s not enough.

LINKS

Diversity: A Managerial Ideology by Darel E. Paul for Quillette.  Hat tip to Alex Small.

Black Politics After 2016 by Adolph Reed Jr. for Nonsite.org (Emory College).  This is long, but well worth reading.

The Political Economy of Anti-Racism by Walter Benn Michaels for  Nonsite.org (Emory College).  A companion piece to Reed’s article, it also is well worth reading.

Chris Arnade on how the other half lives

January 13, 2018

This includes two updates

Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.   (old saying)

Chris Arnade spent 20 years as a Wall Street investment banker, then quit in 2011 to start a new career as a photojournalist, first interviewing and photographing drug addicts and prostitutes in the Bronx, then traveling across the country to talk to working people and poor people who’ve been left behind in the new economy.

Arnade said that what he concluded was that addiction is the result of isolation, isolation is the result of rejection and the chief source of rejection is the U.S. educational system.

The U.S. educational system, he said, teaches that the way to achieve success is to go to a good college, leave home and devote yourself to achievement in your professional life.

Those who do this successfully are the elite in American life.   The problem is that not everybody is able to succeed this way, and not everybody wants to do this.

Some people put family, community and religion first.  In this respect, he said, there is little difference between black people and white people, or between Anglos and Hispanics.

Arnade calls the first group the Front Row and the second group the Back Row. The Back Row are not only disrespected, Arnade said.  The economic system is rigged against them.

Every important decision on national policy, since at least the North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA) in 1994, has put the interests of the Front Row ahead of the Back Row.

The one institution in society that welcomes the back row is the churches, he wrote.  He himself is an atheist, but he said that churches welcome you, no matter what your credentials or lack of them.  I’m not sure that is true of all churches, but his point is correct.

Another place the Back Row is welcome, he said, is McDonald’s restaurants.  McDonald’s original business model was a place where you can get in and get out quickly, but McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants have become places where you can get a nourishing meal at a low price, charge your cell phone and hang out with friends.  Most of them have an old man’s table that retirees have staked out for their own.

If you’re a Front Row person and want to break out of your bubble, stop having coffee at Starbuck’s (or the equivalent) and stop start spending time in McDonald’s (or the equivalent), Arnade advised,

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No, Democrats don’t have superior family values

January 10, 2018

Along with a lot of other people, I’ve noticed that the so-called red states—states that usually go Republican— have higher rates of divorce, children born out-of-wedlock, violent crime and other bad things than the so-called blue states.

That fact has led to sweeping generalizations that liberals on average have better family values than conservatives, but it turns out that those generalizations are wrong.  In fact, as the articles linked below indicate, it’s probably the other way around.

I myself don’t believe in making sweeping derogatory generalizations about large groups of people or judging individuals based on their group identity.   And I don’t think these things have anything to do with who’s right about economic and foreign policy anyhow.

Nor do I think that there is any hypocrisy in preaching “family values” even if you yourself have trouble living up to those values.  As Jesus said, it is the sick, not the healthy, who need a physician.

That’s what I thought when I thought conservatives on average were more dysfunctional than liberals and progressives on average.  As it turns out, though, the shoe is on the other foot.

The good news, and maybe the more important news, is that the number of American teen pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births is declining overall.

LINKS

No, Republicans Aren’t Hypocrites on Family Values by W. Bradford Wilcox and Vijay Menon for POLITICO magazine.

Blue American More Virtuous Than Red? Nope by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.