The Deconstruction of the West

What concerns me most from the following article is the misguided notion that pan-nationalism and global citizenship has displaced the sovereign nation-state international system. The sovereign nation-state is all we have to manage global affairs in a representative democratic, people-centered global society. Without it we are all vulnerable to constellations of power among political elites and authoritarians of all stripes.

Reprinted from The American Interest:

The Deconstruction of the West

ANDREW A. MICHTA

April 12, 2017

The greatest threat to the liberal international order comes not from Russia, China, or jihadist terror but from the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture.

To say that the world has been getting progressively less stable and more dangerous is to state the obvious. But amidst the volumes written on the causes of this ongoing systemic change, one key driver barely gets mentioned: the fracturing of the collective West. And yet the unraveling of the idea of the West has degraded our ability to respond with a clear strategy to protect our regional and global interests. It has weakened the NATO alliance and changed not just the global security calculus but now also the power equilibrium in Europe. If anyone doubts the scope and severity of the problem, he or she should ask why it has been so difficult of late to develop a consensus between the United States and Europe on such key issues as defense, trade, migration, and how to deal with Russia, China, and Islamic jihadists.

The problem confronting the West today stems not from a shortage of power, but rather from the inability to build consensus on the shared goals and interests in whose name that power ought to be applied. The growing instability in the international system is not, as some argue, due to the rise of China as an aspiring global power, the resurgence of Russia as a systemic spoiler, the aspirations of Iran for regional hegemony, or the rogue despotism of a nuclear-armed North Korea; the rise and relative decline of states is nothing new, and it doesn’t necessarily entail instability. The West’s problem today is also not mainly the result of the economic decline of the United States or the European Union, for while both have had to deal with serious economic issues since the 2008 meltdown, they remain the two largest economies in the world, whose combined wealth and technological prowess are unmatched. Nor is the increasing global instability due to a surge in Islamic jihadism across the globe, for despite the horrors the jihadists have wrought upon the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, and the attendant anxiety now pervading Europe and America, they have nowhere near the capabilities needed to confront great powers.

The problem, rather, is the West’s growing inability to agree on how it should be defined as a civilization. At the core of the deepening dysfunction in the West is the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture and, with it, the glue that for two centuries kept Europe and the United States at the center of the international system. The nation-state has been arguably the most enduring and successful idea that Western culture has produced. It offers a recipe to achieve security, economic growth, and individual freedom at levels unmatched in human history. This concept of a historically anchored and territorially defined national homeland, having absorbed the principles of liberal democracy, the right to private property and liberty bound by the rule of law, has been the core building block of the West’s global success and of whatever “order” has ever existed in the so-called international order. Since 1945 it has been the most successful Western “export” across the globe, with the surge of decolonization driven by the quintessentially American precept of the right to self-determination of peoples, a testimony to its enduring appeal. Though challenged by fascism, Nazism, and communism, the West emerged victorious, for when confronted with existential danger, it defaulted to shared, deeply held values and the fervent belief that what its culture and heritage represented were worth fighting, and if necessary even dying, to preserve. The West prevailed then because it was confident that on balance it offered the best set of ideas, values, and principles for others to emulate.

Today, in the wake of decades of group identity politics and the attendant deconstruction of our heritage through academia, the media, and popular culture, this conviction in the uniqueness of the West is only a pale shadow of what it was a mere half century ago. It has been replaced by elite narratives substituting shame for pride and indifference to one’s own heritage for patriotism. After decades of Gramsci’s proverbial “long march” through the educational and cultural institutions, Western societies have been changed in ways that make social mobilization around the shared idea of a nation increasingly problematic. This ideological hollowing out of the West has been accompanied by a surge in confident and revanchist nationalisms in other parts of the world, as well as religiously inspired totalitarianism.

National communities cannot be built around the idea of collective shame over their past, and yet this is what is increasingly displacing a once confident (perhaps overconfident, at times) Western civilization. The increasing political uncertainty in Europe has been triggered less by the phenomenon of migration than it has by the inability of European governments to set baselines of what they will and will not accept. Over the past two decades Western elites have advocated (or conceded) a so-called “multicultural policy,” whereby immigrants would no longer be asked to become citizens in the true sense of the Western liberal tradition. People who do not speak the national language, do not know the nation’s history, and do not identify with its culture and traditions cannot help but remain visitors. The failure to acculturate immigrants into the liberal Western democracies is arguably at the core of the growing balkanization, and attendant instability, of Western nation-states, in Europe as well as in the United States.

Whether one gives the deconstruction of the Western nation-state the name of postmodernism or globalism, the ideological assault on this very foundation of the Western-led international system has been unrelenting. It is no surprise that a poorly resourced radical Islamic insurgency has been able to make such vast inroads against the West, in the process remaking our societies and redefining our way of life. It is also not surprising that a weak and corrupt Russia has been able to shake the international order by simply applying limited conventional military power. Or that a growing China casts an ever-longer shadow over the West. The greatest threat to the security and survival of the democratic West as the leader and the norm-setter of the international system comes not from the outside but from within. And with each passing year, the deconstruction of Western culture, and with it the nation-state, breeds more internal chaos and makes our international bonds across the West ever more tenuous.

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Views expressed here are his own.

Interesting Money Graphics

08-roman-empire-chart

dollar_devaluation

One cannot take these graphs at face value, for example, the long $ decline from 1933 to the present has also been the Pax Americana where the US has dominated geopolitics. Also, the Roman denarius was a commodity based currency, while the US$ is a fiat currency backed by US government taxing power over US assets.

But the larger issue of the costs of empire over time are instructive. One should dig deeper in analysis, but not be too complacent. Especially in light of the currency manipulations of the current age.

WTF Happened? Pick Your Poison.

I can agree with the headline of this article, reprinted from the Huffington Post, but the majority of the analysis is plainly inconclusive (see comments). The Big Lesson is: Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

The Big Lesson From 2016 Is That Neither Party Has A Winning Vote Coalition

The Obama coalition turned out to be pretty weak, but Trump’s might be even weaker.

11/25/2016 03:49 pm ET

Donald Trump won the Electoral College by a 306-232 margin, but lost the popular vote by a more than 2 million votes (and still counting) ― more than any previous presidential winner ever has in a split decision. How this happened is a complex story, much more nuanced than most “here’s why Trump won” stories imply. [We don’t seek complexity, but clarity and accuracy.]

Almost all of those stories contain a piece of the puzzle, but in order to see the real story you need to consider all of the explanations combined. Neither party has much reason to celebrate the outcome of the 2016 election. Republicans have a demographics problem, and Democrats have a geography problem compounded by turnout issues. [Fair enough.]

At the state level, the 2016 vote patterns seem to show a sea of red states with blues isolated to the coasts plus Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Illinois. Looking county-by-county, it becomes clear that the divide isn’t just coasts vs. flyover territory; it’s rural-urban. Pockets of blue in the major cities, college towns and a handful of majority-black areas in the South are evident in this view. TheNew York Times’ graphic below shows just how little actual land area went to Hillary Clinton at the county level: She won 15 percent of the land to Trump’s 85 percent.

 

Yet declaring the United States a country divided by population density overlooks several trends that are key to understanding Trump’s success. The urban-rural split is nothing new; perhaps it’s more exaggerated in 2016 than before, but we’ve known for a long time that rural areas are conservative and urban areas are liberal. But if we consider gradations ― not just dividing counties by which candidate a majority of voters selected, but shading by the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters in each county ― the story is far less clear.

If we can’t blame everything on the rural-urban divide, then what happened? There’s not one single reason why Clinton lost several states where majorities voted for President Barack Obama twice: there are several reasons. [Blogger’s Note: Of course there is more than one reason (i.e., variable) that explains this election outcome. The scientific question is what matters most. Again it is the enduring urban-rural divide and how these match up with the parties’ platforms. All these other explanations are anecdotal to this particular election, in other words, not part of a trend. The interesting new trend is the continued weakness of both party coalitions that has been unfolding over the past 25-40 years.]

These Purple States of America

A few, significant, subplots played out in the supposed Democratic “firewall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and the perennial battleground of Ohio. These states have been close recently, but in 2008 and 2012 Democrats were able to generate support among the rural working class to win over majorities of voters in the states.

But there was a sizable shift in 2016. It’s unclear how many people voted for Trump that had voted for Obama, but Trump did pull a larger percentage of the vote in many counties: more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That could be in part different groups of voters turning out in 2016 as compared to 2012, but anecdotal stories and survey data reveal that there were some party switchers.

Turnout is part of the picture, though, particularly in Michigan and Wisconsin. AsHuffPost previously reported, turnout was down in Detroit’s Wayne County, Michigan and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in numbers large enough to swing the election in those states. Clinton received nearly 78,000 fewer votes in Wayne County than Obama did in 2012, and lost Michigan by under 12,000 votes. She underperformed Obama by 39,000 votes in Milwaukee County and lost Wisconsin by just over 27,000 votes.

Similar patterns of lower urban turnout were evident in Philadelphia and other cities in the Midwest. The numbers suggest these people didn’t vote for Trump: they just didn’t vote at all. And according to reports, the Clinton campaign didn’t make concerted efforts to get them to the polls. Many of these nonvoters were likely minorities who Democrats assumed would support the party in large numbers ― which they do, when they vote.

An additional subplot involves suburban areas and white women. Democrats hoped to make gains in these areas, particularly among typically-conservative women who might be turned off by Trump’s actions and rhetoric. That hope proved false. Nationally, suburban areas and white women voted for Trump in very similar proportions to their votes for Romney in 2012. Romney received 50 percent of the suburban vote, and Trump garnered 59 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted for Romney, and 52 percent supported Trump. [All exit poll data – see comments below.]

Nationally, as well as in the Rust Belt, Democrats lost support among the least educated groups. According to the exit polls, education didn’t matter much in 2012: Obama won college graduates by 2 points and non-college graduates by 4 points. Clinton won college graduates by 10 points and lost non-college graduates by 7 points. Relative to Obama’s totals, Clinton gained 2 points among college graduates and lost 7 points among non-college graduates.

The difference is even more stark among whites: Trump won white college graduates by 2 points, but he won white non-college graduates by 37 points. The racial breakdown isn’t provided in the 2012 results, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t that sharp of a divide among whites or there would have been a gap in the overall numbers. Among minorities, Clinton won college graduates by 50 points and non-college graduate by 56 points. Once you account for the educational divide, income doesn’t seem to make a difference in vote choice.

Yet despite all these trends that favored Trump, Clinton won the popular vote by a wider margin than several past presidents. Clinton cut the Republican advantage to around 5 points in the red state strongholds of Arizona and Georgia, and Texas dropped from a 16-point Republican advantage in 2012 to a 9 point win for Trump. California is still counting, but it looks like Clinton blew Trump out by nearly 30 points in the state ― substantially more than Obama’s 23-point win over Romney four years ago. [Duh. CA is an outlier in national politics these days.]

These results were likely driven by high support for Clinton among minority populations, particularly among Latinos and Hispanics in the Southwest. And although there’s some dispute over just how strongly that group supported Clinton, the most conservative estimates from the National Exit Polls indicate that Clinton won Latinos by 36 points. Other pre-election polls show even stronger Democratic leanings among the group.

Republicans also struggled with black voters. Trump’s 8 percent support is actually slightly more than Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012, but slightly less than George W. Bush’s support among black voters in 2000 and 2004. Black turnout was slightly lower this year compared to 2012 as well, which helped states like Georgia stay red. An uptick in turnout among a group that so heavily favors Democrats has considerable potential to shift those states. [Hispanics, blacks, women, whites – these group identity variables are all driven by exit poll data, not reality.] 

The problem is that none of these states actually switched directions. Had Clinton won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, she still would have been short of the 270 mark, but it would have compensated for the losses in Michigan and Wisconsin, which combine for 26 electoral votes. But neither state appears as close to turning blue as some polls had indicated. So these gains meant nothing for the Electoral College, which is what really matters.

To state the obvious, as long as the Electoral College determines the winner, Democrats can’t rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren’t ready to flip yet. The best strategy for 2020 will be to focus on the very narrow losses in the Rust Belt and win those voters back ― which probably means convincing them that Democrats are a better option for improving their economy than Republicans. Democrats clearly lost that battle this year. [That means a tough economic and social policy reversal for Democrats.]

Meanwhile Republicans will try to hold onto those gains and build their very fragile coalition that won the Electoral College. Whether it survives beyond 2016 is anyone’s guess. The Obama coalition didn’t outlast Obama, but the Trump coalition might not survive Trump.
………………..

A caution: most of the interpretations draw data from exit polls, which usually support the kind of personal narrative desired by media. In other words, the idea that our differences are driven by voter group characteristics is baked in the cake of exit polling. The dominant factor of geography and lifestyle choices is obscured by exit polls. Discount the exit poll inferences accordingly, but then what would journalists write about?

Taken at face value, the argument presented here merely outlines how the Obama era was a one-off and the same may hold true for the Trump regime. (Hillary Clinton could have won and that conclusion would still hold true, as confirmed by down ballot results.) But we have no real indication yet of Trump’s fate and reading the tea-leaves (“might not survive”) is a sign of wishful thinking, not objective analysis. I don’t expect much more from the inherent biases of the Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

Ten Things We Now Know About American Politics

Ahem. We seem to have been graced by the Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” The surprising upset by Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has left many people flabbergasted. Since I live in Los Angeles, it seems a lot of those people live around me.

But there were many hints of this possible outcome going back months if not almost a year. The results seem to have confirmed some new “realities” to replace former “speculations.”

  1. The polling surveys proved to be less than accurate-to say the least-but this had been going on since the early primaries. Remember, Trump was never supposed to get past the first couple of primaries. The Hollywood adage that “Nobody knows anything,” held true to the end.
  2. The Republican party has been split between its party regulars or leaders and their voters. The voters won handily, now the party will need to respond with some supplication. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Despite being counted out, the Republicans managed to retain the Senate and the House, awarding President-elect Trump a golden opportunity to enact his agenda, whatever that is.
  3. The Democratic party establishment apparently sold their voters a pig in a poke. It was not hard to see a year ago that Hillary Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the party could have selected given the political climate. She represented the status quo, promising Obama’s third-term, after two midterm elections that repudiated his policy agenda. Moreover, she came in carrying a 25 year load of baggage that caused voters to question her authenticity and candor, to put it politely. Her tenure as Senator and SOS did little to promote her candidacy. It seems that the fact that she was the wife of Bill was her most valuable asset, but even that was tarnished as voters were reminded of Bill’s former scandals and tawdry reputation. The voters had little choice and Sanders appeal should have been the first clue that things were going very wrong, again, for Clinton. The flip of the Rust Belt is another warning signal that the party has gone astray.
  4. The mainstream media pundits once again have egg on their faces. The politicization of coverage backfired and the more they pushed, the worse it got for their favored biases. They failed miserably at their efforts to shape political opinion instead of informing objectively. Now some of the more prominent talking heads should probably seek a new profession since the public has turned them off. But no, stupid will likely double down, until they discover nobody who matters is really listening.
  5. The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama/Clinton era is over, as each administration’s overreaching came back to bite them with a vengeance. Obama and his policy legacy is a casualty of this collapse of a 28 year party era. As painful as it might seem to some, Obama’s presidency helped to bring about the collapse of his party and the rise of an outsider like Trump. He now owns it, just like Bush wears the Iraq albatross.
  6. We have divided ourselves into a 50-50 nation, polarized by population density: urban vs. rural and suburban.* This means the popular vote will be less of an indication of true, broad support and may often diverge from the Electoral College vote. Thus, the EC is crucial to securing a clear electoral and governing mandate. It appears Clinton eked out a popular vote victory, but more importantly, Trump won the decisive margin in the EC. The swing state problem is that we don’t have enough swing voters at the center of our divide.
  7. We should probably be thankful that media and political transparency is being forced on us by technology. It is too ironic that we are getting our political insights from hackers and Wikileaks.
  8. “Politics as usual” was a big loser. The people took control of this election, for better or worse, so elites had better pay attention while the rest of us figure out how to move people power toward the broader good, rather than the narrow. When failure occurs, we need to see it clearly and own it. I’m wondering how many can do that after this election. Too many will probably respond angrily, but that’s self-defeating.
  9. The wise among us will try to figure out why our popular narrative for understanding American politics has been so wrong and what needs to change. The demonization of voters seems to be highly counterproductive in an open media environment.
  10. Lastly, political correctness and identity politics have suffered a severe backlash. Perhaps it’s time to put aside these punitive speech codes and divisive political strategies. We can only hope.

BTW, I voted for Gary Johnson, just for the 2%. He outperformed and got 3%!

*This urban-rural split is a historical divide that has defined much of our nation’s politics for the past 200 years.  We’ve managed it thus far and we can continue to do so if we can see it clearly. It’s NOT about biological identity – it’s about class interests, lifestyle choices, and political priorities. We can find compromise on all these issues.

The Degeneration of Political Discourse

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this election season, it is the increasing degeneration of political discourse in our society. Probably everyone in America these past few months has experienced this phenomenon, and either jumped into the mudpit or turned away in disgust. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to turn.

Democracy, as an institution of social choice and self-governance through voting, relies on compromise to resolve divergent interests. This compromise, or middle ground, is often depicted as serving the interests of the “median voter” in election models. Our electoral system seeks to reward candidates or parties who can appeal to this median “center.” The idea of the centrist is one who moves away from the extremes to find common ground. The problem is that we have obliterated the center in our national politics.

How did this happen?

Some have blamed the two-party system that has divided us into red vs. blue and subsequently conquered us as we squabble over ideological trivia. Others have decried our lack of choice between the parties of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, sometimes using the catch-all term the Republicrats for the political class. Still others blame the systemic bias of the media in their desperate bid to remain politically and economically relevant in the digital world.

All of these factors have contributed to our political degeneration. However, I would say the problem is less about only having two parties than about how the parties abuse the system to divide us. I’ve written repeatedly about how the parties and the media benefit from our dysfunction and promote it every chance they get. It is true of Obama, as it is true of Congressional leaders of both parties. It is true of the mainstream media as it is of FOX News and Talk Radio. If we’re looking for relief, it won’t come from these sources.

It will come from us, and there’s the rub.

My own experience as a political commentator illustrates my point. A few weeks ago I wrote that I will vote Neither…Nor in this presidential election for reasons explained here.

Immediately I was accosted by partisans of both sides claiming I was really favoring the opposing candidate. So Democrat liberals accused me of essentially supporting Trump and Trump Republicans of putting Clinton into office. Obviously both can’t be true, but that seems beside the point.

What’s going on here is the desire to paint the issue in black and white and castigate one for joining the wrong side. Identity politics, the growing cancer on democracy, almost forces this dynamic. The tactic is truly the last resort of dirty, rotten scoundrels, but let me explain. What I’m referring to is a typical debating tactic of winning the debate by delegitimizing your opponent (not the argument, but the person). This tactic can take several different forms.

The most extreme way is to simply condemn your opponent’s moral character: a racist, a bigot, a crook. A related way is to impugn your opponent’s motivations: greedy, power monger, predator. Next up is to question one’s intelligence: ignorant, uneducated, low IQ. A more subtle, less aggressive method is to accuse one of being a willing victim of misinformation and propaganda. Sometimes this can be accurate in this corrupted media world, but it’s often used as a blanket dismissal of opinions, views, or facts one disagrees with: I see, you listen to FOX News or read the New York Times.

So, I call this the last redoubt of a scoundrel because it is a feint away from the issue that must be resolved or compromised, and the scoundrel merely realizes that the just compromise with the stronger rationale is not the one they favor. Hence the desire to intimidate and throw one’s opponent on the defensive in order to win an argument. It tosses  democratic compromise into the lion’s pit of do or die.

I’ve written here how this silly finite game of winning an election is overwhelming the more important infinite game of democracy founded on the principles of liberty and justice. Scoundrels do damage to justice and to liberty. Yet too many of us have succumbed to the emotional appeal of winning at all costs. Unless we stop this and start to legitimize our fellow citizens’ preferences (we’re really not debate opponents), our discourse will continue to degenerate and lead to ever increasing dysfunction with disastrous results.

The politicians won’t do this for us. Heaven help us on November 9, because this election is merely the canary in the coal mine.

 

 

 

Why You Should Play Music

 

Following text excerpted from The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect   Chapter 3.

…Music is a bewitching art because it seems to engage areas of our brain that integrate emotions, memory, language/communication, and motor skills. Music not only stimulates more areas of the brain, it resonates to the very core of our physical being, especially when we dance and sing.

Through the ages philosophers and artists have often argued over which of the arts is preeminent and most venerated.[i] The ancient Greeks lauded poetry, Leonardo da Vinci exalted painting, and Michelangelo favored sculpture as the most sublime art of all. I have to side with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s judgment that music portrays the inner flow of life more directly than the other arts,[ii] and Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said “Without music, life would be a mistake.” With music we dance, we sing, we communicate, we synchronize and coordinate, we contemplate, we remember. Sometimes we even fall into an otherworldly trance. Reggae icon Bob Marley perhaps puts it most simply when he sings, “One good thing about music, it gets you feeling okay…”

schopenhauer

Reflect, for a moment, on how we interact with music: how we remember and respond to certain melodies over time; how a particular song or melody can replay constantly in our mind’s ear, even to the point of distraction[iii]; how particular melodies and harmonies can make us feel joyful or sad, fearful or fearless; how some individuals can see musical pitches as colors; how a particular shuffle rhythm can make us relax with a resting heartbeat, or an up-tempo straight beat can make our hearts race. Interestingly, humans are unique among primates in being able to tap their feet in time to a rhythm, an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it.

E.O. Wilson argues from an evolutionary perspective that creating and performing music is instinctual, one of the true universals of our species. Anthropological studies of tribal cultures show the extent to which singing and dancing is a natural activity in various communities, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone.[iv] In many of the world’s languages, the verb for singing is the same as the one for dancing; there is no distinction, since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

Functional brain imaging shows that playing and listening to music involves nearly every region of the brain and nearly every neural subsystem. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of our brains, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. One neuroscientist [Harvard’s Gottfried Schlaug] has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum—the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—is significantly larger in musicians than in non-musicians.[v]

Music is also powerful in its impact on human feeling and on perception. This is why movie soundtracks have the sublime capacity to enhance our multisensory experience. Music is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms. We have all experienced the pleasures of music and neuroscientists have found that music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine.

The emotional power of music is also reflected in that most time-honored form, the romantic love song. One researcher who analyzed the lyrics of the year’s 10 most popular songs listed in Billboard for two eras, 2002-2005 and 1968-1971, found that 24 of the 40 songs in the modern era — 60 percent — and half the songs of the classic era were devoted to the subject of love and relationships.[vi]

In The Descent of Man Darwin surmised that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus, musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively.” Beyond love and sex, music in politics and revolution can become a national anthem, a rallying cry, or a military march. In a communal celebration, such as Mardi Gras, music becomes an expression of collective joy and celebration.

Music is a language, not only an aural language but a written one. Music invokes some of the same neural regions as language but, far more than language does, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion. The mental structure in music requires both halves of the brain, while the mental structure of language only requires the left half. In this sense, music is even more powerful than spoken language and is its likely precursor. Music may have prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become human. Singing and instrumental activities might have helped our species to refine motor skills, paving the way for the development of the exquisitely fine muscle control required for vocal or signed speech.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that children who take music lessons for two years also process language better. Music therapy using listening and instrument playing has been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and neurological problems. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in whom movements tend to be incontinently fast or slow, or sometimes frozen, can overcome these disorders of timing when they are exposed to the regular tempo and rhythm of music.

In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin offers evidence to support the view that musical ability served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness. Levitin writes:

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.[vii] (emphasis added)

Medical research into two specific neuro-developmental disorders reveals an interesting neurological link between music and social development. Williams Syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and cognitive deficits, such as heart defects, stunted physical development, brain abnormalities, low IQs, high levels of emotional anxiety and various learning disabilities. However, WS individuals also exhibit high levels of sociability, gregariousness, and an affinity and talent for music. In contrast to WS are the family of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), such as Asperger’s syndrome. Individuals with ASD exhibit deficits in sociability and an inability to empathize. In general, they also display no emotional affinity for music. As Levitin explains, complementary syndromes such as these, which neuroscientists call a double dissociation, strengthen the putative link between music and social bonding.

Historically and anthropologically, music has been involved with social activities. People sing and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them doing so around the first fires a hundred thousand years ago. This observation dovetails with E.O. Wilson’s narrative of the campfire as the focus of social and community development cited in Chapter 1.

In Music and the Mind, psychologist Anthony Storr stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. As Storr explains, in modern culture the choice of music has important social consequences. People listen to the music their friends listen to and people who listen to the same music form friendships. Particularly when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or with whom we believe we have something in common. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music. It becomes a mark of our chosen identity. This ties in with the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion. Music and musical preferences become a mark of personal and group identity and of distinction.

As a powerful biological, psychological, emotional, and communicative medium, music reinforces the ties that bring us together and then bind us. Think of two musicians playing together, jamming, or playing a structured piece – the music is heard as one indivisible expression. A duet can become a trio, then a quartet, a quintet, and finally a full orchestra or big band. The possibilities for creative variation multiply with collaborative input. There is nothing more enjoyable to jazz aficionados – players and audiences alike – than an artful improvisation on a theme that becomes a new musical exploration of the unknown. Philharmonic audiences, likewise, are thrilled by the grandeur of an orchestra that plays as one.

I have deliberately highlighted the role of creativity in music because it provides strong evidence for the synergistic power of creating and sharing (connecting). The power of creative art is that it connects us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

music

[i] Granted, this judgment may be largely influenced by the era in which the art is technically applied. Certainly film has been a dominant art form of the 20th century, while others claim that virtual gaming will be the preeminent creative art form of the near future. Nevertheless, I will stick with the universality and simplicity of music.

[ii] See Schopenhauer on the “Hierarchy among the fine arts.”

[iii] For some inexplicable reason as I write this, the song “Winchester Cathedral” keeps repeating in my head. A song I most certainly have not heard replayed for at least 50 years, and yet, there it is playing back in my memory. Not my first choice!

[iv] This points out the modern travesty of dividing communal music performance between virtuosi and the rest of us listening in the audience. The communal drum circle is much more in tune with our nature.

[v] Gottfried Schlaug, “Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity.” Prog Brain Res. 2015; 217: 37–55.

[vi] http://news.ufl.edu/archive/2007/05/love-still-dominates-pop-song-lyrics-but-with-raunchier-language.html

[vii] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 188. For a lovely graphic illustrating the myriad brain functions that music engages, which I cannot print here due to copyright issues, go to http://www.fastcompany.com/3022942/work-smart/the-surprising-science-behind-what-music-does-to-our-brains?

Finite and Infinite Games: the Internet and Politics

About two decades ago James Carse, a religious scholar and historian, wrote a philosophical text titled Finite and Infinite Games. As he explained, there are two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

This simple distinction invites some profound thought. War is a finite game, as is the Superbowl. Peace is an infinite game, as is the game of love. Finite games end with a winner(s) and loser(s), while infinite games seek perpetual play. Politics is a finite game; democracy, liberty, and justice are infinite games.

Life itself, then, could be considered a finite or infinite game depending on which perspective one takes. If ‘he who dies with the most toys wins,’ one is living in a finite game that ends with death. If one chooses to create an entity that lives beyond the grave, a legacy that perpetuates through time, then one is playing an infinite game.

One can imagine that we often play a number of finite games within an infinite game. This supports the idea of waging war in order to attain peace (though I wouldn’t go so far as saying it validates destroying the village in order to save it). The taxonomy also relates to the time horizon of one’s perspective in engaging in the game. In other words, are we playing for the short term gain or the long term payoff?

I find Carse’s arguments compelling when I relate them to the new digital economy and how the digital world is transforming how we play certain games, especially those of social interaction and the monetization of value. That sounds a bit hard to follow, but what I’m referring to is the value of the information network (the Internet) as an infinite game.

I would value the internet according to its power to help people connect and share ideas. (I recently wrote a short book on this power called The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect.) The more an idea is shared, the more powerful and valuable it can be. In this sense, the internet is far more valuable than the sum of its various parts, and for it to end as the victim of a finite game would be a tragedy for all. So, I see playing on the information network as an infinite game.

The paradox is that most of the big players on the internet – the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc – are playing finite games on and with the network. In fact, they are using the natural monopoly of network dynamics to win finite games for themselves, reaping enormous value in the process. But while they are winning, many others are losing. Yes, we do gain in certain ways, but the redistribution of information data power is leading to the redistribution of monetary gains and losses across the population of users. In many cases those gains and losses are redistributed quite arbitrarily.

For instance, let us take the disruption of the music industry, or the travel industry, or the publishing industry. One need not lament the fate of obsolete business models to recognize that for play to continue, players must have the possibility of adapting to change in order to keep the infinite game on course. Most musicians and authors believe their professions are DOA. What does that say for the future of culture?

Unfortunately, this disruption across the global economy wrought by digitization is being reflected in the chaotic politics of our times, mostly across previously stable developed democracies.

These economic and political developments don’t seem particularly farsighted and one can only speculate how the game plays out. But to relate it to current events, many of us are playing electoral politics in a finite game that has profound implications for the more important infinite game we should be playing.

 

Book Review: Makers and Takers

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

Crown Business; 1st edition (May 17, 2016)

Ms. Foroohar does a fine job of journalistic reporting here. She identifies many of the failures of the current economic policy regime that has led to the dominance of the financial industry. She follows the logical progression of central bank credit policy to inflate the banking system, that in turn captures democratic politics and policymaking in a vicious cycle of anti-democratic cronyism.

However, her ability to follow the money and power is not matched by an ability to analyze the true cause and effect and thus misguides her proposed solutions. Typical of a journalistic narrative, she identifies certain “culprits” in this story: the bankers and policymakers who favor them. But the true cause of this failed paradigm of easy credit and debt is found in the central bank and monetary policy.

Since 1971 the Western democracies have operated under a global fiat currency regime, where the value of the currencies are based solely on the full faith and credit of the various governments. In the case of the US$, that represents the taxing power of our Federal government in D.C.

The unfortunate reality, based on polling the American people (and Europeans) on trust in government, is that trust in our governmental institutions has plunged from almost 80% in 1964 to less than 20% today. Our 2016 POTUS campaign reflects this deep mistrust in the status quo and the political direction of the country. For good reason. So, what is the value of a dollar if nobody trusts the government to defend it? How does one invest under that uncertainty? You don’t.

One would hope Ms. Foroohar would ask, how did we get here? The essential cause is cheap excess credit, as has been experienced in financial crises all through history. The collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971, when the US repudiated the dollar gold conversion, called the gold peg, has allowed central banks to fund excessive government spending on cheap credit – exploding our debt obligations to the tune of $19 trillion. There seems to be no end in sight as the Federal Reserve promises to write checks without end.

Why has this caused the complete financialization of the economy? Because real economic growth depends on technology and demographics and cannot keep up with 4-6% per year. So the excess credit goes into asset speculation, mostly currency, commodity, and securities trading. This explosion of trading has amped incentives to develop new financial technologies and instruments to trade. Thus, we have the explosion of derivatives trading, which essentially is trading on trading, ad infinitum. Thus, Wall Street finance has come to be dominated by trading and socialized risk-taking rather than investing and private risk management.

After 2001 the central bank decided housing as an asset class was ripe for a boom, and that’s what we got: a debt-fueled bubble that we’ve merely re-inflated since 2008. There is a fundamental value to a house, and in most regions we have far departed from it.

So much money floating through so few hands naturally ends up in the political arena to influence policy going forward. Thus, not only is democratic politics corrupted, but so are any legal regulatory restraints on banking and finance. The simplistic cure of “More regulation!” is belied by the ease with which the bureaucratic regulatory system is captured by powerful interests.

The true problem is the policy paradigm pushed by the consortium of central banks in Europe, Japan, China, and the US. (The Swiss have resisted, but not out of altruism for the poor savers of the world.) Until monetary/credit policy in the free world becomes tethered and disciplined by something more than the promises of politicians and central bankers, we will continue full-speed off the eventual cliff. But our financial masters see this eventuality as a great buying opportunity.

Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.

inflation-vs-employment

Share the Wealth?

The Third Way? No, the Only Way forward. It’s called peoples’ capitalism, the Ownership Society, employee ownership, inclusive capitalism, etc. (Ironic how Reich has embraced a concept introduced in national politics by George W. Bush.)
Reprinted from the Huff Post. Comment below…

The Third Way: Share-the-Gains Capitalism

by Robert Reich

Marissa Mayer tells us a lot about why Americans are so angry, and why anti-establishment fury has become the biggest single force in American politics today.

Mayer is CEO of Yahoo. Yahoo’s stock lost about a third of its value last year, as the company went from making $7.5 billion in 2014 to losing $4.4 billion in 2015. Yet Mayer raked in $36 million in compensation.

Even if Yahoo’s board fires her, her contract stipulates she gets $54.9 million in severance. The severance package was disclosed in a regulatory filing last Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In other words, Mayer can’t lose.

It’s another example of no-lose socialism for the rich — winning big regardless of what you do.

Why do Yahoo’s shareholders put up with it? Mostly because they don’t know about it.

Most of their shares are held by big pension funds, mutual funds, and insurance funds whose managers don’t want to rock the boat because they skim the cream regardless of what happens to Yahoo.

In other words, more no-lose socialism for the rich.

I don’t want to pick on Ms. Mayer or the managers of the funds that invest in Yahoo. They’re typical of the no-lose system in which America’s corporate and financial elite now operate.

But the rest of America works in a different system.

Theirs is cutthroat hyper-capitalism — in which wages are shrinking, median household income continues to drop, workers are fired without warning, two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck, and employees are being classified as “independent contractors” without any labor protections at all.

Why is there no-lose socialism for the rich and cutthroat hyper-capitalism for everyone else?

Because the rules of the game — including labor laws, pension laws, corporate laws, and tax laws — have been crafted by those at the top, and the lawyers and lobbyists who work for them.

Does that mean we have to await Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution” (or, perish the thought, Donald Trump’s authoritarian populism) before any of this is likely to change?

Before we go to the barricades, you should know about another CEO named Hamdi Ulukaya, who’s developing a third model — neither no-lose socialism for the rich nor hyper-capitalism for everyone else.

Ulukaya is the Turkish-born founder and CEO of Chobani, the upstart Greek yogurt maker recently valued at as much as $5 billion.

Last Tuesday Ulukaya announced he’s giving all his 2,000 full-time workers shares of stock worth up to 10 percent of the privately held company’s value when it’s sold or goes public, based on each employee’s tenure and role at the company.

If the company ends up being valued at $3 billion, for example, the average employee payout could be $150,000. Some long-tenured employees will get more than $1 million.

Ulukaya’s announcement raised eyebrows all over corporate America. Many are viewing it as an act of charity (Forbes Magazine calls it one of “the most selfless corporate acts of the year”).

In reality, Mr. Ulukaya’s decision is just good business. Employees who are partners become even more dedicated to increasing a company’s value.

Which is why research shows that employee-owned companies — even those with workers holding only a minority stake — tend to out-perform the competition.

Mr. Ulukaya just increased the odds that Chobani will be valued at more than $5 billion when it’s sold or its shares of stock are available to the public. Which will make him, as well as his employees, far wealthier.

As Ulukaya wrote to his workers, the award isn’t a gift but “a mutual promise to work together with a shared purpose and responsibility.”

A handful of other companies are inching their way in a similar direction.

Apple decided last October it would award shares not just to executives or engineers but to hourly paid workers as well. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is giving a third of his Twitter stock (about 1 percent of the company) “to our employee equity pool to reinvest directly in our people.“

Employee stock ownership plans, which have been around for years, are lately seeing a bit of a comeback.

But the vast majority of American companies are still locked in the old hyper-capitalist model that views workers as costs to be cut rather than as partners to share in success.

That’s largely because Wall Street still looks unfavorably on such collaboration (remember, Chobani is still privately held).

The Street remains obsessed with short-term stock performance, and its analysts don’t believe hourly workers have much to contribute to the bottom line.

But they’re prepared to lavish unprecedented rewards on CEOs who don’t deserve squat.

Let them compare Yahoo with Chobani in a few years, and see which model works best.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Greek yoghurt.

And I’d bet on a model of capitalism that’s neither no-lose socialism for the rich nor cruel hyper-capitalism for the rest, but share-the-gains capitalism for everyone.

 ——————
My comment:
Reich’s argument for inclusive “ownership” capital is certainly a welcome improvement over artificially raising labor costs through wage mandates or union restrictions. Kudos to Mr. Ulukaya, but a more widely adopted model can’t rely solely on enlightened capitalists. Mr. Reich glosses over the important issue of who bears the risks of capitalist enterprise before success. Sharing the gains unfortunately also means sharing the financial risks, or the direct relationship between human loss aversion and risk-taking enterprise collapses. In other words, nobody gets to receive gains without taking risks and nobody take risks without expected gains. If that truth escapes you, you’re probably not a casino gambler.
Mr. Ulukaya bore these risks and now wisely seeks to share the risks and rewards going forward. But these ownership rights should be negotiated by employees across the economy and can’t rely on the benevolence of successful entrepreneurs. Labor organizations could play a collective action role here on securing and enforcing ownership rights. The public sector also should address how economic risks can be better managed through a functioning private insurance market complemented by social insurance where private markets are incomplete.
The current desire to centralize risk and control in big government, big business, and big labor is sorely misguided and it would be helpful if both left and right could come together on that fact. Ideology be damned.
———-
I include this cartoon below for its comic irony. So many people reading this article mistake Reich’s argument for Bernie Sanders-style socialism when it is the exact opposite. It’s about extending capital ownership to labor, whereas socialism is about abolishing capital ownership in favor of some altruistic notion of communalism.
share-the-candy