The Other

I find this book and its review oddly obtuse. The root cause remains mysterious? Perhaps the fact that these behaviors are documented across time, place, and culture might suggest a root cause in human nature? The author coins this as xenophobia, but that is not the accurate word because it suggests “otherism” is rooted in human psychology, whereas we observe the same behaviors in other species, especially those of pack animals like wolves, hyenas, and apes.

Instead I would attribute “otherism” to a natural survival instinct that sees the other as a possible threat, especially when the invasion involves rivalry over scarce resources. This would apply across many species that exhibit a sense of “insider vs. outsider” groups.

The difference with human society is that we aware of the moral implications of ostracizing or persecuting the “other” as fellow homo sapiens. We also have a multitude of characteristics we can use to differentiate groups, such as skin color, race, ethnicity, language, gender, cultural habits, etc. In fact, this multitude implies that our current obsession with race may not be the most important factor. I would guess that several of these characteristics coalesce around the nuances of cultural antipathy. In other words, it may not be skin color that matters most, it’s just the most obvious.

For example, a black male that attends Ivy League schools and works on Wall St. can assimilate easily into mainstream society and apparently can easily become President, whereas a black rapper who speaks urban dialect, sports tattoos, and sags his pants below his posterior has almost no chance of assimilating into the dominant cultural milieu, no matter how rich he is. This would apply on a less obvious scale to those, say, who cannot speak fluently the dominant language of a society.

The challenge for a diverse society is to manage the cultural conflicts that arise from our differences. These conflicts cannot be managed with platitudes and bromides about tolerance or focusing solely on chosen identities. Unfortunately this is where our author and reviewer end up: quoting polls about how people feel about national identity in Europe and the USA. It’s an odd comparison because the historical definition of being French or German is categorically different than being American. For centuries people’s identities were defined by where they were born into a dominant local culture. The American experiment is a complete departure from that because it is a land of immigrants (and involuntary servitude in the case of slavery). The true differences between indigenous tribes and European settlers is really a matter of when they arrived on the continent. The struggle for power dominance between insiders and outsiders is a global historical phenomenon, not just a North American one.

How can we meet this challenge of the “other” when globalization is turning us all into “others”? First, we must recognize that antipathy of the other is partly driven by fear, and the fear may very well be rational. Fear of Middle Eastern terrorists touting the conquering mission of Islam is not an irrational fear. An invasion of migrants across borders is a rational fear. The point being that rational fears can be overcome, but not by denying or condemning them.

Some have wrongly assumed that because nationalism can engender a negative attitude toward the other, the nation-state must be a detriment to peace and harmony. This is exactly wrong because nation-states with borders and defined governance are exactly what prevents chaos and conflict by defining the rights to scarce resources. It is why the nation-state has been so durable over the last 400 years. In this respect, One Worldism makes no sense and is a dangerous flirtation.

Second, as this idea of the nation-state suggests, we need to understand that a multicultural society can be detrimental to a free, democratic one. All communities develop and maintain cultural norms and values that make it easier to live together in peace. Accepting the dominant values of the society we live in is merely to understand this and not an impediment to celebrating one’s own cultural heritage. America has been more successful than other developed democracies because being American is not defined by skin color, or language, or race, but by the voluntary acceptance of the American credo of individual rights and freedoms. It is truly the melting pot. Anyone from anywhere in the world can adopt this spirit, even if they cannot transplant themselves. But this fact also underscores the importance of assimilation to the dominant values of a society’s culture, and the USA is no exception. In the USA we might classify these values according to constitutional principles of liberty, justice and law as well as according to commonly accepted behavioral norms. It does not mean surrendering to any “other’s” cultural heritage, but merely accepting those attributes easily assimilated without sacrificing our individual identities.

We can see that uncontrolled borders with uncontrolled waves of migrants only undermines the good will people harbor for embracing the other. It creates uncertainty and disruption to the stable societal norms and anxiety over scarce material resources. It also threatens the touchstones of national identity. Unfortunately, the southern border crisis is now something American society will have to manage and it is not helped by wrongly attributing the problem to systemic racism. This is merely a tragic fallacy. A free diverse society can embrace and has embraced a tolerant attitude toward newcomers, but the prudent pace of adaptation is crucial. No society can peacefully absorb a horde of migrants completely unassimilated to the cultural values and norms of that society. It only invites chaos and conflict.

One can only pray that our national leaders in Washington D.C. wake up to these realities.

‘Of Fear and Strangers’ Review: The Others

Many of history’s most nightmarish episodes are rooted in humanity’s propensity for hatred of ‘The Other.’ But the root cause remains mysterious.

wsj.com/articles/of-fear-and-strangers-history-xenophobia-book-review-the-others-11634912374October 22, 2021

By Adam Kuper Oct. 22, 2021 10:20 am ET

George Makari’s concern with xenophobia goes back to a childhood trauma. In 1974, at the age of 13, he was taken on a family visit to his parents’ native Beirut. Suddenly, the travelers found themselves caught in the midst of what would become a civil war. “To me, it was bizarre,” Dr. Makari recalls in “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia.” He continues: “All these bewildering sects were far more alike than different. All were Levantines who spoke the same dialect; all loved the same punning humor, devoured the same cuisine, abided by strict rules of hospitality, and approached any purchase as a three-act play: bargain, stage a walk-out, then settle. They were quick with proverbs and went agog when Fairuz sang. And yet, subtle distinctions in their identities now meant life or death.”

Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia

By George Makari

W.W. Norton

Today, Dr. Makari, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of Weill Cornell’s DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry, sees xenophobia as a threat to social peace, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and North America, where recent political convulsions have been driven by a bristling hostility toward strangers and outsiders. Dr. Makari is clear that a lot of different impulses are often conflated here: “ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or Islamophobia.” What might they have in common? “Is there any one term specific enough to not be meaningless, while broad enough to allow us to consider whatever common strands exist between these phenomena?” He thinks that there is: xenophobia. And if all these disorders are variants of the same affliction, then perhaps they have the same cause and might be susceptible to the same treatment.

Dr. Makari traces the invention of “xenophobia” to the 1880s, when psychiatrists came up with a variety of “phobias” apparently caused by traumatic experience. “Hydrophobia”—a fear of water—was an old term for rabies. There followed a rash of other phobias, from claustrophobia to my personal favorite, phobophobia—the fear of being frightened. (One commentator remarked that the number of phobias seemed limited only by an Ancient Greek dictionary.) Xenophobia entered a medical dictionary in 1916 as a “morbid dread of meeting strangers.

Like many psychiatric classifications, early definitions of xenophobia covered too much ground. What began as a psychiatric diagnosis would soon be used to describe the fury with which colonized populations often turned on settlers. These settlers, in turn, would be accused of xenophobia by the critics of colonialism, as waves of migrations in the years leading up to World War I provoked fears of a loss of national identity.



In the U.S., three confrontations between different segments of the population proved formative. The first pitted the Puritans, who were themselves refugees from religious persecution, against Native Americans. The second was the forced migration and enslavement of millions of Africans by descendants of the country’s European settlers. The third was provoked by the migrants, first from Europe, then from Asia, who arrived after the Civil War largely for economic reasons.

Dr. Makari notes that in 1860 60% of the white population in the U.S. was of British origin, while 35% were broadly classified as German. By 1914, after 20 million immigrants had passed through American ports, 11% of the white population had British roots, 20% German, 30% Italian and Hispanic, and 34% Slavic. The settled sense of identity enjoyed by established white American Protestants was threatened. There was, in particular, a panic about Chinese immigration, even though the number of arriving Chinese was relatively small. This led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers. In 1892, 241 lynchings were recorded in America. Two-thirds of the victims were black; the remaining third were mostly Chinese and Italian. In 1908, the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked: “Is it a ‘yellow peril,’ or ‘black peril,’ or perhaps, after all, is it not some form of ‘white peril’ which threatens the future of humanity in this day of great struggles and complex issues?”

Dr. Makari’s whirlwind historical survey tells a compelling story of racial and ethnic animosity, but he might have paid more attention to religious conflicts. Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was torn by bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants, a feud that still festered in 20th-century Ireland. The Partition of India in 1947 was accompanied by violent Hindu-Muslim confrontations and the displacement of more than 10 million people. When communist Yugoslavia fell apart, Orthodox Christians and Muslims waged war in the Balkans. The Middle East is currently going through another cycle of Shiite-Sunni wars. Are these religious hatreds also to be considered xenophobia?

Then there are sometimes ferocious confrontations between political parties, or fratricidal quarrels between factions within parties. And what about all those brawling sports fans? So many apparently irrational fears and hatreds. Could they all possibly come down to the same psychic or social forces?

One idea is that there is something fundamentally human here. Early human groups competed for territory. All intruders were enemies. The more you feared and hated outsiders, the better your chances of survival. So xenophobia bestowed an evolutionary advantage. Sports fans are simply expressing inherited tribal instincts. Even babies are frightened by a strange face.

This is a popular one-size-fits-all explanation. But it is problematic. For one thing, anthropologists do not agree that constant strife was the norm during the 95% of human history when small nomadic bands lived by hunting and gathering. The Victorian anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor said that early humans would have had to choose between marrying out or being killed out. When Europeans in the early 19th century made contact with surviving communities of hunter-gatherers, different bands were observed forming marriage alliances and trading partnerships that generally kept feuds from raging out of control.

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, however, a better explanation of mass hatreds was needed. The orthodox theory in American psychology at the time was behaviorism, which explained habitual attitudes and responses as the products of conditioning: Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell because they had been conditioned to recognize this as a cue for food. In the same sort of way, children are warned against strangers and so conditioned to fear others.

Less orthodox, but more influential in the long run, is the notion of projection. Each of us half-recognizes our shameful desires, infantile fears, aggressive impulses. Instead of dealing with them, we may accuse someone else of harboring those same feelings, cleansing ourselves by shifting the blame onto a scapegoat.

According to yet another analytic theory, the people most susceptible to collective paranoia are the children of strict and demanding fathers whom they feared and adored. Theodor Adorno, the lead author of the classic account “The Authoritarian Personality,” wrote that the typical subject “falls, as it were, negatively in love.” Cowed by the father-figure, he is masochistically submissive to authority and sadistically takes out his anger on the weak.

These psychoanalytic theories all seek to explain the personal traumas and particular pathologies of individuals. But how do whole populations come to share common anxieties and antipathies? In 1928, the sociologist Emory Bogardus published the landmark study “Immigration and Race Attitudes.” One of its disconcerting findings was that the most widely disliked people in the U.S. at the time were “Turks.” Though very few Americans had actually encountered a member of that group, they had heard about them. And what they had heard about was the massacre of Armenians in Turkey after World War I, which was presented in the press as a slaughter of Christians at the hands of Muslims.

It was this power of the media to shape popular sentiment that the journalist Walter Lippmann came to dread. An early supporter of American involvement in World War I, Lippmann had joined the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board in London. In 1922 he published “Public Opinion,” his study of “how public opinion is made.” In it, he borrowed a term from the printing press: stereotype. We all share ready-made ideas that facilitate snap judgments about people and situations. These stereotypes are crude but may be useful in a pinch. They save time and trouble.

Effective propaganda weaponizes stereotypes. Lippmann’s work inspired Sigmund Freud’s American nephew Edward Bernays, who set up the first public relations business. Bernays in turn influenced Joseph Goebbels, who made terrible use of his ideas. Social media now serves up propaganda on steroids.

Yet surely not everyone is gulled—at least not all the time. How then to explain what is going on when strangers are demonized? Dr. Makari suggests that some combination of these psychological and sociological theories may be cobbled together to guide our thinking. This is probably the best that we can manage at present. What then can be done to limit the damage? Here Dr. Makari is less helpful. He suggests that all will be well if society becomes more equal, open and informed. He might as well add that social media should be better regulated, and the public better equipped for critical thought. Failing that, we may have to relive these nightmares of collective hatred again and again for a long time to come.

Yet there are grounds for hope. A study released in May this year by the Pew Research Center reported that conceptions of national identity in the U.S. and Western Europe have recently become more inclusive. Compared with 2016, “fewer people now believe that to truly be American, French, German or British, a person must be born in the country, must be a Christian, has to embrace national customs, or has to speak the dominant language.” This may suggest that xenophobia waxes and wanes with recent events, and that politicians can fan or tamp down outbreaks of public fear and fury. Wise and prudent leaders really might spare us a great deal of trouble.

—Mr. Kuper, a specialist on the ethnography of Southern Africa, has written widely on the history of anthropology.

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Do We Need a Social Welfare State?

One must evalulate all the trade-offs.

The following article in today’s NY Times asks the provocative question of whether we can afford a major shift to a social welfare state. One must also ask if the USA needs such a level of social welfare spending and what trade-offs it might impose. This is a question that must be answered through the democratic political process because the economic trade-offs are real.

See comments in RED.

Can America Afford to Become a Major Social Welfare State?

nytimes.com/2021/09/15/opinion/biden-spending-plan-welfare.html

By N. Gregory Mankiw

September 15, 2021

In the reconciliation package now being debated in Washington, President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. Americans should be wary of their plans — not only because of the sizable budgetary cost, but also because of the broader risks to economic prosperity.

The details of the ambitious $3.5 trillion social spending bill are still being discussed, so it is unclear what it will end up including. In many ways, it seems like a grab bag of initiatives assembled from the progressive wish list. And it may be bigger than it sounds: Reports suggest that some provisions will arbitrarily lapse before the end of the 10-year budget window to reduce the bill’s ostensible size, even though lawmakers hope to extend those policies at a later date.

People of all ages are in line to get something: government-funded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded child credits for families with children, two years of tuition-free community college, increased Pell grants for other college students, enhanced health insurance subsidies, paid family and medical leave, and expansions in Medicare for older Americans. A recent Times headline aptly described the plan’s coverage as “cradle to grave.”

If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. It aims to assist people who are struggling in our rough-and-tumble market economy. On its face, that instinct doesn’t sound bad. Many Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction.

Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes. But the policy also raises larger questions about American values and aspirations, and about what kind of nation we want to be.

The issue Prof. Mankiw addresses here is the question as to whether the costs of such programs yield the benefits desired. There is a lot of talk on the left that Modern Monetary Theory demonstrates that deficits don’t constrain government spending so that politicians should spend what’s needed to achieve whatever objective they choose. This is a bit of wishful fantasy. What matters economically and financially is whether such spending yields a greater return in terms of freedom and quality of life for society as a whole. If such spending merely increases the deficit but does not invest in the productivity of the economy, then it is a dead weight upon society. It’s not much different than one’s personal desire to choose between buying a new car or instead investing in education. One must compare how each choice will yield in terms of financial freedom and happiness over the longer term.

The Biden administration has promised to pay for the entire plan with higher taxes on corporations and the very wealthy. But there’s good reason to doubt that claim. Budget experts, such as Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, are skeptical that the government can raise enough tax revenue from the wealthy to finance Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda.

The United States could do what Western Europe does — impose higher taxes on everyone. Most countries use a value-added tax, a form of a national sales tax, to raise a lot of revenue efficiently. If Americans really want larger government, we will have to pay for it, and a VAT could be the best way.

The costs of an expanded welfare state, however, extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects.

Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” According to Mr. Okun, policymakers want to maximize the economic pie while slicing it equally. But these goals often conflict. As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink.

Mr. Okun explains the trade-off with a metaphor: Providing a social safety net is like using a leaky bucket to redistribute water among people with different amounts. While bringing water to the thirstiest may be noble, it is also costly as some water is lost in transit. 

In the real world, this leakage occurs because higher taxes distort incentives and impede economic growth. And those taxes aren’t just the explicit ones that finance benefits such as public education or health care. They also include implicit taxes baked into the benefits themselves. If these benefits decline when your income rises, people are discouraged from working. This implicit tax distorts incentives just as explicit taxes do. That doesn’t mean there is no point in trying to help those in need, but it does require being mindful of the downsides of doing so.

Yes, we must reconcile the trade-off, but I would also characterize it as freedom and liberty to pursue one’s personal happiness versus the promise of individual economic security promised by the collective. The fulfillment of that promise is often costlier than anticipated and the benefits disappointing.

Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom.

Economists disagree about why European nations are less prosperous than the United States. But a leading hypothesis, advanced by Edward Prescott, a Nobel laureate, in 2003, is that Europeans work less than Americans because they face higher taxes to finance a more generous social safety net.

In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones. Americans should be careful to avoid that fate.

The point of course, is not that leisure time is undesirable but that people can choose how they invest their time and energy, rather than have state policy reward or penalize that choice arbitrarily. In a free and just society, this choice should be left to the individual. Liberty and security are not mutually exclusive goals.

Compassion is a virtue, but so is respect for those who are talented, hardworking and successful. Most Americans descended from immigrants, who left their homelands to find freedom and forge their own destinies. Because of this history, we are more individualistic than Europeans, and our policies rightly reflect that cultural difference.

That is not to say that the United States has already struck the right balance between compassion and prosperity. It is a continuing tragedy that children are more likely to live in poverty than the overall population. That’s why my favorite provision in the Biden plan is the expanded child credit, which would reduce childhood poverty. (I am also sympathetic to policies aimed at climate change, which is an entirely different problem. Sadly, the Biden plan misses the opportunity to embrace the best solution — a carbon tax.)

But the entire $3.5 trillion package is too big and too risky. The wiser course is to take more incremental steps rather than to try to remake the economy in one fell swoop.

Actually, I would suggest that the choice between liberty and security is a false one and the assumption that security can only be secured for the individual by the state to also be false. The leftist assumption is that the state has to intervene to redistribute wealth after the fact when instead we can design policies that empower citizens to join in the distribution of that wealth by participating in the risk-taking venture before the fact. Then the distribution of resources in society will mostly take care of itself. As it is now, and with this social welfare expansion, we prevent most individuals who need to participate from participating, forcing them to depend on the largesse of the state or the dictates of the market. This is hardly optimal in the search for liberty and justice. In light of my preference to preserve my liberty and take care of my own security, my answer to Prof. Mankiw’s question would be NO.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005.

Modern Monetary Fantasies 2

The Myth of Big Government Deficits – A TED Talk

This is quite the tale. I’m sure Ms. Kelton studied her economics but here with MMT she takes a few basic truths and spins an elaborate fantasy. Essentially her argument is that debt is no obstacle to economic policy and economic outcomes. You want a Ferrari? No problem, the Fed can write a check and it’s yours, no taxes, no worries. Advocates will hate this simplification but that’s essentially what Ms. Kelton is selling. (You can substitute free healthcare, free college, whatever you want, but I’d go with the Ferrari 365GT.)

MMT is utopian economics. Yes, in theory it can make sense, just don’t go too far down that rabbit hole. Govt debt is not like private debt because it never has to be paid back, only serviced and rolled over. So the debt in $ terms doesn’t matter, but the productivity of that debt matters a lot (the debt to GDP ratio is a good indicator – it looks worse every day).

She lauds the pandemic stimulus because that essentially was an MMT experiment. Look, no recession! But recessions are measured in monetary terms (not value), and if the Fed keeps pumping out money, voila! No recession. But value creation matters and in value terms, we are suffering an extreme recession and stagflation. How many small businesses have closed in the past 2 years? How much price inflation are we experiencing? 5-9%? Have you tried to buy a house lately? 20% price increases. Tried to get a plumber or electrician?

Yes, when the government spends $28 trillion, that money goes somewhere in the private sector. And yes, we’ve seen it skimmed off by the banking industry, the asset-rich who have merely leveraged 3% debt, and the securities markets that have bubbled up even as production has declined. This is what is driving inequality to new heights as the global elites suck up this cheap credit courtesy of the central banks. Check out the number of mega yachts plying the oceans.

Yes, we’ve seen the fantasy of MMT in action and that’s why we’re having a political revolution. Kelton and the handful of economists selling MMT are assuming a utopian political world where everybody always does the right thing. Ultimately, intellectual dishonesty like this is extremely damaging.

Read her book, there’s nothing there that will address these false assumptions. Credit and debt are tools that the market uses to restrain profligacy. Without those restraints, the party will eventually implode.

Afghanistan and the Politics of National Security

To Stop War, American Needs a Third Party

by Matt Taibbi, Substack

For the past few years I haven’t read much from Matt Taibbi to disagree with, as he has done a masterful job exposing the degeneracy of our political and cultural elites. I would agree here with the gist of his criticisms of bipartisan foreign policy and national security policy that has resulted in a long series of futile small war engagements.

However, I do fail to see the connection between war and political party systems he draws out in his title. Perhaps he is a bit unclear himself of the connection as he doesn’t really present the case as a solution, only that our two-party system is part of the problem. Basically he argues our two parties have failed and are corrupt (agreed), but then unconvincingly suggests maybe a third party is the solution. But I can’t find either internal logic or empirical history supporting the case for multiparty systems solving the national security dilemma, even while conceding Eisenhower’s warning concerning the Military Industrial Complex as a real danger. The solution to corrupt politics is to clean out the corruption through the voting process and, if necessary, through the checks of the judicial branch.

To review recent history, no multiparty democracy in the post-war world has satisfactorily solved the security dilemma without becoming dependent on the bipolar great power conflict between the USA and the former USSR. Even after the 1989 demise of the Soviet Bloc, the hegemonic dominance of US continued to provide a convenient security umbrella for European democracies, as well as many developing countries around the world. One must merely offer tacit submission to US global interests to have the US military do all the heavy lifting while the US taxpayer picks up the bill.

This convenient arrangement started to unravel as the global system became unipolar while the rest of the world began to catch up economically during Pax Americana. The cost of hegemony has continued to rise as the US$-centered global monetary system has undermined global trade flows and fundamental prices in asset markets. The liberalization of India and China has also contributed heavily to this transformation of global trade by shifting the global mix of capital and labor. What we have seen in the frequent mismanagement of global conflict by US hegemony has been, as Taibbi notes, an exercise in managing peace rather than decisively ending conflict. As Taibbi notes, one does not wage war for any other reason than to win by vanquishing one’s enemy. There is no polite, dignified way to do this and better not to start a war than to try to manage it over time.

Taibbi’s forlorn hope seems to be like that of Immanuel Kant, who believed democracies do not wage war against each other, so a world characterized by free democracies would ensure everlasting peace. History has proven otherwise as democracies are just less likely to initiate wars, but they are always drawn into them. We have not seen the End of History.

But this brings us to the suggested salve of multiparty systems, which are somewhat analogous to a multipolar international security system. Multipolar systems rely on configurations of alliances and these alliances must be trustworthy. Allies must be willing to commit to the alliance and absorb their share of the costs. This is a radically different dynamic than hegemony, where the big dog takes care of everything in return for obeisance. It is also radically different than bipolarity, which is what a two-party system is.

The USA is no longer the global hegemon because its leaders have not promoted the necessary commitments from the voting populace, and so the American public has moved away from supporting such a role. Remember, President George W. Bush maintained that we could fight the Afghan and Iraq wars without distracting ourselves from shopping at the mall. In other words, zero commitment from anyone, save those who volunteered to be on the front lines. This lack of commitment to assume the costs of global stability permeates US society today, from national politics to the financial sector to our cultural and educational institutions. It was reflected in President Trump’s desire to disengage from the Middle East. What should concern us, and Taibbi, is how global monetary hegemony of the US$ is destabilizing the global economic system, leading to more conflict at the periphery. US monetary policy, in coordination with the 4 other C5 central banks is creating massive inequalities between US$ holders and everyone else. The elite oligarchs of the world benefit from US$ portfolios, but their citizens do not and they will become increasingly restless and combative. There is no global policeman, so the world will become a more dangerous place in the absence of US hegemony.

A third-party in US politics can do nothing to reverse this trend toward irresponsible national policies in a multipolar world. And a multiparty electoral system is just as unstable as a multipolar global security system. It relies on fragile coalitions that give disproportionate power to minority parties that can tip the balance. On the other hand, a two-party system is quite effective in stabilizing a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-racial pluralistic democratic society, albeit with certain trade-offs. Those trade-offs for stability include resistance to change and political sclerosis. But this is a crucial and deliberate element inherent to the overall design of our constitution to prevent passing populist fads from changing our form of self-government. I would be loathe to throw out national stability for the unwarranted hope of convergence on international comity. Instead, in a multiparty system we would expect the instability of comparable historical cases like post-war Italy, India, Indonesia or Brazil. A global superpower can hardly afford those kinds of risks.

I find Taibbi’s criticisms of our political leaders, our foreign policy bureaucracies, and our military-industrial complex to be on the mark. I sincerely doubt a third party solves any of these problems, but we will never find out because the logic of the two-party electoral system supersedes any argument against it for myriad reasons. Paramount is that national stability is a necessary precondition for good government, continuity, and preservation of the union. We’ve had dozens of third party movements in US history and the only ones that have been successful have been those rare moments when a new party replaces one of the two that has been rejected by the voters. The US electoral system favors reform from within the major parties by holding elected politicians to a higher standard and by removing them from office when necessary. The Republican party accomplished much of this house-cleaning in 2016, but the Democratic party is still conflicted over its future path.

It should be added that to reduce the risks of national politics we should devolve as much power away from the central government back to the states, counties, municipalities and individuals where it belongs. The central government was designed to coordinate democratic self-rule, not overrule.

But what we really need is a much broader understanding of our loss of political and financial integrity. What we need is another Greatest Generation on the horizon that recognizes good and evil and is willing to take a stand.

Journalistic Integrity or Just Plain Dumb?

If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake

This incredible article is by Thomas Frank, a respected journalist and author (What’s the Matter With Kansas? – an exercise in urban political myopia) who is a well-educated and well-read member of the liberal urban media. Here’s an excerpt of his political touchstones:

Like everyone else I know, I spent the pandemic doing as I was told. A few months ago I even tried to talk a Fox News viewer out of believing in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins. The reason I did that is because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab-leak theory wasn’t true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only deluded Trumpists believed it, that it got infinite pants-on-fire ratings from the fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I am the sort who has always trusted the mainstream news media.

[Ah, yes, it’s Trump’s fault. LOL.]

If an individual whose entire career and livelihood is wrapped up in ‘getting it right’ is so easily misled by our dominant media sources, what hope is there for the rest of us who have better things to do? Now he’s wondering if he’s gotten it all wrong and the larger consequences.

This is the problem with the urban corporate media that started to seriously degenerate after the 2000 election. But we have also learned how it started long before, as alternative media such as cable news, Talk Radio, and the Internet have presented an existential financial challenge for traditional media outlets, especially print newspapers and broadcast news.

Mr. Frank and his colleagues in corporate media (NYT, WaPo, LAT, Fox) need to undergo a serious bit of soul searching to discover if they have a role as the Fourth Estate in our information economy, or if they should just go pursue a career in real estate somewhere. Journalists today have to understand that nobody is going to hero worship them as the modern-day Woodward and Bernstein. Honest journalism and reputational capital is it’s own reward and can actually be lucrative on platforms like SubStack.

So here is what Frank has discovered:

  •  Lab leaks happen. They aren’t the result of conspiracies: “a lab accident is an accident,” as Nathan Robinson points out; they happen all the time, in this country and in others, and people die from them.
  •  There is evidence that the lab in question, which studies bat coronaviruses, may have been conducting what is called “gain of function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent. By the way, right-wingers didn’t dream up “gain of function”: all the cool virologists have been doing it (in this country and in others) even as the squares have been warning against it for years.
  •  There are strong hints that some of the bat-virus research at the Wuhan lab was funded in part by the American national-medical establishment — which is to say, the lab-leak hypothesis doesn’t implicate China alone.
  •  There seem to have been astonishing conflicts of interest among the people assigned to get to the bottom of it all, and (as we know from Enron and the housing bubble) conflicts of interest are always what trip up the well-credentialed professionals whom liberals insist we must all heed, honor, and obey.
  •  The news media, in its zealous policing of the boundaries of the permissible, insisted that Russiagate was ever so true but that the lab-leak hypothesis was false false false, and woe unto anyone who dared disagree. Reporters gulped down whatever line was most flattering to the experts they were quoting and then insisted that it was 100% right and absolutely incontrovertible — that anything else was only unhinged Trumpist folly, that democracy dies when unbelievers get to speak, and so on.
  •  The social media monopolies actually censored posts about the lab-leak hypothesis. Of course they did! Because we’re at war with misinformation, you know, and people need to be brought back to the true and correct faith — as agreed upon by experts.

With this we get Mr. Frank’s revelation:

If it does indeed turn out that the lab-leak hypothesis is the right explanation for how it began — that the common people of the world have been forced into a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost — there is a moral earthquake on the way.

Because if the hypothesis is right, it will soon start to dawn on people that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, or not enough censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above, to understand that there is no such thing as absolute expertise. 

Yeah, no kidding. And that’s a bad thing? It’s doubly ironic that most of the voices haranguing us to “follow the science” were really constraining true science. Critical thinking is merely what real scientists have been telling us all along, as opposed to those succumbing to “political” science. There are no absolutes in science, only skepticism and hypothesis testing – this applies to the pandemic as well as climate change and systemic racism and Modern Monetary Theory. And mea culpas won’t save journalists from the anvils of “I told you so’s” that will rain down upon their heads.

The UnFree

I’ve been watching a bit of the original TV miniseries on Amazon, The Underground Railroad, because I always enjoy learning something new and interesting from historical narratives. Just today I read this article on The Conversation which is a nice review of the motivations and intentions of the writers and director. It also provoked some thoughts I’ll share here.

The Conversation – The Underground Railroad

I was struck by the following quotes about the director’s intention to present “slaves not as objects who were acted upon, but as individuals who maintained identities and agency – however limited – despite their status as property.”

The reviewer goes on to say,

In the past three decades there has been a movement among academics to find suitable terms to replace “slave” and “slavery.”

In the 1990s, a group of scholars asserted that “slave” was too limited a term – to label someone a “slave,” the argument went, emphasized the “thinghood” of all those held in slavery, rendering personal attributes apart from being owned invisible.

This makes perfect sense and should seem obvious. However, I believe the misuse or overuse of the label “slavery” has happened through associating it solely with the African/American experience, whereas enslavement has been inflicted upon many individuals and peoples across the world and across history. For sure, this docudrama is a narrative of the experience of black slaves on the North American continent, but its universalism should not be lost in that singular application.

I have emphasized the ideas of personal “identities and agency” in bold text above because this is really what applies to all people regardless of race or ethnicity. It also struck me that the appropriate term we are looking for is “The Unfree.” Every individual and oppressed group can relate to the idea of being unfree, if not enslaved. When you are unfree, you are deprived of free choice, free will, free agency, and the outward self-dignity imbued in that truest sense of human freedom. Historically and currently this condition is usually the result of a gross imbalance of power and a certain pathology of those who impose their unequal power over others. The history of the unfree applies to the ancient story of Spartacus, as well as any employee today preyed upon by an unreasonable boss.

This status of the unfree also highlights the fundamental condition of human identity, which is freedom. Freedom is what delineates our identities and personal agency in our lives, and it is sufficient in itself. In recent decades this truth has been twisted a bit to suggest that our chosen identities establish and signal our freedom, when actually it is only our freedom that helps guarantee the free and open expression of our identities. For example, one can assert one’s identity as “non-binary,” and the freedom of self-expression under the law defends the right to whatever that might be, but one cannot force others to use the preferred pronoun, that is not within the power of the state or any other entity without violating the basic tenets of freedom.

This is important because politics can intervene with laws and enforcement to guarantee our freedoms, but it cannot define or defend our personal identities or our self-dignity. As The Underground Railroad narrative demonstrates, slavery could not deprive the unfree slaves of their identities and their self-dignity, unless the individual allowed it. The oppressors can take away physical freedom, humiliate, and even impose a death sentence, but they cannot take away the freedom to think freely and the self-dignity of the oppressed. We witness these truths again and again in the stories of Holocaust and Gulag survivors.

It is also interesting to note that ideologically the primacy of freedom as a value tends to delineate today’s liberals and conservatives, as noted by Jonathan Haidt in his studies of political identity. Liberty is the primary moral value to those who identify on the right, while fairness and human caring are the dominant values asserted by many on the left. Leftists might argue that one cannot be free in an unfair society, but that only means we have to focus on freedom as a precondition to fairness. The issue of slavery the unfree, in universal world history as well as African American history, should enlighten us to the primary ordering of moral values: one cannot have fairness without the precondition of freedom, and without the precondition of freedom, fairness has no meaningful relation to our concepts of justice. (Unfortunately, this only hints at another discussion on the differences between fairness and justice, and the unnecessary qualifiers applied to the universal singular idea of moral justice.)

Lastly, this rich portrayal of the unfree escaping the bonds that defined them by preserving and expressing their self-dignity and personal agency provides the correct lesson on the true legacy of the American experiment – not that one group of our fore-bearers oppressed another, but that they both evolved under a constitutional system of laws to continue to progress toward a society of true liberty and justice for all. We have not arrived, but we are on the right track.

Certain Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the nature of the universe. Get used to it.

Change is the only constant.

Those are far more profound statements than they appear to most people. Once we introduce time into the three-dimensional realm of space and matter, change is inevitable and with change we get the unpredictable nature of the future. Mankind is merely a bystander in this universe of uncertain change and it’s really the puzzle that has confounded the most brilliant minds in history: from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein to Hawking.

The puzzle becomes more salient when we realize how uncertainty has shaped natural biology with biodiversity, adaptation, and the survival instincts that help species perpetuate in an uncertain environment of constant change. Humans are different only in that we are cognitively aware of the uncertainty. Together with our naturally endowed survival instincts, this awareness helps determine our behavioral adaptations. It applies to individual behavior and aggregate social behavior.

The social sciences, especially economics and finance, have now started to focus on this uncertain nature of the universe and how it determines how we cohere and interact in social communities characterized by economic exchange and social and political organization.

We can perhaps appreciate the extent that uncertainty infuses our lives by noting its influence on shaping our cultures and institutions. Religion, for example, is a faith-based belief system that not only shapes social behavior through doctrine, but also offers succor through prayer for the fears that uncertainty provokes. Modern democratic government has been called upon to manage the societal and economic risks of uncertainty through social insurance programs for retirement and healthcare, welfare, income maintenance, environmental risk and national defense.

A few authors have explicated a world characterized by uncertainty, most notably Nassim Nicholas Taleb with his compendium of books, including The Black Swan and Antifragile, as well as John Kay and Mervyn King with their collaboration, Radical Uncertainty.

I highly recommend these books, along with Peter Bernstein’s classic, Against the Gods. These frameworks for analysis help us understand the nature of uncertainty, risk and reward, and the imperatives of risk and loss aversion. Then we can decide how best to manage its inevitable effect on our lives.

Link to an excellent podcast of a symposium at the London School of Economics with the two authors of Radical Uncertainty:

https://www.lse.ac.uk/lse-player?id=4867

Is Social Media Destroying Democracy?

It doesn’t seem so long ago when the promise of an inter-connected world was all the rage, with the free sharing of information being praised as the dawning of a new age for global communication and community. An audacious young Mark Zuckerberg praised his nascent social network, proclaiming that “Connecting the world is really important, and that is something that we want to do. That is why Facebook is here on this planet.”

The equally precocious founders of Google offered a mission to Do No Evil while organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful. Likewise, their youthful optimism gushed about “the potential for technology to remake the world into a better place.” Early outcomes were hopeful, as Facebook’s network grew quickly to more than 2 billion users, while the Arab Spring was heralded politically as “the Twitter revolution,” and “google” became a verb.

But how fast the wheel has turned. Today we find ourselves blaming social media for disseminating misinformation as propaganda (“fake news”), destroying objective journalism, invading user privacy, corrupting elections, enabling and fomenting ideological extremism, canceling political dissent by censoring free speech, cornering markets and suppressing competition, crushing small businesses, and harming the physical and mental health of its users. Whew!

No, it really hasn’t been that long. It’s like we’ve imbibed a heady drug, woke up, and found ourselves addicted, wondering how we got here and how to break this compulsive habit before it breaks us. To paraphrase David Byrne, “How did we get here?”

There are two things we need to understand to better answer this question. One is the nature of social interaction, individually and socially, and how that flows from our behavioral instincts. Second, is how the business model and logic of large-scale social media networks manipulate and profit from those natural instincts.

Man is by nature a social animal” – Aristotle, Politics

As Aristotle noted, humans crave social interaction. As young people, we seek the approval of elders and peers as a form of bonding and belonging. We form families, tribes, neighborhoods, and communities to fulfill this instinctual need for social engagement and mutual protection. Modern social networking technology feeds on that need, but what technology offers today differs from centuries of traditional social interaction in terms of scale and the implications for identity, trust, and commitment.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has observed that human face-to-face relationships have an upward bound of about 150 relationships before dissipating. Beyond that we lose track of our personal networks, so institutional structures must be established to cohere the community network. We understand intuitively that friendships formed through in-person relationships are fundamentally different than “friends” on Facebook. Nobody has 6000+ “friends.” Friends connected through online social networks (OSNs) are too easy; requiring little or no commitment. As the degrees of separation increase, peers on OSNs become virtually anonymous. So, as defined by trust and commitment, our social media friends are not really true friends at all. OSNs have allowed us to make connections that live on the other side of the globe, so we don’t really ‘know’ who we are engaging. What this means is that on social media we are able to shed the constraints of reputation, integrity, and trust. This opens up social engagement to all kinds of malicious intent.

If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”  ~ Aesop (c.620-560 BC)

Gossiping and lying go hand in hand.” ~ Proverb

Whoever gossips to you, will gossip about you.” ~ Spanish Proverb

Comparing OSNs to traditional gossip networks can provide valuable insights. As these quotes show, gossiping has a long, checkered history. In traditional societies, the human propensity to gossip can serve a useful purpose in reinforcing a community’s cultural norms and values by calling attention to and ostracizing those who violate those norms. These practices can range from the harmless to quite ruthless, all in the name of solidifying the community under those accepted norms. It’s how the traditional community survives and maintains stability. Individuals living in modern liberal societies often find such conformity stifling. But gossip can also be positive, promoting one’s good character, as indicated by the phrase, “Your reputation precedes you.” (The key here is how we value reputation.)

Scientific studies show the reward center in the brain—the caudate nucleus—is activated in response to gossip, especially malicious gossip. For instance, subjects seem to be amused or entertained by celebrity scandals. We all know this form of Schadenfreude as the basis of the business model for supermarket tabloids, as exemplified by the modern fascination with the British monarchy and its human foibles.

Furthermore, studies have shown that subjects get a dopamine hit from superficial engagement on social media. The likes, the emojis, the comments, all offer instant gratification that somebody out there approves of us or at least notices us. Popularity metrics signal our status on the social media hierarchy. All this feeds our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and helps shape our identity. This dopamine rush is exploited by social media user interfaces in order to provoke and prolong user engagement on the platforms.

By appealing to our base instincts social media has transformed itself into this role of spreading gossip, but on a far larger scale with far less restraint. In this respect, Facebook and Twitter have become little more than global gossip networks, where those gossiping and being gossiped about have no relationships to a shared community. We see this today in the attempts to cancel those who disagree with an accepted narrative or ideology, where perceived transgressors are set upon by Twitter mobs and trolls. We see it with teenage bullying and exploitation. We see it with constant virtue signaling.

With large-scale, anonymous networks, where no one can be held accountable for attacking another, bad behavior becomes far too easy and tempting, perhaps irresistible. Peoples’ careers and lives are being destroyed by what can be viewed as an unserious game with very serious consequences. In one study conducted in Germany, researchers found that Facebook’s own engagement tools were tied to a significant rise in membership in extremist organizations. In the US, Facebook has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the rise of white supremacist groups.

Paradoxically, this scaling effect, enabling anonymity and lack of accountability, is what really makes today’s social media anti-social. There is no trust or reputational capital to be lost and removing these constraints can bring out the worst in us. OSNs have developed to the point where we are getting all the negative effects of gossip with fewer of the positive effects of shared community promised. In this respect, large-scale OSNs make no sense as a social institution. Nevertheless, the psychological and emotional allure of online social engagement is overpowering, while the financial power associated with OSNs is formidable. In terms of economic power and global reach, our social media giants can go head-to-head with most countries. The top five company valuations on US financial markets are all Big Tech, with Google and Facebook ranked at #4 and #5.

The Primacy of Technology

The big social media platforms today, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, make money through targeted advertising, creating specialized interfaces to keep users engaged and collect as much data as possible to sell to targeted advertisers. The more users, sharing more information flowing through the network, the more advertising revenues increase along with company valuations.

With this profit incentive, the OSN platforms’ engagement strategies go beyond user-initiated behaviors, using AI machine algorithms and click-bait to solicit engagement among users by suggesting friends, games, similar content, contests, and memes. This is why Facebook asks users to play what seem to be silly games: such engagement, no matter how meaningless, can become instantly monetized. Most of these interactions are fairly innocuous, but, because sensationalism and conflict attract engagement, many are meant to provoke political conflict or collusion. In addition, the engagement strategies depend upon keeping attention siloed. If users are regularly exposed to different points of view, if they develop healthy habits for weighing fact versus fiction, they will be tougher targets for engagement.

At best, OSN click-bait strategies and target algorithms yield an endless cacophony of digital noise to compete against any positive human interaction. At worst, and most often than not, we get warring tribes that only venture outside their walled silos to engage with the enemy.

Furthermore, social media is a winner-take-all industry as OSNs have become virtual monopolies through network effects. Much like national languages and computer operating systems, the more users on the network, the more new users want to join the party, the more personal data is harvested, and the more valuable the growing network is to advertisers. This creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors, where any successful new platform is quickly swallowed up by the giants, as when Facebook bought up WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google purchased YouTube.

Their dominance grants Facebook and Google immense bargaining leverage over publishers, content creators, and other stakeholders, who often have no choice but to hand over their own proprietary data to satiate the platforms’ thirst for content. This bargaining power has crushed many creative professions and independent publishers. As far as users who provide all this valuable content go, well, they get a free profile page and a few tools to deepen their engagement.

When it comes to business practices and power over the global internet, Big Tech is unrivaled. As plainly stated by one recent study:

Facebook and Google use their dominant position as gatekeepers to the internet to surveil users and businesses, amass unrivaled stores of data, and rent out targeting services to third parties who can then target content – from ads for shoes to racist propaganda – at users with a perceived precision unrivaled by any other entity. …The longer users remain on the platform – hooked on sensationalist content, which the platforms’ algorithms prioritize – the more money Facebook and Google make from advertising.[1]

Despite the apparent toxicity of these social media platforms, for those who wish to fulfill a sincere desire for wider social connection and engagement, there is no other game in town. Without meaningful competition, Big Tech has transformed their platforms not to help us communicate, but to addict us to their services in order to sell more advertising. For the rest of us the result has not been the promised congenial, global community, but rather a malevolent battle for primacy and survival.

The result is that Big Tech has acquired its own acronym for its five biggest players—the FAANGs—referring to Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Fangs have never been warm and fuzzy.

The Nature of Political Engagement in Democracy

As suggested in the title of this essay, we need to address what all this means for political democracy. Current events might give us a clue, from a previous summer of ongoing urban riots across the country against local government and law enforcement to a protest at the Capitol in January against the 2020 presidential election that turned violent. The chaos in both cases can be traced to the role of social media provocation and coordination.

Democracy is a form of political order that relies on a social choice mechanism called voting that seeks to support and manage self-government. The social choice challenge is always how to distill an inestimable number of personal preferences and interests down to a single pragmatic social policy agenda. It’s not a simple task, nor an obvious one. Neither an authoritarian hierarchy nor a chaotic populist mob accomplishes the objective. Democracy is a messy business, as Churchill said, the worst of all possible political systems, except for all the alternatives.

American democracy is built on a decentralized structure that seeks to best fulfill the goal of self-government while adhering to our stated values of liberty and justice. This is an especially difficult challenge in a large population made up of diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups spread over a large landmass, like the USA.

When systems grow large and complex, nature, technology, and history show us that the best way to manage is to decentralize the process. So, in the US we have fifty states made up of thousands of counties and municipalities to decentralize government. What is also required to facilitate the process is a method of ranking policy priorities that can converge on a workable ordering of those priorities. The final condition is a voting process that allows people to compromise on the big issues and find convergence on decisions the entire population finds acceptable, if not ideal.

Our decentralized system of representative governance seeks to fulfill these objectives while also imposing some necessary trade-offs. Our voting system of winner-take-all plurality yields a two-party system where the winning strategy is to acquire more than 50% of the vote. This design eschews proportional representation with a multitude of competing interests by forcing voters to set priorities and move toward a centrist coalition. This design seeks a majority mandate through a process acceptable to the minority as well, the incentive being to capture the center of American politics.

After capturing that center through elections, the governing coalition must then govern the entire populace while adhering to the accepted process to maintain legitimacy. This requires, above all else, convergence through compromise.

The beauty of a two-party system is that voter choices are forced towards the center of compromise to be successful, so a winning strategy will appeal more to commonalities among voters rather than differences. The alternate idea of proportional representation and multiple parties creates more responsive but fragile coalitions, whereas with a dominant centrist coalition, the two-party structure creates greater stability with greater resistance to change.

Naturally, this process favors the status quo (i.e., conservatism?) rather than change (progressivism?) and thus the trade-off is unappealing to those agents of change among us. Understandable, but all societies survive by following time-tested values and practices until they no longer serve, so the burden of change is always on those eager to embrace it. While time is on their side, the change agents often cannot wait.

Given America’s profile as a large country with a large culturally, ethnically and racially diverse population, democratic governance is no small task. Convergence is far easier with a smaller population, a smaller land area, and a more homogeneous culture, with shared racial and ethnic identities. The USA has none of these advantages, but, starting with a relatively small population and land area, the designers of the US Constitution displayed remarkable foresight in their design.

So, the million-dollar question is whether our social media technology is making our task easier or more impossible?

As discussed above, social media is making us more tribal, more isolated from those different than us, more alienated from a common national identity. The face-to-face appreciation of each “other” is lost and technology’s depreciation of humanity allows us to cast that “other” in dark shadows instead of bright enlightenment. It is replacing true meaning with a false sense of tribal identity and differentiation. And where we cannot find this differentiation, we create it. It’s ironic that our commonalities far outweigh our differences, yet these small differences are what we magnify through much of our social media engagement.

We can easily see that these behaviors are short-circuiting our political democracy. We are creating a bimodal distribution of political preferences rather than a unified, centrist “national” one. Ultimately, we are adrift, wondering what American democracy is all about. Without the strength of conviction, we are weak and vulnerable. And as we drift, those with anti-democratic tendencies, whether authoritarian or anarchic, are harnessing these tools to overcome our institutional constraints and undermine our foundations of liberty and justice. We have seen how some of these interests have used the unique crisis of a global pandemic to advance their narrow agenda. It is particularly shocking how some narrow interests employ science as a political weapon, but then completely dismiss scientific skepticism when it doesn’t serve their purpose.

In the social media space, we are seeing censorship of opinion, even informed opinion; canceling of those we disagree with professionally and socially (this is a modern form of ostracism, banishment, and exile from the community); invasions of privacy; collusion; attacks on personal liberties; and the incitement of social disorder and chaos. What is worse is that our traditional media platforms in news journals and television/radio broadcasting have been sucked into this vile vortex, spreading propaganda as objective news.

These developments expose two serious threats to free democracy:

  • An ideological ‘tribal’ civil war among citizens inflamed by information media, making democratic compromise impossible; and
  • A danger of collusion between Big Tech and Big Govt to infringe upon constitutional freedoms and privacy by co-opting social media platforms, such as we have seen in China.

This second danger seems particularly acute as the solution recently discussed in the US Senate in response to the first danger. We cannot allow unaccountable governments to co-opt unaccountable technology platforms with the idea that “they” will make us safe. It flips the definition of a people’s democracy on its head.

Remedies?

Are there remedies that can halt this disintegration of our social and political institutions or do things just fall apart? As a free democracy, we need to defend free speech as the basis of communication and comprehension of differing viewpoints. How else to find compromise? We also need objective sources of information we can trust. And we need the integrity of objective national media.

There are many policy proposals that address the problems of Big Tech, from rewriting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make OSNs more accountable and liable for the information spread on their networks to breaking up the Big Tech monopolies to changing the revenue model. This essay is intended to bring attention to and explain the problem without going deeply into possible regulatory solutions, but the author’s impressions are that online “search” is likely a public good just like the public library and should be regulated like a public utility; broad and deep vertical integration of product markets is likely subject to anti-trust laws; while barriers to entry should be reduced to counter the network externalities that create quasi-monopolies and help foster greater competition and innovation in technology markets. The advertising revenue model relies on harvesting free data from users, so a more just model would share that data value with the users that create it.

But just as important is an appeal on the personal level to voluntary behavioral modifications among social media users, much like those promoted to decrease tobacco consumption. This is necessary for our personal mental health and our social peace of mind. We know the nihilistic and narcissistic behaviors we engage in on social media are unhealthy. We are fighting for attention, we are competing for status, we are allowing ourselves to become smug with our own created self-image. We are in zero-sum, finite games. But I doubt any of this brings us a sense of meaning, purpose, or fulfillment, no matter how many “likes” we get.

We also know that we crave the affirmation of our unique personal identities and a sense of belonging in our social communities. We need positive-sum, infinite games. (War is a finite game, peace is an infinite game.) Technology can serve us in this capacity, but only if we create social media that makes sense. What makes sense is small scale, inter-personal, commonality of interests, and a great deal of empathy and open-mindedness. What makes sense are positive social interactions that reward our human social and creative instincts.

Lastly, we need to reject ideological politics as personal identity. Political differences are natural, but fused with identity they become threatening and lead to self-defensive reactions. Our partisan identities should mean relatively little compared to our identities as creative, intelligent, interesting, empathetic individuals.  

Our online, interconnected world will become more so, but we need to ensure it doesn’t become a more conflicted and contentious one. We do not want a world that wages war by cyber means. More crucial, we need to ensure that technology enhances our humanity by safeguarding our treasured values of liberty and justice for all. 


[1]Addressing Facebook and Google’s Harms Through a Regulated Competition Approach,” American Economic Liberties Project, April 10,2020.

The Real Tragedy of Chauvin-Floyd

With the verdict received in the trial of Derek Chauvin one could hope that a certain sense of justice had been dealt for the death of George Floyd. Mr. Chauvin was certainly guilty of a crime, though it is beyond my purview to decide exactly what that crime was. In any event, the jury made its judgment. But where do we go from here? Apparently, many of our political leaders could not resist voicing their opinions from the safe perch of social media, mostly echoing the overarching assumption of systemic racism, not only in law enforcement, but throughout American society. The most florid Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that “this verdict is not a substitute for policy change.” I think perhaps we might be able to converge on that sentiment, provided it is based on reasoned logic rather than virtue signaling.

Because our media hypes emotional reactions over reasoned analysis, we end up focused on the symptoms rather than the causes of our social troubles. The problem of policing starts at the beginning, not the end, of the story. And at the beginning there are two primary causes, identified by social scientists such as Daniel Moynihan, Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray and affirmed by empirical data: First is the disintegration of urban black families under the direction of welfare state policies instituted back in the 1960s in response to E. Michael Harrington’s (no relation) The Other America. Economist Thomas Sowell has documented the evidence that black families were more intact with two married parents before the Great Society and marks the mid-1960s as the inflection point. The incentives provided by programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which grew enormously during the decade after 1965, occasioned a virtual explosion of births to unmarried mothers. From 10% of all births of all races in 1970 to 41% in 2010. But for black mothers the increase was from 38% in 1970 to 72% in 2010, meaning that almost 3/4s of all births in the black community today are to unmarried mothers.

Beside the effects of welfare dependence, other factors likely include the decline of marriageability of black fathers due to lack of job opportunities, to changing sexual mores and behaviors. But no matter the cause, these trends demand a policy response to the break-up of family institutions that ensure social stability and upward mobility. As a Brookings report as far back as 1996 admits below, that policy response has been lacking, and perhaps can be attributed to the second cause of urban decay.

“If we have learned any policy lesson well over the past 25 years, it is that for children living in single-parent homes, the odds of living in poverty are great. The policy implications of the increase in out-of-wedlock births are staggering.”

Brookings Policy Briefs

This second cause can be traced to the redirected spending priorities of urban political machines under the cover of the liberal welfare state. The urban political machines that characterize politics in cities such as Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other large metro areas are run primarily for the benefit of organized public unions such as teachers, police, fire, waste disposal, and municipal workers. As they say, let’s follow the money.

In 1962, President Kennedy issued an executive order recognizing the right of federal and public sector employees to unionize and bargain collectively over labor contracts. This opened a Pandora’s Box that I suspect JFK would have strongly regretted had he lived to see the result. When public union officials bargain with politicians the only ones with skin-in-the-game are not even at the negotiating table. That would be the taxpaying citizens. Politicians who need votes and campaign funds for re-election readily grant contract conditions that never need to be rationalized financially and push serious liabilities—such as pensions and healthcare—off to the future (when they conveniently will no longer be in office). In return, they receive campaign funds and votes delivered by unions. The result has been serious deficits for municipalities that require a re-orientation of spending priorities – away from the dependent poor and necessary municipal services towards servicing public sector union wages and benefits. For those who have retired after 25 years of service, it has been a bonanza.

The budget squeeze has had the most deleterious effect on public schools that the urban poor depend upon to educate their children and free up parents to support a family. The performance failure of urban public schools is legendary and has now been exposed to all with the recent pandemic lockdown. In Los Angeles, where the United Teachers of Los Angeles holds sway over the public schools, only 35% of a $7+ billion budget goes to teacher salaries, with the bulk going to administrative salaries, pensions, and benefits. This has created a two-tier seniority system that characterizes most public unions today where legacy members receive most of the value while new hires do all the work and receive far less. The strain on resources means the students and their families end up with the short end of the stick.

Now let us connect the dots. The breakdown of urban families and the narrow self-serving policies of urban political machines have left young urban minorities with slim possibilities of becoming productive citizens and leave them mired in poverty and despair. Without a decent education and stability in the home, black youths face dismal opportunities in a society where intellectual skills have become a necessary passport to success. Is it any wonder they turn to a lucrative culture of crime and illicit drug markets with all the propensities for violence?

Faced with this violent crime problem, city officials then task law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system to clean it up, or at least keep it under control. Is it any wonder that confrontations between police and young black men and women dominate our crime incidents? And that a regrettable number of mistakes occur under harrowing conditions that prove fatal to both police and alleged perpetrators? That young black men populate our prisons and become more criminalized? Police and innocent bystanders have to put their lives on the front line in this battle for order, but bureaucrats and politicians who have failed us all along are comfortably ensconced with high paying jobs and sinecures. And the destructive policies continue.

To ignore this reality for an unprovable narrative of “systemic racism” is the true tragedy of the Chauvin-Floyd affair. In essence, they are both victims of an urban society that has failed us. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, perhaps AOC is correct about the need for policy change. She is most certainly correct, but not in the way she intends. With the empirical evidence of the past half century, one can make the case that the only truly racist institutions in America today are the public education system run by teachers’ unions and the welfare state run by public sector unions and their political cronies. The policy changes needed are school choice and constraints on public sector union bargaining. It’s high time those of us with skin-in-the-game took notice and demanded the right kind of policy changes.