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. 

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.

Bretton Woods – #2 of Series

Second of a Series of articles on the international monetary regime reprinted from the NY Sun.

Not sure I would agree with all of this. Net exports is different than manufacturing exports and manufacturing employment, especially in the global information economy. I believe the problem here is that the reserve currency allows the US central bank to issue too much US$ credit liabilities without paying the direct consequence. Our trading partners are not exactly happy about this either since they surrender control of their currencies to the dominance of the US Federal Reserve and US politics. I think we need to rein in political discretion over the value of money.

Time To Reverse the Curse Over the Dollar

nysun.com/national/beyond-bretton-woods-the-road-from-genoa/91606/

By JOHN MUELLER

Journalism thrives on simple narratives and round numbers. So I must note that what President Nixon ended 50 years ago was not the international gold standard, which persisted despite interruptions for more than two millennia to 1914, but its complicated parody: the gold-exchange standard, established 99, not 50, years ago by a 1922 agreement at Genoa.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George convened the Genoa Conference in an effort to restore the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, modify the schedule of German reparations owed to France, and begin the re-integration of Soviet Russia into the European economy. Lacking any American support, the conference was a failure on all those counts.

The gold-exchange standard, John Maynard Keynes’ idea, was Genoa’s one tangible result. Keynes had proposed in 1913 that the monetary system of British colonial India be adopted world-wide. The British pound would remain convertible into gold, but India’s and other countries’ domestic payments would be backed by ostensibly gold-convertible claims on London. Following Genoa, the pound could be exchanged for gold, and other national currencies could be exchanged for pounds.

But there was a complication: unlike most currencies, the Indian rupee actually was based on silver, not gold, and British officials, including Keynes, overvalued the silver rupee, hoping to reduce heavy demands for British gold. British monetary experts inserted this scheme (without the silver wrinkle) in the 1922 Genoa accord, incidentally forestalling impecunious Britain’s repayment of its World War I debts in gold.

While working 35 years ago for Congressman Jack Kemp, I first coined the term the “reserve currency curse.” I was tutored in the subject by Lewis E, Lehrman, who in turn was influenced by the French economist Jacques Rueff (1896-1978). Keynes had claimed that what matters is only the value, not kind, of monetary reserves. It was Rueff who countered in 1932 that foreign exchange is qualitatively different from an equal value of precious metal.

With the creation of, say, dollar reserves, purchasing power “has simply been duplicated, and thus the American market is in a position to buy in Europe, and in the United States, at the same time.” This credit duplication causes prices to rise faster in the reserve-currency country than its trading partners, precipitating the reserve-currency country’s deindustrialization. That fate soon befell Great Britain, then the United States after the dollar replaced the pound under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement.

Other countries backing their currencies with dollar-denominated securities led to a dilemma for America. The United States is the only major country with negative net monetary reserves (foreign official assets minus liabilities). All others — even those whose currencies are used by foreign central banks — have positive net reserves (i.e., those countries’ foreign official assets exceed their foreign official liabilities).

There is a correlation of more than 90% between America’s net reserves and its manufacturing employment. American net reserves had been positive before but turned negative by 1960, and manufacturing jobs have since disappeared in direct proportion to the decline in our net reserves. Focusing on one bilateral trade balance or other — say, the US and China — is a mug’s game. What matters is the total balance, not bilateral subsets.

How could an American president reverse the reserve-currency curse? By making honesty the best policy: negotiating and starting repayment of all outstanding dollar reserves over several decades. Since international payments must be settled in real goods — not IOUs — the necessary production of American goods for export is the surest way to revive America’s manufacturing employment.

To increase our manufacturing jobs back to the peak of 17 million from today’s 12 million, it would be necessary to repay most outstanding official dollar reserves. If President Biden is as ineffectual as most of his recent predecessors in responding to the “reserve-currency curse,” he, too, will have to get used to the title “ex-President.”

________

Mr. Mueller is the Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and author of “Redeeming Economics.” Image: Conferees at the Genoa Conference, with Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain front and center. Detail of a British Government photo, via Wikipedia Commons.

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.

A Fundamentalist Revival?

This is a fine essay by David French, noting the ideological rather than just the religious underpinnings of fundamentalist social movements.

In the US, the Left has embarked on a secular fundamentalist movement that is now reaching a fever pitch. It is a bit ironic that its proponents have strongly condemned conservative religious fundamentalism along the way while adopting the same social behavioral tactics. Fascism was/is a form of fundamentalism too, as well as communism and environmentalism. So is the more virulent form of right-wing Trumpism.

Fundamentalism comes with the territory when we all are expected to march in lockstep toward some abstract common good. Coercion is its necessary tool. But freedom and civic responsibility have always accomplished this task far better.

America Is in the Grips of a Fundamentalist Revival

But it’s not Christian.

 

“…yes, secular religion is breaking out across the land. That’s old news. Here’s what’s new—it’s growing so very dark. We don’t need to repeat all the recent excesses of cancel culture to know that many anti-racist progressives are in the midst of a hunt for ideological heretics, and even the oldest sins can’t be forgiven. Consider that on Friday a Boeing executive resigned after an employee complained about an article he wrote 33 years ago opposing women in combat.”

 

Cancel

Another interesting passage that ties belief systems to the uncertainty that is the nature of the universe:

To understand the distinction between fundamentalism and, say, evangelicalism or other forms of devotion, I want to go back to Ecclesiastes 3:11 and quote the entire verse: “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.”

Let me quote another verse, this one from the New Testament: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Both of these passages speak to the existence of an immovable, irreducible amount of uncertainty in this world, including mysteries about God Himself.

Recall the end of the book of Job, when the righteous, suffering man demands an explanation for his plight from the God of the universe, and the God of the universe responds with an extended soliloquy that essentially declares, “I’m God, and you’re not.” And what is Job’s response? “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.”

As a consequence, while there are many, many things we can know about God—and many things we can learn—we must approach our faith and our world with a sense of existential humility.

Managing the uncertainties of our existence brings us back to social science, economics and the art of politics. It’s a deep well.

Viral (or Vile) Media

I start my morning reviewing the headlines of the major news media on RealClearPolitics to see if there is anything worth reading. Of course, RCP now juxtaposes the ying with the yang on every issue in order to drive engagement and traffic. Today I came across these two articles and was struck on how they captured the manufactured controversy over ending or maintaining virus lockdowns. Give them a read and see if you can perceive the difference.

How to reopen the economy with a reality-based approach

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/how-to-reopen-the-economy-with-a-reality-based-approach

The first, published in the esteemed (sic) NYT, is written by a professor of pediatrics. I read it through, hoping to gain some insights. Sadly, incredibly obtuse, he makes assertions about epidemiology and public opinion and dismisses experts from the fields of psychiatry, politics, economics, and social behavior with a fairly baseless argument that only the medical experts know. We must follow their advice without question (okay, let’s ignore the fact that every medical projection has been off by a country mile). Then he adds that public opinion agrees. Okay, a public survey poll is an obvious contradiction of expertise: if 60% of the lemmings say we need to go over the cliff, the other 40% better follow?

He tried to obscure this error with a survey of economists. As a trained economist I happen to know the profession is one of the most risk-averse in academia (note the quoted economist who doesn’t want to be a restaurant guinea pig). Why? Because we are painfully aware of how much we don’t know (and make sure to maintain plausible deniability for those bad forecasts – Paul Krugman take note). There is no actionable intelligence in this opinion piece, as that’s what it is, unqualified opinion.

The second piece is published by the less esteemed (?) Washington Examiner (hmm, presenting a perfect opportunity to shoot the messenger and kill the message?), written by an MD and JD trained in economics. This writer offers a nuanced strategy with actionable intelligence for opening up parts of society while maintaining certain social behavior protocols to manage the risks. Okay, not bad.

My advice: trash the NYT piece and don’t take the WE piece as gospel, as that is not how it is intended, but give it careful consideration. There’s no equivalence here. Our media seems committed to misguiding at least half the country’s citizens. Ugh!

Donut Holes?

Watched a TED video by the woman who developed this idea of doughnut economics (see book). Seems to be all the rage among the save the planet crowd.

TED Talk Kate Raworth

Interesting, but I think she’s tilting at a straw man. This is a measurement problem, not a mechanistic problem. First, GDP is a very blunt instrument for measuring improvements to the human condition, but it’s the only yardstick the politicians and policymakers have and they are judged based on these metrics. Same with U6 and CPI and PPI and poverty, etc. We get GPD numbers every week of the year and our information channels repeat them as grade reports.

Second, Ms. Raworth uses the word growth as a proxy for measuring change and consuming energy resources. Not all growth or GDP measurement is expansion of goods and services. Recycling is a measure of growth; developing alternative sources of energy is a measure of growth. What we are truly dealing with is how to manage positive CHANGE. When we mismanage change, we get negative GDP growth rates. When we manage it productively, we get positive changes in GDP, among other measurements of life quality, like leisure time and cultural and technological innovation.

Economics is the fine art of managing change through exchange. So we need better measurements that include those subjective values that are not so easy to measure.
Everything else here is fantastic hyperbole, saving the planet and all that…dollars to donuts?

Social Behavior and the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you’re like me and follow the mainstream as well as social media, you’ve likely been inundated with information about the coronavirus pandemic, with many different data interpretations and conflicting claims based on these interpretations. The simple graphic below, called “flattening the curve,” seems to be the dominant visual for explaining the current public healthcare issues and provides a good starting point.

Flattening the curve.

The graph was created by disease specialists at the CDC and has been spread widely by medical professionals, government officials, and non-government agencies. It visually represents the logic behind the political response to the crisis and the strategy to slow the spread of the virus. This is critical to managing the capacity limitations of healthcare resources like hospitals, drug therapies, and healthcare personnel. However, it is a theoretical model based on exponential pandemic dynamics; it is not a graph of actual empirical data. It is meant to educate, not report.

Unfortunately, the graph has been adopted by public media as a projection of “likely” real-time scenarios under various assumptions, focusing completely on the rose-colored part of the graph. According to this worst-case scenario, without strict adherence to isolation protocols the coronavirus is projected to spread exponentially through the population, placing an impossible burden on healthcare resources. The problem is that the empirical data so far does not seem to be supporting this worst-case scenario.

Let’s not get derailed here: the virus outbreak is a serious public health threat and a deadly threat to the elderly and immune-compromised. Our policies should foremost target the security of these groups. In this respect, the model is valuable and instructive, but not so much for actual health outcomes to the majority of the population. From the macro point of view, we have little idea how many of those people infected will require medical intervention and how extensive that intervention might be. In other words, infection rates may not impact health care capacity as depicted here. We also have little feel for how high or low that spike might be, or the magnitude of the y-axis – is it thousands, millions, or billions? 20%, 50% or 90%? Many media interpretations of existing data choose a scale that looks like we’re shooting up to the top of that rosy peak when we are really barely past the initial stage way, way down near the floor of the x-axis (see next graph). The projections repeatedly fail to project for interventions and behavior changes.

Where are we?

Also, as we discover more and more people have contracted the virus yet show no serious symptoms, we are missing any projection of herd immunity. Immunity gradually reduces the ability of the virus to find new hosts within the existing population so it gradually dies out.

What is valuable about the meme is the implication for how the public should adapt social behavior now to reduce the transmission rate of the contagion. Physical or social distancing is at this time imperative. Essentially this is less about biology and more about social behavior informed by biology. It strikes me that most of our media information is overly focused on very uncertain medical data given credibility by concerned medical experts. The problem is that the experts are shrouded in uncertainty and thus must err on the side of extreme caution. In hindsight most of this speculation will likely turn out to be fictional. But the effect will be real, and this takes us back to social behavior.

Some reports opine that this coronavirus is just a bad flu. If one is looking at medical data, I would tend to agree. But looking at social behavior, I would obviously disagree. What is driving social behavior, which will be measured in political policies and economic results, relates to the nature of this pandemic, not the pathogen itself. The coronavirus strikes at the heart of our instinctual behavior in the face of existential threats.

The real problem we face is that 1) the threat is invisible, 2) seems to be highly transmissible and somewhat random, 3) offers no preventive therapy (vaccine) or 4) sure treatment options or cures. Thus, 5) we feel little sense of control over what might be a serious existential threat. What this combination of characteristics does is incite a strong psychological reaction to uncertainty, risk, and potential loss, leading to exaggerated reactions to very low probabilities.

We know from behavioral science that the survival instinct causes behavior to respond to these contextual parameters. Humans, like all sentient beings, are risk and loss averse. Loss pertains to the nature of the threat, such as will I lose my job, or my savings and pension, or the ultimate existential threat: will I get sick and die? Risk is a probability function of the uncertainty of that loss. As the threat level rises (reported death counts and mortality rates) people become more fearful. Then, as uncertainty blankets us like a fog, the anxiety level rises. This survival response is perfectly rational for any organism trying to stay alive.

The important thing to note is that when the probability of loss increases and the consequence becomes more serious, people tend to become risk-seeking. In other words, faced with a likely existential threat, people take more behavioral risks than would be rational in the absence of that threat. We see this in those apocalyptic movies, when widespread hysteria and panic leads to chaos and deadly conflict, where more people die from the chaos than from the threat.

Individual behavior is compounded by irrational social behavior. An example is the panic buying of paper products, where some people, pressed to explain their behavior, have only offered the justification that everybody else was hoarding paper, so they were too. This suggests that what may not be categorically much different than a bad flu medically has the potential to turn into a global social and economic crisis.

So why is this reaction to coronavirus different than the Asian bird flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS or H1N1? The coronavirus seems to have a much higher and faster transmission rate than these previous pathogens and thus it has spread world-wide much faster. This is likely because it is highly asymptomatic while it is contagious and spreading. It also may be far more benign. But we don’t know why it is asymptomatic in some people and severely life-threatening for others. This uncertainty and randomness heighten our fear of the threat.  

There is something else going on with the present pandemic that is aggravating the crisis. Because the virus has easily spread rather quickly, our global information media has gone into overdrive, especially social media. We know that social media is mostly driven by emotional reactions to uncertain facts, what we now call fake news. The sad reality is that the traditional print and broadcast media have also had to succumb to sensationalism and emotions in order to stay in business. Remember the editor’s dictum: If it bleeds, it leads. This presents the danger of reporting one random healthy young person who dies of COVID-19 complications instead of the thousands of others who contract the virus and seem unaffected. Our media, willingly or unwillingly, by focusing on infection and death counts taken out of context may be contributing to the social psychological effects driving this pandemic crisis. Worst-case scenarios painted by the medical experts and spread by the media are doing the same.

I suspect officials may sincerely believe projecting the worst-case scenario is necessary to “scare people straight” to get them to change behavior. But social behavior indicates that fear can become more viral than the virus, increasing the threats to social stability, safety, and security.

If one doubts this, imagine what would happen if a vaccine or cure were discovered tomorrow. Most of the world would return to normal the next day, not because the pathogen was eradicated any more than the seasonal flu, but because our fear would disappear.