Ebola, terrorism and political mass extinction

“We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not.”

Robert Kagan, The Coming Anarchy, 1994

Thirteen years ago, with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the darker side of the End of History was brought home to our shores. We have yet to come to terms with its implications, choosing foolishly to fight these new threats with outdated tools and methods. The frequent comparisons to Pearl Harbor are worse than inapt, they are deceptive. In reality, 9/11 could be best thought of as the opposite of our experience in World War II, our introduction to a world in which freedom has become a dominant value but order is the most precious resource on Earth.

The world is rapidly growing smaller, freer, and richer, but the same forces behind this happy trend are wreaking havoc on some corners of the world. And those same forces mean that the misery festering in forgotten hellholes can neither be ignored nor contained.

We often think of evolution as a genetic process, but like many other creatures human beings evolve along three planes simultaneously. To speed up our adaptation beyond the pace of our genetic mutations, we have also evolved the capacity to adapt through our social structures and technology. Over the past ten generations or so the pace of technological adaptation has suddenly accelerated, putting pressure on us in numerous other ways. Cultures are struggling to keep pace with the new landscape of demands, but though they evolve faster than our genes, many of them are falling behind or even blinking out of existence.

Accelerating technological progress has placed amazing new power in the hands of individuals, weakening or destroying oppressive institutions that once exploited millions. Like attacking a cancer with chemotherapy, this same cure has weakened virtually every kind of institution regardless of merit, rendering the social and cultural institutions on which civilization depends more brittle almost everywhere.

Where core institutions are traditionally strong and dense, as in Europe and North America, these forces have brought increasing government dysfunction and political polarization, but basic order remains largely unthreatened. Where public institutions have been weak or few, as in parts of the world once dominated by empires or monolithic dictatorships, this dynamic has bred a technology-infused chaos.

This is an age of mass extinctions, driven by an explosion of human technological evolution. Those extinctions are not limited to rare frogs or charming songbirds. Social institutions, cultures, entire political frameworks are collapsing under pressure from new, more adaptive innovations. As these less durable frameworks collapse they create little black holes of chaos, murder and disease that contain the potential to undermine the entire environment.

Terrorism, Ebola, mass immigration of unaccompanied minors – these are all essentially the same problem. Pockets of anarchy created by the collapse of poorly adapted institutions can be the birthing ground of new, freer, more liberal institutions. Or they can become poison factories. For those of us in rising Asia and the traditional West, decisions we make about how and when to intervene in these evolutionary episodes will grow increasingly complex and consequential as the world shrinks and only the hard cases remain to be worked out.

This is not a military problem, though the problem has a military dimension. The first order of civilization is to monopolize the use of violence in order to make it accountable and therefore legitimate.

Our enemy, per se, is not ISIS any more than the enemy is Ebola or unaccompanied migrant children. The enemy is chaos. Battling chaos might begin by using violence to thwart an organization like ISIS, but to accomplish any useful objective the fight must extend beyond the reach of the military. Using air power to combat ISIS is roughly equivalent to using fighter jets to stop the gangs on the west side of Chicago. It amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the situation. Violence does not create order, though it sometimes can be used to remove forces that stand in the way.

We will not be secure from the reach of roaming terrorist gangs in Syria until some accountable structure exists to govern the place and channel the needs of its people into policy. We will not be free from the dangers of Ebola, or the diseases coming in its wake like Marburg or nature’s as yet undiscovered surprises, until some credible order exists in the places where these diseases arise. No drone yet invented can bomb Ebola. It can only be stopped by a minimally effective public health system.

‘Foreign policy’ has become a quaint concept, evoking an age when the term ‘foreign’ referred to matters that were distant and only relevant in exceptional circumstances. We now operate in two political categories: matters under our direct legal jurisdiction and matters outside the reach of our legal sovereignty. There is no ‘foreign.’ There is ‘legal’ and ‘extralegal.’

To add to the complexity of the challenge, rising chaos is not a geographically distant problem. Sometimes it emerges in places under our legal authority.

Detroit is a laboratory for domestic social collapse as the institutions that tentatively supported that long-troubled place have dipped below the water line. Depressed rural areas of the Great Plains, the Deep South and Appalachia face similar challenges as the economic value of labor for mining and farming continues to decline. Many of the same basic political tools we will need to combat the expansion of chaos abroad might be sharpened in our own back yard. Our first order of business is to protect the viability of our social institutions.

What can we do to promote our interests in this changing landscape? First, we must begin to recognize the limits of military hegemony as a policy tool. We are exquisitely prepared for problems that can be bombed away – so prepared that those problems have largely disappeared.

In light of that recognition, we must begin building international institutions capable of doing more than talking about problems (the UN) or bombing those problems (NATO). The world’s free countries should be working together much more closely, likely starting with the nations of NATO and extending to Asia, to build government-sponsored organizations that look less like the army and more like Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Trans-national organizations in the shape of the Peace Corps, backed by the political and diplomatic force of free governments while supported and protected by military alliances, are the next evolutionary step in fighting the breakdown of social institutions in fragile places. They could succeed where the US military failed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or Haiti, Liberia and Honduras.

There may be no better symbol of the need for such a force than the US military’s recent deployment to Liberia. Using troops to ‘fight’ a disease is expensive and it’s a mission for which they are poorly suited on almost every level. Yet we have no appropriate force, no US or transnational medical or political reserve, ready to respond to such scenarios.

At home, our response to this challenge requires us to protect the viability of our own fragile institutions. Weakening social institutions are creating instability and feeding the rise of dangerous extremism and malaise. Our most important global challenge, the declining effectiveness of social institutions and the resultant rise of chaos, is not a foreign problem.

For at least the next couple of generations the most precious resource supporting human life will be organization – and in some places it will be perishingly scarce. We are living through an unprecedented shift in human evolution, in which the pace of evolution of our technology has overwhelmed our cultural and genetic evolution.

For those lucky enough to live under institutions with the resources and flexibility to weather the storm this is likely to be a time of wonder, wealth and freedom. Elsewhere in the world there is going to be trouble and that trouble will not stay put. We will either take intelligent calculated actions to limit the growth of chaos in distant places or the consequences will find us.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Foreign Policy, Political Theory

Poverty and inequality are more structural than circumstantial

Again, running like crazy with no time to write, but here’s a quick summary of what I’m reading.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the unique brand of inequality and poverty we’re experiencing – especially our middle income stagnation – is structural. More progressive income taxes might shave this phenomenon around the edges, but the core issue is the remarkable acceleration of technology.

The benefits of these developments are massive, but they are inherently very concentrated. Taxes alone won’t change that. This is a structural challenge that threatens the viability of capitalism.

Capitalism has always been reducing our overall workload, creating social disruption in exchange for radically higher wealth. In the early 20th century we dealt with this by creating a regulatory and welfare infrastructure that allowed capitalism to survive. As this process gains pace, pressure is building toward a similar update. The institutional structures built to manage industrial capitalism are not working anymore.

Technology and Inequality - MIT Technology Review

The educational value of being born rich – Washington Post

Why poor kids don’t stay in college – Washington Post

Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong- Washington Post

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

A few stories worth watching

It’s been too busy to write, but here are a few interesting things that deserve attention:

- Houston Pastors whine about being subpoenaed in the lawsuit THEY filed over THEIR own fraudulent petitions in a gay-baiting campaign to stop the City’s equal rights ordinance.

Lawyers defending the city asked the pastors who filed the lawsuit to submit transcripts of their communications (pdf) to organizers, including their sermons on the matter. Their statements from the pulpit are likely to be used as evidence of the apparent lack of concern for rules on what constitutes a valid petition signature. In a response made to be sung to a tune played on the world’s smallest violin, Fox News blowhard Todd Starnes cried persecution and the far-right propaganda machine has fallen in on the harmony. In an unsurprising development, those pastors have now discovered a Constitutional principle they were previously unaware of – the separation of church and state.

- For the moment we’ve stopped hyperventilating about ISIS in order to hyperventilate about Ebola.

Anyone who ever sat next to someone who knew someone who had a cousin who visited Dallas is now taking their temperature every ten minutes – and taking interviews with Fox News. Nigeria and Senegal have both managed to snuff out local outbreaks of Ebola in extremely crowded cities with miserable hygienic conditions, but we’re all going to die. The immigrant children mess was embarrassing. The ISIS freakout was cynical. This makes us look like a nation of bed-wetting neurotic morons.

- Polls in many of the major midterm elections are so close that it all comes down to turnout.

The dynamics of that turnout are very much in doubt. Courts have overturned vote suppression campaigns in several key states and registration campaigns in places like Georgia appear to have been very successful. Early voting in North Carolina is suggesting surprising voter turnout among Democrats. It will be an interesting ride.

- And under the category “Things conservatives won’t blame Obama for:”

Number of new applications for unemployment hit a 14-year low last month.

The dollar is surging in value.

Federal budget deficits have been in decline every year since the last Bush budget, finally dipping below its 40-year average of 3% of GDP this year.

Oil prices are hitting new lows on a combination of rising US dollar, increases in US and Canadian oil output, and supply increases from Saudi Arabia. US gasoline prices are below $3 across much of the country.

Medicare costs in the nightmarish age of Obama continue their surprising decline, putting US budgets back on a path toward health (no pun intended).

Oh, and Sharia Law hasn’t been implemented in the US…yet. Standing by on that one. These are just a few of the reasons why Obama is the worst President in history.

Posted in Uncategorized

Terrorism is supposed to make us stupid

isisMidland County’s Sheriff is prepared to deal with the terrorist group, ISIS. In remarks on a series of news shows last month the West Texas lawman explained his plans to cope with the imminent danger and expressed his certainty, despite the absence of any reason, sense, or evidence, that the group lurks just over the border in the inky darkness of Mexico.

By all accounts, Sheriff Painter has served with distinction in his long career. Now he joins a growing list of prominent victims of terrorism, persuaded by a cheap and easy tactic into abandoning reason and working against his own, and his nation’s interests.

As a tactic, the initial goal of terrorism is to make you stupid. Terrorism is designed to coax a more powerful enemy into defeating themselves by clouding their judgment and distorting their sense of their relative power on the diplomatic, political, and military battlefields.

Sheriff Painter and others like him (see: Perry, Rick) are wasting valuable time, mental energy, and even money preparing to defend themselves from a cheap illusion. Counting the cost of this distraction in all its manifestations would be a terribly depressing exercise. We can be fairly confident that no one fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria could find Midland on a map. Few Texans could. Yet a band of young losers half a world away have caused damage in that and many other distant corners of the US at virtually no cost to themselves.

Acts of terrorism manage to subtly shift power toward the dumbest, most cowardly, most paranoid forces inside an enemy. The less one understands the scope of the battlefield the more impact terrorism carries.

If it is such an effective method, why shouldn’t we leverage terror tactics ourselves? We sometimes pretend that we eschew terrorism because of some moral superiority, but that’s only partially true. We don’t use terrorism for the same reason that we don’t use nuclear weapons. Both are purely destructive tools that only make sense in the most hopelessly desperate circumstances.

Terrorism is a tool of the weakest of the weak. The more savage the tactics, the weaker the perpetrator. Although terrorism can be fairly successful in causing a powerful enemy to trip over itself, it creates conditions that make it extremely difficult to capitalize on that enemy’s failures. Like nukes, terrorism is good at destroying things, yet creates a climate in which it is nearly impossible to rebuild.

Savagery is critical to the strategy, absolutely necessary in order to generate the mental distortions that leave an enemy reeling. Once unleashed, that same savagery becomes extremely difficult to contain, defeating efforts to establish any reliably humane order once the political goals are achieved. Terrorism is a way to sometimes win the war, but always lose the peace. No one with any credible hope of success resorts to terrorism on a mass scale.

Even then, terrorism often fails at even its primary objective, giving us some helpful lessons in how to respond. London at the peak of “The Troubles” in the ‘90’s was a terrorist playground. Life was disrupted on an almost daily basis by bombings or bomb threats. People forget, but the art of bombing skyscrapers was first mastered by the Christian terrorists of the Irish Republican Army. People have largely forgotten about it because the IRA campaign utterly failed to stir the British to stupidity.

As the effort dragged on, reports of the day’s incidents were quite literally relegated to the traffic report. Terrorism in London became an annoying nuisance, like the weather. Today, Northern Ireland is quiet and steadily rebuilding as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The IRA’s terror campaign failed on every level.

We need to calm down. Across more than a decade fighting this supposed “War on Terrorism,” more people are still killed in America each year by gun-toting toddlers than by terrorists. You are just as likely to be crushed to death under your enormous furniture as to be killed by a terrorist. Our secret weapon in the War on Terror, the one that guarantees victory, is perspective. Somehow we haven’t been able to mass-produce it.

At its foundation, terrorism is a form of deception meant to coax an otherwise unbeatable power to wage war on hopelessly unfavorable terms. Sheriff Painter is the poster child for America’s ever worsening series of failures against global religious fundamentalism. Understanding why he’s wasting his available mental energy worrying about Muslims blowing up the local Dairy Queen may be the key for the rest of us to turn the corner, replacing “War on Terror” paranoia with the sober, day to day routine of life as the world’s only global power.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Foreign Policy

Science and fundamentalism are killing religion

Science is playing a steadily larger and more personal role in helping us tell the difference between what is and what ain’t. In that capacity it has undermined what many of us once expected religion to provide, inspiring an increasingly angry and violent reaction from those who feel their very understanding of reality to be in jeopardy.

It would be wise to develop a more subtle and flexible understanding of the continuing role of religion in a civilization that relies on science to define the natural world. Human beings cannot readily preserve their sanity without some sense of meaning. To jettison religions that have sustained us for hundreds of generations because they fail to accurately record history or reliably describe the natural world would be a monumental mistake, a mistake that both religious fundamentalists and some scientists are pushing us to make. We need religion as much as we ever have, but our religion needs to evolve.

We carry on our lives inside a shell of metaphors. Reality is a model we carry around in our heads, a simulation we use to predict what will result from different courses of action. Those metaphors inform our decision whether to touch that stove or launch that business.

Much of our success or failure in life hinges on the accuracy of our model of reality. None of us is so brilliant as to be capable of assimilating all of the information in the world into a perfectly accurate mental representation. Every day we learn more, refining that model in ways that help us adapt to what we discover in the world around us.

Death cuts off this process incomplete, but our ability to share information with each other not just in the present, but across generations means our lives in some sense carry on. Our work can form the building blocks of future humans’ even more reliable reality, just as those before us improved our own.

The greater the fidelity of our internal reality with the reality we experience on the outside, the better our capacity for making decisions. However, there is always some level of dissonance between that model and the external world. Our ability to cope with those ambiguities is critical to mental health.

That dissonance is larger when we live in dense, complex communities. Farm life allows us to live fairly successfully with a less complete, less dynamic model of reality. Demands of survival and success in an urban, information-driven economy mean living inside a collection of metaphors in constant, dizzying flux.

Gaps or inconsistencies in that model create painful psychological discomfort. For hundreds, even thousands of generations we filled those gaps with myths about the personality of the Sun, or the moods of the Earth. Those myths are no longer very helpful in understanding some aspects of our reality, but they remain essential to wrestling with certain others.

Science is far better than religion at defining what is and is not real, but it still tells us nothing about what our lives mean. Religion as a method of understanding the “what” of reality has been utterly superseded. Religion as a means of understanding the “why” of reality is perhaps more vital than ever. For many people, separating religion’s discredited “why” value from its still-critical “what” value is excruciatingly painful.

From head-lopping jihadists in the chaotic failed states of the Middle East to terrified Christian fundamentalists in the American South, many people cannot find the answers they need in a religion that only exists as metaphor and does not dictate the “what” of our reality. They will oppress, harass, and even kill anyone who threatens to undermine the comforting, comprehensive reality provided by a religious understanding that is already half-dead and decaying around them.

We are living through the long death spasms of a version of religion that claimed to explain everything about life, stripping our lives of uncomfortable dissonance and mystery. Those who still revere that model are losing influence because they face competition from people with far better-refined understandings of the external world. To avoid adopting those more complex, more uncomfortable realities, they are resorting to violence and oppression on an escalating scale.

Civilization will outlast them, but the toll they will exact in misery and premature death remains to be tallied. Most importantly, their valued role in creating a religious understanding that can continue to deliver meaning in a world where the “what” of life is defined by science remains unmet. Science is no closer to telling us why we should get out of bed in the morning than it ever has been.  We still need metaphors that help us find love and joy and meaning in our existence. Art, poetry and music help, but without a shared structure around which to build some meaning they fall short. We still need religion, but to serve its mission a religion must remain relevant.

Science, whether intentionally or incidentally, has undermined religion by discrediting it as a means of defining reality. At the other end of the spectrum, fundamentalists are strangling religion by insisting that legitimate, authentic religious faith can only be found by remaining chained to the elements of our religious heritage which science has thoroughly discredited. Trapped in between, too many people are left with the conviction that one can only sustain religious faith through a process of deliberate, forceful self-deception.

The greatest irony of the information age is that the religions it crippled have grown more vital to our future than they have ever been. We must find ways to adapt older religious understandings to a new, sharper vision of reality if we are going to protect our collective sanity in a world of exponentially accelerating complexity.

If we cannot accomplish this feat then some new religious faith(s) will fill the gap. The birth of a new religion is like the birth of a new volcano. It is not something we want to experience. Better to accept some flexibility in our old understandings and adapt rather than letting the ground open up.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Evolution, Religion

Evolution cannot be reconciled with traditional Christianity

A young Charles Darwin

A young Charles Darwin

Critics of evolution generally get one thing, and only that one thing, right. Christianity as we traditionally understand it cannot be reconciled with evolution.

South Carolina State Senator Mike Fair is the latest politician to wade into this debate, arguing in a newspaper op-ed that teaching the science of evolution has “placed a stranglehold on the search for truth.” That’s true insomuch as the science is so solid as to exclude alternative explanations of our origins, but it is also true in a subtler and, for religious conservatives, far more dangerous sense.

Evolution is not merely an explanation of where we come from or how living creatures change. We are coming to recognize that evolution is the physics of life, the mechanism by which all living systems grow, change, interact, thrive and potentially fail. As powerful as Darwin’s discoveries are, they have far less to do with events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago than with our understanding of our place in the world now.

Understanding the science of life means embracing a meaning of life which many conservative Christians simply cannot tolerate. In short, it is nearly impossible to develop a working grasp of evolution without wriggling loose from eighteen centuries of Christian teaching on the place and significance of humanity in the world. After slipping that skin we get a Christian message more humble, humane and profound, but utterly irreconcilable with fundamentalist priorities.

Darwin’s discoveries are a decisive step beyond the shocks we experienced in realizing that neither the Earth, nor the Sun, nor even our solar system were at the center of everything. Those jolts were disconcerting, but still left enough room for a comfortably arrogant vision of our own role in the universe. Christianity cannot survive our understanding of natural selection without experiencing some painful evolution of its own.

At stake is far more than the question of where we come from. No one who needs to be taken seriously is still invested in the idea that Genesis is a history lesson. What makes evolution challenging not what it says about a literal, historical interpretation of the Bible, but what it tells us about our place in the world.

In Christian tradition human beings are central to the story of the universe. God, a deity with a distinct human-like personality who thinks and talks and feels, worked out his entire plan for the universe around his interest in human beings whom he created very personally and in his own image.

Unique among all of creation, only human beings have a “spirit” capable of an eternal existence in this scheme. Humans alone are responsible for the “fallen” state of the world and only through human beings can the universe we redeemed. God in the Christian story did not send his Son to become a horse or a lion, but a human.

What we’ve learned from 150 years of science since On the Origin of Species is that humans occupy a significantly less central role in the universe than what our religious stories envisioned for us. We did not merely evolve from simpler life forms, we remain tied to them in an endless chain of causes and reactions, beginning with the simplest building blocks of life and continuing through every aspect of the natural world. I am as much a platform for bacterial life as a father, brother or child. We cannot readily claim to mastered agricultural without simultaneously speculating whether human intelligence was merely a successful evolutionary strategy of early grains. If I suddenly failed to be a viable host for the microbes in my gut I might perish just as certainly as if I jumped off a bridge.

And as for being a “higher order of life,” our genome matches 99% of the genes in our nearest non-human relative, the chimpanzee. About half of our genome is present in plants like the banana. A third of our genes are shared with one of our more distant relatives, the yeast cell. Our genome developed from distant ancestors we share with every other living thing on Earth.

Discovering that Jesus, supposedly the literal human son of God, was 99% chimpanzee is theologically awkward. Even more challenging is the realization that we are tied into a biological web in which every living thing is bound to everyone else, such that changes in one can create unpredictable changes elsewhere in the biome. Even worse, this network extends beyond even living things to the environment around us.

Traditional Christian understandings of the nature of life are built on a hierarchy with humans sitting at the top, separate from and superior to all else. From that assumption we have developed the idea that we exist in some sphere independent of the natural world. That same misconception has for centuries fed a continuing hereditary hierarchy among humans, justifying exploitation and oppression as an extension of the “God-ordained” hierarchies in the natural order.

We have not only learned that we are not on top, but more importantly – no such hierarchy exists. The direction of human evolution might depend less on our own intuition and ingenuity than on the evolutionary success of a particularly noxious virus, or the destruction of some key resource.

We are neither supreme over nor insulated from the fate of the rest of “Creation,” or from each other. Contrary to the half-baked understanding of evolution leveraged by 19th century politicians and racists, my survival and success depends very deeply on yours. Evolution for humans is a heavily collaborative process. That realization may challenge a rigid interpretation of Christianity, but it can be incorporated quite easily with the earliest message of the faith.

Christian conservatives often express the fear that evolution reduces us to mere animals, removing any sense of purpose or meaning to life. It is true perhaps that it threatens the foundations they have built on which to live a meaningful life, but that is not the end of this story.

Our understanding of the nature of life on Earth does absolutely nothing to demean us, but it does give us a new lens through which to view the world. Evolution inspires a great deal more compassion and humility than we might have achieved without it. It may be inconsistent with a conservative vision of Christianity, but with some humility there are adaptations that could work.

Sen. Fair is worried about the “stranglehold” tightening around his vision of the truth. No law is going to loosen that grip or salvage a discredited understanding of the world, but there are alternatives. Interpreting Christianity through the lens of what we know about the natural world is not so hard. A Jesus who is biologically related to chimps and microbes is in some regards a grander, more universal savior than one who is separate from the rest of the natural world and only interested in humans.

If the purpose of religion is to bring us into line with truth, then hiding evolution from schoolchildren is a moral outrage. A religious understanding that can only be sustained by lies and concealment is no moral credibility. Scientific discoveries about our origins and development are in fact inconsistent with traditional, conservative Christianity, but there is hope. There always the opportunity to evolve.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Evolution, Religion

Using evolution to rescue Economics

To a large extent Economics may be considered a victim of its success. No other branch of the social sciences has such marketability. No one takes their PhD in Sociology or Paleoanthropology to a six-figure job at Chase. Unfortunately, firms might fare just as well hiring sociologists, or for that matter astrologers, to build predictive economic models. In short, Economics doesn’t work.

New ways of viewing economic activity are beginning to make an impact on Economics, but they are not really new, nor are they based on Economics. The assumptions that underlie the rest of the biological world are beginning to seep into our understanding of both economic and political activity. Whether Economists will be able to incorporate these insights before the discipline implodes is an open question with a lot of money at stake.

We’ve generally understood since the ‘50’s that Economics doesn’t work as a method for predicting outcomes. It’s a problem that Milton Friedman wrestled with to an infamous conclusion. The problem is this – the assumptions traditionally necessary to reduce the complexity of human interaction into a manageable predictive model are so absurdly reductive that the model itself will always be flawed.

Friedman confronted and recognized this problem. By then, economists were coming to understand that the discipline was useful as a general social science or philosophy, but lacked the capacity for precision necessary for it to be treated like engineering or physics. Then, in the manner of a man born for politics, Friedman waved a rhetorical hand over the problem and declared that the flaws in the models didn’t matter.

Why don’t the flawed assumptions that lay at the foundations of our economic models necessarily invalidate any calculations based on them? Because they don’t, so shut up.

He used more words than that, and then added some equations on top, but that’s about what it amounted to. Here’s the relevant quote, “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions.” So, yea, all my conclusions are based on assumptions I dreamed up in order in to reach those conclusions, but look how cool those conclusions are!

It took a very long time for this approach to take hold in academia, but over time the gullibility of many business executives helped tip the scales. By pouring money into economic modelling without much concern for the quality of the predictions that emerged, business helped build an Economics establishment that embraced Friedman’s assumptions.

Corporations provided a unique breeding ground for this kind of chicanery. It was (is) an atmosphere in which rewards are highly concentrated and failures are diffused. Whatever guesses looked prescient brought stupendous rewards while the penalties of dumb bets were spread so widely as to slow accountability to a crawl. Even at a crawl, accountability will arrive in time. The longer it takes the more pain it tends to deliver.

As businesses have begun looking outside Economics for more reliable economic insights, Economics is increasingly being exposed to the rigor, standards, and methods of the hard sciences. Scientists from outside the discipline are increasingly looking to evolutionary theory to explain market processes.

We are beginning to discover that building better economic models is not merely a matter of introducing a few lessons learned from biology. Introducing the dynamics of natural selection into Economics does not merely disrupt the mathematical models. Nor does it stop at disrupting the theoretical models. To incorporate evolutionary mechanics into Economics potentially changes our assumptions of what Economics is.

An example can be found in an old MIT talk from Paul Krugman. His wrestling with evolutionary theory, taken from 1996, lays out this problem perfectly. Economics, according to Krugman, is “about what individuals do, not classes, not correlations of forces, but individual actors.” This was the crux of Krugman’s concern at the time with introducing evolutionary mechanics into economic models. The two disciplines simply did not deal with the same subject matter.

Economics treats economies as the sum total of all the decisions made by self-interested individuals engaged in transactions with each other. Evolution on the other hand deals with complex processes that operate at levels ranging from the molecular to the cultural and technological, of which the decisions of a rational self-interested individual are merely a component, and a rather tiny one.

More to the point, one might argue in evolutionary terms that the actions of a self-interested individual are not merely a small factor in understanding an economy, but a resultant factor. Intelligent, considered, self-interested individual decisions may not deserve anything approaching the level of importance economists assign them. Individuals may not be driving an economy, but riding on one. This is not Economics, but it might be what replaces Economics.

Where Economics starts from a set of reductive assumptions drawn from a philosophy – individual human decisions are what matters – then sets a complex series of tottering conclusions on top, sciences that deal with evolutionary processes start from complexity and retain their respect for complexity, building less ambitious predictive models with more fidelity to reality. What they leave out which is essential for Economics as it currently exists is deference to a set of precious philosophical notions about the role and importance of individual autonomy in complex biological processes.

Evolutionary Economics has potential to break the tension between the invisible hand and the regulatory state, looking to more complex models for organization and regulation that can protect us from some of the failures of raw capitalism while preserving our autonomy. By examining what works in the natural world it seeks to build more sophisticated social models that could help us evolve around the obstacles we are creating for ourselves. Getting there will require some philosophical leaps and a lot more scientific work.

Can Economics evolve? Maybe, though so far it remains deeply resistant to the process. Money may once again be the deciding factor. Fifty years of unreliable models are slowly taking their toll. The lure of money that once brought people into the department may be weakening as Wall Street seeks to hire physicists and even biologists.

The uncomfortable philosophical demands of more reliable modeling may require researchers to move the entire subject matter out of the Economics department and into some new field. That transformation may one day relegate what’s left of the Economics department to a windowless space in the basement where they’ll share cramped quarters with that weirdo who teaches Latin. Caveat emptor.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Economics

Poverty and network effects

Ran across a really interesting that I want to share. No time to comment on it at length, but the approach it describes to poverty is really important. It’s from Claire Melamed at Aeon. Here’s a quick summary:

“Look at that seesaw again. It’s tempting to picture the people on it as atomised individuals, randomly distributed between the two sides. But in fact they aren’t like that at all. People don’t end up among the very rich, or languish on the side of the very poor, by chance. Rather, their position depends to a remarkable degree on the groups that they belong to. Where do they live? What is their ethnic group or religion? Do they have a mental illness or a physical disability? What family do they come from?”

There are some really important insights in this piece, but perhaps most important is her emphasis on network effects as related to poverty and inequality. In American culture we imagine wealth and poverty, like nearly everything else, as almost exclusively a matter of individual qualities. We are quite deliberately and ideologically blind to the wider effects of region, race, culture, and other network factors that influence success.

This blindness may have something to do with the ways that the New Deal led to the Civil Rights movement, or the Great Society seems to have actually exacerbated poverty in African American communities. Many of our efforts to relieve poverty are built in a way that impacts different networks in different ways. Our blindness to that dynamic creates strange distortions.

The anti-poverty campaigns of the 30’s and 60’s were actually radically successful in mainstream white and urban communities. They have been less successful in minority urban communities and white rural areas like the Appalachians. In fact, the structure of some of these efforts and their localized successes, may have actually contributed to inequality in some strange ways. My conclusions, not the author’s.

More to come. Complete article here.

Tagged with:
Posted in Welfare State

What Kansas says about our political future

Democrats got a huge boost this month in their campaign to maintain control of the Senate when their candidate in Kansas dropped out of the race. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the declining influence of both political parties in a nutshell.

Independent candidate Greg Orman has carved out a space for himself in the policy gaps left by the two parties, but his appeal has little to do with his platform. He’s popular mainly for what he’s not. Orman describes himself as “business-friendly and socially tolerant,” in other words a Republican time-traveler from an age when the party didn’t scare people. Orman represents all the things people admire in a traditional Republican without the crazy.

Kansas is experiencing a fascinating political moment. The religious right seized power decisively over the past two elections and has pushed through a comprehensive conservative fantasy agenda. Rigid new abortion restrictions, draconian tax and budget cuts, new limits on voting rights, the Tea Party fringe got everything they could ask for short of a gold standard. The results have been as depressing as they were predictable.

The extremists who hijacked the GOP in Kansas have discovered, to their utter surprise, that drastic tax cuts do not produce budget surpluses. Exempting whole sectors of the economy from taxation has not spurred job growth or economic activity. The whole agenda has accomplished nothing but fiscal catastrophe. Their response so far has been to stick to the script and blame the font of all evil – Obama.

What makes Kansas interesting is that it is not Texas or Alabama. The outcome of this policy template in Texas for example has been far more catastrophic than in Kansas, resulting in massive budget cuts to key government services and a growing unease over fundamentalist religious regulations. The difference is that there are still pragmatic Republicans in Kansas and they have launched a revolt.

In one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, the Republican Governor is on his heels and the Republican Senator is trailing an independent. Why isn’t this good news for the Democrats?

In the short term maybe it is. Thanks to a growing wave of not-Republican voting Democrats appear likely to hold on to the Senate. Prospects for Republicans nationally in 2016 are extremely grim, with a strong likelihood of losing the ability to exercise any legislative influence at all nationally.

For Democrats the problem is that few people like them much either. All over the country Democrats are running on their singular strength – the fact that they are not as batshit crazy as their Republican opponents. That may win an election, but it is not a mandate for policy. Their biggest mistake of the past ten years was imagining that their victories in ’06 and ’08 were anything other than a protest vote. They are likely to make the same mistake again.

Orman would join two other officially independent Senators, Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME). That is more independent Senators than we have ever had before before. Unofficially, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who won in 2010 by defeating the Republican Party’s nominee should probably be added to that roster. Rhode Island is being governed by an Independent. Charlie Crist who is running a close race for Governor in Florida is a de facto independent who has run for office in both parties and with no party backing.

Kansas is often regarded as a bellwether. What the state’s voters seem to be telling us right now is that they will vote for a Democrat when a Republican candidate is too dangerously bizarre to be tolerated, but they would much prefer an independent. That’s bad news for both parties, but it may open some promising possibilities for the emergence of a new Republican model.

A younger crop of Republicans in places less dominated by religious extremists is beginning to mature. In states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Orman would be a Republican. Bruce Rauner is running a very strong Republican campaign for Governor in Illinois that looks very much like Orman. Deep in the red state fortress, Republican bomb-thrower Doug Ducey is trapped in a tie with his Democratic challenger for Arizona Governor. Far right Republican candidates are facing surprisingly tight challenges in Georgia and South Carolina. Tea Party darlings in Maine and Pennsylvania are all but doomed.

Disappointments that loom over the GOP in the next few years could be the forge of a new vision for the party. Tone down the paranoid rhetoric, drop the religious authoritarianism, allow reality to once again influence our vision of fiscal responsibility and you could have a powerful, nationally competitive platform. Robbed of blubbering, terrifying Republicans to run against, a Democratic Party still chained to the anchor of 20th century union machine politics might finally drown.

That policy platform isn’t going to emerge from the red state fortress, but Republicans winning elections in the north and west could point the way forward. Both parties may be unpopular, but thanks to the disruptive power of defeat it may be easier for Republicans than for Democrats to pivot to adopt a winning platform.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Election 2014, Republican Party

Giving up on the Redskins

Native American communities have been battling for decades for the right to influence how their culture and history are used by others. They have enjoyed some success in recent years curbing the use of “Indian” imagery in sports. Now they are closing in on a big prize – a name change for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

The campaign has prompted a heated backlash. Fox News and conservative talk radio have been particularly fierce in condemning the “political correctness” supposedly undermining our respect for free expression and the sanctity of cherished cultural symbols.

If we are ever going to tap into the massive potential of a truly inclusive American identity we will have to outgrow a culture in which the only broadly respected values are those which are either shared by the white community, or do not bother them. Getting there will require white Americans to come to terms with cultural preferences that favor them in ways so nearly universal that they hardly even notice them.

Because the Redskins brand, like the use of “Indian” imagery in so many major league baseball settings is not deliberately racist or demeaning, it may offer a chance to see the meaning of white privilege in some of its less pernicious and far more pervasive manifestations. There may be an opportunity in this controversy for everyone to better understand the power and implications of a white cultural monopoly that must necessarily come to an end.

To get a better sense what upsets Native Americans about the Redskins, picture an NFL franchise in a decidedly northern city, maybe Boston, called the Texans. So far so good. After all, having a sports team named after you can be a sign of respect and admiration, right?

Boston’s mascot is a cartoonish stereotypical Texan, Nigel, who for some inexplicable reason is a goatherd. He wears a hat just like an authentic Texan, except it’s a small white bowler instead of a Stetson. Like all good Texans he loves to sit around the campfire and enjoy songs. That’s why he always keeps his flute nearby, the instrument that appears with Nigel on the team’s helmet.

Every home-game halftime show includes a routine designed to get Nigel and his Texans energized for the second half. A fan selected from the audience is dressed up in the uniform of a Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiment and forcibly frees Nigel’s slaves, sending him into a rage.

A volunteer chorus of men dressed up as Pentecostal women called “The Holy Rollers” keeps the crowd entertained. When the team needs a fourth-quarter rally, they get the crowd on their feet until the whole stadium joins them speaking in tongues.

Needless to say, this would not be tolerated and any attempt to play a road game in Dallas would not likely end well. More to the point, this would never happen in the first place. No one would be amused by such an explicit abuse of a white culture.

There is nothing explicitly or intentionally insulting in this depiction of a Texan, yet you can be confident that neither Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, nor any of the other folks who have so courageously stepped up to defend the Redskins brand would be defending these fans’ free speech rights.

The really signal detail is that we do in fact have an NFL team called the Texans and no one is complaining. That team is based in Houston where the local community is able to influence how that brand is depicted. Similarly, we have major sports teams called the Fighting Irish, Vikings, Yankees, Rebels, Celtics, Cowboys, Sooners, Steelers, and 49ers. In each instance these identity-oriented teams have roots in the communities that lay claim to those identities. Switch the Yankees and the Rebels and you might get ugly caricatures that look a lot like the Washington Redskins.

We generally assume that mainstream white communities will own their distinct identities while minority communities, like Native Americans, have been on their own. Depictions of minority cultures, no matter how ignorant, exploitative, or just plain dumb are supposed to be tolerated to a very large degree.

Sports mascots are the tip of the iceberg. From Speedy Gonzales, to Tonto, to Long Duk Dong, through an endless parade of cartoonish, dark-skinned terrorist and criminal villains, and on to the use of the “n-word,” minority attempts to exercise some ownership of their culture and image are condemned as censorship while white communities expect and receive the deference that everyone’s culture deserves.

The message is unmistakable and it reads like this: America is a white country that is so big-heartedly inclusive that it mostly tolerates other cultures when it’s not inconvenient. Complaining about crude, boorish, or stupid depictions of minority communities is an infringement on a white majority’s rights to use your cultural symbols in whatever way suits us. Consider it a compliment that we even know you exist.

The argument over the Redskins brand, and the wider conflict over so-called ‘political correctness,’ is not about free expression. Central to this debate is a question of empathy that must be resolved if America is going to thrive as a diverse nation. To finally become what we have always promised to be, a free country in which everyone is born equal, we have to abandon the assumption that some are more equal than others.

Our failure to recognize the offensive and exploitative abuse of Native American culture is not an example of free speech, but an emblem of how reluctant we have been to extend basic human empathy and respect beyond the boundaries of the white community. Respect for racial diversity is not just about who sits where on the bus. It’s about the scope of cultural legitimacy.

Pluralism isn’t easy but it builds a powerfully cohesive, resilient and prosperous nation. Giving up a crudely insulting football mascot should not be considered a high price to pay for that reward, but nonetheless losing the Redskins will have broad implications that some will resent. Making pluralism work means giving up something some Americans cherish very deeply – the idea that America exists for one set of its cultures to which all of the others must defer. Our willingness to embrace a nation in which white cultural assumptions are merely some among many is the price of entry to a freer, more prosperous American future.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Civil Rights, Race
Noahpinion

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

The Weekly Sift

making sense of the news one week at a time

GOPLifer

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

FiveThirtyEight » Features | FiveThirtyEight

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

Anthony Bourdain

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

Hip Hop Republican

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

The Big Picture

Because leaving isn't exactly an option

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 78 other followers