Rand Paul almost embraces a winning strategy

With an audience of black children as a backdrop, Senator Rand Paul continued his effort to brand himself as the “outreach” Republican with a speech at a school in Chicago. His appearance was a maddening blend of everything right and wrong about Republican urban politics. While it is refreshing to find that someone in the GOP can actually find Chicago on a map, this effort continues to say more about the party’s problems than its promise. The party has a long road to travel before it can regain relevance in America’s economic powerhouses – her cities.

What was good about Paul’s visit? The fact that he showed up at all is exciting. As miserable a statement as it is, few Republicans ever show their faces in the country’s major urban areas. Paul is also showing a willingness to appear in front of minority audiences. That doesn’t sound like much and God knows it shouldn’t be, but precious few serious Republican figures can enter a room full of black people without hyperventilating. If nothing else, Paul is getting used to the experience.

Most promising of all was the message Paul chose as his centerpiece. When he went to Howard University last year he endeavored to lecture a room full of black grad students on America’s racial history. It was an unfortunate choice. In this Chicago visit he focused on the issue most likely to resonate with an urban minority audience – school choice.

For all that was right about this visit and Paul’s previous efforts, so much remains frustrating. The African American kids Paul addressed were little more than decoration. Paul was visiting a Catholic school in relatively affluent, majority-white Wicker Park on the north side. His visit was arranged and staged by a libertarian group. There was no listening, no question and answer, no engagement whatsoever.

This was outreach by photo-op. For all the good it did, he could have saved some time and money and done it by photo-shop instead. Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and the rest of the small cadre of Republicans who claim to care about outreach remain terminally convinced that expanding GOP appeal in urban areas means more energetically white-splaining their existing policy positions. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that urban voters already understand their positions and do not like them – for some good reasons.

More to the point, they lack any shred of recognition that Americans in the cities have some ideas about politics that might benefit the Republican Party. For some reason, they are unwilling to actually listen to anything emerging from the regions of America that are growing the fastest and producing the overwhelming bulk of our wealth.

Senator Paul deserves some appreciation for coming to Chicago and sharing his ideas. Sadly, just having him visit represents progress for the Republican Party. Next time, perhaps he will consider staying an extra hour to listen.

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Posted in Cities, Race, Republican Party

Tea Party Congressman faces a Republican challenge

California’s open primary system is providing openings for centrists. The New York Times has an article this morning about a Republican challenger to Tea Party favorite Tom McClintock in California’s 4th Congressional District. The challenger, Art Moore, is almost guaranteed a place on the fall ballot and a chance to put his credentials in front of a less furiously partisan audience.

The open primary system in California is effectively a single primary for all parties. The candidates with the two highest vote totals go on to compete against each other in the general election. So all the Democrats, Republicans and others are on the same primary ballot together. The general election functions more like a run-off.

This means that even in a district heavily leaning to one party or the other, voters in the minority party can have significant influence. This system has only been in operation since the 2012 primaries, but it is already credited with helping the state moderate its Democratic politics. Some even credit it as a factor in the budget deal that put California back in the black.

Combining open primaries with redistricting by non-partisan commissions, as California has done, may be the prescription for a more reasonable campaign environment. If it can tame the radical politics of the left coast, producing sensible budgets and compromise in one of the country’s most wacky political climates, then maybe it deserves a close look elsewhere.

 

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Posted in Republican Party, Tea Party

Easter Sunday and the future of organized religion

botticelliEaster is the Super Bowl of church, the weekend when people who ordinarily pay no attention to religious matters file into the pews in their Sunday finest before enjoying a nice ham dinner. However, even that tradition of occasional, ritual observance of religion is in decline. America may remain the most “spiritual” place in the western world, but organized religion is in its death throes.

As we ponder the mystery of Easter, maybe there is a new resurrection in the air. Is it possible that the death of organized religion with all its attendant trauma may be bring a hopeful new birth in its wake?

The number of people who claim no religious affiliation has been climbing steadily for more than a generation, but that’s not the startling statistic. There is an earthquake building as fully a third of young people now belong to the “nones.”

In his article in The Week Damon Linker asks “Why would a young person today be religious?” and finds few answers.

In responding to the indifference of the nones, religious institutions face two challenges. First, convincing the nones to recognize and respect their own religious longings. Second, persuading them that what the churches teach and demand can truthfully satisfy those longings.

My own view is that the first should be relatively easy to accomplish, but that the second may well be impossible.

If religion is supposed to provide us with simple, straightforward instructions on how the world works, then it’s easy to understand why each new generation has less need for it than the last. It’s getting progressively more difficult for anything to compete with science as a method for understanding reality. In a post-modern setting religion as Christians and Muslims in particular have generally understood it, can seem a bit ridiculous.

Take a look at some of the criticisms leveled by religious fundamentalists against the recent movie Noah and you can get a sense of the scale of the problem. Noah is a Hollywood movie based on a 4000 year old story about a man who built a boat and loaded it with a pair of every animal on Earth.

He then rode that boat for a month through a flood so severe that it killed off everyone else. As a result, every land creature on Earth supposedly descends from that Gilligan’s Island adventure. And what was the fundamentalist criticism of this movie? Apparently it contained “historical inaccuracies.” In an age in which information of any kind is available on your cell phone we shouldn’t be surprised that this religious vision is collapsing. As Linker explains:

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be.

The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion.

Easter can be the peak of this sort of simplistic denialism; the most explicit and stubborn rejection of a world based on observable facts and empirical reality. And for most that’s what it will be, but there has always been an alternative. Ironically, our oldest and least embellished account of Jesus’ life describes the Easter story as a tantalizing mystery.

The Book of Mark actually ends at Mark 16:8 with this remarkable passage:

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

There’s your Easter. In place of certainty it gives us awe. It is an account so frustratingly complex that early scribes could not resist adding a crudely tacked-on sequel to tie it all up.

Mark’s ending isn’t the only example of this ambiguity. Let’s not forget this tantalizing nugget in Matthew’s conclusion to Jesus’ story:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.

In the final paragraph of the book the author of Matthew feels compelled to acknowledge that some of the disciples weren’t buying it right down to the end. The story was not as neat and tidy as they told us in Sunday School. Doubt was there from the beginning and it never went away.

Why mention this on Easter Weekend? Because there is no better time. Linker describes the challenge facing organized religion:

Until religion comes to grips with and responds creatively to the facts of pluralism, it will find itself embroiled in a battle against reality.

And that is a battle it is bound to lose.

In fact, the battle between science and religion over who can better explain reality is effectively over. For religion to remain relevant to the mainstream of our culture in the next generation it will have to surrender its rivalry with science over the world of empirical facts and focus on its strength – its superior ability to deliver meaning.

The maddeningly strange ending to Mark and the doubt expressed by the disciples over the resurrection are only threatening to a religion that seeks to reduce the complexity of our lives to a single, authoritative reality. Christianity as the pursuit of a tidy answer for each of life’s questions is an absurd fantasy, growing more irresponsibly childish by the day. Christianity as a means by which to wrestle with unanswerable questions and find peace in the presence of the infinite is as powerful and relevant as it ever was.

The death of organized religion, at least as we’ve practiced it over the past century and half or so, may be traumatic, but it need not be tragic. Easter is a story of resurrection and transformation. Perhaps that theme may be more relevant than ever for a religious establishment in deep need of a new birth.

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Posted in Religion

Protecting you from free tax filing

The astro-turf campaign by major tax preparers against the IRS’s plans to offer free online tax filing is descending into parody. For decades both Republicans and Democrats have campaigned around programs aimed to simplify tax compliance. Meanwhile the IRS has been fighting to make such a program available to the public over fierce, well-funded political opposition from both parties.

Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, has found the perfect ally in their fight to stop the simplification of tax payment – Grover Norquist, far-right icon and President of Americans for Tax Reform. Perhaps it’s from Norquist that they learned how to organize “grassroots” outrage against yet another example of IRS oppression.

The company may have discovered that a public political campaigned aimed to “protect my massive fortune from the effects of competition” somehow failed to generate enough energy. Instead they are sponsoring a “Stop IRS Takeover” website. They are campaigning to stop the “Big Government” takeover of tax preparation the evil Obama Administration.

From the Communists over at ProPublica:

In an emailed statement, Intuit spokeswoman Julie Miller said, “Like many other companies, Intuit actively participates in the political process.” Return-free programs curtail citizen participation in the tax process, she said, and also have “implications for accuracy and fairness in taxation.” (Here is Intuit’s full statement.)

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business.

Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range in price from free to $150.

So far not even Tea Partiers have been gullible enough to fall for this. Perhaps if Intuit had invested more energy recruiting Glenn Beck instead of Norquist they could have laid better astroturf. Nonetheless, the company has been consistently successful in blocking efforts to simplify tax filing.

The mechanics of this so-far successful campaign provide disturbing insights into the way Washington works. This is the kind of issue that should be at the center of the Republican agenda, yet it’s clear that much of what IS at the center is designed to distract the public from this problem and feed this monster.

 

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Posted in Taxes

So where is all the growth?

Technology in our time is moving at a pace so fast it seems that only children have the time to stay current. This dizzying pace of progress is bringing wonder after wonder, so why is economic growth so sluggish?

Economic growth, as measured in terms of GDP, has been on a long slow decline in the West since the 1960’s. The authors of The Second Machine Age point out that digital age economic progress looks like stagnation when measured by traditional means.

We measure economic growth in terms of production and consumption. There is nothing in our economic calculus that measures improvements in well-being, happiness, health or satisfaction. Whatever increases productivity or units of consumption is good. Anything that decreases consumption or production is bad.

While economic “growth” in the Western world has looked relatively flat, our quality of life has improved by nearly every measure. Most of the benefit of the computer age escapes our traditional economic measures entirely. In fact, on paper much of it looks like economic contraction

Take the music industry as an example. Once again, from The Second Machine Age:

Music is hiding itself from our traditional economic statistics. Sales of music on physical media declined from 800 million units in 2004 to less than 400 million units in 2008…Before the rise of the MP3, even the most fanatical music fan, with a basement stacked high was LP’s, tapes, and CD’s, wouldn’t have had a fraction of the twenty millions songs available on a child’s smartphone via services like Spotify or Rhapsody…If you’re like most people, you are listening to more and better music than ever before.

What has been the impact of this spectacular improvement in lifestyle? By traditional metrics, the introduction of digital music has been economic catastrophe.

The value of music has not changed, only the price. From 2004 to 2008, the combined revenue from sale of music dropped from $12.3 billion to $7.4 billion – that’s a decline of 40%. Even when we include all digital sales, throwing in ringtones on mobile phones for good measure, the total revenues to record companies are still down 30%. Similar economics apply when you read the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, or MIT Sloan Management Review online at a reduced price or for free instead of buying a physical copy at the newsstand…Analog dollars are becoming digitial pennies.

Overall, what has been the value of making dictionaries, news, music, encyclopedias, health information, and other formerly expensive products free or virtually free? Our lives have been meaningfully enriched and our productivity in a sense improved. Yet the impact to economic growth in traditional consumption-oriented terms has been almost entirely negative. Again from the book:

A simple switch to using a free texting service like Apple’s iChat instead of SMS, free classifieds like Craigslist instead of newspaper ads, or free calls like Skype instead of a traditional telephone service can make billions of dollars disappear from companies’ revenues and the GDP statistics.

It is extremely difficult to reduce the lifestyle improvement delivered by the iPhone or improved medical imaging technology or the self-driving car to a metric. What this means is that the most radically concentrated improvement in human life and happiness which has ever occurred in our history is happening with remarkably little notice. By failing to note this transformation, we are missing many of the opportunities presented by this era to improve our lives even further.

Another example of what economic progress looks like in our time, and why we do not recognize it, comes from an earlier GOPLifer piece on social capital:

In 1985, a top of the line Ford Mustang GT carried a sticker price of $14,000 which, adjusted for inflation, equals roughly $30,000 today.  That car featured an AM/FM radio with an optional cassette deck.  The finest Mustang you could buy in 1985 had no air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no remote electronic door locks, no CD player, USB port, or heated seats.

It had no cup holders.

Visit a Ford showroom today and you can drive away with their finest Mustang GT tricked out with advanced safety features, every imaginable gadget, excellent engineering and reliability, a spectacular warranty, and even cup holders for about $30,000.

We are living longer, healthier lives with better access to quality food, information, transportation, art, literature, entertainment and almost anything else we desire. Those advantages are compounding at a fantastic rate, changing what it means to be rich, poor and everything in between. Virtually none of this shows up in our traditional calculations of economic growth or progress, and much of it is actually depressing our growth metrics.

Distortions we experience in our measurement of economic growth provide a clue to wider difficulties. As we struggle to adapt to the second machine age, the very definitions we use to describe what’s “good” and “bad” in policy terms are becoming cloudy.

By failing to recognize our changing circumstances we are tangling ourselves in pointless debates over policy issues that in many cases no longer matter. Along the way we fail to recognize the critical waypoints that will determine whether the benefits of this new age will outweigh its burdens. Understanding the second machine age isn’t about appreciating the cool new gadgets around us. Our ability to recognize our changing landscape will determine who will prosper in this time and how much.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

Grappling with Exponential Growth

Since the sixties, analysts have been using Moore’s Law to summarize the expansion of computing power and, by extension, the growth of information technology as an industry. Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, his “law” can be summarized to state that computing power per-dollar spent can be expected to double every 1-2 years.

Moore himself expected the phenomenon to hold for a decade or so across the early life of the computer industry but it remains fairly consistent forty years later. If anything, there are signs that this phenomenon may actually be accelerating. Though computing based on silicon chips may struggle to keep up with Moore’s Law, the introduction of quantum computing and even biocomputing may soon make Moore’s Law seem quaint.

The authors of The Second Machine Age argue that one of the challenges of adapting to this new economic reality is our mental struggle to comprehend the power of exponents. They illustrate the point with a reference to an Indian folktale:

As the story goes chess was invented by a very clever man who traveled to Paliputra, the capital city, and presented his brainchild to the emperor. The ruler was so impressed by the difficult, beautiful game that he invited the inventor to name his reward.

The inventor praised the emperor’s generosity and said, “All I desire is some rise to feed my family.” Since the emperor’s largess was spurred by the invention of chess, the inventor suggested they use the chessboard to determine the amount of rise he would be given. “Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on,” the inventor proposed, “so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous.

If his request were fully honored, the inventor would wind up with 2 to the 64th power, or more than 18 quintillion grains of rice. A pile this big would dwarf Mount Everest; it’s more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.

What’s truly fascinating about this process is the way the growth curve bends upward on the second half of the chessboard. This is not a bell-curve phenomenon, but a launch.

Why does computing follow a steeper growth curve than earlier technologies? The chess board analogy helps us recognize that this is a misunderstanding of the situation. It’s not that computing is such a unique technology as compared to, say, the steam engine. The difference is that computing is arriving on the second half of the chessboard.

Looking at the growth of technology across all of human history, almost nothing happens until about 1750. The development of fire, agriculture, and the wheel were thousands of years apart. Gunpowder was another few thousand years later. Steam and mechanical technology were rather farther along this curve, but still early.

It’s not that computers are so special. It’s where they fall on this general expansion of knowledge that makes them more dynamic than previous technologies. And seeing the growth of technology along this long timeframe, we begin to recognize that this phenomenon is not about computing at all, and that it is likely to accelerate from here in ways we that our brains can barely process.

What this means beyond computing can perhaps be illustrated with a look at the industries spawned by this expansion in computing power. Again, from The Second Machine Age:

The ASCI Red, the first product of the U.S. government’s Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, was the world’s fastest supercomputer when it was introduced in 1996. It cost $55 million to develop and its one hundred cabinets occupied nearly 1600 square feet of floor space at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Designed for calculation-intensive tasks like simulating nuclear tests, ASCI Red was the first computer to score above one teraflop – one million floating operations per second – on the standard benchmark test for computer speed. By 1997 it had reached 1.8 teraflops.

Nine years later another computer hit 1.8 teraflops, but instead of simulating nuclear explosions it was devoted to drawing them and other complex graphics in all their realistic, real-time, three-dimensional glory. It did this not for physicists, but for video game players. This computer was the Sony Playstation 3.

….

The ASCI Red was taken out of service in 2006.

It took humans about 3000 years to move from ox-driven plows to mechanical plows. In fact agricultural technology at the time of the American Revolution was no better, and in some regards perhaps less advanced than that practiced by the Romans. By contrast it took 25 years to go from Pong to Halo.

Why does this matter politically? This kind of growth is a major adaptive challenge for traditional institutions. We need them more than ever, but they groan and occasionally fail under the strain. Government built to meet the bureaucratic demands of 20th century Industrial Capitalism is struggling to remain not just relevant, but intact.

Industrialization destroyed an old political order based on aristocracy and land ownership. How will automation transform our order?

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

Meet your automated replacement

automationIt would wise to revisit our assumptions about what computers can and cannot do. Many of us were surprised at the development of computers that could defeat a human at Chess or on the game-show Jeopardy! While those achievements were novel, we still generally understood that certain tasks remain essentially human. Computers follow an algorithm, but they do not learn, compose or adapt to scenarios they were not programmed to see.

In The Second Machine Age, the authors illustrate the remarkably rapid crumbling of barriers to automation with a ride in a Google Car. Only a few years ago the pursuit of self-driving automobiles was practically abandoned following a series of humiliating failures. Driving is a task which is not only computationally challenging; it is filled with surprises which cannot be programmed. Driving is the kind of pattern-recognition task which was generally assumed to lay beyond the frontier of automation.

Now Google regularly has visitors picked up from the airport in fully automated vehicles. Their progress in this area is sufficiently advanced that they have moved their efforts into the regulatory sphere, working to pass state laws ensuring that their technology can be deployed on the road.

And that’s not all. Right here in Chicago the folks at Narrative Science are automating journalism. This is not some distant goal being played out in a lab. A significant portion of what you read today, especially in sports or financial reporting, is generated by the computers at Narrative Science.

Their software combs through a data feed searching for relevant elements, then assembles them into a fully developed, publishable story. This gives a news organization, or a data analyst, access to more content than ever from which to identify meaning. The ways that humans use Narrative Science provide a glimpse into the future of employment for everyone who will benefit from the second machine age.

Narrative Science and other similar big-data tools do not eliminate journalists, but they change what a journalist does. That process stands to radically reduce the number of jobs in the field while making those jobs vastly more lucrative and interesting.

Gone are the days of typing up box scores or summarizing last night’s arrests. A journalist using a big data feed is looking for meaning, not content, and that’s a good summary of what high-value employment looks like in the second machine age. A journalist in this context is leveraging a machine to reduce drudgery, augmenting the challenge of finding value among a stream of data.

Similar roles will provide rewarding work training machines to perform new tasks; using machines to do things we’ve never done before, and interpreting machine output that we have never before seen. Those who work with machines are increasingly artists, whether in the literal sense or merely in the shape of their work. From software developers to Daft Punk, success in the second machine age means marrying creativity to automation.

Artists and entertainers were once poor almost by definition. The transition we’ve seen over the past half century has been so dramatic that we’ve largely forgotten that for all of human history performers were social outcasts, the lowest of the low. Celebrity culture is in many ways a by-product of the second machine age, not just because the bounty of this phenomenon creates more disposal income to be used for entertainment. Almost everything humans do successfully in this environment is at its core a creative or artistic pursuit.

The winners in the second machine age are all in some sense artists, whether they post their work on YouTube, github, or the New York Times. Those liberal arts degrees may deserve more respect than we’ve been giving them. The only job category reasonably secure from automation, at least for the near-term, may be poetry.

My automated replacement is likely to eliminate the job I did yesterday. Along the way it could open doors to work that I never imagined might exist. That work will likely be more independent, with a less dependable future, and more spectacular earnings than we have come to expect. It will also likely lead to shorter careers that start later, often preceded, interrupted, and followed by exploratory ventures that may or may not pan out.

This transition from the boring reliability of Industrial Age employment toward the terrifying excitement and reward of the digital age completely transforms our understanding of what government can and should do in the economy. We need to think a little harder about how to adapt our institutions to support our values in a rapidly transforming world.

****

For your consideration, let me present one of the winners in the second machine age. Jason Isbell is not Daft Punk. He is not cranking out digital tunes. Yet, he has leveraged the infrastructure of the digital age to build an impressive career for himself in an artistic niche that would never have existed in the past. Isbell is taking a music form that one might have expected would be wrecked by celebrity culture and participating in its renaissance. Jason Isbell is how one survives and succeeds in the second machine age, making a living as a poet.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age, Uncategorized, Welfare State

A closer look at The Second Machine Age

Reading the new book from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee was like a breath of fresh air. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, elegantly summarizes the radical economic changes I’ve been trying to describe in blog posts.

In short, The Second Machine Age describes the ways that information age technologies have changed the rules of economics. In many ways the book is a summary of material dealt with in greater depth by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Black Swan), Michael Lewis (The Big Short), James Gleick (Faster) and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (Why Nations Fail). As such, it’s a fast read that cruises across the surface of dozens of potentially complex topics.

Anecdotes and generalizations substitute for depth, but no truly detailed treatment of this subject could be boiled down to an airplane book. The Second Machine Age is neither the most insightful nor profound book about our time. It is, however, extremely accessible and reliably accurate. As such, the authors have delivered a mass read that can bring these important topics to a broader audience.

Some of the main points from the book:

1) Machines can do more now than we ever imagined they might be capable of. No one can confidently claim that a particular activity or field is comfortably beyond the range of our machines.

2) Information technology is introducing a kind of exponential economic expansion that we did not experience in the Industrial Era or at any time previous. It gives rise to a “superstar” dynamic, concentrating returns on investment in the hands of very few winners.

3) Most of the progress brought by this digital revolution has escaped our notice and passed under the radar of our usual methods of economic measurement.

4) Digital economics is radically more lucrative and unequal than anything we have faced before. The “bounty” and “spread” of the second machine age are shredding our social safety net and weighing us down as we struggle to ride this wave.

5) The second machine age may not drive unemployment overall, but it has already nearly destroyed middle income employment. Our vision of what employment means needs to change.

6) Winners, for the most part, will be the people who find way to successfully augment, not replace, automation. Almost no one has a job which cannot in some respects be automated. Successful workers will be the ones who learn to enhance what computers or machines do.

7) What should we do about it? Recommendations include education reform, streamlining government, infrastructure investment, aggressively recruiting immigration, pollution taxes, and of course, a basic income. Any of these sound familiar?

Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s book is too important to merely summarize. The next few posts will include excerpts and my strong encouragement to give it a read.

An excerpt:

Our generation will likely have the good fortune to experience two of the most amazing events in human history: the creation of a true machine intelligence and the connection of all humans via a common digital network, transforming the planet’s economics. Innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkerers, and many other types of geeks will take advantage of this cornucopia to build technologies that astonish and delight us, and work for us. Over and over again, they’ll show how right Arthur C. Clarke was when he observed that a sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

What comes after the culture wars?

The culture wars seem to be grinding toward a close. So what comes next? Are there ways that elements of the old left and right can hash together new alliances to deal with the circumstances we face now?

Noah Smith from the Noahpinion economics blog published an article in The Atlantic proposing what he described as a liberal “Marshall Plan” to reach out to defeated social conservatives. Its an interesting opening, encouraging the left to forego “the temptation to pillage the lands of the conquered enemy” and instead look to forge common ground in the quest to support the struggling working class.

The reason we need to reach out to conservatives is simple—there are a lot of them, and they are our countrymen. America is not going to be healthy unless conservative America is healthy. And America is not going to be a fully effective nation-state until conservative America feels completely included in the new liberal America that is now emerging.

It’s time to reach out to conservatives on the issue of family stability. It’s becoming clear that traditional family gender roles—the idea that the man should be able to be the sole breadwinner—are not sustainable in the modern economic environment. This is probably one reason behind the breakdown of two-parent families among the working class, as documented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. But liberals—the same kale-munching, bottle-recycling goofballs that National Review and David Brooks have spent decades lampooning—have found a better way. The better way is what Richard Reeves, in a landmark article in The Atlantic, calls “High Investment Parenting.” When families focus on the kids, instead of on maintaining traditional gender roles, it turns out to be a lot easier to keep the family together.

That’s great, but there are a couple of problems with this approach. For starters, I think it’s more than a little arrogant to conclude that the culture wars led to a decisive liberal victory. As I’ve stated elsewhere:

A social conservative from the ‘70’s, plopped down into our age, might be thrilled by what they found as most of the greatest fears of their era have faded.  Divorce rates have not only leveled off, but declined.  Children are treated with near-reverence, buckled up, cherished, and sheltered from negative influences.  New York’s Times Square in our time is a ’70′s conservative’s wildest fantasy made real.

Substance abuse, crime, and smoking not only halted their rise, they have declined significantly.  Public disapproval of adultery has strengthenedAbortion is in steady, long-term decline.  Teen sexual activity and pregnancy are in dropping.

Our visitor from the ‘70’s would be treated to one particularly mind-boggling phenomenon.  Homosexuals, once mistakenly derided as lust-driven deviants, are pressing for the right to settle down in stable families and raise children.  The Village People now have entirely different plans for the YMCA – signing their kids up for soccer and gymnastics.

The only thing social conservatives lost in the culture wars was the opportunity to leverage government to impose their religiously inspired sexual repression on everyone else. The rest of what “family values” actually mean remains not only intact, but more vital than ever.

The fact that the “victory” Smith points to is based on same sex couples earning the right to get married says a lot about the direction taken by the sexual revolution since the eighties. For a vast majority of people who can still afford it, a “traditional” family remains not just desirable, but the standard. The problem is not that people have rejected family life. The problem is that in a highly dynamic, intensely market-dominated world, it has become extremely expensive to engage in any activity that does not produce an immediate profit. Traditional motherhood and fatherhood have become a radically expensive undertaking. If people on the left really want to engage constructively in a post-culture war detente with conservatives, it might be helpful first to acknowledge that the conflict ended with a new paradigm that was vastly different, and better, than what either side envisioned a generation ago.

In general though, this is a promising approach. If both liberals and conservatives recognized the desirability of stable families and the key role that economic stability plays in supporting them, we might have a basis on which to collaborate. That would require a bit more humility than Smith shows in this piece, but it’s a start.

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Posted in Religious Right

How Protestant Evangelicals shifted their abortion stance

prolifeJamelle Bouie had a great piece at Slate last week explaining the long strange journey of Protestant Evangelicals from pressing for the expansion of abortion rights to vehement opposition to nearly every aspect of women’s reproductive choices. Bouie correctly identifies the trend, but he misses an important pivot point that calls the rest of his analysis into question.

Bouie correctly points out that political conservatives and Protestant evangelicals were relatively warm toward pro-choice causes until the ‘70’s. The nation’s most liberal abortion rights legislation prior to Roe v. Wade was signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater was staunchly pro-choice across his entire career.

In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed abortion rights for women in a remarkably bold statement for the time. The Baptists responded to Roe v Wade in 1974 by re-affirming their previous statement in favor of abortion rights.

The Protestant theological mainstream was described in a quote from Bouie’s main reference, a recent book by Jonathan Dudley:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today on contraception and abortion, edited by Harold Lindsell, a then-famous champion of biblical “inerrancy.” His argument rested on the Hebrew Bible, “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

Bouie goes wrong in identifying Roe v. Wade as the galvanizing factor that brought Protestant Evangelicals into politics in opposition to abortion and to broader reproductive rights. Anti-abortion politics was almost exclusively the realm of Northern Catholics, mostly Democrats, into the 80’s. Why would a Supreme Court decision in favor of something they generally supported change Protestants’ views on the matter? The answer is that it wouldn’t and it didn’t.

This shift in Protestant politics was a by-product of new alliances inspired by a different controversy. It was not Roe, but an earlier Court decision that created the Religious Right.

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in Coit v. Green that the Federal government could revoke the tax-exempt status of private religious schools that engaged in racially discriminatory admissions. This sparked a decade-long legal fight led by Bob Jones University that resulted in defeat after defeat.

That case was the catalyst that would eventually bring a Southern Baptist TV preacher named Jerry Falwell together with a Northern Catholic political operative, Paul Weyrich, to found the Moral Majority. For years Weyrich had been working to bring religious fundamentalists into politics. His efforts were slow to gain momentum and were unaffected by Roe. The Religious Right remained an inchoate force, disorganized, derided, and unpopular in both parties until the Carter Administration gave them the fuel they needed to ignite a populist firestorm.

In the wake of Coit and the long series of Bob Jones decisions the Justice Department had the authority, but not necessarily the will, to take the campaign against school segregation into the private school market. Desegregation had brought a stampede out of public schools. In the North, Catholic parochial schools were the main beneficiary. In the South, Evangelical churches launched into this industry, providing middle and upper income families a place to hide their white kids.

In 1978 the IRS under Carter announced new rules. White private schools that had begun or rapidly expanded under segregation would have to affirmatively prove non-discrimination in order to retain their tax exempt status.

Weyrich’s own description of how the Moral Majority found its feet makes no reference whatsoever to abortion:

“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”

It is no accident that 1980 is the first year that the religious right shows up as a force in Presidential politics. It is also no accident that one of the Reagan Administration’s earliest major policy moves was the cancellation of this IRS policy.

Abortion politics, like positions on school prayer, porn, divorce law, and other religious issues followed in the wake of segregation, not the other way around. The Southern Baptists declined to take an unequivocal stand against abortion rights for almost a decade after Roe v. Wade. The culture war got its impetus from desegregation, not from abortion.

By the late ’70′s, overt race-baiting was no longer tolerated on the public stage. The forces threatened by the Carter Administration’s decision were in no position to campaign openly in favor of segregation. They needed a proxy. In time, abortion and school prayer became convenient, race-neutral rhetorical banners beneath which Southern Protestant Evangelicals and Northern Catholics could march together, however uneasily. The tensions that once divided them have not faded away entirely, but have come to matter less and less as the “culture” issues they share in common take center stage.

That awkward marriage has in time produced a unique offspring, best symbolized by Sen. Rand Paul. The modern Neo-Confederate movement has now managed to synthesize an alliance between the conservative Northern Catholics who once supported George Wallace and Southern Dixiecrats on the basis of a shared interest in religious fundamentalism and a resentment of government efforts to strip religious groups of their policy influence.

Bouie is right to point out that evangelical abortion politics has changed dramatically over a single generation, but it was school segregation, not Roe, that provided the catalyst.

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Posted in Civil Rights, Neo-Confederate, Race, Religious Right, Reproductive Rights, Republican Party
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