David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

We aren’t going back

There is a persistent nostalgia that is actually very unhealthy.  So many people want to return to the time when they were young.  In the mid 20th century, America was the only first world country left intact after World War II.  It became an industrial powerhouse, education surged, the population surged, young people did consistently better than their parents.  Those days are gone, and they didn’t suddenly disappear.  A study recently published by the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that the percentage of Americans who make more than their parents has been steadily declining for half a century.  Americans born in 1945 had about a 90% chance of making more than their parents.  For Americans born in 1984 that figure had dropped to about 50%.


It wasn’t just about manufacturing back then either.  From 1950 to 1975, the percentage of Americans getting college degrees exploded, from only about 5% to about 25%.  Educational attainment is highly correlated with income.  But during the Reagan years, this percentage actually declined a bit, and only recently has started to climb again.  The problem is, the 70% of Americans who aren’t getting college degrees are falling farther and farther behind.  America has shifted from an industrial economy to an information/service economy.  The information economy provides good-paying jobs, but they require college.  The service economy, which is most of the economy, does not.  And even these jobs are at risk from automation.


Automation has displaced huge numbers of American jobs, and automation will continue to accelerate.  In the short term, automation may actually bring back some American jobs, because it will encourage manufacturers to keep their plants in the U.S.  But we will never again have the labor-intensive manufacturing that drove the American economy in the mid 20th century.  And the fact is, much of that manufacturing was providing people with very basic things, like cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions, things that in previous years many Americans didn’t have.  Once they have them, they don’t need more of them.  A growing economy requires more and more stuff.  When many people didn’t have basics, that was easy to do.  The growth years of the 1990’s had everything to do with the rise of computer technology and the internet, things that we now consider basics.

Growth is still possible.  In the near future, renewable energy will probably grow tremendously, replacing fossil fuels.  But like most new industries, these are not labor-intensive.  A solar farm requires a small amount of manpower to maintain, compared to an oil field or refinery.  The same is true of a wind farm.  Utility industries will simply make the wise business decision and go with power sources that are more profitable.  Labor costs eat into profits.  “Worker productivity” has nothing to do with human hard work – in many ways, it’s the opposite.  A worker who works leisurely for 2 hours to produce 1000 dollars worth of production is 10 times as productive as one who busts his butt for 20 hours to produce the same.

Similarly, demographic change is not going to reverse.  America will steadily get browner.  That’s the future.  If you think the clock can turn back, you’re delusional.  Even Reagan didn’t do that.  Automation did not decline during the Reagan years.  Oil didn’t go back to being 35 cents a gallon.  Japanese cars did not disappear.  The browning of America did not reverse itself.  For all of their anxiety about demographic change, white middle Americans have not responded by producing lots of children, and there is no hint that they will do so.  Much of the baby boom of the 20th century happened before the birth control pill received FDA approval in 1960.  After that the American birth rate plummeted and has never returned to the levels seen in the 1950’s.

It is quite apparent that something has to give.  While young, multicultural America has grown increasingly impatient with intolerance and the culture war, white, monocultural America has grown increasingly entrenched, and now it is highly emboldened.  The Republican Party, which is only 23% of the American electorate (and about 90% white), now controls Washington and most state governments.  Efforts to disenfranchise non-whites will now accelerate.  I will frankly be amazed if this powder keg does not blow up in our faces.



America has had these problems before – What makes this time so different?

The polarization that we are seeing in America today is, in some respects, nothing new.  As the economy shifted from agriculture to industry in the late 1900’s, a great divide occurred, between urban, multireligious, multicultural America and rural, Protestant, monocultural America.  Populist parties like the People’s Party sprung up, representing farmers and working class Americans.  The surge of power in Protestant middle America was in fact responsible for Prohibition.

Think of it – The U.S. Constitution was actually amended to outlaw the sale of alcohol.  That’s a statement about the power of rural, monocultural America at the time.  The Prohibitionists often appealed to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment.  In fact, the KKK was a huge supporter of the Prohibitionists.  In 1924 the Klan had 4 million members, and actually controlled the governorship and legislature of Indiana, as well as having enormous influence in the South.  Anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-black sentiment was strong in the country during this time.  In 1921, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the wealthiest black district in America at the time, was destroyed by a white mob.  Even airplanes were used to attack the district.  Not a single fire station responded to the burning of the district.  About 300 black people were killed.

In 1924, the Klan was a major force in the Democratic National Convention.  There were so many Klan delegates at the time that an attempt to insert a statement in the party platform condemning the Klan for its violence was actually defeated.  The influence of the Klan and white supremacy in general culminated in the 1928 presidential election.  New York governor Al Smith was defeated by a wave of prohibitionist, anti-Catholic rhetoric, much of it coming from white Protestant ministers.  Only a year later, the Depression began, changing the political landscape dramatically.  In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president.  A year after that, Prohibition was repealed, and the influence of the Klan rapidly declined.

Ideas of racial supremacy and the promotion of eugenics were very common before World War II.  Religious distinctions were very important to many Americans – Catholics and Jews were looked down upon by many.  The Holocaust swept away much of the perceived legitimacy of white supremacy and religious intolerance.  But notice something important.  Segregation and Jim Crow remained.  It was one thing to tolerate someone of primarily European ancestry who had a different religion.  It was quite another to embrace someone of a different skin color who belonged to the same religion as yourself.  The rise of the black civil rights movement was the impetus for some southern states to incorporate Confederate battle flags into their state flags in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Enormous political unrest followed in the 1960’s.  But civil war was averted.

What makes this time so different is demographics.  Anxious rural white Protestants have resisted change fiercely in the past, but always had a security blanket to fall back on when they failed – they could count people of other religions as “white.”  They could absorb many Catholics and Jews as part of white Protestant culture.  They could always say, “Well, Catholics and Jews have it wrong, but at least their skin is the right color and we all adhere to some version of the Bible.  I guess we can get along.”  White Protestant culture warriors like Jerry Falwell joined forces with Catholics like Paul Weyrich to wage a new culture war, more inclusive but also more political than ever.  White Protestant culture morphed into white Judeo-Christian culture.  But whiteness was key.  And new culture warriors like Rush Limbaugh came along, who aren’t even overtly religious, and who protest loudly that they aren’t racists.  But again, whiteness is key.  As recently as 1960, Americans who identified as white represented close to 90% of the population.  But by 1990 that figure was down to 80%, and by 2010, 72%.  That number will continue to decline.  Amongst American children under the age of 5, less than 50% are now white.  The sheer force of ethnic change is perceived by many as a threat to the very existence of the United States.  White rural Protestants are now being asked to tolerate brown people, people they consider incompatible with white Protestant culture.

Recently, in an interview, a white rural American described himself and his neighbors as “real people,” contrasting them with urbanites.  There is a pervasive, often unspoken, more often implied attitude that white, rural America is the real America, that other versions of America are somehow illegitimate.  While protesting that they are not racists, that they don’t believe in racial supremacy, they marginalize non-whites.

Recently, Pew conducted a survey examining the attitudes of American Republicans toward immigrants and non-whites.  77% PERCENT of Republicans (the Republican party is now 90% white) responded that immigration threatens American customs and values.  When presented with the question, “Within 30 years, the U.S. population will be majority black, Latino, and Asian.  Is this good or bad for the country?” – 39 PERCENT of republicans said it was BAD.  Think about that.  4 in 10 Republicans are saying that the mere fact of ethnic diversity is bad for the country.  In another survey, by a research group called PRRI, 56% of white Americans responded that American society has changed for the worse since the 1950’s.  65% of white working class Americans said that American society has changed for the worse.

For the first time in its history, America is confronted with the fact that it is becoming a majority non-white country.  Now the segment of the population that feels threatened by this is becoming ever more desperate to find measures to reverse the trend.  Border walls and aggressive deportation, along with strong limits on immigration, legal or illegal, are favored.  Of course these will not succeed in changing the demographic trend.  As I have said, more than half of young American children are now non-white.  The tide of demographic change is a fact of life.

A point of no return has been reached.  America is a multicultural society.  The different cultures have become so integrated that they will not tolerate being torn apart.  Of course white, rural and small town America has never been part of that integration, and now its fantasy of a monocultural America has been highly emboldened.  It will now entrench to a much greater degree, and when urban, multicultural America refuses to accept the monocultural fantasy, the gloves will be off.

The Politically Impossible

2016 has been a real shocker, when many if not most of the rules of politics were overturned.  The trouble is, a lot of the political class still refuses to see this.  Many editorialists just seem unable to grasp the fact that politics as usual is gone.  They still make the same arguments, built on what is “politically possible,” not understanding that we are already in the world of the politically impossible.

We have a President-elect, from a party that has been vehemently anti-communist, who is cozying up to Russia and dismissing Russian aggression.  We have a President-elect, from a party that has been vehemently pro-military, who has insulted a war hero and attacked a Gold Star family.  We have a President-elect who has repeatedly said and done things that would have ended the career of any normal politician.  Large numbers of voters didn’t care.  Some of them didn’t care because they were blinded by ideology.  But significant numbers of them just tuned out everything except what they wanted to hear – “I will fight for you.”

This is not the first time a wealthy man has managed to cut through the elite propaganda machine and appeal directly to voters.  Ross Perot was well on his way to becoming President.  Americans want someone who will fight for them.  Americans are fundamentally pragmatic.  They don’t know who has the right answers.  They just know that the answers they have been given up to now are wrong for them.

Many Democrats will no doubt argue that Clinton actually won by a significant margin, so she must have done something right.  They focus on how close she came to becoming president, conveniently forgetting that when Trump became the Republican nominee, they were jumping with joy because now she would be a shoe-in.  It shouldn’t have even been a contest.  She should have beaten such an unsavory, unqualified person by more than 10 points.  Under the old rules of politics, she would have.

What was impossible politically has become more than possible.  This is the lesson of 2016.  Stop thinking in the old box.  The American people are ready for real leaders with real solutions, not ideology.  Right now many of them are willing to entertain the fantasy that we will rebuild the old labor-intensive industries of the 20th century, and thus bring back high-paying jobs.  That’s not about ideology.  It’s entirely pragmatic.  Of course it’s doomed to failure.  But giving them a viable alternative means ushering in new ways of thinking about the economy.  Stop being afraid to tell them what they need to hear.  They don’t need ideology, liberal or conservative.  They need leaders who will speak fiercely and boldly about a new future.

Production and human development are not the same thing

In 2014, the state of Louisiana ranked 17th in per capita GDP.  Not too bad.  Louisiana has plenty of natural wealth – fossil fuels, fisheries, and so on.

So why does Louisiana rank 44th in median household income, 47th in educational achievement, 48th in life expectancy, 3rd in poverty rate, 4th in income inequality, 6th in violent crime rate, 4th in domestic violence rate, 4th in HIV infection rate, and 5th in cancer death rate?

It’s really not that surprising.  There are 2 other states whose per capita GDP ranks much higher than their ranking on the American Human Development Index – Alaska and Wyoming.  Alaska ranks 2nd (!) in per capita GDP – yet 21st on the American HDI.  Wyoming ranks 5th in per capita GDP – yet 29th on the American HDI.  Both states, like Louisiana, are heavily dependent on extractive industries.

By contrast, the state of Connecticut ranks 4th in per capita GDP, but FIRST on the American HDI.  Massachusetts ranks 6th in per capita GDP, but SECOND on the American HDI.  These states have among the highest median incomes and levels of education in the country.

How about the world as a whole?  Let’s look at a few of the Nordic countries.  Norway for example.  Norway has the 3rd highest per capita GDP of any country.  It ranks FIRST on the HDI.  Denmark has the 8th highest per capita GDP of any country.  It ranks 4th on the HDI.  The Netherlands has the 15th highest per capita GDP of any country.  It ranks 5th on the HDI.

By contrast, let’s look at Kuwait, which produces a lot of oil.  It ranks 27th in per capita GDP.  Yet it ranks 48th on the HDI.  Nigeria, that’s another big oil producer.  It ranks 130th in per capita GDP.  It ranks 152nd on the HDI.

In case you’re wondering where America ranks, it ranks 6th in per capita GDP.  It ranks 8th on the HDI.  So as a whole, the country is doing pretty well.  But if we adjust the HDI for income inequality, America drops to 28th, behind 21 European countries.  Given America’s enormous size and its vast natural resource base, this is rather astonishing.

Now suppose we look at the economies of Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  All 3 countries have universal health care.  All 3 countries have large percentages of public employees and very strong labor unions.  Denmark in fact is the highest-ranking country in the WORLD on labor rights.  (In case you’re wondering, they also have strong private property rights and an overall ease of doing business.)  All 3 countries have high expenditures on public education.  Although fossil fuels are very important in the economies of Norway and the Netherlands, this is not true of Denmark.

In other words, it isn’t so much about what you produce, but how that production is distributed.  In every industrialized society, machines do most of the physical work.  The question is, how do you distribute that production amongst the human beings?  The Nordic model:  Make sure your people are well-educated and healthy.  Most people are workers, and workers need strong unions.  The Kuwait/Nigeria/Louisiana model:  Do everything to please the owners of the fossil fuel industries.  That will keep the oil, or coal, or whatever it is, flowing, and some of that wealth will trickle down to workers.  Make them think their “hard work” is essential, while you keep the wealth flowing to the elite.





Click to access MOA-III.pdf

Your truth or falsehood is now triction

In the ultimate in post-truth era triction, a recent poll finds that no less than 32% of Republicans surveyed responded that Donald Trump won the popular vote.  Just in case you’re wondering, the numbers as of this writing are:

Hillary Clinton –  65,537,110

Donald Trump – 62,859,071

Everybody else – 6,796,669

Thus at the moment, Clinton has close to 2.7 million more than Trump.

But I forgot!  Trump actually DID get more votes if we take off the millions of non-existent illegal votes for Clinton.  I can’t PROVE that they don’t exist.  So their existence is triction.  End of story.

But wait!  Trump actually got even more millions of non-existent illegal votes.  I can’t PROVE that he didn’t.  So that’s triction too.  Nothing is true and nothing is false.

But wait!  Trump and Clinton are actually both aliens in disguise who feed on babies, so neither one of them is actually human, and neither one is qualified to run, so Johnson actually won the popular vote.  I can’t PROVE that he didn’t.

This post is now over.  Have a nice day.



What? Me Worry?

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune rather nicely encapsulates the chaos our country is heading into.  We now have members of the “Washington elite” openly defending falsehoods.  We even have a new word to describe the fact that truth and fiction are indistinguishable – triction.  We have the chairman of the RNC defending a statement that has no factual basis by saying, “I don’t know if that’s not true.”  That statement perfectly sums up the post-truth triction world we find ourselves in.

If I told you that I have a pig that can fly, and you challenged me to provide evidence for it, I could simply respond, “You don’t know if that’s not true.”  End of discussion.  You can’t PROVE me wrong.  That’s the triction world.  If you thought false equivalence was bad, you ain’t seen nothin yet.  Triction takes us one step further.  There isn’t even a pretense at distinguishing truth from falsehood.  All of us get to choose our facts.  Reality can just take a chill pill.

This week a man walked into a pizzeria with an assault rifle and started threatening people.  He actually fired the rifle, although no one was hurt.  Why?  He said he was “investigating” claims that the pizzeria was part of a child sex ring.  Where did he get this information?  The internet.  One of many false conspiracy stories widely circulated in chat rooms and internet fora.

As a result of such stories, the pizzeria had been the subject of death threats for weeks, its employees harassed.  And someone finally came in with a gun.  And who is sharing these false stories?  Among others, the SON AND CHIEF OF STAFF of the man who will soon be our nation’s NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER to the President.  He tweeted to the world that until it’s proven false, this falsehood “will continue to be a story.”

In the past, there were of course supermarket tabloids.  But most Americans understood the difference between legitimate news outlets and the National Enquirer.  Now we have the internet, where fake news and conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire, because the groundwork has already been laid.  9/11 was an inside job.  Obama is a Muslim.  Hillary is a lesbian.  The pizzeria is using children for satanic rituals.

This is the triction world.  I have a pig that flies.  Can you prove me wrong?  If not, then you don’t “know if that’s not true.”  Nothing is truth, and nothing is fiction.  Everything is triction.  If you tell me what I want to hear, that becomes my reality.  My reality is a triction reality.  Facts are obsolete.

If you’re thinking we can’t go on like this, you’re right.  Not as a democracy.  Reality will intrude.  But not necessarily before some really bad stuff happens.  We have let it come to this.  At every step in the process, the media and our leaders have normalized the path to triction – the media because conflict and he said/she said is good for ratings, and the politicians because manipulating people’s emotions is what they do.  Our democracy is bleeding badly, and now it will take Herculean efforts to stop the bleeding.




But I’m sure your job is safe….

Amazon plans to open 2000 automated supermarkets over the next decade.  No cashiers, in fact no checkouts at all.  The store automatically monitors you as you pull items off the shelf and charges your account as you leave.


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