David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “September, 2017”

Civilization is calling

Americans love freedom.  But freedom, like so many things in life, means different things to different people.  On the one hand, there is the cowboy image of freedom – an unfettered existence, without boundaries, without restrictions.  I myself have been a loner for most of my life.  In my younger days I sometimes took off across the countryside, exploring new places, without telling a soul where I was going or for how long.  I relished the freedom of the open road and the unfenced wilds.


Over the course of my life, I have lived in more than 30 different houses, apartments, and trailers.  The vast majority of that time I have lived alone.  From an early age I felt that I could be quite content living somewhere in the wilderness, without the conveniences of modern life and away from my fellow human beings.  But I didn’t, and that’s the point.

The thing about this variety of freedom is that it has nothing to do with community.  There’s no such thing as boundless, restriction-free life in a community.  It’s only because America has a recent frontier that we even entertain these notions.  And when you live in a community, enjoying the fruits of civilization – air conditioning, chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, and so on – you have a responsibility.


The founding fathers of this country were intellectuals.  Their concept of freedom was all about community.  In a community, freedom is about RIGHTS.  A loner neither has nor needs rights.  The very word rights implies an interdependence.  This concept of freedom says that everyone’s rights must be respected, or there is no freedom.  This concept of freedom says that freedom is actually a RESTRICTION on people, a limit on their behavior.

If all of this seems painfully obvious, you must forgive me, because it sure ain’t painfully obvious to many Americans.  Particularly American males, who are often supported by American females in one way or another, thanks to double standards and cultural conditioning.  In many ways, women are expected to be the responsible, civilizing influence in our society, and men are allowed to play.  The irony is that the 19th century, in many ways, was less forgiving to irresponsible, uncivilized men – if they wanted to live in communities.  And in a way, it’s amazing that cowboy notions of freedom persist as well as they do.  Because America is a very regulated society, has been for a long time.


If you doubt this, just try walking across country some time.  See how far you get before you encounter a posted sign.  Some years ago I actually saw signs in a PUBLIC PARK saying “No loitering.”  Or try driving down the freeway at 100 miles per hour, without a driver’s license or insurance.  Or buy yourself a horse and let it roam around the neighborhood.

With every new restriction, there has been resistance.  Yet every new generation that grows up under the new restriction accepts it as a normal part of civilized life.  Yet another restriction comes along and this new generation treats it as something spawned from the pits of hell.  Eventually it becomes accepted, even demanded.  Public roads.  Food inspection.  Anti-fraud legislation.  Social security.  Handicapped parking.  Drug-free schools.


It isn’t regulation per se that changes.  Tomorrow humanity could choose lawlessness.  The police and the military would be overwhelmed.  To this day there are places that suffer from rampant ethnic violence in spite of laws forbidding it.  It’s people’s attitudes that change.  Of course, there are those, usually male, who would argue that these people are brainwashed, that they are trading freedom for comfort and security.  My response is, what’s stopping you from disappearing to the wilds of South America, or the Sahara?  You can be “free”!

It’s simple, really.  There’s barbarism, and there’s civilization.  Barbarians allow the strong to victimize the weak, hucksters to sell snake oil to the unsophisticated, and the barrel of a gun to decide “justice.”  That’s what some people call freedom, but it certainly isn’t what the founders had in mind.  In a civilized society, people’s behavior is regulated, and a big part of that is protecting people from each other.  It’s easy to see that, when it’s a police officer protecting you from a thug.  But how is that different from a law protecting you from a credit card company, or a labor union protecting you from exploitation?


It’s hard for many people today to comprehend the scale of the barbarism inflicted on humanity in the 20th century.  Multiple genocides and ethnic cleansings.  Large fractions of humanity living under fascist dictatorships.  As I have discussed in a previous post, about a quarter of all of the people who have ever died in war did so in the 20th century.  As horrible as the atrocities are that continue to this day in parts of the world, the scale of human misery and violent death today is miniscule by comparison.


Civilization is calling, and humanity is slowly, in fits and starts, answering.  There was a time that racism was widely accepted in America.  It took a lot to delegitimize it – namely the Holocaust.  Some nuts are just that tough to crack, and racism has certainly not disappeared.  Ultimately, there isn’t any choice, because as technologies become more powerful, and the world is more and more connected, the cowboy notion of freedom means a death sentence for everyone.  Individuals achieve more safety and security when others feel safer and more secure.  The same is true for nations.  Zero-sum thinking fails.  Will we make it?  I think so.  But probably not without a lot of pain.

Dreaming the dreamer – or making an unconventional connection?

One of the episodes of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine is called “Far Beyond the Stars.”  In this episode, Captain Sisko has a vision of himself as 20th century science fiction writer Benny Russell.  Russell writes a science fiction story entitled – Deep Space Nine.  This story, of course, is about Sisko’s very space station and the characters associated with it, including himself.  When Sisko’s vision ends, he wonders if he dreamed Benny, or if it is Benny who is real, and he and his space station are in fact Benny’s dreams.


From our point of view, of course, both Benny and Sisko are the dreams of writers in our universe, realized on screen.  This raises some profound issues, not the least of which is, what is the nature of what we call reality?

Recently I read an interview with anthropologist James Kugel, in which he described the very different mentality that the ancient Israelites had, and many people on earth still have, about the self, from that of a typical Westerner today.  Westerners have a very strong sense of individualism.  We wall ourselves off from others.  We consider that our thoughts and feelings are ours and ours alone.  But this is far from universal.


Many people on earth consider their minds to be porous.  They envision many of their thoughts and feelings as coming from outside themselves.  They don’t consider themselves to be insulated from the outside – instead, they believe their minds are vulnerable to invasion from outside forces and spirits.  Some of these are helpful and benevolent, some are not.  And in fact, Kugel tells us that even today, large numbers of people report hearing voices that others don’t.  Some of these are people that we would classify as schizophrenics – but many are “normal” people who cope with the world quite well.

In Western society, we tend to pathologize such experiences.  But in many cultures, past and present, they are/were accepted as a normal part of reality.  Experience is experience, whether we call it dream, vision, hallucination, thought, feeling, or simply perception.  It’s understandable that people would conclude that dreams, visions, and “voices” come from outside themselves, just as perceptions do.


None of us has total control of our own thoughts or feelings.  So, again, it seems reasonable to conclude that, to some extent, they come from somewhere else.  This is even more true of dreams, because dreams are full-blown experiences, in many ways comparable to our waking experiences.  Things can happen in dreams that are quite surprising.  Of course, it’s possible – dreams may come from outside.  All of these things may come from outside.  But there is good reason to believe that they don’t.

The best reason is that we know that our minds can be quite compartmentalized.  Our brains have the ability to hide portions of our minds from other portions.  The very word subconscious reflects this.  Much of what goes on in our heads is hidden from “us” – which is to say from our awareness.  At this moment, sounds, visual impulses, and other stimuli are being processed by your brain that you are unaware of.  Anyone who knows how to type will tell you that you’re not aware of the individual letters as you type.  Your subconscious mental processes are always at work, below your level of awareness.  They often boil to the surface in dreams.


Lucid dreaming is dreaming with an awareness that you’re dreaming.  With training and practice, lucid dreams can increase in frequency.  By doing this, one can gain insight into one’s own subconscious, as well as gain an appreciation for how solid, how “real” the dream world can be.  But it also gives you the ability to control your dreams to some extent, and thereby see that it really is you – which is to say, your mind, no one else’s – that is generating this virtual reality.  It’s just that some part of your mind is able to hide some things from some other part.  Your awareness doesn’t have access to everything, not by a long shot.

The other big reason is neuroscience, which tells us over and over that things about our minds that seem elusive, like awareness, attention, recognition, intention, and motivation turn out to be very much correlated with physical processes in our brains – what neuroscientists call neural correlates.  Over and over we see people with brain “malfunctions” of one sort or another who report corresponding malfunctions in their cognitive and emotional performance.


For example, there is the condition called hemispatial neglect, in which the person loses awareness of one side of their visual field.  They can still “see” it – but they aren’t really AWARE of it, just as you aren’t really aware of a lot of items in your visual field right now.  It is generally caused by brain damage on one side or the other.

There is the condition called prosopagnosia, in which the person lacks the ability to recognize the faces of people who should be familiar.  Again, it has nothing to do with vision per se – the person can see faces.  They just don’t recognize them.  It is usually caused by lesions in specific parts of the brain.


And there is the very interesting phenomenon of change blindness, which most of us have to one degree or another, which is the inability to recognize a change in a visual stimulus, usually because the observer is focused on other things.  The images above provide a good example.  Sometimes striking changes can be missed, because our awareness is focused on something else.  And we are far from the great multitaskers we think we are.

These are just a few examples.  The point is that one by one, the elusive mysteries of the mind are revealing themselves to have neural correlates.  Change the neural functioning, and you change the mental process.  It’s not that hard to generate strong emotions in people – fear, for example, simply by stimulating certain brain areas.  All of this suggests that our thoughts, emotions, dreams, visions, and so on – they come from within.


This raises an interesting question.  People are often capable of much more than they realize.  If they reach deep within themselves, they may find that they can endure more, perform more, achieve more than they would have thought possible.  So it’s natural to think that these qualities that enable them to surprise themselves – qualities like self-confidence and grim determination – are not coming from within themselves, but from elsewhere.

In fact, it could be argued that the belief that they are coming from elsewhere is itself adaptive.  After all, which is more likely to succeed when you’re faced with a difficult task – being coerced to do it by an outside force, or doing it because you have to summon your own will, knowing that no one is going to babysit you?  Believing that your driving force is coming from outside yourself can be a valuable crutch.  It’s a potentially potent delusion – that you can have power by walling off the powerful, confident part of yourself, making it an independent player, and then asking it to combat your own tendency to wallow in mental laziness and self-pity.  And it could be argued that this is exactly what organized religion of a certain kind often provides people – and a very important reason for their unwillingness to let go of it.


On the other hand, what if occasionally, not often, but occasionally, connections are made through unconventional channels?  What if there are other dimensions of reality (hardly a radical scientific notion) that facilitate the transfer of information through such channels?  What if some of it does come from outside us?

Some would argue that mechanistic explanations, strictly within what we call physical reality, are all we need, so there’s nothing left for these “other dimensions” to do.  To me this is like arguing that the world makes complete sense to an ant, so an ant’s view of the world is complete.  If a human being kicks an anthill, the ants respond.  Their ant senses and their behavioral programs direct their attacks and their subsequent repairs.  But they don’t UNDERSTAND.  There is a whole dimension of reality that they don’t get – even though, from their point of view, everything “makes sense.”  Stimulus A produces response B, and so on.  Seems like there’s nothing left to account for.  But we know better.


In a previous post, I discussed the curious phenomenon of human intention affecting random event generators, and my own experiments along these lines.  I don’t believe for a moment that the four dimensions that we call physical reality constitute the sum total of existence.  If, as some have suggested, what we call physical reality is a simulation, something like what we see in the Matrix movies, the “program” may be written in such a way that make unconventional connections difficult to detect – and so those who make them, subject to marginalization.

After all, imagine what we would think if only a tiny fraction of the population could dream.  If the vast majority of people couldn’t dream, we would think that those who could were suffering some sort of pathology.  More likely, we would probably think they were simply lying.  Such rich, detailed experiences would have to come from somewhere – right?  Of course, we accept that dreams exist, but only subjectively.  We don’t accept, in Western society generally, that they come from outside ourselves.


What distinguishes objective from subjective reality is one thing and one thing only – consensus.  The vast majority of people look at a giraffe and agree that it’s a giraffe.  They look at a tree and agree that it’s a tree.  But people don’t share the same dreams or visions.  When only a few people can perceive things that most of us couldn’t, we would tend to assume that these things are subjective – that they come strictly from within.  The problem is, what happens if something like this DOES come from outside?  How will we recognize it as such?  It seems that science gives us no tools for doing so.

But let’s not be hasty.  Current technology doesn’t give us access to each other’s thoughts, visions, or dreams.  But there is nothing in our science that forbids such technology, and I have little doubt that we will eventually make such breakthroughs.  When we do, a lot of profound questions will be answered.  What we call the subjective will no longer escape the scrutiny of science.  This is bound to revolutionize our ideas about consciousness and subjective experience.


In the meantime, where does that leave us?  It leaves us continuing to explore, always with open-minded skepticism, always with a willingness to go where the evidence leads us.  There’s nothing unscientific about being bold in our explorations – as long as we remain on our guard, realizing that we are very prone to self-deception.  We very much want certain things to be true, and we should always demand solid evidence before we accept that they are – even provisionally.

My Australian Ambassador

My wife bought me a northern blue-tongued skink for my birthday.  I had my first encounter with this species almost 40 years ago, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Houston Zoo.  Later I had many of them under my care, as a keeper at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.  They are remarkable animals, full of personality, and quite easy to maintain in captivity, as lizards go.


Most reptiles, at best, show a good-natured tolerance of being handled, if the handler is gentle.  They often enjoy the warmth of the human body, and many can learn to associate their keeper with food.  But blue-tongues are special.  They really seem to develop an enjoyment of being stroked and scratched.  Blue-tongues are long-lived – we had one at our zoo that was at least 35 years old.  And they are live-bearers, which eliminates the need to incubate eggs if you want babies (some lizard eggs are notoriously difficult to hatch in captivity).


Northern blue-tongue skinks come from Australia (mine was born in captivity though).  Australia is home to many remarkable animals, and is the only country in the world to have more species of venomous than non-venomous snakes.  Blue-tongued skinks are considerably larger than any species of lizard native to my home state of Louisiana – yet they are small by Australian lizard standards.  The perentie, an Australian relative of the Komodo dragon, reaches 8 feet in length.


Although many Americans associate animals like koalas and kangaroos with Australia, blue-tongued skinks are actually much better animal ambassadors for the Australian wilds.  I have always felt that physical contact is important for people to develop an empathy with animals.  Blue-tongued skinks are very good-natured and invite close physical contact.  Thank you for the present, sweetheart!

Endless Debate, Real-time Consequences

Since most people have never taken a course in time series analysis, they have no idea how long a time series is needed to discern a significant trend.  Many things fluctuate over time – stock market prices, river flow rates, the number of meteorites striking the earth.  Because something is increasing or decreasing in the short term does not necessarily mean there’s a SIGNIFICANT trend.  It could simply be random fluctuation.  Or it could be cyclic.


For example, the graph above shows the stock price of a company called Royal Gold over the last 5 days.  Seems like it’s headed down, doesn’t it?  But is this really enough to establish a trend?  Let’s look at the price over the last year:


Now it looks like the trend is in the opposite direction – up.  But can we bet on it?  Let’s look at the last 5 years:


Royal Gold is one of those companies whose stock price fluctuates a lot.  Compared to 5 years ago, the price is down a bit, but in the meantime it has had some serious ups and downs.  It’s not hard to see why a long time series is necessary to establish a significant trend.

Which brings us to climate change.  In one respect, the issue of climate change is very simple and straightforward.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.  It is transparent to visible light from the sun but blocks infrared light coming off the earth.  So it traps heat near the earth.  It stands to reason that as the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere increases, the earth will get warmer.  That’s the simple part.  Is it increasing?  Well, here is the carbon dioxide concentration at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii over the last 50 years:


Random fluctuations and cycles are one thing.  But this is something entirely different.  If this were the price of a company’s stock, every brokerage in the world would want some.  This is a solid trend, no question about it.  The next logical question is, has the planet been warming during this time?  Well, we don’t have to wonder.  Here is the average temperature of the earth over the last 140 years:


Now compare the part of this graph from 1960 to the present with the graph above.  Again, this should come as no surprise.  If you increase the concentration of carbon dioxide, the earth warms.  It would be surprising if it didn’t happen.  The complexities come in when we look at particular localities or particular weather phenomena.  As the average global temperature increases, some areas will actually get cooler.  Some areas will get wetter, some drier.  Again, this is not surprising, given the complexity of the global weather system.


The problem is that if you want to establish a statistically significant trend, you have to wait for A LOT of data to come in.  But our modern civilization has grown up under a particular climate, with each city, state, and country under a particular local climate.  Less than 20,000 years ago, the average sea level was HUNDREDS OF FEET LOWER than it is now.  There was a completely different coastline.  We wouldn’t have built our coastal cities where they are now – they wouldn’t have been coastal if we had!  By the same token, if the average level of the sea rises – well, it wouldn’t take much to put a lot of our coastal cities below sea level.  I myself live less than 10 feet above sea level.


We can easily make the argument that what looks like a warming trend is just natural fluctuation, or part of a cycle.  The problem is that while you’re arguing about it, the warming is being locked in – it’s irreversible by any means we currently have.  You’re committing yourself to a change that your civilization hasn’t grown up in.


Take hurricanes for example.  Hurricanes are fed by ocean heat.  So it stands to reason that increasing the heat will tend to increase hurricane intensity.  But it’s more complicated than that.  For example, hurricanes tend to be torn apart by wind shear.  Will wind shear increase, decrease, or stay the same over hurricane-producing areas?  If wind shear increases generally, will it compensate for increased heat?

The jury is still out.  But the data are not encouraging.  Here, for example, are the number of major Atlantic Basin hurricanes (category 3 or stronger) reported over the last 170 years, by decade:


Notice that the last decade, 2010-2019, isn’t actually over yet.  But we have already had 23 major hurricanes in this decade, an average of about 3 per year.  If this average holds for 2018-2019, the graph will actually look like this:

The argument could be made that hurricanes could have been missed in the 19th century, and what appears to be a trend is just an observation artifact.  True – but these are only MAJOR hurricanes.  And they certainly weren’t missed in the 20th century.  Even if we cut the graph off at 1900, we still get an alarming picture:


As I said, it takes a long time series to establish a significant trend.  But while we’re arguing about it, hurricane intensity seems to be increasing.  How many intense hurricanes per decade would we like to commit to?  30?  40?

As Hurricane Maria bears down on Puerto Rico, it appears that 2017 will be the first year in history to see the United States hit by 3 category 4 hurricanes.  It has also seen the most powerful Atlantic hurricane outside the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico, and the highest rainfall ever recorded from a hurricane in the continental United States.  While we argue about whether the trend is statistically significant, we have probably already committed ourselves to decades of unprecedented destruction.


Science is always careful, always cautious.  Its conclusions are always provisional.  That’s all we ever have, and real life requires making decisions based on provisional, careful, cautious conclusions.  But politics has never been about reason.  It’s easy to rationalize.  Our moron in chief once said that he’s “not a fan” of climate change.  It’s typical of his way of thinking, coming from his highly sheltered lifestyle, as if the climate system is a reality show he can turn off.  Those of us who live in the danger zones have to deal with the consequences.

Change is inevitable – but how soon and what kind?

My father was very interested in genealogy, and some of my relatives have continued to research our family’s history.  Looking back at the lives of these ancestors, one can’t help but feel somewhat humble – even more so when standing in front of their graves.  Most grave stones show a birth date and a death date, a few numbers that reduce a rich and completely unique story of human experience to a moment in history.  Perusing the records, one can sweep through generations of living – birth dates, marriage records, records of children, financial transactions, death dates – in a few minutes.  The vast majority of these people are forgotten by history.


Many of the most important changes that impact our lives take place over the scale of decades, not years.  One cannot help but think that if human beings lived much longer, our whole perspective would change dramatically – because change is inevitable, yet change is often slow from a human perspective.  It took thousands of years for humans to invent agriculture and cities.  Many more centuries passed before science and democracy came along.  And even then, many more decades passed before things that we now take for granted were achieved, like universal suffrage and chlorinated water.  Today, many parts of the world are still in the grip of dictatorship, and millions live in abject poverty.

As an American, I have lived most of my life in the shadow of Ronald Reagan.  Anti-government sentiment (excluding the military of course) absolutely dominates American political discourse, and has for 40 years now.  Government at every level is starved for resources – particularly higher education.  Public spaces have been squeezed out, and the privatization of everything from schools to prisons continues to be promoted by the apostles of the almighty free market.  Meanwhile, income inequality has soared, and Americans’ confidence in their institutions has never been lower.


Yet I am old enough to remember a very different time, in the mid 20th century, when the space race was on, when Americans were confident and optimistic in spite of the threat of nuclear war and the prospect of perpetual war in Vietnam.  There was a pervasive feeling that the old ways of thinking and doing were dying – that science was replacing superstition, and technology would give everyone a better future.

In point of fact, technology HAS given most Americans a better future.  Medical outcomes have improved dramatically, our environment is cleaner, our communications systems are far better, our dwellings are more comfortable, our vehicles are safer and far more efficient.  And yet religious fundamentalism has remained strong, the exploration of space has been virtually abandoned, and America still wallows in social ills that should have been behind us decades ago.  Increasingly, there is an economic and political divide between college-educated America and the rest of the country – which is the majority of the country.


One of the interesting things about the 20th century, especially the mid 20th century, is that observers couldn’t help but notice that human society was advancing rapidly.  The pace of change seemed to be constantly increasing.  People who had grown up with horse-drawn carriages and outhouses were seeing flights to the moon, and open-heart surgery.  In 1900, the fastest speed people traveled was about 100 miles per hour.  By 1950 this had increased to 800 miles per hour.  By 1970, only 20 years later, it had increased to about 25,000 miles per hour!  The rapidly increasing rate of change had an enormous effect on people’s attitudes.

But it didn’t continue.  American GDP growth per capita has been declining since the 1940’s.  World population growth peaked in the 1960’s.  Per capita oil consumption peaked in the 1970’s.  And the human speed limit today is exactly what it was in 1970.


Some have pointed to the exponential growth in digital storage and processing since then, with good reason.  But the result is much more abstract than the explosive growth of cities and industry in the 20th century.  And importantly, it hasn’t led to explosive growth in working class incomes in America – instead the wealth is increasingly concentrated in the upper classes.  Optimism has waned.  Trust in institutions of every kind has steadily faded.  There is a striking pessimism in the air, much of it tied to Reagan’s anti-government legacy.

It is a supreme irony that conservatives refer to the Carter years of the late 1970’s as a “malaise.”  American GDP growth in those days was generally 3-7% per year, in contrast to the 1-3% we see these days.  Income inequality was much, much lower.  And trust in American institutions was much, much greater.


The tremendous inertia in American politics dictates that major shifts in public policy only occur very infrequently, regardless of technological advancement.  And it often requires a lot of pain to move the country forward.  The Civil War united America and put an end to slavery.  The Great Depression created the social safety net.  The cynicism that came out of the assassinations of the 1960’s, and the scandal of Watergate, paved the way for the Reagan era which is still with us.

Yet through all of this there has been a striking lack of resistance to technological advancement.  There is a failure to appreciate that technological advancement INEVITABLY leads to social change.  Unless we suddenly decide to stop technological progress, which it seems we never really do, we will be forced to confront its revolutionary consequences.


What happens when sophisticated gene therapies and nanotechnologies cure virtually all disease?  What happens when the secrets of human longevity are unlocked, and people begin to live centuries rather than decades?  What happens when machines are capable of doing virtually any job, more cheaply and more efficiently than any human?  What happens when artificial intelligence becomes much more sophisticated than human intelligence?

I’ll tell you what happens.  Moronic preoccupations with things like the color of someone’s skin, or whether you can beat me in a game of who’s got more nukes, become utterly irrelevant.  The only thing keeping these absurdities in place is an idiotic “faith” that revolutionary technologies aren’t right around the corner – that somehow, some way, our civilization will just keep catering to our absurd prejudices, fears, and parochialisms.  We are like little boys killing each other over a glass of water while a water truck is barreling down on us.


In the Star Trek universe, a global thermonuclear war occurs in the mid 21st century.  Years later, the survivors make first contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.  This unites humanity in a way no one thought possible.  The aliens provide cures for most common diseases, and other technologies that provide energy and resources.  Within only 50 years, poverty, disease, and war are virtually eliminated.  This particular scenario is of course highly unlikely – yet it may contain an important element of truth.  It is virtually certain that humanity will face a crisis in this century, when it is confronted with technologies that give it only 2 options – move forward socially, or face catastrophe.

For those of us to whom social advancement feels natural, for those of us who can see what’s possible, it’s frustrating to be blocked by ancient prejudices and fears – by the small-minded people who hold us hostage.  It’s frustrating to see the waste of human lives and human potential because a few people are able to manipulate many.  It would be nice to live to see humanity grow out of its barbaric infancy.


Martin Luther King once said, “….when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”  If you are reading this in the distant future, enjoying the freedom from barbarity and the fruits of civilization, the fruits of peace and justice, that’s enough for me.  Enjoy.  You’re doing it for all of us who have been forgotten by history.

Something’s gotta give

In the early 1970’s, the average 3-day error in hurricane path forecasts from the National Hurricane Center was about 500 miles.  The AVERAGE error.  In other words, if the NHC forecast had a hurricane hitting Mobile, Alabama 3 days from now, the storm might easily strike the coast anywhere between Tampa and Houston – which is the majority of the Gulf coast!  Today the average error is down to a mere 80 miles – about the distance from New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Even the 5-day error is down to an average of about 230 miles, less than half of the 3-day error in the early 1970’s.


Much of this improvement has come about because of sophisticated computer modeling.  In the early days of the NHC, forecasters had to rely heavily on their intuition in the face of an enormously complex global weather system that followed chaotic dynamics.  Some of them were pretty good at it, as human intuition goes, but it’s no match for mountains of data and powerful analytical tools.  Yet the average American is oblivious to this progress – and even more so to what is responsible for it.

Science.  Quantification.  Mountains of data.  Mathematical analysis.  Not feelings.  Not intuition.  And certainly not common sense.  As medical researcher Atul Gawande said in a commencement address at CalTech last year, “Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky….”  The scientific approach says that vague feelings and superficial impressions are no substitute for rigorous, quantitative data analysis.  This approach has given us remarkable progress in medicine, in weather prediction, in communications, in transportation, in energy generation and conservation.  Americans are happy to use the incredible technologies that science has given them – smart phones, GPS receivers, the internet, digital cameras, laser surgery, highly efficient car engines, devices of every kind that turn themselves off when they’re not being used.


Most Americans don’t have a clue about how a cell phone or a PET scan works.  Given this, you might think that they would stand in awe of science – or at least not dream of questioning its hard-fought, carefully tested conclusions, built on mountains of evidence.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  Amazing technologies are simply taken for granted, and there remains a pervasive anti-intellectualism in America.  When science offers consensus forecasts that Americans don’t want to hear, they happily turn to know-nothings to assure them that the eggheads and intellectuals have it all wrong.

Scientists, for their part, largely try to keep their heads down, knowing that they can’t do their work without money, and that challenging the pervasive anti-intellectualism is risky.  A few courageous scientists wage constant war against the enemies of science, but with the constant barrage of talking heads yelling at each other on television, it’s not surprising that the message gets lost in the clamor.  And powerful national politicians are happy to appeal to “plain folks” at the expense of intellectualism and science, when it suits the purposes of the business people who have them in their pockets.


During the mid 20th century, especially in the midst of the Space Race of the 1960’s, such a thing was inconceivable.  Yes, there were religious fundamentalists on the fringe who argued against evolution and the ancient earth.  But in matters of public policy, scientific consensus was not questioned.  America didn’t go to the moon by engaging in science denial.

In fact, the mere fact that the word denialism has crept so far into our national lingo is a testament to how much has changed, and not for the better.  In the late 20th century, the only denialism that was prominent was Holocaust denial, and it was quite marginalized.  It was often Republicans who defended science, from “fuzzy thinkers” who fought progress.  But in those days, many Republicans were so-called “Rockefeller Republicans,” moderates who embraced scientific consensus and rejected religious fundamentalism.


A study was published in 2012 that examined Americans’ trust in science.  Among people who identified as moderate or liberal, there was no significant change in their trust in science from 1974 to 2010.  But among Americans who identified as conservative, the change was dramatic.  In 1974, conservative Americans ranked HIGHEST of any political group in their trust in science.  In 2010, they ranked LOWEST.

Increasingly, the Republican party is dominated by ideologues who foster and cater to anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism.  Much of this manipulation has come, not from politicians, but from right-wing media.  So potent is this propaganda machine that now even CONSERVATIVE politicians in Washington are routinely blasted as part of “the establishment,” when they refuse to embrace a long list of positions that demonstrate their ideological purity.


In fact, the most prominent difference between the Republican “establishment” and the conservatives opposed to it is that “establishment” Republicans refuse to embrace the alternative realities being heavily promoted by the right-wing propaganda machine.  This includes conspiracy theories and the rejection of scientific consensus on a variety of issues.  Facts themselves have been taken hostage by this propaganda machine.  If we can’t agree on the facts, there is no basis whatever for discussion, political or otherwise.

This situation has been a while in coming, and our current president is the logical outcome.  In a country with weaker institutions, he would have already created a dictatorship.  When the media is controlled, when facts are at the whim of manipulators, it’s easy to control the masses, at least for a while.  This hasn’t happened and it isn’t going to happen.  Even so, we have let things go very far down this road.  We have greatly emboldened the demons Carl Sagan spoke of in his book The Demon-haunted World.  His dream of a scientifically literate American electorate will be a while in coming.


The thing is, when it comes to direct, straightforward impacts on people’s well-being, they usually betray their real beliefs.  Most people, even conservatives, are happy to accept advanced medical care.  Most people, even conservatives, embrace cell phones and GPS receivers.  But when it comes to political decisions – when it comes to choices that have just as profound, if indirect, impacts on their lives, they easily fall prey to propagandists – propagandists who cater to their ignorance and their anti-intellectualism.

It would be nice to live long enough to see these demons banished to the shadows.  But I fear that humanity will have to go through some very tough times this century before it reaches that point.  That we have come this far, with so much scientific and technological progress, yet so many still would rather cling to ideology, is a testament to the power of anti-intellectual propaganda.


By the time fantasies about America’s past “greatness” are disposed of, and the country is ready to move forward on issues like climate change and scientific illiteracy, we will probably be facing the profound issues raised by sophisticated machine intelligence, nanotechnology, and human life extension.  The ideological arguments that have spilled over from the 20th century will be totally obsolete.  The ridiculous preoccupations with how brown America is getting, and whether nationalism is superior to globalism, will be seen as quaint and utterly pointless.


We’ve done well to get this far, with powerful technologies and barbaric social/economic systems.  But as I’ve said before, we won’t get out of this century without some enormous social upheavals.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  The question is how much worse.

Context, Context, Context

Recently I read an article about an Asian-American television anchor from Philadelphia who was almost run over (accidentally) by a driver.  Her name is Nydia Han, and her ancestry is apparently Korean.  According to the article, she exchanged some words with the driver, and then the driver drove off.  The driver shouted “This is America!”


Later, on Facebook, Han responded, pointing at herself and saying, “this is America.  I am American.  I know America in ways that you probably don’t and never will.  Do you think that this face would not stand up against you?  Against racism?  And against ignorance?”

Notice that the argument could easily be made that simply shouting “This is America!” is innocent on the face of it.  Of course it is.  On the face of it.  And of course it’s entirely possible that the remark was completely innocent.  That’s the problem with many such remarks, and exactly why dog whistle politics exists.  When something is socially marginalized, people find ways to communicate it without being obvious.  Often such remarks, on their face, are innocent, or at least ambiguous.  Only in context can they be seen for what they are.  But context is almost everything.


The classic example of this is the phrase “states’ rights.”  In 1971, Republican party strategist Lee Atwater gave an interview in which he acknowledged that overt racism in politics was no longer viable.  The solution?  Dog whistles.  “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

Ronald Reagan spoke of “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.”  Some dog whistles are not so subtle.  But without context, these remarks would seem completely devoid of racism.  And that’s the whole objective of dog whistles – to communicate something, usually racist or sexist, while maintaining plausible deniability.


Now, of course, the question might be asked, “Where is the line to be drawn?  What if a remark is made with genuinely innocent intent, but in context might easily be seen as racist or sexist?”  Indeed, such remarks undoubtedly occur every day.  That’s why they are often tagged as “insensitive” rather than racist or sexist.  The phrase “all lives matter” is a good example.  It seems quite innocent on its face.  But in the context of institutional racism and white privilege, it isn’t.  In fact, for some Americans, it represents the worst aspects of racism – because it represents a terrible lack of awareness of the realities of being non-white in America, which perpetuates the injustices more than overt racism does.

Another example is the phrase “nasty woman,” which our current moron in chief threw out during the presidential debates.  Again, “nasty woman” on the face of it could be an innocent remark.  But in the context of misogyny and the fine line powerful women in America have to walk every day, between being too timid and being “nasty,” it’s anything but innocent.  It represents a profound lack of awareness of that reality, that context.  And context is almost everything here.


The context is life experience.  There is the life experience of an American who easily passes as white, who has never endured the life-long anxiety of being pulled over for a broken headlight for fear of a broken head.  There is the life experience of an American male, who has never endured the life-long double standard that says he has to be bold and assertive if he wants to move up economically and socially, while still being “feminine,” and above all, never being “nasty.”

The solution, of course, is to break through the fog of unawareness.  The solution is empathy.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what is opposed by conservative ideologues.  They would rather have whites, and especially white males, believe that it is all just “political correctness,” the complaints of oversensitive people about problems that are all in their own minds.  It’s persuasive, because most people, regardless of their skin color or gender, struggle.  Most people have personal battles.  Most people don’t feel privileged.  It’s especially easy for working class white males to look around and say, “There are people who have much more than I do.  I’m NOT privileged.  I have to struggle for everything I have in life.”  And the people who do have much more than they do wage a constant propaganda war that says, “You’re right.  You’re not privileged.  In fact, you’re the one at a disadvantage.  Those other people just want handouts.  And those people in Washington get power by giving them handouts and advantages.  I’m one of you.  I’m on your side.”


Notice that it’s people are quite definitely ARE privileged who are making these arguments.  In essence, they’re saying, “Don’t look at me.  Just because I make sure you don’t get paid a decent wage, or get a decent retirement, or can afford to go to college, is no reason to focus on me.  I LOOK LIKE YOU.  I’m not brown, or female, like those OTHERS.  It’s not me.  It’s them.”


It’s nothing new.  Franklin Roosevelt offered America a New Deal.  He raised taxes on the wealthy and created a social safety net.  Income inequality plunged in America.  Unions thrived, and our whole notion of the American middle class comes out of that time.  In response, the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution, created by oil, timber, and other wealthy businessmen, called him a “nigger-loving communist.”  Yep, no dog whistles there.  In those days, racism didn’t hide behind dog whistles.  It was right out in the open.  Today, things are more subtle.  But it’s all about context.

Plain Folks, Common Sense

In the classic movie Inherit the Wind, a local farmer comes up to Henry Drummond (a dramatized version of the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow) and says, “We’re just plain folk down here.  We don’t need no outsiders to tell us how or what to think.”  Later, local teacher Rachel Brown complains that what Drummond is trying to do is bad.  Drummond tells her, “No, young lady, it’s not as simple as all that, good or bad, right or wrong, day or night.  Do you know that at the top of the world the twilight is 6 months long?”  “Bert and I don’t live on top of the world,” she retorts.  “We live in Hillsboro.  And when the sun goes down, it’s dark.  And why do you have to come here to make it different?”  “I didn’t come here to make Hillsboro different,” he replies.  “I came here to defend his right to be different.”


One of the most pernicious concepts in American society is “common sense.”  The problem with common sense is that it means completely different things to different people at different times and places.  So-called common sense is nothing more than bandwagoning – an appeal to whatever prejudices and parochialisms happen to be popular in a particular place at a particular time, treating these as if they are universal truths.


Almost everything about critical thinking is a violation of so-called common sense.  Critical thinking requires the recognition that many things are far more complex and nuanced than they appear at first glance.  Common sense is full of oversimplifications and false dichotomies, and tries to reduce everything to a thought-terminating cliché.  Critical thinking requires that we look at things from many perspectives, that we dig deep, that we seriously consider things that might seem foreign and even counterintuitive.  Common sense says that too much thinking is exactly the problem – that we should simply rely on simple, basic “sense.”  Critical thinking, above all, demands that we question ourselves, recognizing that we are our own worst enemies, when it comes to caricatures, biases, and parochialisms.  Common sense demands the opposite – that we cling to a rock of certainty, because “we already know” what’s true and what’s right.


George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  The irony of this is that when we are asked to conform to a larger group, we are often told to “Be reasonable.”  But reason is the very thing that we are being asked to abandon, in favor of groupthink.  In fact, if I had my way, the very phrase “common sense” would fade out of fashion, and be replaced by the word groupthink, which is exactly what it is.


“Plain folks” in America are fond of extolling the virtues of “common sense.”  And wealthy businessmen, televangelists, and politicians are happy to encourage them, catering to their prejudices and anti-intellectualism, while they laugh all the way to the bank at gullible rubes.

How many of the following statements do you think are correct?

  1. Common colds are caused by getting chilled or wet.
  2. The Salem witch trials led to people being burned at the stake.
  3. The Egyptian pyramids of Giza were built by slaves.
  4. The Star of David is an ancient Jewish symbol from Biblical times.
  5. Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity.
  6. Walt Disney first drew Mickey Mouse.
  7. Carrots improve your night vision.
  8. Drinking more milk reduces the likelihood of bone fractures.
  9. Coffee stunts your growth.
  10. Snakes can’t swim.

Not one of these statements is correct.  But more importantly, there is a HABIT OF MIND that leads to such falsehoods becoming pervasive and entrenched – groupthink, what most people call common sense.  And there is a habit of mind that breaks through this fog.  It’s called critical thinking.  Questioning.  Questioning, questioning, questioning.


In a previous post, I discussed 5 basic principles of critical thinking.  Number 1 on the list is question everything, especially yourself.  Critical thinking is not about memorizing a lot of facts and figures.  Facts and figures are fine, but “information” without the tools to use it is worthless, even dangerous.  Critical thinking is a commitment to get into a habit of mind that is determined, even obsessive, about questioning.  If a belief has merit, it can withstand questioning.  If a belief isn’t questioned, well, it isn’t really a belief, is it?  It’s just baggage.

The Carnival of American Life

Like many dads, my dad took us to the carnival when we were kids.  By that time, carnivals had largely abandoned the shadowy realms of previous decades, when local people were often swindled and people with deformities were gawked at.  Yet to this day, carnivals employ many of the same basic tools of the trade to maximize revenue, and in fact, there is a rich vocabulary of carnival jargon to describe this.


If I had my way, understanding this carnival jargon would be a prerequisite for a high school diploma – though not as a means of putting carnivals out of business.  Carnivals are harmless, even delightful, diversions.  But understanding and appreciating carnival lingo gives us vital insights and tools for defending ourselves against hucksterism in general, which absolutely pervades American society.

Let’s start with the customers.  They aren’t called customers.  They’re called rubes, marks, clems, cake eaters, elmers, towners, yokels, hayseeds, or chumps.  Notice the strong rural element here.  The term rube apparently originated from the name Reuben in the late 1800’s.  In the 1870’s, rural members of the Democratic Party in Indiana were referred to as “ragged Reubens,” meaning ignorant backwoodsmen.  For most of America’s history, rural people often traveled very little, leaving them particularly vulnerable to hucksters and charlatans.


Then there are the games/shows, also called stores or joints.  A flat store is a game in which the operator is in total control of the winning and losing – to flatten a game means to start operating a game in this way.  A gaff is the mechanism by which the game is rigged.  It is a simple matter, for example, to rig a “wheel of fortune” so that it never pays off.

Specific cheating/persuading techniques (in addition to the gaff) include:

Duke shot – a demonstration shot showing that the unwinnable game can in fact be won

Fairbank – giving the customer the impression that the operator is at a strong disadvantage

Working hot and cold – operating the game differently for different customers, cheating some while operating the game honestly with others

Throwaway – to allow a large prize to be won to excite customers, but often this is in fact won by a:

Shill – an outside man, someone pretending to be a customer, who is allowed to win or build up the pot in a gambling game

Cool out – to convince a customer that he hasn’t been scammed when in fact he has

And not surprisingly, there is even a jargon term for the amount of money an operator is willing or able to extract from a customer at the cost of some wrath from that customer – this is called the heat score.


A hanky-pank is a game in which every player wins a prize every time.  Of course the price of playing the game far exceeds the value of the prizes given.  And while we’re on the subject, the term flash refers to big, impressive-looking prizes, many of which are very difficult if not impossible to win.  A jam auction is a scam in which giveaways are used to excite the audience and cause them to purchase crap at inflated prices.  And yes, there is a term for cheap prizes that look more valuable than they are – they’re called plaster or slum.  A spoofer is a large prize that is given away with great fanfare, to excite surrounding customers.  And the cheap souvenirs that are sold in the midway?  Well, they’re called garbage.  Not in front of the customers of course.

Then there are the shake machines.  These are thrill rides, but that is only part of their purpose.  A skillful operator can generate revenue, above and beyond the ticket price, by clutching – riding the clutch in such a way that the machine shakes/spins more violently, shaking change out of customers’ pockets.


The rough fencing surrounding the games, shows, and rides is called sucker netting.  To be educated or “with it” is to have genuine inside knowledge of how the carnival operates, and thus be impossible to scam.  A smark is a customer who thinks they have inside knowledge, but who clearly doesn’t, and can easily be scammed.  A professor is a showman who presents himself as an “expert” in some area.

The fact that there are jargon terms for all of this is a striking illustration of how “standardized” the practices became over the years.  And the thing is, there are many jargon terms that give us clues to the shadowy, often illegal aspects of carnival history.  B.C., for example, stands for “Be cool,” a warning to stop doing what you’re doing, often because the police are nearby.  A fix is of course a payoff to the local authorities to look the other way.  “Under the blue” means to cheat customers without a fix – without having the local authorities in your pocket.  “Bat away” means orders have been given to take players’ money by any means – often because the police have been bought, so that even if the locals complain, there will be no financial consequence.  And “burn the lot” refers to an order to cheat so brazenly that the carnival is permanently banned from the town.


In my recent trip to southeastern Tennessee to watch the total solar eclipse, I couldn’t help but notice that many local people had set up shop to cater to the eclipse crowd.  In one little town, some folks were charging $20 and $30 to park your car in a field.  In the little town of Tellico Plains, on the other hand, you could park your car in a field for free.  Numerous concessions had set up shop there, selling food and souvenirs.  That’s fine, of course, but the whole extravaganza of opportunism was a reminder that here in America, the recent memory of the frontier has everything to do with our notions of commerce.  On the one hand, we don’t like price-gougers and scammers.  But on the other hand, where is the line between scamming and free enterprise?


Various types of “fraud” are illegal in America.  Telephone, email, and internet scams that extract untold millions of dollars every year from those who can least afford it are illegal.  But what is a scam?  If I charge $100 for a bottle of water because a bottle of water is in great demand, is that a scam?  If so, how is that different from charging $100 for a pair of designer jeans, because designer jeans are in great demand?  If I advertise snake oil as a magic cure for everything from tuberculosis to cancer, is that a scam?  If so, how is that different from advertising a food as a “superfood,” able to give numerous health benefits?


Advertising is supposed to be “truthful” in America, which is laughable, and everyone knows it.  Companies routinely make claims that are downright false.  Our civic culture gives hucksters and charlatans a tremendous pass.  Enormous chunks of our economy are based on creating demand for things people don’t need and can’t afford, not to mention are sometimes downright harmful.

What exactly is “cheating” at the carnival?  Is fortune-telling cheating?  Is clutching the tilt-a-whirl to make change fly out of people’s pockets cheating?  Is pretending to have a “customer,” who is actually a shill, win a prize, cheating?  If these things are cheating, then carnivals are the least of the cheating going on every day in America.  And most of it is perfectly legal.


Dietary supplements that have no effect beyond that of a placebo, or are actually harmful.  Banks that charge hidden fees, or fees for having too little money in your account.  Television commercials that pretend to be news reports, with an interviewer and a “guest.”  If these techniques didn’t make money, why would companies use them?  Of course they make money.  And there’s a curious cutoff point in American psychology about exploitation.

On the one hand, there’s a pervasive mentality of “personal responsibility” that says, “Everyone should be responsible for their own well-being.  If you get scammed or manipulated, it’s no one’s fault but your own.”  On the other hand, if we can slap certain labels on people, suddenly they are exempt.  If they are elderly, or handicapped, or “mentally challenged,” and someone takes advantage of them, watch out!  They will incur our wrath.  As with a lot of our attitudes, this one is built on caricatures.  How “handicapped” does someone have to be to earn the label?  How “mentally challenged” do they have to be to earn our sympathy?


If someone, anyone, doesn’t have the tools of critical thinking, the tools to defend themselves from hucksters and manipulators, THEY ARE HANDICAPPED.  THEY ARE “MENTALLY CHALLENGED.”  In point of fact, they are not really “they.”  They are WE.  There is no they.  It is all a matter of degree.  All of us have been scammed at some point.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  The hucksters have had centuries to practice.

As democracy has replaced feudalism and dictatorship across much of the world, public relations have stepped in to replace military force as a control over masses of people.  Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, was not shy in acknowledging this.  Bernays had no faith in the masses of people.  They were neither rational nor wise in his view.  They could not be trusted with matters of great import.  They had to be controlled.  Thus public relations.


I believe he was wrong.  But the truth is, the jury is still out.  And democracy, genuine democracy, is not a magic trick.  The founding fathers never had any illusions about it.  They understood that genuine democracy depends on an informed, educated electorate.  I believe we will have it someday.  But not today.

House Games

Gambling has become very popular in many parts of America, particularly in the South.  But I suspect that many people who gamble do not know what the phrase “house game” refers to.  And this in itself is instructive.  In fact, remarkably, there is no Wikipedia entry for the phrase “house game.”  A house game is a game in which there is a “house” advantage – typical examples are things like slot machines, or table games like blackjack or roulette.  By contrast, people also gamble in games like poker, pool, and horse racing.  Any game in which money is wagered is a gambling game.  But the notice that gambling which involves a strong element of skill is quite generally done against other players, not against the “house.”


If you’re good at poker, pool, or predicting the outcome of horse races, you can beat the market, so to speak.  But with house games, you will lose, long term.  That’s the point.  If the vast majority of people didn’t lose, long term, casinos and other gambling businesses wouldn’t be in business.

One of the biggest and most lucrative house games is the lottery.  When I was a child, government-operated lotteries were rare in America.  New Hampshire introduced a state-run lottery in 1964.  But it wasn’t until the 1970’s that state lotteries took off.  Today, only 6 states LACK state-run lotteries – and perhaps not surprisingly, one of them is Nevada.


A lot of resistance to lotteries came from the same quarters as resistance to the spread of commercial casinos – from big gambling enterprises that already existed.  In many areas, it was horse racing.  In Nevada, of course, there were already big casinos, and to this day they have kept the lottery at bay.  In Mississippi, ironically, religious resistance to gambling kept lotteries at bay long enough for big casinos to appear on the coast – and now those politically powerful casinos keep the lottery from happening.

The reason casinos appeared on the coast is that states like Louisiana and Mississippi passed laws restricting casinos to waterways.  But over time the restrictions have eased.  First Louisiana allowed land casinos in New Orleans.  Then it allowed video poker in bars, restaurants, and “truck stops,” whatever those are.  Today casinos are ubiquitous in some parts of Louisiana – often flanked by predatory loan companies.


Yet even with all this, the Louisiana lottery thrives.  Lottery advertisements often use “plain folks” to target those who have little disposable income.  In many cases these are people who complain bitterly about high taxes.  Yet they can often be found buying scratch-off tickets at the supermarket, or dutifully yanking on slot machines at casinos.  Meanwhile, Louisiana government is perennially starved for revenue, and every year that passes sees another round of debate about which parts of education, health care, and infrastructure the state can afford to drop.

The lottery is, in essence, a tax on people who can least afford it.  But unlike taxes, people don’t actually expect any services in return.  They only have an expectation of some possibility of striking it rich.  And of course all of them, except for a minute number, will lose that bet.  It’s a house game, and you don’t win at house games.


By contrast, there are investments like equities and commodities.  That’s a form of gambling too.  But unlike house games, this is gambling that most everybody can win at.  The reason is simple – the economy tends to grow over time.  Therefore the prices of equities and commodities tend to rise over time.  Over the last 50 years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has multiplied by more than 20 TIMES.

The stock market is one of the most conspicuous icons of capitalism, and one of the primary drivers of our economy.  It is the way that many of our largest companies get capitalized.  The funny thing is, owning stock is literally owning shares of a company.  In many companies, workers are encouraged to buy the company’s stock.  Yet communism is defined as worker ownership of the means of production.  The CEO’s and other top executives of many companies do own large numbers of shares in their own companies.  If those shares were distributed amongst the company’s employees, would we suddenly have communism rather than capitalism?


Of course not.  The companies would still be there, the stock market would still be there, competition would still be there.  The CEO’s would still be able to make hundreds of times more than the average worker.  The only thing that would change is ownership.  I’m not suggesting that we implement such a program.  I am suggesting that there is an ongoing propaganda effort to keep working people playing house games.

The media tends to focus on the crashes, like the one in 2008.  This gives working people who don’t understand the markets the impression that stocks are risky, something to be avoided.  And propagandists are constantly issuing dire warnings that a big crash is just around the corner.  Religious pontificators of a certain stripe are particularly prone to this – the end is always nigh, the world is going to hell, etc., etc., etc.


The result of all of this is a curious situation that is by no means happenstance – on the one hand, “plain folks” are encouraged to play house games that they are virtually certain to lose.  On the other hand, they are discouraged from playing the market game, which they have a good chance of winning at.  This is combined with constant propaganda against taxation, which of course provides actual benefits as well.

The message can be summed up as follows:  Taxes are evil.  Never vote for anyone who’s not obsessed with lowering them.  Work hard (not like those OTHER people who just want handouts) and don’t concern yourself about the future.  The world is going to hell and a big crash is inevitable.  Don’t even think about investing in the markets.  But DO play the lottery.  DO go to the casino.  You might win big.  And all your friends are there.


Norway is one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world.  The largest oil company in Norway is Statoil.  It’s largest stockholder?  The GOVERNMENT OF NORWAY.  A large portion of Norway’s petroleum revenue is directed to its Government Pension Fund Global.  It is the largest pension fund in the world, currently worth ALMOST A TRILLION DOLLARS.  That’s $188,000 FOR EVERY MAN, WOMAN, AND CHILD IN NORWAY.  This money is of course used to provide retirement benefits, one of the many strong social safety net elements in Norway.

This is not the only example of the Norwegian government’s ownership of stock for the public’s benefit.  The largest bank in Norway is largely government-owned.    The largest telecommunications provider is largely government-owned.  The aluminum industry is largely government-owned.  In fact, about a third of all of the stock on the Oslo Stock Exchange is owned by the government of Norway.  Of course that leaves two-thirds in private ownership – still plenty of room for ambition and avarice.  Just not at the expense of “plain folks” – who of course are the vast majority of people.  They aren’t encouraged to play the house games.  They aren’t propagandized to despise taxation, the social safety net, and the word socialism.  They are playing a game they can win.


Norwegians are consistently rated as among the happiest people on earth.  Norway is often ranked number 1 in the world on measures of human well-being.  Norway is one of the most economically productive countries in the world, and Norwegians enjoy high wages.  Income inequality is low.  Norway recently ranked number 1 on the Digital Evolution Index.  Norway is…well, do I need to go on?

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