David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “December, 2017”

There’s ideology, and then there’s ideology

In previous posts (here and here), I have argued against ideology and in favor of pragmatism.  But if you have gleaned more than a few of my posts, you have probably noticed that I spend more time criticizing conservatives than liberals.  There are good reasons for this.

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Fundamentally, ideology is close-mindedness.  It is a refusal to look at evidence openly, and question one’s own beliefs.  The glaring close-mindedness of liberal ideology is not difficult to find.  Anti-scientific nonsense about genetically modified organisms and irrational fears of “chemicals.”  The trashing of all things “corporate.”  Tremendous double standards when it comes to criticizing organized religion – an attitude that says anything goes if you want to attack American Christianity, but criticism of Islam or any other minority religion is bigoted.  And a vociferous identity politics that values the same kind of “us and them” mentality seen amongst the worst of conservative ideologues.

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But there is really no comparison.  American liberals, as a group, cannot begin to compete with conservatives, when it comes to close-mindedness and a true believer mentality.  Partly this is due to the very nature of American conservatism, which places tremendous value on tradition for its own sake.  But it is also due to the fact that conservative ideology has been relentlessly propagandized by wealthy businessmen for more than a century.  There is a tremendous amount of money behind American conservatism.  In recent years this has gotten so bad that there are now large segments of the American population, not to mention some powerful politicians, for whom the very foundations of reality are in question.

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We now have Republican chairs of congressional science committees and high administration officials who are global warming deniers and creationists.  Where are the comparable anti-scientific liberals, when Democrats control congress and the white house?  Where are the Democratic presidents who want to ban agricultural pesticides and GMO’s?  Where are the Democratic presidents who appoint unqualified people to scientific positions in government, and try to suppress the publication of scientific inquiries in their administrations?

This imbalance is a direct function of a similar imbalance among grassroots conservatives and liberals.  Huge numbers of American conservatives believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  Today the Republican party is very nearly majority creationist.  Huge numbers of American conservatives deny the scientific consensus on global warming.  Last year Pew took a survey of American attitudes about climate change.  When presented with the statement “Climate scientists’ research findings are influenced by the best available scientific evidence most of the time,” only 9% of conservative Republicans agreed.  When presented with the statement “Climate scientists’ research findings are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their own careers,” a whopping 57% of conservative Republicans agreed.  But even more strikingly, the vast majority of conservative Republicans refused to even acknowledge the FACT of what climatologists CLAIM about climate change. When presented with the (true) statement that “Almost all climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change,” only 16% of conservative Republicans agreed.  This is not a matter of opinion.  It is merely a test of the respondent’s knowledge of the climatology consensus.

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American liberals can certainly be ignorant about a lot of things.  But I can think of no question about scientific consensus that would elicit such responses from liberals as a group.  Liberal attitudes toward genetically modified organisms are often cited as anti-scientific.  And they often are.  But in fact there is no evidence that liberals are more likely to oppose GMO’s than conservatives.  In another Pew survey taken last year, roughly equal shares of conservative Republicans (39%) and liberal Democrats (40%) felt that GMO’s were worse for people’s health.  52% of liberal Democrats felt that GMO’s were neither better nor worse for people’s health.  Only 16% of Democrats reported that they were “a great deal” concerned about GMO’s.

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In a Gallup survey in 2008, a whopping 60% of American Republicans reported believing that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years.  Only 38% of Democrats said this.  That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of ignorant liberals.  In a 2014 NSF survey, only 49% of Democrats knew that the earth orbited the sun AND that the earth took one year to complete an orbit.  But there is a difference.  If a scientist, or anyone else for that matter, explained to these ignorant Democrats that the earth orbits the sun and takes one year to complete the orbit, I very much doubt that they would respond “You’re wrong!  The sun orbits the earth!”  But how many of the 60% of Republicans who believe that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago, when confronted with the overwhelming evidence of human evolution, would correct themselves?

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Belief that flies in the face of facts.  A refusal to go where the evidence leads.  That’s ideology.  And American conservatives, as a group, are far more ideological than American liberals.  That is why I tend to spend much more time on conservative dogma.  At some other point in history, in some other place, the opposite might be true.  But in this time, in this place, there is no contest.  And it isn’t just science.  The evidence of history also seems to have very little influence on American conservatives in the 21st century.  They seem to have trapped themselves in a collection of dogmas that just do not comport with historical reality.  Big tax cuts on the wealthy result in sustained economic growth.  Big government leads to economic collapse.  Abstinence-only sex education results in lower teen pregnancy rates.  Increased atheism leads to unethical behavior.  All of this flies in the face of history.

When I look at international surveys, like the U.N.’s Happiness Report, what am I supposed to think?  Am I supposed to think that the people of Norway, who report that they are the happiest people on earth, are actually miserable?  When they respond that they have strong social support, good freedom to make life choices, plenty of generosity, low perceptions of government corruption, high levels of laughter and enjoyment, and low levels of worry, sadness, and anger, am I supposed to think that they are lying or deluded, because they are burdened with the yoke of “socialism”?  When I see that all 5 Scandinavian countries, with their universal health care, strong labor unions, and excellent retirement systems, all rank more highly than America on the Happiness Index, what am I supposed to think?  When I see that almost half of Europe, as well as Canada and Australia, ranks more highly than America on the libertarian Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO THINK?

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I’m not interested in defending an ideology for its own sake.  I happily question each and every one of my beliefs, no matter how deeply held.  Any belief worth having can stand up to withering examination.  We don’t need ideology, conservative or liberal.  We need pragmatism.  We need critical thinking and evidence-based decision making.  The scientific approach, a commitment to go where the evidence leads, has given us the incredible standard of living we enjoy today.  When we allow ideology to blind us to reality, we hold back progress in increasing human happiness.  And saying that liberalism and conservatism, at this place and time, are equally off base, is false equivalence.

The Source of Productive Work

From 1800 to 2000, the per capita GDP of America multiplied by about 40 times.  Clearly, the average American did not work 40 times harder in 2000 than in 1800.  If anything the average person works fewer hours today and does less physical work.  What has changed, of course, is technology.

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Somewhere there is probably a figure on the percentage of the physical work of production in our society that is actually performed by human muscle.  It must be very small, a fraction of a percent.  Think of transportation for example.  A big truck can carry 20 pallets of product hundreds of miles at high speed over the course of 8 hours.  To travel that distance, the truck consumes about 80 gallons of diesel.  This fuel contains about 11 million btu’s of energy.  That’s about 1.4 million btu’s per hour, or about 400,000 watts.  Over an 8-hour shift, a healthy, vigorous, motivated human worker can sustain an output of about – uh, 75 watts.  And of course, only one person is needed to drive the truck.  At most.

Yet our public dialogue is full of misleading terms and statements like “worker productivity,” and “motivating performance,” terms implying that production is largely a product of the performance of human workers.  Here’s a headline from the web site Market Watch, in September of this year:  “American workers labored harder in second quarter, revised productivity figures show.”  Yet it uses labor productivity figures to justify this headline.  Labor productivity is simply production per hour worked.  A commonly used measure is GDP per hour worked.  This has nothing to do with how hard people work.

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You don’t increase labor productivity by hiring more people or increasing work hours.  It’s the OPPOSITE.  If you have FEWER human workers or work them FEWER hours, and have the same production, then labor productivity increases.  If you bring in a machine that eliminates the jobs of 5 workers, you increase productivity.  Productivity is a measure of EFFICIENCY – how much you can produce with the LEAST amount of manpower.

Of the 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico has the longest average work week – 41.2 hours.  It also has the lowest labor productivity.  Luxembourg has the highest labor productivity among these countries.  It also has the one of the shortest average work weeks – 29 hours.  Norway’s average work week is 19% shorter than America’s.  Norway’s labor productivity is $81 per hour worked, to America’s $68 per hour worked.  If we plot labor productivity versus average hours worked among the OECD countries, we see a clear negative relationship:

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“But Dave,” you might protest, “if this is true, why do companies need people to work overtime in certain situations, if working more hours doesn’t increase production?”  Because human beings are still needed in many situations to facilitate the work done by machines, and production is often about speed.  The lack of a human operator is often the bottleneck that gums up the whole works.  We don’t have fully automated trucks delivering most of our goods – not yet.  Without human drivers, the production/distribution system breaks down.  But this does not alter the fact that the machines do the overwhelming amount of the physical work, and that it is increasing automation, NOT more human “hard work,” especially not physical work, that has steadily increased production over the centuries.  A single computer programmer controlling the action of an entire automated plant is far more productive than an army of human beings on an assembly line.  The overwhelming, never-ending pressure in business is to REDUCE man-hours worked.

Automation, which has been going on for centuries but has really accelerated in the last 50 years, has meant that fewer man-hours are needed to produce the same product.  The American coal industry is a good example.  In 1980, America produced about 800 million short tons of coal, and the industry employed well over 200,000 miners.  Today, America produces about a billion short tons of coal.  Yet there are only about 65,000 coal miners.  It’s a similar story in industry after industry, but especially in resource extraction and manufacturing.  Productivity is HIGHER, because workers are FEWER.  Machines are doing more and more.

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This is nothing to what is coming.  Machines are becoming much more flexible, able to take over many more tasks.  Retail is being revolutionized by on-line ordering.  Freight transportation is on the verge of being tremendously automated.  The only reason repetitive production tasks have been performed by humans in the past is that machines were not flexible enough to do what human eyes, hands, and brains could do.  That is about to change, big time.

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What happens when extraction facilities become largely automated, requiring only a few human monitors?  What happens when warehouses and manufacturing plants become largely automated, and jobs in these places are very few?  What happens when supermarkets and department stores and all other retail outlets cease to exist as we have known them?  At some point the reality that already exists, and has existed for decades, will become unavoidable.  And the reality is that NO ONE “works hard” in the sense of actually competing with the machines in the physical work of production.  Not the owners of those machines, and not the workers who are supposedly competing with them.  There is no competition.  It’s a very small mouse against a very large gorilla.  The competition has long since ended.  The machines have won, big time.

It’s very apparent that all of the talk about “hard work” and who is deserving of its fruits is about the fragile male ego.  Manufacturing fetishism is about the male ego.  Almost anyone can build up their body and use it to perform hard physical work.  Far fewer people can use their minds to perform difficult mental tasks.  So the glorification of hard physical work serves the purposes of the owners of means of production very well – they can cater to the male ego and collect the lion’s share of the fruits of automation, while they laugh all the way to the bank at gullible, unsophisticated rubes.

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Here is a prediction that I feel very safe in making.  At some point the public narrative that our economy is built on human hard workers that support other humans who want hand-outs will collapse.  This will likely happen before mid-century.  It will be replaced by an unavoidable acknowledgement of reality – machines perform almost all of the physical work (and a good deal of the “mental” work) of production, and the question is how we distribute that machine-based production among the people.  The whole issue of who is deserving of what will be revolutionized.

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How we actually proceed at that point, I don’t know.  We are beginning to see serious talk about basic income, perhaps that will become popular.  The question of ownership of the machines may become central.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter.  The details will sort themselves out.  What is inevitable is that our economic system will be revolutionized.  Other social revolutions are on the way.  I probably won’t live to see most of it.  But the end of this century will look very, very different from its beginning.

Number 1

Siena College is an independent Catholic college in Loudonville, New York.  The Siena Research Institute, affiliated with the college, was founded in 1980.  It conducts polls, both public and expert, on a variety of issues.

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Since 1982 the Siena Research Institute has conducted polls of presidential historians, asking them to rank presidents on such things as background, communication ability, handling of the economy, integrity, leadership, and intelligence – and overall performance.  5 such polls have been taken since 1982, the most recent one in 2010.  In every one of these polls, Abraham Lincoln has been ranked in the top 3.  In the most recent poll, he was ranked number 2 in leadership, number 1 in integrity, and number 3 in intelligence.  No real surprise there.

What is so striking about these 5 polls is that Franklin Roosevelt has ranked NUMBER 1 EVERY SINGLE TIME.  In the most recent poll (2010), he was ranked number 1 in communication ability, number 1 in handling of the economy, and number 3 in leadership ability.  Virtually no other 20th century president ranked number 1 on ANY of their 20 measures of presidential performance.  Ronald Reagan, for example, ranked 5th in communication ability, 21st in handling the economy, 26th in integrity, and 36th in intelligence.  In other polls of presidential historians, such as the Wall Street Journal poll in 2005, and the C-Span poll in 2009, FDR has never ranked below number 3 overall.

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It is also worth noting that among presidential historians, whether they are liberal or conservative seems to make little difference in their rankings.  In 1982, a Murray-Blessing survey of presidential scholars found that both ranked Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt very highly – the only difference being that liberals ranked Roosevelt number 2 overall, just ahead of George Washington, while conservatives ranked him number 3, behind Washington.  In the Wall Street Journal poll of 2005, a concerted effort was made to balance conservative and liberal scholars.  FDR still ranked in the top 3.

Why do presidential historians rank FDR so highly?  As I said, in the most recent Siena poll, scholars ranked him number 1 in communication ability and handling of the economy.  They also ranked him number 3 in willingness to take risks, number 4 in imagination, and number 3 in executive ability.  Roosevelt, like Lincoln, was the architect of an enormous step forward for the country.  At the time, both of them faced fierce resistance.  But they changed the country, permanently.

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Roosevelt, of course, dramatically altered our economy.  Things we now take for granted, like Social Security, deposit insurance, and bank regulation (not to mention rural electrification and the building of a national infrastructure of roads and bridges) are legacies of the New Deal.  Conservatives are fond of saying that Ronald Reagan “turned the economy around.”  But Reagan is ranked 21st in his handling of the economy.  Roosevelt is number 1.

One of the most striking and little-noticed things Roosevelt did was to raise taxes on the wealthy.  Before 1913, America did not have a federal income tax.  When enacted in that year, the top tax rate was only 7%.  But it quickly rose during World War I to reach 77% by 1918.  But after the war, the federal government began to drop the rates rapidly, and by 1925, the maximum income tax rate had dropped to 25%.  Only 4 years later, the country plunged into the Great Depression.  Desperate to balance the federal budget in the face of plummeting revenue, in 1932 President Hoover raised the maximum rate sharply, from 25% to 63%.  But this was only the beginning.  In 1935, when the Great Depression was still very much alive, FDR increased the maximum income tax rate to an incredible 79%.  In 1937 an additional law was passed to eliminate tax loopholes for the rich.  And during World War II, the rate increased still further, exceeding 90 PERCENT.

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During the boom years of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and even into the 1960’s, the maximum income tax rate remained above 90%.  In 1963, if you were single and made more than $200,000 per year, your income tax rate was 91%.  From 1964 right up until the early 1980’s the top income tax rate was 70%.  This period, from the end of the Great Depression in 1940 until the early 1980’s, was a boom time in America.  GDP growth usually exceeded 3% per year, and was often much higher.  High marginal income tax rates did not inhibit growth.  On the contrary, spending by the thriving middle class drove prosperity – spending on education, houses, cars, appliances, travel – in other words, on the American dream.

None of this would have happened without government investment in education and infrastructure.  It started with FDR’s New Deal programs – the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Recovery Administration.  But it continued long after because of the tax revenue invested in education and infrastructure.  The G.I. Bill helped millions of veterans get a better education.  The interstate highway system was built.  I reiterate – Roosevelt is ranked number 1 by presidential historians on his handling of the economy.  The New Deal reverberated through much of the 20th century.

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Income inequality in America plummeted during the 20th century.  In 1929, the top 1% of income earners took in 23% of the country’s income.  That figure steadily declined over the coming decades, to bottom out at only about 8% by the 1970’s.  But in the 1980’s, it began to rise again, and now it is back to 1929 levels.  Meanwhile, economic growth has sagged, generally staying below 3%.  Investment in education and infrastructure has faded.  College completion by American males stagnated for 2 decades after 1980.  Since 1975, the American male population has increased by about 50%.  Yet the percentage of the male population aged 25-29 with Bachelor’s degrees has only increased by about 5%.  Meanwhile, jobs that require little education are increasingly automated.

Historians, conservative or liberal, seem to rank presidents highly when they move the country forward, even if they face stiff resistance in doing so.  Lincoln certainly did.  So did Roosevelt.  The Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution called him a “nigger-loving communist.”  The Supreme Court declared some of the New Deal programs unconstitutional.  Roosevelt himself said, “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.  Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.  They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

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My point is that the verdict of history recognizes the difference between forward and backward, if only in retrospect.  Broader enfranchisement.  Building the middle class.  A stable financial system.  Better education.  Better health care.  Better retirement systems.  No serious historian believes that we will one day go back to disenfranchising women.  No serious historian believes that we will one day obliterate the middle class and return to feudalism.    Serious scholars see the trajectory of history.  They understand that justice, equality, and tolerance are forward.  Exploitation, repression, and bigotry are backward.

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Roosevelt said, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”  Freedom is not a free-for-all.  People need the basics in order to be truly free to pursue the privileges.

Can it possibly get any more absurd?

Recently, America’s new ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, who was just sworn in a few weeks ago, was interviewed on a Dutch public affairs program.  The interviewer said, “You mentioned in a debate that there are no-go zones in the Netherlands, and that cars and politicians are being set on fire in the Netherlands.”  Hoekstra’s response, ON CAMERA, was “I didn’t say that.  That is actually an incorrect statement.  We would call that fake news.  I never said that.”

The interviewer then proceeded to play a video in which Hoekstra stated the following.  Again, this is ON CAMERA:  “Chaos in the Netherlands, there are cars being burnt, there are politicians that are being burnt…and yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.”

Confronted with this, Hoekstra then proceeded to deny what he had JUST SAID:  “I didn’t call it fake news.  I didn’t use the words today.  I don’t think I did.”

This is the state of our politics today.  This kind of insanity has become the new normal.  If an ordinary person were to do this sort of thing, we would assume he has dementia and not take him seriously.  Yet people occupying the most powerful positions on earth now do this and the media shrugs it off.

The Profit Motive and the Public Good

A for-profit corporation has one overriding concern that often eclipses all others – to maximize profits.  In fact, the board of directors of a for-profit corporation is LEGALLY BOUND to maximize investor returns.  All other concerns are secondary.

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But not all corporations are for profit.  There are many non-profit corporations.  A non-profit corporation is still very much a business.  It can’t squander its resources.  If it loses money consistently, over time, it will inevitably fail.  But maximizing profit isn’t it primary purpose.  Why not make all corporations non-profit?

Because the profit motive is a good driver of innovation, investment, and efficiency.  Investors naturally want to see a return on their investment.  The prospect of good profits is what fuels investment in new technologies, improved production methods, more efficient transportation systems, and so on.  A lot of very good basic science is in fact funded by investors who are looking for future profits.  We don’t want to just “get by.”  We want to have a dynamic, innovation-driven, progressive society.

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The trouble with profits is that they are often collected by people who have little or no interest in how the pursuit of those profits is affecting other people, whether they be the company’s employees, their customers, or the communities in which they operate.  In many cases the profit-takers have no clue about where the company even operates.  The company could be grinding up puppies in Indonesia for all they know.  The single-minded pursuit of profits is often in conflict with human welfare.

So how do we retain the good consequences of the profit motive but minimize its negative ones?  It seems to me that the ultimate justification for profit is the public good.  Those who advocate for profit do so because they believe it produces the best result for the greatest number.  So it seems to me that there is a middle ground, between maximizing profit and no profit at all.  That middle ground is this.  The primary motivator is the public good.  All others, including the profit motive, should be secondary.  If the pursuit of profit comes into conflict with other concerns, profit must be adjusted.  Not eliminated, merely adjusted.

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In other words, MAKING a profit should indeed be a goal, but MAXIMIZING profit at the expense of other concerns should not be.  The single-minded pursuit of profit for its own sake cannot be expected to produce a greater good.  It simply needs to be one of a number of motivations that are in a state of constant balance.

Here’s a specific example.  Suppose I’m a food company.  I discover that frozen dinners, industrially produced, are much more profitable than fresh meat and produce.  But I also realize that highly processed frozen dinners are much less nutritious than fresh meat and produce.  If I want to maximize profit, I will ignore this and market the frozen dinners aggressively.  Of course if I do this I know that I will be increasing the risk of heart disease among my customers.  If profit is just one of many competing concerns, I will settle for less profit.  I will encourage customers to buy healthier food.  I will still make a profit.  But not by sacrificing the fundamental goal, the public good.

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Of course, if one company is intentionally limiting their profits, while another is pursuing them with full speed, it’s not hard to predict which one will succeed and which will fail.  But that’s why we level the playing field, by requiring companies, legally, to make the public good their overarching concern.  In a small way, this is what happened decades ago, when the FCC required television and radio broadcasters to devote a certain amount of their time to public affairs.  But what I’m suggesting is something much more revolutionary.  That we completely scrub our entire legal framework for a for-profit corporation.

Instead, all corporations would be FOR PUBLIC corporations.  What we now call non-profit corporation would simply be called tax exempt corporation (which is what they are in fact).  The boards of directors of corporations would be required, by law, to balance profits with other public goods – the needs of workers, customers, and the communities in which these companies operate.  This is actually not so different from the way many corporations in fact do operate, contrary to popular caricature.  Many companies DO consider the needs of their employees, the well-being of their customers, and their effects on their communities alongside their profits.

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But when shareholders are demanding maximum profits, and pulling their investment when they don’t see them, there is a strong temptation to push other concerns aside.  What I’m suggesting is that this pressure be removed by leveling the playing field.  It might sound radical, but again I must ask, what is the ultimate justification for the pursuit of profits?  That such pursuit is the best way to enhance the public good.  If the public good suffers, what is the point?

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Despite some setbacks, America has steadily moved toward more consideration of the public good ever since the industrial revolution arrived here.  The elimination of child labor, the rise of organized labor, compulsory education, anti-trust laws, the FDIC, OSHA, Social Security, anti-discrimination laws.  A typical for-profit corporation today considers the needs of its employees, its customers, and its community.  We simply need to level the playing field, so that all of these needs will be properly balanced with the pursuit of profit.

The Writing on the Wall

In 1967, only 13% of American men over the age of 25 had Bachelor’s degrees, and a mere 7% of American women.  Over the years, these numbers have grown dramatically.  Although the percentage of men getting Bachelor’s degrees stagnated in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the percentage of women getting these degrees continued to increase, and in recent years, both groups have been getting degrees in increasing percentages.  In 2015, about 32% of American men and 33% of American women over the age of 25 had Bachelor’s degrees.

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These percentages will continue to increase.  American women are well on their way to achieving a college completion rate of 40%, and among some ethnic groups, the rates are astonishing – well over half of all Asian-Americans over the age of 25 have Bachelor’s degrees.  Young Americans are realizing that the jobs of the future will require college – although, as I have discussed in a previous post, white male Americans seem to be somewhat slow in catching on.

Education influences many things – income, health, religiosity, political leanings.  College tends to expose people to a lot of diverse viewpoints that they may not have access to at home.  It’s harder to cling to dogma and parochialisms when you’re confronted by a much broader range of human experience and knowledge.  And the mere fact that higher education tends to lead to much better pay means that those to obtain degrees are less likely to experience financial hardship.  As I have explained, this tends to lead to less religiosity, which is itself a source of a lot of small-mindedness.

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There was a time, no so long ago, that highly educated Americans tended to lean Republican.  In 1992, 50% of Americans with Bachelor’s degrees were Republican or leaned Republican, compared to only 43% who were Democrats or leaned Democratic.  Today this is essentially reversed.  Only 40% of Americans with Bachelor’s degrees are Republican or lean Republican.  52% are Democrats or lean Democratic.

Among those with advanced degrees, the shift has been even more dramatic.  In 1992, about 47% of Americans with advanced degrees were Republican or leaned Republican, compared to 46% who were Democrats or leaned Democratic.  Today, only 36% of Americans with advanced degrees are Republican or lean Republican.  By contrast, 56% are Democrats or lean Democratic.

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Partly this may be due to the simple fact that women are getting college degrees at a much higher rate than men, and women tend to lean more Democratic than men.  Women constitute about 57% of enrollment at degree-granting colleges, and 21.4% more women than men aged 25-34 have Bachelor’s degrees.  Even among Americans aged 35-44, 13.8% more women than men have Bachelor’s degrees.

American women with Master’s degrees also outnumber men with such degrees.  15% more women than men have them.  It is quite striking to see the legions of educated American women that were absent from previous generations.  It is equally striking to examine the religious and political leanings of young, educated Americans.

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Among my generation, the baby boomers, 55% describe themselves as religious.  Only 36% of millennials describe themselves this way.  Among baby boomers, only 33% describe themselves as supporters of gay rights.  A whopping 51% of millennials describe themselves this way.  On issue after issue, millennials report more liberal positions than previous generations, even if they are independents.

Among baby boomers, about 47% are Democratic or lean Democratic, compared to 41% who are Republican or lean Republican.  But among millennials things are quite different.  51% are Democratic or lean Democratic, compared to only 35% who are Republican or lean Republican.  In the 2016 presidential election, only 35% of Americans aged 18-24 voted for Trump.  And among educated millennials, there is simply no contest.  Among young voters with college degrees, a whopping 25% more voted for Clinton than for Trump.

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Millennials are far less repulsed by the word socialism than any previous generation.  A remarkable 58% of Americans aged 18-24 view socialism favorably.  Which brings me to an article in The Federalist entitled “Why So Many Millennials are Socialists.”  The author, Emily Ekins, a staunch conservative, notes that millennials seem to have a rose-colored view of socialism, and says, “Perhaps the most important reason millennials are less concerned about socialism is that they associate socialism with Scandinavia, not the Soviet Union.”  And tellingly, she says that “These countries actually are not socialist, but ‘socialistic.'”

This is like saying America is not a capitalist country, but merely capitalistic.  Which is perfectly true.  But if you’re a committed socialist, and you want to show that capitalism is a disaster, you can hardly point to America as an example.  Fear not!  You can always argue that America is not capitalist, but capitalistic – and its “disastrous” capitalism is rescued by its more socialistic institutions.

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On the other hand, you could forget ideology and apply pragmatism instead.  Almost all countries have mixed economies – combinations of capitalism and socialism.  The question is, where is the right balance?  Ekins rightly notes that the Scandinavian countries often outrank America on business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Yet she turns right around and argues that these countries suffer from “relatively lower standards of living.”  WHICH IS IT?

She argues that the Scandinavian countries have funded their generous social safety nets by racking up huge debt.  Yet the very chart she links to, from the CIA Factbook, shows that all 5 of them rank well below America in their national debts as percentages of GDP:

America – 76.5%

Finland – 63.6%

Iceland – 54.5%

Sweden – 41.7%

Denmark – 37.7%

Norway – 35.7%

In fact, out of 206 countries, Sweden ranks 129th, Denmark 140th, and Norway 144th on this.  America?  43rd.  Of course, one reason for America’s huge debt is its enormous military, spread across the globe.  The military is the ultimate in centralized government control.  Isn’t this “disastrous socialism”?  Yet Ekins, like all conservatives, is stunningly silent about it.  This kind of absurdity is inevitable when you are rationalizing in the face of indisputable facts.

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Perhaps the most revealing part of Ekins’ essay is the section entitled “Every Kid Gets a Trophy.”  In it she lays bare the fundamental problem with ideology.  It isn’t about what works or doesn’t work.  Rationalization can always be called upon to deal with inconvenient realities.  She just fundamentally, deep in her soul, doesn’t like the idea of people getting something when they don’t earn it.  But then, why shouldn’t we apply the same principle to everything?  Education.  Health care.  Voting.  Why shouldn’t people have to earn their votes?

Before the Age of Enlightenment, people didn’t think in terms of rights.  Access to the most basic things in life was determined by your status and your wealth.  The idea of RIGHTS – something inherent, something you didn’t have to earn – was quite revolutionary.  One of the most overlooked amendments to the U.S. Constitution is number 9: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  Do I have the right to walk down the street?  How about bicycle down the street?  Drive down the street?

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How many times have you heard “Driving is a privilege, not a right,” or “Owning a cell phone is a privilege, not a right”?  Yet we don’t hear “Riding a horse is a privilege, not a right,” or “Eating a meal is a privilege, not a right.”  Why?  Because authoritarians are always anxious to make everything a privilege – access to every activity, every resource, something that has to be earned.  What stops them is history – the notion of inherent rights, enshrined in our founding documents.  But if an activity or a technology has no history, they’ll cut you off from it if they can.  Much of our society is built on the concept of privilege, on exclusion based on wealth.  Gated communities.  Exclusive clubs.  First class lounges.  Front-row seats.  The whole idea of basic human rights is contrary to conservative ideology.  Rights are INHERENT.  A privilege is something you have to earn.  If you can.

There is no question that in the country’s early years, privilege dominated.  By and large only white males with property could vote.  The masses of people were trusted with neither power nor wealth.  It’s hard to escape the impression that many conservatives long for those times, when you had to earn your place, politically, socially, and economically.  If you could.  Of course, if you happened to be non-white, or female, well, we could just write you off.

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The tricky part comes here:  Is a right, as defined in the Constitution, an OPPORTUNITY to do something, or something you actually can’t be denied?  Does society have an obligation to provide everyone with a mansion, because mansions are an unenumerated right?  Of course not.  No one argues that the Constitution was meant to do this.  The Constitution guarantees us the opportunity to speak, to worship, to vote, and so on.  It does not oblige the government to provide us with even the basics of life.  The idea that society is obliged to provide everyone with the basics – a decent home, a decent income, a decent education, good health care, a secure retirement – is more recent.  It is the product of an industrial age, in which machines do the vast majority of the physical work of production.  The question of compulsory education has long since been resolved.  But the more fundamental question, of how the wealth generated by machines is to be distributed, is still being worked out.

The idea is pretty simple.  Freedom means having the opportunity to pursue the privileges, the extra things in life that increase human happiness.  But if people have to struggle for the basics, if they’re hungry, or cold, or sick, or scared, they aren’t free.  The basics shouldn’t have to be earned, whether they be political, social, or economic.  Freedom isn’t a free-for-all, in which most of us are fighting over crumbs while a few people eat lobster soaked in cheese sauce.  Freedom means everyone has the opportunity to pursue the American dream, because they aren’t preoccupied with harsh realities.

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Of course this raises the question – what are the basics?  Food, clothing, and shelter of course.  Being cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Refrigeration, chlorinated water, sewerage treatment, a stove to cook with.  Getting a decent education.  Having reliable transportation and communication.  Being free from fear that you will be burglarized or assaulted.  Quality health care.  Having a secure retirement.  And I would add, having enough leisure time, and enough resources, to travel from time to time, to see your own country – its national parks, for example, which belong to all of us.  What’s the point of having them if we never see them?  Society is not obliged to give everyone a Ferrari, or a French villa, or a private jet.  Those are privileges that should be earned.

In America, even as enfranchisement, education, and personal wealth have broadened, and automation has taken over the vast majority of the physical work of production, the notion that even the basics of life have to be earned has lingered.  It has been ruthlessly propagandized by business leaders and financiers for well over a century.  But in this century, as automation really takes off, it will become impossible to sustain the fantasy that only “hard-working” people deserve the basics, because it is they who drive the train of economic wealth.

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Education is no guarantee of good sense.  But it is a striking fact that mass education consistently leads to better lives for ordinary people.  Compulsory primary education was one of the prime movers of the Progressive Era.  But this is nothing compared to what is coming in this century.  Millennials are the most highly educated generation in American history.  Are they going to suddenly develop a fear of “socialism”?  I don’t think so.

Profit to the People, Revisited

In a previous post, I discussed a “radical idea” to put money into the hands of ordinary Americans.  Why doesn’t the government simply take some of its revenue and invest it, creating new revenue for the people?  I mentioned existing sovereign wealth funds, such as Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Norway’s Government Pension Fund.

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Recently, an article was published in the NY Times entitled, “A simple fix for our massive inequality problem.”  In it, the author, Matt Bruenig, points out that solutions such as emphasizing education and rebuilding labor unions are long-term fixes.  We need something that will begin to turn things around quickly.  His solution?  Lo and behold, the “tried and tested” social wealth fund.  He specifically mentions Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Norway’s Government Pension Fund.

How do you bring assets into such a fund?  Alaska and Norway have huge fossil fuel reserves that provide the revenue.  That obviously won’t work for everyone, everywhere.  Bruenig offers a number of ways this could be done.  One is to direct revenue from federal lands or portions of the wireless spectrum into the fund.  Another would be to increase taxes on the wealthy (keeping in mind that the top tax rate in the mid 20th century was 90%) and direct this revenue to the fund.

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But the most interesting proposal he offered was this – simply modify the way new money comes into the economy.  To understand this, we have to understand how new money is created in America.  In a way, it’s amazing that the average American has so little curiosity about this, particularly nowadays, when so much of our economy consists of electrons moving through wires, rather than pieces of paper changing hands.

What is “money” after all?  Does my checking account count as money?  If I have $1000 in a savings account, just sitting there, not changing hands, is it money?  How about stocks, bonds, or other assets?  Is money only what circulates, “out there”?  Where is the line drawn?

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There are different definitions of the money supply.  There is so-called “narrow money,” which is only notes and coins in circulation.  But when you think about it, that’s not a very useful definition.  Lots of people conduct financial transactions every day without these.  There is “total currency,” which adds notes and coins in bank vaults and reserve currency held by the Federal Reserve.  But again, lots of transactions don’t involve these.  And then there is “M2.”  M2 does NOT include notes and coins just sitting in bank vaults.  It DOES include notes and coins in circulation, AND “demand deposits,” such a checking and savings accounts.  It does NOT include stocks, bonds, or other equities.  It is THIS definition of money that the Federal Reserve uses as a key economic indicator.

Notice that paper money and coins are only a small part of M2.  Many people, including me, make a habit of keeping very little cash in their pockets.  “Money,” today, is by and large simply numbers stored in computers.  In the old days, if you wanted to buy stock, you went to a stock broker and plopped down cash.  In exchange you got paper stock certificates.  Today, a typical investor simply creates a brokerage account digitally, transfers money to the account digitally, buys and sells stock digitally, transfers money out of the account digitally.  No paper money or coinage involved.  When I transfer funds from my checking account to my brokerage account, MONEY INSTANTLY DISAPPEARS FROM THE ECONOMY.  When I transfer money from my brokerage account to my checking account, MONEY INSTANTLY APPEARS IN THE ECONOMY.

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The American stock market is currently worth about 15 trillion dollars.  BUT NONE OF THIS IS ACTUALLY MONEY, any more than your house or your car are money.  They are assets.  They can generate money for their owners.  But they are not actual money.

Many Americans think that new money appears in the economy because of the printing of new paper money and the minting of new coins.  This is simply not true.  Most of the “new” money is no different than the “old” money already out there – simply numbers stored in computers.  When you go to the bank to deposit a check, or use direct deposit, where does the bank get the money to place in your account?  It gets the funds from its reserves.  These reserves are monitored and controlled by the central bank, the Federal Reserve.

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The Federal Reserve monitors the economy and adjusts the money supply.  How?  By buying and selling securities.  Every chartered bank in America holds securities.  These securities are not money.  If the money supply grows short, the Federal Reserve will buy some of these securities from banks.  These transactions are entirely digital.  No one from the Federal Reserve plops down thousands of 100-dollar bills in exchange for paper securities.  It is all done on computers.  When the Federal Reserve transfers funds to banks in exchange for securities, these banks can then use these funds to credit people’s accounts.  When these funds are transferred into people’s accounts, AT THAT MOMENT THESE FUNDS BECOME MONEY.  This is how new money springs into existence.

When a bank makes a loan, for example, it transfers funds to someone’s checking account.  This is in fact how most of the new money in our economy is created – banks making loans to companies.  You may well ask, why doesn’t the Federal Reserve just buy lots and lots of securities, injecting lots of money into the system, thus growing the economy tremendously?  Because more money without more production will simply drive up inflation.  The money will become increasingly worthless.  So the Federal Reserve keeps a close eye on inflation and adjusts the money supply accordingly.  The Treasury department creates new paper money and coinage accordingly.  But the new paper money and coinage is merely a RESPONSE to the creation of new money, which takes place digitally.

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The Federal Reserve is also the federal government’s bank.  It buys U.S. Treasury securities, thus creating new money for the government.  Now what would happen if, instead of buying Treasury securities, the Federal Reserve used some of these funds to buy stocks instead?  This would add no new money to the system directly.  So no inflation concern there.  This new capital would be used by companies to increase production.  This WOULD create new money in the system, but only to the degree that it added production.  Again, no inflation issue.  No new taxes.  This is exactly what Bruenig is suggesting.  If the Federal Reserve placed these stocks in a social wealth fund, these stocks would be owned by everyone collectively.  Corporate America would be happy to have the capital.  And the profits would go to the people.

Notice that none of this would change the fundamental capitalist structures of our society.  The stock market would still chug along.  Corporate CEO’s would still pull in millions.  Stockholders would still collect profits.  The only difference would be that stock ownership, which is literally ownership of publicly-traded corporations, would be much broader.  Everyone would be a stockholder, collecting dividends and stock gains.  This is exactly what already happens with Alaska’s Permanent Fund, and with numerous pension funds all over the world.  The only difference is that it would be a national system that would use new money to purchase stocks.

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This illustrates that it is the critical concept of OWNERSHIP, which has always been an abstraction, that determines a person’s wealth.  Ownership isn’t about what’s “out there.”  Ownership is whatever we as a society say it is.  And again, most of this, nowadays, is simply a matter of information stored in computers.  Owners collect profits.  Workers do not.  Workers collect wages.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to distribute ownership.

I can hear the conservatives screaming now.  “Communism!”  Not at all.  The whole idea behind a publicly-traded corporation is that ownership of that company is shared more broadly.  This greatly enhances capitalization and distributes the profits amongst the people.  We’re not talking about having the government take over what used to be private corporations.  We’re not talking about the elimination of profits.  We’re merely talking doing what stockholding is supposed to do, enhance capitalization and distribute the gains broadly.

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I find it hilarious that economic conservatives absolutely idolize publicly-traded corporations, yet throw up walls when we want to expand public ownership of those corporations.  What’s the point of a PUBLIC corporation whose stock is controlled by a few?  The whole point of public, public anything, is to benefit the masses of people.  And freedom?  All 5 of the “socialist” Scandinavian countries rank HIGHER on the libertarian Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index than America.  Norway, with its Government Pension Fund, ranks 14th.  America?  23rd.

Care for some apocalypse? Call now!

Ever notice how many sponsored “news” links on the internet warn of imminent economic collapse?  Naively, we might think that most articles would be trying to persuade us that stock will rise.  And some of them do of course.  But apocalyptic pronouncements are much more common.

Off the Grid News, 13 Jan 2015:  5 warning signs an economic collapse is looming

Before It’s News, 19 July 2017:  The road to collapse!  Signs of the imminent economic collapse 2017 stock market crash

Newsmax, 29 Nov 2017:  Warning:  Stocks will collapse by 50%

And then there’s my personal favorite, a “news” web site actually called The Economic Collapse, which includes a graphic showing the 698 earthquakes that have happened in California in the last month, with a caption stating, “….I am quite concerned that so few people seem to be paying attention to what is happening.”

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Why?  Why so much promotion of an imminent apocalypse?  Well, we don’t have to look far.  Near the top of the home page of The Economic Collapse, we see these menu items:  emergency food, military supplies, United States notes, bug out bags, self-defense, and preppers.  And if you’re wondering what preppers are, you don’t have to look far either.  Right there on the home page are ads for these “preppers,” which are survivalist preparation guides.  The entire home page is littered with ads, everything from “economic collapse investing” to “discover WHY so MANY people are moving to Panama!”

Money.  The apocalypse is big business.  We have long-since-disgraced yet ever-the-entrepreneur televangelist Jim Bakker telling us that people who don’t buy his end-time food buckets will answer to God, because “When the time comes that you’ve left money in the bank that could have been used to help people, to help feed people and all you did is you just kept all your riches for yourself, it will be a witness against you.”  You have the above-mentioned Newsmax article, which graciously points us to Sean Hyman, founder of Absolute Profits, who (not for free) will clue us in on his “secret Wall Street calendar,” which will enable us to not only avoid catastrophe, but profit from it massively.

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Of course, if you have cable television, it’s not hard to find formulaic blabbermouths hawking their amazing once-in-a-lifetime offers of get-rich-quick schemes or magic diets or amazing new kitchen tool breakthroughs that you would be a complete idiot not to take advantage of.  Many of these are people hawking books about how to get rich.  I fully expect to see someone hawking a book on how to write a book about how to get rich.  But I find the promoters of the apocalypse particularly interesting.

As I have explained in a previous post, apocalyptic pronouncements are nothing new.  Their attraction puzzles many, but it’s really not that hard to understand.  The apocalypse is not an ending to most people who are drawn to it.  On the contrary, it represents a glorious new beginning.  After all, most of us realize that death is coming.  But what if we can cheat death with the apocalypse?  And it also gives people the illusion of control over things that seem out of their control.  At the very least, they can prepare for it.

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But there is also fear of change and a desire to return to what are often seen as the simplicities of youth.  Many people’s vision of the post-apocalyptic world is simple – Whatever you want, that’s what you get.  You don’t have to worry about the stresses and unknowns of a changing world.  Life is whatever you want it to be.  For many, that’s some version of their youth, with no responsibilities and plenty of energy.

Life, and death, must have seemed particularly unfair and brutal for people who lived 200 years ago.  Huge numbers of children did not survive to the age of 5.  Diseases like cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and yellow fever were often rampant and caused enormous suffering.  People were largely at the whim of nature, and could easily lose their lives, or their livelihoods, from a storm, an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption.  Most people were peasants, and many were slaves.  It’s no wonder that people turned to belief in an afterlife – how else to cope with a brief existence, often punctuated by pain and sorrow?  When you don’t have many of the comforts and support systems of advanced technology, a few years of suffering and sorrow must seem quite meaningless – unless it is a mere prelude, a momentary stop on the way to a long life in paradise.

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Even today, those who are attracted to the notion of an imminent apocalypse tend to be those who are most impoverished, most vulnerable.  When you are poorly educated, many well-paying jobs are simply out of reach.  Without a strong safety net, such people often feel anxious and pessimistic.

It has not escaped the notice of some that in European countries with strong safety nets, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, people tend to be much less religious.  In Sweden, for example, a whopping 83% of people report that religion is unimportant in their lives.  This compares to only 35% of Americans who report that religion is unimportant in their lives.  In every single country in western Europe, religiosity is less prevalent than in America.

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In 2005, paleontologist/sociologist Greg Paul published a paper in which he examined a number of measures of societal health:  homicide rates, youth suicide rates, infant mortality rates, life expectancies, STD infection rates, abortion rates, and teen pregnancy rates.  He found that, among prosperous democracies, religiosity is positively correlated with homicide rate, infant mortality rate, STD infection rate, abortion rate, and teen pregnancy rate, and negatively correlated with life expectancy.  America has one of the highest infant mortality rates and highest homicide rates among the prosperous democracies, and stands out dramatically in having high levels of religiosity.

But even within America, religiosity varies tremendously, and the correlations with education and wealth are unmistakable.  Among Americans who lack a high school diploma, a whopping 66% report that religion is very important in their lives.  Only 11% report that religion is not too important or not at all important.  By contrast, 22% of those with high school report that religion is not too important or not at all important, and among those with advanced degrees, a whopping 30% report that religion is not too important or not at all important, with only 46% reporting that it is very important.

On the subject of income the relationships are just as clear.  Among Americans who make less than $30,000 per year, a whopping 82% report that religion is somewhat important or very important in their lives, with 58% saying that it is very important.  Only 18% report that it is not too important or not at all important.  These numbers shift dramatically as we move up the income ranks.  Among those who make $100,000 per year or more, only 42% report that religion is very important in their lives, and 30% report that it is not too important or not at all important.

Looking at this state by state, there is a clear negative correlation between educational attainment and the percentage who report that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives:

EDUCATIONALATTAINMENTBYSTATEVERSUSRELIGIOSITY

The red states are southern states, the blue states northeastern states.  Or we could look at it in terms of education expenditure per student by state:

EDUCATIONALEXPENDITUREBYSTATEVERSUSRELIGIOSITY

And if we look at the state-by-state Human Development Index, which takes into account education, income, and life expectancy, again we see a clear negative correlation with the percentage of people who report that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives:
HDIBYSTATEVERSUSRELIGIOSITY

Again, the red dots are southern states.  The blue dots are northeastern states.  The southern states tend to cluster together, with low human development values and high levels of religiosity.  Mississippi has the lowest Human Development Index of any state – 3.81.  It also has one of the highest percentages of people who report that religion is important in their lives – 89%.  Vermont has the lowest percentage of people who report that religion is important in their lives – 57%.  Its HDI is 5.31, about 40% higher than Mississippi’s.  The median household income in Vermont is $59,494 per year, almost 50% higher than Mississippi’s.  The average life expectancy in Vermont is more than 5 YEARS longer than in Mississippi.

In other words, it is very clear that when people feel vulnerable, when they don’t enjoy the benefits of education and wealth in this life, they tend to say that religion is important to them.  When people are educated and feel financially secure, they tend to place less importance on religion.  They may attend services regularly – but they tend to RELY less on religion for comfort, meaning, and peace of mind.

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It should come as no surprise that belief in an afterlife, any afterlife, is also negatively correlated with education and wealth.  Among Americans who make less than $30,000 per year, a whopping 77% believe in heaven, and 63% believe in hell.  Among those who make $100,000 or more, only 61% believe in heaven, and only 46% believe in hell.  These numbers decline in a regular fashion as we move up through the income ranks.  The same is true as we move up through the ranks of education.  It may come as a surprise to the average American that about 4 out of 10 Americans who make $100,000 per year don’t believe in heaven – but when you’re financially secure, in THIS life, you’re considerably less attracted to the notion of giving up this life for a new one, even in “paradise.”

It might also seem strange that more vulnerable people would be more likely to believe in hell.  In fact, far fewer people at every level of education or income believe in hell than believe in heaven.  78% of Americans with high school or less believe in heaven.  But only 65% believe in hell.  Nevertheless, heaven and hell are often presented as a package, and hell is easy enough to avoid for a believer.  The stronger the belief, the more certain of the destination.

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It is instructive to compare evangelical Protestants, which make up about a quarter of the American population, with American Jews, which are less than 2% of the population.  Among evangelical Protestants, 43% have only a high school diploma or less, and only 21% have completed college.  35% make less than $35,000 per year, and 57% percent make less than $50,000 per year.  A whopping 88% believe in heaven.  By contrast, among American Jews, only 19% have only high school or less.  A whopping 60% have completed college – about 1 out of 3 have advanced degrees!  68 PERCENT make more than $50,000 per year, and an incredible 44% make more than $100,000 per year.  Considerably less than half, only 40%, believe in heaven.

Judaism has always placed a great emphasis on education.  American Hindus are even more highly educated – close to HALF have advanced degrees!  More than 2 out of 3 American Hindus make more than $50,000 per year – just to remind you, 57 PERCENT of American evangelical Protestants (remember, 88% of them believe in heaven) make LESS than $50,000 per year.

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And it is no accident that evangelical Protestants, the least educated and most impoverished of any major religious group in America, are far and away the most likely to believe in an imminent apocalypse.  In a 2010 Pew survey, fully 58% of white evangelical Protestants said they believed Christ would probably return within the next 40 years.  This is compared to only 32% of Catholics and 27% of mainline Protestants who said this.  Among American Christians with high school or less, a whopping 59% said they believed Christ would probably return within 40 years.  By contrast, only 19% of Christians with college degrees said this.

In closing here are a few pertinent facts about one of the Scandinavian countries, Norway.  Norway ranks number 1 in the world on the U.N.’s Happiness Index, and number 1 on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.  It has universal health care and excellent retirement programs.  The per capita GDP is $68,430, 23% higher than America’s.  Its government integrity rating is 88.3, 13% higher than America’s.  Its Education Index is 0.91, second highest in the world.  A 2005 Gallup survey found Norway to be the least religious country in western Europe.  A survey of Norwegians’ religious beliefs was taken in 2016.  When asked “Do you believe in god?” 37% responded “yes,” 39% responded “no,” and 27% said they did not know.

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Only 21% of Norwegians report that religion is important in their lives.  I wonder why?

Baloney Detection

In his book The Demon-haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan proposed a “baloney-detection kit.”  But while his kit contains some very useful general principles, to me it’s too focused.  It deals primarily with the issue of how we should arrive at conclusions about the world, and not nearly enough on how we combat the forces, both within ourselves and from outside, that lead us astray.

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What I’m saying is that critical thinking is in opposition to very active forces, including very strong inherent predispositions within ourselves, and we must have very active, strong countermeasures.  In a previous post, I gave 5 general principles for critical thinking:

  1. Question everything, especially yourself.
  2. Forget about “common sense.”
  3. The social imperative is often an enemy of critical thinking.
  4. Critical thinking is not a contest.
  5. Understand that no conclusion is true if one or more premises is false.

This is a good starting point, I think, but it’s important to understand that acquiring the tools of critical thinking is partly about defeating some of your own natural predispositions.  It’s about defeating what authors Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich called “the old mind,” with its tendency to caricature and distort.  There’s a great line in the classic movie The African Queen, in which Rose Sayer tells Charlie Allnut, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”  The new world of modern technological civilization demands a new mind.  In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

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Critical thinking is a habit of mind, and a lot of it involves developing little red flags in your head when faced with specific situations.  Is someone telling me what I want to hear?  Is someone playing on my fears?  Am I being flattered?  Am I yielding to peer pressure?  Am I doing something, or believing something, because I want to be accepted in the group?  Would I be really, really pleased if ____ were true?  None of us are blank slates.  We have wants, desires, insecurities, prejudices.  Shrewd people can use these against us.

The other big part of critical thinking is understanding that, in a way, critical thinking IS a contest, but not between you and someone else.  It’s a contest within yourself, between reason and persuasion.  Persuasion is manipulation.  Suppose I say A=B and B=C.  Then I don’t have to persuade you that A=C.  If I have to resort to persuasion, it implies that there’s a logical flaw in my argument.  Critical thinking demands evidence and reasons for conclusions.  And it is fundamentally pragmatic – It doesn’t concern itself with ultimate truths (which may never be achievable), only with what is working for us, today.

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The details are also important.  In a previous post, I discussed the fascinating jargon of carnivals.  It has a great deal to teach us about manipulation and hucksterism.  These lessons are absolutely crucial.  Developing habits of mind means being able to make quick associations when faced with daily decisions.  It means turning on the television and instantly identifying a shill, or a straw man, or a red herring, or cherry picking, or a false dichotomy.  These things aren’t hard to find.  How many Americans can recognize these things?  And if they can’t, WHY AREN’T WE TEACHING THEM?

A comprehensive curriculum in critical thinking, starting with the basics in the earliest grades, and building high school graduates armed with powerful habits of mind, is absolutely necessary, because we aren’t blank slates, and there are plenty of hucksters and charlatans.  Naturally there is resistance to such an idea – a large chunk of our economy consists of scamming people with goods, services, and most importantly, ideas that are bad for them.

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There is a term carnival people use for someone who has inside knowledge, and therefore can’t be scammed.  They call such a person “educated.”

Knocking Down or Lifting Up?

There are those in any society who are gifted – people who are particularly good at this or that.  Some are great artists.  Others are great teachers.  Others are very good at reading people, at navigating the social fabric.  Still others have an incredible knack for languages.  Some have superb analytical abilities.  Some are very good at understanding computers.  And still others have a flair for mechanical engineering.  And on and on.

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And then there are the masses of people.  It simply isn’t true that everyone is very terrific at something.  Most people have moderately good abilities, but are not outstanding when it comes to any of them.  So the question is, how should the minority who are gifted apply their talents in a world where most people aren’t?

There are many gifted people who are determined to use their gifts to empower others.  Many of them are teachers.  Others are scientists.  Still others are engineers, artists, medical professionals, business people, government officials.  A few of them do get rich in the process.  But for these people, it is never about the money, and certainly not about stepping on others to get it.  It’s about service – using your inherent advantage to lift others up.

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And then there are the exploiters.  In the classic movie Born Yesterday, Paul Verrall is complaining to Billie Dawn about her lover Harry.  “Has he ever thought of anyone but himself?”  “Who does?” she replies.  “Millions of people, Billie.  The whole history of the world is the story of the struggle between the selfish and the unselfish.”  We entertain a curious ambivalence about selfishness in America.  We have many laws intended to protect us from each other.  If I call you up pretending to be the IRS so that I can obtain your personal information, well, we have laws against that.  But exploitation per se is not illegal.  On the contrary, many of our laws are designed to protect exploiters from their victims.

Every day, Americans are bombarded by attempts to separate them from their pocketbooks.  Hidden fees.  Bait and switch sales techniques.  Web sites that give your computer a virus by pretending to be ANTI-virus web sites.  Junk mail made to resemble official notices.  Charlatans hawking everything from diet plans to end-of-the-world food buckets.  And politicians, catering to fears and prejudices.  Much of it is very impersonal.  It’s not at all uncommon to walk into a supermarket and hear an advertisement over their “network radio” for a product they don’t even sell there.  Or get on YouTube and see an ad for a company that doesn’t operate in your state.

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If your neighbor enriched himself by hurting you, there’d likely be a consequence.  If your neighbor came to you and sold you a computer disk, supposedly with anti-virus software, and it turned out to be a computer virus, you’d probably warn your other neighbors against him.  But the impersonal exploiters and manipulators that do great harm in our society often get a pass, because it takes LARGE SCALE, COLLECTIVE ACTION to deal with them.

Fraud is defined as deliberate deception to secure unfair gain.  Needless to say, this is pretty vague.  If I convince you to buy a glass of water for $100, because it’s REALLY REALLY good water, is that fraud?  If I convince you to buy a box of canned goods for $100, because God told me the end is nigh, is that fraud?  But then, why do we even need to ask such questions?  Instead of asking questions about the LEGALITY of exploitation, we should ask the more important questions about its LEGITIMACY.

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Here’s a good example.  In the supermarket business, some items are much more profitable than others.  Candy is much more profitable than produce.  So supermarkets often have candy at the store entrance and at the check-outs, knowing that many children will see it and pressure their parents to buy it.  There’s nothing illegal about it.  But is it ETHICAL to push unhealthy food at children, who often don’t have the wherewithal to understand the long-term consequences?  And more to the point, where are the countermeasures, in our educational system and our media?

There’s a mentality of individual responsibility in America that says it’s up to you to protect yourself from exploiters.  But a child doesn’t have the tools to do this.  And if we never provide that child with those tools, we then have a child in a grown-up body, vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.  Is that what we want?  A society full of grown-up children, ready to be led by shrewd manipulators?  Sounds pretty dangerous to me.

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There’s a mentality in America that says, if I can get you to buy a piece of crap for an outrageous price, more power to me.  Of course there’s also a mentality that says people who take advantage of the vulnerable, especially children, are scumbags.  The history of America has been a constant struggle between these 2 mentalities, with the latter slowly gaining ground over the decades.  Ultimately, it isn’t about legalities.  The legalities tend to follow behind the legitimacies.  And real progress, I believe, comes from giving people the tools they need to counter exploitation and manipulation.

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Compulsory education was one of the most important and far-reaching elements of the Progressive Era.  Without an education, a peasant will always remain a peasant, as we see to this day in some parts of the world.  But there are different kinds of education.  Education that is merely glorified job training does not necessarily give you immunity from manipulation.  Many Nazis were well-educated people.  Without the tools of critical thinking, education is only a first step.  Genuine democracy, with an educated, informed citizenry, requires a populace that can navigate to world of charlatans and manipulators.  I believe we’ll get there.  But it will take time.

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