David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “February, 2018”

The Dark, Terrible, Awful Stuff that Isn’t Happening

In more than one post on this blog, I have stated that we live in a barbaric age.  We do.  Of course this is not something that we fell into recently – barbarism has been the state of human society from its beginning.  I have also stated previously that we face some very formidable problems, not the least of which is that our technology continues to advance quite rapidly, while our obsolete political and economic systems lag behind.  At some point I think we will be scared straight – confronted with a big crisis that will force us to ask ourselves deep questions, questions about how to organize our world.


But the truth is, crises are inevitable over time.  Even nature has its crises, without any help from us – earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods.  Why should human civilization be any different?  It’s the crises in American history that have often moved us forward – crises like the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II.  I hope, and I believe, that the future will be along similar lines.

Meanwhile, we see a lot of apocalyptic pronouncements, pessimism, anxiety, and cynicism.  In a previous post, I discussed apocalyptic thinking and how it relates to education and income.  Every year, the Gallup organization takes a poll of Americans.  It asks them, “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?”  Here is how Americans have responded since 1980:


Notice that the vast majority of the time, less than half of Americans have reported that they were satisfied with the direction of the country.  There were very brief spikes in 1986 and 1991, and a period of “good feelings” from 1998 to about 2003.  But by and large, Americans have been consistently dissatisfied.  And in every single year, at least 30% of Americans reported that they were dissatisfied.


Were they dissatisfied because crime increased?  Not really.  Crime in America was increasing steadily in the late 1980’s, yet satisfaction levels were relatively high.  Crime in America spiked in the early 1990’s, and has declined ever since.  Yet the percentage of Americans who are satisfied today is a fraction of what it was 25 years ago.  Were they dissatisfied because the economy went down?  Not really.  The economy did very poorly for a few years after the September 2001 attacks, yet satisfaction remained high.  The economy has recovered significantly since the crash in 2008, yet satisfaction remains quite low.  Were they dissatisfied because of violent conflicts and tensions?  Not really.  After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, satisfaction remained low.  Yet even as American forces became involved in the Bosnian war, satisfaction grew.  In the early years of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, satisfaction was quite high.


So what is it that affects Americans’ satisfaction with the direction of the country?  It’s the media.  It’s the PERCEPTION of crime, the economy, war, and so on, not the reality, that drives people’s satisfaction levels.  Quite generally, the perception that’s created is overwhelmingly negative, and it takes a lot of “good” news to counter it – an economic boom, at lot of flag-waving patriotism after an attack, or simply a nice old president who the media calls “the great communicator,” and who goes on about how it’s “morning in America.”  In the late 1990’s, the dot-com boom was underway, gasoline was less than $1.00 per gallon, and media figures were openly using the word empire to describe America.  The attacks in 2001 put that talk to rest.  But again, the media was all gung ho about invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and for a few years Americans reported high levels of satisfaction.  As those wars dragged on, satisfaction dropped and has never recovered.

If you ask the average American about trends in crime, health, and the economy, you will likely get negative answers.  Everything is getting worse.  Of course, they won’t be able to cite figures for you.  They just have a general feeling that things are getting worse.  You would likely have gotten a similar response from an average American in 1992 or 1978.  The country’s going to hell.


How about the world?  I suspect you would have gotten a similar response there.  World hunger, environmental destruction, wars and rumors of wars, the world is going to hell.  This kind of negativity is consistently popular.  You see it on television, in films, on the internet.  In fact, just take inventory some time of Hollywood films that take place in the future.  What percentage of them paint the future as brighter and happier than the present?  Better yet, what percentage depict the future as anything but a dystopian disaster?


The irony is that the real problems our planet faces are, by and large, not the ones people are concerned about.  The real problems we face are long-term, and most Americans show little interest in long-term problems.  In fact, many would argue that there IS no long term, not for our civilization – that an apocalypse is approaching which will sweep it away and usher in something completely new.  Even among those who don’t believe in this particular scenario, many have a vague feeling that we are in a downward spiral that will lead to some sort of catastrophe before long.

If you believe that:

  • Crime is increasing, and will continue to do so
  • Human health has declined, and will continue to do so
  • Prosperity has declined, and will continue to do so
  • Violent conflict has increased, and will continue to do so

it follows logically that you believe civilization must come to a breaking point.  There will be a general collapse.  The problem is that in all of these cases, the trends are positive, not negative.  World hunger and poverty have declined significantly in the last 30 years.  In the early 1990’s, 18.6% of the world’s population was estimated to be chronically undernourished.  By 2014-2016 that figure was down to 10.9%.  In 1981, it was estimated that a whopping 44% of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.90 per day.  By 2011 that figure was down to 12.7%.  In China, where 18% of the human population lives, the improvement has been astonishing.  In 1990, 67% of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty.  By 2013, this figure had dropped to less than 2%!


Global longevity has improved dramatically over the last century.  In 1950 it was less than 50 years.  Today it is more than 70 years.  Health care has improved virtually everywhere, but Latin America and the Far East particularly have made great strides.  Japan now holds the world record in life expectancy.  Life expectancy in Costa Rica is now higher than in America!  In general, the third world is beginning to catch up with the first world in longevity.  Globally, the mortality rate for children under the age of 5 was MORE THAN HALVED from 1990 to 2015.

Access to social services has improved dramatically over the last 30 years.  From 1990 to 2015, an estimated 2.1 billion people gained access to improved sanitation.  The number of people defecating in the open was halved.  The proportion of the human population without access to safe drinking water was also halved.  Between 2000 and 2015, the number of out-of-school children was halved.  Two-thirds of developing countries have achieved gender parity in primary education.


The decline of war is perhaps the least noticed of the major trends our planet has seen over the last 70 years.  Our preoccupation with international terrorism is all out of proportion to its threat.  Since 1975, about 3000 Americans who have been killed by foreign-inspired terrorists – the vast majority of them on a single day in a single city.  3000 people is of course a lot, and it was a terrible day.  But give me a break.  In a single year of the Vietnam War, 1968, more than 16,000 Americans died.  Since that terrible day in 2001, more than 300,000 Americans have committed suicide with a gun.  Since that terrible day in 2001, more than 7000 Americans have died in ACCIDENTAL shootings.  Your chances of dying from a fall or from drowning are much greater than those of getting killed by a foreign-inspired terrorist.


Global population trends are another often-cited problem.  The world’s population has indeed grown dramatically in recent years.  It was only about 2.6 billion in 1950.  By 1980 it was well past 4 billion, and by 2000 well over 6 billion.  Today it is well over 7 billion.  But as I have explained above, the percentage of hungry people has actually DECLINED over these years.  Average longevity has INCREASED.  This tells us that the planet can indeed sustain a lot of human beings.  And just as importantly, the population GROWTH RATE has been declining since the 1960’s.  It is now a less than half of what it was then, and will likely continue to drop.  By the end of this century the human population will barely be growing, if at all.  The peak population is expected to be about 10 billion – a big number, to be sure.  But if there are FEWER hungry people in the world today, with more than 7 billion, than there were in 1990, when there were only 4.5 billion – well, you tell me.  Does it seem like we can’t sustain a population of 10 billion, at least at a basic level?

Ironically, the most serious problems our civilization faces, which have to do with the effects of these billions of people on a small, very finite world, are probably the least important to Americans who are most anxious about the world.  The very real problem of climate change is dismissed by huge numbers of them.  Climate change is quite real, and in the short term, quite irreversible.  We will have to deal with the consequences for years to come.  Yet even here the signs are unmistakable that the world is on a path to long-term recovery.  Energy production from renewables has more than doubled since 2000.  World coal consumption is not expected to grow significantly.  A great deal depends on China, which already consumes far more coal than America and Europe combined.  But China has committed itself to a great deal of renewable energy production, and even in China, coal consumption is not expected to grow.  As a whole, the world is expected to rely much more heavily on natural gas than coal in the coming years.  Natural gas has less carbon intensity than coal.  Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to grow in the future, but at only half the rate that we have seen since 1990.  And after mid century?  It is much more difficult to predict, but it seems high likely that advances in technology will bring an accelerating trend away from fossil fuels.


Unfortunately, our ongoing attachment to fossil fuels is locking us into decades of continued warming.  But it’s quite possible that within decades we will achieve breakthroughs that will enable us pull enormous amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  Many approaches have been under study for years.  One example is bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, which PRODUCES energy yet REDUCES carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Every moment, plants convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass.  This plant material can be burned to produce energy.  Since this burning merely returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that was originally captured by the plants, the whole process is carbon-neutral.  By taking the released carbon dioxide and injecting it deep underground, the process becomes carbon-negative – producing energy while actually reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Unfortunately, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is not cost-effective with current technology.  But this is likely to change.

The problems our civilization faces – wealth inequality, violent conflicts, climate change – are not being ignored by world leaders.  On the contrary, there has been ongoing, sustained, organized effort to combat the problems faced by our world.  What is so striking to me is that our media and our political leaders here in America have painted a very different picture for us – a picture of profound negativity, of threats everywhere, of fear and cynicism and alienation.


The hostility of the average American to his own government is an affliction that pervades our society.  Trust in government has never been lower.  It is a vicious cycle.  Support for anti-government ideology leads to the starvation of government at every level.  This leads to poor education and increasing wealth inequality, which in turn leads to cynicism and declining trust in government.

It hardly needs to be said that hostility to the United Nations, or any system of global governance, is even stronger in America.  If you don’t trust your own government, you certainly won’t trust a coalition of governments.  Yet educated America, even Republican educated America, understands that the world is not zero-sum, that the world is highly interdependent.  So we have a curious internal contradiction – having sold its base on anti-government ideology, the Republican party turns around and tries to argue for free trade and a strong engagement of America with the rest of the world.


This vicious cycle of anti-government ideology and mistrust in institutions is unsustainable.  The only question is when someone will step forward to break the back of cynicism and alienation.  It will happen, it’s just a matter of time.  As the rest of the world moves forward, while America wallows in cynicism, questions will inevitably arise that conservatives don’t want asked.

Getting Better

There’s a song on the Beatles’ famous Sgt. Pepper album entitled “Getting Better.”  That song has always stuck with me, having grown up in the 1960’s, with all of its turmoil.  Friends and relatives were going off to Vietnam, and the ones that came back were often very traumatized.  The threat of nuclear war was on everyone’s minds, and for a while it seemed like the assassination of political leaders would become a new normal.  Like a lot of early Beatles songs, “Getting Better” is kind of a silly, mindless love song.  The chorus goes:

I have to admit it’s getting better

It’s getting better all the time

Yes, I admit it’s getting better

It’s getting better since you’ve been mine

Also like a lot of Beatles songs, it adds a mischievous kind of devil’s advocate element – a voice in the background chimes in “It can’t get no worse.”  Yet the song is unequivocally uplifting and optimistic about the future.


Has the world gotten better since then?  The short answer is yes, absolutely.  By all kinds of measures.  There is less poverty in the world.  Health and longevity have improved.  And casualties from war have declined sharply.  I will go into more detail in a later post.  For now, I want to focus on a composite measure of human well-being – the Human Development Index.

The HDI was developed by a Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq.  It measures human development by taking into account income, longevity, and education.  Since 1990, the United Nations has commissioned HDI reports for most of the world.  These reports leave little doubt that globally, human development has improved over the last 30 years, and the third world has seen the most dramatic improvement.

hdi trend

Asia in particular has seen remarkable improvement.  South Korea is a good example.  In 1990, it ranked 34th, with an HDI of 0.731.  Today it is ranked 18th, with an HDI of 0.901.  Eastern European countries like Estonia and Lithuania have also improved rather dramatically, as have some Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina.

One thing about the HDI trend does stand out though.  It’s about America.  In 1990, America ranked 2nd on the HDI, behind only Australia.  In 2015, it tied with Canada for 10th place.  America’s HDI has improved.  But most other countries have improved at a faster rate.  This has allowed countries like Ireland, Denmark, Germany, and Norway to pull ahead of America.


The red line above is America.  And it’s important to note that the HDI is somewhat misleading, because it doesn’t actually tell us how a typical person in a given country is doing.  It uses averages, and a few people who are doing very well can pull the averages way, way up.  That’s why, since 2010, the U.N. has added a modification of the HDI, to take into account inequality.  And on the Inequality-adjusted HDI, America hasn’t improved since 2010.  It’s actually lost a little ground.

In 2010, America’s IHDI was 0.799.  It ranked 12th.  But as with the HDI, most countries improved from 2010 to 2015.  America was one of the few that didn’t.  It actually lost a little ground, dropping to 0.796.  As a result, it dropped to 19th place, behind 16 European countries.  If this trend continues, America will soon be surpassed by most of Europe.


Again, the red line is America.  Of course, the IHDI is only one measure.  But it seems to be a pretty good measure of human development.  It agrees pretty well with other measures, such as the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, and the Sustainable Solution Network’s Happiness Index.   The world does seem to be getting better.


As for America, if it continues to slide in global rankings, it’s inevitable that its citizens will demand change at some point.  Many media outlets and political leaders have already taken note of the rising income inequality in the country.  The days of trickle-down are numbered.  Eventually, reality intrudes.

Is all of the negativity really justified?

I will be addressing this in more detail in a subsequent post, but a wanted to throw out a few facts and figures about the state of our world and the trends we see – because there is so much negative press on this.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with pointing out problems.  But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and simple negativity.  There’s a difference between legitimate calls to action and fear-mongering.  How much of it is even based on actual trends?

So here are 3 simple questions:

Has world hunger increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the last 30 years?

Has average human longevity increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the last 30 years?

Has violent conflict increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the last 30 years?

The answer to the first question can be found on the site worldhunger.org.  In the early 1990’s, 18.6% of the world’s population was estimated to be chronically undernourished.  By 2014-2016 that figure was down to 10.9%.  In 1981, it was estimated that a whopping 44% of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.90 per day.  By 2011 that figure was down to 12.7%.  Even in absolute terms, the trend is positive.  In the early 1990’s, an estimated 1.01 billion people were chronically undernourished.  By 2014-2016 that number had dropped to less than 800 million – still a huge number, of course, but the fact that it is significantly smaller, despite the fact that the global population is much BIGGER, is remarkable.


Latin America has made the greatest strides in combating hunger.  25 years ago, 14.7% of Latin Americans were chronically undernourished.  By 2014-2016 that figure was down to a mere 5.5%.  Less progress has been made in sub-Saharan Africa – nevertheless, the percentage of chronically undernourished people there dropped from 32.2% in the early 1990’s, to 23.2% in 2014-2016.

To answer the second question, we have ourworldindata.org.  It tells us that global life expectancy in 1900 was less than 50 years.  By 1990 it had risen to more than 60 years, and today it is about 70 years.  Longevity has increased in EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY ON EARTH.  The most dramatic gains have occurred in Asia.  China, for example, where 18% of the human population resides, went from an average life expectancy in 1950 of less than 40 years to more than 75 years today.


In general, inequality in life expectancy has declined over the years, at least among countries.  The third world is gradually catching up to the first world.  As with hunger, Latin America has made great strides in health and longevity.  Parts of Africa and much of Asia have also made great strides.  You can view an interactive map of the trend over the last 70 years here:


I have discussed the global decline in violent conflict in a previous post, but I will summarize it here.  The 20th century was the war century.  About a quarter of all of the people who have ever died in war did so in the 20th century.  After reaching a peak in World War II, global casualties from violent conflict have quite generally declined.  Although there have been ups and downs, even since 1990 the number of war deaths has dropped noticeably.  This is despite the fact that the world’s population has grown by almost 40% since then.


The end of colonialism, the rise of the United Nations, the end of the Cold War, all of these have had big effects on the intensity of violent conflict.  To put things in perspective, in 1950 there were about 600,000 war deaths globally.  There were only about 2.6 billion people on earth then.  To have the same rate of war deaths today, there would have to be about 1.7 million war deaths annually – 17 million people dying every decade in war!  The actual number is less than 50,000 per year – a lot of people, of course, but in historical terms it’s a very low rate.

And it’s worth noting that these figures only compare direct war casualties.  Armed conflicts inevitably cause lots of indirect casualties – from disease, starvation, destruction of infrastructure, and so on.  Again, Latin America is one region that has seen significant improvement.  In the late 20th century, we were accustomed to hearing about wars in Latin America – in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Colombia, in Peru.  Much of this (though not all) has faded away.  International terrorism, much on people’s minds today, doesn’t even compare to war in its ability to inflict pain and death.


These are just 3 indicators.  I will be discussing others.  The point is, do our perceptions of recent historical trends agree with the reality?  If not, WHY NOT?  Do we simply like wallowing in negativity?  Is it because trying to make the world healthier, more prosperous, and more peaceful is a lot of work, while negativity and apocalyptic pronouncements don’t really ask anything of us?

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism.  There’s nothing wrong with pointing out problems – AS LONG AS THIS IS FOLLOWED BY CONFRONTING THEM HEAD-ON, not by pessimism, negativity, and an apocalyptic mentality.  Stay tuned.

Is faith in democracy misplaced?

In previous posts (here and here), I have discussed Robert Altemeyer’s ideas about authoritarianism, and what he called the “authoritarian followers.”  Ever since the Holocaust, sociologists and psychologists have been intrigued by how seemingly ordinary people could be led to violate what seem to be widespread social norms, aligning themselves with genocidal autocrats.  Over the decades, there has been ever-more refinement of the concept of authoritarianism, and increased understanding of its origins and consequences.


In another post, I discussed child-rearing, with a focus on corporal punishment, and its connection to a specific culture in America.  Now I want to bring the 2 topics together – authoritarianism and child-rearing – because there turns out to be a profound connection between the two.

As the concept of authoritarianism has been refined over the years, naturally researchers looked for ways to measure it.  They realized that asking people loaded questions would not necessarily reveal their propensities, and people often conceal what’s important to them.  “Are you a racist?” is not likely to evoke an honest response.  And in fact, asking specific questions about specific people, groups, or political positions will often give misleading results.  What’s left?


Child-rearing.  In the 1990’s, political scientist Stanley Feldman came up with a simple test of authoritarianism, containing 4 general questions about what should be emphasized in children.  Child-rearing is obviously important to many people, and asking general questions turns out to reveal a great deal.  Is it more important for children to be obedient or self-reliant?  To have good manners or curiosity?  To be well-behaved or to be considerate?  To have independence or respect for elders?

Of course, in each of these cases, the alternatives are not mutually exclusive.  Children can be obedient and self-reliant, well-behaved and considerate.  But forcing people to choose between these alternatives, to reveal what they would prioritize if they had to, turns out to speak volumes about their own authoritarian tendencies.  It tells us whether they gravitate toward hierarchies of authority.  And because there are no specific questions about specific people, groups, or political positions, it is a test that digs deep and tends to get honest answers.  It can also be applied to most anyone, in any culture.


Surprising as it may seem, the child-rearing test is an excellent predictor of authoritarian proclivities:  intolerance of differences, an emphasis on order at the expense of freedom, a desire to control the personal habits of others, and above all, a close-minded attachment to a group, and everything it represents.  In a way, this shouldn’t be too surprising.  The child-rearing test is all about obedience and order.  People who emphasize obedience and order in children turn out to want to see it in other adults as well.

Karen Stenner, one of the foremost authorities (if you’ll pardon the pun) on authoritarianism, raises a profound issue in her book The Authoritarian Dynamic.  How do we deal with the fact that many of our fellow citizens always seem to be uncomfortable with the diverse customs and beliefs that are an inevitable result of modern liberal democracy?  When differences arise, that’s when authoritarians REALLY express their authoritarianism.  When there is a prominent “them,” what sociologists call a threat to the normative order, authoritarians pull out their guns and start shooting, often literally.  Stenner argues that authoritarianism, and the evils associated with it, is not reduced when we confront it with diversity.  On the contrary, that’s when it really rears its ugly head.

Related image

The solution, she argues, is a kind of “stealth democracy.”  She suggests that the very individualistic, localized nature of American democracy leads to polarization and intolerance.  That the ability of different groups of people, with divergent beliefs and customs, to challenge orthodoxy is what causes people with authoritarian tendencies to express those tendencies.

She even goes a step further, suggesting that the “religion” of democracy, which holds that democracy is a civilizing force, that tolerance of diversity is achievable when the right conditions are created, is contradicted by the “science” of democracy, which supposedly shows that when unity is not emphasized, when the tolerance of difference is promoted, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.


Her solution?  Don’t emphasize the differences.  Emphasize the commonalities.  England, for example, has a parliamentary system of democracy.  The opposition party is so “normalized” that it’s actually called “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”  There is at least the appearance of greater unity, which Stenner argues leads to greater tolerance of diversity.  She argues that “American democracy, like many others, might profit from (at least the appearance of) rather less democracy….Because some people will never live comfortably in a modern liberal democracy.”

It is on this point that I couldn’t disagree with her more.  I don’t believe for a second that we can achieve greater tolerance by concealing our differences.  I don’t believe that we can appease authoritarians by avoiding confrontation.  Tolerance of differences, genuine differences, has increased over time in America, and not because confrontations were avoided.  Progress has often occurred BECAUSE of confrontation.


Stenner’s vague reference to “some people” who will never live comfortably in a society that celebrates tolerance and diversity is the crux of the issue.  Some people?  What people?  How many people?  She claims that the “religion” of democracy holds that “everyone can be socialized away from intolerance toward greater respect for difference.”  No, it doesn’t.  Faith in democracy does not require that every single person become tolerant and respectful, any more than it requires a complete elimination of criminality.  Because we have criminals doesn’t mean we don’t have a functioning society.  Because we have intolerant people doesn’t mean we can’t have justice, and a fully functioning democracy.  The issue is whether OUR INSTITUTIONS insure justice, equality, and tolerance.  It is not whether intolerance exists, but the degree to which it is LEGITIMIZED.

Stenner is not a historian, nor does she claim to be.  But her rather flippant reference to the “science” of democracy doesn’t cut it.  Among other things, she points out the America has consistently “turned on itself” in times of political turmoil.  But she completely misses the big picture.  What was the result of these times of political turmoil?  Did the country become less democratic, or more?  Did enfranchisement ultimately decrease or increase?


The answers are unmistakable.  Enfranchisement has broadened over time.  Even as religious and ethnic diversity has grown, religious and ethnic tolerance has increased.  Only 100 years ago, women didn’t even have the right to vote.  In 2016 a woman received the greatest number of votes in the presidential general election.  America today is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history.  If Stenner’s argument holds water, this must mean that it is also less democratic now than at any time in its history.  Bullshit.

I think Stenner makes a common mistake of academicians.  She tells us, ”….all the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference – the hallmarks of liberal democracy – are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors.”  But what does she mean by “exposure”?


The classroom is the real battleground in the fight against authoritarianism.  Ask the average American if they even know what authoritarianism is.  Ask them what modernism is.  Ask them what the Enlightenment was.  Anyone who is under the delusion that the average American is knowledgeable about the most basic principles our democracy is founded on – justice, equality, and tolerance – is in for a rude awakening.  Our educational system has utterly failed in its most important task – to prepare children to become citizens of a democracy.

In 1987, English professor E.D. Hirsch authored a book entitled Cultural Literacy.  At the time it was controversial.  Now it seems quaint and amusing.  Hirsch was arguing that our educational system was failing its students, because it wasn’t giving them a thorough understanding of a specific culture.  He argued that America is the product of a specific culture, and Americans should understand that culture.  But the problem isn’t that Americans don’t understand the culture of “dead white males.”  They don’t understand any culture!  Or for that matter, history, science, philosophy, literature – in short, any of the things that are crucial in an informed, educated citizen of a modern liberal democracy.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask them.  Ask them about the 3 branches of government, what instrumentalism is, or how old the earth is.


Authoritarianism doesn’t require understanding.  Yes, there is a tiny fraction of white supremacists who are familiar with the history and culture of those “dead white men.”  There are also millions of authoritarians who don’t have a clue, and that doesn’t stop them from clinging to their tribalistic rock.  You don’t need to know Shakespeare or the Bill of Rights to wave the flag and mindlessly recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Our education system hasn’t laid the foundations of liberal democracy in the minds of its students.  Exposure to difference?  Give me a break.  What exposure?  In college classrooms?  On National Public Radio?  On the pages of the New York Times?

As usual, Stenner is excluding herself when she argues that people are largely slaves to their own predispositions.  This is typical of academicians.  I’m enlightened.  I’m educated.  I know how to use my brain.  I’m not a slave to my own predispositions.  Really?  What gives you this special power?  Could it have been your upbringing, which emphasized a solid educational foundation?  And now that you enjoy the benefits of that, you suggest that we stealthily sneak genuine democracy past the authoritarian rubes, who are clearly all hopeless cases.


The way to deal with authoritarianism is to confront it.  But not superficially.  Stenner is right about that – superficial challenges to authoritarianism merely tend to activate its worst tendencies.  Human beings carry all kinds of baggage, and we have to recognize this when we promote tolerance.  We have to dig deep.  The upheavals of American history have been exactly that – moments when large numbers of Americans were forced to dig deep, to confront their prejudices, because the disenfranchised had had enough and would no longer be “stealthy.”


In the future, we will continue to have a better understanding of human motivations and proclivities.  We will get better and better at recognizing the seeds of an unhealthy society.  And our technology will force us to confront ourselves.  If authoritarianism is a threat to democracy, it will be dealt with.  Whatever the obstacles are, they will be overcome, because they have to be.  Because if we don’t get a grip, the details won’t matter anyway.

America the Urban

When many Americans think of their own country, they envision a small town, where everybody knows everybody.  And indeed, the vast majority of cities are small.  The vast majority of counties in America are rural.  Huge tracts of the American West are very sparsely inhabited.


But these facts do not alter the fundamental reality that America’s population is very much concentrated in urban areas.  Take California for example.  If we take the big coastal metropolitan areas in California:

  • San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose
  • Los Angeles-Santa Ana-Riverside
  • San Diego-Carlsbad

The total population of these metro areas is about 26 million – more than 6 times the population of my home state of Louisiana.  57% of all Californians, and about 1 of EVERY 14 AMERICANS, live in one of these 3 areas.  Now let’s make a list of the top 30 metro areas in the country:

  • New York-northern New Jersey
  • Los Angeles-Santa Ana
  • Chicago-Joliet
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Philadelphia-Camden
  • Houston-Baytown
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale
  • Atlanta-Marietta
  • Washington-Arlington
  • Boston-Cambridge
  • Detroit-Warren
  • Phoenix-Mesa
  • San Francisco-Oakland
  • Riverside-San Bernardino
  • Seattle-Tacoma
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • San Diego-Carlsbad
  • Louis
  • Tampa-St. Petersburg
  • Baltimore-Towson
  • Denver-Aurora
  • Pittsburgh
  • Portland-Vancouver
  • Cincinnati-Middletown
  • Sacramento-Arden
  • Cleveland-Mentor
  • Orlando-Kissimmee
  • San Antonio-New Braunfels
  • Kansas City
  • Las Vegas

Adding up the total population of these 30 areas, we find that it’s about 136 million people – about 43% of America’s residents.  More than 4 out of 10 Americans live in one of these highly urbanized areas.  In fact, the MAJORITY OF AMERICANS live in a metro area with at least 1 MILLION people.

Not only is America a highly urbanized country, it is becoming more so as time goes on.  Metro areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix-Mesa have experienced enormous growth.  “New economy” industries are often located in these areas, attracting lots of young workers.  These urban centers tend to be highly diverse, with lots of young people.  Increasingly, high growth is associated with places that happen to be transportation hubs.


Meanwhile, many rural parts of America are slowly being hollowed out.  This is especially true in the Midwest and Northeast.  Rural populations tend to be older.  Rural areas have historically depended on extraction industries like fossil fuels and timber.  These industries are increasingly automated, and efficiency has reduced demand.  The pressures on the land that once were so powerful – to grow more crops, extract more fossil fuels, cut more timber – are slowly fading, and the pressures of expanding populations in these areas are fading along with them.

Historically, high growth was associated with extraction industries like agriculture, mining, and timber cutting.  The city of San Francisco virtually owes its existence to the gold rush.  Houston was all about oil and gas.  But increasingly, high growth is associated with places that happen to be transportation hubs.  The new economy very much depends on the rapid distribution of goods.  It matters less and less what the local landscape is like.  It could be wet coastal plain, forested piedmont hills, or bone dry intermountain desert.  It’s all about location, location, location.  The Atlanta metro area contains more than 5 million people, and continues to grow rapidly.  Why?  Because it’s a critical transportation hub.

The shipping of products is far more critical to our economy than it was only 10 years ago.  I myself have had dozens of items delivered to my door in the last year.  And we haven’t seen anything yet.  Amazon already has systems in place in major cities that deliver basic goods –things like milk, bread, toilet paper – to people’s doors.  In the future, most Americans will likely pay a monthly subscription for basic household items, which will be delivered to them (quite possibly by drones).  To do this and more, retailers will have to create new distribution centers all over the country.


The economy of the future will be a service-dominated economy in which home delivery will play an enormous part.  These services will require an enormous distribution system, a system that is now being created.  There is a positive feedback at work here.  The interstate highway system was designed to service the cities that already existed at the time.  Some of these cities are at the confluence of multiple interstates.  Some of THOSE cities have become air transportation hubs.  It stands to reason that these urban areas will be the hubs for an even more elaborate distribution system, which will mean population growth centered on those metro areas.

At the same time, the energy- and material-hungry America of the 20th century is slowly fading away.  American energy consumption per capita peaked 40 years ago.  Transportation, which consumes an enormous amount of energy, will increasingly be powered by electricity, and the electrical generation system will slowly move away from fossil fuels.  Energy efficiency is everywhere in our home and businesses now, from LED light bulbs to flat screen TV’s to high efficiency refrigerators.  The average refrigerator today consumes 80 PERCENT less power than one in 1970.  We simply never needed that all of that power to give us basic necessities.  With the proper technologies, we get the same result without all of the waste.

The real technological revolution has been in entertainment.  Long gone are the old picture tube televisions and clunky telephones.  A 5-foot wide flat screen TV consumes only about 88 watts of power – not much more than an old incandescent light bulb.  In fact, the speaker system I bought for our TV consumes more power than the TV itself!  Smart phones take high-definition video and tap into a global information network – and consume about a tenth of a watt of power.  As information technology has advanced, it becomes increasingly apparent that we never needed all of the power-hungry hardware – we just wanted the information, and it takes very little power to process and transmit information.


Meanwhile, population growth in America is slowly leveling off.  The country’s population growth rate is less than half of what it was only 25 years ago.  Within 30 years, the population will barely be growing, perhaps not at all if immigration continues to decline.  Virtually all of the growth will be in urban areas, and many rural areas will have hollowed out tremendously.  The rise of renewable energy, along with automation and increased energy efficiency, will mean there will be few jobs available in basic energy production and manufacturing.  The vast majority of jobs will be in providing services for other people.  And where there are few people – well, naturally there won’t be much demand for other people to provide services for them.

Despite the increasing urbanization of America, the vast majority of counties and congressional districts are still rural.  This gives rural Americans political influence far beyond their numbers.  Almost every major Texas city has a Democratic mayor and is dominated by Democratic politicians.  Yet state government is dominated by Republicans, because the vast majority of Texas counties are rural and Republican.  As these rural areas hollow out, it’s only a matter of time before state government shifts away from the Republican party.  This is just one example of the inevitable political shift that’s coming.


The other big shift, as America becomes more urbanized, will be in attitudes about interdependence.  We already live in a highly regulated, interdependent society.  Yet rural people tend to entertain notions of self-sufficiency.  It doesn’t really reflect reality – almost no one in America, rural or urban, grows most of their own food, makes their own clothes, or generates their own power.  Even my grandparents, who consumed many of the very items they grew on their farm, such as rice, beef, eggs, and milk, depended on electrical power, natural gas deliveries, and grocery stores for flour, sugar, and other basics.  Urban people tend to entertain no fantasies about independence.  Because they live in such close proximity to so many others, urbanites are accustomed to limits on what they can do.  A city, especially a big city, is inherently unsustainable, in and of itself.  It is utterly dependent on constant inputs from outside.  The basics of life – food, water, clothing, waste disposal (not to mention power, transportation, and climate control) – require a highly complex system of provision and maintenance, a staggering interdependency of human lives.  It’s no wonder that urbanites tend to take the regulation of their lives in stride.


My point is that much of America’s attachment to limited government is a direct result of its attachment to notions of the frontier, and the mythos of rugged individualism.  It’s hard to imagine that an increasingly urban, increasingly diverse America, highly dependent on distribution networks and services, will embrace small government and deregulation.  And we already see indications that younger Americans have more positive attitudes toward socialism.  In another 30 years, there will be few Americans who even remember the mid 20th century, let alone the frontier.  The mythos of the rugged individual, fiercely independent, along with explosive energy consumption and population growth, and fantasies about a deregulated, small government America will disappear.

The Criminal Mentality

Most Americans go through their lives trying to make ends meet and juggle the various parts of their lives that command their attention.  They may speed on the highway and hide their cash income from the IRS, but by and large they play by the rules and don’t concern themselves with taking advantage of others.  They just want a decent life and the freedom to control their own destinies.


And then there are those who scheme and scam and look for any way to take more than they give.  In many cases these activities are illegal, and many of these people are in and out of jail.  They are the drug dealers and pimps and gang leaders and scam peddlers.  They are always on the take, always looking for advantage.  Having a legitimate job doesn’t do them any good, because then they always feel that they are giving as much as they are taking.  Not okay.  It’s the criminal mentality – but most people who have it aren’t very good at it.  That’s why they’re criminals – because they don’t have the smarts to avoid the consequences.

And then there are the “successful” ones.  They have the same mentality – always make sure you take more than you give – but also have the smarts to do it legally, or at least avoid the worst consequences of illegality.  One of the most overlooked aspects of American society is the huge gray area between criminality and legal hucksterism.  If I pick your pocket of 10 dollars, I’m a criminal.  If I pick your pocket of 1000 dollars – well, that’s what we call a shrewd businessman.


Recently, an article appeared in The Guardian.  It was authored by “anonymous.”  It was entitled “I write fake news.”  In it, “anonymous” tells us that he’s been writing articles for far-right American web sites for a year.  “The first jobs I got were pretty shady,” he says.  “I was writing fake Amazon reviews and descriptions of perfume that had yet to be produced.”  But now, he mostly writes articles for pro-gun web sites.  In fact, he isn’t pro-gun.  “I write articles arguing that banning bump stocks, which enable semi-automatic guns to fire more rapidly, won’t prevent mass shootings and that the left skews statistics,” he tells us.  “I believe the opposite to be true. I vehemently disagree with what I write, and with the sites I write for.”  He and his client, who is also not a gun enthusiast, use various pseudonyms to make themselves appear to be pro-gun.  “We write under a number of pseudonyms that are designed to look trustworthy to right-leaning American gun enthusiasts: generally, retired men with links to the military.”

“My friends know what I do for a living, and find it amusing,” he says.  “There is an absurd humour in a young(ish), left(ish), British arts student pretending to be a far-right, middle-aged, American gun enthusiast.  They recognise that my earnings give me the freedom to live and work where I want.”  And, he tells us, “I don’t have a moral problem with it. I wish I had some snappy argument about why what I’m doing is not wrong.  I’m furthering ignorance, certainly, and perhaps contributing to an atmosphere of hatred.  But I don’t think people have died as a result of my work.  Perhaps I am more nihilistic than most, but in the end, it’s a job and it pays well.”


And he concludes with, “It’s easy money.”  Of course, what he’s doing is perfectly legal.  It’s also highly unethical.  And tellingly, he says, “I suppose the articles I write would be regarded as fake news. Though that has got a lot of attention recently, I think it is merely a new term for an old phenomenon. This type of ideologically driven journalism pre-dates the internet and perhaps even the printing press…Ultimately, I feel that it is the responsibility of individuals to assess critically everything they read: my articles are designed to sell gun accessories; newspaper articles are designed to sell newspapers. I don’t see that much difference between the two.”  After telling us that he wishes he had some “snappy argument” about his unethical behavior, he throws us this bit of bullshit.  In fact, I think he’s well aware of the enormous difference.  But he feels the need to deflect criticism, even publishing as “anonymous.”

It’s the criminal mentality at work.  “I’m just trying to get by.  What I’m doing isn’t that bad.  If I didn’t do it, someone else would.”  Rationalization.  Bullshit justifications.  The truth?  “I make sure that I take more than I give.  I don’t care who gets hurt.  Other people have stuff.  I want my stuff.”  There’s a great scene in the movie My Fair Lady, in which Eliza’s father offers to sell her to Higgins for 5 pounds.  “Good lord, man, don’t you have any morals at all?” asks Colonel Pickering.  “No, governor.  Can’t afford ‘em,” is the reply.  In fact, Eliza’s father is in many ways the epitome of the criminal mentality.  When Higgins offers him 10 pounds, he turns it down.  Why?  Because 10 pounds might make him prudent – he might start thinking about things like consequences and responsibilities.  5 pounds is just enough to blow on immediate gratification – followed, of course, by the picking of someone’s else’s pocket for another 5 pounds.


And then there are the few who have turned the criminal mentality into full blown power-mongering.  Some of them we call televangelists.  Others media personalities.  Still others politicians (or dictators in some parts of the world).  In America, we often call such people “successful.”  But history generally issues its verdicts more cautiously.  History does not consider Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler to be successes.  It considers Galileo, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt to be successes.

As time goes on, I believe history will be less and less kind to the criminal mentality.  Look at how much the reputations of many European explorers have tarnished over the years – people like Columbus, Coronado, and DeSoto.  For all of their accomplishments, they were genocidal, gold-obsessed opportunists.  Even founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson have not been immune to harsh criticism, and rightly so.  Their ideas about self-determination, equality, and tolerance have stood the test of time.  Their ideas about the white male supremacy and the “civilizing” of Native Americans have not.


We still live in a barbaric society, one that fails to discourage the criminal mentality amongst those it considers “successful.”  One that fails to deal with pathological competitiveness.  One that fails to appreciate the momentum of history.  One that still hasn’t dealt with the psychological malady of “us and them.”  This will change, of course.  I doubt the change will be long in coming.  One can almost hear the collective groan from the irresponsible and predatory.  “Aw, shucks!  I was gonna have such a good time taking advantage of other people!  I’m good at it!  I have to be responsible now?  ETHICAL?”


I’ve said it before.  Freedom isn’t a free-for-all.  It doesn’t mean I get to do whatever I want, regardless of who it hurts.  It means everyone’s rights are respected.  Freedom is not the opposite of responsibility.  They are 2 sides of the same coin.

The Plague of Cynicism

Walt Disney was far from a perfect person.  Those who knew him well knew that his smiling public image was very different from the real human being behind it.  He was driven, and he drove his subordinates relentlessly.  Most of the painstaking work of creating his animated films was done by poorly paid employees, many of them women.  When his workers started demanding decent wages, he called them communists.


Disney’s vision of America was thoroughly white.  That should come as no surprise, since America in his time was 90% white.  He spent 4 years of his childhood near the little town of Marceline, in northern Missouri.  One of the first things you see at Disneyland and Disney World is “Main Street, USA,” an idealized version of small town middle America.  The architecture is early 20th century Midwestern.  Disney himself said that he wanted to re-create an aura of a “carefree” time:  “For younger visitors, it is an adventure in turning back the calendar to the days of their grandfather’s youth,” he once said.  It hardly needs to be said that this “carefree” life was not shared by African-Americans in the South, who were being lynched in large numbers at the time, nor by immigrant laborers working 14-hour days in sweat shops.  The early 20th century was a time of tremendous racism and xenophobia in America.  Women didn’t even have the right to vote!  It may have been “carefree” if you happened to be young and white in a small Midwestern town – but America was far from living out the true meaning of its creed.

Having said all that, there was something about Disney that set him apart from other business leaders, something that is rare and valuable.  Disney was no cynic.  He clearly believed in the fundamental goodness of people.  All people.  Over and over we see themes of universality in Disney’s work.  One of the most striking things about his movies and theme parks is the absence of overt religiosity.  Disney movies have never had a problem with incorporating non-Christian myths – everything from the ancient Greek gods to northern European tales of fairies and dwarves.  Disney respected all religious faiths and it is no accident that neither Disneyland nor Disney World contain churches.


Take Pinocchio for example.  Geppetto wants his puppet to be transformed into a real boy.  He kneels on his bed and folds his hands.  But he doesn’t pray.  There is no reference to God, Jesus, or any other religious icon.  Instead he “wishes upon a star.”  Pinnochio’s “angel” is in fact the Blue Fairy.  She doesn’t tell him to pray to God, accept Jesus, or in fact point him toward any particular religion.  She merely admonishes him to be a good boy – to listen to his conscience.  This appeal to something universal in all of us, no matter our creed or color, is very much characteristic of Walt Disney.

The other thing that was very striking about Disney was his optimism, and his closely related embrace of science and technology.  He always wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology, and never shied away from presenting scientific truth.  He clearly believed that science and technology had improved the human condition greatly, and would continue to do so.  This optimism was shared by many Americans in the mid 20th century.  After all, many of them had been born in a time when there was no chlorinated water, no antibiotics, and no automobiles.  Many had gone from living in shacks with outhouses and no electricity to living in brick homes with refrigerators and televisions.  Particularly as the space age began, there was a general feeling that science and technology were pushing aside old superstitions.  Those who did not embrace progress, such as religious fundamentalists, were often viewed as backward and tended to be marginalized.


Disney’s greatest dream was EPCOT – the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.  EPCOT was the next logical step beyond a theme park – an actual city.  A city that would be a prototype for other cities of the future.  A city that would be carefully planned, and that would constantly be pushing the boundaries of technology and civic development.  But when Disney died in 1966, the realities of what he was proposing began to set in.  An actual functioning city is far more ambitious than a theme park.  A city is not a business.  Democracy is very messy.  Disney’s EPCOT never happened, nor is it likely to ever happen.

The optimism of the mid 20th century began to change dramatically in the early 1970’s.  3 important leaders that had been driving social change were assassinated in the 1960’s.  The Watergate affair in the early 1970’s caused many Americans to lose faith in government.  The economic boom of the mid 20th century was subsiding.  The price of gasoline skyrocketed.  In 1970, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in America was 36 cents.  In 1980, it was $1.19.  And then came Ronald Reagan.  He gave not just Christianity, but Christian fundamentalism new legitimacy in America.  He also preached an anti-government gospel and told millions of young Americans that their individual selfishness would lead to a better life for all.


I remember very well a bumper sticker from that time:  “I’ve abandoned my search for truth, and now I’m looking for a good fantasy.”  A cynicism took root during those years that has kept its grip on America ever since.  Disengagement from political participation and community involvement.  An erosion of trust in science and scientists.  And a profound negativity toward government, particularly the federal government, that borders on neurosis.  Mostly a loss of optimism – a kind of general lack of faith that the future will be better than the past.

In fact, America has seen enormous social and technological progress since 1970.  But if you ask the average American to describe this progress, I suspect that you will typically get a blank look.  Partly this is because a lot of the social progress is about INCLUSION – breaking down the walls of injustice to create more opportunity for those who had been marginalized in the past.  If you’re non-white, female, gay, or handicapped, you can point to lots of progress.  But if you’re a poorly educated white heterosexual male, which is still a huge chunk of America, your wages have stagnated, and many of the extraction jobs you used to be able to get have been automated.


What about technological progress?  Computers?  The internet?  Cell phones?  Energy efficiency?  It’s terrific.  But it’s very different from the technological advancement of the 20th century.  Going from a washboard to a washing machine is a big step.  Going from window fans to air conditioners is a big step.  Going from a picture tube television to a flat screen television – it’s much easier to take for granted.  Especially when what’s on that television isn’t any better.  The medical advancements – the 5-year survival rate for ovarian cancer has gone from only 21% in 1971 to almost 50% today – are also easy to overlook, when many people know they can lose their savings trying to pay for those advancements.

On the one hand, there are those who can easily imagine what America could have become over the last 50 years – a place where non-whites and homosexuals are not second-class citizens, where the basics of living are assured to everyone, so that they can be free to reach for the privileges, where renewable energy development has allowed America to break ties with middle eastern dictators, and made the world safe from the threat of catastrophic climate change.  They are frustrated, and often pessimistic.  “Nothing ever really changes,” is a sentiment you often hear from such people.  On the other hand, there are the working people who see their political leaders catering either to the very wealthy or the very poor, while their incomes stagnate and their high-wage jobs disappear.  They are often equally, if not more, pessimistic.


Meanwhile, economic growth has slowly declined over the decades.  This is a hard fact of life that is still not appreciated by the vast majority of Americans, regardless of their political stripe.  The decline of economic growth did not suddenly begin in the 21st century.  It has been gradually tapering off for many decades.  The economic boom of the 20th century was built on cheap oil and the industrialization of a formerly agrarian country.  It can’t be repeated.  The preoccupation with economic growth fails to grasp how unique that time was.  Look at the big appliances in the average American home today, compared to 50 years ago.  What has changed?  There’s still a refrigerator, a stove, a hot water heater, a television, a washing machine and drier.  The technology is fundamentally the same.  Putting all of these appliances in homes that never had them before – that’s growth.  Putting millions of cars on roads where there were no cars – that’s growth.  But once they’re there, they’re there.

Human beings cannot abide stagnation.  America was built by restless people, people wanting change.  I think what feeds the pessimism and cynicism more than anything else is a feeling that we aren’t going anywhere as a country.  Some people want to go back to an earlier time and start over.  Others want a clean break with the past.  The result is stagnation – a tug-of-war in opposite directions that produces no net movement.  No one is happy with it.  The result is pessimism and cynicism.  It won’t last.  It’s unstable.


The new technologies that are coming will be more revolutionary than those of the industrial revolution.  Most Americans think the 21st century will be little different than the 20th.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  This century will see one of 2 outcomes – a catastrophe that will be a wrecking ball to our civilization, or a giant leap forward in our social, economic, and political systems.  I think it will be the latter.  But either way, cynicism is in big trouble.  Cynicism is an INDULGENCE.  When you’re just trying to survive, you don’t have the time or energy for indulgences.  Cynicism is not pragmatism.  The plague of cynicism in America comes with plenty of ideology.  On the other hand, when society is moving forward, when justice, equality, and tolerance are the order of the day, when the safety net is strong and people are free to pursue the privileges, it’s much harder to sell cynicism to them.

In the episode of Star Trek:  The Next Generation called “The High Ground,” Dr. Crusher is kidnapped by terrorists, fighting for independence.  She asks their leader, Finn, “How can you have such a casual attitude toward killing?”  “I take my killing very seriously, doctor,” he replies.  “You are an idealist.”  “I live in an ideal culture,” she tells him.  “There’s no need for your kind of violence, we’ve proven that.”  Finn’s cynicism doesn’t free him from ideology, quite the contrary.  A true believer can be very cynical, and conversely, a pragmatist can be very idealistic.  It’s only when people are discouraged and pessimistic that they fall prey to cynicism.


The people of Norway are rated as among the happiest on earth.  They are also among the least religious.  They rate their government low in corruption.  They have universal health care, strong labor unions, and excellent retirement systems.  They seem to have developed a degree of immunity to the plague of cynicism.  Oh, and one other thing.  Norway has a strong commitment to renewable energy, despite having plenty of oil.  It has the most electric cars per capita of any country on earth.


Brad Bird’s move Tomorrowland poses an interesting quandary, one that Walt Disney would no doubt have appreciated – that if we become pessimistic and cynical about the future, if we throw up our hands and say it’s hopeless, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The future will indeed be grim and hopeless.  If, on the other hand, we are idealistic and hopeful and refuse to be discouraged, and see the negatives as challenges to be overcome, the future will be accordingly better.  Cynicism is a dead end, literally.  The shape of tomorrow is completely up to us.

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