David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “April, 2018”

Pope was right

Alexander Pope was an 18th century English poet. He is perhaps most famous for being a satirist.  His poem “The Dunciad,” for example, celebrates, satirically of course, a goddess called Dulness, as she spreads, through her chosen agents, decay, imbecility, and tastelessness.  Yet Pope was no cynic, and his poetry was often uplifting.


One of his most famous quotes comes from his poem “An Essay on Man.”  In it he argues that while the universe may seem uncaring or even hostile to us, we should realize that there is a natural order, that we are part of it, and that this order was created by God.  The poem begins with:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man

Humanity has a remarkably poor understanding of itself.  It has a perfectly good planet, capable of supporting incredible numbers of human beings comfortably.  Yet humanity insists on inflicting enormous amounts of suffering upon itself.  It stumbles along, often stagnating in dark places, or drifting into self-destructive extremism of one sort or another.  Like a little parentless child getting stung by a wasp here or falling into a stumphole there, humanity lurches from one self-inflicted crisis to another because it doesn’t understand itself.  It doesn’t understand its own vulnerabilities, its motivations, its evolutionary baggage.  It’s beginning to, though.


For the first time in human history, we human beings are actually beginning to get at what really makes us tick.  Why do we behave the way we do?  What is it we really want?  Why do we so often insist on behaving in self-destructive ways?  How do we organize society so that people are happy and healthy?

In the classic movie Born Yesterday, Billie tells her tutor, Paul Verrall, “So as long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I wanna know.”  “As long as you know what you want,” he replies.  How often do we find ourselves driven toward a goal, only to discover upon reaching it that we are still unsatisfied?  Maybe we CAN’T be satisfied.


In an episode of Star Trek:  The Next Generation, the ship’s android, Commander Data, creates another android, a child if you will.  “I watch them and I can do the things they do, but I will never feel the emotions,” she tells him.  “I’ll never know love.”  “It is a limitation we must learn to accept, Lal,” he replies.  “Then why do you still try to emulate humans?” she implores.  “What purpose does it serve except to remind you that you are incomplete?”  “I have asked myself that many times, as I have struggled to be more human,” Data answers.  “Until I realized it is the struggle itself that is most important.  We must strive to be more than we are, Lal.  It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal.  The effort yields its own rewards.”

We humans cannot seem to abide stagnation.  For this reason, it’s unlikely we can be satisfied with an unchanging environment, no matter how pleasant.  A perfection that doesn’t include change would be no perfection at all.  But this does not alter the reality that there are such things as suffering and pleasure, misery and joy, oppression and freedom, frustration and fulfillment.  We can look around the world and see what conditions promote human happiness – good health care systems, good incomes, low crime, political freedom, low levels of government corruption.  Yet relief from suffering, let alone anything approaching happiness or fulfillment, is still out of reach for many.


One of the things we are beginning to understand is how much of who we are is beneath the surface.  There have been hints of this for decades from the field of psychology.  But in this century we are really beginning to get a handle on the processes of perception, emotion, and cognition.  Human qualities that have seemed elusive and intangible, like attention, motivation, creativity, and intuition are found to be not so elusive, as science and technology give the human mind the tools it needs to truly understand itself.

Because so much of what we do occurs subconsciously, psychologists and neuroscientists have had to be quite clever in uncovering these processes.  In some cases people with very specific brain damage have given us tremendous insights.  There is the phenomenon called prosopagnosia, for example.  It is often caused by damage to a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus.  A person with this condition does not recognize faces, not even their own.  Yet their visual recognition in general is unaffected.


Brain scans have revolutionized our understanding of the relationships between emotion, cognition, and neural activity.  We can actually see the brain’s circuitry in action while a person is engaged in this or that activity.  We are unraveling the chemical processes in the brain that occur when we perceive rewards.  We are unlocking the process by which genes are expressed in the brain, and observing the changes in brain activity as human beings develop.  We know that some mental processes are pretty localized within the brain.  Others are highly distributed.  We also know that we can stimulate certain areas of the brain and produce specific effects.

One of the most important elements in our advancement of the science of the mind is the digital computer, not only because it has enabled us to produce brain scans in real time, but because we are seeing clearly that processes we have thought of as “mental” can be performed by digital circuits.  No serious neuroscientist now doubts that the human mind is a direct result of the activity of the human brain, and the human brain is an electrochemical machine.  Although there is still plenty of debate about whether a digital computer can actually duplicate what the brain does, the matter of whether SOME sort of machine could, in principle, do it, is settled.


Meanwhile, digital computers have achieved sophisticated analysis, creativity, language, and adaptation.  They are well on their way to surpassing human beings in all of these areas.  Some believe that in the future we will see a kind of melding of humans with machines – that essentially we will see beings that we would still call human, but whose abilities will be far beyond those of any historical human.  In any case, with the help of sophisticated analysis, we are almost certain to get a much better handle on why we tick in this century.

One question that will inevitably be resolved is this:  Can genuine democracy really work?  For most of human history, we had dictatorships.  The few maintained their power over the many through force.  Eventually democracy, of a sort, came along.  At first, power was still concentrated in the hands of a few.  But over time, enfranchisement has broadened, economic power has broadened, and intolerance has lost a great deal of its former legitimacy.  Yet political participation is still very much concentrated in the hands of a relative few.  The masses are still controlled – just not with the threat of violence.  They are controlled with propaganda – what Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, called the engineering of consent.


Bernays argued that the masses can be readily manipulated, to the point that they merely “rubber stamp” the opinions that are properly fed to them by the manipulators.  His views on this are worth repeating here:  “The amazing readiness with which large masses accept this process is probably accounted for by the fact that no attempt is made to convince them that black is white.  Instead, their preconceived hazy ideas that a certain gray is almost black or almost white are brought into sharper focus. Their prejudices, notions, and convictions are used as a starting point, with the result that they are drawn by a thread into passionate adherence to a given mental picture.”  This is the state of so-called democracy in the world today.  The masses of people have never been trusted with matters of great import.  Instead their consent is engineered.

Can it be otherwise?  Genuine democracy requires that individual human beings be amenable to evidence and reason.  There are those, plenty in academia, who would argue that the masses are too susceptible to their own subconscious motivations.  That left to their own devices, they will fall into the hands of hucksters and fascists.  That well-intentioned manipulation is the only way to keep any semblance of democracy going.


One of the most fundamental concepts of democracy is the “free market of ideas.”  It is assumed that as long as everyone is able to contribute to the public space, the bad ideas will be filtered out.  Long before social media appeared, democracy-lovers were looking forward to decentralized media.  Governments and power-mongers, they argued, would not be able to control the narrative and stifle dissent.  Democracy would prosper and come to full fruition.

Now that we actually have social media, things have not exactly turned out as hoped.  Platforms like Facebook were never intended to be used for political propaganda.  But they are.  The result?  The unfiltered “free market of ideas” seems to consist of a proliferation of fact-free propaganda, an enhancement of tribalism via the creation of echo chambers, and a general loss of civility.


Research on social media is suggesting that falsehoods often proliferate more effectively than truths.  This is really not too surprising.  Most any collection of so-called “science” programming will include numerous shows on alien abduction, bigfoot, Atlantis, an imminent apocalypse, and so on.  Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld played a history teacher in a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, trying to educate his students about World War II – surely one of the most attention-grabbing episodes in history.  “What did the Nazis do?  Let’s think!” he implored them.  One of the students replied, “Oh, they tried to steal that lost ark and their faces melted at the end.”  Contrary to the wishful thinking of many professional educators, the real world of science, mathematics, and history is simply not as attention-grabbing as properly packaged fiction.

In the past, entry into the media space was filtered through journalists.  Journalists are educated to have a fundamental respect for evidence and reason.  They are educated in history.  They understand how the masses can be manipulated by power-seekers.  And they are taught to adhere to certain standards of evidence and reason.  The “free market of ideas” is fine, but not divorced from evidence and reason.  What is quite noticeable is that journalists as well as many American politicians, of every political stripe, are pushing back hard against attempts to subvert democratic norms, promulgate falsehoods, and put party or ideology ahead of country.  The alarms bells are sounding, and the media itself is responding to these alarms with a lot more fact-checking and introspection.


This tells me that America has come too far and seen too much to allow its institutions and norms to be subverted.  It will not allow itself to slide into dictatorship.  Even so, I think it will get much harder for the country to avoid uncomfortable truths about the “free market” and its relationship to democracy.  Social media platforms are the logical conclusion of a problem that has plagued our media for decades – the intrusion of the profit imperative into our public spaces.  Giving people what they “want” for the sake of profit does not translate into democratic governance.  On the contrary.  If catering to people’s prejudices and fears, feeding their need for social acceptance, and manipulating their basic desire for instant entertainment puts enormous profits into your pocket – well, why would we think any of this would lead to an educated, informed citizenry, relying on evidence and reason to make good political decisions?  21st century technology is forcing us to confront this.

Part of basic education in a democracy must include the tools needed to defend against manipulation and hucksterism.  My belief is that at some point it will become impossible to ignore the need for critical thinking as a fundamental part of basic education.  Long-held assumptions, that somehow things are going to work out on their own, if we just ignore uncomfortable, deep questions about ourselves, are not going to stand up to the rapid advance of technology.  We will have to start having national and international conversations about our vulnerabilities as human beings.  We will have to understand ourselves, much better than we do.  Are we capable of genuine democracy?  I really don’t know.


In the 19th century America faced a crisis over slavery.  It found that it could not stand still, it was either move forward or self-destruct.  It moved forward, but at great cost.  In the 20th century America faced another crisis, the spread of fascism.  Again we found that the problem could not be ignored, it was either move forward or be destroyed.  Again we moved forward, again at great cost.  In the 21st century we will likely face another crisis, over the issue of the “free market” and the manipulation of the masses for profit.  Again I think we will find that it’s either move forward or self-destruct.  I think it will be the former.  But perhaps at great cost.

Social Media Baaaaaaad

Social media platforms have been taking a lot of heat lately.  Facebook in particular.  Facebook let Russian trolls influence the election.  Facebook invades our privacy.  Facebook is dividing our country.  Facebook facilitates the propagation of falsehoods.  Social media isolates us from our neighbors and erodes our sense of community.  Teenagers are getting addicted to social media and committing suicide.


It seems like Facebook is a convenient scapegoat for problems that are decades, even centuries old.  Privacy?  America has demonstrated for decades now that it doesn’t care much about privacy.  We have given law enforcement tremendous discretion.  We CAN now be deprived of property without due process of law.  Many businesses and government agencies require drug tests for employment.  The NSA has been combing through our personal communications for years.  There are cameras everywhere.  All of this happened before Facebook arrived.  But it’s Facebook’s fault?

Dividing our country?  The gender and race gaps in presidential elections are decades old.  91% of African-Americans voted against Ronald Reagan in 1984.  88% of African-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Ideological polarization has been increasing in America ever since the 1990’s, when Fox News was created.  But it’s Facebook’s fault?


Then there’s teenage suicide.  Bullying and teenage alienation are Facebook’s doing?  I don’t think so.  Juvenile “screen time,” so-called, does not largely consist of surfing the internet for enlightenment and information.  It is very much tied to the desire for social acceptance, a desire that is as old as human society.  It is a desire that is constantly reinforced by our society, quite independent of Facebook.  There’s cool, and there’s uncool.  Conformity is valued.  Difference is discouraged.

It’s true, I think, that social media facilitates many of the negative aspects of social behavior.  It exposes each individual to a multitude of others, with little control over the behavior of any of them.  In doing so, it forces us to confront societal ills that we would prefer to ignore.


Ironically, some people argue that social media isolates us from one another.  The opposite is true.  Social media platforms essentially throw each of us into an arena with countless others.  If we happen to be strong-willed and self-assured, much of the inevitable vitriol we will encounter will be like water off a duck’s back.  But human beings tend to be social beings.  And again, our society constantly encourages this.

Peer pressure is powerful.  Yet our schools and our society in general do little to address its profoundly negative consequences.  Having raised children to never question authority, they become quite vulnerable to the authority of their peers.  Some of them will not survive this.  It’s a lethal trap.  Acceptance always comes with conditions, and the conditions generally amount to a squelching of what’s really important – the core of each of us is as an individual, what gives us real meaning in life.  Sooner or later the person discovers that it’s never enough – they always fall short in some way, because all of the other members of the group are equally imperfect and struggling for status as well.  Some people respond with, “Screw it, I’m gonna be myself.”  But many find themselves utterly trapped by conflicting desires – to be accepted on the one hand, yet not to lose who they really are.


The nurturing and building up of fully formed individuals is the cure.  It requires a very different strategy than “just do as I say.”  In a previous post, I mentioned political scientist Stanley Friedman’s test for authoritarianism.  He discovered that what predicts authoritarianism is the attitude toward child-rearing.  He settled on 4 questions to ask about the subject:

  1. Is it more important for children to be obedient or self-reliant?
  2. To have good manners or curiosity?
  3. To be well-behaved or to be considerate?
  4. To have independence or respect for elders?

Self-reliant.  Curious.  Considerate.  Independent.  That’s a fully developed individual.  What Facebook and other social media are exposing is that we have failed to encourage these traits in children.  Then they get thrown into the social media arena to be torn apart by their peers.  It’s not Facebook.  Technology is simply forcing us to confront the problems that have been there all along.


In another previous post, I showed that country by country, individualism is correlated with prosperity and equality.  Countries with higher levels of individualism are also those that rank highly on scores of happiness.  Countries like Norway, Finland, and Canada.  Countries with low levels of individualism tend to be those that rank poorly on scores of human happiness – countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Bangladesh.

Many observers argue that we have lost a lot of our sense of community.  To a great extent that’s true I think.  But again, this greatly predates the appearance of social media, or even the internet.  The institutions and organizations that once gave us a sense of solidarity have all been weakened.  Labor unions.  Civic organizations.  Public interest groups.  Most importantly, the PUBLIC SPACE itself has been eroded.  This is not an accident, and it has nothing to do with social media.  It is part of the legacy of modern conservative ideology, which lionizes all things private and vilifies all things public – except the military.  The commodification of our lives, along with anti-government ideology, is so pervasive that even zoos and museums talk about their “branding.”  The word consumer has largely supplanted the word citizen in our media.


The people who created companies like Facebook and Google were entirely well-intentioned.  But the idea that the profit motive by itself is going to increase the public good is nothing but a naive fantasy.  The profit motive has produced amazing public goods and incredible technologies.  BUT NOT BY ITSELF.  Public education, worker rights, government-provided infrastructure, all of these things are completely necessary for a prosperous society.  This seemingly simple, obvious truth is resisted with religious zealotry in America, thanks to decades of Reagan worship.

Bringing social media technology into an already toxic environment merely enhances the toxicity.  The atomization of America’s citizenry suits business interests just fine.  Business is of course highly organized and wields enormous political power.  The American Petroleum Institute.  The American Bankers Association.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The list goes on and on.  Politically powerful organizations today are almost universally partisan or tribalistic.


The longing for community tends to overlook a simple, basic truth.  A COMMUNITY IS INHERENTLY PUBLIC, NOT PRIVATE.  A community does not, and cannot, consist of a bunch of atomized individuals having their individual prejudices and fears exploited, and their addictive tendencies catered to by a few powerful profiteers.  It does not, and cannot, consist of a collection of tribes occupying their respective echo chambers, constantly at war with each other.


Socialization is fine, if it’s fully developed individuals doing the socializing.  Civic individualism is the antidote to tribalism and manipulation.  Social media merely illuminates the inherent conflict between universal values of justice and tolerance versus tribalism and groupthink.  Along with other advanced technologies, it makes our long-standing social problems increasingly difficult to ignore.

Democracy in Crisis?

In a previous post, I mentioned Freedom House, a research and advocacy organization funded by the United States government.  Every year it generates a report on freedom around the world.  Its most recent report is entitled Democracy in Crisis.


Freedom House produces an aggregate democracy score for each country.  And America, like many other countries, has seen its aggregate freedom score decline in recent years.  In the 2018 report, America is tied with 2 other countries for 35th place, behind ALL of western Europe.  It is also well behind Japan, Australia, Canada, Uruguay, and Chile.  In 2006, it was tied for 23rd place with 4 other countries.  Its aggregate score has dropped over the last 12 years from 93 to 86.  Looking at America’s decline in more detail, most of the drop is related to “political rights” rather than “civil liberties.”  Specifically, there have been declines in “political pluralism and participation,” “functioning of government,” and “rule of law” (although this last is considered part of “civil liberties”).  Here are the numbers from 2010 to 2018:

year                                                                  2010                2018

Political rights aggregate                              38                    33

Political pluralism and participation          16                    14

Functioning of government                          11                      9

Civil liberties aggregate                                56                    53

Rule of law                                                        14                    12


Notably, “freedom of expression and belief” and “personal rights and autonomy” have not changed.  America is losing ground primarily on issues of participation and government corruption.  This did not suddenly happen with Trump’s presidency, although his appearance has exacerbated the existing trend.  During Obama’s presidency, political participation declined and government corruption increased.  There was decreasing trust in government institutions and increasing alienation.  Increasingly, Americans, even young Americans, report that living in a democracy is not so important.


The disaster of the Iraq war, followed by the rise of ISIS, along with the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to have produced a great deal of alienation and distrust.  America is not seen as a beacon of hope in the world and its mission to spread democracy is not supported as it once was.  On the one hand there are the conservative isolationists who want to pretend that world interconnectedness doesn’t exist, and on the other hand there are the liberals who believe America lacks the moral authority to spread democracy.

In the late 1990’s, the economy was doing well, and Americans were unusually pleased about the direction of the country.  Then the attacks of 2001 occurred, and the country rallied behind the president’s attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.  But as those wars have led to clear disasters, and then the economy tanked in 2008, disillusionment has set in.  Meanwhile, big political money has seized the opportunity to corrupt the political process.


On the global stage, Russia and China have started to fill the void left by America’s withdrawal from world affairs.  Russia’s aggregate democracy score declined from 35 in 2006 to only 20 in 2018.  As he has consolidated power, Putin has spread malign influence across eastern Europe and beyond.  Meanwhile, China’s aggregate democracy score declined from 17 in 2006 to only 14 in 2018.  China uses its economic muscle to influence other countries and has made no secret of its desire to present itself as a model for others.

Globally, the aggregate democracy score has declined only slightly, from 65.9 in 2006 to 63.8 in 2018.  However, much of that decline has taken place in Europe.  Hungary and Turkey particularly have lost ground, but even high-ranking countries like Austria and Italy have lost some ground.  Many parts of Europe are becoming less democratic.  Much of this seems to be a reaction to mass immigration.  In Europe, as in America, white people are just not producing babies very much.  Disadvantaged brown people have flocked to these countries to enjoy their economic and political benefits.  The result has been a sadly predictable backlash.  The difference in the past was that America used its influence to push for increased democratic values around the world, and its own example was seen, rightly or wrongly, as a model to emulate.  The war in Iraq was meant to be one more example of America spreading democracy.  Its utter failure, followed by an economic meltdown in America, poisoned our society with disillusionment and distrust.


Only 2 countries have maintained an aggregate freedom score of 100 since 2006 – Finland and Norway.  Of the top 10 countries in 2018, 4 are Scandinavian.  2 South American countries, Uruguay and Chile, rank well ahead of America, as does Costa Rica.  Uruguay is in the top 10.  Even Belize is ahead of America.  Japan ranks well ahead of America as well.  Japan’s score has actually increased over time.

Turkey’s score has dropped like a stone, from 65 in 2006 to 32 in 2018.  Turkey is the most extreme example of something that is happening across much of eastern and southern Europe.  Corrupt leaders are stifling dissent and consolidating power.  In many if not most cases this is connected to ethnic tensions.  In America and in Europe, the long-ignored realities of multiculturalism are boiling to the surface, as demographic shifts begin to turn minorities into majorities.


Large numbers of whites, in America and in Europe, have simply never accepted multiculturalism.  They think of their respective countries as ethnically defined.  They reject universal values of justice, equality, and tolerance.  Anti-multicultural sentiment has been encouraged by right-wing politicians and religious figures.  For decades now, large numbers of whites have wallowed in the fantasy that multiculturalism is merely a passing fad.  But demographics have made this increasingly difficult.

Encouragement comes from the fact that most of the resistance to multiculturalism is coming from older segments of these societies, segments that are slowly disappearing.    Younger citizens are generally more tolerant.  This is especially apparent in America.  However, they also tend to be less political, and millennials seem to have opted out of politics more than any previous generation did at the same point.  In fact, they seem to be opting out of all institutions, political, religious, or cultural.


Anti-government ideology and government gridlock seem to be taking a toll.  Young people are looking for signs of progress – progress on justice, progress on equality, progress on tolerance.  When the system doesn’t produce progress, they begin to lose faith in the system itself.

All of this points to a brewing crisis, a cusp at which the dynamic will suddenly change.  The tension in the world is palpable.  Young people have had enough of stagnation.  They see the problem clearly, and just as clearly they see gridlock.  They see politicians in the pockets of big money.  They will get change, one way or another.

Nature Versus Nurture, Revisited

In a previous post, I mentioned the age-old nature versus nurture debate.  How much of who we are is determined by inherent characteristics, and how much by external influences?  It is a highly controversial and complex question, and one that won’t go away, because it underlies so much of our political framework.  It is all the more complex because we know that nature and nurture interact a great deal – they aren’t independent factors in shaping our personalities and our beliefs.


For example, suppose I have an aptitude for music.  If I’m not encouraged or given access to musical resources, I might develop my musical ability anyway – but it’s unlikely I will become a great musician.  Similarly, if I have little aptitude for music, but I am strongly encouraged and tutored and I practice like crazy, I might develop my ability – but again, it’s unlikely I will be a great musician.  If, on the other hand, I have a strong aptitude and the proper environment – the effects of these 2 factors are not merely additive.  They are synergistic.  Furthermore, there is tremendous nuance in environmental influences.  I can harangue and cajole you to practice and achieve, but that may merely serve to aggravate you, and lead you to despise music.  The complexity of the human psyche means that shrewd nurturing may be necessary for you to achieve your real potential.  And each person is unique.  What works for one person may utterly fail with another.

America was born of the belief “that all men are created equal.”  Of course, the founding fathers never meant to imply that all men are equally intelligent, equally courageous, equally truthful, or equally talented at everything.  They meant that the American system is based on the notion that they are equally capable of making good political decisions – assuming they are provided with the tools to do so.  This is the fundamental basis of the whole theory of democracy – that the masses of people are capable of self-government.


It is a theory that is built on individual, not group characteristics.  Groups do not get a vote.  Families do not get a vote.  Individuals get a vote.  And this in turn assumes that most individuals are able to defend themselves from political charlatans and hucksters – using evidence and reason.  American democracy is a child of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was all about evidence and reason.

Yet today, we see increasing numbers of psychologists and neuroscientists arguing that large numbers of people are unmoved by evidence and reason.  Instead, they are vulnerable to emotional appeals by manipulators who take advantage of their inherent predispositions.  Fear-mongering, for example.  It is argued that many people are predisposed to overreact to perceived threats, and that this enables fear-mongers to manipulate them into making bad political decisions, even to the point of favoring dictatorship over democracy.


Most people remember that Abraham Lincoln said, “….you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”  But they tend to forget the first part of that sentence, which is just as important:  “You can fool all of the people some of the time….”  That’s a strong statement about the vulnerability of the masses.  The majority is sometimes wrong, especially in the short term.  That’s why we have the Bill of Rights, to protect the minority from the majority.  Democracy is not majoritarianism.  American democracy has never been about uncritical faith in an inerrant majority.  It’s about faith in the basic wisdom of the masses over the LONG TERM.

But even this faith is based on a critical assumption – that the electorate is both educated and informed.  It is clear that the founding fathers believed that ordinary people, once educated, would be amenable to evidence and reason.  Is this a valid assumption?  Or are they vulnerable to manipulation that takes advantage of their subconscious motivations and propensities?


Notice that this is not an all-or-nothing.  How many ordinary people need to be amenable to evidence and reason for democracy to work?  This is a question that has never had a satisfactory answer.  The election of our current moron-in-chief was a shock to many intellectuals and democracy-lovers.  How could America elect such an unqualified and anti-democratic person?  Of course, in a very important sense, IT DIDN’T.  He lost by about 2.8 million votes.  Even so, many observers are very concerned that about 40% of the electorate still supports him, and rightly so.

For some years now, psychologists and neuroscientists have been arguing that much of who we are is essentially out of our control.  Neuroscientists particularly tend to take the position that much of who we are – our personalities, our political leanings, our world views – are formed by inherent qualities of our brains.  They point to studies that show consistent differences in brain structure and function between people with different personality traits.  The problem with this of course is, which is the cause and which is the effect?  This can be illustrated by considering 2 computers.


If I were to examine the “neural activity” (which is to say, the circuit activity) of a computer running a flight simulator program, and compare it to that of another computer running a chess program, naturally I would find consistent differences.  Does that mean one computer’s inherent characteristics cause it to run a flight simulator, while the other’s cause it to run a chess program?  Of course not.  My reasoning is backwards.  The difference in circuit activity is caused by the difference in software activity, not vice versa.  In fact I could probably run either program on either computer.  Similarly, telling me that there is such a thing as an inherently “conservative” brain, which makes a person is more vulnerable to a fear-monger, could well be getting things backward.

This is the problem, for me, with applying neuroscience to the nature/nurture question.  It tends to assume that the causal chain goes from neural activity to emotion and cognition, not vice versa.  If a neuroscientist sees that intense neural activity in the amigdyla is associated with heightened fear, they tend to think, “That’s what causes fear.”  They know that directly stimulating certain areas of the brain will actually force the person to experience certain things – fear, for example, or sexual pleasure.  So naturally they tend to think the causal chain goes from neural activity to emotion or cognition, not the reverse.  But in fact these things tell us nothing about the degree to which a given person is a slave to their own inherent proclivities.  The neural activity may be the RESULT of personality traits formed in the course of life, not the ultimate cause.


There are also twin studies and comparisons between biological siblings and adoptive siblings.  These studies do point to a significant genetic component for personality and cognitive traits – but not an overwhelming genetic component.  Biological siblings tend to be somewhat similar, personality-wise – but they are far from identical.  The environment also seems to play an important role.  Furthermore, these studies point to something profound – that children from the same family tend to be no more similar, personality-wise, than children from different families.  And it is the environmental factors that are NOT shared by siblings that seem to have the greatest effect on their personalities.

Even more problematic is the fact that none of these studies tell us anything about potential outcomes in an environment in which we are SPECIFICALLY AWARE of certain propensities and actively work to counter them.  Some people have what are called addictive personalities.  This makes them particularly prone to becoming victims of substance abuse, eating disorders, and the like.  Does this mean that an alcoholic with an addictive personality is doomed to abuse alcohol?  Of course not.  In an environment in which the propensity is understood and actively managed, the person may become completely sober, permanently.


Just recently, a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University by the name of Bobby Azarian authored an article in Raw Story, entitled “A Neuroscientist explains what could be wrong with Trump supporters’ brains.”  In it he points to, among other things, the fact that “Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening.”  He points us to research showing that right-leaning people tend to have larger amigdylas – the area of the brain that is very active during heightened fear or anxiety.  He argues that this makes them vulnerable to fear-mongering and pretty much impervious to evidence and reason.  He concludes by telling us, “The overwhelming majority of these people may be beyond reach, at least in the short term.”

The problem with this kind of generalizing is that it utterly fails to explain political variation and trends.  Are we to believe that Norway, with its strong worker rights, universal health care, and very low levels of religiosity, is virtually devoid of people with inherently “conservative” brains?  Surely differences in the percentage of “conservative” brains explain why white-dominated West Virginia went strongly for Trump, while white-dominated Vermont went strongly for Clinton?  Or why heavily Hispanic Texas is solidly red, while heavily Hispanic California is solidly blue?  Unfortunately, arguments in favor of genetic determinism often seem to become “just so stories” – unfalsifiable attempts to explain everything from political affiliation to drug addiction by appealing to an age-old rationalization:  It’s human nature.


That’s not to say that human nature can be ignored.  On the contrary.  We have plenty of evidence to suggest that, left unattended, much of what motivates us is subconscious, and these motivations can be self-destructive.  An authoritarian’s propensities shouldn’t be ignored, any more than an addict’s propensities should be ignored.  That’s why we need an assiduous emphasis on education, particularly critical thinking.  Until we at least make the EFFORT, how do we know what people are capable of, and what they’re not?  What’s the alternative?  To merely accept that large numbers of people are hopelessly manipulable, and set about shrewdly appealing to their emotions so as to manipulate them toward a democratic outcome?  Or perhaps to simply disenfranchise large numbers of people, instituting some sort of test of their amenability to evidence and reason, before they are allowed to vote?

It is in the classroom that the battle should be waged.  The fact is, there are reasonable people of every ideology, and they all seem to agree on the basics.  They agree that evidence and reason should rule.  They agree that democracy is superior to dictatorship.  They agree that knowledge is superior to ignorance.  There is a reason why humanity as a whole has moved from dictatorship toward democracy.  If large numbers of people are so hopeless, how did this come about?

Clarke’s First Law

Prediction is a very tricky business, as those who are very good at it will tell you.  Arthur Clarke was one of them.  In his book Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962, he devoted a lot of exposition to why predictions often fail.  Clarke even came up with 3 “laws” to aid us in the field of prediction:

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

He himself made many predictions, and many of them came true years later – geostationary satellites, worldwide television broadcasts with hundreds of channels, online banking, wireless telephones.  Others were close but not quite on the mark.  But Clarke understood that one of the biggest sources of failure in prediction is the failure of imagination.  All of us, even scientists, tend to underestimate the importance of breakthroughs – sudden leaps forward that remove roadblocks to technological advancement.


Experience should tell us that technological advancement often takes forms that hardly anyone would have anticipated.  Subatomic physics didn’t exist before the 20th century.  By the late 19th century, chemists understood the limits of chemical reactions.  They knew that only so much energy could be produced by them.  And precisely because they KNEW the limitations, the incredible energy of nuclear fission and fusion would have seemed like absurdities to them.


Many people do not realize that atomic bombs often do what they do simply by bringing 2 chunks of material together.  That’s it.  Bringing them together creates a critical mass that facilitates a nuclear chain reaction.  Now imagine you are a 19th century scientist, with no concept of nuclear physics.  I tell you that simply by bringing 2 small chunks of material together – no heating, no energy beams, nothing like that – you unleash enough power to destroy an entire city.  He would have laughed in your face.  All of the technology based on nuclear physics, from nuclear power plants to PET scans, would have seemed utterly absurd to a 19th century scientist.

Clarke’s First Law is a stern warning about naysayers who confidently predict that something isn’t going to happen.  When it comes to science and technology, what seems impossible often turns out to be just around the corner.  Take computer and television displays for example.  For decades we used cathode ray tubes to display video, power-hungry devices that fired electron beams against a phosphorescent screen.  Imagine telling someone in 1960 that within 50 years we would have flat-screen displays that would consume a fraction of the power.


When highly intelligent scientists tell us that something is not only possible, but VERY possible, we should listen.  Before his death Steven Hawking among others warned us about artificial intelligence.  Yet others confidently pronounce that there is nothing to concern ourselves about.  Machines are good at some things, but they may never be any kind of real match for humans.  Many of the things humans do easily and naturally are extremely difficult for machines.  And anyway, that kind of stuff is a LONG way off.

Much of the confidence in human superiority seems to come down to the notion that for all of their analytical sophistication, machines just don’t get the big picture.  A chess-playing machine may be very good at chess.  A stock market-playing machine may be very good at picking stocks.  A flight simulation machine may simulate flight wonderfully.  But none of them “understand” the context in which chess, flight, and the stock market operate – human civilization.


Even Watson, the famous champion Jeopardy!-playing computer, it is argued, doesn’t really UNDERSTAND the topics it is generating responses about.  It is merely analyzing, putting relationships together, finding the best response to a given answer (since the “questions” in Jeopardy! are answers) in the context of a given topic.  Let’s assume that this argument is valid (although I don’t think it is).  Is this really cause to believe that machines can’t possibly be a match for humans?

Chess is an enormously complex game.  After only 4 moves, the number of possible positions in chess is well over 300 billion.  The game of checkers has been solved – which is to say that a computer program now exists that can play the game perfectly.  Chess, however, has not been solved, and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future.  Yet already the world champion chess player is a machine.  Telling the machine that it doesn’t “really understand” chess is not going to enable you to beat it at chess.  Similarly, telling a smart weapon that it doesn’t really understand war is not going to enable you to beat it at the game of war.  The fantasy that human creativity and ingenuity will inevitably beat machines, a fantasy often promoted in “science fiction” television and movies, ignores the fact that all of that creativity and ingenuity has not enabled humans to defeat machines at chess – a game that involves a LOT of creativity and ingenuity.


Making good predictions about complex processes is about taking in huge amounts of information and analyzing it.  Essentially, this is what human intuition is.  But human intuition is limited, because the ability of the human mind to take in and analyze information is limited.  With more memory and more processing power, much better predictive power is possible.  This is exactly why hurricane path forecasts have improved dramatically over the last 40 years – sophisticated computer models are being used to generate the predictions.  It is why Watson is now routinely used to assist doctors in making diagnoses.  It is why increasing numbers of investors now rely on computer programs to help them play the stock market.  Good prediction equals winning, whether in chess or in life.

A few years ago, a paper was published in the journal Nature entitled “The Quiet Revolution of Numerical Weather Prediction.”  In it the authors describe the remarkable progress that has been made over the last 40 years in weather prediction – almost all of it due to mathematical modeling and simulation performed by supercomputers.  The weather is a chaotic process, with high sensitivity to initial conditions.  One solution to this problem is what is called ensemble modeling – essentially, the computer slightly changes the initial conditions, then runs a simulation of the weather in the future.  Repeating this process produces an ensemble – a collection of simulations that yields enormous predictive power.  The amount of number-crunching required to generate numerous simulations like this pushes the limits of even supercomputers.  But it has improved weather forecasting by leaps and bounds.


Yet far more computing power is coming.  Today, the fastest computer systems are capable of more than a quadrillion operations per second.  By 2020 a system is expected to be in operation capable of a speed a thousand times that, more than a quintillion operations per second.  By 2030, systems capable of speeds 1 MILLION TIMES faster than our fastest supercomputers of today are expected to be operational.  It’s impossible to precisely determine the processing speed of the human brain – we still don’t understand it well enough.  But it is almost certainly orders of magnitude less than this.  And computer processing power won’t stop there.

In fact, when computers reach a certain point, they may start to provide the very technical solutions needed to make them ever more powerful.  A positive feedback may be initiated at that point, causing an explosion of computer intelligence.  But even if this doesn’t happen, computer processing power is bound to far exceed that of the human brain within the next 50 years.  Humans will be no match for machines when it comes to analytical ability and predictive power.  Similarly, robots will become increasingly sophisticated, able to handle virtually all of the physical tasks humans perform.  The result will be that the distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, and therefore the criteria by which some people’s work is considered more valuable than others, will become meaningless.  Humans will be “unskilled” at everything, compared to machines.  Whether these machines will actually “understand” what they are doing, or merely “simulate understanding” is irrelevant.  This is like debating whether a tractor with an attachment that can plow 6 rows at a time “understands” farming.  The farmer is not going to sell the tractor and hire a human with a horse-drawn plow to do the same job, because they “really understand farming.”  The issue is whether the human can compete with the machine.  The answer is no.

Image result for artificial general intelligence

About 5 years ago, a survey of hundreds of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence was conducted.  The subject was artificial general intelligence (AGI).  An AGI is an artificial intelligence that can perform any intellectual task that a human can perform.  How soon did they think AGI would be achieved?  The survey asked respondents to estimate a 10% chance year, a 50% chance year, and a 90% chance year.  Naturally, there was a wide range of predictions.  The median year for a 10% chance was 2022 – only 4 years from now.  The median year for a 50% chance was 2040 – 22 years from today.  And the median year for a 90% chance was 2075.  In other words, the overwhelming majority of researchers in the field believe that AGI will be achieved long before the end of this century.

A more recent survey, conducted at an AI conference, simply asked respondents to provide the year during which they thought AGI would be achieved.  67 PERCENT responded with a year prior to 2051 – and 42% percent gave a year before 2031.  Only 10% said it wouldn’t happen before 2100 – and only 2% said never.  Almost certainly there will be technological breakthroughs that will help speed up progress in artificial intelligence.  In any case, it is highly likely that long before the end of this century, our society will be VERY reliant on machines – for the physical work of production, which is already the case, and has been for decades – but also for analysis and prediction.


Sophisticated computer programs, equipped with enormous amounts of information about the world, will be able to beat the best humans at the prediction game.  This will revolutionize our economic systems, which are based on the notion that a few people are very good at analysis and prediction, which makes them indispensable, and therefore worthy of big financial rewards.  The notion that machines will never match humans is nothing more than wishful thinking sustained by a desperate faith in a supposed supernatural quality of the human mind, and an equally desperate clinging to the obsolete idea that life should be a contest between people, a game of who’s got the most money and status.


The dangers are there too, as with any powerful technology.  Brilliant people like Steve Hawking have warned us.  But I believe the dangers of staggering along without the help of artificial intelligence are even greater.  Powerful technologies are coming, quite independent of artificial intelligence, and one way or the other, the clock is ticking on pathological competitiveness, tribalism, and zero-sum thinking.  They are doomed either because we will destroy ourselves altogether, or because the machines will help us give up our self-destructive tendencies.  Either way, old ways of thinking will not survive.

Is California the future?

Peter Leyden is the CEO of Reinvent, a media company based in San Francisco.  It publishes Medium, an online journal with a pretty hefty focus on innovation.  And Leyden, like California itself, is all about innovation and progress.


Some months ago, Leyden and his partner Ruy Teixeira authored a series of articles under the encompassing title “California is the Future.”  In it they argue that the reason California always seems to be 15 years ahead of the rest of the country is that Californians cannot abide stagnation.  California is a magnet for restless people who want to change the world.  Californians are always keen to try out new things.  But they argue that Californians are also very pragmatic.  I’ll come back to that later.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California.  It was the beginning of a conservative wave in California politics.  About 15 years later, this wave hit the country as a whole.  Around that time, a more radical conservatism was hitting California.  Taxes were slashed and state government was starved of funding.  About 15 years later, Newt Gingrich brought the same message to Washington.  Meanwhile, anti-immigrant fervor was hitting California.  Laws were passed to deprive illegal immigrants of government funds.  About 15 years later, the Tea Party movement hit Washington, much of it focused on immigration.


In 2003, California voters turned to a tough-talking celebrity, an outsider who would crack heads and get things done in the capital.  Sound familiar?  About 15 years later, Donald Trump occupies the White House.

By 2005, California voters had had enough of conservative ideology.  Conservative ballot measures were soundly defeated.  Republicans began to disappear from state government.  By 2012 Democrats had achieved supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature.  The state has had a Democratic governor for the last 7 years.


With Democrats dominating state politics, California now has progressive taxation and has poured money into infrastructure and education.  Were it not for the state’s highly dynamic, innovative economy, the high taxes would probably have a negative effect on growth.  But that’s the point.  The California model absolutely depends on CHANGE.  It depends on a dynamic, diverse, constantly changing economy.  It depends on new technologies and new industries, which are the biggest source of economic growth and government revenue.

Leyden and Teixeira are quick to point out that Californians are PRACTICAL.  They will not suffer ideology, any ideology, for long.  The new face of progressive politics in California is not the all-or-nothing liberalism of generations ago.  It is a progressivism that understands the value of market-based entrepreneurship as well as government-provided public goods.  In fact, it depends on both.  Public goods cannot exist without revenue.  That revenue comes from growth industries.  Those industries cannot grow in an environment hostile to industry.  But the reason we have private businesses is to provide for HUMAN BEINGS, who also depend on public goods.  The trashing of all things corporate accomplishes nothing, just as the trashing of all things public accomplishes nothing.  Ideology gets us nowhere.


Leyden and Teixeira clearly believe that this is the future of America.  They believe that Trump represents the last gasp of conservative ideology.  They believe that conservative ideology will collapse, to be replaced by a pragmatic version of liberalism that embraces both private enterprise and public goods – and especially, a dynamic economy built on innovation.  This new progressivism will focus on solving problems with innovative solutions – problems like climate change, wealth inequality, health care, crime, and education.  The key is dynamism.  Constant experimentation.  If something isn’t working, let it go.  Move on.  Keep pushing.  Keep exploring.  Keep investing.

Is this the future of America?  Probably not in the details.  But in the general principle, probably so.  In a way, it’s inevitable.  The future always belongs to the disruptors, the visionaries.  Economic growth, and therefore political power, is always about change.  At one time the job of blacksmith was a very common one in America.  Not any more.  At one time rivers and lakes were the main highways of America.  Not any more.  At one time America had an agricultural economy.  Then it had an industrial economy.  Now a service and information economy.


Virtually all of the genuine economic growth in America over the last 30 years has been in technology.  First it was personal computers and the internet in the 1990’s.  Then cell phones, tablets, and Amazon.  Today it’s social media and content streaming.  In a few years it will be online shopping with home delivery and driverless transport.  It’s only a matter of time before machines take over most of the jobs currently performed by humans, and our economic system is revolutionized.  The alternative, stagnation, just doesn’t seem viable.

Ideology Versus Reality, by State

Perhaps no two states express the ideological divide in America better than California and Texas.  Both are populous states, and their state governments are almost mirror images of each other, with California absolutely dominated by Democrats and Texas held by Republicans.


Several weeks ago, U.S. News came out with a state-by-state ranking on “quality of life.”  The study was based on measures of 2 major factors, environmental quality and social support/engagement.  While certainly valuable, these are rather odd factors to focus on, to the exclusion of others.  The Human Development Index, for example, looks at economic well being, longevity, and education.

Some conservatives were elated that the U.S. News study ranked California dead last on quality of life.  It ranked 44th on environmental quality and 47th on social engagement.  This is rather amusing, since conservatives usually dismiss both of these as liberal concerns.  What didn’t get noticed much was that Texas also did very poorly on this survey, ranking 46th.  Texas was ranked 38th on environmental quality, and 46th, only 1 position ahead of California, on social engagement.


Not surprisingly, more rural states tended to rank more highly on environmental quality.  North Dakota ranked 2nd, Arkansas 5th, and South Dakota 6th.  More urbanized states tended to rank poorly.  Pennsylvania was 46th, Ohio 48th, and Illinois 50th.  Since environmental quality contributed half of a state’s overall score, this was a big blow to a lot of urbanized states.  What is less intuitive is that more rural states also tended to rank more highly on social engagement.  Alaska ranked 1st on this, Montana ranked 2nd, and North Dakota ranked 3rd.  By contrast, Massachusetts ranked 42nd on this, New York 48th, and New Jersey 49th.

There were some notable exceptions.  West Virginia is one of the most rural states, yet still ranked poorly on quality of life.  It relies heavily on extractive industries that are big polluters.  Colorado is one of the more urbanized states, yet ranked number 10 on quality of life, and number 8 on environmental quality.  Some of the rankings didn’t seem to make much sense.  Why should Vermont rank 27th on environmental quality, while New Hampshire ranks 13th (and Massachusetts 3rd!)?  Why should Alabama rank 43rd on environmental quality, while Georgia ranks 15th?  Why is Florida number 1 on environmental quality, while Hawaii is 31st, and Montana 33rd?  Perhaps such problems are why this study didn’t get much attention from serious observers who study human development.  Mississippi, for example, was ranked 6th in its quality of life.  Yet most serious researchers on human development would agree that Mississippi is hardly a beacon of human well-being.  In Louisiana there’s a saying, “Thank goodness for Mississippi.”  It references that fact that, were it not for Mississippi, Louisiana would rank dead last on many measures of human well-being.  Mississippi, for example ranks 50th on life expectancy, 48th on the percentage of people with Bachelor’s degrees, 50th on per capita GDP, and 50th on median household income.  And 50th on the Human Development Index.


The reality is that California tends to rank rather highly on a number of different measures of human development.  On life expectancy it ranks 5th.  On the percentage of people with Bachelor’s degrees it ranks 14th.  On per capita GDP it ranks 9th.  On median household income it ranks 12th.  On the Human Development Index it ranks 11th.  On the New Economy Index, a measure of innovation, it ranks 4th.

Texas, on the other hand, ranks 30th on life expectancy, 30th on the percentage of people with Bachelor’s degrees, and 19th on per capita GDP.  It ranks 25th on median household income and 33rd on the Human Development Index.  On the New Economy Index it ranks 17th.


What’s more, the parts of Texas that are the most vibrant and innovative are those that most resemble California.  The high-tech focal area near Austin, where so many tech companies have taken root, is even called the “Silicon Hills,” a clear reference to Silicon Valley in California.  Texas seems to be proud of its high population growth rate.  But most of this growth is in urban areas like Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio – areas with lots of Democratic voters.  Rural white Republican Texas is slowly depopulating, as extractive industries like oil and timber require fewer and fewer workers.


California, of course, has its problems, and Texas has its strong points.  I have been to both states.  Both have beautiful places and horrible places.  But discussing any of this with ideologues is hopeless.  In time, it will all get sorted out.  Reality has a way of intruding.

Cultural Correlates with Human Well-being, Revisited

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist.  He is 90 years old now, having pioneered the study of cultural variation going back as far as the 1960’s.  Today the web site Hofstede Insights uses his framework to measure cultural variation along 6 dimensions:

  • Power distance – a measure of the inequality of power
  • Individualism versus collectivism
  • Masculinity versus femininity – the degree of preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards
  • Uncertainty avoidance – the degree to which people feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Long term orientation versus short term normative orientation – the degree to which people take a pragmatic approach to change, as opposed to clinging to traditions
  • Indulgence versus restraint – the degree to which a society suppresses basic gratification

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Ronald Ingelhart and Christian Welzel, on cultural variation across the globe.  The World Values Survey collapses cross-cultural variation into only 2 dimensions – traditional/authoritarian versus secular/rational values, and survival values versus self-expression values.  Hofstede Insights splits culture into more dimensions, giving us the opportunity to get a somewhat different perspective on correlates with human well-being.

It turns out that 3 of these factors, masculinity versus femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and indulgence versus restraint have little relationship with per capita GDP or more general measures of well-being.  I won’t show all of these plots, here is just one sample, a plot of indulgence versus the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index:


The green and yellow dots are European countries.  The red dot is America.  Whether people pursue self-gratification or suppress these tendencies seems to have little relationship to country by country well-being.  If anything there may be a happy medium – a desire for self-gratification common, but not overwhelming.

On the other hand, the degree to which people take a long-term, pragmatic approach to change, as opposed to clinging to tradition, does seem to be correlated with well-being:


Countries in which people are pragmatic about change, taking a long-term view as opposed to clinging to whatever traditions they happen to be indoctrinated with, seem to do better.  There is a lot of variation though.  Tradition is quite strong in many poor countries.  But it is also strong in some wealthy countries.

The remaining 2 factors, power distance and individualism, are really where it’s at.  First, let’s look at the relationship between them.


There is a clear negative relationship between power distance and individualism.  It’s important to realize that Hofstede Insights is not measuring power distance by wealth inequality or any other RESULT.  They are measuring people’s ATTITUDES toward inequality – the degree to which they accept inequality as a given.  What this shows is that, contrary to many people’s intuition, individualism is the ENEMY of inequality.  Collectivism tends to make people MORE tolerant of inequality, not less.

Now let’s look at power distance in relation to measures of human well-being.  We’ll start with per capita GDP.


There is a clear negative relationship between power distance and a country’s wealth.  Wealthy countries tend to have people with little tolerance for inequality.  In poor countries people tend to accept inequality as a fact of life.  Now let’s look at power distance in relation to a more meaningful measure of human well-being, the IHDI:


Again there is a negative relationship, although there’s a lot of spread among the poorer countries.  If we just look at Europe and America, the relationship is clearer:


European countries in which people have little tolerance for inequality tend to be those with high rankings on the IHDI.  The 5 Scandinavian countries rate poorly on tolerance for inequality and very highly on the IHDI.  The country on the lower right is Albania, which has one of the highest power distance ratings in Europe, and the lowest score on the IHDI.

Now let’s look at individualism versus collectivism.  As you have already seen, individualism is correlated with intolerance for inequality.  Is individualism by country correlated with per capita GDP?


You bet it is.  Poor countries tend to be those with a culture of collectivism.  Wealthy countries have people who are more individualistic.  The green dot in the lower left is Albania.  Albanians have the most collectivist mindset in Europe – and the country has the lowest per capita GDP in Europe.  Now let’s look at individualism in relation to the IHDI:


Again there is a clear relationship, although again the poorer countries vary a lot.  Looking at just Europe and America:


Countries with high individualism ratings, like Sweden and the Netherlands, tend to have high IHDI scores.  Countries with low individualism ratings, like Portugal and Turkey, tend to have low IHDI scores.  Beyond a certain point, though, individualism doesn’t seem to help much.  The United Kingdom, for example, is second only to America in its individualism rating.  Yet it ranks behind 9 other European countries on the IHDI.  Nevertheless, collectivism clearly comes up short when it comes to creating wealth and providing for human well-being.

These results agree in a general way with those of Inglehart and Welzel, which show that a culture of individualism tends to produce less, not more, tolerance of inequality and injustice, while increasing tolerance of diversity.  It is what they call the civic form of modern individualism.


The culture of individualism is not just about political participation – it expresses itself clearly in the workplace as well.  Denmark, for example, which currently ranks 7th in the world on the IHDI, has a high individualism rating (74) and a very low power distance rating (18).  Power is decentralized and managers count on the experience of their team members.  Workers have tremendous autonomy and expect to be consulted on decisions.  Equality is valued, but so is independence.  Ordinary people feel empowered.  There is independence, but also intolerance of exploitation and injustice.  Ordinary people stand up for themselves, and they stand up for others who suffer oppression.

In more collectivist societies, individuals tend to surrender their autonomy.  Loyalty to a group is valued, whether that group is a business, an ethnicity, or a government.  This usually translates into obedience to authority.  People tend to accept power inequalities, and so they tolerate exploitation and injustice.  They are indoctrinated to believe that the power imbalance is “just the way it is.”  Just as they don’t stand up for themselves, they don’t stand up for others who are exploited and oppressed.


As this planet becomes increasingly interconnected, economically and politically, those who value group loyalty are feeling increasingly threatened.  They should.  Thomas Jefferson said, “I have sworn before the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  Individualism is the enemy of tribalism in every form.  Authoritarianism, tribalism, nationalism, they all spring from the same source – group loyalty and exclusion of the “other.”  The future belongs to justice, equality, and tolerance.

Is China a glaring exception to general patterns of progress?

China is a communist country, and has been for almost 70 years.  It’s a fact that we don’t hear much about any more from the American media.  They speak of China as an “emerging market.”  They talk about its “sphere of influence.”  But we don’t hear a lot about the fact that it is still a communist dictatorship.


Communism is almost considered old news today.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratization of many formerly communist countries, it seems that the free world has declared victory.  Communism failed.  The problem with this narrative is that almost 1 out of 5 human beings live in communist China.  And China has made enormous economic and social progress over the course of its communistic 70 years.

Longevity for example.  In 1950, the average life expectancy in China was less than 40 years.  Today it is about 70 years.  Since 1950 child mortality in China has dropped 94%!  But the fact is, most of the world has made progress on health and wealth over the last 70 years.  Since 1990, 1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty, and more than 2 billion have gained access to improved sanitation.  The global mortality rate for children under 5 was halved.  Global life expectancy in 1950 was less than 50 years.  By 1990 it had reach about 65 years.  Today, it is more than 70 years.  South Korea is a good example.  In 1950, life expectancy in South Korea was less than 50 years.  Today it is more than 80 years – higher than America and most of Europe!  In spite of its progress, China ranks 53rd in life expectancy.


China is certainly not a democracy.  The Economist Intelligence Unit considers it an authoritarian regime, ranked 139th on their Democracy Index.  The Cato Institute ranks it 130th on their Human Freedom Index.  Worldaudit.org ranks it 143rd on press freedom and 125th on democracy.  Freedom House gives countries a freedom score on a scale from 0 to 100.  China’s score?  14.

China has moved away from strict government control of business.  In the 1970’s it decollectivized agriculture and allowed private businesses to exist.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s it privatized many industries and reduced government regulation substantially.  Although the banking industry remains nationalized, it could be argued that economically, China is far from the communist ideal.


China is often portrayed in the American media as an economic powerhouse, a rival to America.  And it is.  But when it comes to a typical person in China, the country still ranks rather poorly on economics.  The per capita GDP is only about $8600, making it 73rd in the world.  This ranks it behind Mexico, Malaysia, and Lebanon.  In other measures of human well-being, China also ranks rather poorly.  On the Social Progress Index it ranks 83rd.  On the Human Development Index it ranks 90th.

And then there is government corruption, one of the most important factors in determining a typical person’s well-being.  The Heritage Foundation ranks China 56th in government integrity.  “The Communist Party dominates the judicial system,” they tell us.  “Party political-legal committees influence the appointment of judges, court operations, and verdicts and sentences. Corruption remains endemic, and the leadership has rejected more fundamental reforms.”


On education too, China is hardly exemplary.  On the U.N.’s Education Index it ranks 106th.  On the World Bank’s Knowledge Index it ranks 77th (only 134 countries are rated on this).  China is of course an industrial country.  But it is not yet what Christian Welzel calls a KNOWLEDGE society.  And as long as it remains an authoritarian country, it is unlikely to be.  But then one tends to feed back to the other.  As education becomes broader, people have less tolerance for oppression and corruption.

Chinese communism – with BIG economic modifications -has shown itself to be a potent force in lifting people out of poverty.  And it could be argued that it’s the modifications, the “corruption” of the communist ideal that have produced the bulk of these achievements.  Although China is beginning to have a middle class, it is still far from achieving the kind of economic and social progress we have seen in countries like South Korea and Japan.


Without a significant broadening of education, China may well get stuck in the same rut that Russia is in – an industrial country that is stagnating because it has failed to make the transition to a knowledge society.  China is NOT an exception to the overall pattern of democratization.  It is an industrial country in which the basics of life are much more readily available to the average person than they were a century ago.  But it is not a knowledge society with a thriving middle class.  It is not free.  Not yet.

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