David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “June, 2018”

The Browning of America

For most of its history, America was an overwhelmingly white country.  In fact, despite waves of immigration, the white percentage of America’s population remained close to 90% until 1940, and was still well over 80% in 1970.

percentageofwhitesbyyear

However, the total number of non-Hispanic whites in America has been slowly leveling off ever since 1960.  This is due to dramatic drops in family size among white Americans.  Hispanic families tend to be larger, leading to a gradual decline in the dominance of white ethnicity in America.  Whites now constitute about 62% of the American population.

numberofwhitesbyyear

The drop in fertility among whites has now reached the point where the absolute number of white people in the country is actually starting to decline.  This is happening a bit faster than demographers had anticipated.  It is highly likely that America will become a majority non-white country by 2045, possibly as soon as 2035, only 17 years away.  Some of the country’s largest states are already – Texas is only 45% white, and California is only 38% white.

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Long before the total population is majority non-white, the majority of the youth of the country will be.  Within 10 years, most non-adults in America will be non-white.  Today, baby boomers are between 55 and 75 years old.  Within 20 years, none of them will be less than 75.  By 2040, only 22 years away, most of the baby boomers will be gone.  As the baby boomers die off, the white population of America will decline rapidly.

demographicevolution

Some argue that it actually isn’t that simple – that America is becoming an increasingly mixed country, neither white nor brown, but to a great extent something in between.  A sizable percentage of the population is classified as “white Hispanic.”  In the 2010 census, 50.5 million Americans identified themselves as Hispanic.  Of these, 26.7 million, a little over half, also identified themselves as white.  The vast majority of these white Hispanics, 16.8 million, report their national origin as Mexican.  If we add white Hispanics to the rest of the white population, the white percentage in America rises to 77%, and these “whites” will continue to be a solid majority well into the middle of this century.

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But in a way, this misses the point.  In America, “white” isn’t just another ethnicity.  In so many ways, “white” is normalized, and deviation from it is marginalized.  Studies have shown that in Mexico, people have, on average, a higher percentage of European ancestry than do Mexican-Americans.  Yet more than half of Mexican-Americans self-identify as white, while less than 17% of Mexicans identify as white.  This difference is all about the perception of ethnicity in these 2 countries, and how that affects people’s self-reporting.

mexicans

In America, whiteness is a ticket to privilege.  Assimilation is all about whiteness.  People whose ethnicities were not “Anglo” enough have long Anglicized their names and minimized their distinctiveness to gain access – even those whose ancestry was largely European.  Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich.  Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti.  Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler.  Throughout her career, she minimized her Jewish heritage.  These days it is less and less even a matter of skin color or hair texture.  In fact, if you happen to have dark skin but walk the walk and talk the talk, you’re especially favored, because you’re walking, talking “proof” of the non-existence of racism.  “Bobby” Jindal (born Piyush Jindal) is in the club, no problem.  “Nikki Haley” (born Nimrata Randhawa) is in.  It is much more about how you speak, how you dress, how you decorate your house, and importantly, what you believe about politics.

hedylamarr

In the last presidential election, 65% of Hispanics voted Democratic, while 58% of whites voted Republican.  The Republican Party in America is about 90% white.  Country-wide, Republicans are about 23% of the electorate, and that percentage is slowly dropping.  Only 13% of Hispanic-Americans, 17% of Asian-Americans, and 5% of African-Americans are Republican.  If anything those numbers are getting worse over time for the Republican Party.  It is now a third party in California, outnumbered even by Independents.

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Many Americans think of Texas as a red state.  But if you look a big cities in Texas, you might be surprised.  Houston’s population is about 50% white, if we include white Hispanics.  Yet Houston has had Democratic mayors for decades.  Dallas’s population is about 51% white, if we include white Hispanics.  Yet Dallas has had Democratic mayors for decades.

And then there is Austin, the fastest-growing large city in Texas.  Austin is only about 49% white, if we exclude white Hispanics.  But if we include them, this number jumps up to 68 PERCENT.  In other words, about 20% of the population of Austin consists of white Hispanics.  Does this get Republicans elected?  Not at all.  Austin, like Houston and Dallas, has had Democratic mayors for decades.

youngaustinpeople

Austin is a glimpse at the future of America – urban, technological, ethnically diverse.  And not Republican – unless the Republican Party remakes itself, big time.  The parts of the country that have dynamic, growing economies are those that have ethnically diverse populations – the coast of California, central Texas, south Florida.  The parts of the country that are white-dominated tend to be rural areas that are losing jobs to automation.  The country is becoming more urbanized and automation will almost certainly accelerate.  The privileged status of whiteness is doomed.  The pressure to assimilate into white culture will fade.  The Republican Party will either change dramatically or disintegrate.

Politifact Revisited

About a year ago, I discussed the fact-checking site Politifact, which rates individual statements by politicians, media figures, and organizations on truthfulness.  Among politically influential people, our moron-in-chief performed stunningly badly.  Let’s revisit Politifact a year later and see if things have changed.  Sadly, they haven’t rated any more Rush Limbaugh statements.  In fact, Politifact doesn’t rate statements by media figures that much.  That’s a shame, because judging from their ratings, Limbaugh is kind of the king of falsehoods, with only 5% of his statements rated true or mostly true.

politifact

By June of 2017, Politifact had rated 597 of Barack Obama’s statements.  48% of them were rated as true or mostly true.  Since then they have added only 2 of his statements, suggesting that he is not very politically influential.  Similarly, they have added only 3 Hillary Clinton statements to their ratings, suggesting that she is no longer very politically influential.

So who is politically influential?  Well, our moron-in-chief of course.  By June of 2017, Politifact had rated 410 of his statements.  Only 17% were rated true or mostly true.  Since then it has added another 161 statements.  The percentage rated true or mostly true has not changed – it still stands at 17%.  He’s consistent.  Consistently untruthful.

mikepence

Updating the other influential politicians I examined before, we have Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan on the conservative side, and Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer, and Bernie Sanders on the liberal side.  Politifact has added 6 Mike Pence statements to their ratings.  His truthfulness has not improved.  In June of 2017 the percentage of his statements rated true or mostly true was 22%.  Now it stands at 21%.

Mitch McConnell does considerably better.  Only 1 Mitch McConnell statement has been added to the ratings, so naturally his status has not changed appreciably.  39% of his statements are rated true or mostly true.  Paul Ryan, on the other hand, has had 10 statements added to the ratings.  His truthfulness has not improved.  In June of 2017, 33% of his statements were rated true or mostly true.  This percentage has dropped to 31%.

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On the liberal side, Nancy Pelosi performed rather poorly on truthfulness before, about the same as Mike Pence.  Only 21% of her statements were rated true or mostly true.  Since June of 2017, 7 of her statements have been added to the ratings.  Her truthfulness has improved somewhat – 25% of her statements are now rated true or mostly true.

Charles Schumer performed much better than Pelosi.  He still does.  4 of his statements have been added to the ratings.  49% of his statements are rated true or mostly true.  Bernie Sanders has also performed well in the past.  Politifact continues to give him a lot of attention.  9 of his statements have been added to their ratings.  As before, 50% of his statements are rated true or mostly true.

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Once again we can take the average of these 3 influential conservatives and compare it to the influential liberals:

Mike Pence – 21% true or mostly true

Mitch McConnell – 39% true or mostly true

Paul Ryan – 31% true or mostly true

average of conservatives – 30% true or mostly true

 

Nancy Pelosi – 25% true or mostly true

Charles Schumer – 49% true or mostly true

Bernie Sanders – 50% true or mostly true

average of liberals – 41% true or mostly true

The truthfulness gap between conservative and liberal politicians seems to be increasing.  Last June it stood at 8%.  Today it stands at 11%.  Of course I have not even considered our moron-in-chief in this comparison.  That would seriously trash the average performance of influential conservative politicians – but of course he is no ordinary conservative.

seanhannity2

As I said, individual media figures are not rated that often by Politifact.  Statements from people like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow are very seldom rated.  Over the years a picture does emerge though.  The same is true of major television networks like Fox News and CNN, as well as the Democratic and Republican National Committees.  Over the last year, only 2 statements from Fox, none from CNN, and none from ABC have been added to Politifact’s ratings.  The total number of statements rated now stands at 170 for Fox, 81 for CNN, and 96 for ABC.  The total for the Republican National Committee is 34, for the Democratic National Committee 37.

Truthfuless gaps remain in all of these cases – between conservative and liberal pundits, conservative and liberal political parties, conservative and liberal television networks.  In the case of Fox News the gap is a chasm.  Only 22% of the statements from that network are rated true or mostly true.  An incredible 38% are rated either false or “pants on fire.”  When almost 4 out of 10 of your “news” network’s statements are rated falsehoods, do you even qualify as a news network?  By contrast, 53% of statements from CNN are rated true or mostly true, and only 18% are rated false or “pants on fire.”  ABC is similar – 53% of statements are rated true or mostly true, and only 18% are rated false (with none at all rated “pants on fire”).

otero4

These ratings are supported by Vanessa Otero’s analysis of these networks.  She places ABC in the category of “Neutral,” an outlet that focuses on factual reporting.  She places CNN on the boundary between “Neutral” and “Skews Liberal,” an outlet that presents facts but also “fair interpretations of the news.”  Fox News, on the other hand, is so strongly ideological that she places it on the boundary between “Skews Conservative” and “Hyper-partisan Conservative.”  And on truthfulness, it goes in the category of “nonsense damaging to public discourse.”  You can’t get any worse on her truthfulness scale.

As you can see from Otero’s analysis, the more strongly ideological outlets tend to be the least reliable, the least truthful.  The same applies to politicians.  Nancy Pelosi is one of the most liberal American congressmen, and on truthfulness she performs poorly.  Mike Pence is quite conservative – and he also has a problem with truthfulness.  Bernie Sanders seems to be an exception to this pattern.  He is considered quite liberal – given a lifetime rating of only 7% by the American Conservative Union.  Yet among influential politicians in Washington his performance on truthfulness is quite high.

mediabiasfactcheck

Incidentally, Politifact itself is rated by Media Bias/Fact Check News.  They place it in their category “Least Biased” – focused on well-sourced facts with minimal loaded language.  They do suggest that it may have a slight liberal bias, simply due to the fact that it rates statements by conservatives more often than it does liberals.  However, the fact that Nancy Pelosi’s performance on truthfulness is considerably poorer than Paul Ryan’s or Mitch McConnell’s tells us that Politifact is by no means strongly biased in favor of liberals.

democratsrepublicans

Politifact would benefit from more objective criteria in its selection of statements to rate.  But given that it is itself a media outlet, presenting its ratings as “stories,” it’s understandable that it picks and chooses rather subjectively.  We need more of this kind of media analysis, much more, from non-partisan or bipartisan sources.  It’s quite feasible, and our public discourse would benefit tremendously.  Every statement, every story, every outlet can be held up to the scale of truthfulness.  And they should be.

Vanessa Otero’s Media Analysis

Vanessa Otero is a patent attorney in Colorado.  She’s not a journalist.  But she does maintain a blog, entitled All Generalizations are False.  And she has become rather famous in media circles, because starting in late 2016 she posted a chart on her blog.  A chart of media bias.

vanessaotero

Not being a journalist, Otero acknowledges that she may not be the best person to analyze our media.  Then again, it could be argued that someone from outside the media system IS a better choice for the task than anyone within it.  Otero does not deny that she has biases of her own.  She rightly acknowledges that all of us do.  That does not make any of us unqualified to reach valid conclusions.  If it did, there would be no such thing as science.  It is merely a matter of applying rigorous methods.

She does point out that she has considerable education and training in the field of analytical reading.  This does give her a considerable advantage in tackling the difficult task of analyzing media bias.  And more importantly, she is clear about her methodology.  She is very aware of the problems of subjectivity and researcher bias.  And she is doing her best to deal with them.

foxmosttrusted

Otero does not poll readers or viewers on media bias.  Others have done this, and the flaws in such an approach should be obvious.  Are we going to get a good idea of how biased Fox News is by polling Fox News viewers?  Not likely.  Still other researchers use very subjective criteria in examining media bias.  Even when very even-handed, this may not produce a very valid result.

Another approach is to actually use a computer program to analyze text.  While more objective, the problem with this is that the computer programs have a hard time understanding context, which is critical to meaning.  If the program picks up the word conservative lots of times, does that mean the article or program has a conservative bias?

mediaoutlets

Otero’s methodology is rather complex, and she is still in the process of explaining it, more than a year after she posted her initial analysis.  She uses a combination of objective and subjective criteria.  She pays close attention to context.  She uses every ounce of her training in analytical reading to generate a detailed picture of each article (or segment) and each media outlet.

Her initial chart, posted in late 2016, looks like this:

otero1

Last summer she updated it, like so:

otero2

In November of last year she posted a third version.  And a few months later she modified this slightly, based on feedback:

otero4

Notice that all of these versions are pretty similar.  The basic distribution of media outlets changes very little.  That Otero is on to something is reinforced by comparing her characterizations to those of Media Bias/Fact Check News, an independent media analysis organization.  Here are their categorizations of some major media outlets compared with hers:

Analyst                              MBFC News                 Vanessa Otero

Daily Beast                    Left Bias                        Hyper-partisan Liberal

CNN                                Left Bias                        Neutral to Skews Liberal

NY Times                        Left-Center Bias          Neutral to Skews Liberal

Reuters                           Least Biased                Neutral

Wall Street Journal      Right-Center Bias       Neutral to Skews Conservative

Fox News                        Right Bias                    Hyper-partisan Conservative

Daily Caller                    Right Bias                    Hyper-partisan Conservative

Notice that Otero’s vertical scale distinguishes media outlets emphasizing factual reporting from those emphasizing misleading and/or fabricated info.  Her green rectangle encloses outlets that emphasize factual reporting.  Her yellow rectangle shows us outlets that give us “fair interpretations of the news.”  Her orange rectangle encompasses outlets that emphasize “unfair interpretations of the news,” and her red rectangle is reserved for “nonsense damaging to public discourse.”  MBFC plans to rate outlets along a similar scale in the future.  The more ideologically extreme outlets, on both ends of the spectrum, deal primarily in falsehoods, whether outright fabrications, lies of omission, or misleading information.  A good example of this is Infowars, Alex Jones’ cesspool of conspiracy theories and right-wing propaganda.  Among his many despicable promulgations is that the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 young children and 7 adults were brutally murdered, was an elaborate hoax to forward the cause of gun control.

infowars2

What is interesting is that major media outlets on the left, such as the NY Times and CNN, are not considered especially liberal by either Otero or MBFC.  Even MSNBC is placed on the boundary between “Skews Liberal” and “Hyper-Partisan Liberal” by her.  Conversely, major conservative newspapers, such as the National Review and Washington Examiner, are placed by Otero on the boundary between “Skews Conservative” and “Hyper-partisan Conservative.”  All of these outlets, liberal and conservative, are within her green and yellow rectangles – outlets that she concludes either emphasize facts or present “fair interpretations of the news.”

Fox News, however, is quite another story.  Otero considers Fox News to be so extreme that she places it near the boundary between “Hyper-partisan Conservative” and “Most Extreme Conservative.”  If it were any more conservative, it would land in the same box as InfowarsFox is so divorced from factual reporting that she places it in her red rectangle – “nonsense damaging to public discourse.”  No other major television network even comes close to her red box.

hannity3

There is no question that Fox has become increasingly extreme ideologically over the years.  Although its “fair and balanced” mantra was always a joke, there was a time when Fox opinionators made some effort toward balance.  Sean Hannity, for example, was once the co-host of Hannity and Colmes.  Alan Colmes, although in fact ideologically quite moderate, was at least a different viewpoint from Hannity’s conservatism.  Those days are long gone.  The prime time schedule of Fox is now dominated by strongly conservative voices – people like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham.  Fox News even refers to other media outlets as “mainstream” now – even as it promotes itself as one of the most popular media outlets in America.

Tucker Carlson is a particularly noteworthy case, because he once worked for The Weekly Standard, founded by William Kristol.  Otero places The Weekly Standard on the border between “Skews Conservative” and “Hyper-partisan Conservative” – far less extreme than Fox News, and within her yellow rectangle of “fair interpretations of the news.”  In an interview, Kristol had some rather strong words for his protégé Tucker Carlson, calling his show a “combination of dumbing down, as you said earlier, and stirring people’s emotions in a very unhealthy way.”

tuckercarlson

I firmly believe that Fox News has trapped itself in a positive feedback loop with a small and shrinking segment of the American population.  It has appealed to their fears and prejudices, and in the process, reinforced them.  As they have become ever more fearful and entrenched in tribalism, Fox has responded with even more fear-mongering and tribalism.  The intellectual brand of conservatism, represented by people like William Kristol and George Will, never really caught on with GRASSROOTS conservatives.  All they ever heard from the conservative movement was what they wanted to hear – that it is the white male in America that is under siege, and that somehow movement conservatism would prevent the browning and feminization of the country.  Fox News opinionators increasingly preach to this choir.

Of course, ideology is relative.  Norway has a “conservative” political party – in fact, that’s what it’s called, the Conservative Party.  This so-called conservative party supports gay marriage and gay adoption rights, universal health care, and the perpetuation of the welfare state.  There is simply no room in the Norwegian political mainstream for a party that opposes these things.  6 political parties occupy more than 90% of Norway’s parliament.  Not one of them opposes abortion rights, gay marriage, or the welfare state.

theocrats

What is considered conservative versus liberal can actually be reversed, depending on where you are.  In most countries, communism is considered an extreme left-wing ideology.  But in the few countries where communism is actually dominant, those who defend it are called conservatives.  Those who favor more privatization and less government intrusion into people’s lives are the liberals.  In a broad sense, conservatism is associated with people referred to as “hard liners” – people who fiercely defend the status quo.  If the status quo is communism, communists are conservatives.  If the status quo is theocracy, theocrats are conservatives.  And if the status quo is the dominance of a particular culture – well, anything that threatens its privileged position is considered liberal.

History is full of examples of tit for tat ideology.  During World War II, some of the most heinous atrocities were committed by fascists in Yugoslavia, who favored an independent Croatia.  The Serb population, as well as Jews and Roma people, suffered enormously.  Fast forward to the 1990’s.  The Serb population now commits atrocities against Croats and Muslims.  As with so many cases, the ideological divide is as much about ethnicity as it is politics.  Many ethnic purges and progroms were committed in the 20th century under the cover of fascism or communism.

trumprally

More and more, we see that the ideological divide in America is built on culture.  Years of intellectualizing and high-minded attempts to pretend otherwise are yielding to reality.  The Republican Party in America is now more than 90% white.  American conservatives have become increasingly obsessed with immigration and its cultural effects.  In a recent poll, 58% of Americans, including 91% of Democrats and 62% of Independents, said they were opposed to building a wall on the Mexican border.  Yet 77% of Republicans were in favor.  66% of Americans, including 91% of Democrats and 68% of Independents, said they were opposed to separating children from parents who enter the country illegally.  Yet 55% of Republicans said they were in favor.

rightleftfight

Meanwhile, American liberalism is increasingly focused on identity politics.  Tit for tat.  Your tribe hurt my tribe, and it’s payback time.  This is all ideology is good for.  The perpetuation of tribalism.  Attempts to intellectualize this, to elevate it into a coherent ideology, are doomed to failure.  American conservatives are fierce defenders of the unborn.  But as soon as they ARE born, they’re on their own.  American liberals want the government out of their private lives.  Unless those private lives involve the sexual harassment of women by men.

The alternative is pragmatism, and genuine respect for the individual.  Asking “Does this idea really work?” may not seem revolutionary.  Yet it is one of those simple things that usually eludes us.  We are social beings.  We want power.  And we know that power comes from being part of a group.  Not the big, natural group called humanity.  Ideology is all about group cohesion.  And group cohesion is always about excluding someone.

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The happiest societies on earth are those that respect the individual, yet acknowledge the unavoidable social dimension of life.  Countries in which individual freedom is highly valued, but individual greed is not.  Ideas either work, in real life, or they don’t.  Franklin Roosevelt said that history has its ups and downs, but the overall trajectory is unmistakably positive.  It seems to me that ideology is the reason we always seem to have a step back for every 2 steps forward.

Suicide in America, Revisited

In a previous post, I discussed the rising suicide rate in America, and its relationship to geography, gender, ethnicity, and gun ownership.  But in focusing on the change in suicide rates, I kind of glossed over something.  A state that already had a high suicide rate might see a big increase, or even a decline, and a state that started with a low rate might see a big increase.  Yet the first state might still have a high rate, and the second a low rate.

nevada

In fact, the first turns out to be true of Nevada.  Nevada is the only state that saw a decline in suicide from 1999 to 2016.  But like many western states, it already had a high rate.  In 2016, it ranked 6th in suicide rates.  Minnesota, on the other hand, saw a large increase in suicide, about 41%.  But it started from a fairly low rate, and in 2016 ranked 36th in suicide rates.

As I said before, we have long known that suicide rates tend to be higher in rural areas.  If we look at the percentage of the population urban by state in relation to the 2016 suicide rate, we see this:

percenturbanversussuiciderate2016

There is a definite negative correlation, although there is quite a lot of spread.  Again, it is important to distinguish between suicide and attempted suicide.  Attempted suicide is much harder to get solid figures on.  But we know that men complete suicide at much higher rates than women.  We know that men use guns to commit suicide at much higher rates than women.  So it’s reasonable to ask, what is the relationship between suicide rates and gun ownership?  Here it is:

percentwhoowngunsbystateversussuiciderate2016

The relationship is solid and strong, even linear.  Alaska has the highest percentage of gun ownership, about 62%.  It also has one of the highest suicide rates.  Delaware has the lowest percentage of gun ownership, only 5.2%.  Its suicide rate is less than half that of Alaska’s.  Mississippi is one of the more rural states in the country.  But unlike states such as Alaska and Montana, a large portion of its rural population is African-American.  African-American gun ownership is a fraction of that of white America.  The percentage who own guns in Mississippi is only 43%, to Alaska’s 62%.  The suicide rate in Mississippi is about half that of Alaska.

handgun

Access to guns is probably the single largest contributor to suicide in America.  Guns are concentrated in the hand of rural white males.  There is every reason to believe that this will continue for years to come.  There are many things society can do to reduce suicide rates.  But I doubt we will see a significant dent in the problem for the foreseeable future – because rural white America’s love affair with guns is unlikely to change any time soon.

Earnings Trends – How are we really doing?

In a previous post, I discussed the “college earnings premium” in America – the fact that a college degree gives one an increasing earnings advantage, while those without a degree have actually seen their earnings decline over the years:

collegepremium

Yet if we look at hourly earnings in America over the years, we see that they have actually increased since the 1990’s, even taking inflation into account:

realhourlywageshistorical

How do we reconcile these 2 trends?  How can earnings be increasing, when the vast majority of Americans do not have college degrees, and these people have seen their earnings decline?  The answer lies in understanding the aging of the American population.  The first graph above shows earnings of young Americans by GENERATION.  Millennials without college are indeed making less than baby boomers without college did, when they were in their 20’s.  But as people age, they tend to make more money.

The average weekly salary for Americans 20-24 years old is $528.  For those 35-44, it’s $950, almost twice as much.  As people age into their 30’s, their income tends to increase dramatically.  And the American population is aging, year by year.  In 1970, only 37% of Americans were 40 and over.  By 2000, that percentage had increased to 42%.  Today, 47% of Americans are 40 and over.  As people age, they tend to make more.  In a way, this should be obvious.  If a person works at a given job, over time their pay tends to increase.  That’s all.  American workers are slowly aging, so they’re making more.  It doesn’t alter the fact of income inequality, or the fact that those without college degrees are losing ground compared to those of the same age from previous generations.

medianageprojected

The proportion of the American population 40 and over has increased by 27% since 2000.  Inflation-adjusted wages since 2000 have grown – uh, 6%.  What we really need to know is, what is the trend in AGE-SPECIFIC earnings for working Americans?  Well, if we look at the earnings of those aged 16-24, we get this:

earnings16to24

The overall trend is quite clearly downward.  Even though earnings have increased since the recession in 2008, they have yet to recover to 2006 levels, and are now 10% below the levels in 2000.  How about Americans aged 25-54?

earnings25to54

These folks have seen some ups and downs over the last 18 years.  Overall they have seen little change.  Finally, we can look at Americans over 55:

earningsover55

Older Americans have seen steady, dramatic improvement in earnings since 2000.  Their earnings have doubled during that time.  But notice that they were starting from a very poor position.  In 2000, the average annual earnings for Americans over 55 (and this is strictly working people) were only $11,025.

lifetimeincome

Even so, why should we be concerned?  If Americans tend to make more as they age, with people over 55 seeing huge gains, what’s to worry about?  If wages increase with age, and the population is slowly aging, why should we be concerned?   The problem is that LIFETIME earnings tend to be a function of earnings early in life.  Lifetime income for men in America has been steadily declining.  It peaked for men who entered the workforce in the late 1960’s, and is now about 14% below those levels.  For women it has increased, but women started from a very low point, and their lifetime incomes are still very low.

Some have expressed concern that as the population ages, there simply won’t be enough earnings among the young to pay for retirement and health care for the old.  The problem with this notion is that it assumes that human labor is the main source of money for health care and retirement.  It isn’t.  PRODUCTION is the source of money, for everything.  And the vast majority of productive labor is performed by machines.

productivityandcompensationhistorical

Economists talk about the “transfer of wealth from labor to capital.”  Productivity in America has steadily increased for decades, and until the 1970’s, wages kept up.  But since then there has been an increasing gap between the two.  How is this possible?  Isn’t the increase in productivity a function of how hard workers are working?

Of course not.  Productivity is a function of the replacement of human labor by machine labor.  One person monitoring an automated factory is 100 times as productive as 100 workers generating the same product.  What has happened is that the owners of the machines have denied workers more and more of the productive pie.  The whole distinction between owners and workers is that workers do not own the machines.  Owners do.  And they need human workers less and less.

incomehistogram

If the transfer of wealth from labor to capital had not happened, if wages had kept pace with productivity all along, what would our society look like today?  Well, personal income would average about 2.3 times what it currently does.  That means the typical working American would currently be making about $74,000 per year, the equivalent of about $35/hour.  That gives us some idea of how much productive wealth working people have been denied in America.

Of course, this assumes that lots more money in the hands of consumers would not have boosted the economy.  Yet we know that a thriving middle class does tend to boost economic growth.  So it’s very possible that America would have seen much more growth than it has for the last 40 years, and the typical working American would be making even more than $35/hour.  An economy, after all, is about EXCHANGE.  Production is the value of goods and services PURCHASED.  The more wealth is distributed, the more the opportunity for exchange.  This is exactly why countries without a thriving middle class tend to be poor.  As I have previously pointed out, poor countries tend to have greater income inequality.  They usually have a few wealthy people.  What they lack are dynamic, growing economies built on the sale of goods and services to large numbers of people who have disposable income.

automatedwarehouse3

What does the future hold?  Most likely, accelerating automation.  Left to their own devices, owners will take an ever-increasing chunk of the increasing production pie.  Obviously, this trend can’t continue indefinitely.  Some business and political leaders have already expressed concern about it.  Machines are already doing the overwhelming majority of the physical work of production.  The only question is how soon the masses of Americans will demand their share of it.

Suicide in America, 2018

Recently, the CDC released a study on changes in suicide rates in America from 1999 to 2016.  In almost every part of America, suicide rates have increased, often dramatically.  In North Dakota, for example, the suicide rate increased almost 60% during that time.

suicidehelp

You might think that poor states would have more rapidly increasing suicide rates, and wealthier states not so much.  So let’s look at the change in suicide rate versus median household income by state:

medianhouseholdincomeversussuicideincrease  There doesn’t seem to be any relationship at all.  Some poor states, like Arkansas and West Virginia, have indeed seen suicide rates increase dramatically.  But so have some wealthy states, like Minnesota and New Hampshire.

How about education?  Perhaps states with higher percentages of college graduates have not seen such a dramatic increase in suicide rates.  Let’s look at that:

percentagewithbachelorsversussuicideincrease

Again there seems to be no relationship.  Vermont has a relatively high percentage of people with Bachelor’s degrees, 33%.  But it has also seen a huge increase in suicide rates.

In fact, we can look at the Human Development Index by state, which combines education, income, and life expectancy.  Plotting the HDI versus the change in suicide rate, we get this:

hdiversussuicideincrease Again we see no relationship.  So what is correlated with the increase in suicide rates?

Well, we’ve known for quite some time that suicide rates in rural areas of America tend to be higher than in urban areas.  We also know that suicide rates for men are much higher than those for women.  So first, let’s compare rural states to urban states:

percentageurbanversussuicideincrease

Here we do see a correlation, although there’s a lot of spread.  Rural states have generally seen a more dramatic increase in suicide than urban states.  But we are still missing something.

Let’s look at a map showing the state by state increases in suicide rates:

suicideincreasemap

Hmmmm.  The biggest increases have occurred in some northern states, especially some of the montane states like Montana and Idaho.  Let’s look at the white population in America by state:

percentwhitemap

Wow.  Those 2 maps are pretty similar.  So let’s see if there is indeed a correlation between the percentage of white people by state and the change in suicide rates:

percentagewhiteversussuicideincrease

There sure is, a surprisingly strong correlation.  The ethnic composition of a state is a fairly good predictor of its increase in suicide.  It’s not merely rural people who are killing themselves more.  It’s rural white people.

White Americans commit suicide at a rate 3 TIMES that of African-Americans.  And rural areas are often white-dominated.  Furthermore, the suicide rate for men is well over 3 times that of women.  It’s white rural men in particular that seem to be killing themselves at much higher rates than in the past.  Why?

In a previous post, I showed that rural men in America are among the most poorly educated demographic group.  Young American women are more highly educated than older American women.  But among rural American men, the pattern is the opposite.  Rural men aged 25-29 are actually much LESS educated than those in their 60’s!

educationbyageandgender

Let’s look at a map of the percentage of white men without college in America:

whitemenwithoutcollegemap2

Compare this map to the one above, showing the increase in suicide rates by state.  They are remarkably similar.  But remember that I said the increase in suicide rates by state isn’t correlated with education.  So why are the 2 maps so similar?

The answer lies in making a distinction between suicide and attempted suicide.  It turns out that men are no more likely than women to ATTEMPT suicide – in fact the evidence indicates the opposite.  American women appear more likely to attempt suicide than men.  The difference is that a man is far more likely to use a lethal weapon in the attempt.  Among men, 52% of completed suicides involve a firearm.  Among women, the percentage is only 38%.  Women are far more likely to attempt suicide with drugs, and often survive.  About 62% of women who kill themselves have attempted suicide previously.  By contrast, only 38% of men who kill themselves have attempted suicide before.  When a man tries to kill himself, he usually succeeds.

gunowners

In another previous post, I pointed out that guns in America are concentrated in the hands of rural white men.  About half of all white men in America are gun owners.  By contrast, only 24% of non-white American men, and about the same percentage of white women, own guns.  46% of rural Americans own guns, while only 28% of suburbanites, and a mere 19% of urban Americans, own guns.  About half of rural Americans report knowing someone who has been shot, even though violent crime rates are much lower in rural areas.  Death rates from gun injuries are much, much higher in rural areas.  You are more than 7 TIMES more likely to be killed by a gunshot in Alaska than in New York.

Even more important is the fact that guns are concentrated in the hands of rural, white, POORLY EDUCATED males.  Among white American college graduates, only 26% are gun owners.  But among whites who only have high school or less, 4 out of 10 are gun owners.  Guns are concentrated in areas with lots of poorly educated white males.  These are the areas that have seen the most dramatic increases in suicide – not ATTEMPTED suicide, but successful suicides.

Many of these same areas are losing population for other reasons.  Automation, energy efficiency, and technological changes have eliminated many jobs in resource extraction, which often dominates the economies of rural America.  When your economy is built on the past rather than the future, decline is inevitable.  The population is hollowing out in rural, white-dominated America:

popchangemap

It is a notable fact that the percentage of gun-owning HOUSEHOLDS in America has not increased over the years – in fact it has declined slightly.  Hunting has declined.  The country is becoming more and more urbanized and less white – and guns are concentrated in the hands of rural whites.  The hollowing out of the rural population will likely continue, as more and more of our economy is automated.

suicidebygenderraceage

It probably comes as a surprise to many that suicide rates are much higher among white Americans than among African-Americans.  But again, there is a big difference between suicide and attempted suicide.  American men are more than 3 TIMES as likely as women to SUCCEED in committing suicide.  That does not mean they attempt it more.  And similarly, it may well be that African-Americans attempt suicide just as often as white Americans.  But guns are very much concentrated in the hands of whites, particularly rural white males.

suicidewithgun

It should be noted that while suicide in America is on the increase, and suicides are indeed tragic, it would be an exaggeration to say that there is an epidemic of suicide.  In 2016, about 45,000 people committed suicide in America.  Out of 320 million, that is a rate of about 1 in 7000 people.  It IS a leading cause of death among teenagers – but this is nothing new.  There is no question that access to guns increases the likelihood of success in attempting suicide.  And it is virtually certain that America will be awash in guns for years to come.

Jeeves and Wooster and Marvel and Joe

Over the course of the 20th century, an Englishman named P.G. Woodhouse (who eventually became an American citizen) authored a series of stories featuring a rich Englishman, Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, and his manservant, Jeeves.  Bertie is always getting himself into sticky situations, and it’s up to Jeeves to get him out of them.  Jeeves is more than up to the task.  A walking encyclopedia, far more knowledgeable on almost any subject than Wooster himself, Jeeves is the ultimate personal assistant – coming up with brilliant schemes, navigating the complexities of the social order, solving Bertie’s every problem with discretion and flair.  And the reader is left with no doubt as to who is really in control.

jeevesandwooster

The name Jeeves has come to be a generic term for a personal assistant, or anyone who can answer a wide variety of questions and/or give good advice.  Originally, the internet search engine ask.com was called Ask Jeeves.  It hardly needs to be said that a Jeeves is always handy to have around.

Turn on a television or radio news show and you will often see and/or hear an “expert.”  Often this is a person who is merely knowledgeable about a specific topic – a walking, talking database if you will.  Just as often it is someone who has a grasp of both the factual information and the logical relationships within a field, and can apply that understanding to give advice on a specific topic.  And sometimes, it’s a person who has a very good track record in making predictions.

siri

None of these things are the exclusive province of human beings.  Machines can store and process information, conduct analyses, and generate predictions.  And they are doing all of these things, ever more effectively, year by year.

30 years ago, there was a lot of talk about “expert systems.”  An expert system is a computer program that takes a large collection of facts, along with a system of logic applied to those facts, and then answers questions or makes decisions on that topic.  The term has largely fallen out of use, because such systems have become so common and so integrated into our lives that we just think of them as part of our background.  Personal assistants like Siri and Alexa are examples.  More sophisticated systems include medical diagnosis programs, or the programs that go hand-in-hand with business process automation.

quants

Many people do not realize that large amounts of stock are now controlled by people and organizations called quants.  Quant is short for quantitative analyst.  It is estimated that about 30% of all stock trading is now done by quants, and this percentage is growing.  And among the highest-paid quants are those who use what is called algorithmic trading.  In plain English, they use automation – computer programs that can analyze large amounts of financial data quickly, and generate good predictions.

The current value of the equities on the New York Stock Exchange is about 21 trillion dollars – about $66,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.  Of course, every man, woman, and child in America doesn’t own equities.  And contrary to popular belief, most of the 21 trillion dollars worth of equities on the NYSE isn’t owned by individuals.

applecomputer

Apple computer, for example, is the largest company in America.  Its largest individual stockholder is its current chairman, Arthur Levinson.  He owns about 1.1 million shares, currently worth about 200 million dollars.  But this is a drop in the bucket.  Apple’s current market capitalization is approaching a TRILLION dollars.  Its largest INSTITUTIONAL shareholder, The Vanguard Group, holds almost 350 MILLION shares, worth more than 60 billion dollars.  About 64% of Apple’s stock is held by institutions.

If you examine the holdings of most any large company, you will see a similar pattern.  The stock of Exxon-Mobil, the second largest American company, is 54% held by institutions.  The stock of Google, the third largest American company, is 71% held by institutions.  Companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price are the largest stockholders in the country.

vanguardtotalstockmarketetf

Much of this is held in funds.  Going back to the Apple example, The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund holds about 108 million shares of Apple stock, worth about 20 billion dollars.  And here’s a news flash.  The Vanguard Group, which controls these funds, is OWNED BY THE FUNDS IT CONTROLS.  This is what is called a mutual company.  Vanguard owns the funds, and the funds own Vanguard.

If this sounds nuts, you probably suffer from something called real life.  In real life, people own assets.  In the world of high finance, it is often the case that nobody owns assets.  “Nobody?  What do you mean nobody, Dave?”  I mean no HUMAN.  Instead, abstract objects called INSTITUTIONS often own assets.  Those institutions own enormous assets – assets controlled by the fund managers.  These “experts” are of course paid very handsomely.

stockbrokers2

Since most stock is owned by institutions, most stock trading is performed by institutions.  And these institutions tend to behave in similar ways.  For example, U.S. News has a list of its top-ranked large-company growth ETF’s (exchange-traded funds).  Let’s look at the top 3:

Vanguard Mega Cap Growth ETF

SPDR Portfolio S & P 500 Growth ETF

Schwab US Large-cap Growth ETF

The top 10 stocks in the Vanguard Mega Cap Growth ETF are, in order of importance:

Apple

Amazon

Facebook

Alphabet A (Google)

Alphabet C (another Google)

Home Depot

Visa

Boeing

Comcast

Coca-Cola

The top 10 stocks in the SPDR Portfolio S & P Growth ETF are, in order of importance:

Apple

Microsoft

Amazon

Facebook

Alphabet A

Alphabet C

Visa

UnitedHealth Group

Home Depot

Boeing

Gee, looks pretty similar.  How about the Schwab US Large-cap Growth ETF?

Apple

Amazon

Facebook

Berkshire Hathaway

Alphabet C

Alphabet A

Visa

UnitedHealth Group

Home Depot

Boeing

These are 3 of the biggest brokerage firms in the country – The Vanguard Group, State Street Global Advisors, and Charles Schwab.  They control enormous amounts of stock.  The fact that their exchange-traded funds are so similar tells us that stock trading is not rocket science.  Once the goal is established – in this case, trading in large companies with strong growth potential – the “experts” pretty much all reach the same conclusions.  This is why big company stocks tend to go up and down together.  Because most of them are controlled by institutions with “experts” that all make largely the same predictions, and therefore have essentially the same holdings.  These large funds contain stocks from numerous companies, ensuring that the failure of a particular company will not affect the price much.

stockbrokeratcomputer

My point is that the so-called “expertise” of the finance industry, which our society pays handsomely for, is nowhere near the rocket science the average person thinks it is.  The economy tends to grow over time.  So a fund that is invested broadly and tracks a particular stock index will grow over time.  If you want a faster rate of growth, you have to accept a higher level of risk.  It’s not that complicated.  And increasingly, the trading is being guided by computer programs, not human “experts.”

Allow me to quote Wikipedia on the subject of algorithmic trading:  “Computers running software based on complex algorithms have replaced humans in many functions in the financial industry.  Finance is essentially becoming an industry where machines and humans share the dominant roles – transforming modern finance into what one scholar has called, ‘cyborg finance.’”

beatthemarket

It doesn’t take a lot of “expertise” to understand that investing $10,000 with a 10% annual return will make about $57,000 in 20 years, while investing 1 million dollars with a 2% annual return will make more than that in only 4 years.  If you already have lots of money to play with, making lots of money is a no-brainer.  Similarly, the notion that banks or insurance carriers should make enormous profits because they are incredibly good at something is absurd.  They simply have large amounts of money to play with.  There are lots of advertisements for schemes purporting to show you how to “beat the market.”  But index funds controlled by big brokerage firms don’t try to beat the market.  The merely track the relevant index, and in the process they make tons of money – simply because they already have tons of money invested.

Over the last 30 years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has multiplied by about 12 times.  In other words, if you had invested $100,000 30 years ago in a fund that merely tracked this index, your stock would now be worth about 1.2 million dollars.  Not rocket science.  Yet our society pays financiers – stock brokers, fund managers, investment bankers, and so on – very handsomely for what they do.  So much so that a huge, and growing, portion of our economy now consists of finance.  This has everything to do with wealth inequality and the stagnation of worker wages.  If working people don’t have disposable income, who is going to buy all of the goods and services that keep the economic engine running?

cyborgtrading

Clearly these trends cannot continue.  What happens when “cyborg finance” really gets going?  What happens when the vast majority of equities trading is done by computer programs?  What happens to our whole concept of the value of work, when machines are really doing these jobs, and human beings are sitting back watching the numbers crunch?  At some point the whole thing becomes utterly absurd – and the real issue rears its head, which is ownership.

Once upon a time there were 2 men, Marvel and Joe.  They lived on a planet where there was no food, no water.  But Marvel was able to create these things, and much more, seemingly by magic.  Marvel lived in opulence – a beautiful, ornate house, the finest clothing, wonderful technologies.  Joe lived in a very modest house.  It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  He didn’t always have enough food, and when he got sick he didn’t always have enough medicine.  He had to go to Marvel for these things.  But he had to pay for them.  Marvel gave him money too, but it was never enough to break out of his situation.  He was always struggling.  Even so, he was always in awe of Marvel.  After all, Marvel deserved to have all of these nice things, because he had this amazing ability to create all of them, apparently out of thin air.  “It’s amazing that you can do these things,” he told Marvel.  “You are like a god to me.”  But one day, Joe came to Marvel’s house when he wasn’t expecting it.  That’s when he saw Marvel say, “Replicator on.”  A machine suddenly appeared.  Then he said, “$10,000.”  On a platform of the machine, a large amount of money appeared, and he picked it up.  “Replicator off,” Marvel then said.  The machine disappeared.  “THAT’S IT?” Joe exclaimed.  “That’s your incredible ability?  You just tell this thing what you want?  You didn’t even give this thing any money!  It gave YOU money!  Lots of it!  Why do you deserve all this and I don’t?”  “I OWN this machine,” replied Marvel.  “You don’t.”

stocktradingbot

Ownership.  It’s a total abstraction, but it’s the key to all things economic in our world.  Who is going to own the machines?  Who is Jeeves going to work for?  A privileged few?  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The end of this century will look very, very different from its beginning.

Gender Gaps Revisited – Rationalizations

In America, we’re accustomed to men occupying positions of power and wealth.  And when the inevitable question why so few women is asked, here come the rationalizations.

“Women just aren’t assertive enough to make it in the halls of power.”

“Women just aren’t interested in running big institutions.”

“It takes a lot of narcissism to make it in that dog eat dog world, women are nurturers, not jerks.”

“Women are too busy keep their households together to concern themselves with political maneuvering.”

boardmeeting2

The problem is that whatever rationalizations we come up with, they’re all built on one basic assumption – that positions of power and wealth are mainly occupied by men.  What if they aren’t?

“But they clearly are, Dave,” you might protest.  Really?  Let’s take a closer look.

swedishparliament

The World Economic Forum generates a gender gap report every year.  Let’s take a look a few countries.  We’ll start with Sweden, which is ranked number 5 in the world on gender parity.  Although they have never had a female head of state, 44% of their parliament is female, and 52% of ministerial positions are occupied by women.  36% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations are women.

rwandanparliament

Then there’s Rwanda, in central Africa, at 4th place.  Although they had a female head of state for less than a year, 61 PERCENT of their parliament is female, and 47% of ministerial positions are occupied by women.

finnishparliament

Then there’s Finland at number 3.  30% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations in Finland are women.  42% of their parliament is female, and 39% of their ministerial positions are occupied by women.  Finland has had 2 female heads of state; 12 of their last 50 years have seen a female head of state.  Incidentally, Finland currently ranks number 1 in the world on the Sustainable Solution Network’s Happiness Index.

emasolberg

How about Norway?  It ranks number 2 on gender parity.  41% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations in Norway are women.  40% of their parliament consists of women, and 39% of their ministerial positions are occupied by women.  Norway has had 2 female Prime Ministers, including their current Prime Minister, Ema Solberg.  14 of their last 50 years have seen a female head of state.  By the way, the per capita GDP of Norway is 23% higher than that of America.  Norway currently ranks number 2 on the SSN’s Happiness Index.

katrin

And there’s Iceland, at the number 1 position.  44% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations are women.  48% of their parliament consists of women, and 40% of their ministerial positions are occupied by women.  Iceland has had 2 female Prime Ministers, including their current Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir.  20 of the last 50 years have seen a female head of state in Iceland.  Iceland currently ranks number 4 on the SSN’s Happiness Index.

I know you want to know, so here it is.  America ranks 49th in the world on gender parity.  This places it behind virtually all of Europe.  142 countries were rated, so this means America isn’t even in the top third worldwide.  Only 16% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations in America are women.  America’s “parliament” (the U.S. Congress) is 19% female.  17% of ministerial positions are occupied by women.  And of course America has never had a female head of state.  America ranks 18th on the SSN’s Happiness Index.

mcconnell

If we want to argue about the whys and wherefores of gender parity, we might argue about why only 40% of the parliament of Norway consists of women, or why only 30% of the board members of publicly-traded corporations in Finland are women.  But rationalizing about why only 16% of the board members of publicly traded corporations are women, or why only 19% of Congress consists of women, is utterly missing the big picture.  Are we to believe that the women in America are inherently different from the women in Finland and Rwanda?

And then there is the gender parity picture within America itself.  For example, the earnings gap between men and women with Bachelor’s degrees in North Dakota is 17%.  But the same earnings gap in Texas is 54 PERCENT.  Women with Bachelor’s degrees in Texas are so inherently different from those in North Dakota?

austin

Even within small geographic areas, there are tremendous gender gap differences.  In Austin, Texas, the median income for women is $30,506.  For men it is $35,545, 16.5% higher.  That’s a significant income gap.  But 85 miles to the west, in Kerrville, Texas, the median income for men is 38.3 PERCENT higher than that for women.  Are we supposed to believe that the women in Kerrville are so inherently different from those in Austin?

womeninpower

As I have explained in a previous post, gender parity is best in those parts of the country that place greater emphasis on education.  States like West Virginia and Mississippi have big gender gaps – and rank poorly on education.  And states as well as countries that rank highly on gender parity tend to rank highly on overall prosperity and human development in general.  Having women in power is good for everyone.  We can always rationalize about why they aren’t in power in America.  Or we can actually open our eyes and see the big picture.

The Delusion of Them

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the sale of most alcoholic beverages in America.  Only 14 years later, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th.  When people speak of this period of Prohibition, they often say, “You can’t legislate morality.”  This seems like a very odd thing to say, since morality would seem to be the basis for our most fundamental laws – laws against murder, assault, thievery, fraud, and so on.  If something is immoral, it is often illegal as well.

rightwrong

What about ethics?  Well, most everyone can agree that murder, assault, thievery, and fraud are unethical.  So what’s the difference between morality and ethics?  A quick look look at some web pages devoted to the subject yields mostly confusion.  The web site Diffen, which exists primarily for the purpose of comparisons, makes the following distinction:  Ethics are provided to us by an external source, while morals come from within.  Hmmmm – this is quite ironic, because many moralists argue that morals can ONLY come from an external source – a divine one.  The web site keydifferences.com tells us something very different:  “….morals are the customs established by group of individuals, while ethics defines the character of an individual.”

The word morality comes from the Latin word moralis, meaning what is proper or polite.  The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethikos, meaning – well, moral.  Is there a difference?  A clue, I think, lies in the fact that we often use the term morality when speaking of our personal lives – how we interact with others outside of work and public situations.  By contrast, we tend to use the term ethics when speaking of our professional and public lives – for example, most businesses and government agencies have codes of conduct.  These are almost always referred to as codes of ethics, not codes of morality.

thoushaltnotkill

At a very basic level, it all amounts to the same thing.  In philosophy, there is the field of ethics – also called moral philosophy.  Yet there is a valuable distinction to be made I think.  Those who emphasize morality usually do so with an authoritarian, or at least traditionalist, justification.  By contrast, the issue of justification is often the very reason for bringing the word ethics into a conversation.

“Thou shalt not kill,” is an ancient proscription.  Naively, we might suggest that harming others as a general principle is an ancient tradition as well.  This is not necessarily the case.  Wife-beating and wars of conquest have not only NOT been discouraged through the centuries, in many cultures they have been actively promoted.  The morality (or immorality) of murder is based on authority, nothing more.

dialmformurder

The ethics of murder are another matter.  Ethical positions require justification beyond tradition.  In the case of murder, of course, it isn’t very complicated.  A society in which murder is permitted doesn’t function very well.  All we have to do is start with some very basic assumptions:  There is suffering and pleasure, misery and joy, sickness and good health, premature death and longevity, oppression and freedom, frustration and fulfillment. It’s not a very big jump to assume that we want to maximize certain things and minimize others.  From there it is merely a matter of observation.  What works to reduce human misery?  It’s not hard to justify a proscription against murder on this basis.

By the same logic, of course, we would want to forbid wife-beating, wars of conquest, and a host of other behavior.  And this gets us to the key distinction.  History tells us that authority often creates arbitrary codes, merely for the sake of group cohesion – and just as often, for the sake of maintaining authority itself.  Personal appearance, public holidays, religious doctrine, customs of every sort become traditions, even laws.  One culture ends up forbidding beards.  Another culture ends up requiring them.  It all comes back to the same thing.  Authority.

candide

In Voltaire’s novel Candide, Cunegonde describes the murder of her family and her own assault by Bulgarian soldiers:  “I was in bed and fast asleep when it pleased God to send the Bulgarians to our delightful castle of Thunder-ten-Tronckh; they slew my father and brother, and cut my mother in pieces.  A tall Bulgarian, six feet high, perceiving that I had fainted away at this sight, began to ravish me; this made me recover; I regained my senses, I cried, I struggled, I bit, I scratched, I wanted to tear out the tall Bulgarian’s eyes—not knowing that what happened at my father’s house was the usual practice of war. The brute gave me a cut in the left side with his hanger, and the mark is still upon me.”  Right.  Nothing to see here.  Just the usual custom in war.  And so it was.

It is ironic, and no coincidence, that moralists, particularly those of a religious mindset, often argue that without an external authority, human beings will inevitably behave atrociously.  This often leads to such self-contradictory sentiments as “We must destroy this village to save it.”  Time and again during the Cold War, America overthrew democratically-elected governments in the name of defeating communism.  Almost anything becomes “moral” when it is demanded by the relevant authority, because morality is defined by the authority, nothing more and nothing less.  The most egregious atrocities in history – the Inquisition, the Holocaust, countless progroms and purges – have been committed by highly “moral” people.  True believers who could not be reasoned with, who believed devoutly that they were in the right – the right being defined by the relevant authority.

harm 

Ethics, on the other hand, tends to be all about justification.  There is no appeal to authority.  When we look closely, it’s not hard to see why some ethical positions tend to be universal.  Proscriptions against murder, thievery, spreading falsehoods.  These tend to revolve around the same basic theme:  Are you doing harm to others?  This is the very basis for the concept of human rights.  If my actions have no effect on you, there is no need for you to have rights.  Your rights are statement about restrictions on my actions.  And if I’m not harming you, there is no reason for any restriction.  Of course we might quibble about what constitutes harm.  But this is a very different framework for guiding people’s actions than appealing to authority.

You have probably guessed by now that I think most of the troubles we encounter in the world come from a lack of questioning.  Most people, the vast majority I think, prefer pleasure to pain, health to sickness, wealth to poverty, happiness to misery.  The problem is not that we disagree about the fundamentals.  The problem, I think, is an attachment to authority for its own sake.  Tradition for its own sake.  “Culture” for its own sake.

usthem

As I have indicated, the appeal to authority for its own sake is often about group cohesion.  And group cohesion is invariably about exclusion.  Us and them.  The transition from barbarity to civilization will be all about the banishment of the “them” delusion from human minds.  There is no them, never has been.  But the delusion of them serves the purpose of manipulators and powermongers very well.

stapledon2

In his novel Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon speaks of civilizations that have managed to move beyond barbarism.  Looking back, he tells us, such civilizations realized that “the pre-revolutionary population was afflicted with serious mental diseases, with endemic plagues of delusion and obsession, due to mental malnutrition and poisoning.”  Civilization is calling us, and we will answer.  Or we will destroy ourselves.

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