Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

After a hiatus due to health issues, Jordan Peterson has reappeared in the public sphere. Good for him. I find him one of the most stimulating public intellectuals to appear thus far into the 21st century, though several others (unnamed) spring to mind who have a stronger claims on my attention. Yet I’m wary of Peterson as an effective evaluator of every development coughed up for public consideration. It’s simply not necessary or warranted for him to opine recklessly about every last damn thing. (Other podcasters are doing the same, and although I don’t want to instruct anyone to stay in their lane, I also recognize that Joe “Talkity-Talk” Blow’s hot take or rehash on this, that, and every other thing really isn’t worth my time.) With the inordinate volume of text in his books, video on his YouTube channel (classroom lectures, podcasts, interviews) and as a guest on others’ podcasts, and third-party writing about him (like mine), it’s inevitable that Peterson will run afoul of far better analysis than he himself can bring to bear. However, he declares his opinions forcefully and with overbearing confidence then decamps to obfuscation and reframing whenever someone pushes back effectively (which isn’t often, at least when in direct communication). With exasperation, I observe that he’s basically up to his old rhetorical tricks.

In a wide-ranging discussion on The Joe Rogan Experience from January 2022 (found exclusively on Spotify for anyone somehow unaware of Rogan’s influence in the public sphere), the thing that most irked me was Peterson’s take on the climate emergency. He described climate as too complex, with too many variable and unknowns, to embody in scientific models over extended periods of time. Seems to me Peterson has that entirely backwards. Weather (and extreme weather events) on the short term can’t be predicted too accurately, so daily/weekly/monthly forecasts give wide ranges of, say, cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation. But over substantial time (let’s start with a few decades, which is still a blink in geological time), trends and boundaries reveal themselves pretty reliably, which is why disturbances — such as burning enough fossil fuels to alter the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere — that upset the climate steady-state known as Garden Earth are not merely cause for serious concern but harbingers of doom. And then, as others often do, Peterson reframed the climate emergency largely in terms of economics (same thing happened with the pandemic, though not by Peterson so far as I know), suggesting that the problem is characterized by inefficiencies and grass-roots policy that would be magically different if more people were raised out of poverty and could advocate for solutions rather than simply struggle to survive. Dude apparently hasn’t grasped that wealth in the modern world is an outgrowth of the very thing — fossil fuels — that is the root of the problem. Further, industrial civilization is a heat engine that binds us to a warming trend. That’s a thermodynamic principle flatly immune to half-baked economic theories and ecological advocacy. Peterson also gives no indication of ever having acknowledged Jevons Paradox.

So let me state somewhat emphatically: the climate emergency is in fact an existential crisis on several fronts (e.g., resource depletion and scarcity, ecological despoliation, extreme weather events, and loss of habitat, all resulting in civilizational collapse). The rate of species extinction — before human population has begun to collapse in earnest, 8 Billion Day looms near — is several orders of magnitude greater than historical examples. Humans are unlikely to survive to the end of the century even if we refrain from blowing ourselves up over pointless geopolitical squabbles. I’ll defer to Peterson in his area of expertise: personality inventories. I’ll also grant him space to explore myth and symbolism in Western culture. But speaking on climate, he sounds like an ignoramus — the dangerous sort who leads others astray. And when challenged by someone armed with knowledge of governing principles, grasp of detail, and thus analysis superior to what he can muster (such as when debating Richard Wolff about Marxism), Peterson frequently resorts to a series of motte-and-bailey assertions that confound inexpert interlocutors. “Well, that depends on what you mean by ….” His retreat to faux safety is sometimes so astonishingly complete that he resorts to questioning the foundation of reality: “Why the sun? Why this sky? Why these stars? Why not something else completely?” Also, Peterson’s penchant for pointing out that the future is contingent and unknown despite, for instance, all indicators positively screaming to stop destroying our own habitat, as though no predictions or models can be made that have more than a whisper of accuracy in future outcomes, is mere rhetoric to forestall losing an argument.

As I’ve asserted repeatedly, sufficiency is the crucible on which all decisions are formed because earnest information gathering cannot persist interminably. Tipping points (ecological ones, sure, but more importantly, psychological ones) actually exist, where one must act despite incomplete knowledge and unclear prognosis. Accordingly, every decision is on some level a leap into the unknown and/or an act of faith. That doesn’t mean every decision is a wild, reckless foray based on nothing. Rather, when the propitious moment arrives (if one has the wherewithal to recognize it), one has to go with what one’s got, knowing that mistakes will be made and corrections will be needed.

Peterson’s improvisational speaking style is both impressive and inscrutable. I’m sometimes reminded of Marshall McLuhan, whose purported Asperger’s Syndrome (low-grade autism, perhaps, I’m unsure) awarded him unique insights into the emerging field of media theory that were not easily distilled in speech. Greta Thunberg is another more recent public figure whose cognitive character allows her to recognize rather acutely how human institutions have completely botched the job of keeping industrial civilization from consuming itself. Indeed, people from many diverse backgrounds, not hemmed in by the rigid dictates of politics, economics, and science, intuit through diverse ways of knowing (e.g., kinesthetic, aesthetic, artistic, religious, psychedelic) what I’ve written about repeatedly under the title “Life Out of Balance.” I’ve begun to understand Peterson as a mystic overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of existence but simultaneously horrified by unspeakably awful evils humans perpetrate on each other. Glimpses of both (and humor, a bit unexpectedly) often provoke cracks in his voice, sniffles, and tears as he speaks, clearly choking back emotions to keep his composure. Peterson’s essential message (if I can be so bold), like other mystics, is aspirational, transcendental, and charismatic. Such messages are impossible to express fully and are frankly ill-suited to 21st-century Western culture. That we’re severely out of balance, unable to regain an upright and righteous orientation, is plain to nearly everyone not already lost in the thrall of mass media and social media, but so long as the dominant culture remains preoccupied with wealth, consumption, celebrity, geopolitical violence, spectacle, and trash entertainment, I can’t envision any sort of return to piety and self-restraint. Plus, we can’t outrun the climate emergency bearing down on us.

Continuing from the previous blog post, lengthy credit scrolls at the ends of movies have become a favorite hiding place for bloopers and teasers. The purpose of this practice is unclear, since I can’t pretend (unlike many reckless opinonators) to inhabit the minds of filmmakers, but it has become a fairly reliable afterthought for film-goers willing to wait out the credits. Those who depart the theater, change the channel, or click away to other content may know they are relinquishing some last tidbit to be discovered, but there’s no way to know in advance if one is being punked or pleased, or indeed if there is anything at all there. Clickbait news often employs this same technique, teasing some newsbit in the headline to entice readers to wade (or skim) through a series of (ugh!) one-sentence paragraphs to find the desired content, which sometimes is not even provided. At least one film (Monty Python’s The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1982) as memory serves) pranked those in a rush to beat foot traffic out of the theater (back when film-going meant visiting the cinema) by having an additional thirty minutes of material after the (first) credit sequence.

This also put me in mind of Paul Harvey radio broadcasts ending with the sign-off tag line, “… the rest of the story.” Harvey supplemented the news with obscure yet interesting facts and analysis that tended to reshape one’s understanding of consensus narrative. Such reshaping is especially important as an ongoing process of clarification and revision. When served up in delectable chunks by winning personalities like Paul Harvey, supplemental material is easily absorbed. When material requires effort to obtain and/or challenges one’s beliefs, something strongly, well, the default response is probably not to bother. However, those possessing intellectual integrity welcome challenging material and indeed seek it out. Indeed, invalidation of a thesis or hypothesis is fundamental to the scientific method, and no body of work can be sequestered from scrutiny and then be held as legitimately authoritative.

Yet that’s what happens routinely in the contemporary infosphere. A government press office or corporate public relations officer issues guidance or policy in direct conflict with earlier guidance or policy and in doing so seeks to place any resulting cognitive dissonance beyond examination and out of scope. Simple matters of adjustment are not what concern me. Rather, it’s wholesale brainwashing that is of concern, when something is clear within one’s memory or plainly documented in print/video yet brazenly denied, circumvented, and deflected in favor of a new directive. The American public has contended with this repeatedly as each new presidential administration demonizes the policies of its predecessors but typically without demonstrating the self-reflection and -examination to admit, wrongdoing, responsibility, or error on anyone’s part. It’s a distinctly American phenomenon, though others have cottoned onto it and adopted the practice for themselves.

Exhaustion from separating the spin-doctored utterances of one malefactor or another from one’s own direct experience and sense-making drives many to simply give up. “Whatever you say, sir. Lemme go back to my entertainments.” The prospect of a never-ending slog through evidence and analysis only to arrive on unsteady ground, due to shift underfoot again and again with each new revelation, is particularly unsatisfactory. And as discussed before, those who nonetheless strain to achieve knowledge and understanding that reach temporary sufficiency yet remain permanently, intransigently provisional find themselves thwarted by those in the employ of organizations willing and eager to game information systems in the service of their not-even-hidden agendas. Alternative dangers for the muddled thinker include retreating into fixed ideology or collapsing into solipsism. Maybe none of it matters in the end. We can choose our beliefs from the buffet of available options without adherence to reality. We can create our own reality. Of course, that’s a description of madness, to which many have already succumbed. Why aren’t they wearing straitjackets?

When the Canadian Freedom Convoy appeared out of nowhere over a month ago and managed to bring the Canadian capitol (Ottawa, Ontario) to a grinding halt, the news was reported with a variety of approaches. Witnessing “democracy” in action, even though initiated by a small but important segment of society, became a cause célèbre, some rallying behind the truckers as patriots and other deploring them as terrorists. Lots of onlookers in the middle ground, to be certain, but the extremes tend to define issues these days, dividing people into permafeuding Hatfields and McCoys. The Canadian government stupidly branded the truckers as terrorists, finally dispersing the nonviolent protest with unnecessary force. The Canadian model sparked numerous copycat protests around the globe.

One such copycat protest, rather late to the party, is The People’s Convoy in the U.S., which is still underway. Perhaps the model works only in the first instance, or maybe U.S. truckers learned something from the Canadian example, such as illegal seizure of crowdfunded financial support. Or maybe the prospect of confronting the U.S. military in one of the most heavily garrisoned locations in the world gave pause. (Hard to imagine Ottawa, Ontario, being ringed by military installations like D.C. is.) Either way, The People’s Convoy has not attempted to blockade D.C. Nor has the U.S. convoy been widely reported as was the Canadian version, which was a grass-roots challenge to government handling of the pandemic. Yeah, there’s actually an underlying issue. Protesters are angry about public health mandates and so-called vaccine passports that create a two-tier society. Regular folks must choose between bodily autonomy and freedom of movement on one hand and on the other compliance with mandates that have yet to prove themselves effective against spread of the virus. Quite a few people have already chosen to do as instructed, whether out of earnest belief in the efficacy of mandated approaches or to keep from falling into the lower of the two tiers. So they socially distance, wear masks, take the jab (and follow-up boosters), and provide papers upon demand. Protesters are calling for all those measures to end.

If the Canadian convoy attracted worldwide attention, the U.S. convoy has hardly caused a stir and is scarcely reported outside the foreign press and a few U.S. superpatriot websites. I observed years ago about The Republic of Lakota that the U.S. government essentially stonewalled that attempt at secession. Giving little or no official public attention to the People’s Convoy, especially while attention has turned to war between Russia and Ukraine, has boiled down to “move along, nothing to see.” Timing for the U.S. truckers could not possibly be worse. However, my suspicion is that privately, contingency plans were made to avoid the embarrassment the Canadian government suffered, which must have included instructing the media not to report on the convoy and getting search engines to demote search results that might enable the movement to go viral, so to speak. The conspiracy of silence is remarkable. Yet people line the streets and highways in support of the convoy. Sorta begs the question “what if they threw a protest but no one came?” A better question might be “what if they started a war but no one fought?”

Gross (even criminal) mismanagement of the pandemic is quickly being shoved down the memory hole as other crises and threats displace a two-year ordeal that resulted in significant loss of life and even greater, widespread loss of livelihoods and financial wellbeing among many people who were already teetering on the edge. Psychological impacts are expected to echo for generations. Frankly, I’m astonished that a far-reaching civil crack-up hasn’t already occurred. Yet despite these foreground tribulations and more besides (e.g., inflation shifting into hyperinflation, food and energy scarcity, the financial system failing every few years, and the epistemological crisis that has made every institution flatly untrustworthy), the background crisis is still the climate emergency. Governments around the world, for all the pomp and circumstance of the IPCC and periodic cheerleading conferences, have stonewalled that issue, too. Some individuals take the climate emergency quite seriously; no government does, at least by their actions. Talk is comparatively cheap. Like foreground and background, near- and far-term prospects just don’t compete. Near-term appetites and desires always win. Psychologists report that deferred gratification (e.g., the marshmallow test) is among the primary predictors of future success for individuals. Institutions, governments, and societies are in aggregate mindless and can’t formulate plans beyond the next election cycle, academic year, or business quarter to execute programs that desperately need doing. This may well be why political theorists observe that liberal democracies are helpless to truly accomplish things, whereas authoritarian regimes centered on an individual (i.e., a despot) can get things done though at extreme costs to members of society.

From Barrett Swanson’s article “The Anxiety of Influencers” in the June 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

For the past thirteen years, I’ve taught a course called Living in the Digital Age, which mobilizes the techniques of the humanities—critical thinking, moral contemplation, and information literacy—to interrogate the version of personhood that is being propagated by … social networks. Occasionally, there have been flashes of student insight that rivaled moments from Dead Poets Society—one time a student exclaimed, “Wait, so on social media, it’s almost like I’m the product”—but it increasingly feels like a Sisyphean task, given that I have them for three hours a week and the rest of the time they are marinating in the jacuzzi of personalized algorithms.

As someone who suffers from Churchillian spells of depression, it was easy for me to connect this to the pervasive disquiet on campus. In the past ten years, my email correspondence has been increasingly given over to calming down students who are hyperventilating with anxiety—about grades, about their potential marketability, about their Instagram followings. The previous semester, for instance, during a class on creative non-fiction, twenty-four of my twenty-six students wrote about self-harm or suicidal ideation. Several of them had been hospitalized for anxiety or depression, and my office hours were now less occasions to discuss course concepts—James Baldwin’s narrative persona, say, or Joan Didion’s use of imagery—than they were de facto counseling sessions. Even students who seemed happy and neurologically stable—Abercrombie-clad, toting a pencil case and immaculate planner—nevertheless displayed unsettling in-class behavior: snacking incessantly during lectures, showing Victorian levels of repression. The number of emotional-support service animals had skyrocketed on campus. It seemed like every third person had a Fido in tow, and had you wandered into my lecture hall when we were still holding in-person classes, you might have assumed that my lessons were on obedience training or the virtues of dog-park etiquette. And while it seems clichéd even to mention it, the students were inexorably—compulsively—on their phones.

I had that dream again. You know the one: I have to go take a final test in a class I forgot about, never attended or dropped from my schedule. Most higher-ed students have this dream repeatedly, as do former students (or for those who take the educational enterprise seriously as a life-long endeavor, perpetual students). The dream usually features open-ended anxiety because it’s all anticipation — one never steps into the classroom to sit for the test. But this time, the twist was that the final test transformed into a group problem-solving seminar. The subject matter was an arcane post-calculus specialty (maybe I’ve seen too many Big Bang Theory whiteboards strewn with undecipherable equations), and the student group was stumped trying to solve some sort of engineering problem. In heroic dream mode, I recontextualized the problem despite my lack of expertise, which propelled the group past its block. Not a true test of knowledge or understanding, since I hadn’t attended class and didn’t learn its subject matter, but a reminder that problem-solving is often not straight application of factors easily set forth and manipulable.

Outside of the dream, in my morning twilight (oxymoron alert), I mused on the limitations of tackling social issues like there were engineering problems, which typically regards materials, processes, and personnel as mere resources to be marshaled and acted upon to achieve a goal but with little consideration — at least in the moment — of downstream effects or indeed human values. The Manhattan Project is a prime example, which (arguably) helped the allied powers win WWII but launched the world into the Atomic Age, complete with its own Cold War and the awful specter of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Borrowing a term from economics, it’s easy to rationalize negative collateral effects in terms of creative destruction. I object: the modifier creative masks that the noun is still destruction (cracked eggs needed to make omelets, ya know). Otherwise, maybe the term would be destructive creation. Perhaps I misunderstand, but the breakthrough with the Manhattan Project came about through synthesis of knowledge that lay beyond the purview of most narrowly trained engineers.

That is precisely the problem with many social ills today, those that actually have solutions anyway. The political class meant to manage and administer views problems primarily through a political lens (read: campaigning) and is not especially motivated to solve anything. Similarly, charitable organizations aimed at eradicating certain problems (e.g., hunger, homelessness, crime, educational disadvantage) can’t actually solve any problems because that would be the end of their fundraising and/or government funding, meaning that the organization itself would cease. Synthetic knowledge needed to solve a problem and then terminate the project is anathema to how society now functions; better that problems persist.

Past blog posts on this topic include “Techies and Fuzzies” and “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” each of which has a somewhat different emphasis. I’m still absorbed by the conflict between generalists and specialists while recognizing that both are necessary for full effectiveness. That union is the overarching message, too, of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2010), the subject of many past blog posts.

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”

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With each successive election cycle, I become more cynical (how is that even possible?) about the candidates and their supposed earnest mission to actually serve the public interest. The last couple cycles have produced a new meme that attempts to shift blame for poor governance to the masses: the low-information voter. Ironically, considering the fact that airwaves, magazines, books, public addresses, online venues, and even dinner conversations (such as they still exist if diners aren’t face-planted in their screens) are positively awash in political commentary and pointless debate and strategizing, there is no lack of information available. However, being buried under a déluge of information is akin to a defense attorney hiding damning discovery in an ocean of irrelevance, so I have some sympathy for voters who are thwarted in attempts to make even modestly informed decisions about political issues.

Multiply this basic relationship across many facets of ordinary life and the end result is the low-information citizen (also low-information consumer). Some parties (largely sellers of things, including ideas) possess a profusion of information, whereas useful, actionable information is hidden from the citizen/consumer by an information avalanche. For example, onerous terms of an insurance contract, debt instrument, liability waiver, or even routine license agreement are almost never read prior to signing or otherwise consenting; the acronym tl;dr (stands for “too long; didn’t read”) applies. In other situations, information is withheld entirely, such as pricing comparisons one might undertake if high-pressure sales tactics were not deployed to force potential buyers in decisions right here, right now, dammit! Or citizens are disempowered from exercising any critical judgment by erecting secrecy around a subject, national security being the utility excuse for everything the government doesn’t want people to know.

Add to this the concerted effort (plain enough to see if one bothers to look) to keep the population uneducated, without options and alternatives, scrambling just to get through the day/week/month (handily blocking information gathering), and thus trapped in a condition of low information. Such downward pressure (survival pressure, one might say when considering the burgeoning homeless population) is affecting a greater portion of the population than ever. The American Dream that energized and buoyed the lives of many generations of people (including immigrants) has morphed into the American Nightmare. Weirdly, the immigrant influx has not abated but rather intensified. However, I consider most of those folks (political, economic, and ecological) refugees, not immigrants.

So those are the options available to powers players, where knowledge is power: (1) withhold information, (2) if information can’t be withheld, then bury it as a proverbial needle in a haystack, and (3) render a large percentage of the public unable to process and evaluate information by keeping them undereducated. Oh, here’s another: (4) produce a mountain of mis- and disinformation that bewilders everyone. This last one is arguably the same as (2) except that the intent is propaganda or psyop. One could also argue that miseducating the public (e.g., various grievance studies blown into critical race theory now being taught throughout the educational system) is the same as undereducating. Again, intent matters. Turning someone’s head and radicalizing them with a highly specialized toolkit (mostly rhetorical) for destabilizing social relations is tantamount to making them completely deranged (if not merely bewildered).

These are elements of the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been observing for some time now, with the side effect of a quick descent into social madness being used to justify authoritarian (read: fascist) concentration of power and rollback of individual rights and freedoms. The trending term sensemaking also applies, referring to reality checks needed to keep oneself aligned with truth, which is not the same as consensus. Groups are forming up precisely for that purpose, centered on evidentiary rigor as well as skepticism toward the obvious disinformation issuing from government agencies and journalists who shape information according to rather transparent brazen agendas. I won’t point to any particular trusted source but instead recommend everyone do their best (no passivity!) to keep their wits about them and think for themselves. Not an easy task when the information environment is so thoroughly polluted — one might even say weaponized — that it requires special workarounds to navigate effectively.

Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

So far, this multipart blog post has trafficked in principles and generalities. Let me try now to be more specific, starting with an excerpt from Barry Lynn’s article in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Big Tech Extortion Racket” (Sept. 2020):

… around the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans began to develop technologies that could not be broken into component pieces. This was especially true of the railroad and the telegraph … Such corporations [railroad and telegraph companies] posed one overarching challenge: they charged some people more than others to get to market. They exploited their control over an essential service in order to extort money, and sometimes political favors … Americans found the answer to this problem in common law. For centuries, the owners of ferries, stagecoaches, and inns had been required to serve all customers for the same price and in the order in which they arrived. In the late nineteenth century, versions of such “common carrier” rules were applied to the new middleman corporations.

Today we rightly celebrate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which gave Americans the power to break apart private corporations. But in many respects, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the more important document. This act was based on the understanding that monopoly networks like the railroad and the telegraph could be used to influence the actions of people who depend on them, and hence their power must be carefully restricted …

For a century and a half, Americans used common carrier policies to ensure the rule of law in activities that depended on privately held monopolies … regulations freed Americans to take full advantage of every important network technology introduced during these years, including telephones, water and electrical services, energy pipelines, and even large, logistics-powered retailers. Citizens did not have to worry that the men who controlled the technologies involved would exploit their middleman position to steal other people’s business or disrupt balances of power.

I appreciate that Barry Lynn brings up the Interstate Commerce Act. If this legal doctrine appeared in the net neutrality debate a few years ago, it must have escaped my notice. While Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enable network access and connectivity, those utilities have not yet exhibited let’s-be-evil characteristics. Similarly, phone companies (including cell phones) and public libraries may well be eavesdropping and/or monitoring activities of the citizenry, but the real action lies elsewhere, namely, on social media networks and with online retailers. Evil is arguably concentrated in the FANG (or FAANG) corporations but has now grown to be ubiquitous in all social networks (e.g., Twitter) operating as common carriers (Zoom? Slack?) and across academe, nearly all of which have succumbed to moral panic. They are interpreting correctly, sad to observe, demands to censor and sanitize others’ no-longer-free speech appearing on their networks or within their realms. How much deeper it goes toward shaping politics and social engineering is quasi-conspiratorial and impossible for me to assess.

Much as I would prefer to believe that individuals possess the good sense to shift their activities away from social networks or turn their attention from discomfiting information sources, that does not appear to be the case. Demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces commonplace a few years ago on college campuses have instead morphed into censorious removal, deplatforming, and cancellation from the entire public sphere. Those are wrong responses in free societies, but modern institutions and technologies have gotten out of hand and outstripped the limits of normal human cognition. In short, we’re a society gone mad. So rather than accept responsibility to sort out information overflow oneself, many are demanding that others do it for them, and evil private corporations are complying (after a fashion). Moreover, calls for creation of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, rebranded as a Truth Commission and Reality Czar, could hardly be any more chillingly and fascistically bizarre. People really need someone to brainwash decide for them what is real? Has anyone at the New York Times actually read Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and taken to heart its lessons?

From an article in the Sept. 2020 issue (I’m lagging in my reading) of Harper’s Magazine by Laurent Dubreuil titled “Nonconforming“:

American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming.

… identity politics as now practiced does not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. Ready-made identities imprison us in stereotyped narratives of trauma. In short, identity determinism has become an additional layer of oppression, one that fails to address the problems it clumsily articulates.