Genetically-Determined Cognitive Ruling Elite

I occasionally read articles from Mauldin Economics, a financial website. That is because my dad sends me them. Much of the economics has a neoliberal bent with that slight edge of right-wing libertarianism. But there is also a large helping of the cynical realpolitik of game theory and geopolitics (George Friedman is partnered with Mauldin Economics). Some of the pieces are better than others, occasionally venturing into more socio-cultural territory such as generations theory. I read them partly out of curiosity.

The last piece my dad sent me is Geek Squad by Jared Dillian. I totally get why my dad liked it, as he is a social and fiscal conservative. Dillian brings up Charles Murray’s infamous take on intelligence, which is the kind of thing that resonates for my dad. Older white male middle class conservatives (specifically of the Silent Generation) have much in common beyond just demographics, as the period of their youth was highly conformist — although that same generation, on the other side of the aisle, produced some of the most radical leaders of the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and civil rights movements; e.g., Martin Luther King, jr.

I’ve written about Jared Dillian before (Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????) and I can’t say that I’m overly impressed. He is of my generation, maybe a few years older than me (see the About page on his website). That generational detail does seem relevant.

Certain kind of older white conservatives have more of a paternalistic undertone that can soften their ideological stances, such as Murray’s paleolibertarianism that leads him to both condescendingly criticize the poor and argue for a basic income to take care of those who are genetically or culturally inferior, an interesting mix. It’s for similar reasons that my dad donates money and volunteers his time to help the those in need, even as he argues that they don’t deserve his tax money — unless it is to either put them in prison or send them off to war (my dad hasn’t yet quite been convinced by Murray’s far greater paternalism). It’s a concern of moral accounting that is of less of a priority to the the more neoliberal Republicans of Generation X who came of age under the Reagan administration. Someone like Dillian represents more of what the conservative movement has become in recent decades.

Here is the main thing that caught my attention in Dillian’s piece, a point where he finds agreement with Murray, despite other conflicts between the worldviews of neoliberalism and paleolibertarianism:

“Years ago, Murray predicted that society would become stratified by intelligence, and that we would be ruled by a “cognitive elite.” All of this has come to pass.”

It’s sad that people still believe that. Intelligence hasn’t been stratified, at least not in the way that is being implied. Rather the class-based and race-based conditions that promote and suppress neurocognitive development have been stratified. This is not even up for debate and very little speculation is required. We have the historical record to explain what happened and the social science research to explain its implications (research has proven that poverty, especially in a society of high inequality and segregation, stunts/alters brain development and functioning; because of social stress, lack of learning resources, nutritional deficiencies, lead toxicity, limited healthcare, etc).

Speaking of a “cognitive elite” is pseudo-meritocracy on steroids. Conservatives are always blaming liberals for wanting an intelligentsia to rule the world, but some conservatives not so secretly fantasize about an intellectual elite, even if they imagine these inellectually superior people coming from the business sector.

Here is more of Dillian’s wisdom:

“Rewind to a few decades ago. Colleges suddenly became more meritocratic, admitting people on the basis of grades and test scores, instead of other criteria. So the smartest people got into the smartest schools, the less smart people got into the less smart schools, and dumb people didn’t get into schools at all. The results of that sociology experiment are fascinating: the smart people in smart schools started marrying each other and having smart children…”

Tell that to the vast majority who aren’t legacies into ivy league schools, no matter how smart they are. Tell that to the vast majority of kids with immense genetic and neruocognitive potential but were forced to struggle against poverty, racism, segregation, oppression, violence, school-to-prison pipeline, heavy metal toxicity, etc. I’m sure that Dillian considers himself as part of the “cognitive elite” and so that makes his ignorance all the more inexcusable and morally reprehensible. As one commenter put it (Garret Batten):

“Jared – I really enjoy The 10th Man. You have excellent insights into the markets and related issues. However, as a trained sociologist, I must object to your analysis of class, college selection, elties, and intelligence. You extrapolate from a claim about education being more meritocratic (more maybe at the college level but not even close to meritocratic and what about high school and middle school), but the increasing lack of mobility in the United States cannot be explained by smart people marying other smart people. As with Murray, these are highly problematic claims with the implication being that the very wealthy deserve as well as the poor derve their lots in life. I would urge you to stick with markets etc.”

To continue with the article:

“People don’t talk about this. We are obsessed with racism, but people of differing socioeconomic status just do not mix.”

He maybe should actually read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and put it in context by reading Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Then put both of those books in an even larger context of info. But the point is that both Murray and Putnam grew up in small factory towns where the poor and wealthy lived together as neighbors — going to the same stores and churches, sending their kids to the same schools, and having the same access to cheap higher education. Is it surprising that socioeconomic mobility was higher at that time? No. Is it surprising that so many poor kids of low IQ, uneducated parents got high school degrees and went off to college? No.

I’ve explained all of this before:
Who Are the American Religious? (comment)

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Stranger Danger and Our Kids

Writing about Putnam, Richard Reeves stated that,

“The concatenation of advantages and disadvantages is visible in economic sorting at the neighbourhood level, leading to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. Putnam writes: “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid”.”

That’s a different perspective. Putnam is making the point that this stratification didn’t happen by divine decree or according to the laws of physics. These are social results of social causes. Not all societies have seen such stratification. In fact, the high levels of stratification in the US are extremely unusual, one might even say abnormal. Using the word ‘apartheid’ is not hyperbole, as a permanent underclass (or undercaste) is forming. We don’t yet have eugenics-level of stratification. But if this trend is allowed to continue over centuries, eventually there would be ever more genetically distinct populations. The eugenics vision of a cognitive elite is not a description of reality but more of a rationalization and an aspiration. It doesn’t seem like a direction we would want to head toward as a society.

Sara D. Sparks articulates Putnam’s central point:

“Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.””

It’s a bit of a chicken or egg dilemma. Did the increasing inequality/stratification and segregation/apartheid cause our society to become a culture of mistrust that no longer had a shared vision of public good, as once was seen in functioning communities of neighbors who cared about each other’s children? Or did changing values in our society cause the worsening divides and divisiveness?

I’d argue that it is both, as part of a vicious cycle. American society was built on a problematic social order of genocide, indentured servitude, slavery, etc and so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the long term consequences. American history has had a clear trajectory of ever greater concentration of wealth and power, with a momentary blip of equalization because of two world wars and a major depression. It’s not like the colonial aristocracy wielded so much power in the early federal government because they earned their social position through meritocracy nor that Africans were enslaved because they didn’t go the best schools with other smart kids. School tracking is probably not a useful metaphor for understanding the worsening stratification that began during the colonial era.

More from the article:

“This all came to a head in the 2016 election, where we threw out the smart people in academia and journalism and finance and technology and politics—the so-called “experts.””

One thing research shows is that smart people aren’t smart in all ways. For example, high IQ people are worse about certain areas of personal finance. They tend to overspend. This also relates to the smart idiot effect, which is called that because smarter people are more prone to this bias. I’d also throw in how upper class people have less cognitive capacity for certain basic skills, such as being able to accurately discern and empathize with what others experience.

So, smart upper class people are like Trump in that they tend toward being sociopaths that lack many basic practical and social skills, as they are used to others taking care of their problems for them. Those aren’t the kind of people that should be ruling a society. It’s important to note that most Americans didn’t vote for either choice of plutocrat, Clinton or Trump.

Here are some commenters to the article who made similar points:

funderbj@riflemag.com: “I am a physician, graduated MIT in 1966, Ohio State Med school in 1970. My observation about the smartest of the smart, insofar as medicine is concerned, is that being too smart can be a serious handicap. The uber performers often missed the common ailments while exploring the more esoteric diagnoses. We called it “thinking zebras, when hearing hoof beats.” I agree wholeheartedly that the next months and years will be interesting, but I doubt that the elite will be any more successful in the long run.”

ciaran.keogh@xtra.co.nz: “interesting post – however there is one shortcoming with the most “intelligent” will rule effect (which I agree is definitely happening) is that being learned and being wise are two entirely different things. Also it is my observation that the ability to learn comes at the expense of the ability to think. The more “learned” people (and systems) there are running the planet seems to result in less sensible (and moral) people running it. If you said that higher tendency for sociopathy was becoming stratified at the top I think you would need to look no further than Washington or Wall St for convincing proof”

Back to the article:

“Mark Zuckerberg, who is probably going to run for president, made a splash in his Harvard commencement speech when he called for a universal basic income. But I don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors when you give them free money to sit at home and play Xbox.”

Yet more ignorance. This is actually a good example of smart idiot effect. Dillian thinks he is so smart that he perceives his opinion as so worthy as not to require informing himself about the topic before coming to a conclusion. He just knows, because he is smart and educated. He is one of the “cognitive elite,” after all.

But if he were to inform himself, he’d find out that universal basic income experiments have shown that it doesn’t increase unemployment. That is because most people want more than barely surviving and making ends meet while sitting on the couch picking their nose. This is the problem of rich people who actually believe this is an accurate view of poor people. It demonstrates how disconnected from reality they are.

He goes on:

“Cognitive stratification is not stopping any time soon. Cities will get richer, towns will get poorer, a handful of companies will get even more powerful. If you feel like you don’t have a say in any of this… that will probably continue. I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.”

Dillian admits that our response to this problem matters. Yet he acts as if fatalistically there is nothing we can do about it.

About stratification of intelligence, you’d think smart people talking about such a topic would at least know some basic info that is relevant to the opinions they offer. Consider the following bit from a book I was reading yesterday, although the research mentioned is something I’ve come across many times before (by the way, do I have well informed opinions because I’m smart or because I read books to inform myself before opinionating?).

The book is Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett (he is the son of the infamous Daniel Everett, the family having spent several influential years among the Pirahã). The book is specifically about linguistics and the quoted passage is discussing culture, but what is being pointed to are the complex web of causal and contributing factors within the larger environmental conditions. Here is the relevant part (p. 44):

“As a final example of cross-population variation in cognition, consider the example of IQ heritability. There is a strong assumption among some that measures of IQ are primarily determined by genetic factors rather than those associated with family environment. Even within American society, however, socioeconomic status appears to play a significant role in the extent to which IQ is heritable. Turkheimer et al. (2003) present data on twins representing divergent socioeconomic statuses, and these data suggest convincingly that genetic factors play a much more prominent role in IQ variation among members of higher socioeconomic status, whereas factors associated with family environment play a comparatively greater role in those of lower status. The influence of socioeconomic status on heritability of IQ suggest that even cognitive processes with clear genetic influences remain susceptible to contextual influences and, more specifically, that IQ is affected by environmental factors with a western culture. The latter point is perhaps unsurprising but nevertheless worth stressing. If something like IQ, which is associated with an assortment of cognitive processes, can be affected by contextual factors within a given culture, it seems fair to assume that the cognitive processes in question would vary in accordance with the even-wider range of contextual factors evident in multiple cultures. After all, the differences between the childhoods of Americans from lower and higher socieconomic statuses, respectively, pale in comparison to those between childhoods in western industrialized societies and, for example indigenous societies.”

This would be wisely framed within another point made by the author, in quoting from “Beyond Human Nature” by Jesse Prinz (the quote is on p. 48 of Everett’s book). Prinz states that, “Human beings are genetically more homogenous than chimps, but behaviorally more diverse than any other species.” That is to say that the vast social and individual differences seen within human populations can’t be solely or primarily blamed on genetic variation. The just-so stories of arrogant elitists, race realists, and human biodiversity advocates don’t offer any real understanding — just more dogmatic ideology to obfuscate public debate and undermine political action.

It is hard for me to understand how articles like Jared Dillian’s are still being written and taken seriously. Yet hundreds of such articles pop up on the internet on a daily basis. Considering Mauldin Economics is apparently operated as a business, obviously there is profit to be had from pushing genetic determinism. Rationalization as it is, these just-so stories are simply too compelling in how they explain away the oppression and injustices of our society. It might not be so bad if all such genetic determinists were paternalistic enough as Charles Murray to promote basic policies of social democracy and a social safety net, such as a basic income. But most people who are attracted to Murray’s argument aren’t willing to follow it to his conclusion.

I’m not sure how to read Dillian’s conclusion: “I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.” Does that express doubt about a world dominated by genetic determinists or an earnest sense of curiosity to see such a world play out? Is he feeling uncertainty or anticipation about his role as one of the potential ruling elite who has won the genetic lottery?

* * *

If you’re interested in Eric Turkheimer, I’ll share some previous posts of mine where he is discussed. I’ll also include an article by him and some relevant passages from two books.

The IQ Conundrum
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
Using Intelligence to Assess Intelligence

Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ
by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, & Richard E. Nisbett

Murray takes the heritability of intelligence as evidence that it is an essential inborn quality, passed in the genes from parents to children with little modification by environmental factors. This interpretation is much too strong — a gross oversimplification. Heritability is not a special property of certain traits that have turned out to be genetic; it is a description of the human condition, according to which we are born with certain biological realities that play out in complex ways in concert with environmental factors, and are affected by chance events throughout our lives.

Today we can also study genes and behavior more directly by analyzing people’s DNA. These methods have given scientists a new way to compute heritability: Studies that measure DNA sequence variation directly have shown that pairs of people who are not relatives, but who are slightly more similar genetically, also have more similar IQs than other pairs of people who happen to be more different genetically. These “DNA-based” heritability studies don’t tell you much more than the classical twin studies did, but they put to bed many of the lingering suspicions that twin studies were fundamentally flawed in some way. Like the validity of intelligence testing, the heritability of intelligence is no longer scientifically contentious.

The new DNA-based science has also led to an ironic discovery: Virtually none of the complex human qualities that have been shown to be heritable are associated with a single determinative gene! There are no “genes for” IQ in any but the very weakest sense. Murray’s assertion in the podcast that we are only a few years away from a thorough understanding of IQ at the level of individual genes is scientifically unserious. Modern DNA science has found hundreds of genetic variants that each have a very, very tiny association with intelligence, but even if you add them all together they predict only a small fraction of someone’s IQ score. The ability to add together genetic variants to predict an IQ score is a useful tool in the social sciences, but it has not produced a purely biological understanding of why some people have more cognitive ability than others.

Most crucially, heritability, whether low or high, implies nothing about modifiability. The classic example is height, which is strongly heritable (80 to 90 percent), yet the average height of 11-year-old boys in Japan has increased by more than 5 inches in the past 50 years. A similar historical change is occurring for intelligence: Average IQ scores are increasing across birth cohorts, such that Americans experienced an 18-point gain in average IQ from 1948 to 2002. And the most decisive and permanent environmental intervention that an individual can experience, adoption from a poor family into a better-off one, is associated with IQ gains of 12 to 18 points.

These observations do not undermine the conclusion that intelligence is heritable, but rather the naive assumption that heritable traits cannot be changed via environmental mechanisms. (Murray flatly tells Harris that this is the case.)

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
by Scott Barry Kaufman
pp. 6-9

In 1990 the behavioral geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota published a striking finding: about 70 percent of the differences in IQ found among twins and triplets living apart were associated with genetic variation. 8 What’s more, the identical twins (whose genes were assumed to be 100 percent identical * ) were remarkably similar to identical twins reared together on various measures of personality, occupational and leisure-time interests, and social attitudes, despite spending most of their lives apart.

This study, and the hundreds of twin and adoption studies that have been conducted since then, have painted a consistent picture: genetic variation matters. 9 The studies say nothing about how they matter, or which genes matter, but they show quite convincingly that biological variation does matter. Genes vary within any group of people (even among the inhabitants of middle-class Western society), and this variation contributes to variations in these people’s behaviors. The twin findings shouldn’t be understated; it counters many a prevailing belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of external forces. 10

The most important lesson researchers have learned from over twenty-five years’ worth of twin studies is that virtually every single psychological trait you can measure— including IQ, personality, artistic ability, mathematical ability, musical ability, writing, humor styles, creative dancing, sports, happiness, persistence, marital status, television viewing, female orgasm rates, aggression, empathy, altruism, leadership, risk taking, novelty seeking, political preferences, television viewing, and even rates of Australian teens talking on their cell phones— has a heritable basis. * Because our psychological characteristics reflect the physical structures of our brains and because our genes contribute to those physical structures, it is unlikely that there are any psychological characteristics that are completely unaffected by our DNA. 11

Unfortunately there is frequent confusion about the meaning of heritability. The most frequent misunderstanding is the purpose of twin studies. Heritability estimates are about understanding sources of similarities and differences in traits between members of a particular population. The results apply only to that population. The purpose is not to determine how much any particular individual’s traits are due to his or her genes or his or her environment. Behavioral geneticists are well aware that all of our traits develop through a combination of both nature and nurture. Heritability estimates are about explaining differences among people, not explaining individual development. The question on the table for them is this: In a particular population of individuals, what factors make those individuals the same as each other, and which factors make them different?

Therefore, twin studies aren’t designed to investigate human development. In recent years developmental psychologists, including L. Todd Rose, Kurt Fischer, Peter Molenaar, and Cynthia Campbell, have been developing exciting new techniques to study intraindividual variation. 12 Intraindividual variation focuses on a single person and looks at how an integrated dynamic system of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and other psychological processes change across time and situations. New intraindividual techniques allow researchers to focus on a single twin pair and see how nature and nurture interact in nonlinear ways to explain both their similarities and their differences. 13 Both levels of analysis— twin studies and developmental analysis— are informative, but the results from the one do not apply to the other. 14

Many people also confuse heritability with immutability. They hear the word “heritable” and immediately think of “genes,” which then conjures up pictures of a fixed trait that can’t be altered by external forces. In contrast, many people hear the word “environment” and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the trait is easily modifiable. This requires quite a strong faith in social engineering!

Just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychological traits are heritable) doesn’t necessarily mean that the trait is fixed or can’t be developed. Virtually all of our traits are substantially genetically influenced and are influenced by environmental conditions. Even though television viewing has a heritable basis, 15 most people don’t think of the activity as being outside our personal control. Indeed, parents frequently control (or try to control) the length of time their children spend sitting in front of the tube.

Another source of confusion is the role of parenting in the development of traits. A common finding in twin studies is that the environments experienced by twins (or any two siblings) do little to create differences in intelligence and personality as adults. In other words, the heritability of traits tends to increase as one ages and escapes the influence of parents. 16 Judith Rich Harris showed that peers exert a greater influence in creating differences in personality among adolescents than parents. 17 But do these findings mean that parents cannot effectively help their child develop their unique traits? Absolutely not. That’s like saying that water has no influence on a fish’s development because all fish live in water. A nurturing family environment is a necessity to help the child flourish, just as a fish needs water to swim and survive.

Just because a variable doesn’t vary doesn’t mean it has no causal impact on a particular outcome. Genes could “account for” 100 percent of the variability in a trait in a particular twin study, but this does not mean that environmental factors, including parental quality, are therefore unimportant in the development of the trait. Instead it turns out that parenting matters in a way that is different from what was originally assumed: Parents matter to the extent that they affect the expression of genes. Parents can exert important influence in the child’s development by nurturing productive interests and helping the child channel destructive inclinations into more productive outlets.

The importance of parenting becomes more salient when we look at a wider range of environments. Only a few of the twins in Bouchard’s original study were reared in real poverty or were raised by illiterate parents, and none were mentally disabled. This matters. Consider a recent study by Eric Turkheimer and colleagues. They looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability when they were 10 months old and again when they were 2 years. 18 When looking at the group of kids aged just 10 months, the home environment appeared to be the key variable across different levels of socioeconomic status. The story changed considerably as the children got a bit older and differences in education became more pronounced. For the 2-year-olds living in poorer households, the home environment mattered the most, accounting for about 80 percent of the variation in mental ability. For these kids, genetics played little role in explaining differences in cognitive ability. In wealthy households, on the other hand, genetics explained more of the differences in performance, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all the variation in mental ability.

Prominent behavioral geneticists, including Bouchard, eventually realized that it was time to move on from simply calculating heritability estimates . In a 2009 paper entitled “Beyond Heritability,” researchers Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Bouchard concluded that “given that genetic influences are routinely involved in behavior,” “little can be gleaned from any particular heritability estimate and there is little need for further twin studies investigating the presence and magnitude of genetic influences on behavior.” 19

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ
by David Shenk
Kindle Locations 1003-1031

But the nature of that genetic influence is easily— and perilously— misinterpreted. If we are to take the word “heritability” at face value, genetic influence is a powerful direct force that leaves individuals rather little wiggle room. Through the lens of this word, twin studies reveal that intelligence is 60 percent “heritable,” which implies that 60 percent of each person’s intelligence comes preset from genes while the remaining 40 percent gets shaped by the environment. This appears to prove that our genes control much of our intelligence; there’s no escaping it.

In fact, that’s not what these studies are saying at all.

Instead, twin studies report, on average, a statistically detectable genetic influence of 60 percent. Some studies report more, some a lot less . In 2003, examining only poor families, University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer found that intelligence was not 60 percent heritable, nor 40 percent, nor 20 percent, but near 0 percent —demonstrating once and for all that there is no set portion of genetic influence on intelligence. “These findings,” wrote Turkheimer , “suggest that a model of [genes plus environment] is too simple for the dynamic interaction of genes and real-world environments during development.”

How could the number vary so much from group to group? This is how statistics work. Every group is different; every heritability study is a snapshot from a specific time and place, and reflects only the limited data being measured (and how it is measured).

More important, though, is that all of these numbers pertain only to groups— not to individuals. Heritability, explains author Matt Ridley , “is a population average, meaningless for any individual person : you cannot say that Hermia has more heritable intelligence than Helena. When somebody says that heritability of height is 90 percent, he does not and cannot mean that 90 percent of my inches come from genes and 10 percent from my food. He means that variation in a particular sample is attributable to 90 percent genes and 10 percent environment . There is no heritability in height for the individual.”

This distinction between group and individual is night and day. No marathon runner would calculate her own race time by averaging the race times of ten thousand other runners; knowing the average lifespan doesn’t tell me how long my life will be; no one can know how many kids you will have based on the national average. Averages are averages— they are very useful in some ways and utterly useless in others. It’s useful to know that genes matter, but it’s just as important to realize that twin studies tell us nothing about you and your individual potential. No group average will ever offer any guidance about individual capability.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the twin studies themselves. What’s wrong is associating them with the word “heritability,” which, as Patrick Bateson says, conveys “the extraordinary assumption that genetic and environmental influences are independent of one another and do not interact. That assumption is clearly wrong.” In the end, by parroting a strict “nature vs. nurture” sensibility, heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology. It’s as if someone tried to determine what percentage of the brilliance of King Lear comes from adjectives. Just because there are fancy methods available for inferring distinct numbers doesn’t mean that those numbers have the meaning that some would wish for.

Kindle Locations 3551-3554

“The models suggest,” Turkheimer wrote, “that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contributions of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.” (Italics mine.) (Turkheimer et al., “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children,” p. 632.)

On Conflict and Stupidity

There was a sad conflict that I came across the other day. I read about it as told by one of those involved, Kayla Renee Parker (Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing).

It was between Parker who is a black college student and the white lady who was her professor. Both are avowed anti-racists and it apparently became a holier-than-thou fight between two social justice warriors. The student was probably being an immature antagonistic asshole. And the professor was acting less than professional and civility went out the window once she began venting on social media.

I’m not sure that in the end it actually had much to do with racism itself, as both sides had problematic understandings. No doubt the professor’s less than clear quiz question was to blame for the initial confrontation. And Parker in the original version of her article dismissed a black scholar because she thought he was white, as if the value of his scholarship was determined by the color of his skin. It maybe had more to do with two people with personality issues, although the professor in a position of authority had less excuse for her misbehavior.

My initial response was to side with the student, even with her immaturity. She is young and so it is expected that she would be immature. The professor did come off as arrogant, the kind of liberal class intellectual that irritates me. And her Facebook posts were the complete opposite of what a professor should be saying in public, although she probably didn’t understand privacy settings and so possibly didn’t realize that she wasn’t just privately venting. Anyway, it’s hard for me to feel too bad about her career being destroyed, even if the student shouldn’t take pride in having helped. That professor (now former professor, I assume) has serious issues and maybe should seek a different career or at least counseling.

On the other hand, after reading the comments section, I saw some of the criticisms of Parker’s account of the situation. It made me realize that I’d want to hear the professor’s side of the story before making any final judgment. But in the end, I don’t really care. People fight all the time, especially those looking for a fight. Both people involved seem to have wanted a fight and so I guess they both got what they wanted. It’s not my concern.

There was one thing that I noticed that was of interest to me, as it connected to other thoughts I’ve had recently. In a discussion about this heated altercation, some social media postings by the professor were shared in the comments section (I forget where I saw this). One was an old tweet maybe from last year where the professor quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” As I recall, it was in reference to Trump voters and so she was basically calling them stupid. This is standard partisan posturing. It’s how many in the liberal class always perceive those on the political right, and it is true that the average Republican IQ is lower than the average Democratic IQ, for whatever that is worth (I might argue that this makes the ignorant stupidity seen among too many Democrats to be even more inexcusable, as it can’t be blamed on mere lack of intellectual ability).

No matter who is involved, conflict can have a way of making people stupid. And we are a society riven by conflict. I was just discussing this in terms of inequality, stating that: “People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.” A central point I made is that this negatively affects everyone, including the middle-to-upper classes. In that post, I quoted from Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder:

“Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.”

This is directly related to Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” He was talking about Germans under the Nazis, but his writings are directed toward a greater understanding of our shared humanity. Bonhoeffer is a useful case to study, as he took seriously what it meant to be a good person in a not-so-good world. The United States is a divided society, even if not as violently and oppressively divided as Nazi Germany. The one way in which this country is more divided is in terms of inequality, as it is the greatest degree of inequality the world has ever before seen. Even though we don’t have concentration camps (yet), this kind of economic division and segregation has severe consequences.

This goes to a point that Bonhoeffer was making. It’s not just about stupidity on an individual level but about stupidity as an oppressive atmosphere. Accordingly, he wrote that stupidity “is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one… And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.” He is basically referring to what some would call groupthink and tribal politics, the conditions under which people lose the capacity for independent thought. People get caught up in conflict without understanding what is really dividing them. Ignorance and fear is a bad combination.

This ‘stupidity’ might better be thought of in terms of psychological dissociation and cognitive dissonance. As is made clear, it isn’t mere intellectual inadequacy. More than anything, it is a failure of awareness and imagination. The mind is constrained and so, no matter how smart people are in terms of IQ tests, they end up expressing a kind of stupidity. Their full cognitive resources aren’t being used to a degree that would be most optimal. Their minds are shackled and their vision has blinders.

For some reason, this kind of ‘stupidity’ wasn’t as apparent to me when I was younger. Something seemed wrong with the world, of course. Still, I didn’t entirely appreciate how a particular culture and social order could shape how people think and even how they are able to perceive the world around them. It was only after spending more time on the internet in the early 2000s that the human mind was more obviously laid bare for my viewing pleasure. It was a shock to my system. Maybe I was naive, but I had a basic faith in humans back then. I assumed that most ignorance was passive, not willful. That the problem was a lack of access, not a lack of curiosity. It turns out that I was horribly wrong.

I remember one of the early incidents that was incomprehensible to me. The local newspaper, the Iowa City Press Citizen, created a comment section for their online articles. This was used mostly as a local forum. I was attracted to this because this is a highly educated town and I expected high quality discussion, but I ended up being disappointed.

There was one situation where I was trying to make a factual-based argument and so I linked to the source of the relevant piece of data. I was utterly shocked that these well educated people wouldn’t look at or acknowledge facts that didn’t support their preconceived opinions. That didn’t fit my apparently idealized view of what it meant to be well educated. It was a weird experience because it literally would have only taken a minute to look at the evidence. It never occurred to me that, besides a few dogmatic cranks, so many people would be disinterested in informed debate. I’ve come to realize, all these years later, that it is a rare person who is all that curious to learn anything new.

A woman that was involved in that online discussion seemed like a nice person and a good liberal. She was college educated and had worked as a social worker. Her views were in many ways progressive and she probably was a partisan Democrat. She was a more or less typical example of a liberal class professional. I had talked to her in many discussions and in private messages. I genuinely liked her, but she was completely stuck in her opinions. As someone who has changed views over my lifetime, I always assumed that changing one’s views was a normal human ability and not a rare, exceptional heroic act. When I see new info, I rethink my beliefs and conclusions, occasionally even coming to question my biases and assumptions. I appreciate new info that forces me into new views. It’s a pleasurable, not traumatic, experience. Why would anyone resist new info? I will never understand that.

I was intrigued to come across this woman’s name in a book about local race issues, A Transplanted Chicago by Robert E. Gutsche Jr. I don’t feel like stating her name, but I’ll give you her initials (M.H.C.) which would allow you to quickly figure out her name if you looked at the back section of the book, in the List of Names and Terms. Gutsche uses her as an example because she became one of the select members of the newspaper’s “Writers Group.” Using her experience and authority as having been a social worker, she wrote a racist/racialist article that was published (Kindle Locations 1820-1825):

“While this piece was not written by a newspaper staff writer, it was selected by an editor and commissioned by the opinion page editor; in fact, after this story appeared in 2010, I spoke with both the author and the editor about what I considered its incendiary language (i.e., “inner-city refugees”), broad characterizations (i.e., “perpetrators of urban decay”), and how this particular story contributed to overall coverage of the Southeast Side. Both the article’s author and the editor said that the language was provocative, but said that, in fact, that is what they wanted. Indeed, [M.H.C.] told me that her opinion page editor encouraged her to “stir up” the opinion page and blogs through her writing.”.

So, she was stirring up the pot of shit when racial tensions are already high in a city known for its institutional racism (the county has one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country). This was at a time when violent crime had been steadily declining for a couple of decades. As the percentage of minorities increased in town, the rate of violent crime had simultaneously gone down. Yet the local media obsessed over racializing issues and scapegoating the small number of blacks that moved here. Now consider the fact that this is a highly liberal college town, as Solid Blue as they come and filled with Hillary Clinton supporters — you might remember her as the first lady of a sitting president who called black youth super-predators that had to be brought to heel, in a speech she gave in support of the racialized crime bill her husband signed into law (and her husband, by the way, a few years earlier campaigned by standing in front of shackled black prisoners with the infamous Klan site of Stone Mountain in the background).

This is the kind of dark-hearted, cynical stupidity that America is so well known for. The reason it is stupid is because the very privileged liberals who attack right-wingers as bigots will shamelessly spin dog-whistle rhetoric or else support those who do so. They can’t even see it in themselves, as it isn’t part of their conscious identity and worldview. It’s the same basic psychology that allowed so many Germans to not know what was happening under the Nazis. People simply don’t want to know what makes them uncomfortable. This is made possible because of the social conditions when inequality takes hold — leading to divisiveness, isolation, partisanship, fear, and anxiety. The collective mind shuts down. This is a mass stupidity that spreads like a shadow upon populations, from local communities to entire nations. All the individual has to do is fall in line and not question, not think too deeply.

Bonhoeffer’s short piece on stupidity should be read in full. I offer it below. But I wanted to frame it. In Letters and Papers From Prison, “On Stupidity” is directly between two other pieces — before it is “On Success” and following it is “Contempt for Humanity?”. Looking at these other pieces gives a larger perspective of his thought. From “On Success,” he begins with these words:

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.”

That is what I so often see as a moral justification, success. Partisan politics always is about how to win or how to maintain power. It isn’t about doing what is right or rather what is right is determined by those who control the narrative. Even the most popular of candidates holding majority positions like Bernie Sanders are dismissed out of a bizarre logic that the lesser evil, no matter how weak of a candidate, is the only practical option and only moral choice. This ends up being self-defeating, which is to say stupid, because Sanders had a better chance of defeating the greater evil of Trump than did the lesser evil option of Clinton. Not much of a lesser evil, it turns out.

It goes far beyond partisan politics, of course. The most obvious form it takes is the realpolitik of geopolitics, unsurprisingly supported by the likes of the Clinton New Democrats. The US government constantly acts in ways that worsens the problems that we are facing, such as supposedly fighting terrorism by harming vast numbers of innocent people and the inevitable result is to radicalize those populations into even greater support for terrorism against the US. It’s a stupidity that dominates our entire society. Yet it always presents itself as pragmatic and realistic, often fueled by an ignorant righteousness along with fear-mongering patriotism. Might makes right. No one can doubt that the US is successful in terms of material wealth and military power. But success to what end?

This brings us to the other piece, “Contempt for Humans?”. Human stupidity easily turns one’s own mind toward dark thoughts. But Bonhoeffer didn’t give into despair, seeing it as his moral duty and compassionate opportunity to hold the world in a vision of love. He was a Christian, after all, and more than willing to die for his faith. Here is the heart of his message:

“Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings— particularly to the weak among them— is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them.”

That would be why he focuses on the social underpinning of stupidity. To his Christian worldview, relationship with God and through God to humanity is always an individual act. That is where he found himself, sitting in that prison cell and waiting for his fate to come calling. He was just a lone voice speaking out during troubled times. He did what he could, what he felt he must, but in the end there was nothing left for him to do other than speak the truth as he understood it. There was no time left for excuses and pity. He pointed out these human failings and yet did so with what kindness he had, not to strike out in hatred at those who had condemned him.

This post started with an incident of conflict. Two people, in their sense of hurt and defensiveness, felt compelled to attack each other. It’s an all too human thing to do. Yes, it’s stupid and pointless, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another. It’s so easy to get pulled into such melodrama, as if winning or rather making the other lose will somehow bring us satisfaction. Even as I write these words, I find myself in a pointless online debate. Assuming that the other person is the stupid one and not oneself, it still doesn’t serve any purpose or rarely does so. The stupidity of this society that we are immersed in wasn’t created through rational argument and won’t be undone through victorious debate or intellectual persuasion.

The only answer is to look beyond the darkness that surrounds us, hoping to find some light to guide us. For Bonhoeffer, the light he sought was love itself, grounded in faith. That is certainly a better option than a hatred that slowly consumes you. It’s hard living in a society like this where trust seems rare and divisiveness is everywhere. We each have to find our own light in the darkness, whatever helps us to see more clearly, even if just enough light to stumble along. Or failing that, we will get lost along the way.

On a personal level, it makes feel tired. I don’t have Bonhoeffer’s faith. But I can appreciate his wisdom, whether or not I’m up to the task of following his example. I’ve had my fair share of stupid conflicts and I suspect that I haven’t seen the end of it. My mother used to play a song for me as a child and in it there was a line stating that, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Ain’t that the truth! All of humanity is an ongoing project and we seem to have misplaced the plans.

* * *

“On Stupidity”
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

“Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in must cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

“But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.”

Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

Moderation is the issue at the moment, specifically now that politicians have been the target of violence. That is always a surefire way of getting the attention of the political class and the corporate media that obsesses over them.

A single politician shot is more concerning to the mainstream than millions of poor people harmed by the policies of politicians. Worse still is multiple politicians attacked simultaneously — it is a national tragedy, worse than decades of hate crimes and generations of institutional racism, worse than overthrowing numerous democratic governments and committing state terrorism.

Such is the way of the world, at least in a society like this. But it would be nice if some worthy public debate were made possible, even if only briefly. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the next act of mass violence before dealing with issues of substance. The politics of spectacle is great for campaigns and corporate media profits. It’s not so great for democracy, though. Citizens shooting politicians could be seen as an indicator of failed democracy. Other indicators to be considered are politicians sending citizens off to fight immoral wars of aggression to kill innocent foreigners for reasons of geopolitics and police officers violently targeting innocent citizens for reasons of authoritarian social control.

When the government seeks to solve its problems through violence, it sets the example for its citizens that problems are solved through violence. Some might argue that is not the most optimal of results for a civil society.

* * *

Despite the shallow concerns of the comfortable classes temporarily made to feel uncomfortable, no one doubts that the problems of extremism are very much real. At the Eat Pray Vote blog, Lauren Wynn writes about political moderation (Fear and Loathing in American Politics: the Future of the Sane Center). She states that,

“It occurred to me that many of his assertions could be equally applied to both sides of the aisle — right and left, Republican and Democrat were interchangeable. Crazy concept, huh? If everyone is being this reactionary – which conversations with and observations of both sides indicate might be true – then is a middle ground even possible?”

Many Americans would agree with her, myself included. I’ve seen a number of articles like this, from diverse perspectives and yet with similar questions. I would point out that an increasing proportion of the public dislikes both parties, as there are now more independents than partisans in either major party. After all, we just had a presidential election where the two main candidates were the least popular of any major presidential candidates since polling data has been kept. And following the election, both of them continue their decline into unpopularity, demonstrating that voters still despise the choice that the ruling establishment forced upon them.

Wynn does briefly and partly get to this issue. In discussing fear, she quotes from a NYT article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi (How We Became Bitter Political Enemies):

“Independents, who outnumber members of either party and yet often lean toward one or the other, are just as guided by fear. More than half who lean toward either party say a major reason for their preference is the damage the other party could cause. Only about a third reported being attracted by the good that could come from the policies of the party toward which they lean.”

Fear. That is the most troubling part. To live in fear is not a happy state, especially when it forms the ground of society and the background of daily experience. Such a culture of fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’d argue that fear is more of a symptom than a cause, a symptom of a sick society. Speaking of a “Sane Center,” what is supposedly ‘sane’ in a society like this? I wouldn’t consider the majority of politicians, plutocrats, and pundits who dominate our society to be paragons of sanity, not in terms of either mental health or moral decency.

I noticed that the NYT article quoted Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist: “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence… But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.” That is an odd claim. American history is full of near endless “rancor and violence.” The late 19th to early 20th century was so full of conflict that there were violent labor conflicts and military-style race wars in the streets, while the government feared being overthrown such as by the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn. I find myself in a near constant state of amazement at the historical amnesia of Americans, even among the the well-educated. No matter how bad problems are right now, they don’t compare even slightly to numerous other periods in US history.

Anyway, being critical of the culture of fear, I’m strongly supportive of a “Sane Center.” But it depends on what is meant by that. If sanity means being well-adjusted, then what is being adjusted to? Such things are always relative, specifically in terms of left vs right. Context is everything.

We should consider the origins of the left-right divide. The right side has for millennia been associated with power and authority, tradition and the status quo. That is why Jesus was described as sitting to the right of God. And that is why, under the French monarchy, aristocrats and clergy supporting the monarchy sat on the right side of the assembly. Even once the king was deposed, the French assembly maintained this seating with the most radical revolutionaries sitting to the left.

About the French Revolution, it’s interesting to compare it to the American Revolution. Some of the American founders gave primary credit to Thomas Paine for the American Revolution or at least in lending much inspiration toward its success. Paine was as radical as they come, in many ways far to the left of present Democrats (e.g., basic income).

Yet guess where he was seated as an honorary member of the French assembly. He sat on the right side with his moderate allies, as under that context he was a moderate who argued for not beheading the king and for passing a democratic constitution, the whole issue of a democratic rule of law and democratic procedure. He was more radically liberal than were the radical revolutionaries, but this radical liberalism is precisely what made him moderate. It was those radical or rather reactionary revolutionaries, when they gained control, who sentenced Paine to death and he narrowly escaped that fate.

As always, the issues is to the right or left of what? Paine was trying to hold the “Sane Center” in an insane world. Even the American Revolution was far more violent and bloody than is typically acknowledged,. It was a time when wealth and power ruled brutally and it was no easy task for the oppressed to stand up to that injustice, both on the right and the left. Interestingly, during such revolutions, aristocrats and plutocrats are found on both sides of the fight. The French Revolution was initiated with the help of many aristocrats and clergy who were tired of oppressive monarchy. And the same was true of the American Revolution.

Paine was an Anti-Federalist, the ideological group that supported democracy as opposed to centralized power. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real Federalists because they actually wanted a Confederation of states, as was agreed upon under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (the second constitution, ironically, was unconstitutional and passed unconstitutionally according to the first constitution). Because of the second constitution, most US citizens lost power and representation with only a few percentage having the right to either vote or run for office. When the revolution continued under the new government by those demanding the democracy they had fought for, the aristocrat Washington put an army together and violently put down those dreams of democracy.

The US isn’t a country that was founded on a “Sane Center.” That isn’t the kind of country it is. But it is a country that was inspired by democracy and genuine democracy is as radical today as it was in Paine’s lifetime. As Jimmy Carter has observed, the US is a banana republic and was that way before Trump came to power. Research has confirmed this in showing that we don’t have a functioning representative government, as politicians most of the time do what the wealthy want them to do and not what the middle-to-lower classes want them to do (this was analyzed in comparing public policy and public opinion). Still, we are an aspiring democracy and such aspirations shouldn’t be dismissed.

That is the context. And that leads me to the specifics of this article. It was written that,

“During the 2016 Presidential election, deep fissures appeared in both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats were divided between a far-left candidate in Bernie Sanders and a more traditional Democrat in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, Republicans were divided among far-right candidates, traditional Republicans and a complete outlier — Donald Trump.”

Let me first question the claim about what is traditional. What is the comparison being made? Bernie Sanders positions are well within the range of standard policies of FDR’s New Deal. Some consider FDR to be a traditional Democrat and, if so, it should be noted that Clinton’s positions make it clear that she is to the right of FDR.

We also know that the majority of Americans presently agree with many of Sanders’ positions, as polling and surveys show that most Americans are to the left of both main political parties. So, in what sense is Sanders a “far-left candidate?” Sure, he is to the left of the political center in Washington and in corporate media. But the political center in Washington and in corporate media is to the right of the American public. If we are to use the American public as the measure of the center, then that would mean Sanders is a centrist and all the major candidates are to the right of that center.

There is more than one ‘center’ to choose from. It depends on which part of society one identifies with. As someone who agrees with majority public opinion on many issues, I personally prefer to use the known data about public opinion as the defining standard of the political center. But I realize others would prefer a different center, as they don’t want a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” I do want such a government, as did Paine, but also as did Republicans once upon a time as those words were spoken by the first Republican president.

That gets us to confusion of what goes for traditional in the GOP. As one scholar made clear, the Republican Party has from the beginning swung between the extremes of populism and plutocracy, somehow melding the two poles at the moment with Trump. At present, it’s hard to imagine Republicans doing something as radical as abolishing slavery like Lincoln, breaking up monopolies like Roosevelt, calling out the Military-Industrial Complex like Eisenhower, or simply creating the EPA like Nixon (it’s amazing how liberal Nixon looks these days, more liberal than many Democrats right now).

It hasn’t just been the GOP pushing right for decades. The Clinton New Democrats sought to triangulate by also pushing right. This is how both parties became uncentered or rather created their own center, quite contrary to the silenced majority. Where is the sanity in this? Why do we allow corporatist parties and big biz media tell us what is the Sane Center? They aren’t in the moral position to be telling anyone much of anything. Rather, those in the so-called ‘mainstream’ are the problem.

“Moderatism seemed to have all but disappeared over the past several decades with progressivism’s constant march to the left and conservatism’s to the right, but following the election, people from both sides began discussing a path forward that would help heal the gaping wound of division in our country.”

In that light, what is moderation as an ideological goal, this so-called moderatism? That is to say, what is being moderated between and to what end? Obviously, what goes for moderation in ‘mainstream’ politics isn’t moderating toward the center of public opinion of citizens and eligible voters. When both parties are immoderate, when the corporate media is immoderate, when public intellectuals are immoderate, how is the disempowered and sometimes overtly disenfranchised public supposed to seek out moderation? Does ‘moderate’ have any meaning when the most publicly centrist and most popular candidate in the country, Bernie Sanders, is called a radical left-winger by the minority in the comfortable classes?

This has a way of making many average Americans start feeling a bit radical. Maybe at times like these radicalism is the last refuge of the “Sane Center.”

* * *

One of the similar articles I’ve come across is by Peggy Noonan, a WSJ piece (Rage Is All the Rage, and It’s Dangerous).

For a mainstream media hack, her writing is more tolerable than that of many others, but this particular one didn’t do much for me. It’s more false equivalence. As I regularly make clear, I’m no fan of Democrats. Still, we should be honest enough to admit that the GOP and its supporters, especially pundits on talk radio and Fox News, have been inciting violence for decades (e.g., repeatedly calling Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” on one of the most popular right-wing shows until an audience member murdered him).

That said, the entire country at the moment is feeling pressure and the situation isn’t primarily ideological in nature. Even a moderate mainstream politician and former president like Jimmy Carter openly states that the US is a banana republic, which is to say that partisan animosity is the least of our worries. This is at a time after decades of worsening inequality (a defining feature of banana republics), something that research has proven worsens social problems in general and violence most of all. Republicans have been pushing the gospel of inequality for as long as they’ve been pushing violent rhetoric, and it has been a useful political strategy. For that reason, those in the Democratic Party seeking greater power within this banana republic have copied GOP strategies and also pushed right.

Nonetheless, we live in a far more peaceful era, compared to the past. The 1960s to 1980s was extremely violent, across the political spectrum (economic and political problems did contribute, although the worsening rates of lead toxicity of post-war industrialization and mass car culture played a larger role). And the first several decades of last century were even more violent, that having been the era of bomb-throwing anarchists, the terrorist Klan, and large-scale organized crime.

Ideology, at times, has been a more central concern. And it does help us understand how we got to this point. There is research that shows that violence always gets worse under Republican administrations, at least for as long as data has been kept. Right-wing and reactionary ideology worsens social conditions because of what it promotes. But once a society gets pushed toward instability, ideology itself is no longer the motivating factor. Ideology simply creates the conditions for violence to play out for other reasons, typically more personal motivations.

The guy who shot those Republicans probably didn’t do so for ideology, no more than the increasing hate crimes from the political right are intended as a political strategy. Most people aren’t overtly ideological in having clear and consistent ideological principles, even as they get caught up in the ideological rhetoric fanning the flames. Many Americans are simply feeling desperate, distressed, outraged, and much else. As research shows, high inequality doesn’t increase the probability of either kind behavior or intelligent choices. Only after bad conditions and bad feelings hit a breaking point does ideology typically follow as a way of ranting or rationalizing.

Ideology might offer an outlet for one’s feelings and give form to one’s voice, but ideology plays more of a role on the societal level than on the individual level. That is true until social conditions get so bad that people start organizing terrorist groups that regularly blow up buildings, assassinate people, etc. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Even then, few if any join a terrorist group because of ideology, although there is no doubt that ideology helps to create and cement a new social identity, including social identities people are willing to die for.

Our concern about ideology, first and foremost, should be the neoliberalism and neoconservatism that forms the harmful social conditions and so makes violent consequences inevitable. Once we are at the point of people committing mass violence, talk about ideology is largely moot. We need to push it back a step to see where it originated.

* * *

Related to those articles, I was reading Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. It was published this year. Although far from perfect, I hope it gets a wide reading by the public and gains some traction in the media.

It is a useful book because his analysis of inequality is primarily through a lens of social science, rather than economics or politics. The author explains in great detail the real world impact inequality has on people in all aspects of their lives. The basic point was made many years ago in The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, but Payne takes it a step further in showing the immense amount of research that has accumulated and showing how all the research connects to form a larger understanding.

The case against inequality goes far beyond a mere moral plea for justice and fairness. Inequality makes everything more dysfunctional. This is seen most clearly in diverse social problems, but there are larger consequences starkly shown in the political sphere. If a divided country is what is wanted, there are few more effective ways to divide a population than through inequality (pp. 110-111):

“Political scientist Nolan McCarty and his colleagues have also traced political divisions over the last century in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, formulating a measure of polarization based on how lawmakers vote, similar to the data used for Andris’s graphs. The polarization index is at its highest when all Democrats vote one way and all Republicans vote the other. Using this index, they calculated how polarized American politics has been in every Congress since 1947. Figure 4.5 shows that polarization in the House of Representatives and the Gini index of inequality have followed strikingly similar trajectories. Results for the Senate are similar. Both inequality and polarization were relatively low through the 1950s and 1960s. They then began rising in tandem in the mid-1970s and have remained on par ever since.”

There is one point that has long stood out to me, as seen with inequality research. It isn’t limited to the problems affecting the lower classes. Even the plutocrats become divided in conflict. That is what results when inequality becomes so entrenched that it forms into a widespread culture of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. This is seen in comparing countries which many earlier books on the topic have discussed. Even the wealthiest are worse off in a high inequality society than they are in a low inequality society. Inequality increases stress-related illnesses, violent crime, and political corruption. To live amidst inequality is to constantly feel on edge. No amount of wealth, power, and privilege can protect one from that sad state of affairs. No gated community can entirely isolate one from problems that tear apart the very social fabric that society depends upon.

Inequality is self-destructive. It has to be remedied if the worst possible consequences are to be avoided: economic collapse, government failure, inability to defend against foreign invasion, terrorism, military coup, civil war, revolution, or some combination of these. Simply devolving into an authoritarian police state and banana republic isn’t much of a better fate. But the point is that the experience of shittiness becomes pervasive even while the outward forms of civil society are maintained. It happens in ways that are hard to see from within a society because the problems become normalized according to the status quo and the ensuing epistemic closure shuts down our ability to imagine anything else. All that is experienced by most people is a general sense of worsening. They simply feel bad which leads to some combination of apathetic resignation and fearful scapegoating. This does not help to build a shared attitude of common good and cooperation, much less compassion and tolerance.

As inequality becomes a chasm dividing the public, the center literally disappears while the once large middle class shrinks. That center is what holds civil society together, what creates a sense of a shared social order (something explained by Aristotle more than a couple of millennia ago and also explained by Adam Smith more than a couple of centuries ago). Inequality turns people against one another. This can be seen in different areas of society, such as on an airplane where people are forced into close proximity. The socioeconomic status of passengers, real or perceived, represents a microcosm of the larger society (pp. 2-4):

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

“To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

“This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

“But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

“Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

“What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

* * *

For some historical context, Noam Chomsky is useful (“The Common Good”, The Sun magazine, November 1997):

“Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.

“Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.

“A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.”

* * *

Here are some concluding thoughts. In this post, I resisted linking to any of my old posts. I’ve written about this kind of thing many times before, but I didn’t feel like dredging up prior commentary.

For the longest time, I identified as a liberal and it is still hard for me to shake that identity, even as I’ve seen the problems with it as a specifically American ideological category enmeshed in class politics, class privilege, and class warfare. The specific problem is that the liberal class which, because middle class professionals are found in academia and media, has come to dominate the rhetoric of liberalism within public debate.

My tendency is toward moderation. And I wish I lived in a moderate society. But I don’t. The reality is that the rhetoric of moderation is too often used in mainstream/corporatist politics to defend what is immoderate to the extreme, just as liberal rhetoric is wielded to prop up illiberal power structures. My concern, as always, is more about the reality than the rhetoric. Yet to deal with the reality requires understanding the rhetoric and how it is used. That further requires immense context to gain that understanding, context that few Americans are ever taught.

Inequality and class division makes for a stupid society. I mean that quite literally. It simply is not good for the highest levels of neurocognitive development and hence intellectual capacity. Inequality, similar to poverty, stunts normal development and this can be seen in brain scans. Long-term social and psychological stress accumulates into high rates of what essentially is trauma. An entire national population traumatized isn’t so talented at achieving a moderate civil society. People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.

This is why it is so heart-rending to speak of an idealized “Sane Center.” A common attribute of high inequality societies, specifically those dominated by the WEIRD demographic (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), is that they have high rates of mental illness. It’s not just the poor having their brains fucked up from lead toxicity, although that is a major component with the combined effects of economic segregation and environmental racism. In the US, even the wealthy have higher rates of mental illness. There are poor communities around the world that, despite lacking healthcare and all the niceties of modernity, have very low or even seemingly non-existent rates of mental illness. The primary difference isn’t between poverty and wealth but between high inequality and low inequality. Of course, combining poverty with high inequality creates an even greater shit storm.

This is what gets me. Those demanding moderation are often the most privileged. They are people who too often think they are above it all and so look down upon all those other crazy people, such as the poor whites who are falsely blamed for Trump’s election. It is the comfortable classes, in their privilege and authority, who get to define what (and who) is ‘sane’ and ‘insane’, along with what is ‘centrist’ vs ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’. This even sometimes goes along with forms of gaslighting that make people feel insane — such as hearing politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals speak about the world in a way that doesn’t match the lived reality of most people in the world.

We don’t live in a sane and moderate country. Acknowledging that fact should be the starting point of any public discussion. The ‘center’ of a society gone mad is not where we should move toward, if the public good and functioning democracy is our aspiration.

* * *

6/26/17 – I originally wanted to avoid linking to old posts. But then I got in a debate. That person kept demanding evidence. I find that tiresome because, if someone wants info, they can find it. It’s not hard to find.

I guess I’ll make it even easier to find by offering some of that info gathered on my blog. Besides the following posts, I also shared a bunch of poling data and such down in the comments section. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to pretend this info doesn’t exist. Here it is:

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
Environmentalist Majority
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Who Supported the Vietnam War?
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

Thoughts on Inequality and the Elite

I was talking to someone who is having troubles in their church.

The main problem seems to be that the church leadership is disconnected from the congregation. Issues are being promoted when no one has bothered to ask the average person what they want. The one place in our society where dialogue should be possible is in a church, but surely that is less often the case than would be optimal.

This is seen in every aspect of our society. It’s an inequality of power and opinion.

The leadership of my union, like many other unions, backed Clinton. Yet most union members backed Sanders. The leadership of the NRA fights gun regulation. Yet most NRA members support stronger gun regulation.

This phenomenon is even worse in the corporate media and corporatist politics. It’s not unusual two see two views being debated where neither view matches the public opinion of the majority of the population. In this case, the entire frame of discussion is disconnected from reality on the ground.

But it is most troubling to hear about this in a church. That demonstrates that this dysfunction is pervasive and built into how our society is organized and operates. It’s a profound inequality where most people are silenced and disenfranchised. As I’ve often repeated, the majority doesn’t even realize it is a majority.

All of this is carefully orchestrated by those in power, even those who wield power at the local level in a church. In many cases, those wielding that power don’t understand what they are doing, as they are oblivious to others. It’s too easy for people to take silence as agreement and support. This is how minority views can get portrayed as ‘mainstream’ and how, in the process, majority views are silenced.

I keep repeating this message. And many others have as well. But I don’t know that it can have an impact on our society. This inequality has become so entrenched that it would take mass conflict to dislodge it. A public awakening doesn’t come easily.

* * *

All politicians and political candidates should be required to answer poll questions that are identical to the public. Then the results should be widely disseminated and reported. There even could be an official report sent to every household.

Only politicians who hold a majority of their views and values to the left of the majority of Americans would be allowed to be called liberal or left-wing. But many politicians would fear this. The public would suddenly realize how far left they are or else how far right is the political elite. They’d be able to see that Sanders is a moderate, his views in line with most Americans on most issues. This would leave a large number of Democratic politicians to the right of the American public and all Republicans to the extreme far right fringe.

Why shouldn’t the American public be the standard of what is left and right? I don’t care who is ‘moderate’ by the standards of corporatist politics. I want to know who is a moderate according to normal Americans. If the views of the average American is considered extremist by corporatist politicians, then maybe the problem is those corporatist politicians and not the average American.

I have an odd idea. Maybe our representatives should represent us, considering that it supposedly is a representative democracy. At the very least, it would make for an interesting experiment. Maybe we could try it sometime just to see how it works out. If we didn’t like it, we could always go back to authoritarian plutocracy.

* * *

Positions on issues where Bernie Sanders agrees with and is representative of the majority of Americans, i.e., We the People:

– improving economy for lower-to-middle class
– decrease unemployment, poverty, & inequality
– progressive taxation
– higher corporate taxation
– stronger regulation of corporations
– opposition to neoliberal trade agreements
– universal healthcare
– decriminalizing drug use
– no more wars of aggression
– more effective environmental regulation
– taking action on climate change
– promoting alternative energy
– both gun rights and gun controls
– et cetera

Explain to me in what way Bernie Sanders is a left-wing socialist, in comparison to the American public. If he is a left-wing socialist, then so are most Americans.

* * *

Do you think Sanders was too left-wing to beat Trump? If so, then consider this. What motivated people to vote for him?

Well, Trump promised to stop big money political corruption, end neoliberal trade deals, force American corporations to manufacture in the US, bring jobs back for the working class, rebuild infrastructure, and make healthcare affordable for more people. It’s the exact kind of promises Sanders made.

Do you honestly think that voters looking for someone to make good on these promises would have chose Trump over Sanders? Of course not. The only reason they voted for Trump is because they had little if any trust that Clinton would do anything other than defend the status quo that was harming so many.

You can argue that Trump voters were naive. Then again, you could argue that Clinton voters were naive. Both candidates have spent their lives lying in order to get ahead.

If voters were looking for the lesser evil as they were told they should do, it shouldn’t be surprising that they chose the candidate who promised change, as they voted for Obama who promised change. Guess what? They actually do want change, even if voting for Trump was an act of desperation in response to a failed political system.

The moment was perfect for the Democratic establishment to have nominated someone like Sanders. That is assuming they would rather win with a progressive than lose with a corporatist, surely a false assumption to make. The Democratic establishment knew that Sanders would have had an overwhelming victory and that scared them, because it would have challenged their dominance of the party.

It turns out Sanders was a moderate by the standards of the American public. But in a radical corporatist system, we’ve lost the ability to recognize a moderate. It’s sad that a moderate like Sanders is treated as such a threat, more of a threat than Trump.

* * *

Daniel Drezner, in The Ideas Industry, criticizes the marketplace of ideas. But I’m not sure to what extent he understands the actual problem, in terms of leftist critique of capitalist realism and the destruction of the commons.

I did some searches in his book. It looks like it could be a decent analysis. Still, I wonder if he falls into the standard trap of focusing on the symptoms more than the disease. In the passage below, he dismisses the cause as being irrelevant, which seems like a self-defeating attitude if we are seeking fundamental changes at the causal level. To emphasize this potential weakness, I noticed throughout his book that numerous times he mentions capitalism and the marketplace of ideas while never bringing up the the view of a commons (a topic discussed by Howard Schwartz).

Problematic as that might be, Drezner does bring up important points. He discusses inequality, in how it relates to wealth, power, and influence. It’s not just those at the top have more but that using what they have they can control which ideas get a loudspeaker and which ideas get silenced. It’s unsurprising, as he points out, that surveys show the elite have entirely different values and agendas than the rest of the population.

This is a dangerous situation for an aspiring democracy. The elite control of the Ideas Industry could be called propaganda, since not only the ideas are controlled but the framing, narrative, reporting, and debate of ideas is controlled. It’s controlled by plutocratic funding and organizations along with corporatist political parties and corporate media. It’s because of this concentrated control of ideas that causes so many Americans do not realize they are a silenced majority.

Here is the passage from Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry (pp. 62-5):

“While the rise in inequality has been concentrated in the United States, it also reflects a more widespread, global phenomena. Whether the cause has been globalization, the rise of finance, the economics of superstars, or the ineluctable laws of capitalism is irrelevant for our concerns. What does matter is that both wealth and income inequality are on the rise, and there are excellent reasons to believe that the concentration of wealth at the top could increase further over time.

“As the inequality of wealth has increased in the United States, so has the inequality of contributions to political life. Survey data show that the wealthy are far more politically informed and active than the rest of the public. […] The effect of economic and political inequality on the Ideas Industry is profound. On the one hand, rising income inequality and declining income mobility have bred dissatisfaction with the state of the American Dream. Since the start of the twenty-first century, poll after poll has shown that Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction.

“The most profound impact of rising economic inequality is on the supply side of the Ideas Industry. The massive accumulation of wealth at the top has created a new class of benefactors to fund the generation and promotion of new ideas. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find a profile of a billionaire that does not also reference an interest in ideas.

“Twenty-first-century benefactors are proudly distinct from their twentieth-century predecessors. The big benefactors of the previous century set up foundations that would endure long after they died. While many plutocrats had ideas about the purpose of their foundations, most were willing to trust the boards they appointed. […] Foundations set up by J. Howard Pew and Henry Ford also wound up promoting ideas at odds with the political philosophies of their benefactors.

“This century’s patrons adopt a more hands-on role in their engagement with ideas. Echoing billionaire Sean Parker, they largely reject “traditional philanthropy—a strange and alien world made up of largely antiquated institutions.” To twenty-first-century plutocrats, the mistake of past benefactors was to delegate too much autonomy to posthumous trustees. A new set of “venture philanthropists” or “philanthrocapitalists” has emerged to stimulate new thinking about a host of public policy issues. In contarst to the older foundations, these new entities are designed to articulate a coherent philosophy consistent with a living donor’s intent. Organizations like the Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network have developed a large footprint in significant areas of public policy.

“Most of these new philanthropic foundations are obsessed with the “three Ms”—money, markets, and measurement. Potentially game-changing ideas are like catnip to plutocrats. […] The eagerness to please benefactors affects both the content and the suppliers of the ideas. […] In the Ideas Industry, thought leaders fiercely compete to get on the radar screen of wealthy benefactors.”

Alt-Facts of Employment

 

Here is a topic I return every so often. It’s the related nexus of unemployment, permanent unemployment, and underemployment along with how it relates the larger economy, the black market, inequality, opportunity, welfare, poverty, homelessness, desperation, etc. I don’t have any new thoughts, but I was looking at a lot of articles and decided to share them.

There is so much disagreement over the data, what exactly is the data and what it means or doesn’t mean. The reason for this is that there is so little useful data. I’ve always been concerned not just about what the data includes but also what it excludes… and so who is excluded and for what or whose purpose. Still, much can be ascertained from what data is available, if one is willing to consider it honestly. The number appears to be shockingly low for adults working “good jobs” who potentially could work, if full employment was available (not to mention if full opportunity and economic mobility was available). So many Americans have given up on looking for work or the kind of work and many others, for various reasons, are simply not seen in the data.

So much of human potential goes wasted. This kind of data isn’t just numbers. It’s people stuck in place or running place, too often falling through the cracks. It’s people struggling and suffering, working hard and not being counted or else wanting to get ahead but feeling blocked. These people are frustrated and ever more outraged or else resigned. Many others are simply tired and just doing what they can, what they must to get by.

The poorest of communities, in a large number of cases, have the majority of their residents unemployed and the majority of their men caught up in the legal system. The main economy in these communities it the black market of drugs, prostitution, and other basic work paid under the counter.

The problems we face are far worse than gets typically recorded in the data and reported in the media. Some of these problems have been developing for decades, such as stagnating/dropping wages and the shrinking middle class. And they are inseparable from the problems of worsening corporatism, failed governance, lost public trust, growing national debt, crumbling infrastructure, externalized costs, and much else.

These problems are real and urgent for those who are most harmed by them. Data on such things as unemployment, however it is measured, is just the tip of an iceberg that sits teetering atop the tip of a vast oceanic mountain range.

* * *

Nearly Half of Millennials Say the American Dream Is Dead. Here’s Why.
by Natalie Johnson, The Daily Signal

One in five suicides is associated with unemployment
Science Daily

The Opioid Epidemic and the Face of Long-Term Unemployment
by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Lack of jobs linked to gun violence at schools
by Megan Fellman, Futurity

Alternate Unemployment Charts
ShadoStats.com

The Invisible American
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

The Big Lie: 5.6% Unemployment
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

Gallup Is Right: The Unemployment Rate Is A Big Lie
by John Manfreda, Seeking Alpha

Only 44 Percent Of U.S. Adults Are Employed For 30 Or More Hours Per Week
by Michael Snyder, The Economic Collapse

Neither Employed, Nor Unemployed
by Bud Meyers, The Economic Populist
comment by Bud Meyers

Gallup CEO Blasts Press’s Complacency in Covering Unemployment and Underemployment
by Tom Blumer, NewsBusters

The Low Unemployment Rate Is A Momentary Calm Before The Coming Economic Storm
by Drew Hansen, Forbes

Long-term Unemployed Struggle as Economy Improves, Rutgers Study Finds
Rutgers Today

47% of Unemployed Americans Have Just Stopped Looking for Work
by Dan Kedmey, Time

US unemployed have quit looking for jobs at a ‘frightening’ level: Survey
by Jeff Cox, CNBC

In U.S., One in Four Unemployed Adults in Financial Distress
by Lydia Saad, Gallup

Nearly half of U.S. workers consider themselves underemployed, report says
bAlexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune

Despite Reports, Unemployment Is Still A Major Issue For Veterans
by Dan Goldenberg, Task & Force

Unemployment rates are higher for young people, minorities
PBS NewsHour

UIC Study Shows High Unemployment Among Black, Hispanic Youth In Chicago
CBS Chicago

Nearly half of young black men in Chicago are neither in school nor working
by Rob Wile, Fusion

One in four black, Hispanic workers is underemployed
by Andrea Orr, Economic Policy Institute

Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Job Crisis
by Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Drau, Demos

Nearly Half Of Unemployed Americans Are Under 34 Years Old: Study
Huffington Post

Fed: Nearly half of recent college grads struggling
by Irina Ivanova, Crain’s

Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States
New American Economy

ILO: Only one in four workers has a stable job
DW Akademie

New Study Predicts Nearly Half of All Work Will Be Automated
by Patrick Caughill, Futurism

* * *

A Sense of Urgency
America Is Not Great For Most Americans

Common Sense of the Common People
We’ve Been Here Before
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
Minimum Wage, Wage Suppression, Welfare State, etc
Invisible Problems of Invisible People
Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data
Worthless Non-Workers
Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?
Working Hard, But For What?
To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black
Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility
Race & Wealth Gap
Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration
End of Work as Endtimes
American Winter and Liberal Failure
Conservatives Pretending to Care About Economic Problems
Conservative Moral Order & the Lazy Unemployed
Conservatism, Murders & Suicides
Republicans: Party of Despair
Rate And Duration of Despair
Poor & Rich Better Off With Democrats
Unequal Democracy, Parties, and Class
‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland
Problems of Income Inequality

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place
Not Funny At All

Mean Bosses & Inequality
The United States of Inequality
Economic Inequality: A Book List
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good

Size Matters

“If you owe the bank ten thousand dollars, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank a million dollars, you own the bank.”
~ attributed to various people

And other variations:

“If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy.”

“If you owe the bank $100 that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

* * *

“a TEN-YEAR-OLD lad in Indianapolis who was arrested for picking up coal along the side of railroad tracks is now in jail. If the boy had known enough to steal the whole railroad he would be heralded as a Napoleon of finance.”
~ Mother Jones

And another version, also attributed to her:

“I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.”

Or related variants, often misattributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

“The illiterate robs a freight car; the educated thief steals the whole railroad.”

“An uneducated thief will steal a ride on a railroad train. An educated thief will steal the whole railroad system.”

“If a man steal a ride on a railroad, he is called a “hobo;” If he steal the whole railroad his name is emblazoned in history as a financier.”

“Steal a ride and you are a “hobo,” liable to be shot. Steal a whole railroad and you are a financier, eligible to the United States Senate.”

“if a man steals a ham from a freight car, he goes to jail; while if he steals the whole railroad, he goes to the United States senate.”

* * *

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
~ usually misattributed to Stalin

Along with numerous variations:

“The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!”

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

“One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero.”

“Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.

 

Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Privilege is a tough subject. For most people, there are always plenty of others who are both more privileged and less privileged. Still, nuance and complexity isn’t how we tend to think about such things. It depends, as always, on what we focus upon and what we ignore—this typically being shaped by unconscious biases.

We don’t objectively compare ourselves to the larger social reality. And we don’t base our perceptions on intricate demographic data and comprehensive surveys. What we usually do is create a sense of our place in the world through personal anecdotes and vague media-filtered experience, through narrative frames and political rhetoric. This causes us to compare ourselves to the distorted and often fictionalized narratives portrayed in MSM news reporting and Hollywood movies—not to mention the influence of now near endless political campaigning and the subtle class war rhetoric that is drilled into our psyches. Besides that, it is human nature to focus on and, when possible, aspire toward what is above us. Even the wealthy will look with envy at the even wealthier. This is exaggerated in a high inequality society, where the gap between the rich and super-rich is as vast as the gap between the upper classes and all the rest, and such gaps continue to grow ever more vast. Only those near the bottom might bother to spend much time looking down upon those below them in the social pecking order, whether the differences are real (class) or perceived (race).

I’ve pointed out how this plays out for liberals—the privilege of the liberal class, the bias and benefits inherent to greater wealth and status, opportunities and resources. The liberal demographic is among the most economically well off and well educated. And, related to this, the wealthier of any demographic (race, ideology, etc) the more liberal people tend to be, often both in terms of social liberalism and classical liberal economics. It’s not only about those who self-identify as liberals. A similar pattern is found among libertarians and other right-wingers, from objectivists to anarcho-capitalists. It’s true of the Republican political elite and activists, the conservative pundits and think tank intellectuals, the business managerial class and inherited old wealth. But it’s also true of most people on the far political left: Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, feminists, etc. Even the typical minority activist and politician is going to be far above average in wealth and education. To hold and defend any particular ideology or identity politics largely depends on a privileged status in society. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to commit to such activities—especially if one makes a career out of it. The poor, whether working or unemployed, whether white or minority, don’t have this kind of luxury.

There is an odd dynamic here. The middle-to-upper class are more ‘liberal’ in many ways, including for those on the political right. Those far down the economic scale are less concerned about defending liberalism in any of its forms, whether leftist standard liberalism or right-wing classical liberalism. In Western countries, even radical left-wingers who often are critical of ‘liberalism’ are more culturally liberal than the poor. On the other hand, the lower classes (i.e., the majority of the population) are more liberal/leftist in concrete ways than the political elite that claims to represent them—supporting: higher taxation of the rich and corporations, stronger social safety net, more effective regulations, less wars of aggression and military adventurism, etc. The supposed conservatism of the lower class majority is primarily symbolic, not necessarily based on specific political principles and policies. But it could be seen as genuinely conservative in the lower class’ demand for more emphasis on social capital and culture of trust, family and community—the very things that are undermined by upper class politics and economics, especially neoliberalism. Anyway, it’s a class divide more than an ideological divide, as the differences between partisan/ideological elites is negligible in terms of practical politics and actual results.

The main thing, anyway, is that there are these fundamental divides in our society. They lead to endless disconnections and conflicts. Our thoughts are distorted and our vision narrowed, causing endless confusion and misunderstanding. This is why privilege is so hard to see and understand. We rarely ever get the sense of the full context of our lives. This has worsened because of the segregation of not just ghettos, housing projects, and rural isolation but also of suburbs, walled communities, and gentrified neighborhoods. Physical distance leads to psychological distance.

Obviously, it’s not just about the hypocrisy of self-identified liberals living comfortable lives, even though their example is egregious based on the politics they outwardly support. This is a collective failure, not just of the dominant liberal order of post-Enlightenment society, or rather at this point we are all liberals complicit in this failure, even those who spend their lives complaining about liberalism and blaming liberals. Hypocritical liberals simply make explicit what is implicit to the world we live in. Even poor Westerners are part of the problems involved in a long history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, exploitation, etc. Living in the West, we are all legacy beneficiaries of immense crimes against humanity in the past but also continuing into the present. This is particularly true of a country like the US, for being a subject of an empire has its advantages even for the poorest of subjects, not that it’s all that great of a fate even though there are worst fates.

As a liberal, much of my focus has been on other liberals. But I want to clarify this. There is a reason I identify as a liberal. It’s because of, not in spite of, my criticisms. According to my most utopian ideals and futuristic visions, I could identify as a left-libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist, democratic-socialist, etc. I could grab hold of some ideology as a way of distancing myself from liberalism. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I want to emphasize that I’m complicit in all that goes on in this society. I don’t want to merely stand back from it all or worse still pretend I’m above it all. That is what irritates me about many left-wingers. It’s true that left-wing politics has little overt power in the world today, certainly not in the United States. But I think it’s a cop-out for left-wingers to play intellectual games with detached righteousness, lost in their highfalutin abstruse historical and economic analyses, as if they aren’t stuck down in the sewers covered with shit like the rest of us.

Joe Bageant was a Marxist and considered himself far left of the far left, but he never forgot his roots in poor white Appalachia. He complained about liberalism and yet at times admitted he was a liberal of sorts—worse still, an educated liberal and an old hippie at that. He was trying to make his voice heard from within the belly of the beast, not observing the beast’s behavior as if a zoologist studying from afar. From the opposite end of the class spectrum, there was someone like Theodore Roosevelt. His class solidarity apparently was a bit lacking, as he didn’t espouse an ideology for the wealthy and business interests. He took socialists seriously, in that he argued they made some valid points. Unlike many mainstream partisans today reacting to the supporters of Sanders and Trump, TR didn’t just dismiss the perceived radicals as loud-mouthed rabble-rousers and malcontents. He argued that many socialists were simply social reformers, not utopian ideologues, and that the issues they brought up should be taken seriously—it being better to allow genuine reform if it prevents violent revolution. Both Bageant and Roosevelt were making the simple point that we should listen to those making complaints and try to understand where they are coming from—i.e., don’t shoot the messenger.

Here is what has been on my mind, a specific demographic that is some combination of middle-to-upper class, well educated, professional, and mostly white. Out of this demographic comes the politicians and activists, community organizers and social workers, intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, musicians and actors, journalists and reporters, etc. Despite being a minority of the population, they have greater power to be heard and influence than all of the rest of the population combined. They are, of course, more economically secure and comfortable than most of the population, along with greater opportunity for economic mobility. They particularly dominate the political and media spheres and so they determine the terms of public debate and controlling the framing of issues and narratives. These are the people who are most invested in the system and likewise benefit the most from the system, but they aren’t the people who experience the greatest harm from and costs of the system.

These are the privileged. These are the people who have the most insulated lives. They either don’t see or don’t understand many of the divides in our society. Certainly, they have little experience of those who live on the other side of those divides. They argue among themselves within a narrow frame of interests and ideas. Even the supposed radicals among them are safely contained within the dominant paradigm. Yet fissures are beginning to form in their walled reality. And the voices from outside are beginning to be heard. This disturbs their comfortable lives and puts them in an irritable mood. They realize their position in the social order is being threatened.

Even so, I don’t get the sense that most of these middle-to-upper class gentlefolk realize how bad it’s gotten for the majority of the population. Some do get it, but many more don’t. When I hear the criticisms of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, it becomes obvious that these critics are oblivious to the point of utter cluelessness. It’s not just economic problems getting worse: increasing poverty among the disadvantaged and growing inequality across society, higher rates of unemployment and underemployment (permanent unemployment no longer even being measured), the falling behind other developed countries in economic mobility along with the size and wealth of the middle class, stagnating or falling real wages and buying power, etc. It’s also a worsening of rates of mental health issues, suicide and other mortality causes, delayed marriage and divorce—and the destruction of all that held the social fabric together: deteriorating tight-knit farming communities and factory towns based on strong local economies, loss of high membership rates in labor unions and civic organizations, undermining of culture of trust and civic participation, weakening of democratic process and representation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement and demoralization of the lower classes, economic segregation and isolation, underfunding of schools and libraries and infrastructure and public services, and so much else.

This isn’t directly impacting most of the people the comfortable middle-to-upper classes. They usually don’t even see it’s impact on others, except occasional reports about it in the news media and occasional portrayals of it in the entertainment media. But even then, no real sense of what it means for those suffering and struggling. When they dismiss demands for reform from those below them, what they don’t understand is that these aren’t unreasonable requests. Those at the bottom of society don’t have the luxury to wait for slowly implemented moderate reforms. The system is broken. For the worst off, this at times can be a life or death situation. Some people are barely hanging on, at the end of their rope. As the economy worsens and the divides widen, desperation gets pushed to the breaking point with the inevitable result of soaring rates of mental health issues and suicides. Push it far enough and you will see even far worse consequences for all of society. The presently comfortable might find themselves increasingly uncomfortable, if they continue to ignore the victims of these oppressive problems. It’s not wise, much less moral and compassionate, to dismiss the pleas of the desperate.

* * *

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

“They join the army because they want to be like you.”

Below is David Graeber explaining the political right (“Army of Altruists” from Revolutions in Reverse). The view is similar to that of Joe Bageant.

It’s not that they have gone mad. Don’t callously dismiss them, as stupid. No, they aren’t voting against their own interests. It’s that the world they live in offers them few, if any, good choices. They are responding to a society that no longer values justice and no longer honors the agreed upon social contract, at least what many Americans thought was agreed upon.

This is why I argue that the Democratic Party, in refusing to offer genuine reforms that help the lower classes, have made this situation inevitable. The policies of the Clinton New Democrats are Republican lite: tough-on-crime policies, cutbacks on welfare, neoliberal attacks on the working class, war hawk mentality that is willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor for wars that defend corporate interests, bloated corporatist government that no longer serves the public good, etc.

Democrats have refused to offer an alternative that matters. Instead, they’ve offered policies that make miserable the lives of so many Americans, both whites and minorities. Yes, so have the Republicans, but no one expects right-wingers to fight for social justice and political reform. The desperate and disenfranchised have often turned to Republicans because they at least seem honest in what they are offering. Even for poor whites, telling tem that their lives are slightly less shitty than that of poor minorities is no comfort.

For the down-and-out American, facing poverty and unemployment isn’t an inspiring situation. Even finding work at McDonald’s or Walmart is not much of a sign of success and a hope for the future. An aspiring individual can make more selling drugs or prostituting themselves. It’s not like the good ol’ days when some poor, uneducated schmuck could start their own successful business or get a high paying entry-level factory job working his way up into management. These days, a working class job is a dead end and a mark of shame, not an opportunity to better oneself and one’s children.

It is unsurprising that large numbers of people in poverty turn to military service. The military offers these people discarded by society a vision of greatness and pride. They can be part of the most powerful military in the world. For too many Americans, this is the only realistic path of mobility left.

This is why conservatives praise the military and put it at the center of their political narrative. The good liberals of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, offer the poor jack shit.

Here is the passage from Graeber’s essay:

“America, of course, continues to see itself as a land of opportunity, and certainly from the perspective of an immigrant from Haiti or Bangladesh it is. But America has always been a country built on the promise of unlimited upward mobility. The working-class condition has been traditionally seen as a way station, as something one’s family passes through on the road to something else. Abraham Lincoln used to stress that what made American democracy possible was the absence of a class of permanent wage laborers. In Lincoln’s day, the ideal was that wage laborers would eventually save up enough money to build a better life: if nothing else, to buy some land and become a homesteader on the frontier.

“The point is not how accurate this ideal was; the point is that most Americans have found the image plausible. Every time the road is perceived to be clogged, profound unrest ensues. The closing of the frontier led to bitter labor struggles, and over the course of the twentieth century, the steady and rapid expansion of the American university system could be seen as a kind of substitute. Particularly after World War II, huge resources were poured into expanding the higher education system, which grew extremely rapidly, and all this growth was promoted quite explicitly as a means of social mobility. This served during the Cold War as almost an implied social contract, not just offering a comfortable life to the working classes but holding out the chance that their children would not be working class themselves. The problem, of course, is that a higher education system cannot be expanded forever. At a certain point one ends up with a significant portion of the population unable to find work even remotely in line with their qualifications, who have every reason to be angry about their situation, and who also have access to the entire history of radical thought. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the very point when the expansion of the university system hit a dead end, campuses were, predictably, exploding.

“What followed could be seen as a kind of settlement. Campus radicals were reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite. As the cost of education has skyrocketed, financial aid has been cut back, and the prospect of social mobility through education–above all liberal arts education–has been rapidly diminished. The number of working-class students in major universities, which steadily grew until the Seventies, has now been declining for decades. […]

“Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than the salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid. This is certainly true if one wishes to be involved in altruistic pursuits: say, to join the world of charities, or NGOs, or to become a political activist. But it is equally true if one wants to pursue values like Beauty or Truth: to become part of the world of books, or the art world, or an investigative reporter. The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, of course, especially at the top, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.

“If that mechanic’s daughter wishes to pursue something higher, more noble, for a career, what options does she really have? Likely just two: She can seek employment at her local church, which is hard to get. Or she can join the army.

“This is, of course, the secret of nobility. To be noble is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value. But it is also to be able to do so because one does not really have to think too much about money. This is precisely what our soldiers are doing when they give free dental examinations to villagers: they are being paid (modestly, but adequately) to do good in the world. Seen in this light, it is also easier to see what really happened at universities in the wake of the 1960s–the “settlement” I mentioned above. Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.”