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A Brief History of Consumerism August 21, 2021

  Hello again, folks.

  There is this thing we call ‘the economy’. Everyone talks about it. It is one of the most important and talked-about things in our world. No politician can refrain from mentioning it, no matter his current topic; no news program can ignore it. But what IS it?

  Google tells me an ‘economy’ is ‘the large set of inter-related production and consumption activities that aid in determining how scarce resources are allocated (emphasis by Google). In an economy, the production and consumption of goods and services are used to fulfill the needs of those living and operating within it.’ It can also refer in a more detailed fashion to a mode (i.e., an agrarian economy, an pre-industrial economy, a post-industrial economy); a sector of an existing economy (i.e., the service economy, the information economy); or a synecdoche referring to the health and wealth of a society (the economy is doing well, the economy took a hit this quarter, etc).

  Well, in the words of David Byrne, ‘how did we get here?’ Since this a brief history of the thing- consumerism- that has shaped our ‘economy’ into its current form, I’ll go back about a century. The Great War had just ended and Western society had just roared into the Twenties. Europe had been smashed by four years of ruinous war that killed millions, starved millions more, and wrecked the once powerful industrial might of the Great Powers (England, France, Germany and to a lesser extent Russia, now the new ‘Soviet Union’).

  In America, however, things looked quite different. The nation had just come into its primacy as the world’s most industrialized power, having tooled up to produce massive amounts of war materiel but not suffering the enormous casualties or physical destruction visited upon Europe. The owners of the newly expanded factories now found themselves at an impasse; what to do with all of their industrial capacity that they had just bought now that the War was over?

  People had always bought things, of course; and a factory that had made rifles or tanks could be retooled to make domestic machinery and civilian automobiles at no great expense compared to just shutting them down and writing them off as massive financial losses. Thing is, though, how do you get people to buy more stuff? 

  Getting Americans (and later the Europeans, and later still the people of the world) to part with their hard-earned cash proved pretty difficult. Americans of the 19th and early 20th Centuries tended to be thrifty, keeping their wealth in property and cash. There was little precedent for the members of the rapidly-growing ‘middle class’ (the ‘Second America’ of my previous blogs) to spend money on anything they did not immediately need for survival or basic comfort. Having money beyond what was necessary for basic needs was a new phenomena for most members of this new socio-economic class, and due to the wild boom-and-bust of the post-Civil War America most of them realized that they were still just one banking crash away from returning to abject poverty. Better to stay debt-free and your double-eagles buried in a can in the back yard.

  Enter ‘consumerism’ and its midwife, advertising. Madison Avenue (itself synecdoche for the soon-to-be massive advertising industry!) provided the hungry industrialists and their idle and expensive factories the thing they needed most- customers. Buying stuff- new clothes, electric lights, a washing machine, a car!- suddenly became glamorous. You too could have these things, even on a clerk or factory worker’s wages, that had recently been the sole prerogative of the ‘rich’. Advertising changed the mores of an entire generation, steering it from frugality and the judicious accumulation of wealth over time into buying stuff, stuff, and more stuff, often just for the sake of having it; ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ became the watchword of the day.

  In less time than it takes to tell of it, the industrialists were selling as much stuff as they could make, and re-investing their profits to make even more. The market seemed bottomless; making more stuff meant building more capacity and hiring more people to staff factories, which meant more people with money to- you guessed it- buy stuff. That’s a simplistic take on a fairly complex economic process that was helped along by the godfather of consumerism; credit.

  Credit as a concept was nothing new. It had existed in primitive forms probably before actual money. However, it had never been marketed to the masses in quite the form that it now took. Shorn of its negative connotations to the generations of thrifty Americans of earlier generations, the masses took to credit to fuel their Madison Avenue-created need for more stuff. First was the ‘lay-away plan’; pay the store a dollar a week for a year and that new-fangled washing machine could be yours, just in time for Christmas! Even at factory wages of 20$ a week, what’s a dollar?

  Credit had its immediate down-side, though; the Great Depression proved it and (without going too deeply down THAT rabbit-hole) it required an even bloodier new World War before the West was able to regain the track of consumerism. Now, however, the owners of the factories that had made B-29 bombers, M4 tanks and M1 rifles KNEW how to keep the factories (paid for by the tax-payer and War Bond buyer) open and more profitable than ever. And the post-War Marshall Plan made sure that the economies of former foes would get back on their feet swiftly, providing more buyers of stuff for the endless production now available.

  Once the world’s cash system got unpinned from Bretton-Woods (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_system), the money supply available for consumer credit ratcheted up into a realm where credit could be offered without collateral up front but merely on the promise to pay; the debt so incurred actually became money so far as the banking system was concerned and the interest charged on its unpaid balances was pure profit to the lenders. By the late 1970’s the world’s ‘economy’ revolved around debt, and buying and selling huge tranches of same fueled by interest payments on it generated more capital than the world had ever before seen. Consumerism was fueled on debt, secured or (mostly) otherwise, with the interest levels automatically subsuming any losses on forfeited payments- essentially making the system self-sustaining and ultimately generating guaranteed profits to those who ‘owned’ the debts. The most profitable business activity in the current financial system IS the financial system itself; it defines what we would think of as our national and world ‘economy’. And we owe it ALL to consumerism.

  The final piece to the puzzle of what defines our ‘economy’ is also the ultimate extension of consumerism. All of us who participate in social media are the final product of consumerism. We have gone from being ‘customers’ to being the product itself. The services rendered to us by social media are incidental to our value as the commodity bought and sold by the social media corporations, just as the wages paid us by our employers are incidental to the profits they make off of whatever goods or services our labor produces- and that we purchase ourselves with those selfsame wages AND the interest we pay on our debt.

  You, dear reader, are the ultimate commodity exchanged in our economy; your buying choices, your opinion of services and brands, and even your vote in the next election are worth TRILLIONS collectively to those who would pay a few cents per head for them. Personally, I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be under-valued, if not almost totally trivialized. I ask you to think on it, if you would.

  Keep striving, friends. 

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The ‘Three Americas’ and the Power of Narrative July 10, 2021

Hello again, my friends.

We Americans live in a dazzling variety of circumstances. Not merely geographical locales, with which our nation is blessed by a fantastic range, but instead our domiciles. We live in glittering hi-rises, humble trailer parks, the ‘single-family’ home, the rental apartment, the mobile home, RVs, cabins in the woods, the ‘Projects’, stately mansions and tarps under bridge abutments. We live in the widest variety of domestic situations ever before seen in human history.

We tell ourselves that one thing unites us all; that we are ALL Americans (well, mostly . . .) And on the face of it that statement is accurate in that each of us is a citizen- of an America. But we all do not live in the SAME America. Because while geographically the ‘United States’ is one nation, economically and even legally there are three Americas.

I’ve written here before about the three rough socio-economic groupings in our nation and why they differ in many ways from the socio-economic or ‘class’ structures in other ‘Western’ nations. It’s a difference glossed over in our history education, news media, and national conversations. It’s embarrassing to many of the citizens of two of our Americas, while the citizens of the third one, although having spoken out about it for centuries, have until now rarely been heard in earnest.

Without diving too deeply into the nature of the social media revolution of the past decade, it has put the existence of the three ‘Americas’, if not in those terms, front-and-center in our national debate over our identity; or more importantly, our identities, plural. Albeit represented and served by the very same governmental organs, the experience of living here is itself breath-takingly different depending upon which America one is a citizen of.

Because, despite the letter of the law (and in some cases because of it!) there are marked differences in how a person gets treated from America to America. Differences in legal protection and representation, medical care, education, treatment by law enforcement and social services, even transportation and available foodstuffs. The national narrative says that all of these differences are the unavoidable result of economics; that the money available to each citizen is the sole determinant of one’s quality of life.

In the words of Nobel-Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, ‘that is not only not right; it is not even wrong‘ (italics mine). Income and to a more subtle but even greater extent wealth is the primary determinant of the services and treatment available to each citizen; this I cannot deny. It is the way that income is obtained and MUCH more importantly how wealth is attained and maintained that delineates the fundamental difference between the three Americas.

This distribution of income and more importantly wealth is NOT a geographical function, though it sorts geographically to an extent. It is driven by something subtle and not immediately apparent, a fundamental feature of the structure of the socio-economic engine that has obtained in the (geographical) America for four centuries and is wholly unique to it.

I have also written about narratives and their central importance to human societies elsewhere in these blogs. For the purposes of my discussion today, a ‘narrative’ is an encapsulation of the ideals and explanations a culture uses to define its primary features and social relationships. It is NOT a factual argument, though it may contain ‘facts’ in the same way a blueberry muffin has blueberries in it but does not consist wholly of blueberries. Instead, it is a fiction that a society tells itself to justify its existence and activities; in Corporate lingo it is a ‘mission statement’.

Two of the Americas share a lot of the same content (factual or otherwise) in their narratives, though each cast in subtly different ways to explain and justify their existence as well as that of the other two Americas. Their ‘mission statements’, although similar in that each stresses the maintenance and furtherance of their America ‘for the good of all’, also differ on one subtle though important point.

The ‘First’ America, consisting of 1% of the population but collectively holding half of the nation’s wealth, stresses a false egalitarianism; ‘anyone can get rich if they WORK hard enough’ is a popular statement in their narrative. The actual ‘understood’ truth behind it- the mission- is ‘use whatever means are necessary to maintain wealth and obtain as much more of it as physically (not necessarily legally or morally) possible’. It has served them well for the past four centuries, and in that it is not any different than the narrative of any other oligarchy or aristocracy in the past 6,000 or so years of human history. It is immediately understandable by any student of history, economics, or sociology.

The ‘Second’ America, which consists of half the population and collectively holds 40% of the nation’s total wealth, stresses the same false egalitarianism of the ‘First’ America though necessarily casts it slightly differently; ‘if you just work hard and make sure that WE retain political supremacy over everyone under us, we’ll be able to keep everything our ancestors had’. There is a strong identification with and support of the citizens of the ‘First’ America and the maintenance of the status quo, though economically and culturally the ‘Second’ America has much more in common with the ‘Third’ America than the ‘First’. The identification of the ‘Second’ America with the ‘First’ has been emphasized for centuries, and not by accident because it is a basic feature of the socio-economic structure of this nation, and has been since long before it became a ‘nation’ de jure.

(Full disclosure; I grew up as and am still a member of the ‘Second’ America, at least socio-economically- although I’ll let the reader decide where my ideological sympathies lay.)

The ‘Third’ America consists of everyone else living within the geographical area of the United States. It has ten percent of the collective wealth but half of the population, with perhaps 20 million of them not US citizens or even legal residents. The Third America includes Native Americans, immigrants of whatever ‘legal’ status, people of color, women of any ‘color’, LGBTQ+ people, prisoners, and the homeless. Most of them, though, would still be counted as ‘white’ on a Census form. Note that I did not say that ALL people of the ‘non-white’ categories listed above are in this ‘Third’ America. Those categories are not indicative of membership but are still strongly statistically represented to the point that being one (or more) of those ‘non-white’ categories gives a much better than ‘random’ chance of being in the ‘Third’ America; just as nearly all citizens of the ‘First America’ are white males (or dependents of one) while white males also make up the greater proportion of the ‘Second’ America.

This is where the awesome and abiding ‘power of narrative’ comes into the picture. The ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Americas have a strong narrative and sense of cohesion; the ‘First’ nearly monolithic in their support of their exceedingly simple ‘mission statement’ and the ‘Second’ still pretty solidly behind theirs (though not without dissent in the ranks). The ‘First’ America has maintained control over the economy and government for nearly four centuries, despite a Revolution and a Civil War and a Civil Rights Amendment and the rise of social media and a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction of the ‘Third’ America and some elements of the ‘Second’.

The ‘Third’ America unfortunately lacks a coherent narrative. Oh, there are dozens of narratives and identities in the Third America. Its members aren’t stupid and they are quite aware of what’s happening to them and why they are in the ‘Third’ America, but they have (as yet) no solid or wide-ranging narrative powerful enough to unify half of the population of the nation against the other two Americas. It’s that way on purpose; a feature and not a bug, managed assiduously by the First America using the fears of the Second America as part of their narrative. ‘Trickle-down economics’ is ridiculous and unworkable, but trickle-down cultural values and narratives work fantastically.

Social media, though currently used by the minions of the First America (they own Madison Avenue, after all!) to keep the Second America focused on the ‘danger’ of the Third America, may be the only hope of the Third America to gain some measure of social and economic justice. I don’t care which America you belong to, dear reader; the very fact that you have read this blog means that you’re THINKING about these topics. It transcends political ideologies and Party memberships, and it speaks to citizens of ALL of the Americas.

Keep striving, folks.

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Blog 03.31.21 April 1, 2021

Hello again, my friends.

It’s already proven a busy year so far. There’s a light at the end of the dark and miserable tunnel of this pandemic. Vaccines are rolling out, infection numbers seem to be going down if with upswings here and there which (with any luck) may not prove serious trends. Economic indicators look up, stimulus payments have gone out to roughly 90% of Americans, businesses are tentatively beginning to hire folks again, and people are starting to make plans for life in the ‘After-Times’.

The political process here in the United States is still dysfunctional but it’s a dysfunction we’ve been suffering for quite a while, long before a random pandemic threw our lives into such desperate turmoil. The roots of it wind deeply into our narrative as a people and the organs of our society. They are too manifold to list here, let alone in any single writer’s life work.

I typically do not name names in these blogs, especially when they bend towards politics. The world is too large a place and a system too complex to reach out and pin the blame for our woes on any particular individuals. However, I would like to speak about a trio of people who had an effect far out of proportion to their importance as mere humans. And don’t get me wrong; I don’t speak as to character, just deeds. No person is beneath consideration, just as none are above reproach.

The Conservative movement as a whole in the United States is hardly monolithic. It contains a multitude of moving parts, but it is more organized and consistent than any other large scale political movement or group in the nation. Its political action organ is the Republican Party; in contrast, the Liberal movement in the US is represented by the Democratic Party albeit it is in no fashion as well organized as the GOP. Full personal disclosure; I am (still) a registered Republican and I voted the ‘straight GOP ticket’ in every election from 1988 to 2012. I no longer do so.

In the mid-1990s a new wave of tactics and attitudes energized the Republican Party. One of the leaders who espoused these new tactics was Newton ‘Newt’ Gingrich, Representative from Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (R, 1979-1999), and Speaker of the House Of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. Without getting heavily bogged down in attributions- since this is an opinion piece and not a strict historical examination- Gingrich was tired of compromising with the Liberal Democratic Party and pushed a tactic of ‘no surrender’ on political issues. Reaching deeply into the fears and concerns of Conservative ‘Middle America’ Gingrich recast the political process as a ‘winner take all, zero-sum game (quotations MINE)’ with its only goal the total domination of the Republican Party politically- and the Conservative movement culturally.

Gingrich had manifold allies among religious and business leaders outside of Congress. There existed a huge base of frightened and reactionary voices in the US electorate, disappointed with what they saw as a Liberal domination of the political and social conversation in the US. A turn ‘rightwards’ towards them and away from any centrist position of cooperation and compromise with the Liberals would gain millions of assured votes from large groups of Conservatives who felt disenfranchised by political compromises that in their opinion did not address their fears concerning immigration, abortion, gun control, progressive economic reforms, and the loss of the traditional White middle-class manufacturing jobs.

In stepped two men who would do much to shape the narrative of the Conservative movement in the US and empower millions of Conservative voters in the cataclysmic political and cultural battles of the last decade of the 20th Century and the current two decades of the 21st; Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Beginning as a radio personality and program director respectively, these two men gave a voice to White middle class people who felt ‘left behind’ by what they perceived as a Liberal domination over news media, politics and the demographic and economic changes in American culture. Political content carried by radio and television had been deregulated in the previous decade by the Reagan Administration, meaning that the media no longer had to pay any lip service to ‘opposing views’ in their programming. This essentially meant that the gloves were off, and broadcasters could riff on about whatever they liked without providing any other viewpoints but their own.

Soon Ailes would spearhead FOX News, creating the first of what would be many ‘infotainment’ broadcasters free to espouse whatever political views they felt would draw listeners- and advertisers. Limbaugh hosted a series of national-level television shows. Their careers are well-documented and hardly need description here; and they each amassed sizeable fortunes by giving voice to the more radical fringes of the Conservative movement in the US and also serving to shape the ‘culture war’ (an invention of the Conservative and the narrative currently accepted by roughly one third of the US population.

In giving a voice to increasingly more extreme right-wing views of immigration, race, abortion, and political discourse- seeing ‘no enemies to the Right’- these two men took the ‘never surrender, zero-sum game’ politics pushed forwards by Gingrich (among others) and irrevocably widened the wedge forming between the Conservative and Liberal movements in the US. Gaining extremists’ votes (and wealth!) and not furthering bilateral political cooperation and compromise- vital to the effective function of politics and society- culminated in the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, the normalization of belief in deep-seated political and cultural conspiracies, pandemic denial, increasing racial tensions, and worst of all the death of effective discourse between two essentially manufactured world-views at the core of this nation’s political dysfunction.

It wasn’t just them alone, but they were the trail-breakers. They made earlier ‘fringe’ right-wing ideologies- some of them quite disturbing and disgusting- into ones accepted by the mainstream. Others on the right and the left came after them once they had opened up the Pandora’s Box of normalizing hatred and disparagement. I do not lay the blame solely at their feet- the current situation has a plethora of causes, among them in general avarice, apathy, mean-spiritedness, the belief that political discourse (and economics!) is a zero-sum game and the individual is the only meaningful element of society- but they sure HELPED these trends to gain wide-spread acceptance, and lined their own pockets doing it.

We all must remain wary of the motives of the ones who pander to the public’s fears and thus broker the votes. Demagoguery is alive and well in this society as it ever has been in all others before and to come, and we’d all do well to remember that demagogues usually operate to their own benefit DESPITE that of society- or US. Our political system and our society has not benefitted from the legacy of these men, no matter that they claimed to speak on the behalf of ‘the people’. They are gone now (Gingrich no longer serves in elected office, and Ailes and Limbaugh have since died) but their ideological descendants and fellow-travelers march ever forwards while the extremism they enabled (while they got rich by fostering it) gets more intense with every passing day. Fixing what they helped to break- the discourse, cooperation and compromise at the center of every functional democracy- will take MUCH longer than it took them to ruin, all for some votes and a few tens of millions of dollars.

Be careful, be honest with yourselves, and keep striving, my friends.

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Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid- 02.15.21 February 15, 2021

Hello again, my friends.

Another ‘President’s Day’, still in the grip of The Pandemic and a massive winter storm that has blanketed the center of this nation from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast. I wanted to talk about a different ‘storm’ today, though, one less obvious but still no less traumatic.

Our lives anymore consist of an overlapping series of ‘cusps’; points at which things hang in the balance and only time tells- sooner or later- which way matters shall fall. It is for societies as it is in our personal lives. In the past year or so, while in the teeth of a Pandemic whose continuing progress still affects our lives in ways nothing else in living memory has, we here in the United States have teetered on a cusp also unprecedented in memory or experience.

Our legislative body- the House and Senate, composed of our elected Representatives and Senators- has been wrapped up in an activity (in two acts) for which it is unsuited to decide or resolve, and for which was not designed to handle. Twice a sitting President has been accused of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ by the House, and twice acquitted of the charges by the Senate. Without disappearing down the rathole of whether the individual is guilty (whatever the Hell THAT means anymore) or even culpable of the charges presented before our legislative body, I feel that there are a few basic things about the entire affair which need unpacked.

We routinely experience a disconnect, both thematically and paradigmatically, between the ‘inputs’ of our political system and that system’s ‘outputs’. ‘We The People’, the true customers and stakeholders in our political process here in the United States, deliver a series of inputs to our Government via the people we elect as our Representatives (the Congress and the Senate) to- in theory- join together to make our will known by writing and voting on laws to thus decide public policy. We desire that the outputs of this system reflect the political will of ‘We The People’, or at least in aggregate of those who vote for said Representatives, to reflect in the legislation and decisions that they make to be the law of the land, for ‘Us’.

Two things have become abundantly clear over the past few years, though they have been apparent for decades. First, the ‘inputs’ we give to our elected Representatives (both in Congress and the Senate) don’t translate well into what we WANT as citizens; and I realize that because we are a pluralistic society those ‘inputs’ are often at contretemps, especially given the extreme level of polarization evident among us over the past three decades or so.

Second, and more tellingly, the ‘outputs’ we receive are even MORE different and distant from the ‘inputs’ desired by ‘We The People’ with each passing year. Legislation by compromise is the best possible outcome any of ‘Us’ can hope for even without a divided electorate, which itself is inefficient and not wholly satisfying to ANYONE; but our system of government was not designed to be either nimble nor wholly satisfying to all- merely something we’ve agreed to live with given our pluralistic society.

Nonetheless, in days gone by (before the 1990’s, let’s say; for the sake of argument) most of us could grumble and say that at least WE got a few of the things we wanted; progressives could get a few incremental policy changes in return for the conservatives among us retaining a measure of political and economic stability. No one ever came away from the table with a pure win, but no one got totally shut out, either. In the days before ‘wedge issues’ and ‘single platform’ candidates took over the political landscape, that was usually enough.

Things are MUCH different now.

Politics here are now more like a suicide pact where the party having the majority in the Legislature- or the allegiance of the current President- either ‘doubles down’ on their most radical policies to ram them past their opponents or signs executive orders to enact sweeping changes (or nullify those made by the last party’s President) as quickly as possible before the next election sweeps out the current party in favor of the other one. The fact that there are only two political parties in the United States is a matter I may discuss in a later blog . . .

In Engineering and Quality Control, my professional background, we would call this a process in the grips of ‘positive feedback’. And all of us in those professions know the eventual fate of such a process, running under such inputs. It oscillates more and more wildly until it exceeds all controls on the process and eventually ‘crashes’. Economists also know this situation, as do historians . . . and it has happened before, with predictably disastrous results.

One last thing I’d like us to remember is that politics, as an endeavor, is NEVER about ‘who is RIGHT’ or ‘who is WRONG’; it is solely dedicated to obtaining power and retaining it by whatever means are necessary. That’s the rub of any democratic society; even a titular ‘republic’ like the United States with its layers of insulation from ‘mob’ voting and a system of checks and balances (the ‘controls’ I mentioned) has to be wary of the politicians and other factions hijacking the political process for their own gains. Or passing laws to ensure the ease of such assumption of power, whether for themselves of for those interests wishing to more easily move wealth from the poor and middle class up to the extremely rich. Both progressive and conservative elements are easily and equally wooed by these interests.

So let’s be careful, friends. Be wary of promises too good to be true; be mistrustful of those who would inflame ‘wedge issues’ and opposition-based partisan politics; and always at first and last think about what YOU are being offered versus its cost to our nation as a whole. Democracy is the MOST expensive form of government, and it requires the greatest level of oversight from its citizens to function properly. It is the also form that most easily and quickly devolves into either oligarchy, tyranny or anarchy. Let’s remember the lessons learned by those who have gone before us, and avoid learning them ourselves- yet again- the HARD way.

Keep striving, friends.

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Blog 01.18.21 January 18, 2021

Hello again, friends.

This is going to be a little longer than usual, but bear with me. Please read it through or just scroll past; there is NO ‘TL:DR’ version of what I have to say.

I’m going to talk about narratives again, to offer a little more clarity. We all remember that a narrative, when shared by the members of a group, is a tidy little story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and our relationship to it and those within it. Narratives are arguably the most powerful tool our species has developed for survival.

Or maybe not. We lay at a cusp in our future survival and development; nothing new to our species, that. Cultures that developed a narrative which enabled them to survive thrived while those with less successful narratives did not. We find their material remnants scattered all across the globe, and not all are ancestral to any culture currently inhabiting the planet. In that individual humans are the sum total of their genetic heritage, cultures- civilizations- exist as the sum total of their narratives. Thus civilizations and their narratives survive- or fall- regardless of the genes contained within their people. The power of narratives lay with their ability to control human behavior, especially in groups; cooperative groups of humans are defined by their narratives much more so than their genetics.

Being the stories we share among members of our group- from hunter-gathering tribes to nuclear-armed, Internet-using nations- narratives are the things by which we live, and also die. We begin receiving them from the moment of our birth from those who raise us, educate us, employ us and support us. ‘No man is an island’, Donne writes in ‘Meditations XVII’. None of us can have any sort of existence without others save that it have ‘no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ (Hobbes, Leviathan). And to live with others is to share a narrative with them.

So today, we have ‘anti-science’ and racist narratives held by significant fractions of the populations of technically advanced and supposedly ‘progressive’ nations; nuclear-armed and Internet-using ones. Why is this?

I’ve written about the ‘Scientific Method’ and narratives in general in earlier blogs. I want to speak here more about ‘anti-science’ and less about bigotry-driven ‘racism’, though before I move past discussing the latter specifically I’ll mention that racism per se is nothing new to cultural narratives and even served as a survival advantage, if one we find distasteful today, back when the tribe remained the basic unit of human culture and survival margins were fingernail-thin. It exists today because being so deeply-seated in most civilizations around the globe it still proves a powerful tool, used by the unscrupulous, to divide, stratify and thus manage even modern ‘progressive’ societies politically and economically (see my blog ‘Race, Class and Bigotry in America’).

‘Anti-science’ is different from racism in several important ways. Humans have had racist narratives practically from the beginning of the species, whereas the ‘Scientific Method’ has existed barely four centuries in its current form. For the first half of its existence few people had little idea of its scope and power, since it remained limited to astronomical observations and developing mathematical algorithms to describe some basic effects of physics (then) generally unimportant to the common man. Once applied to other facets of the material world, though, it soon made possible massive and rapid advances in technology. Cultures that did not accept its revelations soon fell behind those who did, and the past three centuries have seen an ever accelerating pace of change in population, energy, and wealth.

The first outcry against ‘science’ came from religious authorities that felt the Copernican and Galilean discoveries would unseat the Earth as the center of the Universe and contest the Christian dogma that the heavens were unchanging, and thus throw that dogma open to other challenges. Not anything that really concerned the ‘man in the street’, though it shook the tiny intellectual world to its core.

The next outcry against science came again from religious authorities, with Darwin’s publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’. He posited that species changed over deep time in response to external ‘evolutionary’ pressures, and while not exactly a new concept Darwin asserted that humans proved subject to the very same ‘evolution’, instead of being a singular unchanging creation of God in His image. People were incensed and disturbed by the implication that humans were ‘merely’ animals. That cry of outrage echoes loudly even today despite manifold demonstrations of evolution as a mechanism even within our own DNA. The genetic basis for racism imploded that day in 1859, despite vigorous attempts to deny and defuse it that continue apace.

Leaving aside the renascent ‘Flat Earth’ belief and the ‘Anti-Vaxxer’ movement, subjects I might tackle in another missive because they each share a different purpose and modus operandi, the latest outcry against the fruits of the ‘Scientific Method’ comes in the form of ‘climate change denial’, which fuels acrimonious debate even as I write this. It’s cast as a battle between those who ‘believe’ in anthropogenic climate change and those who do not ‘believe’ in it.

And therein lays the rub. I do NOT ‘believe’ in climate change. I also do NOT ‘believe’ in gravity. I KNOW that if I push a pen off this desk, though, it will fall at a perfectly predictable and describable fashion towards the floor. There’s no debating it, and there’s also little room left in which to debate the admittedly harder to visualize phenomenon of global warming via anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere. Step off of a tall building and you will hit the ground HARD whether you ‘believe’ in gravity or not. Pump gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and it WILL warm the Earth, whether you ‘believe’ it or not. It operates more slowly than gravity, but just as inexorably.

So why are millions of people denying evolution and climate change, but not Gravitation (no one but the Flat Earthers deny that things orbit the Earth) or the Pauli Exclusion Principle (makes electronics a ‘thing’) or Special Relativity (makes GPS possible)? Here’s where the narrative comes in, and furthermore the manipulation of narratives to political ends.

Racism depends on the acknowledgement that some kinds of humans are inferior to others based upon their skin color or (more generally) genetics. Evolution as a process tells us that sort of division is bogus. But this well-proven scientific fact invalidates a narrative being used to justify racial division socially and economically all over the planet. The people who profit from establishing and maintaining these divisions thus have a vested interest in denying the science and maintaining their hold over the narratives they promote.

Fossil fuel industries are arguably the most profitable enterprises that have EVER existed. A fifth of the value of the global economy comes from the extraction, conversion and sale of fossil fuels at all points in the energy cycle that has arguably driven our technological civilization to where it is today. Besides being a convenient energy source AND awesomely profitable, burning fossil fuels have also pumped gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere over the past century at an exponentially increasing rate. As early as 1898, Svante Arrhenius argued that the increase in carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels (in his days coal) would change the composition of the atmosphere and lead to a warming trend through the newly-proven ‘greenhouse effect’. But reducing or entirely phasing out the use of fossil fuels would kick the pins from under the richest people on the planet and lead to a massive change in the lifestyles of millions of people in our wealthiest nations. So all force gets brought to bear to invalidate the science in order to retain control over their wealth and lifestyles because they must protect the narratives that put them there.

This is the point at which WE- that’s you and I, dear friends because this affects ALL of us and the futures of our children- have to decide between keeping our comfortable narratives, deeply ingrained into our societies and our lives; or incorporate the results of the Scientific Method into them in order to survive and free millions from the status of second-class humans. Denial of evolution and climate change, each an ‘anti-science’ movement, threatens us ALL. I’ll leave each of you to mull over what I’ve said for a while and then do as your conscience dictates.

Keep striving, friends.

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Blog 01.15.21 January 16, 2021

Hello again, friends.

It’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. He would have been 92 years old today, a venerable but not impossible age for humans of his generation. Someone I was close to was also born in 1929, though in June; my step-father. I knew him from 1980, when he married my Mom, until his passing in 1992. We all knew him as ‘Scott’. He was Black, and he grew up in the South; two other things he shared with Dr. King.

While reading Dr. King’s bio on Wikipedia today, I remarked to myself that he and my step-father were born in the same year, a year we generally note- if at all- as the beginning of the Great Depression. They shared the experience of being Black males growing up in the South during that time in our history. I stopped to wonder what they each might have thought, if alive today, over how things have changed for Black Americans during the intervening ten decades. Or, more importantly, the things that have NOT changed.

It’s merely a thought exercise for me, as a white man. I do not purport to have anything at all to comment on the Black experience here in America save as an outsider to it. My voice is not their voice, my life was in no way shape or form like that of Dr. King’s or my step-father’s.

It’s important, though, that we all take a moment to think about ‘it’. Race relations in the United States is the ‘elephant in the room’, and has been for four centuries. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives as a direct result of ‘it’, some on battlefields and some in vicious hatred-driven atrocities all across the nation. Millions more people have lived lives limited to some degree or another by how our society treats those it deems ‘second-class’; naturally not limited just to those who are Black, but those of other skin colors, other genders, other ethnic groups, other sexualities.

There is a lot to unpack, there. There is no one factor that encompasses why things are the way they are today; no ‘prime cause’, no single matter we can point at and say ‘Well, THERE’S the problem.’ Indeed there is no single fix, no ‘silver bullet’, no magic program that will resolve the issue. I have my opinions but I certainly don’t have any solutions.

What I can offer is a call to you all to think about ‘it’, on this day, the birthday of a towering figure in race relations, a man with his foibles and flaws like we all possess, yet also possessed of a single good and gracious message that he preached tirelessly until he was taken away from us in 1968. Let’s all of us think about it, and talk about it, and listen to one another, and look around us, and roll the inequities and issues around in our heads as we remember the words of Dr. King; ‘I have a dream . . .’

And keep thinking and listening and looking and talking, every day, in every forum, in every place in our lives, out of every window and on every street, to forge ahead for that dream until we all find a way to do better for every person in this nation and on this planet. I am neither a ‘conservative’ nor a ‘liberal’, but a mere human being; and I can see that our society is not where it could be. Nor is it where it SHOULD be.

Friends, there are 320 MILLION of us here in this nation, all endowed with our individual gifts and the ability to rise above our own foibles and the collective imperfections of our culture. From the mansions, from the corporate board rooms, from the halls of Academe, from the assemblies of our elected representatives, from our courtrooms, from the housing Projects, from the prisons, from the living rooms and the barracks Dayrooms and the backyard barbecues, we can together all find a way to BE better, DO better, and THINK better. No one of us can solve this, but ALL of us can. We MUST.

Keep striving, friends.

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Blog 12.19.20 December 19, 2020

Hello again, folks!

I know it’s been quite a while since I’ve spoken to you, and I apologize for the absence. Life gets busy. An election year in the United States, and a pandemic year for EVERYONE. Since last time, I’ve changed ‘day’ jobs and luckily been able to remain employed during these tumultuous times, albeit at reduced salary. I’m glad to have remained employed and I realize that many of you have not.

2020AD will go down without doubt in the annals of recent history as a year of unprecedented changes. I’m going to call it the ‘Year When We Found Out’. Because many of us have discovered a LOT of things about ourselves and more importantly about our society and its ability to withstand change- or NOT. We’ve also discovered amazing dichotomies, dissonances cognitive and otherwise, and injustices that were always there. It just took a national and a world-wide disaster, both of them unfolding before our very eyes in (un-)real time, to make many of us realize what had been going on the whole time.

Both disasters masqueraded as things apprehensible and immanent- and not trivial in themselves by any means- but they merely served as the exterior indicator of matters that are much deeper and systemic in nature; symptoms, if you will, of underlying diseases. The one ‘local’ to me, here in the United States, was a political disaster whose precise nature proves as unimportant as the man who engendered it though revealed something very important about the deficits of this nation’s political system- and its society. The nature of the ‘worldwide’ disaster that has affected us all in fashions both great and small, economic and personal, itself is also unimportant in detail but it has nevertheless served to point out flaws in the way we’ve let our planet-spanning society grow and function. The disasters themselves aren’t important in that if it hadn’t been a crooked politician or a disease, it would have been some other crisis that would have shown us the desperate (and hopefully not fatal) flaws in the narratives to which we’ve staked our literal lives and future. Willingly or not.

People a lot smarter than me (and many, alas, who are NOT) will be writing books for DECADES about what 2020 has taught us. It’s not my goal to paint it in any but the broadest brush strokes. To that end, I’ll just share some insights that I’ve had over the past year, in short and without a lot of polemics.

One thing I’ve found out this year (and will not be a news-flash to ANYONE) is that society in the United States is deeply divided. Everyone in the nation, and many outside it, already KNOW this as an incontrovertible fact. I’d know this myself long before 2020 (see my earlier Blog, ‘Race And Bigotry In The United States’). What I discovered is just how deep the rifts are, and that it’s not as simple as a mere binary division between political parties (or ‘liberal’ vs. ‘conservative’) or even the trinary division between the rich, the middle class and everyone else, which supposes that all three ‘classes’ share the same economic system (they DON’T, anymore). This nation has fractured, daresay practically atomized itself, in manners economic, cultural AND narrative. The thing that was supposed to unify us, bring us all together and let us discuss our views in a manner that had little to do with our access to traditional media and give the small and dispossessed the same opportunity to treat with everyone else, has turned out so far to be a poisoned gift.

I speak of course of the ‘Internet’ and its handmaidens, ‘social media’. For reasons too complicated to enumerate here this supposed ‘boon to mankind’ has turned into a nightmarish collection of algorithms programmed to atomize society (and make a couple of small groups a LOT of money doing it . . .) Like fire and government but seeming stronger than either, social media has turned from a powerful servant to a horrible master. And no, the irony of writing this essay on social media is NOT lost on me. All new forms of communication media- writing, print, telegraphy, radio, television- have engendered social disruption in the generations after their adoption, but THIS one has so far been ‘gangbusters’. It’s going to take a lot of adjustment for society, not only here in the US but world-wide, to adapt to Internet-mediated social media and find a new functional level of discourse. If indeed it CAN adapt, in its current incarnation.

Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown us all how fragile and interconnected we’ve made the planet’s economic system. With local variations on a theme, of course, the economic narrative currently shared across the entire world is ‘liberal capitalism’; a system of shared beliefs in investment, profit-making and mutual interaction mediated through the exchange of goods, services and most importantly credit as mediated by the paradigm of money. Properly supervised with regulations administered by honest governments to protect the helpless, and efficiently run- especially with the help of the Internet- liberal capitalism harnesses the economic output of the World entire for the best outcomes of everyone. Naturally some benefit more than others but in theory (the very core of the narrative) is that everyone who participates gets some slice of the pie, and the pie itself also gets bigger . . .

Until it doesn’t. Supply chains with no excess capacity, support networks that rely on carefully-staged shipments of goods, and services that run constantly at their maximum output suddenly shudder and grind to a halt when ANYTHING serves to disrupt even one link in their immensely complex and choreographed operations. When I was a soldier, long ago, we ran military operations with some level of ‘cushion’; contingency planning, excess capacity, capabilities and operators who could stand in when battle stopped a supply shipment or wiped out a key function. However, modern business does not operate that way anymore. Armies don’t have to turn a profit, after all. Contingency planning costs money. ‘Excess capacity’ laying idle- whether it’s ‘extra’ stock in a warehouse or ‘extra’ beds in a hospital- isn’t making a profit for the investors, whose current paradigm demands the maximum profit possible be guaranteed contractually and who won’t hesitate to enforce any breaches via law. I’ll leave the moral ramifications of THAT as an exercise for the perceptive.

Enough for this blog. I’m not here to beat up any particular group or groups of people. There’s no ‘percentage’ in finger-pointing. I’ve merely shared some things I’ve concluded over the course of 2020, and hopefully offered some food for thought. I’ll recommend Noah Yuval Harari’s excellent book ‘Sapiens; A Brief History Of Humankind’ here.

Keep striving, friends- and stay healthy!

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02.04.18 February 5, 2018

Hello again, friends.

Despite all of the media turmoil about politics in the United States, I will not turn this blog into a political rant . . .however much I’d like to rant about this or that response to the latest ‘outrage’ revealed in the press (electronic or otherwise). I would like to remark upon a few musings I have had about politics in general, however.

A few people I know have decided to leave the United States–even to revoke their citizenship–because of fears that they cannot exercise their voice (or fear legal repercussions due to their views or perceived political status) given the current climate here. Many others have expressed severe misgivings over the direction that they feel this nation is heading, whether politically or socially. Yet others voice despair over the polarization evident in our discourse in the press and in social media.

One of the great gifts I feel I have is knowing people who among them hold political ideologies from the far Left (beyond classical Marxism) to the far Right (extreme statist ‘patriotism’ and even exclusionary beliefs; though I do not treat with racists nor bigots). I exit my ‘echo chamber’ of the people who feel as I do–call us centrists of one stripe or another, willing to compromise on details–to explore the political opinions of those who do not see the world as I see it.

I have found that two of the things I feel lacking among those I discuss matters with on the extreme Left or Right (Note; I find these terms such a trite and dated method of classifying politics here in the US or even the Western world; see the ‘Pournelle Square’) is ‘legitimacy’ and ‘restraint’. ‘Legitimacy’ is accepting that your political opponents, though their views differ from yours, still retain a basic honesty and right to be heard and discussed. ‘Restraint’ is the forbearance one gives to the person with whom you disagree that their view should still be considered and not dismissed out of hand just because they do not agree with you.

Democracy–even in the fashion it is practiced in this Republic–depends upon political discourse between its citizens. Discourse depends upon the people who engage in it seeing one another as equals, at least as considered in the political and social world. Increasingly I find that the people at the extremes of political ideology in the US lend their opponents neither legitimacy nor exercise restraint in declaring their views invalid; to the extent that they name those who do not agree with them actual enemies of the State . . .

The US has already been through one major period where the extremists on either side have declared the others ‘illegitimate’ and then shown them no restraint. It culminated in the Civil War. It tore the nation apart, and in many ways the past 150 years have not sewn up those wounds nor even allowed them to heal, though no one alive then still lives today. I personally would not wish to see those wounds torn open again, nor tear open new ones by inflicting new injuries.

I counsel restraint and forbearance, lest we let petty demagogues rip open a new civil discord in our body politic that will inevitably lead to another Civil War. We can’t afford it, either in terms of blood, treasure, lives lost or a civilization ruined because we can’t stoop to speaking to one another decently and work out our issues together, through compromise and equanimity. We have nothing to lose by working together save for our stupid pride; and everything to lose otherwise if we do not.

Keep striving, friends.

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Blog 05.31.17 June 1, 2017

Hello again, folks.

I’ve kept this blog apolitical. I don’t favor any particular political party or off-the-shelf political ideology as are found so readily in my home nation. I’m more an a-la-carte political creature; ‘give me two from Column ‘A’ and one each from Columns ‘B’ and ‘C’.’ Buying into a political ideology in its entirety leads to polarization and monolithic binary thinking such as ‘US vs. THEM’.

Corruption (n,’corrupt or dishonest proceedings, bribery’) and graft (n, ‘the acquisition of money, gain, or advantage by dishonest, unfair, or illegal means, especially through the abuse of one’s position or influence in politics, business, etc.’) affects people no matter where they live or what party they claim membership in or ideology they espouse. These practices are inevitable products of large and complex societies. We all deal with them to one extent or another wherever we live–they affect all of us, though admittedly some less than others.

Most nations have a rule of law to some extent and thus possess systems to counter corruption and graft in their private and public institutions. These systems have been established for two primary reasons. The first and most obvious reason is for the sake of justice, so that the powerful cannot further enrich themselves at the abject expense of the less powerful whether in business or by law. The second less-known reason concerns the economic health and survival of the society at large. Corruption and graft cause businesses and institutions to run less efficiently and increases the ‘hidden’ costs of goods and services to its customers (‘taxpayers’), whether fuel or medical care or law enforcement. They in effect make everything in that society cost more in a totally unaccountable fashion and thus hinder the commerce and discharge of responsibilities which every society and economy needs to function.

No society is immune to corruption and graft, or is so perfectly organized that these activities don’t happen. They are serious limiting factors in societies without an effective or efficient system for the fair administration of law and order, aligned on the basis of class or tribes or other such non-regulated groups. Societies where one’s socioeconomic status, ethnic group, ‘race’, language or religious faith determines one’s treatment by others–whether individuals, businesses or government institutions–tend to be unfair and show obvious corruption and graft even where lip service is paid to the ‘rule of law’.

The United States tells itself and the world at large that it is a fair and egalitarian society. To an extent I believe that it is; for certain definitions of ‘fair’ and ‘egalitarian’, however. A great deal of corruption and graft is apparent in our society with even a cursory examination of our laws, the practices of our businesses and governmental institutions, and even the conduct of some of its individual members.

So, does our society in the United States treat different people with different levels of fairness because of its inherent corruption and graft, or does corruption and graft exist here because we treat different groups of our inhabitants differently? It’s a much more vital and central question about what we need to do as a people and a society to make things better–for us all!–than which party we belong to or the particular ideology we follow.

  Keep striving, folks.

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Blog 04.25.17 April 26, 2017

Hello again, folks.

Change is an ineffable part of life. Part of that change for humans is growing older (with any luck at all). Aging isn’t all bad, no matter that in this culture–as in many others past and present–it is youth that is worshiped and celebrated while age is despised and often disparaged.

I’m of an age where I’ve probably seen a few more sunsets than I’ll see sunrises, barring some unforeseen advance in medicine, and there are some things I can’t do anymore (plus a few I ought not do any more, at that!). It’s not as big a deal as our society’s worship of youth and youthful exploits makes it out. ‘Every day above ground’, like we always said in the Army. Sometimes we forget what a simple and awesome joy it is to just walk upon the world and among its wonders (and people!) no matter how one believes they got here. The past informs us and the future draws us inexorably along the track of our lives, and both have great importance to any but the extremely young and old. Cherishing what we have in the present, though, is the most important thing we possess as thinking, conscious beings.

That being said, existential concerns tend to consume our attention and time to a great extent. Those of us who enjoy the fruits of a modern technically advanced civilization do not often have to worry about where our next meal comes from or where we’ll sleep tonight–but still we worry a lot. We share a certain feeling of powerlessness that has always been the lot of humans. Our distant ancestors (and some people today, certainly) had concerns that loomed right before them; hunger, safety, health, security, all of which had to be confronted personally on a daily basis lest they fail and perish. Many of these factors were intractable, forcing our fore-bearers to find workarounds and compromises and just plain accept their utter impotence to affect most of the forces at play in their lives.

Today, our problems–in the ‘developed’ world, at least–are different in detail if of exactly the same nature as our ancestors suffered. We worry about existential matters like the health and future of our society and the planet it lives on instead of the plot of land they tilled or the coming of the rains. We are gravely concerned about the actions of people who live thousands of kilometers away instead of those sketchy folks who live over the next ridge. Some of us look decades and even centuries into the future instead of next month, year, or the next generation. Humans will always worry, and should always worry. We should never forget, though, that we are mortals; our reach will always exceed our grasp in things both concrete and abstract.

The most important gift we have, however, is our ability to apprehend and experience what is happening now. Don’t forget that, especially today.

Keep striving, folks.

 

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