30 September 2020

Another Stark Contrast Between The Republican Party's First and Last Presidents: Lincoln, Trump and Time

I've previously argued that Lincoln was the Republican Party's first president (okay, that's not an argument) and Trump will be its last.

The simplest framing of that argument is simply that in 1860, the brand new Republican Party's plan for a national (rather than rural) industrial economy dependent on capital (rather than slavery) was truly visionary, an advance on every front. The decades that followed were unprecedented in terms of productivity growth, improvement in quality of life and the rapid growth in products and wealth. Now, in 2020, Trump's plan for a national (rather than global, as the economy dependent on a worldwide web and container ships has become) industrial economy dependent on financial and industrial capital (rather than an information economy dependent on intellectual capital) is reactionary, representing regress rather than progress. The telegraph was awesome once upon a time but today people prefer to text or video conference. Factory work once represented the future of job creation. Not today.

Lincoln had to create a national, industrial economy. Trump is trying to destroy a global, information economy.

Here is another way that Trump and Lincoln differ.

The conversations to create a new world have to be thoughtful, sustained, and zoom out to big pictures and zoom in to the small details; explore consequences and nuance and paint a picture of the new world proposed. Construction takes sustained planning, execution, and coordination with others.

The Lincoln - Douglas debates that brought the Republican Party's first president into the national limelight had a curious format. They were adversarial but each speaker had sufficient time to make his point. "The first speaker spoke for 60 minutes, the second had a 90 minute rebuttal, and then the first speaker had a 30 minute rebuttal/time for closing arguments."

I was unable to find what was the longest time Trump made it without interrupting or speaking in last night's debate but I don't think he remained silent for even one of Biden's two minute windows. For Lincoln, 30 minutes was the shortest time slot and 90 was the longest. In last night's debate, 2 minutes was the longest window and Trump could not even remain silent that long.

Singer and Brooking in LikeWar share a study that in 2000, the average attention span of an internet user was measured at twelve seconds. By 2015, it had shrunk to eight seconds - slightly less than the average attention span of a goldfish. We barely have time for tweets and memes. (What does a goldfish think? "Oh look! A castle." Pause. "Oh look! A castle!")

Lincoln had time enough to speak a new world into existence. Trump only wants time enough to destroy one. And the less time you have to think about what he's doing, the less likely you are to see how destructive he is, much less have time enough to imagine the next one.

27 September 2020

Donald Trump's Precarious Finances - the New York Times Study of His Taxes Summarized

The New York Times study of Donald Trump’s tax returns revealed a few remarkable things. You’ve probably heard that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency and then another $750 in taxes the year he moved into the White House.

It gets far more interesting.

One, the only time in this century that he actually made money was when he was on TV playing a guy who made a lot of money. From 2005 to 2007, he made $120 million - mostly from the Celebrity Apprentice.

Sadly for him, he has not found another way to make money.

In the early 1990s, he nearly lost everything, taking nearly $1 billion in losses.
Then he had success with the Celebrity Apprentice TV show.
Then he began losing money again.

“Since 2000, Mr. Trump has reported losses of $315. 6 million at the golf courses that are his prized possessions.”
His Washington Hotel, opened in 2016, showed losses of $55.5 million through 2018. “And Trump Corporation, a real estate services company, has reported losing $134 million since 2000.”

You may wonder how someone can sustain losses like that. Well, in addition to TV revenue, he’s been taking out loans and liquidating assets.

In 2014, he liquidated $98 million in stocks and bonds.
In 2015, another $54 million.
In 2016, another $68.2 million.
Also, in the last five years, he’s drawn down his cash reserves $23 million.

Where does that leave him?

As of July, he has only $873,000 in securities left to sell and another $34.7 million in cash. You may think that $35.6 million is a lot. The problem is, those assets pale in comparison to what he owes.

Donald Trump currently has $421 million in loans outstanding, most of it coming due within four years.

Joe Biden should not be surprised to find that Donald has taken out a mortgage on the White House before he leaves.


The Truth About the Catholic Takeover of the United States

Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett to join the Supreme Court, a seat she is likely to hold until 2050. With her appointment to replace Ginsburg, the Supreme Court will be 67% Catholic in a country that is 20% Catholic.

When he was running for president in 1960, John Kennedy had to assure interviewers in a country founded by Protestants that even though he would be the nation's first Catholic president, he would not follow orders from the Pope.

Like conservative Republicans, I don't want this country run by Sharia Law. Unlike conservative Republicans, I also don't want this country run by the Pope's pronouncements.

Different religious groups within the US have different beliefs about the point at which sperm and egg gain the rights of a newborn. Soon, that variation in belief will disappear, instead dictated by the pope's teachings.

Marco Rubio and other conservative Republicans are arguing that a protest of this fact is an attack on Catholics and that your religion could be next. Of course he knows better. Joe Biden is Catholic. This is not a difference between Catholics and Protestants and Jews and atheists. This is a difference between people who struggle to live by their own religious beliefs and those who struggle to make you live by their religious beliefs. Religious conservatives are not uniquely religious; they are unique in their belief that their private convictions should be public law. Sonia Sotomayor is Catholic and she isn't intent on imposing the Pope's beliefs on others. And as you can see in the graph here, American Catholics are split as to whether they believe abortion should be legal. There is nothing about being Catholic that also means you want others to live by your beliefs.

Real Americans really don't care if you are Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist or Presbyterian or an atheist or get all your religious philosophy from CS Lewis or JK Rowling. This country has welcomed Catholic immigrants from Mexico, Ireland and Italy for centuries, and these Americans are as real as any of us. What makes you a real American is not your religious belief but whether you think your religious beliefs should be made law for others. Real Americans do care that you are moral. And they do care that you don't force your religious beliefs on your fellow Americans. Religious conservatives think you're disrespecting their religious beliefs if you won't let them make those beliefs law; they think that forcing religious beliefs on others is the whole point of political power. Of all the religious beliefs out there, this may be the weirdest - even if it does date back to the Dark Ages.


25 September 2020

The Weirdest Thing About 2020 - Nobody Clarifies to Trump the Penalty for Treason

Maybe the weirdest thing about 2020 is that Trump can say that he'll violently resist leaving office if he loses the election and we learn that Republicans and Democrats alike are too timid to clarify to him that treason comes with a death penalty. Trump is a thug who refuses to play by the rules and the GOP are cowards intimidated by this thug and Democrats insist on playing by the rules that he will ignore. And so we’re going to get rid of democracy because a reality TV star who thinks he’s being paid $400,000 a year to tweet decides that he doesn’t like elections.

T.S. Elliot's Poem the Hollow Men closes,

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

It seems like it's also the way that democracy will end in America, everyone afraid to mention the penalty for destroying the democracy that so many Americans died to create and protect, afraid to make a fuss out of the fact that a sitting president won’t accept election results. One of the aha’s I had reading history is that people have exactly as much power as other people give them. The Pope could have you burned at the stake for saying the wrong thing … until people decided that he didn’t.

So does Trump have the power to end our 231 year old democracy? If people decide that his feelings and opinion are more important than our democracy, he does. People will argue precedent and tradition and process and laws but it is not that complicated. We decide which is more important: our democracy or Trump’s feelings.

Or maybe this is the weirdest thing about 2020. There are millions of Americans who are actually debating which is more important.

22 September 2020

The Simplest of Life Hacks

The other day I was getting fish tacos at my favorite truck and 4 guys about 17 were doctoring their tacos at the same table. One of the guys admits to the other three - with some measure of guilt in his voice - "I really love fish tacos. I mean ... it's kind of stupid how much I love them." There is an awkward silence and I chime in.

"Old man life hack?" They look at me. "When I was your age I thought it showed sophistication to be hard to impress. Now? I have finally realized that easily made happy is like the coolest life hack around. Just think! It doesn't take that much and ... you're happy! Fish tacos! A pop song! A sunset. Delight in all of it and soon you'll realize that you're delighting in life. It can be that simple."

They are silent. They look at each other cautiously. One of the guys then says, "I will totally follow that advice." A murmur of "Yeahs!" followed. It made me happy. And then so did my taco.

The Unexpected Perk of Learning How to Spell

She'd only been in school for a few weeks when she heard the most marvelously unexpected news. Her teacher announced that next week they would begin to learn spelling.

"Yes!" she exclaimed gleefully.
Her teacher chuckled. "I'm glad that you're so excited about this."
"Of course," she said seriously.
"What would you like to learn how to spell first," her teacher asked her.
"I would like to learn the spell that turns my brother into a frog," she replied.

Trump's October Surprise

To be fair, Trump's October surprise was a pretty good surprise: he began to perform faith healing at his rallies.

"I don't know why we didn't think of it sooner," his campaign manager told a historian years later. "All the elements were right there: his cult status, the rejection of traditional medicine and his followers fervent belief in whatever he told them. We would have 15 people come into the rally with COVID and 1,500 leave cured of COVID. It was beautiful."

21 September 2020

Why the Richest States Are Voting for Biden and the Poorest States Are Voting for Trump: A Study in Economic Policy Cause and Effect

Ranked by personal per capita income, 8 of the 10 highest income states will probably go for Biden and 7 or 8 of the 10 lowest income states will probably go for Trump. 

Why are the richest states so very Democratic? It is partly cause and partly effect.

First the cause. Intellectual capital has surpassed industrial capital as the source of wealth and income in this information economy. The communities around the various University of California campuses, for instance, have become host to a lot of exciting companies that have spun off from the staff, students and studies on those campuses. Democratic states invest more in the science and education that create jobs and wealth.

The only two states in the top ten by personal per capita income that Trump will win are Wyoming and Alaska. These are land-based economies, rich with oil, mines, livestock, grains, and forests. And of course, these economies are not the kind that create jobs; Wyoming's total population is 580,000 and Alaska's only slightly more at 730,000.

The economies in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts depend on a heavy public investment in schools and research, classic Democratic policy prescriptions. 42% of Massachusetts has a BA; only 26% of Wyoming does. By contrast, Wyoming and Alaska's economies depend on continued subsidies to oil and gas and lax regulation on greenhouse gases, classic Republican policy prescriptions.

Every year, more people can profit from technology advances in computing and genetics or new materials, the sorts of research and industries that spin off from universities. An oil well is zero-sum, though. If I own it, you don't. Meanwhile, knowledge builds on knowledge. You're going to hear more about AI and genetics in the next decade, the confluence of two research areas that promise products that might analyze patterns in your genetic code that make you more susceptible to Alzheimer's, for instance. This does not come at the expense of genetics or computing research but instead makes both more valuable. Oil wells and mines are zero sum but research and development literally stimulate more research and development; knowledge creates more knowledge.

Folks in places like Wyoming see the world as zero-sum because their economy actually is. The state can't even sustain a population the size of the cities in LA county that you've never heard of. Folks in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts tend to be more win-win because their economies actually lend themselves to that. If you give me an acre and I give you an acre, we leave the transaction unchanged. If you give me an idea and I give you an idea, we may both leave better off. You better understanding my AI technology and me better understanding your genetic analysis might enable us to collaborate to create a new industry with trillions in wealth and millions of jobs.

Zero-sum communities are also more susceptible to conspiracy theories that point them towards threats, that turn complex phenomenon into simple us vs. them narratives, a stark contrast to the pragmatic relationship knowledge workers in the information economy have to reality and theories about it.

So that's the cause. Wealth, income and jobs in the modern economy are increasingly the product of intellectual capital and the communities like New York and California that do the most to invest in it are the ones that will create the most jobs and highest incomes.

What is the effect? Well, richer people are less tolerant of low-quality of life. A poor person in West Virginia who lives near a mine doesn't have the resources to take on a business that endangers their child's health. Meanwhile, some mother in Santa Clara, CA - where per capita income is $106,000 a year - is not about to put up with risks to her child's health ... and she and her neighbors have the resources to fight a business that would put their children's health at risk. It is true that blue states have more regulations. Why? They are democracies and the residents of those states demand more regulations. There is little sense in making twice the national average income and then having to listen to the loud noises of a jack hammer at 4 AM or breathe noxious fumes from a factory.

Weirdly, though, the US rewards states unable to create jobs with more political power. The 21 least populous states have 42 senators and less population than California with its 2 senators. What does that mean in practical terms? If your policies can't create jobs to grow your population, your political policies have more influence. This may be the biggest design flaw in our current political system.

This design flaw is slowing the creation of jobs and wealth and improvements to quality of life. It is a weird thing to give more influence to less advanced communities, as if we were bringing in economic advisers from Afghanistan to decide what to do with Manhattan.

It is a weird election. The 30 states in between the top and bottom 10 are debating whether to follow the lead of the country's richest states - states that include Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the nation's top universities - or rural Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama. You might think that such a debate would have an obvious outcome. It does not. And that may be the weirdest thing about this very weird year.

20 September 2020

Trump's Racism As Evidence of Confusion About Progress

Brazil might be the most racially diverse nation in the world. Most people are surprised to learn that it has the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan, for instance. The great Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado has a scene in one novel in which characters are discussing race issues and the blacksmith, who is quietly listening, finally volunteers, “I think the solution is to just have everyone inter-breed until even God can’t tell them apart.”

It's a curious thing to be racist in the age of CRISPR and yet our president - having learned that it is what Republicans want - was standing in Minnesota telling the folks at his rally yesterday, “You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don't you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

Trump is confused about genes. The most extreme version of racial purity is, of course, in-breeding. That leads to the opposite of racial superiority, leading to deformities and offspring susceptible to illness. The opposite of inbreeding, or racial purity, is finding mates from further away. In 1870 Britain, the mean distance between the birthplace of marriage partners was 10 km; by 2019, it was 250 km. And what studies have shown is that as the distance between the birthplace of parents increases, so does the height and IQ of their child. If there is such a thing as racial superiority, it comes from taking the advice of Amado’s blacksmith and mingling genes from distant lands.

There is something deeper, though. At the heart of racism lies incredible ignorance about how we make progress. Between 1900 and 2000, incomes in the US rose 6 to 8X. Not only that but people in 2000 were able to buy things that simply didn't exist in 1900, from polio vaccines to plane tickets. Did people work harder? Not even close. The average workweek dropped from 60 hours to less than 40 hours.

None of that remarkable progress can be traced back to genetic evolution or more effort. Humans did not become 8X stronger or faster or smarter because of rapid evolution. Their machines and systems, though, improved by even more than 8X. If you want to make progress you don't go for racial purity. You go for innovation and market expansion. Innovation in products and social institutions. It's not enough to invent planes and computers. You should also invent venture capital and public universities. And just as computers are initially available to only 6 huge institutions at first and then become something most people carry in their pocket, venture capital and universities are first accessible to just a tiny fraction and then a growing portion of Americans. (Expanding accessibility and use for more Americans is market expansion, like growing the market for computers from 100 units a year to 100 million.) That is the stuff of progress.

It is true that genes can make you faster, stronger, smarter. If you have millions of years. Or you can do all that with inventions in the space of decades.

A lot of people are appalled at Trump's racism because they find it offensive. That's appropriate but it somehow misses an even larger point: racists are notoriously bad at understanding the importance of focusing on innovation - of both products and institutions - and market expansion. The point is not to create an us vs. them but instead to make our great inventions - from trains and cars to research labs and voting booths - more widely used and accessible. That’s how your community becomes more prosperous.

All of us do better as all of us do better. Add one more smart person to the room and you've just sparked a half dozen new ideas. And if that person was born far away, we've just raised the odds that a spark of romance or desire between that new person and someone already present will result in a baby who is some new genetic blend, perhaps a tad taller or smarter. If it is racial superiority that captures your imagination, you ought to think like Amado’s blacksmith. In any case, a focus on genes is proof that you don’t even know where to look to explain or accelerate progress.

19 September 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Abortion, Religious Freedom and Women's Choice

The promise of outlawing abortion is why Trump is president. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg gone, Trump will move to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will do what he can to outlaw abortions.

In 1803, the British outlawed abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy. Why five months? The soul entered the body at that point.

The issue of abortion is – for the individual – a religious question. And you don’t even have to be religious for it to be a religious question. At the moment after birth, we have a baby. Precious. Unique. Deserving of our protection and care. At the moment before conception, we have sperm and egg. No one mourns a period, the regular loss of eggs. No one decides to press charges over the fact that in a single ejaculate more than a billion sperm could be squandered by some horny teenager, enough to populate a planet. Other than the lunatic fringe, nobody argues that we should kill babies or save eggs and sperm – the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. The debate is at what point between those sure compass points does this pass the threshold from living (sperm and egg are alive) to a life. The question of when sperm and egg deserve the same legal protection as a baby rests on your belief – whether or not framed as religious – about when human waste becomes human. The question is whether we can ever be as certain about the point at which this happens as the British Parliament was in 1803. The question is, who should make the choice about when it passes this threshold.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought that each individual woman should make this choice.

A woman recently told me about her abortion at 17. From this experience she has become a voter who supports any candidate who opposes abortion. For her, abortion was a traumatic experience from which she wants to spare other girls and women. I was a terrible listener for a host of reasons. But one thing I did not articulate was simply this: I don’t know how any 17 year old with an unwanted pregnancy avoids trauma. Let’s say that you decide to keep the baby, become a mother before you’re old enough to vote, make a commitment to help a little life launch into adulthood, a commitment you’re making that is longer than your own life at that point. That sounds really traumatic to me. Or let’s say that you carry this baby to term and then – your mind and body prepared to care for this new baby – you adopt it out. Or let’s say that you have an abortion, ending that pregnancy. I’ll never be pregnant and have this penchant for running what-if scenarios, but I don’t think I’m different from any other girl or women in that whichever of those three paths I would choose I would wonder for the rest of my life about what it would have been like to have chosen one of those other paths. And with that wondering might come some measure of guilt, grief and second-guessing.

And that would be for myself. I don’t even know how one goes about making such a choice for anyone else.

In the early days of its one-child policy, the Chinese government actually forced abortions on women who already had a child and became pregnant. In places where the church dominates – such as Ireland until recently – the Irish government actually forced women to carry a child to term. The only thing more traumatic than making a choice about what to do with an unwanted pregnancy? Having an abortion or pregnancy forced on you.

Sex is the stuff of pop songs and poetry. It’s wonderful. Rape is the stuff of crime and nightmares. It is awful. What is the difference? Choice.

Pregnancy, too, is a miracle. A little life developing. The promise of a new baby, the life to follow. A forced pregnancy is a nightmare. Wracked by questions of how you will provide for this little person about to come into the world dependent on you, the you who may feel completely overwhelmed at the thought of such a responsibility. What is one difference between a pregnancy that is a miracle or a pregnancy that is a trauma? Choice.

The question is, Who should make that choice? The evangelicals who support Trump know when life begins and they think they should choose for you. Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that this should be the woman’s choice.

We could explore the question of when life begins, when the soul enters the body. I find it a fascinating question. (When does a boy become a man? At 12 like the amusement park ticket prices suggest or at 21 like the bars insist? When do sperm and egg become a baby?) But there is evidence that this question is not the issue for the evangelicals who want to outlaw abortion. For them, this is a matter of them deciding what is right for a woman. What is the evidence? These people protest outside of abortion clinics but never outside of in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics where even more embryos are destroyed than in abortion clinics. The state senator who sponsored a 2019 bill to ban abortions in Alabama carved out an exception for IVF because, he said, “the egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” For him – and I’m sure everyone who voted on his bill – this wasn’t a question of when life began. It was a question of which choices society should allow a woman. As technology advances, we could conceivably make new human life from any cell and make viable an emerging life from about any stage. Science – like religion – has answers but does not have THE answer to the question of whether to treat this tiny potentiality more like a newborn or an ejaculate.

At the root of the question of abortion is the question of whether women have the right to define their own life. Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated at the top of her law school class and had trouble getting a job because she was a mother. (Her husband, who graduated from law school a year earlier, had had no problem getting a job even though he was a father.) Ginsburg fought for gender equality. She thought that women should have the same options that men do. Society was happy to tell women who they should be and what they could do. She thought that it should instead be the woman who defined that and spent decades fighting for gender equality.

Of all the choices that define a woman’s life, it is hard to imagine one as fundamental to who she becomes as the choice about whether to have a child. Some people think they know better than the individual woman about how to reconcile the myriad questions wrapped up in this question. That boggles my mind. Choice is unavoidable in this question of abortion: the question is, Should the choice be made by a voter who has never met this woman or by the woman whose life is so profoundly impacted and defined by which choice she makes?

Yesterday I wrote about the first amendment. It begins by granting to the individual the choice about how – or even whether – to worship, which beliefs to have. Belief is inescapable on this question of when human waste becomes human treasure, and the real question is: whose belief should determine how you act? The first amendment clearly states that is not a job for congress but instead that beliefs and how we act on them is the domain of the individual. Even individual women. On this, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was clear.

18 September 2020

In Praise of the First Amendment - The Social Invention That Generates New Social Inventions

The first amendment is among the great inventions of history.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

It has five parts:
1. Freedom of religion or belief
2. Freedom to speak out in defense of or attack on beliefs
3. Freedom of the press to reach a wider audience
4. Freedom to assemble – or organize – around those beliefs
5. Freedom to take your cause to the government in order to effect change, through laws or budget.

It offers freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Just a century before, Europe had been torn apart by religious war and the result was 10 to 30% of folks on the continent killed. Our founding fathers knew the absurdity of legislating religion, whether trying to force someone to not believe something or force them to believe something.

But the first amendment is more important than that. Much more important. And it is brilliantly constructed to result in perpetual progress.

What freedom of religion really means is freedom of belief. The US can’t pass any laws to legislate what you believe. So essentially this is like giving 330 million Americans a license to generate all sorts of wild theories – some folks tales, some religious, some that - if taken seriously - will create great wealth and some that - if taken seriously - will result in death and destruction, some conspiratorial and some downright scientific.

But it doesn’t end there. You can speak about your belief and even go to press with your belief. You can argue for your own belief or against someone with a different belief. The first amendment says that you have a right to believe the earth is flat. It also says that everyone around you – from your neighbor to the nightly newscaster – has the right to tell you how stupid that is. And here is the really amazing thing about you going to press with your belief: it becomes something a little different in the mind of each reader. Your idea becomes the community’s idea. It changes. Your idea becomes bigger than you. In the same way that a gene can be passed on to someone else, an idea, a meme, can be passed on to others and - blended with other ideas - create something new. Someone once wrote, a city is where ideas come to have sex. Once it enters into other people's minds, becomes a part of the community's discussion, your idea will become something different than how it was born in your head.

What’s next? People can organize around this idea, this belief. The most obvious thing is that you can assemble and protest. Less obviously, you can engage in social invention and entrepreneurship to institutionalize your belief. Women organize to become suffragettes, arguing that they have the right to vote. Those groups are the first bit of organizing and then that takes us to the fifth bit of institutionalization.

You can bring your cause – your belief – to the government and work to have it translated into a new bit of legislation. The organized group of suffragettes who argued that women had the right to vote dissolved because they pulled off an even better bit of social invention: they changed the constitution so that women could vote. The reality girls are born into is now different because of their success.

The first amendment traces the trajectory of progress: you have an idea or belief, you talk about it with others, you even publish it, sending it out into the world to become something independent of you, and then people protest the status quo, arguing for this new belief to be made into a new reality and then …. It becomes the status quo for the next generation. It is not enough that Isaac Newton knows the calculus he has invented. What is really powerful is that we teach calculus to teenagers and it simply becomes a common tool for them to model and manipulate reality. At that point – the point at which your idea is institutionalized – the status quo becomes something very different.

This is how progress is made. And that may well be the most beautiful and remarkable thing about the first amendment. It actually traces a thought in your brain into a new, shared reality babies are born into. Each child does not have to start civilization from scratch. We simply don’t have time for that. What we’ve institutionalized becomes the starting platform for the next generation … who begin this process of creating new beliefs that have to go through the stage of challenging and spreading and then becoming the next thing that is institutionalized. The first amendment is so much but to me perhaps the coolest thing is that it is a description of progress.

The first amendment is not about demanding respect for old ideas and traditions. It is about demanding respect for new ideas and innovation. The first amendment is the social invention that itself generates new social inventions. That’s something to shout about. And thanks to the first amendment, you can.

17 September 2020

Pericles, the Afterlife and What Matters

It's my birthday today and I've just set a new record for old, so here are some thoughts on the afterlife.

The notion of an afterlife seems to lie at the root of morality and wisdom. Not afterlife as in another world to which your soul goes but rather this world in which future generations live. The notion that our lives have consequences beyond our own life - and that future lives matter just as much as our own - can provoke something better in us.

Pericles was born about 500 BC and presided over the Athens that included Socrates and Plato. (And Plato who had been taught by Socrates went on to teach Aristotle who went on to teach Alexander the Great - speaking of afterlives and consequences.) Pericles helped to define democracy, something the Athenians were among the first in the world to make a reality.

Each year, a notable Athenian was to give a funeral oration to commemorate those who had died in battle. The tradition was to praise these brave people. Pericles went a step further. In this oration, he actually spoke to why their sacrifice mattered, spoke to what they died for.

He mentioned two reasons these warriors' sacrifice might matter.

One was, "If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences." It is what we now call justice for all.

Another was, "We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality..." Pericles brought in the best minds from around Greece. (The Greeks did not think of themselves as one people at this time. Spartans and Athenians, for instance, were enemies and definitely saw each other as foreigners. Xenophobia is a Greek word. Pericles was different for so many reasons; one is simply that he was not xenophobic.) Those great minds from elsewhere helped fuel math and philosophy and helped to design and build the Parthenon. By the standards of the day, Athens was cosmopolitan and it flourished because it was a magnet for the world's best and brightest.

Pericles looked beyond the lives of the recently dead (and was himself to die of a plague just two years later) to why their deaths - or perhaps anything at all - mattered. What he articulated in his funeral oration was the fact that the afterlife matters because future lives matter. And of course, here we are, convinced that our lives matter even more than the lives of those ancient Greeks. And in another 2,500 years there will be another generation convinced of the same. Whether the world flourishes or flounders is greatly determined by whether past generations thought - or this present generation thinks - that an afterlife deserves our investment, our thought, our consideration.

Young men are driven to pass on genes, old men to pass on memes. We have a biological imperative to create a future that is partly us and mostly someone new; I believe we have a social imperative to do the same with the values and ideals we try to articulate, share and live. That has to at least partly be animated by a love for the possible, for what isn't born yet.

15 September 2020

The Sharp Drop in the Number of High-Skilled Visas

Fun fact: the population of the US in 1790 was 3.9 million. Today it is 330 million. The reason not a single American from 1790 has a job today is because of the millions of immigrants who came to this country after 1790 and stole their jobs.

Most people don't know this but each country is allotted only so many jobs. That number is fixed. If you let too many new people into your country, native born people will not get one of those jobs. THE IMMIGRANT will take that job.

When the US was founded in 1787, the rich people who control the global economy did the calculations to determine how many jobs the US could have. That number has not changed in the 233 years since.
the eAnd here's the deal: if you're stupid enough to let in immigrants, they will just take some of those scarce jobs from you! Yes you! The American to whom that job should rightfully go.

So don't be a dupe and swallow all that nonsense about how regardless of whether your population is growing or shrinking by 10% a year what really determines the number of jobs you have is the levels of innovation and entrepreneurship - which in turn depends on investment in education, research, health, childcare, and levels of openness to other countries and cultures and nurturing a culture of experimentation and risk-taking. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that it is actually possible to increase levels of prosperity and employment at the same time that you grow your population through birthrates and immigration. Don't be naive. Learn from North Korea. There is a simple rule for prosperity: nobody leaves and nobody comes in.

In related news, there has been a sharp drop off in the number of people coming into the country with high-skilled visas. Source of graph is Axios

13 September 2020

Prosperity Depends on Trust

"As a personal attribute, trust is not inherently good or bad. If I am living in a neighborhood full of thieves and swindlers, being a trusting person will get me into trouble. Trust becomes a valuable commodity only when it exists as the by-product of a society whose members practice social virtues like honesty, reliability, and openness. Trust makes no sense unless it reflects a general condition of trustworthy behavior; under these conditions, it becomes the marker and facilitator of cooperation. Of course, an opportunist could try to take advantage of other people’s trust and try to cheat them. But if one wants to live in the community, this will quickly lead to ostracism and shunning."
- Fukuyama, Francis. Political Order and Political Decay (p. 123). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

2008 was a financial catastrophe because of a credit market crisis. Per Wikipedia, credit came "from Middle French crédit (15c.) 'belief, trust,' from Italian credito, from Latin creditum 'a loan, thing entrusted to another,' from past participle of credere 'to trust, entrust, believe'." A lack of trust creates a crisis - whether within a company, a relationship, or in credit markets more broadly.

Fukyama writes of Greece and Southern Italy's economies in this context of trust. People in these places generally don't trust folks outside of their family. The result? You can't create a business of any size and government is dysfunctional. This creates poverty. Per capita income in the south of Italy is about half what it is in the north; in Greece it is 55% of what it is in Germany.

The key to success is making yourself part of such a big us that one can specialize. If you are in a group of five or ten, you have to be a generalist, you have to do everything. Your productivity will be so much lower than if you are in a large group where you can specialize. The key to becoming part of a bigger group, to making us larger, is to create institutions bigger than family or tribe, institutions like church, state, banks, and publicly traded corporations, and even the less obvious civic organizations.

Where you find communities where people have learned to be distrustful, you will find poverty. Success - whether within a family, friendship, company or country - depends on you creating a culture where trust is inherently good and isn't something easily or often betrayed.

12 September 2020

Comparing the Stock Market and Labor Market During Democratic and Republican Presidencies

Which one of the three following arguments is definitely not supported by the data we have on presidents since 1977?

1. Republican presidents are better for the economy than Democratic presidents.
2. Democratic presidents are better for the economy than Republican presidents.
3. The economy does what the economy does and it is far too complicated to argue that either Democratic or Republican presidents make any difference.

(Punchline: it is 1.)

The data for these numbers is at
Since Carter, the economy has created 2.2 million jobs per year when Democrats have had the presidency and 600,000 jobs per year when Republicans have.

11 September 2020

Betsey Stevenson Testimony on Needed Economic Policy for Phase Two of the COVID Recession

In March and April, the economy laid off 22 million people. In a normal recession, it takes time for businesses to realize demand has fallen and there is a lag between the slowdown and layoffs. COVID meant the slowdown and layoffs were coincident. This has likely caused us to underestimate the damage this will do.

The good news is that nearly 11 million of those people have been hired back.

The bad news is that we're now entering the normal phase of a recession: the "I guess business is not picking back up to normal levels so we're going to have to lay off more people now" phase. Without fiscal stimulus, the economy will destroy millions more jobs before year end, this on top of the 13 million people already unemployed.

A layoff of 2 months is frightening; a layoff of a year or more is devastating.

This testimony from the University of Michigan's Betsey Stevenson is really illuminating about the stakes for policy over the next few months.

"We cannot afford for you to ignore the needs of our children. If the needs of children—from hunger, to care, to education—are not the most important priority in your next bill then I would urge you to reexamine your priorities."
Her full testimony is here:


As American As Protesting Protests

Regarding an NFL game last night, a friend wrote,
"Fans began booing when players and coaches stood the length of the field arm-in-arm and the public address announcer called for 'a moment of silence to support racial equality in our country.'"
That is so meta. And so American. People loudly protesting silent protest.

"I'm protesting your protest!"
"Oh. So you are for protests?"
"No! I'm against them!"
"Hmm. Sounds to me like we've got ourselves a protester."
"I am not"!
"To quote Shakespeare, 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks," to actually be anti-protests."
"Now you're just putting words in my mouth!"
"No. You did that yourself. We were silent until you came along."

09 September 2020

The Catastrophic Bug in Nationalism and Why Trump is Working to Remove The Globalization Code that Fixes It

A bug can cause a piece of software - or even a civilization - to crash.

The new invention of the nation-state spread throughout the West during the 1800s. Inspired by Americans breaking away from the British Empire and French decapitating royalty, Europeans began turning themselves into nationalists. This new software of nationalism was largely installed by about 1900, but also had some catastrophic bugs that resulted in two tragic world wars between 1900 and 1950.

The West found out that nationalism worked great with the addition of new code called globalization, creating institutions like the UN, NATO, and the World Bank. Now neo-nationalists like Trump, Duda in Poland and Orban in Hungary are trying to un-install the globalists code. If they’re successful, it could repeat some of the catastrophes of the early 1900s.


The idea behind nationalism was to align a people with a government. Sometimes that meant breaking away: Czechoslovakia could break away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sometimes it meant consolidating: isolated, feuding regions could be combined into a nation state like Italy, Germany or the United States. (The American Civil War ended in 1865, turning a confederation into a union. In 1870 and 1871, Italy and Germany became nation-states.)

As a concept, nationalism is a great idea. In practice, it’s messy. At one point, Czechoslovakia is part of an Austro-Hungarian Empire, at another it is a country and at another point it is two countries - Czech and Slovak. And of course, no one can tell you which is “real.”

It took a long time to make nationalism real for everyday people. One bureaucrat who went out into the French countryside in the late 1800s asked a room full of school children what country they lived in. None could tell him. At the time of the French Revolution 75% of the country spoke a language other than French; a century later it was still a third.

In the US, the variety of language and cultures were even greater than it was in France. By 1900, 20% of Iceland had moved to the US and the US was home to more people who’d been born in Ireland than still lived in Ireland. Another 5 million had come from Germany. Immigrants weren't just coming from Europe. By 1870, Chinese immigrants and their children made up nearly 9 percent of California's population, and one-quarter of the state's wage earners, and one-third of Idaho's settlers. These new immigrants merely added to the variety of cultures and languages already here. 

The Mexican War and the Louisiana Purchase of the 1800s had left the US with large numbers of people who spoke Spanish and French. That variety persists. In California, 220 languages are spoken and 44% of Californians speak a language other than English at home. Some states have declared English as their official language; the US never has.

For the West, nationalism had become normal about 1900. And then the West discovered that nationalism contained a catastrophic bug.

World War 1 killed 10 million soldiers and 10 million civilians. (And the pandemic that spread as soldiers came back home at war’s end – the Spanish Flu – killed another 50 million around the world.)

The second world war killed four times as many people as the first, leaving 80 million dead.

One world war might be an accident. Two world wars suggest a terrible bug in this new phenomenon of nationalism.

Nationalism could work, world leaders realized, if they created global organizations like the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, and GATT. These institutions greatly decreased wars and increased prosperity. Since 1950, only 100,000 people have died in warfare in Europe, about 1% of the total killed in the two world wars. And GDP growth accelerated. Between 1900 and 1950, GDP in England grew 50%. Between 1950 and 2000, it grew 234%.

It bothers me that people are not more bothered by Trump’s focus on dismantling globalization. Who benefits from his vandalism? Well, Putin certainly would. Russia is no match for NATO but Russia can easily match any single country within Europe. If we’re back to nationalism, Putin is far more powerful.

But I don’t think that Trump’s nationalism is all about helping his buddy Putin. It is a way to rally the base. Talk about international law or trade deals and normal people will glaze over and conspiracy theorists will light up. Globalization may let people live in peace and prosperity but – oddly – it is not going to win any elections. Now talk about how “they” are rapists and murderers or our stealing our jobs and you’ll rally the base. Nationalism excites tribal impulses.

We have instincts for sex and violence; folks who write scripts exploit that to get higher ratings. We have instincts for tribalism and nationalism; folks who run campaigns exploit that to get more votes. Those impulses make for terrible guides to actual behavior, though. They can create chaos. We’ve seen the chaos that the worst impulses of nationalism and tribalism could create in the first half of the 20th century. If we don’t protect the project of globalization, we could see it again.

07 September 2020

The Future of Work Lies at the Intersection of Flow, Income, Meaning and the Popularization of Entrepreneurship

Some thoughts on labor on this its day.

One of my heroes, Deming, used to argue that the worker deserved to take pride in her work. To feel proud of what you do you have to feel like it matters, it is valued, and that it represents your best.

One chief difference between work and a hobby is pay. One reason I like markets is that it is a way for the community to signal what it values. You may want to write another folk song but what the folks in your neighborhood will actually pay for is someone who can solve the problem of getting them food at lunchtime or to devise a better solution for running rainwater off of - or collecting solar energy onto - their roof. Pay is the community conspiring to vote on what would be valuable to them and not just to you. That makes us all a little more relevant, forcing us outside of ourselves.

One of my other heroes, Csikszentmihalyi, studied the psychology of engagement, what he called flow. It turns out that we're happiest when we're doing something that requires our full attention. When we're in flow we face clear goals, there is a balance between our skills and the challenge we face, we are free from distractions, we are animated by clear - rather than conflicted - priorities, there is a perfect overlap between what we're thinking about, wishing for, and doing, we are not worried about failure (one's mind has no room to simulate that outcome, so fully engaged is it in the task at hand), we lose track of time, the activity becomes worth doing for its own sake, and the self becomes more developed as the result of this state of flow, this absorption in the task.

Flow is a fabulous thing but for many it is easier to find in a video game than in work. A video game provides little meaning, though.

A task is meaningful if it serves a purpose bigger than that task. One guy might be cutting stone and the guy beside him - engaged in the exact same task - may be building a cathedral, be glorifying God. Sometimes meaning is simply a matter of framing your work as something bigger than the task at hand. More often it is being animated by what a difference your work makes in the lives of others, even in the lives of future generations.

As we become more affluent, we may rather paradoxically define ourselves even more by our work. Identity is often bound up in our job and in answer to the question, "What do you do?" we rarely say, "Stay current on politics," or "Read all of Michael Connelly's new novels." We tell folks what we do for a living. But as work becomes less essential to covering the necessary costs of life, we may expect that we not just get paid in money but in flow and meaning as well.

Faulkner wrote, “You can’t drink eight hours a day. Or make love. Work’s about the only thing a fellow has to do to keep from being bored” We have a number of examples of folks in the modern world who have made more money than they can spend and yet a great number of them continue to work. I suspect that we peons will follow their example and increasingly demand of our work these elements of pay, flow and meaning even as incomes rise.

Video game designers, TV producers, and designers of social media know how to capture and hold attention. What I suspect will define much of the modern corporation is that it will distinguish itself not by the products it designs - its employees will do that - but by its design of work so that employee efforts create income, flow and meaning. The founder of companies in the early 1900s became wildly successful by designing products like safety razors and automobiles. I suspect that we'll look back at the founder of successful companies in the early 2000s as successfully designing work to attract the best and brightest.

Keep in mind that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren't producers of any content in the same way that Newsweek, CBS or the New York Times are. They are platforms. I think that corporations in general will take on a similar relationship with employees in the future, focusing on creating great work rather than great products or services, positioning themselves as a platform rather than maker of products. This is part of what I mean by the term, "the popularization of entrepreneurship." Employees will create the new products, services and businesses that generate new jobs and wealth. The corporation will create the systems and roles that facilitate those outcomes.

Work matters. Profoundly. It has the potential to define us as much as anything else in life. Think of the people who stand out in history, people as different as Picasso, da Vinci, Marie Curie, Maria Montessori, Beethoven, Bjork, and Kurt Vonnegut. We know them through their work. Work is key to how we become who we are. And just like us, our labor continues to evolve. I suspect it will matter even more in the future than it does now.

Happy Labor Day!