27 January 2021
26 January 2021
4Q 1990: $312
4Q 1999: $335
4Q 1999: $335
4Q 2014: $336
In the first half of the 2010s, unemployment came down; in the second half of the 2010s, wages began to rise. For the first time since 2000, unemployment fell below 4% and – as they had in the late 1990s - wages began to rise. They rose $31.
4Q 2014: $336
1Q 2020: $367
1. When the unemployment rate is high, wage growth is low. You don’t have to offer good wages to hire people off the street. When the unemployment rate is low, wage growth is high. You do have to offer good wages to people working at another company.
2. You can legislate a higher minimum wage. To raise the median wage, you need to aggressively lower unemployment.
Faithful readers will be unsurprised to hear me say that my recommendation is to pump billions and billions into startups. There are a variety of ways to do this but if we do, we will make workers scarce and jobs plentiful. What happens to the price of something scarce? It goes up.
25 January 2021
The History and Future of Venture Capital (and what might be possible with truly large amounts of venture capital)
The initial American model for venture capital was whaling. The average voyage was about 4 years and that venture was expensive. The returns to whaling ventures look very similar to modern day venture capital returns. This graph from Tom Nicholas' VC: An American History compares returns to modern venture capital to returns to 19-century whaling ventures. For instance, about 2.5% of whaling ventures and about 1.2% of modern VC funded startups yielded returns worse than negative 25%. 1.0% of whaling ventures and 1.2% of VC backed ventures yield returns between 81% and 100%. 19th century whaling and 21st century startups have fairly similar risk - return profiles.
Which, he points out, is "pretty good for an industry that invests about 0.4 percent of the US GDP.
Apple is the most dramatic example of how much value venture capital can create. Between 1978 and 1980, Apple raised about $3.5 million in capital. In 2018, Apple's market capitalization hit $1 trillion; last year it hit $2 trillion. (Things had become more expensive than when Hewlett and Packard started their business in a Palo Alto garage with $595.)
We have funding enough to risk on any number of startups that could create an abundance of wealth and jobs. Capital is not the limit: entrepreneurship is. And if we were successful at producing a growing number of aspiring entrepreneurs, billions and billions more could come into VC funds.
Venture capital has shown us how much impact a small amount of capital can have; imagine what we could do with a large amount of it.
23 January 2021
Why Conspiracy Theories Have Become the Drug of Choice for Trump Supporters (and what this has to do with a new aristocracy of education)
One of the weirdest things about today's conflict is the role of conspiratorial beliefs. It is not enough to refute global warming; Trump supporters believe that Chinese troops are in Canada and Mexico, poised to invade the US, that the military is actually running the country now and Biden is simply a figurehead, that COVID is not real or if it is real it is the product of a global conspiracy to dethrone Trump and that the world is run by pedophiles. As it turns out, global warming denial was simply the gateway drug to a vast web of odd conspiracy theories that millions find compelling. It makes you wonder what kind of republic we can sustain when millions reject facts and embrace conspiracies.
I have a suspicion about one reason this has happened.
In 1860, we had an aristocracy of race in this country. Blacks and natives had fewer rights than European immigrants - and in some cases had no rights. It's complicated and drawn out and was tragically derailed by Lincoln's assassination but the Civil War was about ending this aristocracy of race just as the American Revolution a century earlier was about ending the aristocracy of royalty.
Today we have an aristocracy of education, of intellect. (And yes – still a strong residue of the aristocracy of race.) We are in an information economy and the people who can transform data into economic value have power in it. And as with the aristocracies of royalty and race, it is unfair and largely determinant by an early age.
By second grade, there is a gap of four years between the top and bottom students. Years ago, we had darling family spend a few days here. He's an MIT grad. She's a graduate of our California university system. Their preschooler was already hungry for - and fairy adept at - academic exercises of various kinds. My daughter was chuckling the other day about a video call they'd had with a family with children 4 and 2. The dad is a physician and the mom a clinical psychologist. The 4-year-old was obsessed with the latest word he'd learned: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the very definition of polysyllabic. The 2-year old's favorite word is ukulele. Meanwhile, my wife who teaches in a neighborhood with many poorer families in San Diego has kids show up for class who've clearly been talked to rarely, for whom language is more of a mystery than a familiar comfort, who’ve experienced little that could be classified as academic prep. By second grade, some kids are two grades behind and others two grades ahead, a gap of four years in second grade.
As Alfie Kohn (author of No Contest and Punished by Rewards) points out, teachers have this tendency to throw out questions designed to provoke competition. "Who can tell me ...?" "How would we approach this problem ..." And by no later than fourth grade, the kids in the class know which two or three kids have the best shot at providing the answer that will make the teacher happy. School is about grading kids, about sorting them into different lanes. And then we invest differently in those kids, admitting some into UC Berkeley and admitting others into community college, both community investments but of very different magnitudes.
And the whole time we are telling all the kids, "If you want to get ahead you had best go to college. Get into a good university and do well in school and you'll do well in your career." That would be a more inspiring message if the kids in class didn’t already know which kids had a shot at that future and which did not.
The most academic kids may get a tuition-free education at the state's top school. The least academic kids - who have heard the same "go to college if you want to do well" admonitions - may not get into a state university at all. If they take the advice to get a college education to heart, they might find themselves spending a lot of money at a private school that doesn't have the same, tough admissions requirements. As it turns out, the admissions requirements are partly about predicting which kids will actually be able to complete the degree. Without meeting those admission requirements, a lot of kids get into college programs but don't complete them. So, these kids who've never excelled in school and have been turned away from the government subsidized universities have spent thousands pursuing a degree that eludes them. They're left with the worst of all worlds: carrying a heavy load of student debt while making no more than they likely would have without taking college classes. Even more frustrating is the plight of the kids who doggedly completed their degrees while taking on a lot of debt only to find that their job options haven't changed given the nature of their degree or the college they got it from.
Meanwhile, those who graduated from the best schools and with the best educations are thriving. They are working a lot of hours but are engaged in meaningful work that pays incredibly well. More than 166,000 Americans collect wages of more than a million dollars per year - more than 650,000 who make more than $500,000. Thomas Jefferson believed that the natural aristocracy was composed of smart people. That aristocracy now runs our country.
So, we've created a new, information economy in which we reward bright, educated workers. What might we expect of the folks excluded from this economy, folks who literally were not invited into its entryway through university education?
Can we be surprised that in the face of experts telling them about the long-term consequences of a reliance on fossil fuels, explaining how masks, seat belts, and cutting back on red meat and cigarettes saves lives they might find YouTube videos alluring when those videos tell them that all those experts are deluded? Those kids who have been made to feel worse about themselves since fourth grade now feel enlightened. The conspiracy theories give them a sense of superiority that public school never did.
There is a tangle of problem-solving to get us past the point that a reality TV star can convince millions that experts are wrong. I think that one big shift has to be creating an economy less dependent on the academic success that is largely predictable by age 7, of doing away with this aristocracy of intellect and education.
22 January 2021
As we walked into the convention hall each day, I wondered about the grounds. The grass was long and straggly. Then, just a couple of days before we were to open, at least half a dozen Vietnamese women in those conical hats they call a non la were sitting around in small groups using instruments not much larger than scissors to cut the grass. They were happily working together and chatting and within a couple of days the grounds were beautifully groomed. At this time, Vietnam had almost no capital and per capita income was hundreds of dollars per year. It may have taken a couple of hours for one lawnmower to do the work that took these women a couple of days, but capital was expensive and labor was cheap.
The answer to full employment is not protection from trade or capital. The answer is more entrepreneurship and innovation.
How Farming - and Work More Broadly - Changes as the Economy Shifts from an Agricultural to Industrial to Information Economy
One, when the economy shifts the source of new jobs and wealth shifts. Are you creating new jobs and wealth in farming, factories or cubicles?
So the first question in regards to policy is, Where are we creating new jobs and wealth? In the early 1800s, the answer to that question was in land-based industries like farming, forestry, fishing (including whaling) and mining. In the early 1900s, the answer was in manufacturing and retail (to sell those mass manufactured goods). It's a waste of money to resist these shifts; by contrast, you get a huge return on money by investing in these shifts.
Two, there is the question of how anyone in any sector works. A farmer in 1820 worked very differently than a farmer in 1920 who worked very differently than how one worked in 2020.
One of the many reasons agriculture employs only 1 or 2% of the workforce now is that it has been transformed twice: by the capital of the industrial economy and by the IT of the information economy.
The average farmer today has about a half million in capital for tractors and machinery. That would sound like crazy talk to farmers in 1820.
A few years ago, a young guy from northern Saskatchewan spent a couple of nights with us. He had acreage and had done really well the previous year. Some extreme weather event (I can't remember if it was drought or flood) had screwed up India's crops. As he was planning what to plant, he could easily see this news and what it meant for the global market price for chickpeas, so planted those and was able to sell them at a good price.
Now think about how extraordinary this would seem to a farmer in 1920. He is sitting in northern Saskatchewan yet knew about the crop failures in India about as quickly as anyone in India. Not only that but he's able to find a market for whatever seed and knowledge he needs about the timing of planting, any special fertilizers, etc. He might be farming but he's part of the information economy. We still call it farming but it has almost nothing to do with the job of a farmer in 1920, much less 1820.
Similarly, about 20% of today's factory workers are engaged in jobs like programming robots; we still count them as factory workers but the folks punching timeclocks in 1940 would not recognize what they're doing as factory work and the other jobs have greatly changed as well.
The popularization of entrepreneurship will change work again. It already is. As machinery automated more manual work, more workers were free to (forced to?) move into knowledge work. As AI automates more knowledge work, more workers will be free to (forced to?) move into more entrepreneurial activities. Just as the industrial economy meant that nearly everyone was using unprecedented amounts of capital and the information economy meant that nearly everyone is using unprecedented amounts of information technology, the entrepreneurial economy will mean that everyone will be more involved in the creation of new systems, new products, new markets and new wealth. And depending on how we classify their jobs, we may even still call them farmers, factory workers and knowledge workers.
21 January 2021
Watching the folks who stormed the capitol stand before the Senate floor and denounce communists and globalists in early January I thought, "Those poor guys. They can't even eat spaghetti or ramen. Rejecting products and culture that isn't 'American' must make it so tough on them. So many globalist temptations to avoid, from Korean-made TVs and Chinese computers to Jewish delis and Mexican taco trucks. Imagine having to construct your own smart phone out of American pine."
20 January 2021
The Move From Scarcity to Abundance: The Shift in Thinking from the Founding of the United States to Today
"There is only so much."
"There is so much."
On one of my first trips driving from Philadelphia to Wilmington, I not only missed my exit but drove straight through the state and into Maryland before I realized what was happening. It only takes about 20 minutes to drive through the state on the 95.
Here in California, we have two senators and 53 members of the House. Delaware's population is so small that they have two senators and only one House member. It's actually easier to get elected to the Senate than the House in Delaware.
I imagine that knowing nearly one percent of the state's population by first name would make a difference in your style of leadership.
Someone used the word reify the other day. I had to look it up. It refers to the act of making something abstract more concrete. I suspect that seeing his state's population as real people will help Biden to reify policies, helping him to think about how this policy might affect that life. This might even be one way to define good management: the ability to zoom into individual lives and back out to large communities, to at turns get abstract and then personal, reification as important to leadership as vision and execution.
19 January 2021
An Italian on the team told me one day at lunch, "I kind of don't want Trump to win but I kind of do want Trump to win."
"Well, if you elect Trump it will make us Italians look less ridiculous for electing Berlusconi."
One of the robotic arms specialists was from Iran. Trump's Muslim ban meant that his mother could not come to visit his children. I said, "I feel like at least one American should apologize to you for this. I'm embarrassed at Trump's ban. I don't even see how it is constitutional. I'm sorry."
He was a gentle guy and he shrugged and said, "Well, we've had crazy leaders too."
Tomorrow Trump's Muslim ban ends, which was - among other things - another type of family separation program. There will be thousands of women from Muslim countries who will be able to visit their American grandchildren before the year is over.
And it will probably be awhile before we roll our eyes again at Italian voters.
27 of them had died before they reached Joe Biden's age.
If only he'd given us some kind of clue about the sort of presidency he had planned.
George Washington was sworn into office wearing a sword (but fortunately he did not have to use it).
Calvin Coolidge - who presided over a chunk of the roaring twenties - was the first president to have his inauguration broadcast over radio.
The musical artists who performed at Trump's inauguration included Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood, 3 Doors Down, The Piano Guys, DJ RaviDrum and The Frontmen of Country featuring Tim Rushlow, Larry Stewart and Richie McDonald.
17 January 2021
"You aren't so rich that you have become numb to true happiness because of the distractions of luxury nor poor enough to need any financial help."
Rousseau thought French incomes at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution were at a Goldilocks' "just right" level.
Per capita GDP in France in inflation adjusted dollars?
COVID's Exponential Spread in the Spring of 2020 Will Become an Exponential Contraction in the Spring of 2021
Numbers come from here:
15 January 2021
Two things that make this more challenging than ever are increases in life expectancy and the rate of economic change.
10 year old kids are in fifth grade. Their peak earning will probably be in about 40 years. So we have about 7 to 15 years to prepare them to be productive in the year 2060. That's kind of ludicrous. The longer we live, the farther out is the target we're shooting at in terms of preparation.
Meanwhile, economic change is accelerating. One of the great things about globalization is that we now have 7.5 billion people engaged in invention and entrepreneurship. One of the bad things about globalization is that the odds that the technology we're using this year, the company we're working for this year, the processes we're using this year ... are still the company, technology and processes we're using in a decade are incredibly low.
We're not just shooting at a target 40 years out. That target is moving faster than ever.
1. We will eventually adopt a model of lifetime education. 10 year old kids will already be spending 5 to 15% of their time at "work." They won't just learn principles. They will begin applying those to the creation of value for their community. 60 year old people will be spending 5 to 15% of their time in "school." They won't just be applying old principles. They'll be learning new ones.
2. We will teach entrepreneurship and innovation. Stanford has Sand Hill Road on its campus. Sand Hill Road is to venture capital what Wall Street is to stocks. That combination of education and financing helped to create Silicon Valley. (Terman, one of the visionaries who saw Silicon Valley before it existed, introduced two of his students who he thought should collaborate to create a business. The students? Bill Hewlett and David Packard.) The notion that schools will be launching pads for new businesses (and new government agencies and schools and social inventions we have yet to think of) will become common. Skills and ability for technological and social invention are something that will still be valuable in the year 2060 even if AI has automated the jobs of driving trucks or programming, say. And making school and work coincident means that both will evolve more quickly to keep pace with the progress we're trying to drive.
14 January 2021
Between 1933 and 1969, Democrats had the White House and a majority of the House and Senate 72% of the time. Two Californians ended that dominance. Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Reagan in 1980 and 1984 won the presidency in landslide victories. Nixon brought the Dixiecrats –southerners who left the Democratic party after Johnson signed Civil Rights legislation ending segregation – into the party of Lincoln. Reagan was big government’s most charismatic critic. They so shifted American politics that Democrats did not win back the White House until they ran Bill Clinton – a southerner who as president declared, “the era of big government is over.”
Blue jeans, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the late-20th century conservative movement of Nixon and Reagan came out of California. Kamala Harris could easily represent the next wave to come out of the state.
California is now no place for Republicans. As the Republican Party has become more anti-immigrant and pro-conspiracy theory, it has lost support in the state.
California lets the top two candidates in a primary race run against each other in the general election. It doesn’t matter if one is Republican and another is Democratic or both are Democrats (as happened in seven House races in 2020). In 2016, Kamala Harris ran for senate against a fellow Democrat. Democrats won 27 House seats by more than a two to one vote in 2020. (And another 15 by smaller margins.) 27 is the same number of representatives that New York and Florida send to Congress. Republicans represent only 11 of the state’s 53 districts.
Why have Republicans done so poorly in California? California has built an economy dependent on education, research, immigrants and access to foreign markets.
In 1960, California governor Pat Brown signed legislation that made California the only state in the nation to offer free education from kindergarten through grad school. Clark Kerr – who headed the committee that drafted the plan Brown turned into law – was head of the University of California and had a theory about economic progress. In the same way that the railroad in the late 1800s and the automobile in the early 1900s had reshaped the economy, he thought that the late 1900s would be transformed by knowledge workers; Kerr’s education plan was designed to produce them.
Kamala Harris was born of Clark Kerr’s vision to create a world-class university system. Her mother came from India and father came from Jamaica, two grad students who met at UC Berkeley, fell in love, and had two children, Kamala and her little sister Maya. (Kamala’s mother insisted on giving her daughters names from Hindu mythology stating that, “a culture that worships goddesses produces strong women.”) Kamala wasn’t the only birth resulting from Kerr’s vision.
California became home to Silicon Valley. Intel was founded in 1968, Apple in 1976, and Google in 1998. California’s early investment in education paid off with millions of high-paying jobs and trillions of dollars in new wealth. The late 1900s – as Kerr predicted - was transformed by the knowledge economy. His plan had prepared California for this new reality.
One of the best predictors of how a community will vote has become levels of education. Harris split her childhood between two Bay Area counties; 77% of adults in those counties have a BA. That education ties to income; median household income in the two counties where Harris grew up is $119,00 a year. The Bay Area is defined by returns to intellectual – not industrial - capital. On two campuses six miles apart – Google and Facebook – median employee pay is $200,000 and $240,000. Billionaires get a lot of attention but stock options have made multi-millionaires out of thousands of west coast employees.
In the California counties where Harris spent her childhood, Trump won only 17%. In California, Trump’s campaign promises sounded like threats. Trade wars with China? A wall to keep immigrants out? It is connection to and not protection from the rest of the world that has helped California to thrive. A regional Hollywood is a playhouse. A regional Google search engine is the yellow pages. Silicon Valley is capital of the worldwide – not the nationwide - web.
It seems safe to bet that the country will follow Silicon Valley into a more entrepreneurial, information economy dependent on knowledge workers and global markets rather than follow Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky into coal mines, “protecting” workers and consumers from trade and immigration. That is, it seems safe to bet that Kamala Harris – like Nixon and Reagan before her – represents a set of policies and philosophy that will shape national politics for a generation.
12 January 2021
11 January 2021
09 January 2021
08 January 2021
Something like public schools is obviously a social invention. One generation a child’s parents teach him or her what she needs to know about farming or cooking or sewing. Another generation has dozens of teachers during about a dozen years and learns math, reading and writing, history, etc. Both are just made up and both have very real consequences, at turns enabling, hindering or neglecting the work of the child to become an adult able to create a life they and their community value and find joy in.
Less obviously, even what it means to be a woman is a social invention. And given our growing mastery of surgery and genetics, even the givens that past generations never imagined could be made up are – increasingly – made up. (For instance, in the 1960s, the average bra size was 34B. Today it is 34DD.)
100 years ago, women got the right to vote. That was totally made up and it has very real consequences. Had only women voted, Biden would have won by 12.2 million votes. Had only men voted, Trump would have won by 5.9 million, a swing of more than 18 million votes. Women have changed politics.
Why did women not have the vote before 1920? Did a male-dominated society suddenly decide to treat women as equals? Maybe. Or maybe technology allowed women to shift their attention outside the home. In 1900, a woman would carry about 10 tons of fuel (wood and coal) and 40 tons of water in and out of the house each year. Running water and electricity came to most homes by 1920 and women could literally shift their energy from inside the home to outside. They became political.
In the 1960s and 1970s, women began to gain an equal role with men in education and finance. In 1969, Yale made its undergraduate program coed. In 1969, Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley – an all-woman’s university – and began study at Yale law school. In 1975, women (some of them fresh graduates from the universities that had just let them begin studying there 5 years earlier) could open a checking account without their husband’s signature.
Again, this was coincident with new technology. The pill was approved in 1960 and within years millions of women were on it. Birth control technology gave women the ability to plan their families, deferring children until after they’d finished university and began the better paying careers that made banks being to treat them as equals to men.
Progress is never over, though. We don’t simply hit a median income of $20,000 a year and say, “Hooray! We’re economically advanced now.” We don’t finally get Model T cars and stop improving on the design and manufacture of cars. And we don’t just point to a 21-year-old woman in 1975 and say, “We’re done! She has all she needs to now realize her potential.” And to my mind, a big change that will be on par with the right to vote and equal access to educational and financial opportunities will mean social invention that again changes our institutions to accommodate the reality and potential of women.
For now, the biological reality is that it’s tough to be pregnant and have a young child and have as much energy and attention to put into work as man who gets to share in the most euphoric 15 minutes of a pregnancy. And yet a community has a real interest in their best and brightest young women not feeling penalized for deciding to perpetuate the species. Women having babies is a huge benefit for a community but we still charge women disproportionately to have those babies.
Right now, with the incentives and penalties in place with the current design of work, a record percentage of babies are born to the lowest income and least educated women in our community. For them, the opportunity cost of having children is lower. Curiously, the opportunity cost of having children rises along with education and work opportunities. One, we need to do more to support the poorer women having babies. Two, we need to lower the penalty to better educated women for choosing to have a child or three.
I’m not sure of the details of how we’ll stop penalizing women who could be working to stop or cut back on work enough to have and raise children without undue stress. I do know that everything is made up even though the consequences are real, though. Designing work so that women could more easily have and raise children should not be as complicated as designing a new drug or rocket. And I’m sure that women would have all kinds of design suggestions for work that stops pretending that there is no difference between men and women in terms of the demands that pregnancy, babies and small children place upon them.
We’ve benefitted enormously from making up new norms and technologies that enable women to join men in politics, in education, in work and finance. It is well within our ability to change those institutions so that they allow half the population to fully realize their potential. We just have to make it up – even though the consequences will be very real.
07 January 2021
"Stop texting me!"
The Hatfield and McCoys were mountain people in the US who kept up a feud between each other for generations, the epitome of backwoods, backwards Americans. They showed up at the capitol yesterday.
The Dunbar number is 150. This is the number of people our brains can manage in terms of not only knowing who someone is but who they are friends or foe with, whether they'd be a reliable ally or a probable competitor, etc. Robin Dunbar argues that our brains first evolved to navigate the natural world around us and then - as that world became increasingly social - our brains evolved to navigate the social reality around us. We are social creatures and woefully unable to make it alone. Social reality is our reality and the Dunbar number defines the number in the natural tribe we're wired to feel part of.
There is a problem with a group of 150, though. It simply isn't a large enough group to allow us to live above a level of what we'd now call subsistence. 150 doesn't allow much in the way of specialization. You want the benefit of a stent that would keep your arteries open and you alive another 5 to 25 years? The team to design, test, make and sell that will involve thousands of people. When I began working with teams developing those kinds of products more than 20 years ago, typically about 10 to 20% of their work was done by another company; today it is pretty normal that about 20% to 40% is. What does this mean? Even a single step within the production of a modern product is often done by an outside company and not just a person within a company. A single step in a production process might take the knowledge and resources of an entire company, itself defined by dozens or thousands of people. Even a product as simple as a number two pencil is made with resources from multiple continents. No one company has the skills, knowledge and resources to make a product as seemingly simple as a computer mouse from raw materials. Our modern world is full of products, processes and services that depend on a vast, vast network of strangers. Our lifestyle depends on an invisible network of people, technologies, knowledge and processes that no one group of 150 could ever replicate. The Dunbar number may describe a social reality for which our brains are wired; it no longer describes our economic and political reality. This is a vulnerability we too rarely talk about.
Here is the deal, though. We are wired for 150. We all have tribal instincts. We are wired to become Hatfield or McCoy clans, wired to become a group of us who see them and square off against them. Whoever them is. And we're all as susceptible to tribal impulses as we are susceptible to the lure of alcohol, drugs, ice cream, sex, and naps. It's a very normal instinct and one easily aroused. In fact, professional sports is literally -and not symbolically - dependent on these feelings. (I was working at a big company in San Diego the year the San Diego Chargers went to the Super Bowl. One I day I heard a manager talking about guys within the company at the director and VP level as "They," and then another manager talking about the Chargers as "We," as in, "We are going to the Super Bowl!" I thought, "You work with the 'they' guys. You have never even met the 'we' guys. How weird is that?" I don't think any business has more effectively hacked our tribal instincts than has sports. But I digress. Sort of.)
Trump's appeal was simple. He hacked directly into tribal instincts. There is always a "They" available to make us feel like a special "We." They are the Chinese. Big city liberals. Muslims. Mitt Romney Republicans. And you can win elections or fans by tapping directly into that tribal impulse. The danger is, if you don't have a clue what you're doing, you go as far as Trump. How far is that? Well, you decry trade and immigration as "They" are taking "Our" jobs. That right there makes "us" smaller, diminishing our economic possibilities. You attack "blue" states that are still a part of the United States of which you're supposedly president. You attack any institution - whether the UN or even a court of law - as an abstract "they," that is not on our team. First it is court cases that are suspect (who are "they" to judge us?) and then entire elections. You continually undermine the very institutions on which our modern world depends because they - too - are peopled by strangers who think or live differently.
The good news is that selling a message of Us! and Them! has a big and easily excitable market. The bad news is that it leads to the erosion of - often an attack on - the very institutions upon which we depend for our quality of life. It is no coincidence that so many of Trump's supporters are the survivalists who love the notion of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world in which all those institutions and norms have broken down. The modern world is too abstract for them; by contrast, this world of tribes actually makes sense.
Yesterday the Hatfields and McCoys stormed Congress. These were the mountain people who love the way that Trump awakens the tribal instincts that make a confusing, abstract world real and visceral.
Trump ability to arouse tribal instincts and his disdain for institutions is the exact opposite of the skills that have taken us from the feuds and poverty of isolated mountain people to the peace and prosperity of modern city folks. Progress comes from the ability in entrepreneurs and political leaders to create a bigger us, to make us part of a vast network of people, processes and knowledge that dwarfs what any group of 150 could accomplish. We know what the America Trump is trying to create looks like: it looks like the unruly mob who yesterday attacked the institution that struggles to create the laws and agreements that makes us part of a country with 330 million others (millions and millions of whom are VERY different from us) - part of a world of 7.5 billion people. That world is an endless struggle to maintain, manage and expand. It is vulnerable in so many ways and yet our quality of life depends on sustaining and even expanding that world of abstractions and institutions, laws and processes. (And my writing about abstractions and institutions makes your eyes glaze over in ways that appealing to tribal impulses never does.) And among its various vulnerabilities, perhaps the most obvious and scary is the one Trump represents: an appeal to tribal instincts that sees as foreign the odd and abstract institutions that allow us to collaborate with strangers to create peace and prosperity.
We are not out of the woods yet - there is still a chance that we could descend fully back into the world of the Hatfields and Mccoys - but with Trump gone in a couple of weeks, we might yet avoid becoming the poor white trash of the developed world.
06 January 2021
04 January 2021
Why The Washington Football Team Has a New Name (no explanation for how a 7-9 team made it to the playoffs, though)
02 January 2021
Americans went to war with the British for a host of reasons but a big and often overlooked reason was that the British in 1763 forbade colonial settlement west of the Alleghanies. Land speculators like George Washington weren't terribly excited about this. Throwing off British rule was one way to expand holdings further west.
The serfs were freed gradually throughout Europe but serfdom was not completely ended until terribly late. The last of the serfs in Scotland were freed in 1799, the last in France in 1789, in Germany in 1830. Chinese immigrants (by 1870, they made up 9% of California's population) fled similarly bleak prospects for this new land of opportunity. It was truly revolutionary for these former serfs and sons of serfs to come to the US to own land and a flood of immigrants came; the population Lincoln governed was six times larger than the one Jefferson presided over. Land was the magnet that drew these immigrants.
Some day future generations will vilify us for our carbon footprint, how casually we would drive places on a whim, the coal we would burn to generate the electricity used to power our virtual worlds. No generation immediately moves into the world they imagine or set as an ideal. But there seems to me something particularly tragic about Jefferson as this man who so brilliantly built on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke to co-create a new government - and man whose own children were born into slavery. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that we have so little remaining evidence of this prompting Jefferson to feel at all torn at the gap between the world he'd penned and the world he lived in. He was one of the most inspirational revolutionaries in the history of the world and his own children were born into slavery. Closing the gap between Jefferson's ideals and his reality would take a violent civil war. He never properly reconciled the gap and left that for a future generation, an entire nation to reconcile.